What Is Cycling A Planted Tank?
Ok, if you don't know what I mean by Cycling a tank then stop right now and either get a basic aquarium book or do a Google search to find out what we are talking about. If you don't understand what a Cycle is in a tank then you really should not be in the hobby.
The best way to cycle a planted tank is to do what is called a “silent cycle”. Here is the skinny on the “silent cycle”. Or if you wish and can find it there is a new product on the market called Bio-Spira by MarineLand that actually works. In the past any product that claimed to instantly cycle a tank was just so much snake oil. I have used Bio-Spira and it works as claimed. You may have used or read about the “fishless” cycling method. This method is a waste of time for a planted tank. It's for fish tanks!
Cycling The Planted Tank
First things first. Cycling a tank means building up a colony of beneficial bacteria to convert Ammonia to Nitrite to Nitrate. If you are going to have fish in your tank you need to do some type of cycling. The traditional way to cycle a tank was to set it up and then add a very light fish load of very hardy fish to the tank to add ammonia (fish waste) to the tank to build up the bacteria.
Some people would seed the tank with filter material, gravel, or mulm (the gunk in the gravel) from an established tank or place a used sponge filter into the new tank. The drawback to this method was that it took several weeks. At the end of that time one could slowly add fish till the desired fish load was achieved.
Then about three years ago a fishless cycling technique became the rage. This involved setting up a tank and adding liquid ammonia to it till the bacteria were established. One had to do daily ammonia, then nitrite, the nitrate tests to see if the tank was coming along. If one had access to seed material it was possible to cycle a tank in less than two weeks. Without the seed material it took almost as long as the old way. And once you had cycled the tank you could add your fish. This method worked pretty well for the most part. One could do a fishless cycle with a planted tank but the chances are the plants would use the ammonia before the bacteria got to it. This means that the bacteria load would increase very slowly if at all.
Then it was discovered that by setting up a tank and filling it full of fast growing stem plants that one could add a medium to large fish load all at once and never see the traditional ammonia or nitrite spikes. The reason for this is simple. The plants love ammonia. So it never gets a chance to kill the fish. Also the plants come covered in beneficial bacteria that will start the traditional cycle. One advantage of this is that you are going to have a lot of stem plant trimmings to trade at the local fish store or send to your friends.
It is suggested that one use two bunches (4-6 stems each) of plants for each five gallons of water. Plants to use include Foxtail, Hygro (any color), Creeping Charlie, Red Ludwigia, Moneywort, Wisteria, Egeria, Shinnersia rivularis, (Mexican Oakleaf) or Water Sprite. Then after a couple of months one can start removing the stem plants and adding the other plants that you want.
- Setup the tank.
- Add the hardware, filter, heater, etc.
- Fill the tank and let it run for at least 24 hours to be sure things are working correctly and you have no leaks.
- After this time drain the water down till the tank is 1/2 to 1/3 full (not needed on smaller tanks). Then plant your plants. It's a lot easier to plant them when the tank is not as full. Note that this applies to larger tanks more than smaller tanks.
- Refill the tank.
- Turn on the lights and wait a couple of days.
- Then add some fish and start fertilizing.
- After about 2 weeks you will need to trim the plants. If you have enough plants you will not have much of an algae problem. Don't be surprised though if you get a diatom (brown algae) bloom, I have yet to be able to bypass it.
- Keep up with the fertilizing and trimming.
- Do test the water for ammonia and nitrate. I have yet to see any detectable ammonia using the method but there is always first time. You may never see any nitrate levels either. This means you have enough plants in the tank and you need to dose nitrates.
- Keep up with normal water changes and other maintenance and after a couple months you can start removing sections of the stem plants and replacing them with your aquascape.