How to Cycle a Planted Aquarium – The Fastest Method

by Apr 27, 202012 comments

Now that we have a good understanding of one of the most important cycles in Nature, the Nitrogen Cycle, we will now be discussing the many ways of how to cycle a planted aquarium.

From the previous article, we touched on the significance of having live plants when cycling our aquariums, how plants consume otherwise lethal substances to our faunas (fish/es, snails, and shrimps), and how they can help finish the cycling of our aquarium faster. So we will focus on planted aquariums only.

Table of Contents

The Fastest Method
Step by Step
Aerate Your Water Always
Important! Fish Stocking
Conclusion
Closing Remarks

The Aquarium Nitrogen Cycle for Beginners

It starts with a gas and ends with a gas. Basically, the Nitrogen Cycle is processes that convert the atmospheric Nitrogen gas (inorganic) into other forms of organic Nitrogen and then back to gas again. Those processes are carried out naturally by microbes for energy-harvesting or food.

This is the closest you can get with Mother Nature, not your Nature aquascape or your Walstad tank. One of the most important cycles in Nature is happening in your aquarium, and it is carried out by micro-organisms that you cannot even see. We often neglect how important they are.

The Fastest Method (You Are Here)

The Fastest Method of Cycling our Planted Aquariums involves using your old substrate, gravel, hardscape, filter, filter media, part of the old water from your old aquarium to our new planted aquarium.

But this needs careful planning and execution for this to be successful. In this article, we will tackle step by step how to carry out this method.

My 3rd Re-scape Lemuel Sacop Philippines

Traditional and Modified Traditional Method

The Traditional Method of Tank Cycling is the oldest method used by our grandparents when technology was not as advanced as we do now and involves cycling our planted tank with fish in it to jumpstart the Nitrogen Cycle.

Many consider this method as inhumane, sacrificing our fish. Still, nowadays, there are live-nitrifying bacteria products that can help and speed-up this process and make this method safe for our fish. You might be the type that cannot afford to wait before adding your fish to your planted aquarium, so this method is for you.

Fishless Method

For those willing to wait and love to watch their plants grow and become lush before adding the fish, this method is for you.

It is called the Fishless Method of Tank Cycling, which is self-explanatory. We will cycle our planted aquariums with no fish. We don’t have to be worried about any of our faunas anymore if they will survive the fish-in cycling we discussed in the previous article.

Fissidens Moss Grown Emersed Fishless Aquascaped by Charles Edward David

The Fastest Method

We already discussed the fastest way of cycling your new planted aquarium. That is to use your old filter media, gravel, soil, hardscapes, and even part of the old water from your old aquarium to your newly planted aquarium.

This method is what I did when I set up my first planted aquarium. Just make sure that your old aquarium is not infested with algae. Your fish/es have no disease like ick, fungal infections, or parasites because it will certainly be carried over to your new aquarium.

Gravel Substrate

Also, please make sure that you use the same water source as your old aquarium to ensure that your beneficial bacteria and faunas will not be affected due to different water parameters.

Fortunately, these beneficial bacteria are not too picky with pH and water temperature. Still, the one thing that could kill them fast is using chorinated water (chlorine is lethal to faunas too). So use a dechlorinator or water conditioner first before using the water from your faucet. We discussed the water sources that are safe for our aquariums here.

You can even ask help from a co-hobbyist friend, but there is a caveat in this. Like the points I mentioned above, please make sure that your friend’s aquarium is not infested with algae and fish diseases to avoid cross-contamination.

API Tap Water Conditioner

API Tap Water Conditioner

Seachem Prime

Seachem Prime

Step by Step:

1. Before you do this method, plan it ahead. Make sure that you can finish the transfer and aquascaping within the day, if possible. Start early.

2. Position the new aquarium stand, then the aquarium, and your equipment (filter, lighting, electrical outlet, and extensions, etc.). Make sure that you have ample light to work on your aquarium, or if you already have your lighting fixture, position it on the top-rear part of your tank so you can work freely at the front and sides of your aquarium.

Aquarium Positioning

3. From your old tank, get a portion of the old water so you can set aside your fish for now in a bucket or basin or another aquarium (if you have a spare) using a fishnet. If you have a new filter for your newly planted aquarium, you can use the old filter and filter media for your fish while prepping your old substrate, doing the aquascaping, and this is also a good opportunity to set up your new filter for your new tank. If you will be using your old filter for your new tank like I did, at least it is still running to do the filtration and aerating the water for your faunas until you transfer them to the new tank.

Transparent Fish

4. From your old tank, get a portion of the old water and put it in a bucket or basin so you can rinse your old gravel or aquasoil, removing the accumulated detritus in it before placing it on your new aquarium. If the old water is not enough to rinse it clean, you can use a chlorine-free water source like a deep-well or pre-conditioned water with a dechlorinator or water conditioner from the same water-source as your old tank. Do not use your fingers to rub, brush, or abrasive products. Just rinse them once to remove some of the accumulated detritus. Make sure that your old substrate is always wet until you use it so as not to kill-off your beneficial bacteria living on it.

Gravel Rinse

5. I recommend to use your old soil, aquasoil, or gravel as the bottom layer of your substrate. Since we will have a planted aquarium, use your new aquasoil for the top layer but not too deep so as not to suffocate the beneficial bacteria in the old substrate below. Aim for 2-3 inches at the front, then 3-4 inches to the back of the tank, so your substrate looks like a wedge. This will also create the perception of depth in your aquascape.

6. Rinse also your old filter media and hardscapes (rocks and driftwood). Do not use your fingers to rub, brush, or abrasive products. Just rinse them once to remove most of the accumulated detritus. Have them set aside for now. Do not dry them out until you transfer them to your new tank because it will kill your beneficial bacteria. So put them for now in a bucket or basin submerged in chlorine-free water or old tank water.

Hardscape Rinse

7. Once the substrate is in place, position your rock and driftwood placement according to the design/aquascaping style you have in mind. Pour chlorine free-water just enough to wet the substrate. You can use a plate or plastic sheet to disperse the water so as not to disturb your substrate and ruin your design.

Iwagumi Style Setting Up Aquascaped by Joshua Jose Cube Magpayo Philippines

Iwagumi Style Setting Up Aquascaped by Joshua Jose Cube Magpayo Philippines

8. Have your aquascaping tweezer ready and begin planting now. Have a water sprinkler bottle ready, of course, with chlorine-free water as always. This is to make sure you can wet your plants and hardscapes to keep them from drying out.

My Aquascaping Tools

My Aquascaping Tools

9. Once you are done with your aquascaping, fill the tank with chlorine-free water. If you still have some old water from your old tank, provided that it is free from floating debris, which you certainly caused earlier while you are prepping the old substrate, you can use it along with your new chlorine-free water.

Be careful not to disturb your scape and substrate by using a small saucer, plastic sheet, or using your hand while pouring the water. This is to spread/disperse the water splashes and decrease the current.

My 3rd Re-scape

My Final Re-scape Before Filling it up with Water

10. After filling-up your new aquascaped tank with chlorine-free water, and if you are using a new filter, transfer your old filter media from your old filter to the new one, assuming you already set up your new filter’s intake and outtake tubes into your new tank.

If you haven’t set up the new filter, then, by all means, do it now at this stage.

If you are using the same filter, transfer it along with the old filter media, then set it up on the new tank, start the filter.

Avoid drying out your filter media.

Aerate Your Water Always!

So always provide lots of surface water agitation in your aquarium, not just during tank cycling, but every time, and even when injecting CO2 (balancing your CO2 injection and providing water surface agitation is discussed here). This can be achieved by the out-take tube of your filter or using wave-makers, or using an aquarium/computer fans directed towards your water surface. Your beneficial bacteria always need oxygen to breakdown the toxins in our aquariums. Your faunas need oxygen, and your plants can give off oxygen when they respire during lights on, but our plants need oxygen during lights off too. Aerating your water via aquarium fans will cool your water temperature and improves the nutrient intake of your plants plus mosquitoes hate laying their eggs in moving water. And even if they manage to do that, your faunas can take care of the larvae.

11. I usually wait 1-2 hours with the filter running on the new tank before transferring the fish. Don’t worry. Depending on how hardy is your fish, they can survive with no filtration even longer than that. I know it is difficult to imagine how our fishes survived the long, arduous journey, in plastic with no filtration, from the farm to the fish retailers. But if you have a spare submersible pump, by all means, use it to aerate the water while waiting.

12. Transfer your fish/es one by one by using a fishnet. Monitor them for another hour or two. Make sure that there are no unusual behaviors from your fish like darting uncontrollably or being lethargic.

My Telescopic Fish Net

My Telescopic Fish Net

I did these steps 3 times in a span of one month because I have to re-scape 2 times using the same tank. My first reason was I had to change my scape to accommodate my Bonsai. The second reason was due to a mistake: I had put fishes (Gold Barbs) that are very destructive to my mosses, and they are tough to catch, so the process of catching them ruined my scape.

I can remember the only casualty is one red Mickey Mouse Platy fish because it jumped from my basin where they are temporarily held. That was during the second re-scape. I had to give the Gold Barbs to my co-hobbyist friend, who was willing to adopt them.

My Hardscape Diorama Style Bonsai on the Right Created for Me by Jeremy Navarro - I Learned a Thing or Two from Him and did a Small One on the Left Using Whatever are Left

My Hardscape Diorama Style Bonsai on the Right Created for Me by Jeremy Navarro – I Learned a Thing or Two from him and did a Small One on the Left Using Whatever’s Left

Fish Stocking

I want you to keep in mind that don’t be tempted to add more new fishes immediately to your new tank, most especially if the new one is much bigger than the old tank. Your existing beneficial bacteria’s population was established based on the previous number of fishes you have.

Adding more fish quickly after you did the transfer means you don’t have enough beneficial bacteria than before, and your old fishes and new fishes are at risk. Please try to add more fish, 1-2 fish gradually, then monitor for a week, rather than abruptly, adding 10 new fishes the next day. And like I always said, don’t overstock.

Too Many Fish

Too many Cichlids – but this could be a very large tank, and a stable one already, with great filtration systems that can handle all those organic waste. The different types of filtration are discussed here and why other hobbyists can get away with overstocking and sudden ammonia spikes. 

Conclusion

Using your old filter media, substrate, and hardscapes is the fastest way to cycle your newly planted aquarium. You should plan it ahead with the steps I outlined.

Just make sure that your old aquarium or a friend’s aquarium is not infested with algae, and the fish/es have no disease like ick, or fungal infections, or parasites because it will certainly be carried over to your new aquarium, cross-contamination.

Also, always use clean chlorine-free water not just during tank cycling, but every time during water change or topping-off if the water level gets lower. The water sources that are safe for our aquariums are discussed thoroughly here.

Closing Remarks

I hope you enjoyed this article and if ever you have additional questions or want to share your experiences with this method of tank cycling, please leave a comment below.

Next, we will be discussing the traditional and modified traditional way of tank cycling.

12 Comments

  1. Cameron

    Hello, 

    This was a really interesting read with lots of useful tips. The repetition helped get the memorable points across and minimized the chance of mistakes.

    The photographs were a great addition as it helped explain things. Did you take these photos yourself?

    I’ve never kept fish before but I am tempted to try now. 

    Thanks, 

    Cameron

    Reply
    • Lemuel Sacop

      Hi Cameron,

      Thanks for the comment and appreciation. Some pictures are the works of my co-hobbyists friends, and some pics are from my own tanks. Some pics of animals and plants are grown be me and some pics are from my friends.

      Reply
  2. Sami

    I have been intimidated by the idea of getting an aquarium because I didn’t know how to go about it.  With your article about how to get the different stages done, I think I can do this!   I didn’t have any idea of the different steps and that you can go one layer at a time!  

    The options you describe take the unknown out of so much of getting set up with such a fun hobby.  I am looking forward to the whole process.

    Thanks, Sami

    Reply
    • Lemuel Sacop

      Hello Sami,

      Thank you for the appreciation about my article. Please watch out for more articles coming soon. You can do it! If you more questions please don’t hesitate to ask.

      Reply
  3. Steve G

    I am a return visitor to your wonderful site; I am always amazed by what can be accomplished with Aquariums.   This is another great post – I have always wondered if I was using the correct way to set up a new tank.   Apparently not.    It definitely makes sense about reusing your older tank materials, I had not thought of this before and can see how this would speed up the process of setting up a new tank.   My question is – what is the best source for chlorine-free water?

    Reply
    • Lemuel Sacop

      Hi Steve, 

      Thank you so much for coming back! As for your question:

      a. deep-well/spring water – but it needs to be tested first. Some location have good deep-well water and some place you can’t even drink it. It definitely is chlorine free though but a lot of unknowns in the composition (rust, other metals, trace minerals, etc.)

      b. Purified water – the ones not commercially available, I am referring to those that comes from water refilling stations but it may need remineralization first. I personally just use a KH/GH Booster. it results to 3-4 dKH and 4-5 dGH and around 7.0 – 7.4 pH.

      c. Reverse Osmosis (RO)/De-Ionized water (if you already have the system for your drinking water) – but you have to re-mineralize them first with epson salt, baking soda, or calcium chloride. You can even combine RO+treated tap water with dechlorinator but the ratio you have to trial and error and always test the resulting water parameters. You can also combine RO+deep-well water as a cost effective solution aside from the unknowns of your deep-well water. Can start with a 50/50 ratio and to adjust from that.

      Don’t worry we will be discussing every water parameters and water sources in depth in the next articles coming soon….

      Reply
  4. Jorge

    Hello and may I just say that I find this topic very interesting and I would definitely like to try it.  Your website is very neat and organized and it looks professional. It is very considerate of you to put a table of contents and the picture give an idea of how the planted aquarium looks like. Overall your content is very unique. All I can say is keep doing what you’re doing and best of luck to you.

    Reply
    • Lemuel Sacop

      Hello Jorge,

      Thank you for the appreciation about my website and this article. I love this hobby, and I hope in some ways, I was able to help you in your decision to start your very own little piece of nature at your home soon.

      Reply
  5. edahnewton1

    This exactly what I need to build my Aquarium. I have some question in building a aquarium using old soul is it necessary we treat the soil, if we are to treat the soil, what is the best possible treatment, why should we use water from our old tank to rinse gravel, is treated fresh water not effective?.

    Reply
    • Lemuel Sacop

      Hello and good day!

      May I ask what is the old soil you are trying to treat? Is it a regular potting or garden soil or aquasoil?

      If it is a regular potting or garden soil or aquasoil you don’t need to treat those because you might kill the beneficial bacteria. Unless the soil was infested with algae, you can actually cook/fry or cook it under the sun for a few days but there goes your good bacteria.

      You might have missed that I said you can also rinse your gravel, hardscapes with chlorine free-water if your old tank water is not enough.

      Reply
  6. wilson kume

    i really want to appreciate you for sharing this wonder article with us on the fastest method on how to cycle a planted Aquarium.Whilst reading your article i understood that the fastest method is to use your old filter medias,gravel,soil,hardscapes and even water from your old aquarium to your new aquarium.Make sure the old aquarium is not infected by algae and also use clean chlorine free water everytime.I’d recommend this to anyone who loves the aquatic life.

    Reply
    • Lemuel Sacop

      Hi Wilson,

      Thanks for the appreciation about my article. Yes, indeed that is the fastest but there is modified traditional method article that is fast too when starting from scratch. 

      Reply

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