It is difficult to have a well planted tank with a lot of sizable fish. The fish require aeration to do well and the plants do not like aeration as it depletes the water of the carbon dioxide the plants require. One can have a planted aquarium with a lot of decent sized fish but it is challenging.
Father Fish Method
The planted aquarium system that seems to do the best with this is the “natural” system recommended by the popular YouTube channel “Father Fish” (great YouTube channel, even if, like all us “older” folks, he tends to ramble on a bit). The system he uses is somewhat different than most low tech planted approaches and radically different than the high tech planted approaches. He combines a Walstad soiled substrate with a deep sand bed.
The typical system he uses can be summarized as follows:
Note this is ONLY a TYPICAL set up. None of these parameters are cast in stone. They can all be changed with success.
Father Fish used an organic deep sand bed in what appeared to be about one hundred heavily planted aquariums in his store (it is now closed). Father Fish added a whole bunch of “stuff” to very organic potting soil (looks like African violet mix to me). He used one inch of this soil mix for the first inch in his deep sand bed planted low tech aquariums.
He added worm castings, peat moss, Black Kow compost, blood meal, organic snail food, iron supplement, Osmocote, lime, and Epsom salts. He then added three to four inches of sand over that mix. Father Fish calls this “a “natural” aquarium. His aquariums had what I would term light to moderate stocking of fish. They were not heavily stocked.
Father Fish has used this method for his many low tech planted aquariums. The aquariums are all heavily planted with thriving plants, The lower three inches of the substrate in all his tanks is dark black in color from humus. His “biofiltration” seems to be just very slowly running the water through sumps with no biomedia in them and only five inch deep sand beds in their bottoms. His aquariums are gorgeous so his methods work very well.
These large filtration tanks are basically settling sumps where the ammonia and dissolved organic compounds (DOCs) are consumed in a mulm over the deep bed. The mulm, in turn, is consumed by a whole host of tiny critters that Father Fish introduces with his pond mud inoculate. Father fish has some very intense lighting, like five watts of LED lighting per gallon. But he doesn’t have algae.
Father Fish has some very healthy fish and some very healthy plants so his methods work. Just make sure the sand in the aquariums is at least three inches deep. If you try to cut back on this thickness, one will end up with a smelly cesspool.
Here is one of Father Fish’s deep sand bed substrates (note the thick black layer of humus):
Dan Hiteshew Aquarium
Dan Hiteshew on his site “Everyday Fishkeeping” (good YouTube channel) has some fish tanks which have some healthy plants and a moderate number of relatively large fish. He has recently been converting the 125 gallon aquarium below to a discus aquarium. He has added about ten discus to the angelfish, gouramis and rainbowfish in this planted aquarium. This is definitely “pushing the envelope” on keeping discus.
Dan Hiteshew espouses aquarium filtration by something he calls a “deep gravel filter”. It is simply a three to five inch deep bed of aquarium gravel. This gravel bed will accumulate a thick biofloc in the spaces between the gravel stones. It can accumulate sizable amounts of nitrate in its structure as “assimilatory denitrification”. And it can foster a good growth of easy to grow “green” plants.
Dan does most of his biofiltration directly in his aquarium, largely on his plants and in detritus. This 125 does have a Sunsun 304B filter loaded with bioballs and ceramic rings on it. But Dan admits this is very poor biofiltration for this stocking of a 125 aquarium. Dan uses inoculate from ponds and thus this aquarium is very “mature”. Note the green Java fern, anubias and brown Buce pictured in the tank below will grow anywhere.
Note Dan has had some health problems in his aquarium. Dan has lost one gourami, one angelfish, one ctenopoma and two discus to disease so I’m not too sure about the health of his aquarium. Dan blamed bloodworms for his problems. But “correlation does not imply causation”. I think a far more likely candidate is his admittedly poor filtration. If this is the case I suspect he will soon start to lose some more discus. Just an opinion.
For both the Father Fish and the Dan Hiteshew methods I would add a ton of filtration to the mix. Something along the lines of a large canister filled with foam, pot scrubbers or K1. Or a sump. And I would baffle the outlet of the filter to minimize the surface agitation in the aquarium. I’m just a huge believer in over filtration in ANY and ALL tanks.
The method that Dan and Father Fish are using for adding carbon dioxide is simple. The fish metabolize the food and create a constant supply of carbon dioxide. Since carbon dioxide is lightly complexed in a quadripolar structure with water, the carbon dioxide doesn’t move out of the water as fast as the oxygen moves into the water. So both Dan and Father Fish can have 10 ppm CO2 IF and only IF they are very careful about aeration. Too much and the plants die. Too little and the fish die.
Dan has one small airstone in a very large aquarium. Father Fish has an airstone which is inches from the top of the water in the aquarium (his latest aquarium has no aeration). So the trick for decent plant growth is to have a limited amount of aeration, just enough to keep the fish healthy. This is a very thin margin to work on.
Again, this all shows that there are MANY ways to be successful at keeping aquariums.
Lot of Fish with CO2 Injection
It is possible to use CO2 injection with a lot of fish. It just takes a LOT of CO2. The tank above had carbon dioxide injection to 20 ppm CO2 and lots of aeration.
Mike Mass of MASS Aquariums had an aquarium with lots of plants and lot of fish. He used a one-inch layer of organic soil (looked like a commercial potting soil) covered with a one-inch layer of black gravel. He had carbon dioxide pressurized injection, intense aeration, intense lighting, and significant chemical fertilization. And he only did 20% water changes every two weeks. He alternated soluble potassium and iron supplements every two days. The nitrogen and phosphate were coming from the fish food. He had a large four-gallon canister filter packed with biomedia which he only cleaned 50% of every two months.
This 75-gallon aquarium had several dozen rainbowfishes, angelfish, German blue rams, rummy nose tetras and emperor tetras. Barbs, catfish and African cichlids were noticeably absent, probably because of their tendency to stir up the gravel. Mike had some yellow labidochromis and got rid of them because they stirred up the gravel.
This is a screen capture taken from a YouTube video by MASS aquariums. I heartily recommend anyone interested to look at these videos. It has lots of plants and lots of moderately large fish. This makes it a unique aquarium. I find it very beautiful since I like aquarium fish. His water was crystal clear!
Note that the plants don’t appear to be thriving in that there is no massing that would be evidence the plant is replicating in the aquarium. So, I’m sure this wouldn’t be “very beautiful” to a connoisseur of “Amano”, or “Dutch” planted aquariums.
This aquarium was the epitome of a high-tech planted aquarium. Unfortunately, Mike tore it down as he moved. Bummer!
In the 1990’s one George Booth set up four beautiful planted tanks with a lot of fish in them, carbon dioxide injection and high light intensity. One of them, a rainbowfish aquarium, had an undergravel filter. This is a photo he took of the undergravel aquarium:
That is a very impressive planting.
Aquariums which Violate the “Rules”
As I emphasize repeatedly throughout this website, when it comes to aquariums there are no “rules”. A freshwater aquarium is Mother Nature at her finest and Mother Nature is very flexible.
I have tried many times over the years to put plants into my Lake Malawi aquariums. I have always had zero success rate. So, in the article on Lake Malawi cichlids I said plants cannot go in with African Cichlids. Then I found this aquarium on social media:
There is some vallisneria and a lot of Amazon swords (Echinodorus amazonicus and E. bleheri). This tank is a year and a half old with crushed lava rock substrate, large canister filters, lots of aeration and a pH of 7.0. The water is crystal clear. The fish have been in it the whole time and are decidedly overstocked, which I would have said was completely and totally impossible. Gorgeous and amazing! So much for my pale attempts at a planted tank with Africans.
Here is another well planted aquarium with lots of goldfish and lots of aeration. It “shouldn’t” work but it does work:
I have had several well planted discus aquariums over the years. I use undergravel filters and most plants don’t seem to like undergravel. So I planted with pots. I fill small terra cotta pots with a 50/50 sand and worm castings mix and plant the plants into those pots. I use lots of Val and some Amazon swords. I have noticed the plants over the years do grow roots out into the gravel. Some have had great success just putting plants into undergravel filters. These tanks were all well aerated with no CO2 injection and were decidedly low tech.
This all goes to show Mother Nature is VERY FLEXIBLE. If you have an idea for an aquarium GO FOR IT. The various guidelines I give for planted aquariums are only what I have found are the easiest ways to have a beautiful planted aquarium. They are not hard and fast “rules” and can be violated very successfully.
Plants for the Lots of Plants and Lots of Fish Planted Aquariums
The one constant in most of the aquariums described above is that they TYPICALLY use easy to grow plants. The plants that seem to fit this description are (* asterisks’ are VERY easy plants):
- Undemanding, rooted
- *Amazon Swordplant (Echinodorus bleheri and Echinodorus amazonicus)(dies back initially)
- *Java fern (Leptochilus pteropus, synonym Microsorum pteropus)(like open substrate or epiphytic)
- *Anubias barberi forms (likes bulbs to be above substrate or in an open substrate, very slow growing)
- Cryptocoryne (many forms, dies back when planted, then comes back)
- Bucephalandra (“Buce”, many very attractive forms, slow)
- Cabomba (can be a floater or rooted)
- Bacopa caroliniana
- Rotala rotundifolia
- Vallisneria (many varieties)
- Undemanding Carpet Plants, rooted
- Pygmy Chain Sword (Echinodorus tenellus)
- Pearlweed (Hemianthus glomeratus)
- Dwarf Baby Tears (Hemianthus callitrichoides)
- Undemanding epiphytes which like to be attached to rocks and wood
- *Java moss (Taxiphyllum barieri)
- Susswassertang (“round-leaf Pellia“), slow grower, expensive but worth it, needs to be attached.
I find the following plants to be “weedy” and unattractive but that is just my tastes. They are easy plants and many have very attractive aquariums with these plants in them:
- Fast growing plants which typically float in the upper layers of an aquarium
- Elodea (Anacharis), Egeria and Hydrilla are very similar appearing floating plants
- Riccia sp.
- Milfoil (Myriophyllum sp.)(note this plant smells bad!)
- Water Sprite (can be emergent)
- Water Wisteria (Hygrophila difformis, very similar to water sprite)
- Hornwort (Ceratophyllum demersum)
- Undemanding emergent plants (“floaters”, they float on the surface of the aquarium water with the leaves exposed to the air)
- Water Lettuce (Pistia stratiotes)
- Duckweed (grows so fast some consider it a noxious weed)
- Amazon Frogbit (Limnobium laevigatum)
Low Tech CO2 System for Aquariums
There is a low cost, low tech system which adds considerable CO2 to an aquarium. The details of this system can be found at this link:
15.6.1 Low Tech CO2 Aquarium System
Planted Aquariums in Depth
The following sections will give you some general guidelines on the easiest ways to set up a beautiful planted aquarium:
15. Planted Aquariums
15.1. Planted Aquariums in Depth
15.2. Fish for Planted Tank
15.3. Fish Limitations
15.4. Types of Planted Aquariums
15.6. Carbon Dioxide
15.7. Substrates for Planted Aquariums
15.8. Walstad Aquarium
15.9. High-Tech Planted Aquarium
15.10. Hybrid Planted Aquariums
15.12. Hau Planted Aquarium
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