Getting Started

by John Tullock
OK, you’ve decided to explore the fun and fascinating hobby of planted aquariums. Where should you begin? How to answer that question depends largely upon your expectations. Here are some suggestions regarding different ways to go and how to get there.

Low Tech, Low Maintenance
If you don’t want to spend a lot on equipment, and you are not the type to keep up with routine chores like changing water, you may want to opt for a basic system with slow-growing, shade adapted plants such as Anubias and ferns. For such an aquarium all you need is the tank and some additional equipment. (Don’t forget a placement pad if the tank is rimless!) Purchase a light fixture, an appropriate filter, substrate material and hardscape (rocks and driftwood, etc.) Tough, easy-to-grow plants are your best bet for this type of system.

The “Farm” Tank
Should your interests lie with a broader variety of plants, I recommend learning to grow the more popular ones before undertaking a “Nature Aquarium,” “Dutch-Style,” or other carefully designed tank. For your first farm tank, choose an aquarium of around 20 to 30 gallons capacity. Select a lighting system that will provide at least 50 PAR at the substrate level. You will need an appropriate filter. (I am partial to external versus internal filter equipment.) If the room where the tank is located gets cold at night, you may also need a heater. Most plants like a temperature drop at night, but it should not be too dramatic, maybe 10 degrees or so. You will need substrate for the plants. Whether to include hardscape materials is up to you. Purchase a timer to control the lights.

Most importantly, you will need a carbon dioxide injection system and a way to monitor its effectiveness, such as a drop checker.

When you are ready to set up the aquarium, have all your equipment ready, along with the plants you intend to grow. I suggest planting as densely as possible without crowding. Under good conditions, the plants should grow rapidly.

With a system like this, you can grow stem plants such as Ludwigia, Bacopa, and Egeria, along with most other commonly available species. You will be limited only by the space available in the tank you select.

Densely planted aquariums without fish will need regular fertilization with a product made for the purpose.

Going All Out

If you are confident of your grasp of aquatic horticulture, by all means start with a beautifully designed tank to enhance your home décor. I suggest first reading a good book on the subject. One of the best is Sunken Gardens, by Karen Randall. Think about what you want to accomplish with the aquarium, and then go for it. You will need all the equipment mentioned above, if this is the route you select.

Adding Fish

Regardless of the style you choose, wait until the plants are well-established before adding fish or shrimp. Fish require feeding, which will necessarily change the balance of plant nutrients in the water. That means you will need to adjust your fertilization schedule appropriately.

Shrimp don’t contribute much waste, but they can be extremely sensitive to heavy metals, found in some fertilizer formulations. Do a large water change and switch to a product made for use with shrimp before adding the crustaceans to your aquarium

Speaking of water changes, they are the key to long term success with any planted aquarium. Change half the water every week. You can skip this now and then without serious harm, but maintaining a schedule of large water changes will do more to keep your planted tank looking great than almost anything else you can do.

When you are ready to take the plunge, follow these suggestions for maximizing your chances of success with a planted freshwater aquarium.