Ciclarea „neconventionala” a unui acvariu plantat

So, you are going to set up a new Planted Tank! First of all, congratulations. A Planted freshwater tank can be one of the most beautiful tanks around, even matching exotic reef tanks. And the fish that live in heavily planted tanks often look much more colorful and healthy than the same fish in a non-planted tank. The plants provide plenty of cover, allowing fish to feel more safe and secure. And the plants can keep water much cleaner than any filter ever invented.

Traditionally, when setting up a new tank, the tank must be „cycled”. Cycling is the process of allowing the nitrifying bacteria to build up in the tank, and in the filter. These bacteria convert the harmful ammonia and nitrite into nitrates. This cycling takes approximately 6 weeks. The amount of bacteria that grow is determined by how much ammonia and nitrite are being produced by the fish.

Consider this: The Bio-filter bacteria convert ammonia and nitrites into nitrates. Plants can use all three of those as their source for nitrogen. In fact, ammonia is the preferred nitrogen source for plants. If you add plants to a tank with an established bio-filter, the plants will actually use up some of the ammonia before the bacteria can convert it. That means that there will be less ammonia for the bacteria, so the bacteria colony will decrease in size. And since less ammonia is now being converted to nitrite, there will be less nitrite than before, so some of those bacteria will die off too.

So, a logical question would be: Why go thru the trouble to build up a large bio-filter bacteria colony, when it will just shrink when you later add plants? And the logical answer is: Don’t!

I recommend starting out with the plants doing the job of removing harmful ammonia. In order for this to work, you must ensure that the plants are growing and thriving before adding the fish.

My plan for setting up a new planted tank involves setting up all the tank equipment, including CO2 and Lighting, then adding plants, and giving them several weeks to get established before adding any fish. During those several weeks, the plants will get their roots established, use up any nutrients already present in the water (and begin using substrate fertlizers provided), but the algae will starve, since you aren’t adding any fish food, and there is no fish waste for those couple weeks. This lets the plants get a head-start on the algae, and ensures a beautiful algae-free tank.

This article does not describe a traditional „fishless cycling” that is commonly used in non-planted tanks, where chemical ammonia is added to the tank. This article is dealing with a process where no ammonia needs to be added manually.

So, the detailed plan:

  1. Set up tank equipment including filtration, CO2, lighting, substrate, heaters, light-timers.
  2. fill tank with water, dechlorinate, and let equipment run for a day or two, just to be sure you aren’t going to need to tear it down.
  3. Add plants. Lots of them. Mostly fast growing plants to start with. Watch out for crypts and apons, which might melt due to changing water conditions. Don’t add any water column fertilizers. Substrate fertilizers are ok.Recommended fast growing plants include: Stem plants like Ambulia, Hygro, Wisteria, hornwort, Water Sprite. Floating plants like Duckweed and Frogbit, and large amazon swordplants. Surprisingly, Java Fern can also be an excellent fast-grower when supplied with high CO2 and high light levels. I recommend planting with lots of the basic stem plants. Once things get established, you can remove some of the boring stem plants, and replace them with more exotic plants. You will almost certainly need to re-do your landscaping anyway, as you will surely find some plants which started out small are now too big, and they need to be moved to a position in the tank where they won’t hide the smaller plants.
  4. For the next two weeks, don’t add any anything except maybe more plants. Just monitor CO2 levels, get the CO2 setting stable for when the fishies are added.During this stage, I like to „over-dose” my CO2 levels. While recommended CO2 levels in a tank containing fish would be around 15-20ppm, since there are no fish in the new tank yet, you can safely push the CO2 level higher, which can boost plant growth to amazing levels. I did about 30ppm during this stage. If you do this, be sure to decrease the CO2 level and let the CO2 stabilize at the 15-20 ppm level before adding any fish.
  5. Begin adding fish. Algea eaters should be the first ones into the tank. I added 5 otos, and 2 SAEs as the first fish in my 75g. I also added some snails (MTS and red ramshorns). Again, no fish food. Let the algae eaters live off of any minor algae that appeared during the first two weeks.NOTE: SAEs and Otos aren’t recommended for cycling. But in the case of a heavily planted tank, these fish won’t be exposed to cycling conditions. With good light, CO2 injection, and fast growing plants, there will never be a measurable ammonia or nitrite spike.
  6. Each week, add some more fish until you reach your desired stocking level. Once you start adding non-algae eaters, start feeding. Yes, the algae eaters will eat some food, but they will still eat algae. Don’t add too many fish in any one week, or you might generate more ammonia/nitrite than your bio-filter and/or plants can handle. I added 5 more otos, and 3 more SAEs in my second „stocking” week. Then I added 5 cories and a pair of rainbows by third, etc. Not too many, but enough that you don’t go crazy staring at a mostly empty tank.
  7. After the tank has been up and running for about 8 weeks, you can start thinking about adding fertilizers to the water. Measure your nitrate level, to determine if KNO3 should be added. See my other article, „Adding Nitrate to a planted tank” if your nitrate levels are below 5ppm.Also figure out if you should add a trace mix. You can figure this out 2 ways: With a test kit, or by observing plants. Iron deficiency shows up quickly in some plants. New leaves will be yellow or pale. My favorite iron indicator plant is Frogbit. It will show an iron deficiency within a day or so, and leaves will regain their green color in just a couple days once iron levels are good. Most trace mixes are prepared so that by adding enough to get iron levels right, the rest of the elements are right too. My favorite trace mix is TMG (Tropica MasterGrow). Here in the US, there are a couple sources for TMG. One is from Dave Gomberg’s JCF Systems. The price on the bulk 5 liter size is a very good deal. For smaller quantities, I like ordering it from Big Al’s Online. A 500ml size is $10.99. A very good deal, and I’ve had good experiences with Big Al’s.

By the end of this process, your tank will contain some amount of the normal bio-filter bacteria. These bacteria will be able to handle any excess ammonia produced by your fish. Those bacteria will establish themselves just as they do in a non-planted tank. In fact, the plant surfaces will often carry some of those bio-filter bacteria into the new tank.

I’ve used the above method to start 4 new planted tanks (only one of which was my own). It’s worked exactly the same each time, and all four are now beautiful algae-free planted tanks.

As always, the standard disclaimers apply: Your mileage may vary. Past performance does not guarantee future results.

Be sure to test your water. Test for ammonia and nitrite at least once a week during this process. I’ve never had a problem, but I don’t want your fish dying just because I’ve gotten lucky in the past. If you see signs of stress in your tank, check the ammonia/nitrite/pH levels right away. If something in your tank is hindering plant growth, then the plants won’t be able to use up the ammonia/nitrite, and levels could get dangerous until the bio-filter bacteria get established.

I strongly recommend against using this method if you don’t have medium-high lighting, lots of fast growing plants, and effective CO2 injection. If you do try this method without all of these „requirements”, it’s quite likely that the initial fish will be exposed to toxic ammonia and nitrite levels.

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