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Thread: Scaping a Planted Freshwater Aquarium

  1. #1

    Scaping a Planted Freshwater Aquarium

    Because there is a minor interest of it, I figured I'd put down just a little bit of the most basic information I've garnered over 6 years, and reinforced in the last 3 months.

    Most of this information comes from: <-- If not for this, local (Southern California Aquatic Plant Enthusiasts) club, at least half of my FW, and a good portion of my small SW knowledge would be nixed. This is where I truly started amassing my wealth.

    Ecology of the Planted Aquarium by Diana Walstad <-- The first very good book I purchased for FW planted tanks. Half of the information in it goes largely against the Planted Tank Enthusiast's ideas. She believes in primarily a low-tech planted tank, which involves no additional CO2, fertilizers, minimal substrate modifications or high-tech substrate, and especially, minimized expenses. Her approach is mostly one of shared allelopathy (the chemical inhibitions of one organism, especially in plants, against another), adjusted photo periods, and MINIMAL maintenance. This is one of the least heralded books among the true-geeks, but even they cannot argue against its most basic concepts.

    The ScapeFu podcast On a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of entertainment value, I would put this podcast at a 2.5, but the basic information they cover in each episode's very specific topics at hand, this is a gold-mine for information, and the host's diction is extremely easy to understand. He is more clear and concise than some of the better radio personalities in the world of audio media.


    Basic things every planted tank needs:

    Nutrient Supplementation
    Fish & Other Livestock


    The general opinion of fish tanks is one of size matters. The larger the ecosystem, the more forgiving it is. The bigger your tank, the more water it can hold, which means if anything terrible happens, the volume of the aquatic ecosystem will dilute and buffer the error of the water chemistry and potentially fix itself so that you don't have to. The smaller an ecosystem is, the more catastrophic results that can occur within its water chemistry.

    The cost of a tank goes up considerably the larger it gets, however, it is a one-time cost, and at the end of the expense report, will typically end up being your least expensive investment for a FW planted tank, overall. The scalability of this model includes that the larger the tank, the larger the stand, the lights needed to make your plants grow, the larger and more complicated your filtration needs to be, the more substrate you'll need to purchase, the more plants you'll need to fill it in, as well as all additional hardscape materials. When looking at tanks to purchase, consider the size you are interested in first, look at the cost, and expect to pay at least 5 times the amount of the tank by itself to complete the hardscape of the tank, no matter what level of technology you plan to put into it.

    Conversely, the smaller a tank, the easier it is to actively maintain it. Trimming a planted tank of its unwanted growth is an absolute necessity for a showy display tank, and the larger a tank, especially in height, the more difficult it will be to maintain. Livestock in FW tanks are seldom harmful to human hands, but once your hand is in the tank, they will grow curious and inspect and test the foreign invader with any means necessary. This typically just means swimming against, crawling on, and occasionally lightly nipping at your hair or skin. If you are averse to this, and really want a large tank, expect to invest about $10 for a pair of shoulder length nitrile gloves about once every 6 months. A smaller planted tank whose volume is less than 10 gallons, (AKA a Nano FW aquarium) with low technology is typically the easiest to maintain on an office desk or similar and can be trimmed down as little as once a month with the right stocking options. In the case of a shrimp tank or other algae eater tank, it might never even need to be fed supplemental nutrition or additional, regular maintenance whatsoever.

    **Important note, in Germany and several other western European countries, it is considered inhumane and illegal to house live fish in any aquarium whose longest face is fewer than 30cm long (12 inches). This is a very, very old and dated law, and though such tanks are sold in aquarium shops throughout the country, it is considered highly illegal to do so, and will be cited, fined and possibly removed by the authorities if it is brought to their attention. Make sure to avoid this or don't get caught doing so (taking pictures and posting on social media).


    When purchasing a tank, the new hobbyist with the least experience will often not realize that water weighs 8 pounds a gallon. The most commonly heard statement from an emerging aquarist at the time of their tank's purchase is, "I'm just going to put it on my nightstand," or something similar. Unless the tank is less than 5 gallons in volume, the stand is eventually going to fail, and potentially, irreparably, damage an otherwise fine piece of furniture. A stand that will hold the tank does not have to be one dedicated to solely being a tank stand, but it is best advised. It also, does not have to be purchase from a Fish or Pet store.

    One of the most popular, alternative pieces of furniture for Aquariums can be had from IKEA in its BESTÅ line of furniture. This particular model is favorable in the hobby for its clean lines, many available configurations, and solid build. It mimics an extremely popular and extremely expensive ADA Style Stand. It is best for aquariums in volume equal to or less than 22 gallons, especially that of a "20 gallon long," or smaller.


    Substrate is also known as "dirt" or "gravel" in the aquarium industry. It comes in many different forms, colors, costs and grain diameter, from profesionally formulated, to DIY. It is one of the most arguable points of the industry, and every successful aquarist has very strong opinions on what works best, and what does not work at all. Generally, the safest bet for a planted tank is to go with a product that is well supported by the industry, forgiving in its maintenance (or lack thereof) and requires the least amount of preparation before using it, such as products like CaribSea Eco-Complete or Flourite. Both are moderate in initial expense, and provide adequate, if not above average results among a large range of aquatic flora.

    Substrate can also be formulated at home with products like, 100% all natural Kitty litter (100% pure Laterite clay) as a bottom layer, and topped with Play Sand form a home improvement/construction store. For both of these products, make sure to rinse extensively outdoors in a a large Sterilite or similar container. They are dusty, dirty, and often slightly contaminated with foreign materials, none of which have potential to damage the aquarium or its inhabitants, but can sometimes come out of the dirt and potentially ruin the scape, causing frustration for the hobbyist until it is rectified. Some hobbyists feel this combination has a high, or short term potential for failure (its nutrient stock will eventually deplete after 2 to 3 years), but when supplemented properly, can sustain a working ecosystem indefinitely.

    Another semi-popular alternative is to use traditional dirt, that can be had from the garden. Rinse this extensively, allow to dry, stir and filter, removing unwanted organisms or other foreign objects, rinse again, and then bake in a disposable aluminum lasagna tray at 300 degrees for 10 minutes, rinse again, allow to dry, stir and filter, bake again for 10 minutes, and then allow to cool before placing into the aquarium. These are great for all natural looking environments with minimal start up cost.

    The amount of substrate to purchase for the size of aquarium you desire can easily be figured with an app such as The Planted Tank's Substrate Calculator. Always buy a little more than you need, at a rate of 10-20% more of what is intended or required, for both mistakes, possible errors in judgement, or fixing minor things both accidental or deliberate.

    Hardscape will continue in post 2.

  2. #2

    Re: Scaping a Planted Freshwater Aquarium

    Included with the substrate, the Hardscape consists of anything that is intended to not move with the flow of water filtration. Rocks, Driftwood, and other decorations, natural, plastic or otherwise manmade are considered part of the Hardscape. Included in the element of hardscape is also the unseen platform tools used to raise areas of substrate and driftwood so that it does not interfere with the aerobic biology of the substrate so that it does not contaminate the aquarium by creating too deep or densely packed anaerobic portions of soil or gravel.

    Generally, a hardscape should be approached with the artistic "rule of thirds" as a guideline. The best examples are its use in photographs in existing aquariums.


    Dividing the aquarium landscape into thirds from top to bottom and from side to side divides it into 9 total portions. Further dividing it from front to back, as "foreground, midground, and background" divides it in up to 27 portions. The rule of thirds does not have to be interpreted as squares, but instead as hard lines that rocks and driftwood create to make triangular thirds as well. The rule of thirds does not have to be interpreted as a perfect distribution, but should incorporate open spaces, filled spaces, and their transitions.


    Between foreground and midground spaces, lines of the landscape can be treated as separations between ideas. Keeping it as simple as possible with as few separations between a distinct foreground and midground creates a greater illusion of space and depth in a successful landscape.

    Before putting water, decorations, or even substrate into the water, the aquarium should be measured, and drawn, even if crudely, onto paper, and filled in with a general idea of what the landscape's architect is interested in creating. Successful scaping will be realized easier when it is brought from an intended idea on paper into the aquarium. The aquarium does not have to match the idea of paper entirely, but it is an excellent blueprint to work from.

    After the illustration is realized, the hard scaping materials of wood, rock, and other decorations can be moved around outside of the aquarium into a realm of satisfaction for its creator and then moved into the tank.

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