Ways to Keep a Planted Tank “Pristine”
Written By: Chris (@shrimpery)
Gorgeous planted aquariums aren’t hard to find online, but a few stand out more than others. You know it when you see it: nearly every aquarium plant leaf looks crisp, fresh, vibrant, and healthy; for a split second, you question if there is any water in the tank. Algae is nowhere to be seen. What is the secret to everything looking so pristine?
Even the “cleanest” planted tanks are still rife with bacteria, algae, and livestock waste. How pristine a tank looks comes down to whether these elements- all relatively beneficial in moderation- are present in excess quantities.
There’s an old aphorism that says prevention is better than cure, and this certainly applies to keeping planted tanks from looking “dirty.” You can scrub the algae away, spot treat plant leaves for algae, and replace the cosmetic sand all you want, but these maintenance elements will never result in that pristine look that makes truly professional scapes stand out. Instead, these are more “touch-ups” that can take an already sparkling tank to the next level (maybe for photography or if visitors are coming over).
Find the Perfect Balance
Although there are varying approaches, most planted tank hobbyists would agree that it all comes down to balance- balance in nutrients, lighting, waste, livestock quantity, and aquatic plant volume. I would argue that you can’t go wrong by keeping plant volume extremely high while keeping excess nutrients (beyond what the plants need to thrive) to an absolute minimum.
Excess nutrients include the nitrogenous and organic wastes that result from excess livestock and feeding. Pristine tanks tend to err on the side of less livestock and are heavily planted right from the start. Additionally, fish and shrimp tend to require less frequent feedings (and in smaller quantities) than many people realize.
Upgrade Your Filtration
Using an oversized filter- that is, larger than strictly indicated for the size of the tank- will also help achieve a pristine look. I prefer external canister filters, which help provide greater water circulation and turnover, plenty of substrate for beneficial bacteria, as well as additional water volume.
Nearly as important as aquarium filtration, frequent water changes are also key. In very mature tanks over 6 months old, it is often possible to maintain a pristine look with weekly water changes, but in younger, less-established high-tech tanks, biweekly to triweekly water changes are very helpful. These elements will help tackle any excess organic and nitrogenous waste and keep the plants looking their best.
Provide Necessary Elements
Of course, a good-quality LED lighting fixture in an appropriate spectrum is also critical for plant growth. Nearly all truly pristine-looking tanks are also high-tech, meaning they have injected CO2. Plants use carbon dioxide to build their tissues, so injecting the gas into the water column allows the plants to achieve the healthiest appearance.
This process is facilitated by good water circulation and a regular, complete fertilization routine. An enriched substrate, such as UNS Controsoil, will help compensate for any small irregularities in the dosing schedule with liquid fertilizer.
Speaking of fertilizer, many hobbyists tend to over-fertilize beyond what the plants need in the hopes of maximizing their plant health and preventing nutrient deficiencies. While it is true that most algae growth is more a downstream result of excess livestock, fish food, or inadequate filtration/water changes, there are other contributors to the problem.
Using more fertilizer than the plants can consume benefits only algae; frequently, this can result in a hazy appearance to the water (excess algae and bacteria in the water column) or dustings of algae here and there on glass, hardscape, and plants. Neither of these really contributes to a pristine look. I prefer to go relatively lean on dosing (often less than recommended by the fertilizer manufacturer) while keeping an eye on the health of my plants. If the plants show any signs of nutrient deficiency, such as yellowing/deteriorating leaves, poor growth, pale colors, or thin stems, I will correspondingly increase the dose slightly.
Don't Get Discouraged
As with many things, time is often the best healer. Don’t be discouraged if you are following all the previous points and your aquascape still lacks a pristine appearance. Most truly pristine looking planted tanks are relatively well established. If your tank is less than 4-6 months old, it may just need a bit more time to grow into itself.
Consistency in routine will contribute to greater water parameter stability, which will, in turn, contribute to increased balance in the tank, allowing the plants and livestock to thrive.