7 Things I Wish I Knew About Aquascaping
Written by: Curtis from Team BP
Feeling overwhelmed with all the information about aquascaping? We’ve all been there.
Aquascaping can seem daunting at first, after all, you’re going to be responsible for maintaining an entire ecosystem. If you are looking for general guidance on creating your first successful tank, keep reading! Through incorporating ideas from this article, you’ll be able to prioritize the important ideas needed for a thriving aquascape.
Here is a list of 7 things I wish I knew when I first started aquascaping, or
7 useful aquascaping tips that I wish I knew when I first started the hobby:
1. The Importance of CO2 Injection
First of all, why do we inject CO2 into planted tanks?
Short answer: Plants undergo a process called photosynthesis in which water, light, and CO2 are used to create the plant’s food source. Aquatic plants also photosynthesize for growth, but CO2 levels are naturally much lower underwater. Thus, increasing the amount of CO2 in your tank would encourage more photosynthesis, leading to better growth.
I’ve seen a lot of beginners on the fence about whether they should use CO2 in their first setup. When I first started the hobby, I too remember being hesitant about buying a CO2 system because of the cost. When starting your new tank, you should first decide if you want to incorporate CO2.
Some benefits to injecting CO2 include:
- Faster growth rate
- Encourages colorful and healthy plants
- Helps plants out-compete algae (ie. less algae!)
- Allows you to grow a wider selection of plants (like red plants)
- CO2 setups can be expensive
- Overdosing CO2 can harm livestock and create algae (you must find the right balance!)
- CO2 systems can be complex
High-tech planted aquarium that utilizes CO2 injection
That being said, I would highly recommend pressurized CO2 to those who want optimal plant growth and are looking to keep a wider variety of aquarium plants, especially carpeting plants and those with a high light requirement.
However, if you decide against using CO2, do not worry! Despite the benefits, you can still create a beautiful tank without it. Tanks without any CO2 injection, or “low tech” tanks, can require less maintenance and look just as good as tanks using CO2 when done properly.
2. Understand LED Lighting
In addition to CO2, LED lighting is another key component that will affect your plants’ growth. Hopefully you have now decided what plants you want to use in your aquascape, as you will need to keep this in mind when selecting a light.
If you are planning on growing plants with high light requirements, or "high-tech plants," a powerful light source is needed. However, keep in mind that in tanks with high light, CO2 is a necessity to prevent algae from out-competing your plants.
In low tech tanks without CO2, it is recommended to use a dimmer on your light source to compensate for the lack of CO2. A common beginner mistake is having excess light in a low tech tank which leads to algae growth.
There is a lot to consider when buying an aquarium light for your tank, so it’s really important to be prepared! Know the dimensions of your tank, research what kind of plants you plan to use, and decide if you will use CO2 before choosing a light.
- Tip: For optimal growth, lights should be on for around 8 hours a day.
3. Use the Right Substrate
Along with lighting and CO2, substrate is the third main factor that will impact plant growth. Since plants need nutrients to grow, it is best to avoid solely using inert substrates like sand and gravel in your planted tank.
- Tip: Keep at least around 1.5-2 inches of substrate for optimal root development.
I recommend using an aquarium safe, nutrient-rich soil, a type of substrate that already contains helpful nutrients for your plants. For example, UNS Controsoil is a high quality aquasoil that is perfect for growing aquarium plants. Stem plants such as Rotala and Ludwigia especially benefit from this type of substrate because they are "root feeders" and will spread roots throughout the soil to establish themselves.
Using aquarium soil in a fish tank also helps by lowering and stabilizing the pH of your water, which is enjoyed by most aquatic livestock. A common suggestion is using an inert substrate and adding root tabs, but in my experience aquarium soil has always yielded the best results in growing all types of plants.
- Tip: Always follow the directions on the bag! A lot of popular aquarium soils say not to rinse the substrate while others do.
4. Buy Quality Equipment
A lot of beginners tend to buy used and/or cheap equipment to keep a tank on a lower budget (trust me, I’ve been there). However, buying quality equipment can actually save you a lot of time and money, and stop you from wondering why your filter is making loud noises in the middle of the night (also been there). Now that we’ve gone over lighting, CO2, and substrate, here’s a quick rundown of all the other quality essentials.
Tank - It's always recommended to buy new rather than buy used when starting a setup. Used tanks can come with cracks or leaks, or other ailments (such as algae) if not cleaned right. Furthermore, if you are new to the hobby, I would recommend getting the biggest tank that you possibly can. Smaller “nano” tanks, or anything less than 10 gallons, are more sensitive to changes in water quality and are typically less beginner-friendly than larger tanks.
Filter - Quality filters are essential for every tank to clear out debris and create water circulation. There are several different types of filters that you can choose from, such as hang on the back, in tank filters, sumps, canisters, etc. Make sure to do your research and choose the right one for your tank size and bioload. Additionally, having a filter is a prerequisite to cycling a tank (which is extremely important!) Learn more about the different types of filters HERE.
Heater - The purpose of the heater is to maintain a steady temperature in your tank. It is important to research whether the types of plants, fish, or shrimp you plan on keeping prefer cooler or warmer temperatures. Keep in mind that temperature can have a considerable effect on some plants. Learn more about the effect of temperature on aquarium plants HERE.
- Timer - Timers are your best friend! Consistency is important with planted tanks. These will automatically power your lights and CO2 for a set period of time every day, keeping your lighting and CO2 schedule consistent. Some products, such as the ONF Flat Nano+ , already have have built-in timers.
5. Understand Water Parameters
Understanding water parameters is essential in having a successful planted tank, especially if you plan on keeping livestock. Here is a quick breakdown of pH, GH, KH, and TDS, four parameters you should keep in mind.
- pH - Measure of how acidic or basic the water is (6.5 - 7.5 pH is suitable for most aquariums.)
- KH - Carbonate hardness, measures how tolerant your water is to pH swings (lower KH is usually optimal)
- GH - Water hardness/softness (GH of 70-140 ppm is suitable for most aquariums)
- TDS - Total dissolved solids in the water (High TDS can be stressful to sensitive livestock, such as certain types of shrimp)
- Tip: Remember to research the preferred parameters of any livestock you put in your tank. Live plants, fish, and shrimp are all unique and have different water parameter requirements.
6. Importance of Surface Agitation
Water surface agitation is necessary for the oxygen exchange process to take place in your tank. When I first started keeping planted tanks, I would sometimes notice a shiny film right above the water and would have to scoop it out with a cup. This is known as biofilm, which is a buildup of proteins and organic materials commonly seen in tanks lacking surface agitation. Biofilm can decrease oxygen levels in your water which can be dangerous for livestock in tanks with CO2.
- Tip: Surface skimmers increase oxygen exchange, filter debris, and prevent biofilm.
In addition to preventing biofilm, surface agitation can also help out with the diffusion of CO2. For those running CO2, I would recommend placing your diffuser under the outflow of the filter to help spread bubbles and maximize the amount of time they are submerged.
7. Know Your Plants
Aquatic plants are what make every aquascape unique! There are many different kinds of aquatic plants that you can use in your tank, so it's crucial to do your research on the preferred water parameters of all the species you plan on keeping.
Java Ferns, Anubias, and Bucephalandra are common and popular epiphytic aquarium plants. A common mistake among beginners is burying the rhizome into the substrate, which suffocates the plant and leads to rot.
- Tip: Learn how to plant epiphytes HERE
Also, always make sure the plants you buy for your aquarium are aquatic! Some terrestrial plants are often mistaken as aquatic and will eventually melt when submerged.
I know aquascaping can get pretty tough, so I hope this article gave you more confidence in starting your own tank. Best of luck!
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