The First Planted Aquariums

The Story

I don’t know how I got started with planted aquariums but it was a result of my researching the environmental conditions for keeping bettas. I learned they preferred warm, slow moving water with plants that offered places to hide and rest. I found information on low-tech planted, AKA Walsted, aquariums and decided that it was more my style of project. Our friend Linda, who got me started with fish keeping, gave me a 20-gallon long aquarium.

We repurposed a nightstand as an aquarium stand, placed the new aquarium in our living room, and built a new, planted aquarium. I purchased an organic potting soil from Home Depot for use as a substrate, purchased a bunch of plants from the local Petco store and World of Fish (located in Richfield, MN). I used the heater and HOB filter from our previous betta aquarium.

For the first time, I began performing water tests. Much to my joy, once the aquarium had cycled, the ammonia and nitrite levels were undetectable, that is 0 ppm. The nitrate levels were measurable but low, measuring between 10 and 40 ppm. pH levels were generally around 7.5, varying with time of day, which I learned was to expected with planted aquariums.

After the aquarium was stable, we introduced a betta, several shrimp, a couple nerite snails and a mystery snail.

That first aquarium functioned well for a year and half before it crashed. The snails died as well as the shrimp. Soon the lush plant scape thinned and algae took over. Water tests showed the pH, GH (general hardness), and KH (carbonate hardness) levels were rising. I performed extensive water changes and added new plants but to no avail. After about a year and a half, the betta died. I pulled the plug on the heater and filter and began planning for a new setup.

For the second iteration of the planted aquarium, I again used organic potting soil purchased from Home Depot. I had learned that the natural environment of bettas had soft, low pH waters, so I used distilled water to reduce the pH, GH, and KH levels. Unfortunately, I learned that not all organic potting soils are the same.

Because I had used up the previous bag of organic soil on other projects, I had to buy more soil. Not remembering what the previous brand was, I bought what looked to be suitable. To my eventual dismay, I learned this soil was very high in carbonates. Despite always using distilled water, I could never get the pH and KH down. The KH levels were at the upper limit of what my test kit could measure and the pH level was in the high 8’s. After a frustrating short year of fighting perpetual algae blooms, the tank again crashed and our third betta died.

While researching the issues with the second planted tank, I learned that high pH levels are conducive to algae growth and that high KH levels buffer pH, making it difficult to bring it down. Asking on reddit for suggestions, I learned of ADA Amazonia substrate, which provides a naturally low pH and KH environment. However, this was about 6 months into the COVID pandemic with its disruptions of supply chains. None of the local fish stores had ADA Amazonia nor could I get it online.

Eventually, the second aquarium gave up the ghost and I was left with a dead aquarium. By this time, it was 18 months into the COVID pandemic and the supply chains had sort of unkinked themselves. I found an online seller who had ADA Amazonia in stock and bought a 9L bag of version 2 to of ADA’s Amazonia soil.

I dumped the contents of the dead, second aquarium in the backyard and began setting up the third planted aquarium. For the base, I used pea gravel left over from a previous aquarium project and layered the Amazonia soil on top of it. I added plants I purchased from the local Petco store, chola wood and other items from the previous tank, and the already cycled filter media from the HOB filter from the previous aquarium.

Despite starting out with media and items from an already cycled aquarium, it took longer than I expected to cycle the new aquarium. The ADA Amazonia soil came with fertilizer tabs that contributed to the elevated ammonia and then nitrite levels. The ammonia and nitrite levels dropped to 0 ppm after three weeks but the nitrate levels continue to remain at 80 ppm after six weeks of cycling.

Despite higher nitrate levels and slow plant growth, I added a Betta, two Otocinclus (Oto) catfish, and three Neritina natalensis (Nerite) snails.The nerites and otos seem happy. They tore through the algae that was growing on the aquarium decorations and items I brought over from the previous planted aquarium.

So far, the water parameters have been low: low pH (<5) and low dGH and dKH (~3.5) with total dissolved solids (TDS) at 190. For reference, the TDS on the previous aquarium was at the upper limit of my meter.

What I Learned

Algae prefers high pH levels (8+). Plants do well with lower pH levels (<7).

KH (carbonate hardness) buffers pH, that is, high KH levels maintain pH levels regardless of how much pH-down conditioner you add.

Choice of substrate matters. And not all organic potting soil is equivalent.

Next Up

Next up is a 40-gallon long paludarium, a type of vivarium that incorporates both terrestrial and aquatic elements, that can host a school of fish along with a Betta. I am hoping to have a school of 10-12 Boraras, along with a few Otocinclus catfish and Malaysian trumpet snails. I plan on using ADA Amazonia soil as the substrate along with aquatic plants such as Hygrophila corymbosa, Pogostemon helferi, and Rotala rotundifolia, all which are native to southeast Asia. I’m hoping to create a beautiful aquarium that replicates the biotope that wild bettas and boraras inhabit.

When I ask about these topics on reddit, I often receive a “don’t worry about it, bettas can tolerate a wide range of conditions” response. I’m not worrying about it. I’m exploring and learning. The next project will be a learning project. I’m looking forward to it.

The First Aquariums

The Story

I got started with keeping fish in aquariums about a decade ago when our friend Linda helped me set up a 25 gallon tall aquarium that I stocked with a pair of comet goldfish. I used a HOB filter, a heater, and a Tetra air pump that connected to a sunken treasure chest bubbler. I decorated the aquarium with colorful blue gravel and a few other colorful decorations.

I performed partial water changes every weekend, using a gravel aquarium siphon to clean up after those messy fish. The aquarium was located in a window between the kitchen and our living room. It was located right above the kitchen sink, which made it easy to perform water changes.

At night, the aquarium added a pleasing ambience to our living room. During our annual Tiki parties, I would hang light blocking curtains on the kitchen side to block the light coming from the kitchen and then turn down the lights in the living room. It greatly enhanced the Tiki aspect of our living room.

When we were in the kitchen, either preparing food or cleaning dishes, the goldfish would watch us. We rewarded them with food so they were always eager to engage us when we were in the kitchen.

I replaced the comets with shubunkin goldfish when the comets died and eventually added a fancy tail goldfish. At some point, Kat became interested in bettas, so we bought a (too) small aquarium and put a betta in it. Kat was diligent about cleaning it every week. Initially it appeared happy in its home but as summer gave way to fall and fall gave way to winter, our house would become colder and colder at night. We would wake in the morning to find a very sluggish betta.

Being concerned for the betta, we researched what bettas needed for environmental conditions. To our dismay, we learned that what we were providing was inadequate. To provide a warmer environment, we added an in-aquarium container that we placed in the goldfish aquarium. While it was warmer, the betta was not happy with the constant water movement. We eventually bought a 10 gallon tank to which we added a small heater and a low flow HOB filter. The betta was much happier in that and lived for another 3.5 years.

What put an end to the goldfish and betta aquariums was a complete remodel of our kitchen. We removed and closed off the window and rearranged the kitchen. It is so much better than before but there was no longer a good location for an aquarium in the kitchen.

What I Learned

Not all fish are as easy to care for as care-free comet and shubunkin goldfish.

Up Next

Planted, low tech aquariums.

Visitors at the Bird Bath

During the drought this year, to assist the various animals that make our yard their home, I placed a bird bath at the bottom of our hill, in the wooded part of the yard. To learn what animals were using the bird bath, I placed a trail cam on a nearby tree to record the activity at the bird bath. Below are some of images recorded by the trail cam.

American Robin (Turdus migratorius)

Robins were frequent visitors to the bird bath. Sometimes, families of 3-4 robins would take turns bathing in the bird bath.

A picture of an American Robin (Turdus migratorius) perched on a bird bath
An American Robin (Turdus migratorius) perched on the bird bath.

Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)

A picture of a Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) on the edge of a bird bath.
A Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) on the edge of a bird bath.

Prior to seeing the following image, I had not seen a Blue Jay bathe in a bird bath despite having multiple bird baths for years.

A picture of a wet Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)
A Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) wet after taking a bath.

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

A picture of a Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)
A Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)
A picture of a pair of Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) at the bird bath.
A pair of Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) at the bird bath.

American goldfinch (Spinus tristis)

A picture of an American goldfinch (Spinus tristis) on a bird bath
An American goldfinch (Spinus tristis).

American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos)

After I saw the following picture, I knew why I occasionally found partially consumed animal carcasses in the bird bath. Crows were using it to clean their food.

A picture of an American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) cleaning its food in a bird bath
An American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) cleaning its food in a bird bath.
A picture of a muster of American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos)
A muster of American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) with three on the bird bath and two in the trees.

Hairy Woodpecker (Leuconotopicus villosus)

A Hairy Woodpecker would frequently visit nearby trees but never visited the bird bath.

A picture of a Hairy Woodpecker (Leuconotopicus villosus) on a tree
A Hairy Woodpecker (Leuconotopicus villosus) on a nearby tree.

Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)

A picture of an Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) visiting the bird bath.
An Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) visiting the bird bath.

One apparently tired Gray Squirrel rested on the bird bath.

A picture of an Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) lounging on the bird bath.
An Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) lounging on the bird bath.

American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus)

A picture of an American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) visiting the bird bath
An American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus)
A picture of an American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) drinking from the bird bath
An American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) drinking from the bird bath.

Mouse

The bird bath even had visitors at night. The camera recorded several images of mice visiting the bird bath at night.

A picture of a mouse drinking from the bird bath
A mouse drinking from the bird bath.

Raccoon (Procyon lotor)

A pair of raccoons were recorded walking past the bird bath but they apparently had no interest in it.

A picture of a Raccoon (Procyon lotor) walking past the bird bath.
A Raccoon (Procyon lotor) walking past the bird bath.

White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus)

White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) are a common sight in our urban neighborhood. Capturing a good image of them is, however, not an easy task. The following images are from several cameras we have in our yard.

Whitetail deer (Odocoileus virginianus)
Whitetail deer (Odocoileus virginianus)

Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo)

On Thursday, I was working from home when I heard a low growl. Checking on Lizzie, I saw she was growling at a gobble of wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) ambling through our front yard. She has seen turkeys previously but always at a distance, never this close.

Wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo)
A gobble of wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) ambling through our front yard.

The turkeys appeared to be eating acorns that had dropped from the oak trees. We have had single turkeys visit our yard but never this many at once.

Monarch Butterflies and a Hummingbird

While photographing Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) on Easter Purple Coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), a Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) came by to feed.

A picture of two monarch butterflies on purple coneflowers
Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) on Eastern Purple Coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea)
A picture of a monarch butterfly and hummingbird flying
A Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) and Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris)

Bumblebee (Bombus spp.)

We have a pollinator-friendly yard. Actually, you could say it is pollinator-welcoming. We haven’t ever used pesticides in our yard and, over the 10+ years we have lived here, planted a lot of native flowering plants. We also don’t use weed killers so our lawn is full of dandelions and creeping charlie along with other flowering “weeds”. We keep our lawn mower blade at a height that allows most of those flowering plants an opportunity to bloom. And we have a lot of flowering trees. All in all, our yard is welcoming and supportive of pollinating insects.

Despite all the bees visiting our yard, I have found it is difficult to get good pictures of them. So I was excited when a bumblebee was willing to let me photograph it while it gathered pollen from a flowering tree. Below are some of the photographs.

Bumblebee (Bombus spp.)
A bumblebee (Bombus spp.) gathering pollen from a flowering crab.
Bumblebee (Bombus spp.)
A bumblebee (Bombus spp.) gathering pollen from a flowering crab.
Bumblebee (Bombus spp.)
A bumblebee (Bombus spp.) gathering pollen from a flowering crab.
Bumblebee (Bombus spp.)
A bumblebee (Bombus spp.) gathering pollen from a flowering crab.

Gray Treefrog (Dryophytes versicolor)

Yesterday morning we found a gray treefrog (Dryophytes versicolor) resting on a foot stool on our patio.

Gray treefrog (Dryophytes versicolor)
A gray treefrog (Dryophytes versicolor) resting on patio furniture

Another view of a gray treefrog (Dryophytes versicolor)
Another view of a gray treefrog (Dryophytes versicolor) resting on some patio furniture

It started out the day looking green with dark gray but by late afternoon it had changed color to mottled tan.

Gray treefrog (Dryophytes versicolor)
A gray treefrog (Dryophytes versicolor) resting on patio furniture