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Here's an article that I stole off our website tankspiration, figured it'd be a great intro to post here!

Planted tanks 101

In my opinion, a well-planted tank can rival some of the nicer saltwater aquariums. But, like anything, it can take a fair amount of work to get a planted tank looking right. Trust me, it's worth it.

Even though Microsoft Word doesn't yet recognize aquascaping as a word, the hobby itself is becoming more popular each day. The number of plants available to the aquarist is seemingly limitless. That being said, some plants require more sophisticated setups than others, while others just require nothing more than a little bit of light to survive.

In this article, I'm going to introduce you to some of the key things you'll need to know when setting up a planted tank. I'll tell you many of the key words used in the hobby, and tell you what stuff you'll need, at minimum, to get going. A planted aquascape requires a combination of light, stuff to grow in (substrate), stuff to encourage growth (ferts, nutrients, fertilizers), and a food source (carbon).

Light is the main ingredient in photosynthesis, a process that plants use to grow. In the absence of light, plants will die. Depending on the size of your tank, there are a number of lighting options available to you, and the cost of these lights can really vary. These include: compact fluorescent lights, power compact (PC) lights, T5 (high output) lights, T8 lights, LED lights, and Metal Halide lights.

LED lights are still quite new in the hobby and some aquarists have reported great results with them. I've never used them so I can't really speak to this. I use T5 high output lights, they provide a great deal of customization, the bulbs are fairly cheap and there are many full spectrum bulbs available in a variety of color temperature ranges. To date, I've used fixtures from Catalina Aquariums and have been very pleased with the results. Similarly, I've recently bought a light from "Sunlight Supply" called a Tek light. This fixture is very expensive, but apparently has a great reflector in it. Since my new tank is not yet set up, I don't know how well it's going to work, but the reviews seem great.

The substrate is the stuff that your plants grow in. Now the variety of substrates available to the hobbyist is increasing each day, so it can get really confusing as to what to use. These also vary drastically in cost, but the most expensive ones are ADA and Eco Complete.
Substrates can provide plants, particularly root-feeding plants, with additional micronutrients that they need to grow. On the other hand, some substrates are completely inert and don't provide anything to the plants other than a place to take root. Sand or gravel would fall into this category. The good thing about these substrates is that they're dirt cheap (no pun intended), the drawback is that it's very hard to grow some of the nicer carpet plants in them.

Nutrient rich substrates include:
  • eco complete
  • ADA aquasoil
  • florabase
  • flourite

Nutrient poor substrates include:
  • gravel
  • sand
  • turface
  • scholtz' aquasoil

We'll talk more about substrates in a later article, but suffice it to say, it can make a big difference towards what you can and cannot grow in your tank.

Ferts, nutrients, fertilizers, and dosing are all words used to describe the same thing. Adding supplemental stuff to your water column to give plants stuff they need to survive. There are two main categories of nutrients: Macronutrients "Macros" and Micronutrients "Micros", also called trace elements.

Macronutrients include:

  • Nitrogen
  • Potassium
  • Phosphates

Micronutrients include:
trace elements, iron, sulphurs etc…without sufficient macronutrients, your plants will turn yellow, form improperly, and just look like crap. In contrast, a lack of micronutrients can be a bit more subtle - for example, red plants just won't look AS red. This is a bit overly simplistic, but this is an intro article after all!

I started this article talking about lighting and how it drove photosynthesis. Well, there's a second part to that equation. Above the water, plants use light to convert carbon dioxide (CO2) into oxygen. To mimic this in an aquarium, people will pump CO2 gas into their aquariums to give plants a carbon source to grow.

CO2 can come from two main sources: DIY CO2 or pressurized CO2. The former uses a bottle of yeast, sugar, and water to generate CO2 while the latter uses a compressed cylinder of CO2. These both provide a source for CO2 gas which then needs to be mixed with aquarium water so that the plants can then use it.

There are a number of ways to get the CO2 to mix with water and include using reactors or diffusers to lengthen the time that CO2 is in contact with the water so it has a chance to dissolve. Reactors can be purchased or made from scratch, diffusers force the CO2 through small ceramic discs so that it forms into microbubbles which can then dissolve in water.

In either case, the end result is CO2 in the water.

The other way to get carbon into water is to use a produce by Seachem called Flourish Excel. Some hobbyists have found that a medicinal algaecide called Metricide 2.6% (WITHOUT THE ACTIVATOR) is the same thing, but at twice the concentration. When added to the water column in small amounts, this has been shown to provide plants with a usable form of carbon and has the benefit of reducing algae. Unfortunately, since it is a natural algaecide, it also destroys some aquatic plants including vals, some aquatic mosses (such as mini pelia), and also seems to be insufficient for many carpet plants. The upside is it's a lot cheaper than pressurized CO2 to get going.

So to recap, a healthy aquarium requires a combination of:

  • Light
  • Substrate
  • Ferts
  • Carbon

Each of these main categories will eventually be discussed at, but for now, I thought this would give people a great start here.
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