Setting up a high energy planted aquarium


George Farmer sets up and maintains a high-energy planted tank over a six-month period. He describes the agonies and ecstasies of his progress...

A high-energy planted tank has lots of everything — lights, CO2, nutrients, lots of circulation and high maintenance demands — and I set up this one six months prior to this feature.

It’s seen a few plant additions and removals, but is basically the same, based around Manzanita wood which requires soaking for a day or so to ensure it sinks, but it rarely leaches tannins.


Lit with suspended LED tiles and filtered with the latest generation external it’s not the cheapest set-up, but the ease of maintenance these products provide go some way towards keeping a healthy long-term planted tank.  

The filter has a mechanical pre-filter that takes seconds to clean. The CO2 system consists of a 2kg gas fire extinguisher, regulator with solenoid and an external inline diffuser. Fitted to the external filter outlet hose, CO2 micro-bubbles get blasted around really effectively, ideally reaching all parts of the tank.

The quartz gravel is easy to clean when re-planting too.

A daily dose of quality liquid fertiliser mean the plants don’t go hungry and the tiles produce more than enough light to grow any plant here.

Plants and algae
I added Sagittaria subulata to complement the Giant hairgrass (Eleocharis montevedensis) in the background.

The former is now one of the fastest growing plants I’ve seen and I’m removing more than a dozen leaves every day.

Another prolific grower was the Dwarf hairgrass (Eleocharis parvula) in the foreground.

Maintenance was a weekly chore, due to the lengthy process of netting off floating cuttings. Eventually I removed the lawn of hairgrass you can see in the main picture and replaced it with plain river pebbles as show below.

Slower growers included the Microsorum pteropus ‘needle’ and Cryptocoryne wendtii 'brown', dwarf Alternenthera and Potamogeton gayi.

The latter (shown above) became a haven for hair algae, as did some Java fern leaves. At the same time I saw cyanobacteria forming among the hairgrass, but a three-day blackout resulted in a sparkling algae-free tank.  

Biggest successes have been the Vesicularia montagnei and Riccardia chamedryfolia. Regular pruning has been the key.

Cost at a glance

Aquarium: Custom 60 x 30 x 36cm/24 x 12 x 14” rimless Optiwhite and cabinet £300
Filter: External canister with glassware £350
Lighting: Two LED tiles and controllers £400
CO2: 2 kg cylinder with regulator, solenoid and inline diffuser £150
Substrate: 1-2mm quartz gravel with clay-based bottom layer £20
Fertilisers: 4ml comprehensive liquid fertiliser per day £15
Wood: Two Manzanita £30
Fish: Six each of Neon, Pretty and Beacon tetra, plus various shrimp £50
Total: £1,315

Neat and tidy
The substrate in a healthy planted tank should not require vacuuming, as plants use waste matter as nutrients – but don’t overstock with fish and employ decent mechanical and biological filtration combined with effective circulation.

Wave your hand near the substrate to stir up loose detritus and syphon the dirt-filled water as part of your water change, ensuring the replacement water does not disturb the substrate.

How I set up my high-energy tank

1. The braceless open topped Optiwhite glass tank has suspended lighting.  The 1cm/0.4” layer of clay-based Tropica Plant Substrate takes in nutrients from the water and gives them to the plant roots.

2. Pre-rinsed fine quartz gravel is added. The colour makes it ideal for an open foreground and contrasts with the wood. The quartz is sloped deeper at the rear to increase sense of depth.

3. The Manzanita is placed to ensure a balanced look. I’ve attached some Vesicularia montagnei and Riccardia chamedryfolia using a ‘super glue’ as it is easier to use than cotton and safe.

4. The tank is filled about halfway prior to planting. Eleocharis montevidensis is added, with Cryptocoryne wendtii 'brown' in midground and Eleocharis parvula in the foreground.

5. The remaining plants are added using tweezers. Ranunculus inundatus has an interesting leaf shape. Potamogeton gayi is seen left of background and a dwarf red Alternanthera is left of midground.

6. The tank is filled slowly and equipment fitted. An external filer is fitted with glass inlet and outlets and water heated inline, CO2 injected by external diffuser. The set-up is then fishlessly cycled.

Be patient
Most plants will take time to adapt to their new environment, so assuming you have good growing conditions just be patient with them. You should see new growth in a couple of weeks.

Prune off any struggling leaves to allow the plant to use its energy more usefully.

Daily: Check and feed the fish, check filter and add liquid fertilisers.
Weekly: 50% water change, clean glass, clean pre-filter, prune any excess plant growth.
Monthly: Clean glass pipes, clean pebbles, prune ferns and moss.

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