There are few things that come to mind that can compare with the beauty of a well planted aquarium. Only the reef tank comes close. My hope is that through this article people will come to understand that while not being as easy as your standard aquarium, planted aquaria are far from impossible.
In fact my healthiest fish are those in my planted tanks. The key to a good planted tank is to approach the tank as a planted tank from the very beginning, rather than taking an existing tank, and deciding to throw some plants in later. So lets get started! Water- First, what is your tap water like? Most plants will live in any water, but the majority will need soft, acidic water to thrive. I find that tanks with harder water often need additional CO2 to do well, while plants in soft water generally do well with the CO2 they build up overnight. R.O. water is another solution, but you will need good additives, or you can mix this with tap water for good results. The tank- What size tank are you planning on? This decision can be very important. Larger tanks will need more plants and will be costlier to light. Tall tanks need more watts per gallon to do well, and long tanks with their shorter size need a wise plant selection to do well. Substrate- This is a key area. You need a rich substrate to grow rooted plants well. I use an improved laterite called Substrate Gold. It is an iron rich clay with other necessary nutrients added in. I mix this with a small gravel (I am currently personally fond of Estes Bits o Walnut- I find it rather esthetically pleasing). You need a deep substrate, at least three inches of the laterite/gravel mix. This I top with about 1/4 inch of the gravel without anything added in, which keeps the laterite down. Lighting- Here there are many choices. I would recommend standard fluorescent or VHO fluorescent. Whatever you decide, you will need at least two watts of full spectrum lighting per gallon of water. Currently I am using Triton fluorescent tubes, and like the results, though I plan on doing some more lighting research. Right now I have 40 watts over my 20 long, and 140 watts over my 55 gallon. The standard recommendation is 2-4 watts per gallon. Filtration- Here we break away from some aquarium givens. First, some filters are really good for planted tanks, others aren't so hot. You want to avoid agitating the surface of the water very much, as this will drive off CO2 in your tank. In tanks with a high fish population you may find the fish cannot get enough O2 at night. I have not come across this problem, but it is easily solved. Simply run an airstone at night opposite your light cycle. Plants produce O2 during the day, but absorb it at night. Rarely this becomes a problem. Canister filters are ideal, as long as the return spray bar is beneath the water level to avoid aeration, which will drive off CO2. Additionally you will find that not a lot of filtration is necessary. A filter that will turn over the tank volume three times an hour max is all that is necessary. Fertilization- You will need to add fertilizers to the water column. A good fertilizer with a good iron content will do nicely. Make sure the supplement has a good micro nutrient content. Planting- Only a couple of things here. Plant heavily from the outset. You want at least 75% of the surface of the substrate planted, with quite a few of these being rapid growing bunch plants to start, until your other plants get some good growth. This will help you fight algae problems as the tank matures. Well, That is about it. Add some fish! Just a few at first, more later. Enjoy watching the plants grow and in a few months you will hopefully have a great tank. In future articles I will tell you how to make your own CO2 reactor!