How to Cycle a Planted Aquarium – Modified Traditional Method

by Apr 29, 20208 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

Traditional Method
Are There Any Other Hardy Fish Species?
Step by Step (Let Nature Take Its Course)
Aerate Your Water Always
Drip Acclimation
Step by Step (Using Live Nitrifying Bacteria Products)
Summary
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

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 (You Are Here)

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 Traditional Method

The fastest method of cycling our planted aquarium works if you have an old established tank or a friend’s tank, but what if you don’t have any and are starting from scratch? The traditional method of cycling our tank, fish-in cycling, involves adding a few hardy fish to jumpstart the Nitrogen Cycle.

Fancy Guppy

If you remember the Nitrogen Cycle in our planted aquariums, after feeding your fish/es, they will excrete wastes and soon produce Ammonia, which will start the cycle.

We will have a planted aquarium, and you can watch the plants get established and grow lush before adding the fish, but some beginners may not want to wait for weeks to a month with just plants. Fortunately, we have live nitrifying bacteria starter products nowadays that can speed up this traditional method of cycling our aquariums.

Some hobbyists considered this as inhumane, sacrificing a few hardy fish in this method. Cycling with fish method puts considerable stress on our fish and can even kill or permanently damage them if not done right. And in this article, we will do it right to prevent casualties.

Dwarf Pufferfish

As I said from the previous article, please imagine the long-arduous journey our fish endured from the wild/fish farms to the fish retailers where we bought them. Our fish even endured cross-country journeys, in a plastic bag, with no filtration, overstocked, ammonia-laden water, rising water temperatures, with no food, etc.

Do not underestimate our pets’ hardiness, but this is not a reason to be complacent either. Unfortunately, this is the only way they can reach us and into our aquariums.

Plecostomus

Not to mention the miserable conditions they get on some pet-shops: overstocking, no-maintenance looking tanks, selling fish in a small fishbowl, illegally selling fish species that are protected, etc., so please don’t support these pet-shops by not buying from them.

We will discuss how to determine if the fish you want to buy from pet-shops are healthy in a future article.

Are There any Other Hardy Fish Species?

From our experiences, these are some of the hardiest fish species. They have the ability to adapt to a wide range of parameters:

Generally, fish are hardy when they have been tank-bred. Fish that are caught in the wild take many generations before they can adapt to life in captivity. 

As I always said, please always use chlorine-free water, not only during tank cycling but every time. Use a dechlorinator or a water conditioner products like the API Tap Water Conditioner or Seachem’s Prime when you only have tap water as your water source and follow the instructions.

API Tap Water Conditioner

API Tap Water Conditioner

Seachem Prime

Seachem Prime

You can use live nitrifying bacteria starter products like the API Quick Start, Tetra SafeStart, or DrTim’s Aquatics One and Only Live Nitrifying Bacteria to speed up more of the benefits that a planted tank can give you, and that is to cycle our tank faster. From my research, they are the only ones who have true autotrophic nitrifying bacteria in them. And we’ve tried API QuickStart in my friend’s planted tank with great results and no casualties. But I certainly won’t recommend these products for a non-planted tank because I don’t have any experience with them in a non-planted aquarium.

API Quick Start

API Quick Start

Tetra SafeStart

Tetra SafeStart

DrTim's Aquatics One and Only

DrTim's Aquatics One and Only

Also, I recommend to buy these products personally and choose the one that was recently manufactured so as not to risk buying already dead good bacteria in a plastic bottle. Depending on the packaging, very high or very low temperatures during shipping may kill the bottle’s nitrifying bacteria.

The only caveat with these products is, from reading the instructions, they said that you could immediately add your fish. When they say you can add the fish immediately, they meant do not add too many fish instantly in your tank. For example, they meant to add 1-2 small hardy fish in 10 gallons or 2-3 Zebra Danios in 15 gallons for now, then gradually increase them (add + 1 fish) every week.

But you can certainly choose not to use these nitrifying bacteria starter products and just let Nature take its course.

Fallen Tree

Another point that I want to share with you is when using test kits and other aquarium products. Seasoned hobbyists may tell the beginner that these test kits or these products are a waste of time and money. You just need to watch your fish’s behavior and the growth rate of your plants, and then take action if there are any problems. They have the experience already and valuable insights that will tell them what needs to be done if they notice a problem. The beginner doesn’t have that experience yet.

Why not let the beginner learn a thing or two on his own, gain experience, gain valuable insights, understand why this is happening, and the possible actions that he/she can take to rectify the problem. Test Kits and other aquarium products can help the beginner at this stage.

Let me give you an example. When I was a beginner in my planted aquarium, I used the API Freshwater Master Test Kit and other aquarium products. It helped me a lot to understand the intricacies of a planted aquarium. Why are these types of algae infesting my tank? Why are my plants growing wildly, and yet I still have algae? It helped me to think outside the box and formulate theories and test them. It helped me balance my light, CO2 injection, CO2 distribution, and fertilizers to achieve controlled lush plant growth, not requiring too much trimming, and minimal to no visible algae in my tank.

Once I gained more experience, I rarely tested my water parameters, stopped using other products, and just enjoyed my planted aquarium. And if ever some problems occur, I know what to do already.

API Freshwater Master Test Kit
API Freshwater Master Test Kit Color Coding Chart

Step by Step (Let Nature Take Its Course):

1. Plan your planted aquarium’s setup ahead by using the steps below. Start early. Make sure that you already have all that is needed to set up your tank.

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.

Braced Tank Prepping Up by Gary Custodio Philippines

Braced Tank Prepping Up by Gary Custodio Philippines

3. This is also a good opportunity to set up your chosen filter’s intake and outtake tubes’ position in your tank.

4. Begin placing your substrate.

5. 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.

Landscaping by Edrian Corpuz Espiritu Philippines

Landscaping by Edrian Corpuz Espiritu Philippines

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

My Aquascaping Tools

My Aquascaping Tools

Showing One of the Many Ways How to Properly Fill the Tank After Aquascaping by Dah Real Philippines

Showing One of the Many Ways How to Properly Fill the Tank With Chlorine Free Water After Aquascaping by Dah Real Philippines

After Flooding Aquascaped by Ayong Go Philippines

After Flooding Aquascaped by Ayong Go Philippines

7. Once you are done with your aquascaping, fill the tank with chlorine-free water. You can use a plate or plastic sheet to disperse the water so as not to disturb your substrate and ruin your design.

8. Start the filter. Correct the position of the light to the middle at the top of the tank.

9. I always allow the filter to run for an hour or two. This is a good opportunity to drip acclimate your fish before putting in your tank.

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 aquarium/computer fans directed towards your water surface.

Your beneficial bacteria always need oxygen to break down 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. And because your water temp is cooler by blowing air into your water surface (evaporative cooling), the capacity of your water to hold dissolved oxygen increases.

Aerating your water via aquarium fans will cool your water temperature and improve your plants’ nutrient and CO2 intake. 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. Some, if not most, algae hate cool waters, and moving water looks more natural than stagnant.

My Planted Aquarium Fans

Drip Acclimation

Drip Acclimation – is the process of slowly acclimating your newly bought fish from the pet store to your tank water. Your fish is packaged in a plastic bag with water from the pet store, and you may have very different water parameters than the water from the pet store. If you put your fish quickly in your tank without acclimating them, it may turn out fine, and your fish lives because your water parameters are the same as the water in the pet shop. But in some cases, your fish may die instantly or slowly due to very different water parameters.

Use a clean plastic acclimation/isolation tank (like the pic below, can be bought from the pet store), or you can use a clean bucket or dipper. Just make sure that your fish have no means to jump or escape. Put the fish in it along with the water from the pet store.

My Drip Acclimation-Isolation Box

My Drip Acclimation-Isolation Box

There are drip acclimation products commercially available, you can use it, or you can just DIY it as I did below using plastic two-way valves and air tubing. Basically, it works by submerging the long end of the air tubing to your tank water and secure it. Now perform a suction on the other end with your mouth. The end with the two-way valve should be open so that water can flow through it. Once the suction is made, you can now adjust the rate of the water flowing. I usually set it to 1 drop per 5 seconds, then place that end going to the container where your fish are held temporarily, then secure the tube so that the drops of water coming from your tank will fall on your container (to your fish). This is why it is called drip acclimation.

My DIY Drip Acclimator

My DIY Drip Acclimator

You can wait 1-2 hours to monitor your fish and the water level in the container. It might spill if your drop rate is too fast, giving your fish a chance to jump. So carefully set your drop rate to avoid this.

But if you don’t want to DIY this, you can use a clean spoon (designate it to be used only on your aquarium, don’t use it again for eating), get water from the tank, and pour it into your container where your fish are every 5 minutes. Do this for an hour or two.

Once you’re finished drip acclimating your fish, net your fish one by one, and put them in your tank. Do not pour the water from your temporary container.

It is also a good idea to transfer your fish when your light/s is off already (if you have existing inhabitants in your tank). Your newly bought fish might be bullied. The dark allows them to hide immediately completely unnoticed.

My DIY Drip Acclimator Video Demonstration

10. Once your fish is drip acclimated, you can now put the fish in your tank. Like I mentioned above, do not put too many fish right away. For example, if you have a 10 gallons tank, just put 1-2 hardy fish or if you have a 15 gallons tank, just put 2-3 hardy fish. Feed the fish sparingly, like once every other day, do not overfeed as decaying uneaten food will also produce Ammonia. Fish that eat more produce waste more. We are avoiding the steep rise of toxins before the beneficial bacteria even have the chance to colonize.

11. Monitor your fish over the next 3-4 days for lethargic behavior or darting. If you have a test kit like the API Freshwater Master Test Kittest your water for Ammonia. You should be detecting some (0.25 to 0.5 ppm), which means your cycle has started. Don’t worry. Your plants also help to cycle your tank (if your plants came with roots already, those roots have the beneficial bacteria already too). Do this Ammonia test every other day.

If you detected high levels of Ammonia (+ 1 ppm) (you may have too many fish or you are overfeeding, or your aquasoil brand is leaking too much Ammonia), perform a 50 % water change (WC) every other day for a week. Depending on the species, your plants may suffer ammonia burns or even melt if it reaches +3 ppm. No matter how hardy, your fish will appear lethargic or gasping near the substrate at these high Ammonia levels.

12. After a week or two, you will notice that your Ammonia level will start to go up and down and eventually becomes zero. You should test now for Nitrite, and you should detect rising Nitrite levels. Monitor the Nitrite levels in the next coming days and perform a 50 % water change if it gets too high. After some more days, you will notice your Nitrite levels go down and become zero.

Ammonia Test

Ammonia Test

Nitrite Test

Nitrite Test

13. Test now for Nitrates. You should now be able to detect rising Nitrate levels.

14. Perform Ammonia and Nitrite tests in the next coming days, and if you are getting zero levels for both, and continuous rising of Nitrate levels, your tank cycling is complete.  Perform a 50 % water change if your Nitrate levels reach + 40 ppm. Now, weekly/regular 25 to 50 % water change should be able to remove your accumulating Nitrates, and your plants can help too by up-taking some of the Nitrates in your water column.

Nitrate Test

Nitrate Test

15. You can now start gradually adding more fish to your tank. Just add 1-2 fish per week, then monitor. And as I always said, do not overstock.

This method of fish-in cycling may take 4-6 weeks or even more without a planted tank. With a heavily planted tank and a lot of fast-grower plants, the cycle may be finished in just 2-3 weeks.

Step by Step (Using Live Nitrifying Bacteria Starter Products):

Just follow the first 8 steps above, then these steps:

9. After 30 minutes to an hour of the filter running to clear any of the cloudiness, follow the manufacturer’s instructions on how to use the live nitrifying bacteria starter products I mentioned above (you have to choose one and follow the dosage) and use it in your tank. These products will typically cloud the water, those are the nitrifying bacteria free-floating and waiting to settle on your substrate and filter media.

10. You can put in the fish immediately after using these live nitrifying bacteria starter products. Still, we will recommend waiting for another hour or two with the filter running to clear some of the cloudiness. Drip acclimate them first (please see above about drip acclimation). Don’t put too many fish immediately in your newly setup planted aquarium. Feed them so they will excrete later. Don’t overfeed. Wait for an hour or two and monitor your fish.

Then continue from the 11th step above. The only difference with using these products is your tank cycling can be completed in just 1 week plus from our experience, which will be explained below.

We used the API Quick Start and followed the instructions on my friend’s 15 gallons planted aquarium. My friend already bought the tank, the materials, the fish (5 Tiger Barbs), the plants (mostly fast growers, which is very fortunate for him), filter, the API Quick Start, etc. and asked my help to DIY a LED Lighting fixture using my spare cool white LED strip and a dimmer. I advise him to feed sparingly (once every other day), and I lent him my API Test Kit. In just one week, we detected small levels (0.25) of ammonia and nitrite going up and down (his plants are helping too, his Cabomba and Hygrophila Polysperma plants already have noticeable growth), and nitrates are already detectable. Within the second week, his ammonia and nitrite levels were zero, and Nitrates normally rising, which can be removed by weekly water change. The 5 Tiger Barbs survived the fish-in cycle and still alive up to this day. He just added 1 more to keep their schooling more intact.

Nature Style Aquascaped by Carlo Chan Philippines

Nature Style Aquascaped by Carlo Chan Philippines

To Summarize the Greater Chance of a Fish-In Cycle to be Successful:

1. Start a heavily planted tank.

2. Add just a few fish and feed sparingly.

3. Have your test kit and chlorine-free water for water changes ready so you can act swiftly.

Again, please only use chlorine-free water for your aquarium unless you have a deep-well (it still depends on your deep-well water quality, test the water first). Depending on your location, your tap water is treated with chlorine to disinfect the water before it arrives in your faucet.

Chlorine can instantly kill your beneficial bacteria and can even kill your faunas right away or slowly. Our deep-well water is safe for consumption, but I still want to test it first. It turns out it is hard water and has 20 ppm of Nitrates added to my aquarium, but it is chlorine-free, zero ammonia and nitrites. I used it for a while but later changed it to purified water (I couldn’t stand the watermarks in my aquarium glass) from a water refilling station nearby. I use a KH & GH Booster to remineralize the purified water before putting in my tank.

Apple Snail

If you don’t have a chlorine-free water source, you can use your tap water. Still, you definitely need to use a dechlorinator or a water conditioner product like the API Tap Water Conditioner or Seachem’s Prime and follow the instructions. Treat the water in a bucket or basin first before putting it in your tank. Follow the instructions.

Do not pour your tap water directly into your tank, fish on it, and then treat it, like when you are performing your weekly water change. That is a big no-no.

Conclusion

The fastest method of cycling our planted aquarium works if you have an old established tank or from a friend’s tank. The traditional method of cycling our tank, fish-in cycling, involves adding a few hardy fish to jumpstart the Nitrogen Cycle.

Some hobbyists considered this as inhumane, sacrificing a few hardy fish in this method. Cycling with fish method puts considerable stress on our fish and can even kill or permanently damage them if not done right.

Fortunately, we have products nowadays that can speed up this traditional method of cycling our planted aquariums. You can even put your fish immediately after using these products.

Closing Remarks

I hope you enjoyed this article. If you have additional questions or want to share your experiences with this modified traditional tank cycling method, please leave a comment below.

Next, we will be discussing the fish-less method of tank cycling for those who can wait.

8 Comments

  1. Azn_0525

    Interesting! This is something that I would send to my mom. She would love to read this. She is looking for ways to better her yard experience. She is from the south, and since I was a little girl, I have always seen my dad get fishes for her collection. This is definitely an article that would peak her interest!

    Reply
    • Lemuel Sacop

      Hi Azn,

      I hope your Mom will like it and I hope in some ways I was able to help you in your decision to start your own planted aquarium at your own home too.

      Reply
  2. Karl Darden

    This website is very informative and educational. I didn’t have any idea of all the things that come into play to maintain a healthy fish tank. From the screen shot of the website, it looks like it might overload the senses a little bit with respect to the color and background. But when I actually got to the site, that wasn’t the case. Everything looks really nice. 

    My one suggestion might be a logo of some kind to go along with the name. A visual like that could be very appealing. 

    I really enjoyed checking out your page. Nice work!!

    Reply
    • Lemuel Sacop

      Hello Karl,

      Thank you for the suggestion and that is noted already. Please come back for more articles coming soon.

      Reply
  3. edahnewton1

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts about Aquarium. Am surely gonna bookmark this website for reference sake. I would love to engage in the traditional method or recycling. What are does product that can speed up the method of cycling in traditional aquarium, which of the fish does better in traditional cycling ?.

    Reply
    • Lemuel Sacop

      Hello,

      Like the products that I mentioned: API Quick Start, or Seachem Stability, etc. you can put your fish immediately after using these products but we recommend to put only hardy fish which I already listed in the article (its better to be sure than feel sorry) and don’t overstock.

      Reply
  4. Tony

    I have to say this is a very well put together and easy to read article. Ever since I started putting plants in my tanks they never seem complete to me if I don’t have any in with the fish and decor! I also have all of the products that you listed in your post in my cabinet right now!

    Reply
    • Lemuel Sacop

      Thank you Tony for the appreciation. Indeed live plants will make your aquarium look very natural and more pleasing to the eyes. And I am glad that you were using the same products.

      Reply

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