DISCLAIMER: I am not blaming my LFS. It is not their job to be a repository of aquarium knowledge. Their job is to sell me things. I know this. I didn't do my research first and it's my fault. Now I am trying to fix things before I waste any more money/time. (No fish were harmed during my misadventure).

I know this is a long post, but I am having a lot of trouble with my tank. Any help/advice will be much appreciated.
This has happened over the span of almost 1 month.

Set up

Tank: 29 Gallon Freshwater
Filter: Aquaclear 70 (Sponge, carbon, biomax)
Substrate: Eco-Complete
Conditioner: Seachem Prime
Test Kit: API Master
Heater: 100w
Light: T8 24" 17 Watt Aqueon Full Spectrum bulb
Oxygen: bubble wand buried under substrate w/5 gallon pump
Plants: 2 Amazon swords, 1 Red Flame Sword, 2 unknown plants
Decorations: 2 artificial logs, one small, one large



Prologue

I got my tank as a gift 1 month ago. I didn't know anything about aquariums and didn't do my homework first. The LFS sold me a starter kit (tank, heater, water conditioner, and an Aqueon 30). I was also sold a bottle of Tetra Safe Start, about 30 lbs of gravel, some artificial plants, and dip stick testers for the water. I went home that night and set everything up. I was assured by the LFS that I would be able to add fish right away and that "cycling stuff" was nonsense because the Safe Start would cycle for me. Much to my regret I listened.

I added the Safe Start and tested my parameters. No ammonia, no nitrate, no nitrite. The sticks were inaccurate. The next day I bought 5 guppies at the recommendation of my LFS. I put the guppies in the tank. While researching their diet, I quickly discovered the necessity of cycling. After reading about fish-less cycling I decided that's what I was going to do, because I already had the fish. I was prepared to do daily water changes to keep the water safe for my new fishy friends.

Weeks 1-2

I learned that I needed to upgrade some of my equipment. I bought the API master kit. I tested my water with the new kit and discovered that my ammonia was .25 and nitrates were 10-20. 1 week went by. My daily water changes weren't effecting my parameters. I tested my tap water and learned that it contains about .25 ammonia and between 10-20 nitrate. I was literally doing water changes to remove the bad stuff while managing to put the bad stuff right back in.

Upon the recommendation of the whole internet, I purchased Prime, you guys really love Prime. I learned that Prime is supposed to temporarily detoxify the ammonia, which would mean the ammonia is not harmful to the fish, and the bacteria can still consume it. After treating my water with this for a week or so (maybe a little more) I was still getting the same readings. 10-20 nitrate and .25 ammonia. My rationale in continuing the daily water changes, knowing that there was ammonia and nitrates, was that in removing the old water, I was removing the harmful ammonia (which at that point after 24-48 hours, had broken its bond with the prime, therefore meaning its toxic again) and diluting the nitrates.

In between doing daily water changes to reduce toxins and getting no results, I discovered that every night when my timer would go off, it was turning off my filter. So, every night, whatever BB was built up during the day, was perishing (not to mention it wasn't oxygenating the water). I fixed the timer problem. I also learned that my filter, which only had activated carbon in it, was not ideal for a 29Gal. I upgraded.

Still doing daily water changes to detoxify ammonia and to remove nitrates. Still seeing the same results. .25 ammo 10-20 nitrate 0 nitrite. My new filter arrived, so I bought another bottle of Safe Start, hoping to get things moving. I ran both filters consecutively for a bit, because I didn't want to ruin whatever BB I did manage to build on the Aqueon 30. A friend of mine donated some filter media (carbon). I sandwiched it in between the media in my Aquaclear 70. I hoped that since it was from an established tank, the BB would help consume the ammo and provide some relief for my fish. It didn't. I am guessing this is for one of two reasons. Either his media was out of water for too long OR the BB didn't really grow on the carbon.

At this point I was starting to get really frustrated. I bought a lot of stuff that I ended up not needing. My water parameters were no better.

Week 3-4

A friend suggested planting the tank, because plants consume ammonia, nitrate, and nitrite. I went to the store and bought two bags of Eco-Complete and some plants. I did a substrate change (went surprisingly well) and planted the tank. I bought Seachem Floruish and Root Tabs to take care of the plants. I also picked up an Aqua Glo 20 watt, to help with plant growth. I haven't decided whether or not I am going to return it yet. Even though it has more watts, it doesn't light up my tank as brightly as my current bulb.

Now

Here we are a few days after the substrate change/planting. I have used three bottles of Safe Start (the beginning, when I replaced my filter, after the substrate change). I tested my water yesterday and my nitrates were so high they are almost red, while my ammonia shows no signs of lowering. I have since re-homed my guppies (alive and well) to a different friend with an established tank and some extra room.

My tank only has the live plants, artificial logs, and Eco-Complete. I would like to start a fish-less cycle now so I can establish the best possible bio-filter before I try this again. I have read conflicting things about the fish-less cycle with plants. I don't want to buy more plants right now. I need help/advice from some of the experienced members here. What is the best way to salvage this mess? I wont be buying any more fish until my tank is fully cycled. Also I would really like to avoid buying anything else if possible (except pure ammonia). I have read the sticky on fish-less cycling and cycling with fish.

How can I fix this, cycle my tank, and provide the best home for fish/plants with my current set-up?