THE EVOLUTION OF A PLANTED TANK

Or, That Ugly "P" Word...


No, this isn't the definitive article on how to set up and plant a tank, I'm still working on that one; this is a discussion of the most important quality required for fishkeeping in general and growing plants in particular: PATIENCE. If you have the necessary basic equipment, do what you are supposed to do in terms of maintenance, and have patience to boot, you cannot possibly fail. Honest. You have to believe me, I've got pictures. Many aquarists who are setting up high nutrient tanks for the first time (i.e., lots of light, CO2, fertilizer, etc.) think they've done something wrong when all of a sudden algae shows up. This is NOT TRUE--quite the opposite. After all, you wanted to grow plants, didn't you? Well, congratulations--you are!!! It's not the algae's fault that that wasn't the sort of plant you had in mind--it's just showing you that you've succeeded in creating a nutrient rich environment where plants can grow. Now all you have to do is give the plants you really want a chance to outcompete the algae and get to those nutrients first. And how, you ask, do you do that? Easy. Plant lots of fast growing plants, and make sure they get everything they need to grow rapidly--sufficient light (at least 2-3 watts per gallon), enough CO2 (which you can supply through a pressurized system or a virtually cost free do-it-yourself system), sufficient nutrients (fertilizer) and a substrate of the right size and composition to allow them to root easily. Then comes the hard part: sit back and wait. Keep doing what you were doing, and don't worry about the algae. Fretting will NOT make it go away. All you need to do is wait until it goes away by itself. If you still don't believe me, read the rest of this story and look at the pictures; maybe it will give you a whole new perspective on algae!

So you find this great deal in the want ads for two 20 gallon highs with stand and all the accoutrements, and of course you have to get it, because you've been looking for a tank anyway to set up for those Corydoras sterbai you've been wanting for years so they can breed in peace, have many babies and make you millions of dollars at the fish store. But being you, you want to set it up for plants because (a) you likeplants, (b) cories like plants, and (c)...well, see (a) and (b). How many reasons do you need, for crying out loud? Of course, first you have to get new light fixtures because the used ones aren't nearly adequate, and the filters it came with are those crummy green corner filters and of course that won't do, and the heaters are Penn-Plax and that DEFINITELY won't do, and the gravel that came with the tanks is pink, blue and white. Enough said. Okay, so I got two nice tanks with tops and a good stand out of the deal.

...

Set up and plant tank. Equipment: one 55w power compact light strip, AquaClear 200 filter, 100w Ebo-Jager heater, DIY CO2 bottle. Substrate: 1/2 fluorite, 1/2 small gravel. Plants: rotala indica and java fern, both swiped from other tanks, mermaid weed (proserpinaca pectinata), green foxtail (myriophyllum something or other), baby's tears (hemianthes micranthemoides), lilaeopsis, Cryptocoryne spiralis and a dollop of java moss. Looks squeaky clean, doesn't it? Water is slightly cloudy, which is to be expected upon setup. In a couple of days I'll throw in a few guppies, and in a few weeks hopefully I'll have those sterbais and we'll be good to go.

January 20, 2002
Except that downstairs, in the 55 gallon, my 7 beautiful young angelfish are becoming sexually mature, and all of a sudden I have two pairs spawning and a LOT of strife. I am NOT into strife in my fish tanks, I want everybody to get along; consequently, I really need to move one pair. ...Well, I have that nice 20 gallon high upstairs, but it's planted for cories, not angelfish, no nice vertical plants for them; well, guess I'll worry about that later, I HAVE to move these guys. Oh well, I still have another 20 left that I can set up for the sterbais.
February 3, 2002 February 3, 2002

So there are Max and Erma, checking out their new house. Note lovely spawning slate. If you like the look of tall flat rocks leaning against the glass of your tank, by all means use a spawning slate for your angels. It won't have any other purpose. If there is any other available surface in the tank, including heaters, filter intakes, etc., they'll use that, not the slate. Note that after two weeks, brown algae is proliferating rapidly; this is normal for newly set up tanks, especially if the silicates in your tap water are fairly high. I added a few ottos about this time, and in a few days' time the brown algae disappeared. Which left plenty of room for...

February 22, 2002

every OTHER type of algae you can name to move in. Brown scuzzy stuff on the plants, green algae on all the glass surfaces, especially the back. And two beautiful angelfish who are completely untroubled by the algae but who can't find a place to spawn. (Hello? Hello? CHECK OUT THE SLATE. THE SLATE.) I concede defeat, go to my fish store, buy a nice rose sword plant and rearrange stuff.

February 22, 2002
March 8, 2002 March 8, 2002

Oh my, look what Max and Erma did. That wretched looking rose sword in the back corner was just the ticket, two days after I put it in there they found the two leaves that weren't dying and spawned all over them. Note increased green algae growth on the back glass, and now there's nice fuzzy stuff on that dilapidated sword plant, too. I should note that the sword was beautiful at the store, and I brought it home and gave it my usual bleach treatment to disinfect it. Within 24 hours every leaf was dying, I've never had that happen before. All of the growth was emersed growth, but for some reason the bleach treatment torpedoed it. Generally swords show no effects whatsoever from a bleach treatment, but this was the first rose sword I'd ever had. At any rate, I would rather have lost the plant than introduced pathogens into Max and Erma's tank, that's for sure.

March 27, 2002

A little more than two months after set up, we now have a lovely assortment of ugly gray brush (staghorn) algae all over the lilaeopsis and the java fern, and an equally ugly brown variety on most everything else. The green algae on the back glass is so thick it looks like moss (actually I kind of like it, don't tell anybody)--although in fact it was retreating already when I took this picture, at one point virtually the entire back was covered, almost no glass was visible at all. The retreat has begun because I've restarted the DIY CO2 on the tank, just a few days before this picture was taken.

March 27, 2002

So was I in a state and absolutely revolted by this tank? Well, no. See what else is in there? A beautiful angelfish mom and dad, and if you look close, you'll see about 150 robust, rapidly growing angel babies. It is not possible to raise a healthy batch of egglayer babies without regularly overfeeding them, and all that algae was available to soak up excess nutrients and help keep the water clean for the babies (plus daily water changes, essential anyway for egglayer fry). In fact, I was kind of sorry to see the algae fading from the back glass, it was a big help in keeping the tank sweet for the babies. Of the 150 or so fry that hatched out, I raised virtually every one; I never saw the first trace of ammonia, and all that algae gets a lot of the credit for that. The tank may have looked awful, but the water quality was excellent, and the beautiful, healthy fish in the tank made the appearance of the algae a highly secondary matter.

And of course, I had to use the other 20 high as a grow-out tank. Sigh. Guess I'll wait a little longer for those sterbais.

May 18, 2002

May 18, 2002

The tank now, almost four months into its life. It's still home to about 25 young angelfish. The tank is still young, too; it will be six months to a year before it's fully matured, but it's healthy and growing. The rose sword is thriving now, and has put out many new beautiful, pink leaves. (This is a lovely sword, if you get the chance by all means try one.) Every bit of algae has disappeared from the back glass and from the plants. That staghorn algae may have been ugly, but it didn't hurt the lilaeopsis, which looks great now and is spreading well. It would have spread a lot more if it weren't for the water changes and vigorous gravel cleaning--I've probably sucked up more new plants than are still in the tank, but maintaining the babies' environment came first. And look at all the new growth on the crypt! It's already spreading by runners--that's a vigorous new plant in the right center of the picture, right by the driftwood, which is almost six inches from the original plant. If you look back at the first picture, you'll see that at the end of January, it consisted of 4 or 5 short green leaves.

As soon as I can lower the angelbaby population a little more, I'll dig up and prune the rotala indica and the hydrocotyle that's growing all over the surface, but there are still 25 2-1/2 month old angels living in this tank, and I want those plants in there to help take up wastes.

So what did I do to get rid of all that algae? Absolutely nothing. I just waited. There are things I could have done to move the process along, notably keeping a constant supply of CO2 to that tank, but the angelfish babies changed the way I handled this tank. I didn't care what the tank looked like as long as the water was clean and healthy for the babies. Frankly, this tank was a good refresher course for me; having the babies in there kept me from a) worrying about what the algae looked like, and b) trying to do anything stupid to make it go away, and reminded me that if you just wait long enough it will go away anyway without you doing anything to screw it up. If you have this kind of algae show up when you've set up a new tank, it's perfectly natural to think that it's NEVER going to go away unless you do something drastic or different--when in fact, if you've provided the proper equipment and nutrients for your plants in the first place, all you have to do is just keep doing what you're doing, and sooner or later the plants YOU want to grow will win out. Having the babies to consider helped to remind me of that--especially when one day I took a good look at the tank and said "Sonofagun...where'd the algae go?"

 

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