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Trial and Error PDF Print E-mail
Written by Roy Deki   

I started this planted aquarium hobby some 5 years ago. I can still remember the first time I laid my eyes on a planted tank.  Perhaps, like many of you, it was one of Takashi Amano’s Nature Aquariums that inspired me to design a planted aquarium.  I immediately went to a book store to look for one of his books and found a copy of his “Nature Aquarium” Volume one.  I couldn’t wait to get it home and learn how I could also create one of these planted aquarium masterpieces for myself.


At the time, I had a 46 gallon bow front aquarium.  I thought to myself that this would be a great tank to attempt my first aquascape.  I researched for many hours on the internet, and learned a great deal about this hobby.  Most of the advice I received was very helpful but it only pertained to equipment requirements that I would need to have a healthy planted tank.  At this time, my excitement was at a peak level and I started to buy lights, CO2 equipment and plants.

I learned that I needed a lot of light, so I purchased two Coralife Freshwater Power Compact units; each with 130 watts a piece.  I also bought an automated CO2 setup and Onyx sand for my substrate.  For my plants, I placed a large order of plants from an Arizona aquatic plant distributor.  I was off and running and could not wait to create an aquascape of my own.

Everything was going smoothly for the first week or so and I was very happy.  Then  some of my plants started to melt overnight!  I had no idea that most of the plants I purchased were emersely grown (out of water) from a nursery.  I thought it was something I was doing wrong, so I purchased fertilizers for my ailing plants.  I found an “all in one” fertilizer on the internet and thought to myself “that’s convenient.” So I bought some and immediately started dosing the recommended dosage.

I’m sure all of you know where this story is going.  Yes, the dreaded algae bloom.  I must have had every known algae known to man and maybe some no one has ever seen.  This tank took over a year to “balance out”. I had no idea what I was doing. Trying to figure out my problem on the internet didn’t seem to help either. 

I tried black-outs, H2O2, split photo periods, and I even gassed all of my livestock with CO2.  I almost gave up but I’m glad I didn’t.  This aquarium finally “balanced out” and I learned a great deal from my first planted  tank.

This was a learning process that I believe has to be done for yourself and not entirely from what others tell you.  Yes, there is a lot of great technical advice from some well accomplished aquarists and you can learn a lot from their experiences.  The advice I provide I have learned from first hand trial and error. Remember just because something works for someone else does not mean it will work for you.  There seems to be no right or wrong way to be successful in this hobby. The important thing is to find what works for you and stick with it.

My First Planted Aquarium AquascapeFiltration

This is a very important topic to me and seems to be overlooked when we all talk about planted tanks.  Over filtration is the way to go whether you have a low light or high light set-up.  The more light you have, the more biological filtration you need in order to “balance “ your tanks eco-system. 

It will also help to cycle your aquarium before starting an aquascape.  I have learned that my re-aquascapes with a well established filter have always been less problematic than a totally new set-up.  It also helps to add some nitrifying bacteria after water changes.  A product called “Cycle” by Marineland can be found at most local fish stores. I use this after water changes as well as post filter cleanings.

Aquariums Height

I highly suggest that all beginners should start their first tank with a shallow aquarium.  Since my first tank was a 46 gallon bow front (21” height), I felt I needed more light in order to grow a healthy ground cover like Glossostigma elatinoides.  A shallow tank requires less wattage because light doesn’t have to penetrate as deeply through the water column.  I am really fond of the dimension of a 40 gallon breeder.  I have successfully grown compact and low  Glossostigma elatinoides  in a 40 gallon breeder with only one 96 watt power compact fixture.

A 40 gallon breeder has plenty of depth and the three foot length makes buying light fixtures a breeze.  Overall, the shallowness of this tank makes it  a perfect beginner’s tank.

LightsA carpet of Glossostigma elatinoides grown in a shallow 40 gallon breeder aquarium with a 96 watt compact fluorescent fixture.

This key component goes hand in hand with the height of your aquarium.  As we have already discussed, having a shallow tank allows you to get away with less light.  This is a very important factor in helping you to be more successful with less frustration.  Over the years, I have learned that plants listed to have “high” light requirements will grow with much less light.  They will, however, grow at a much slower rate and some also take on a slightly different appearance.

When it comes to color temperatures with regards to light bulbs, I prefer a combination of 6700k and 10000k bulbs.  Since I do not use high intensity lights anymore, the 10000k bulbs will help you achieve more red in plants that usually require higher wattage.  

My favorite light fixtures are the Coralife Freshwater T-5 Aqualight Double Strip Light. They are available in 24”, 30”, 36” and 48” lengths.  They are also a normal output T-5 and the bulbs last longer than the over-driven or high output T-5 bulbs.  They have a very low, slim profile that rest below the frame of your aquarium, which eliminates a lot of ambient light bleeding into your room. 

Hemianthus callitrichoides and Dwarf hairgrass combination grown with 2.8 watts per gallon. Another reason I use these lights exclusively is due to the color temperature that these fixtures come with.  They have a 6700k bulb along with a “color-max” bulb that really makes your red plants “pop”.  They are also very affordable and the replacement bulbs are much cheaper.  I have had great success with these bulbs in conjunction with a shallow tank.  I use them on my 60 gallon tank which is 48” x 16” x 16”. This tank has a total of 168 watts which equals 2.8 watts oer gallon.  To my surprise, this set-up was more than enough to grow Hemianthus callitrichoides (H.C.) low and tight to the substrate while helping make my Ludwigia arcuata a blood red.


I have tried many different types and a few different dosing schedules.  What works for me is somewhat of an unconventional style.  Whether I use dry or liquid fertilizers, I do not have a set dosing schedule.  The only thing I do religiously is at the beginning of a new aquascape.  I will only dose Micros and Potassium for the first 2 to 3 month of a new set-up.  Even that is not done on a regular basis.  I tend to dose by “feel” and, by that, I mean  I look at my plants very closely and often.  When I visually notice the beginning of a nutrient deficiency like holes in the leaves, plant discoloration or limited growth, I will dose fertilizers. This technique is not for everyone, but seems to work for me. 

I believe overdosing your tank with all the nutrients can only lead to problems if your plants are not healthy enough to uptake the nutrients.  Some will come back to find an algae bloom because they could not find someone to continue the dosing schedule.

Consistency is the key factor when it comes to nutrients.  If your eco-system is accustomed to keeping a certain level of nutrients at all times, then you must continue this in order to maintain “balance”.  I’m not a scientist, nor will I ever feel the need to be one, when it comes to this hobby.  Although some well-known aquarists with some very impressive college degrees will disagree, dosing by “feel” really works for me.  This technique also allows me to go on vacation and I don’t have to worry about my tanks.  My aquariums have learned to be fairly self-sufficient, therefore, I believe I have achieved “true balance” in my eco-systems.  Keep in mind that this technique will not work on a “high light” set-up.  The more light you have, the faster your plants grow and the more nutrients they will require.

Less is more

I, like some, have a grow-out tank, however, my grow-out tank may differ from many others.  I do not have CO2 or high intensity lights over this tank.  Instead, I only have 1.86 wpg over a shallow tank.  I will plant many species of plants in this tank in the hopes of learning more about the true light requirements for aquatic plants.  So far, I have not come across any plant that will not grow in this tank.  Given the fact that this tank is only 12” high, I have learned that it’s not really about how much wattage you have over your aquarium, but more about how much water depth that light needs to penetrate.  Obviously, less water height equals more lumen down to the substrate.

Less light will also increase your optimum viewing time in your aquascape.  Like many, I have seen so many beautiful aquascapes that I would love to have in my living room for all my friends and family to enjoy.  However, the photos we all admire are just snapshots of a “moment in time”.  Aquascapes are forever changing or evolving and require a lot of maintenance.  After a large plant trimming our tanks will look nothing like that “moment in time”. 

By utilizing less light and dosing only the required nutrients necessary, you will lengthen that “moment in time”.  I like to achieve a “balanced” eco-system while slowing growth down.  Some say your plants are not at optimum heath, I have to disagree with that wholeheartedly.  My plants are just as healthy as the next.  The only difference is, I don’t have to dose, trim, re-plant tops or fight algae blooms as often as others.  What I do get is that “moment in time” for a little while longer.

15 Gallon IwagumiThis 15 gallon tank with 6.2 watts per gallon was very difficult to balance.  The excessive light demanded more nutrients and regular maintenance then lower light intensity tanks.

60 Gallon Pursuit of LongevityThis 60 gallon with only 168 watts of “normal out-put” T-5’s was easier to maintenance then the above tank despite having ore species of plants.

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