As those of you that know me or have seen me speak or have read my stuff or watched my videos know, I love the saltwater side of the hobby, and especially anything to do with reefs. I consider myself the Will Rogers of reefkeeping in that I have never seen a coral that I didn’t like. Having said this, every now and then, everyone needs a new challenge. And while keeping a saltwater tank is definitely a challenge, and I am now keeping five, I have periodically gotten the itch to do something different in the hobby.
As I wrote last week, one of the things I regularly do is go and visit my “twin” brother Sanjay, at least once a year. In addition, to his multiple reef tanks of various sorts and sizes for the last couple of years Sanjay has been tinkering with a freshwater tank. And while the various forms of this tank changed over this time, during my last couple of visits his freshwater tank really caught my eye. At the same time that seeing his tank was starting to drive my creative juices, I found a local store, Oddball Pets, that also had some of the nicest planted tanks that I had seen in some time.
Since this was the second of two rather prolonged winters and I had time to tinker and also go through all the boxes of extra crap that I had accumulated like most of us, I decided it was time to try my hand at a planted tank. I reasoned that it had to be pretty easy after keeping all of corals I had over the years.
So I first started with reading everything online that I could, so that I would not sound like a rookie when I went into the shops catering to planted tanks. At the same time I began looking through my stuff to see what I could salvage to use in this system rather than starting from scratch. Amazingly after 30 years of not throwing away much of my used equipment, my kids consider me an “Aquarium hoarder”, I found that I had a lot of “reef” equipment that would easily lend itself for use on this new plant tank.
I had an old 60 gallon tall tank and stand, that while not the best for a reef tank, would be well suited for a plant tank with tall plants and deep substrate. I also had boxes of numerous heaters, powerheads and tubing of various sizes that all could be used in this tank. There was also a small CO2 cylinder and regulator from an old calcium reactor that I wasn’t using, that would provide what I now learned was one of the critical components for successfully growing plants. I also had an old canister filter, which while now obsolete for using on a reef tank, is still state of the art for keeping a planted tank.
But the best and most interesting thing I had kept, is a Radion XR15w LED light. Unlike in reef tanks where LEDs are fast becoming the standard lighting systems, most planted tanks are still being lit with standard fluorescent tubes or T-5s. So I felt pretty jazzed that doing this was going to be inexpensive as I already had what I thought was the bulk of the equipment I would need. Sadly, as with most aspects of anything aquatic I way under-budgeted.
Since I wanted this to be as successful as possible, as I said, I read everything I could about the proper way to do this. And I want to acknowledge that in no way am I trying to represent myself as a planted tank expert, quite the contrary. Rather I am trying to illustrate that after doing this, having a reefkeeper’s mindset may actually an advantage for those of you who might also want to do this. The first advantage is that I did not go into sticker shock when I found out how expensive it was going to be to design and layout the proper substrate that was necessary in order to get good growth from the plants.
After looking at and assessing several different ways of doing the substrate the 3 layer substrate that I ended up using on my 60-gallon tank came to around $150. While still not the price for a frag of a Walt Disney Tenuis Acro, it still struck me as expensive for what I saw as gravel with dirt mixed in. But I bit the bullet and got all the proper substrate I needed. While doing this I looked online for aquascaping ideas and also for what plants I might use. Once again there was a bit of sticker shock. Like most of us I had started in the hobby in freshwater and I remember buying large bunches of plants for 69 or 99 cents, and the stemmed plants like Cryptcorynes or Amazon swords might have cost $2.
Now I was seeing bunched plants being sold for $2-3 per 4” stem, while some of the nicer stemmed plants were $15-20 each. It is good to know that the high cost of fish keeping has not been limited to only the saltwater side of the hobby. Fortunately after realizing that I was not going to get off easy in setting up this tank, I did learn that like us, many on the plant side have started propagating their plants like we do corals and as a result going to a few plant/frag swaps I was able to get most of the plants I wanted for significantly less than I had seen them online. And just like in our frag swaps I was even able to procure some of what are considered rare plants for my tank.
As I stated above, much of what we have learned on this side of the hobby over the last 20 years helped me prepare for doing a plant tank. As with reefkeeping, patience is crucial, especially in terms of cycling the tank, aquascaping and adding fish. Unlike when I did freshwater before I learned that just like in a saltwater tank, the tank needs to be cycled to reduce the ammonia levels that initially occur. However, it seems that the high levels here are more due to ammonia and other compounds leaching out from the substrate than from the fish. Also as in reefkeeping, the design of the aquascape should be laid out ahead of time and the “small plants are actually added before the tank is filled, the substrate is actually just moist.
I have done this with most of my live rock layouts, but never thought to do it in a planted tank. And lastly, and most amazingly to me, just like in every saltwater tank I have ever set up, this tank despite my thinking I had done everything right, had an algae bloom soon after it was set up. Fortunately, since I had learned from my reef tanks, I knew all I need to do was a large water change to reduce the nutrients, not add any additional nutrients, and add lots of different algae eaters and just like in a reef tank the algae miraculously went away.
My “reef” knowledge made installing the equipment quite easy, as was aquascaping the tank and handling the initial algae bloom, the real advantage came when it was time to try and understand the chemistry of this tank. Unlike in our reef tanks where we try to remove most excess nutrients, especially nitrogen and phosphorous based ones, in a planted tank, the plants grow so fast that these nutrients actually have to be added regularly with some daily, and most are not easy to measure with a test kit. So as I learned from watching my corals, getting the chemicals, and there are a lot, just right, including CO2, requires lots of observation and patience. Just as coral frags do not grow overnight into colonies, small plants do not grow into jungles overnight, nor do the plants you want to turn red do so after a single dose of a nutrient. So just as with my reefs I am learning patience with this tank.
As with reefs, I have found that there are different fish for just about every taste. As with my reef tanks, I tend to pack them full, in this case with both plants and fish, as I have finally concluded that I prefer this look and I like lots of activity. Fortunately for me, this tank provides both as I have stocked it with what are considered freshwater nano fish. However, and I am as surprised with this as anyone, the fish in this tank, despite there being more than there should are quite calm. So calm in fact that unlike any of my reef tanks, I can walk up to it, place my arm in the tank to move a plant or remove something and for the most part the fish do not move. When others have observed the tank, and it sits across from my soft coral tank, they have also noted how calm the fish and the whole tank is relative to the nearby reef tank. Also for some reason even though I am using the same Radion light on my other reef tanks, the light on this tank looks clearer. I can only assume that unlike my reef tanks which look blue, this tank is green due to the plants and that we see green much clearer than we do blue. Regardless of why I have to admit that this tank is now one of my favorites, possibly because it is so different from my 5 reef tanks.
I did not get into the technical aspects of this tank because as I stated I am clearly a novice in this arena. But for all of us reefkeepers with lots of old equipment looking for a new challenge, the modern planted tank may just be the ticket. Also like reef tanks, these types of tanks no longer need to be huge to be interesting. In my travels I have seen many planted nano tanks with tiny nano fish and shrimp that are as interesting as some reef tanks. And for those of you worried that I am going to the fresh side, not to worry. Since I set this tank up I followed it with setting up a tank in natural sunlight that I will talk about in the future.