Personal & Lifestyle
piece written on the 23rd October 2013 by  

Many years ago I found a big interest for tropical fish and I kept a number of fish tanks. I’ve had the pleasure of breeding a number of fish including angel fish and some chiclids. There’s something about creating an under water environment that inspires me; watching the PH, Ammonia and Nitrate levels is incredibly interesting, ensuring that Co2 and light are sufficient to inspire plant growth so oxygen levels are correct for the fish and that ammonia levels are at a minimum due to the plant growth. It’s a challenge and I love a challenge – introducing your first fish after several weeks of carefully getting the tank correct is an amazing feeling, and even better is watching them thrive.

Over the years I lived in a number of places that didn’t provide the right environment for a fish tank. You need sufficient space, you need minimal sunlight and you need a stable floor. It was only until a few months ago that my fiance and I bought a new house which would provide the requirements for me to unleash my passion and that’s exactly what I did. About 2 months ago I set forth on the journey of creating a planted aquarium. Back when I started keep tropical fish the hobby involved some gravel, a heater, a filtration system and that was about it, nowadays everything has changed – Co2 canisters, soil instead of gravel and an assortment of other complexities. I spent a great deal of time reading and researching, and planted aquariums appeared to be the in thing. With aquariums I’m not one to usually follow the trends, but the challenge intrigued me. A planted aquarium is an aquarium that has an incredibly strong focus on plants – when I say this, I mean lots of plants, Co2 injectors, soil, fertilisers and so forth – like an underwater garden.

Here are some examples, but please understand that these are by some of the world famous aquascapers:


Quite incredible aren’t they? If you’re interested in watching tanks like this being set up, you should look up Takashi Amano and James Findley. Here’s an example:

So that gives you a bit of an idea of what’s possible and who the experts are. A magnificent form of art if you ask me.

After watching literally hundreds of videos by Jacobs Aquarium, cloud9aquariums, Dustinsfishtanks and TheGreenMachineLtd I decided on a direction I wanted to go in and I’ve been working on it ever since.

Here are my photographs:

It hasn’t been the easiest journey and it was more of a challenge than I expected it to be. I run into quite a few difficulties along the way, here are some of them:

  • ADA Aquasoil is difficult to work with initially, your ammonia levels get boosted and the only way to rectify is to follow a rigid water change schedule. Well, that and introducing lots of plants from the get go. Literally place the aquasoil in the tank, put all your plants in and then fill it up for the first time (pouring water into a bowl to avoid clouding).
  • Planting of plants is tricky, you need pincettes, take my word for that and believe me when I say the videos make it look easy!
  • One of the most difficult things you face is patience, you do need to wait at least 30 days before introducing fish. If you introduce them earlier they more than likely won’t survive due to chemical levels.
  • Tap water may contain chloromine, a chemical that consists of chlorine and ammonia. The idea with tap water (from what I understand) is that chlorine is added to kill the ammonia, thus leaving us just with chlorine. Then other chemicals are used to reduce the chlorine. Either way, when introducing new water to a fish tank, you need to use an agent to reduce the chlorine – this is critical in my opinion. The Seachem products are really great and I would advise using those.
  • Another word of advise is to no rush into buying all your plants from one place, there are a number of aquariums around Cape Town that are worth visiting. From Claremont to Kenilworth to Tokia to an assortment in the Northern Suburbs and even in Stellenbosch. Shop around, see what’s available and ask questions. Without a knowledge of how certain plants grow, you might place plants that grow really tall in the front of your tank and they’ll grow up to the top in a month and you won’t see anything, and moving around the plants with aquasoil is quite a messy job. I fortunately didn’t make this mistake, but I’ve seen a lot of people do it.

I think I’ve done a decent job, the plants are thriving, the fish are healthy and everything appears stable. It’s early days though and it requires continuous work so we’ll see how it is in a few months time!

Any readers out there who keep fish?

Update 14/04/2014 – My tank is now a cichlid tank.

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  • Warren Zwick

    I have the perfect spot for a fish tank at my house and something like this really appeals to me.
    Perhaps a project for next year :)

  • Do it! Starting out is a little overwhelming because of the sheer amount of information available. If you can get over that and be confident in yourself the pleasure it brings is second to nothing. I’m always here if you want to bounce a few questions – is also an incredibly useful resource.

    It would be awesome to see someone else doing it!

  • Very nice! I’ve had a couple fish tanks in the past and been thinking about starting another once we move to our new house at the end of the year.

    How often do you clean the tank? And how difficult is it to clean a planted tank?

  • I had no idea Matt, that’s awesome! I love it when I write about something and a bunch of people crawl out and share their experiences.

    In theory, with the correct circulation and number of fish you should only have to do a 1/4 water change once a week, which would involve using a syphon to extract some of the decay on the floor of the tank (just the surface, you don’t want to shove the syphon into the soil as it’ll create a huge cloudy mess). Over feeding is usually the biggest problem or dying plant matter, but if you get that right you won’t have too much maintenance. For me, the first 6-8 weeks involved a good amount of water changes and such, but for the past few weeks I’ve done a simple 1/4 water change and that’s it. I did experience some algae, but I stamped that out quite quickly by reducing the hours of light that I was providing the tank.

    See, back in the day we’d use gravel and we’d have to do mega syphon missions, scrubbing the gravel and all of that, but with the soil and plants, the eco system is established and that removes a lot of that hassle.

    Most resources that I’ve read and friends that I’ve chatted to say that the ADA Aquasoil can last several years and within those years you should never have to remove the soil or anything to that degree unless something goes seriously wrong.

  • So interesting, thanks for this Chris. I dabbled a bit in building aquariums when I was younger, but always battled with fish dying. But I now see the error of my ways. Seriously looking at building another aquarium. The ADA Aquasoil, what sort of cost are we looking at here? And how much did you use for your tank?

  • I hear you – back in the day I used to struggle with fish too and it’s more than likely due to poor water conditions, be it excessive ammonia or not putting in an agent to remove chlorine from the tap water. Something along those lines. The resources available online these days is quite incredible and that’s assisted me second to nothing compared to my last attempt many moons ago.

    The ADA Aquasoil is unfortunately expensive, you’re looking at a good R500/bag. I’ve got a 120 litre tank (!juwel-000000000000011400) and needed a bag and a half. What I can tell you though is two fold:

    1. If you go the Aquasoil route, be prepared to go full on planted tank. So you’re looking at a lot of plants, Co2 and so forth. There’s no half measures with Aquasoil, I found that out very quickly. All or nothing. Flourite is another option, not as good as the ADA, but it’s cheaper and I’ve read plenty of good reviews.

    2. It will last several years and will give you incredible plant growth, so it’s an expensive start, but it’s not bad for the number of years that it provides a great foundation for the plants.

    I’m very pleased that I went with the Aquasoil, initially it seemed overwhelming, but after that initial teething period, you reap the benefits in a massive way. I’m talking plant growth that you wouldn’t imagine possible – 2-3 inches of growth in literally half a week!

    Does that help pal?

  • I’m so glad that you posted a full picture post for this. It all looks amazing and I explain to my wife by pointing at pictures haha.

    I’m really keen to start a planted aquarium, I had tropical fish tanks for about 10 years when I was younger, and I’m looking to start something up again.

    Chris, where did you get / order your ADA Aquasoil from? Do you know of any good places to order online?

    Then, with the Co2, how noisy is everything? Could you get away with having a tank in a bedroom do you think?

  • Bret, haha, yes, it’s often easier to “sell” the idea with a beautiful picture ;)

    I must tell you, when I was younger it was a lot harder due to being at school and not having cash to buy much, so this time around it’s quite a bit more fun because I’m not so restricted.

    I got my ADA aquasoil from SAMs aquarium in Tokai, Cape Town. They stock it quite a bit and last weekend whilst I was there they had several bags and appear to be bringing it in quite often now. Ordering online I’m not too sure about, but any aquarium should be able to arrange it for you – that said, ADA could probably ship it to you!

    Co2 has absolutely no noise at all, it’s just a triple of bubbles in the tank. My Juwel Lido is dead silent, there’s a tiny water splash noise because my filter is pointing up and not down. My tank is in my room, no complaints.

  • Thanks dude, that’s very useful info! I do remember the days of scrubbing gravel!

    Going to do more research and hopefully get a new tank going in December. Very keen on a simple/minimalist planted tank with neon tetra’s.

  • Scrubbing gravel.. ah man, it was the worst!

    A Nano with plants and neons would be epic, please do keep me posted :)

    I book marked this one a few months ago:

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