A step by step diary of a planted tank

by Christoforos Petrides

Thinking of a layout.

I had read a bit about plants, owned - of course - all 4 books of Takashi Amano, and seen various incredible pictures of planted tanks on the net, especially on the AGA aquascape contest. I really like the tranquility of the Amano style, but I also want to have many different plants on my tanks. In fact I usually fill every little corner of the tank with plants when I can. Now these two contradict, so since this was my first attempt with a tank like that I decided to have best of both worlds.

I decided that I would not use any rock at all. Firstly because I find it silly having to pay for them in a pet shop, and the second and most important is that if I was to collect them from nature they would definitely increase the hardness of the water.
Wood on the other hand is more aesthetic to me, the tanid acids would be a benefit for my water chemistry, and it is said that they contribute to a softer water as well.

Most beginners - like me - instead of having a particular layout in mind (something that experienced hobbyists do), they start by building a layout with what they have, wood, rock, the plants available at the specific moment. I wanted to go a bit further and build a layout around a quite large piece of wood, if I could find one. Originally I collected one from a nearby beach. It was a magnificent piece, probably of pine tree, and was already singing in the water. It seemed a good find...but it was smelly. So I boiled it, I treated it with bleach, I left it in a bucket full of fresh water for a week, I boiled it again, I rubbed it, I cleaned it again, but it was still smelly. It seemed that after a couple of days in the water it was starting to rot. So after having spent three weeks of my time in treating it, spent many liters of water to clean it, I dumped it, and went to buy one form a pet shop.

(Obviously not every kind of wood is suitable for this kind of use. The only local wood that I have seen in a tank is from vine plants, in the tank of G. Reklos. Of course the pieces in his tank are as long as the total length on my tank :) plus the fact that he is using a special treatment full of chemicals that I could not follow without risking tearing down my house... :) So I settled down with the pieces that are sold in pet shops which are usually mopani roots, and mangroove wood. )

I remembered that this particular pet shop had many large pieces of wood, and indeed I was lucky, since I found an interesting one. It is the one you see in the picture. Why it is interesting ;

Because this particular triangular shape allows you to:

  • create some sort of cave with the lower part, by placing other pieces of wood around, or by dense planting around it,
  • hide equipment behind the top vertical part, like the heating tube,
  • the horizontal part is a perfect place to tie grass-like plants, like the Riccia fluitans I had, or java moss (Vesicularia dubyana) if I could find some...

....anyway, those were the things that came to my mind when I first saw it.
The two different colors that you see in the picture, is only because the dark brown part was inside the water, while the lighter brown part was out of the water... You see it did not fit in the bucket :)))
This particular piece was a mangroove wood as the pet shop owner said. (Cool name I thought, probably has to do with the mangroove forests... :) )

I also had a smaller piece of mopani root with Anubias barteri var nana tied to it. In fact the anubias had such a firm hold on to the wood with their strong roots, that you could lift the entire piece just by holding their leaves. So I would use that one too. These two pieces combined would be the focal point of my layout.

(I actually had a third one as well, and at this point I wanted to use it also, since it is better to use decorative pieces in odd numbers, 3, or 5 and in different sizes. This rule applies to the rules of zen gardening and its something you see in the Amano tanks. But since space was limited in the tank, and I already had many plants to fit, I donated it to my brother together with my small 60 lt tank).

In the meantime...disaster...

During that time I had already set up the tank with the filter, the substrate, and all the plants I had from my previous tank, and others that were donated from fellow aquarists from the Greek Aquarists Club. This is one of the cool things about belonging to a club. I had donated cuttings of my own plants to friends in the past, so now that I needed some, they stood up for me ! G.Reklos donated most of them, in fact he ripped out whole huge chunks of plants together with their roots ! Hygrophila corymbosa, Rotala macrandra, Altenathera reinecki and others. Tolis Ketselidis also donated as many as almost 40 ! roots of Sagittaria subulata in various sizes which I thought they would form a beautiful carpet. Some roots of Java fern (Microsorum pteropus) and Bolbitis heudelotii were also donated that I thought they would look cool on my wood.

All the plants that were donated plus my old ones were just planted in order to grow and remain healthy until the final setup. That's how the tank looked for at least 6 weeks.

At that point everything that could go wrong went wrong. I had heard about algae problems in newly setup tanks, especially brown algae, but what started in mine was different. I had some green spot algae, some brown algae, very thin hair algae and also noticed patches of BGA. What had gone wrong ; I had many fast growing plants that were indeed growing, I was very careful with the liquid fertilizer, I had enough CO2...

I think that the main reasons for this were. a) The lighting was not enough. Also some of the fluorescent lamps were old. Now that I think of it at least two of them were at least 7 months old. b) The duration of the lighting was 14 hours. A kids mistake that was revealed when I carefully looked at the timing mechanism. c) I had used too much substrate starter (5 kg) . Although it is not suppose to leak trace elements in the water column I think it played a role. d) I did not paid any attention to the plants that I introduced to the tank so I obviously transferred many algae spores with them.

To be honest I don't mind about algae, in fact I like it, except when it is on my plants. If algae stays on the rocks, on wood, on the sides and back glass of the tank I am really happy and never scrape it off. In my opinion it gives a more natural feeling. But this time I had to do something since it was growing on the plants as well, let alone the BGA which I had to get rid off anyway.
It is easy to fight BGA, I had used this method in the past, and did the same this time. After a week there was none left in the tank, and has not appeared back since then. The other algae types are best treated over a period of time. All you need is a balance of light, CO2, nutrients and light duration. I would use many fast growing plants in the tank so I felt quite confident. But to be on the safe side I decided to bleach the plants, mainly the slow growers like the anubias and echinodorus, as well as the cryptocorynes

During one of my visits in a pet shop I also managed to find some java moss and also bought some more Rotala macrandra and Rotala walichi. I felt that this would complete the list of plants for the setup (Complete list presented later in the article). So I just placed the plants in the tank, waiting for the weekend to do the setup. Here is how the tank looked.

You can see the Rotala pots, on the left, the sagitaria carpet on the right and an assortment of plants around them and in the back. The fishes were in as well, and since the whole setup procedure would not take more than a few hours, I knew they would be ok.

Lets prepare the plants ...

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