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.

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