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15.11. Many Fish Many Plants

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Author : David Bogert

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Time To Read :
13 minutes
Difficulty : Level 6

Excerpt :

It is challenging to set up aquariums with even moderate amounts of decent sized fish and plants.
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.

In my meanderings in the hobby over the years I have found several people who have been successful at keeping heavily stocked and heavily planted aquariums. This article outlines several of these methods.

HalfMan HalfCichlid
“HalfMan HalfCichlid”

HalfMan HalfCichlid

The best heavily stocked and planted aquariums I’ve ever seen are those of John Domokos (HalfMan HalfCichlid, great YouTube channel that got my highest accuracy rating at 95%). He has several large tanks that all have a very heavy loading of fish AND a lot of very healthy plants. He is probably the only hobbyist out there that comes close to me when it comes to “over filtration”. He uses sumps and large canisters filled with foam and pot scrubbers. His water is crystal clear.

HalfMan HalfCichlid
PlantsEasy ones
FertilizerDIY fertilization
Bottom substrateNone
Capping substrateNone
Carbon dioxideInject bottles CO₂
LightsHigh intensity 14 on – 10 off
FilterHuge sump
AerationVery heavy
Water movementHeavy
Number of fishHeavy stocking
InoculatePlants
DifficultyDifficult

HalfMan HalfCichlid uses bladed wavemakers to create a lot of surface turbulence in his tanks and thus a lot of aeration. He also sets the wavemakers up in such a way as to allow the feces and mulm to accumulate in the bottom of the aquariums in one location. He vacuums out this mulm once a week. He does sufficient water changes to keep the nitrates at 30 ppm. The only plants he uses are the very easy Amazon Sword, Java Fern, Anubias and Buce.

HalfMan HalfCichlid doesn’t have a substrate in his aquariums. He uses pots for plants which are not epiphytes. He considers substrate a “nitrate factory”.

"Father Fish" Aquarium
“Father Fish” and one of his Aquariums

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 and inoculation with detritus (dead leaves) from a pond.

The typical system he uses can be summarized as follows:

Father fish
PlantsOnly easy ones
FertilizerFish waste
Bottom substrate1 inch (2,5 cm) nitrogen rich organic soil
Capping substrate3 inch (7,5 cm) sand
Carbon dioxideFrom Soil and Food
LightsHigh 14 off – 10 on
FilterDeep sand bed sump
AerationSome
Water movementSome
Number of fishLight to moderate
InoculatePond mud
DifficultyEasy

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.

Here is one of Father Fish’s deep sand bed substrates (note the thick black layer of humus and the yellow “dull” water):

Father Fish Deep Sand Bed
Father Fish Deep Sand Bed

While most of the “soil” Father Fish uses in a wood based soil like Ms. Walstad uses, he also added a mix of roughly 5% each worm castings, peat moss, Black Kow compost, Bat Guano and blood meal. In addition he adds small (like 1%) amounts of the following: bone meal, organic snail food, iron supplement, Osmocote, lime, and Epsom salts. He then added three to four inches (7,5 to 10 cm) 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. He uses air stones for aeration. He emphasizes very light feeding of the fish.

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 (7,5 cm) 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 (12.5) cm 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 (3,79 liter). 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 (7,5 cm) deep. If you try to cut back on this thickness, one will end up with a smelly cesspool.

Dan's "Mature" Aquarium
Dan’s “Mature” Aquarium

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 (473 liter) 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”. Dan uses air stones to do aeration.

Note Dan has had some health problems in his aquarium. Dan has lost one gourami, one angelfish, one ctenopoma and one discus so I’m not too sure about the health of his aquarium. Dan initially blamed bloodworms for his problems and then blamed aggression. 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.

Lots of Fish Lots of Plants Aquarium
Lots of Fish Lots of Plants Aquarium

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. Note that filtration is a NATURAL process that occurs in all ponds and streams. So an aquarium with a filter is not “unnatural”.

The method that these heavily stocked tanks are using for adding carbon dioxide is simple. The fish metabolize the food and create a constant supply of carbon dioxide. Let us say we have two pounds (908 gram) of fish in a 100 gallon (379 liter) planted tank, i.e. VERY heavy stocking. And we are feeding this two pounds at 2% of body weight. That is about 18 grams of food per day.

Food is typically very roughly 50% carbon. So that is 9 grams of carbon and 30 grams of carbon dioxide per day. One ppm in a 100 gallon (379 liter) tank is roughly one third of a gram. That makes 90 ppm of carbon dioxide added per day. Figuring the carbon dioxide gases off in four hours that is still 15 ppm of CO2, plenty enough for plants to thrive. So even with excellent aeration a heavily stocked tank can provide considerable carbon dioxide. The food will also provide considerable complete fertilizer.

Again, this all shows that there are MANY ways to be successful at keeping aquariums.

Aquarium with heavy stocking and plants
Aquarium with heavy stocking and plants (VERY difficult to do)

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 (2.5 cm) layer of organic soil (looked like a commercial potting soil) covered with a one-inch (2.5 cm) 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 (15 liter) canister filter packed with biomedia which he only cleaned 50% of every two months.

This 75-gallon (285 liter) 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.

planted aquarium with many fish
Mike Mass Planted Aquarium

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:

George Booth Undergravel Filter Tank
George Booth Undergravel Filter Tank

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:

Malawi Cichlids and Plants
Malawi Cichlids and Plants

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:

Low Tech Planted Aquarium with Goldfish and Lots of Aeration
Low Tech Planted Aquarium with Goldfish and Lots of Aeration

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.

Low Tech Walstad Planted Aquarium with Aeration
Low Tech Walstad Planted Aquarium with Aeration

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.
Low Tech Planted Aquarium
Low Tech Planted Aquarium

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)
    • Salvinia
    • Azolla
    • Amazon Frogbit (Limnobium laevigatum)
Lots of Fish with Some Plants
Lots of Fish with Some Plants   

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

We go into more guidelines for all aquariums more in this article:

15.1. Planted Aquariums in Depth

The following sections will give you some general guidelines on the easiest ways to set up a beautiful planted aquarium:

15.2. Fish for Planted Tank

15.3. Fish Limitations

15.4. Types of Planted Aquariums

15.5. Fertilizing

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

15.11. Many Fish Many Plants

15.12. Propagating Plants

15.13. Hau Aquariums

15.14. Low Tech Planted Aquariums

15.15. Sterilizing Plants

15.16. “Natural” or “Balanced” Aquariums

2.15. Cycling a Planted Aquarium

Planted Aquariums in Depth

We go into more guidelines for all aquariums more in this article:

15.1. Planted Aquariums in Depth

The following sections will give you some general guidelines on the easiest ways to set up a beautiful planted aquarium:

15.2. Fish for Planted Tank

15.3. Fish Limitations

15.4. Types of Planted Aquariums

15.5. Fertilizing

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

15.11. Many Fish Many Plants

15.12. Propagating Plants

15.13. Hau Aquariums

15.14. Low Tech Planted Aquariums

15.15. Sterilizing Plants

15.16. “Natural” or “Balanced” Aquariums

2.15. Cycling a Planted Aquarium

Walstad Planted Aquarium
Walstad Planted Aquarium