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Tuna's guide to an easy to maintain yet beautiful planted aquarium

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  • Tuna's guide to an easy to maintain yet beautiful planted aquarium

    Tuna's guide to an easy to maintain yet beautiful planted aquarium A.K.A The lazy man's awesome planted tank.

    Disclaimer: This guide is not a general primer on the planted aquarium, it is merely my approach and philosophy to the planted aquarium based on experiences, observations and knowledge gained from other Aquarium Life members. Comments and suggestions are welcome.

    I like to enjoy an aquarium. Marvelling at the planted underwater beauty I have created, observing the fish interacting with one another and watching the shrimp graze on fish poo and algae.

    What I don't like is all the other bits that make this happen.

    My philosophy to the aquarium is to keep maintenance to a minimum so that the aquarist can spend more time admiring the tank without the chore of frequent pruning, complicated fertiliser schedules, water adjustments, algae outbreaks and messy water changes.

    First thing is first, you want a planted aquarium, therefore you need some equipment. If you throw some money towards some proper equipment, you will yield better results. You want the right tools for the job, shortcuts do not apply.

    There are many commercial substrates available. The two most popular being ADA Aqua Soil and Carib Sea Eco-Complete. Those who use Aqua Soil swear by it, same could be said for Eco-Complete. Both will produce great results. I have used both and can confirm their abilities. Eco-Complete looks and feels more like dirt and doesn't cloud the water as much as Aqua Soil. Although general lore is that Aqua Soil will allow grow anything. Up Aqua is also a new brand on the Aussie scene that seems to be generating some discussion.

    Commercial substrates will cost you lots of money, but if you want the best results then don't be stingy. This is a guide to the lazy man's tank, not the cheap man's tank.

    If you are on a budget, there are many DIY substrate recipes available on the web. Pure sand would be possible if you only used ferns, anubias and mosses. I am planning on trying it out one day. Many native Australian aquatic plants grow in very nutrient poor areas, if you used these plants then a fancy substrate may even be detrimental to their health. You could try out native plants with sand/gravel substrate with root tabs placed underneath.

    Let there be light
    T5 high output and metal halides are the way to go. Get the best you can afford, again this is not the cheap man's tank you are setting up. By going all out at the beginning it gives you the flexibility of reducing the light if desired by cutting down the photo period. If you are Cheap Charlie and get the minimum, you will need to fork out more bucks when you find out you don't have enough fire power to light up the tank and cater to the plant's requirements. Leaving your cheap charlie lights on longer isn't the same as having higher intensity light. It is like trying to cook a roast with a toaster; not going to happen Charlie!

    Colour temperature
    Colour temperature range should be between 6500 Kelvin and 10000 Kelvin. I would stick between 6500k and 8000k.

    T5 high output
    With T5HO you will need several tubes to get enough light over your tank meaning mixing temperatures to get a wider spectrum is possible. It is not necessary though, as plants generally use only the blue and red spectrum.

    Metal halide
    Metal halides are currently the ultimate (proven) method of lighting, the amount of light emitted by these things will knock your socks off the first time you use them, most metal halide light fittings also come with T5HO or compact fluorescent functionality as well.

    LED lighting
    LED lighting is still very expensive and a relatively new technology. I would wait and see how this technology goes before jumping in.

    How much light do I need?
    There is much debate over the formula for calculating how many watts you need. That is better left for another discussion. As a general rule, for medium to large tanks 1 watt per litre is sufficient for a 'high light' set up. A medium/low light setup would be about 0.5 watts per litre.

    The lazy man's tank needs it. Just like the earth is round, there is no denying plants need CO2 to grow nicely. CO2 is arguably the most important component of the lazy man's awesome planted tank. Plants breathe CO2 in and exhale O2.

    Go with a full pressurised CO2 set up:

    • Gas bottle - 6.8kg is the most economical (you can rent these or in some cases buy your own bottle)
    • Regulator - used to limit the flow
    • Bubble counter - to measure the flow
    • Solenoid - for automatic stopping and starting of CO2 flow
    • Diffuser - used to break up the CO2 into tiny bubbles to be dissolved (You could also go with a reactor instead if you like)
    • Drop checker - Used to determine optimum CO2 levels.

    DIY is too much hassle and the output varies. Who wants to pour copious amounts of sugar into a bottle every week? With pressurised it is set and forget. Refill it next year (with a 6.8kg bottle).

    I have my CO2 turn on an hour before lights on so that the plants can wake up to a nice ready made breakfast of carbon goodness. CO2 is turned off an hour before lights out as there should be enough dissolved CO2 to keep them going till bedtime.

    Get an external canister with good flow. Flow is important to circulate the CO2 bubbles and nutrients in the water column. Eheim is considered by many to be the best brand, followed by Fluval. I am currently using an Aqua One aquis which is a cheap knock off of the very expensive Eheim Pro series. Works just as fine.

    Internal filters are ugly as hell. You don't want that shit in your beautiful tank.

    Climate control i.e. water temperature
    Plants (and your fish) generally prefer water around the 23-27 degrees C mark. Get a heater or chiller to suit your needs. Most plants will have a hissy fit outside of these ranges and wont grow so well. You do want your plants to grow without a hassle don't you?

    Planting primer

    Choose your plants wisely
    Plant maintenance is the biggest time consumer of the planted aquarium, therefore it is wise for the lazy man to choose low maintenance plants to limit maintenance. This rules out any tall and fast growing stem plants, my apologies to all the stem plant lovers out there.

    I hate pruning plants because it is time consuming, there is lots of cleaning and replanting to do and the tank looks but ugly for the next week or two (or three). Instead choose low maintenance plants that are easy to grow and either stay low or grow slowly, eliminating the need to keep them low via pruning. Don't just pick a plant that looks pretty. Research, then buy.

    I generally choose plants to suit the set up, although of course that doesn't mean you can't setup a tank with certain plants in mind.

    Initial planting should be dense as possible, don't buy two pots of hair grass and wait 5 months for it to fill out. Buy enough to cover the whole area you want it to eventually fill out. This will benefit in two ways; your tank will look awesome in no time and you will have less algae problems initially.

    Plants that grow along the substrate
    Use these plants to get that beautiful green 'lawn' effect. They require very little pruning, generally grow quite fast and grow thick and dense totally obscuring any substrate.

    • Hemianthus callitrichoides (HC) - My personal favourite, easy to grow, stays low, grows very thick and fast, bright vibrant green. Doesn't seem to require advanced substrate set-ups but does require medium to high light.
    • Glossostigma elatinoides - Very popular among aquarists but HC has arguably become the top dog. Glosso is harder to grow than HC and requires a decent substrate and high light.
    • Hair grass - Super easy to grow, doesn't seem too fussy. Will form a thick carpet and doesn't grow too high. Requires medium to high light for best results.
    • Blyxa japonica - A stem plant but it does keep low and propogates readily, just break off the offshoots and replant. Easy to grow and looks great with its dense bushy appearance.
    • Echinodorus tennelus - AKA pygmy chain sword. Looks messy if left to grow uncontrolled, looks great used sparingly e.g. stuffed in between rocks or wood.
    • Hydrocotyle tripartita - Beautiful clover shaped leaves, grows fast so you will need to keep it under control use in the same fashion as echinodorus tennelus.
    • Others include utriculara graminifolia (uncommon and pricey), lilaeopsis varites (grows a bit slow), marsilea hirsuti (hardy, slowish growing), elatine gratioloides (likes high light and cooler water)
    • Mosses, pelia, riccia and fissidens can be made to cover the ground. Purchase moss plates or get some small flat stones and tie the plants to that using cotton thread.

    Plants that won't grow too tall
    Along with driftwood and/or rocks, these plants will be the meat of your tank. You don't want to be pruning all the time so choose ones that don't grow too tall.

    • Bolbitis heudelotii - Beautiful leaves, tollerant of wide water conditions, likes good water flow, grows slowly but looks amazing once filled in. Can do well in medium light. Tie to wood/rock for best results.
    • Java fern varieties - Personal favourite variety would be the narrow/needle leaf. The original java fern has really big ugly leaves. Also pretty tough and can do well in medium to low light.Tie to wood/rock for best results.
    • Echinodorus varieties (swords) - Choose ones that stay low. Swords are generally low maintenance and not too fussy.
    • Anubias - Great tied to rocks or driftwood. Almost bullet proof. Grows super slow however. Tie to wood/rock for best results.
    • Cryptocorynes - Choose ones that stay low. Low maintenance also as they tend to grow slowly. Feeds from the roots so requires decent fertiliser under the roots.
    • Vallisneria - although it does grow tall, it doesn't require pruning (you actually need to pull out the runners) and looks great as a background plant. It is also a very unfussy plant.

    Many people tear their hair out wondering why a certain plant won't grow in their setup. I say forget about worrying and throw the plant out the door (not literally, you must dispose of plants in an environmentally safe manner of course) and choose something that works for you and your lazy man's aquarium. It is much easier to change the plant than to change your set-up. Having said that, if you have a good setup to begin with than you shouldn't have many problems growing the plants listed above.

    Food for your plants
    Commercial liquids are the easiest to use. Just dose according to the instructions on the bottle and use your eagle eyed observations to adjust the amounts. Popular brands include ADA and Seachem.

    You can dry dose if you like i.e. buy fertilisers in powder form (potassium sulphate, potassium carbonate, potassium nitrate etc.) but this requires too much work for the lazy man's tank! Plus the lazy man isn't too clever in mathematics and doesn't deal too will with 1/4 teaspoon amounts.

    Personally, I use Aquagreen Dinosaur Pee. It is cheap and it is damn easy (not everything in the lazy man's aquarium needs to be expensive). A couple of drops a day and that is it. I can grow most plants using it. If the plant doesn't like it, I will throw it out and pick something else that does. Using the plants listed above accompanied with Dino Pee should get you great results.

    Dinosaur spit and Dinosaur dung are also quality products that you can use.

    Water parameters
    I don't bother measuring. I add a teaspoon each of potassium carbonate and calcium chloride during water changes to up the carbonate hardness (KH) and general hardness (GH) a bit. It is probably a good idea to measure your tap water at least once to determine if you have crappy water or not. But generally as long as your water doesn't have ludicrous parameters then I wouldn't worry too much. Again, if your plants don't like the water you give it, give the plant the boot. It is improbable your local tap water is going to change any time soon.

    Hardscape materials
    Your choices are either rock or wood. Leave the sunken ships to the bogan aquarist. Be prepared to spend a lot of time searching for materials that you are happy with. Don't settle for less, only get the best, that way, you won't need to change it later on. I've gotten filthy trundling through the bush to look for the best bits of wood. You can only be lazy after setting up your tank, not before.

    With wood, you want something with nice twisted shapes and lines. Big tree stumps with roots poking out are a good starting point, Then you can position various branches around it.

    For rocks you want nice texture and shape. Hard straight lines and flat surfaces are a no go. Too ugly, too plain, that stuff belongs in the garden. Big round rocks aren't too great either, they make your tank appear smaller. If you will be covering your rocks in moss type plants, then getting a nice rock is less important.

    Get a variety of sizes from small to large. Don't think that rock is too big as in most cases your rocks will be covered by the plants and you will be kicking yourself for not putting a bigger one in in the first place.

    Better left for another discussion, although having the right hardscape materials makes the process a lot easier.


    Choose small fish that won't eat your plants or uproot them. You should also consider algae eating fish to help keep the tank clean. Why clean it when you can get a fish to do it. Popular algae eating fish include otocinclus, bristlenose and siamese algae eaters.

    Shrimp are a must. They are the cleaning crew of any planted tank. In my opinion, a mass of algae eating shrimp will do a much better job of cleaning the tank than fish. They can get into much smaller nooks and crannies and you can have a lot more of them without overcrowding your tank. I don't know what the optimal number to have is, but probably somewhere in the vicinity of 1 shrimp per 4-5 litres. The best algae eating shrimp available in Australia would have to be the Darwin Algae Eating Shrimp (
    Last edited by tuna; 08-01-10, 08:20 PM.

  • #2
    Maintenance, or lack thereof
    The lazy man's tank should only require 30 minutes of maintenance per week, 1 hour at the absolute most.

    Water changes
    The lazy man does not use water conditioners. He has a big barrel/container of some sort out the back that has at least one week old water in it. This should be long enough for the chlorine to dissipate.

    The lazy man does not use a bucket. I have a spare filter intake pipe with garden hose attachment. Attach it to the garden hose and let the water siphon out into the garden. When you are ready to fill the tank back up, attach the garden end of the hose to a pump conveniently located inside the water barrel. I have an el-cheapo $40 pond pump in there. The longer the hose, the bigger the pump you will need. If I recall correctly I have a 15M hose with a 4000lph pump. If you are clever you may never even spill a drop of water onto the floor during the process; your spouse will be most pleased at this.

    Cleaning the tank
    Give the glass a scrub every one or two weeks. Don't leave it too long or you will have a hell of a time scraping that crap off.

    If you have chosen your plants correctly, you will only ever need to prune sporadically. My previous aquascape only had the one plant (Hydrocotyle tripartita) pruned a few times over the course of its life (3 and a half months).

    Sit back and enjoy
    Enjoy the fruits of your minimal labour.

    I must reiterate, that this is not a general guide to the planted aquarium, rather this is my methodology and philosophy that I have developed during my time in this hobby.

    To summarise:
    • Get the right equipment for the job, this will most likely mean a substantial outlay of cash.
    • Choose low maintenance plants
    • Choose easy to grow plants
    • If a plant won't grow for you, replace it with something that will
    • Develop an efficient and tidy water change method.
    Last edited by tuna; 07-07-09, 03:19 PM.


    • #3

      Great work Tuna. Lots of great info there that will benefit everyone.
      He's not the messiah, he's a very naughty boy!


      • #4
        You really do live on the forum don't ya Mjay?


        • #5
          He is young and still at home....


          • #6
            Great stuff Tuna.
            Answers so many questions in one spot.


            • #7
              Very very helpful Thank you very much!


              • #8
                You should add Elatine gratioloides to the foreground list.
                Its a great looking native plant that rarely gets the acknowledgment it deserves.
                4wdriving in the mud is like un-protected sex, a few minutes of fun for a life time of regrets.


                • #9
                  Thanks so much for the time and effort put into this sticky Tuna, very well done. Some very good info included.



                  • #10
                    Originally posted by Peter16 View Post
                    You should add Elatine gratioloides to the foreground list.
                    Its a great looking native plant that rarely gets the acknowledgment it deserves.
                    Thanks, have added it in. I actually had it in my last scape.


                    • #11
                      Nice work Tuna

                      I made it a sticky, its too good to be hidden away

                      Read this very helpful thread on BSS .
                      No pictures on your BSS advert? Then be prepared for it to be deleted ( read the rules )


                      • #12
                        Nicely put and very helpful - thanks for sharing


                        • #13
                          LOL thats awesome Tuna!

                          A lot of effort put into that and a very good summary!

                          LMAO 'Leave the sunken ships to the bogan aquarist.'



                          • #14
                            So, can we have Charlie's version now?
                            6ft African malawi spec tank
                            4ft Native, semi planted
                            28L AquaOne 320 RCS tank
                            Plus 11ty tanks 2ft and under


                            • #15
                              Thanks Tuna for the great article. Very informative and witty as well.

                              Really enjoyed that.



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