PART 1: How to Aquascape - Setting up your first aquascape

Written by George Farmer
 

Equipment

Creating your first aquascape may seem like a daunting task. There’s a lot of (sometimes conflicting) information widely available online with an overwhelming choice of equipment types and methodologies. This article is designed to guide you through the basics and provide you with advice that has been proven to work for me for many years with many aquascapes.

 

Choosing the aquarium

There are literally hundreds of available aquarium models but for the best presentation of the aquascape we like to use rimless and braceless tanks with no hood. This allows us to see inside the aquarium from above, as well as from the front and sides, which adds a whole new viewing experience when compared with regular off-the-shelf aquariums. An open top also gives the opportunity to have protruding wood, plants and emergent growth, which gives a real sense of bringing nature indoors. Generally speaking the larger the aquarium the better in terms of environmental stability. Temperature swings are reduced and waste products are diluted to a much greater extent in larger tanks.  They are proportionally more expensive to set up and maintain however. I like to recommend smaller aquariums (commonly known as nano tanks) to beginners so they can set up their first aquascape with less cost and effort. If this is a success then there’s always the option for a second larger aquarium! Nano tanks can fit in most living spaces, either on their own dedicated cabinet or a piece of existing furniture providing it is suitably strong and stable.


Some brands to consider:


ADA

Evolution Aqua

Dennerle



Lighting

Good quality aquarium lighting is a must for healthy plant growth and to have our aquarium looking its best.  With an open top aquarium, the lighting fits onto the aquarium glass or cabinet either by spanning across the top or by fitting onto the sides. The most popular form of aquarium lighting is LED and depending on the brand and size you can pay anything from £30 to £3000! Most aquarium LED lighting will be suitable for plant growth.  Aquatic plants are not actually particularly fussy when it comes to spectrum but there needs to be sufficient light output. As a very rough guide most aquarium plants will grow with around 0.25 watts of LED per litre of water. So a 10 watt LED light unit over a 40 litre planted aquarium should be sufficient for most plant species. If we want to get the best and most vibrant colours from our plants then higher light intensity will give the best results.  Aside from plant growth we should also consider how a particular lighting unit will make our aquarium look as it will impact the overall visual appeal of our aquarium. An aquarium that looks flat and ‘washed out’ under a low cost lighting unit can be transformed instantly into a colourful and vibrant display simply by swapping over to a better quality unit with superior colour rendition.


Some brands to consider:


Twinstar

ADA

Kessil

ONF

Dennerle



Filtration

An aquarium filter is required for two main reasons - to circulate the water and to keep the water clean. Plants don’t really move much so we need to move the water to enable the plants to access the various nutrients available in the water column. Water movement at the surface is also important to promote gaseous exchange and ensure sufficient oxygen levels for any livestock and beneficial bacteria in the aquarium. Higher levels of circulation are recommended in densely planted tanks so all of the plants can get access to the circulating water. If there isn’t enough circulation dead spots can occur, and these can lead to poor plant growth and nuisance algae. As a rough guide for your filter flow rate aim for the aquarium’s volume multiplied by 5 to 10 in litres per hour. So a 40 litre aquarium would need a 200 to 400 litre per hour (lph) filter.


A filter will clean the water mechanically by straining floating particles, which will help to keep the water nice and clear. Biological filtration also occurs inside the filter via beneficial bacteria that convert toxic waste products into less harmful organics. This process is known as the nitrogen cycle where ammonia gets converted to nitrite and then to nitrate - all nitrogen compounds. Also the great news is that healthy plant growth is one of the best ways to biologically filter your aquarium water, as plants love nitrogen!


Smaller tanks are often filtered with internal filters and larger aquariums with external filters. Externals are superior in their ability to contain more filter media and when combined with glass outlet and inlet they present minimal visual distraction on the aquascape. Some models also have a built in heater and quick release pre-filter. Internal filters are a good choice for smaller aquarium and for those on a stricter budget. Some models also come fitted with an integrated heater. We usually recommend using the supplied filter media. Added carbon or Seachem Purigen are great for giving super clear water, but they’re not essential.


Some brands to consider:


Oase

Dennerle



Carbon Dioxide injection

CO2 injection is one of the best ways to promote healthy plant growth. It is not essential for many plant species but ALL plants will benefit from extra CO2. Plants are around 40% carbon and to grow they need more carbon. Through photosynthesis they use light and CO2 to grow, so by adding more CO2 the plant can grow more quickly and more healthily. While pressurised CO2 is not essential for aquariums with relatively low light, higher levels of light will make it a necessity to prevent problematic algae.   CO2 kits are available for all sizes of aquariums - from systems with small disposable cylinders to larger kits with refillable pressurised cylinders. CO2 is toxic to livestock if overdosed so it’s important to add enough to feed the plants sufficiently but not too much to risk the health of our fish and shrimp. Testing for CO2 can be done using a drop checker or by testing the aquarium water. Check out my video here - https://youtu.be/An_A2XnI6IQx


Some brands to consider:


CO2 Art

Tropica

AquaRio



Liquid fertilisers

Plants require feeding through their leaves. Liquid fertilisers provide a range of nutrients to ensure the plants are well fed. There are many brands available but we recommend an all-in-one product that contains all of the necessary micro and macronutrients in one handy bottle. Daily dosing smaller quantities is usually more effective than larger less frequent doses. In a heavily planted aquarium with relatively fewer fish then consider adding a liquid fertiliser that contains nitrogen and phosphorous. These nutrients are often deliberately excluded from many brands of fertiliser in fear of it causing algae. Interestingly in a healthy planted aquarium, if the plants are not fed sufficient nitrogen and phosphorous (commonly referred to as nitrates and phosphates) then this can cause nutrient deficiencies that can in turn lead to algae problems. One of the biggest algae triggers is a poorly plant!


Some brands to consider:

Evolution Aqua

Tropica

ADA

Seachem


Substrate

The substrate is home for rooted plants and can be used for aesthetic purposes. Specialist soil substrates make the ideal home for plant roots, providing them with nutrients and optimal conditions. Plain gravels and sands can be used for cosmetic purposes, or to grow plants if budget is limiting. Root feeding capsules are recommended for plain substrates and can be used to target root-feeding species such as Cryptocoryne and Echinodorus. Soil substrate will often reduce the aquarium water pH and hardness with its buffering characteristic making it a popular choice with shrimp keepers and breeders. The substrate should be maintained by limiting any accumulation of excess organic waste. This can be done by siphoning near the substrate surface during a large water change. Try to avoid disturbing the substrate if possible as the dislodged organics can lead to algae issues. Sloping the substrate to the rear is a popular technique for helping to create the illusion of added front to rear depth. Soil can be sloped more steeply than fine sand. Fine sand tends to compact over time and lead to oxygen-devoid areas that can lead to toxic gas build up. Plant root growth can help prevent this, and the porous nature of soils allow for better oxygen penetration. The nutrient content of soils will vary but we always recommend adding a liquid fertiliser so the nutrient content is prolonged and the plants never starve.


Some brands to consider:

Tropica

ADA

AquaRio

Final word

It is worth investing in the best kit you can afford. Try to get the best quality you can afford for each component part of the aquarium setup to ensure long-term success and reliability. Scaped Nature have a specially curated selection of equipment available - stocking only products that I personally recommend.


Keep on ‘scaping,

George

 

 

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