Aquascaping 101 – Taking Care of Your Tank

A planted tank is little more than a very damp garden, and while you never need to worry about under- or over-watering, when you’re aquascaping you do still need to keep in mind things like feeding, pruning and cleaning up, and even dividing plants that are getting a bit too big for their boots. You also need to keep a handle on light levels and how they are affecting plant growth.


If you start your tank using a premium aqua soil like the ADA range, keeping your plants well fed is much easier. These soils contain all the nutrients your plants will need, and they also absorb the fertilisers you add to the water and keep them available for plants when they need them. It’s a very complex system, so speak to someone knowledgeable like Hiten Goolab at ADA South Africa/Epic Aquatics before splurging. We decided not to go that ‘root’ (excuse the pun!) initially, to keep costs down and see how difficult it is. Well, after a rough start we think we’ve got a grip on how to keep plants alive and growing.

Just like garden plants, aquascaping with aquatic plants need macronutrients (like nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium) and micronutrients (like iron, boron, and manganese, etc). Some of these are added to the water via fish waste, uneaten fish food and decomposing plants, but you will have to add a fertiliser of some sort for optimum plant growth.

There are two main types of fertilisers that are used in planted tanks: root tabs and liquid fertilisers. Root tabs are solid fertiliser tablets that you place in the soil near the base of heavy-feeder plants like Amazon swords. Root tabs last a while and need replenishing every few months. Liquid fertilisers are added to the water of the tank, where they dissipate and get absorbed by both the soil and by plants through the water column. Liquid fertilisers are absorbed quickly and need to be replenished frequently. Pruning Our own tank hasn’t reached this stage yet, but we hope that it gets there one day. Just like in your garden, plants grow until they either look straggly or start to take over.

When they do, it is time to prune!

Aquascapers have come up with some clever tools to aid them in these endeavours, like curved scissors and very long tweezers that help with the aquascaping tasks. When you do prune a stem plant, cut it just above a node. The bit that you cut off can be used as a cutting, and usually will quickly grow new roots from the bottom node. Just pop it into the substrate where you want it to grow and leave it be. Carpet plants like dwarf baby tears might get taller than you’d like them to. In this case, they can be scaped with your fancy curved scissors. Be warned though, this makes quite a mess and you’ll need a net handy to scoop out the trimmings.


Many aquatic plants have a rhizome, like Java fern and anubias. When these reach a decent size, you can split this rhizome just as you would a rhizomatous garden plant. Then both divisions can be reattached to pieces of wood or stone and they will carry on growing. Aquascapers attach the rhizomes to rocks or wood using cotton or superglue gel.

Just as in the garden, your planted tank will require regular maintenance and aquascaping to keep it looking its best.

Water changes

You don’t need to water your plants, but you do need to give some attention to the water in your tank when aquascaping. If you just leave it for ever and ever, unwanted or excess chemicals will build up until they reach toxic levels. This is more important if you have livestock such as fish or shrimp in your tank, but even plants appreciate clean water (and you want the water to be clean so that you can see your aquascape clearly). It seems that every aquascaper has a different recipe for water changes, but the majority seem to change between 1/3 and ½ of the water in the tank either weekly or fortnightly.

To do this, drain that amount of water from the tank, and then fill up again. NB: When you add new water to your tank, make sure that it is the same or similar temperature to the existing water, and ensure that you have effectively removed or deactivated the chlorine from it. There are chemicals that do this.

Light levels and Aquascaping

This is something of trial and error, and it depends on variables such as your actual lighting system, the plants you have chosen, the depth of your tank and the hours you are running your lights. The advice we were given was to run our new light for about 8 – 10 hours at 100% power (you can adjust the power levels of this one) at the beginning. If algae grew, we should turn the power output down to about 80% and see if that worked better. We’ve done that and it seems to be doing the trick.

Aquascaping Our tank

We suffered normal setbacks in our tank set up and aquascaping. We put a huge piece of driftwood into the tank, which looked incredible but which leached so much tannin into the water that the water looked like the Dusi River in flood. We took it out and replaced it with something smaller. Our light didn’t work well either, but we have upgraded that and the plants are looking good! We now have a few red cherry shrimps pottering about eating algae, and as soon as we can we will add some fish to add movement to the aquascape.

More info: ADA has a spectacular brochure (more like a book!) on setting up and maintaining a planted aquarium. Get in touch with them (sales@epicaquatics.net) and ask them to email it to you.

The Gardener