Best way to clean a planted

Monty2451

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Hi everyone,

I'm getting back into the hobby after about a 10 year hiatus, and am looking to start out again with my first truly planted tank, a 35 gal. cube with some dwarf grass, marimo moss balls, and a Xmas moss bonsai. The most I've done with plants in the past has been some hornwort as a background piece and some duckweed in my Betta tanks. I've done some research and I have a pretty good idea of what I need to do, but my major concern is if I fully plant the tank, how do I best go about cleaning the tank, particularly the substrate? I want to cover the bottom of the tank with dwarf grass, which leaves me wondering how I can clean the substrate without uprooting anything? I also plan on having some cleaners on the tank (Cory cats, and either some gold inca or nerite snails and/or some shrimp) which should help keep everything in order. Is deep cleaning the substrate even necessary at all in this situation? I appreciate any advice I could get on this.
 

Byron

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"Cleaning the substrate" in a planted tank is (or should be) something you do not generally need to do, though this can vary depending upon circumstances. I'll try to explain.

The substrate is home to the largest population of bacteria in a balanced aquarium. There are many different species/types of bacteria, some aerobic and some anaerobic. Keeping the substrate too clean can be detrimental.

Organics will naturally settle in the substrate, where these various bacteria live. Denitrification occurs in portions of the substrate. The substrate is the prime source of CO2 and other nutrients for plants. Plants rooted in the substrate will release oxygen from their roots. Provided the substrate is not too deep, all of this will function quite well if left alone. Snails also help, especially Malaysian Livebearing Snails, as these burrow throughout the substrate.

When it comes to cories, you must have an open area of sand. Cories naturally poke their snouts into the substrate and sift it through their gills. My tank with cories has about 1/3 of the total substrate surface completely unobstructed (open). The rest is under chunks of wood, or surrounding plants rooted in the substrate, and this is never touched. I do not "clean" the open area either.

If the tank is overpopulated, or lacking plants, it will likely be necessary to vacuum into the substrate, but this is the exception that should not be aimed for; a balanced tank will almost manage itself biologically, just needing regular water changes.

Byron.
 
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Monty2451

Monty2451

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"Cleaning the substrate" in a planted tank is (or should be) something you do not generally need to do, though this can vary depending upon circumstances. I'll try to explain.

The substrate is home to the largest population of bacteria in a balanced aquarium. There are many different species/types of bacteria, some anaerobic and some anaerobic. Keeping the substrate too clean can be detrimental.

Organics will naturally settle in the substrate, where these various bacteria live. Denitrification occurs in portions of the substrate. The substrate is the prime source of CO2 and other nutrients for plants. Plants rooted in the substrate will release oxygen from their roots. Provided the substrate is not too deep, all of this will function quite well if left alone. Snails also help, especially Malaysian Livebearing Snails, as these burrow throughout the substrate.

When it comes to cories, you must have an open area of sand. Cories naturally poke their snouts into the substrate and sift it through their gills. My tank with cories has about 1/3 of the total substrate surface completely unobstructed (open). The rest is under chunks of wood, or surrounding plants rooted in the substrate, and this is never touched. I do not "clean" the open area either.

If the tank is overpopulated, or lacking plants, it will likely be necessary to vacuum into the substrate, but this is the exception that should not be aimed for; a balanced tank will almost manage itself biologically, just needing regular water changes.

Byron.

Thanks for the help Byron. This is what I was gathering that most of the people with planted tanks do (or at least aim for). But I've seen some conflicting info. in terms of to vacuum surface debris or not at all, and only occasionally have I seen people do regular deep cleaning (though this was in much less heavily planted tanks). What would you recommend as far as substrates go for the base layer? I know I want to do sand on top, but as far as what it's going on top of, I haven't decided yet. Any suggestions?
 

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Thanks for the help Byron. This is what I was gathering that most of the people with planted tanks do (or at least aim for). But I've seen some conflicting info. in terms of to vacuum surface debris or not at all, and only occasionally have I seen people do regular deep cleaning (though this was in much less heavily planted tanks). What would you recommend as far as substrates go for the base layer? I know I want to do sand on top, but as far as what it's going on top of, I haven't decided yet. Any suggestions?

The surface debris can vary, depending upon the size (and obviously number) of fish. You mentioned cories, and they do not produce waste to the extent that it will pile up on the substrate. I have 50 cories in my 70g and I never see this. I have similarly-sized upper fish (tetras, hatchets, pencilfish), and I have other tanks with similar fish and loaches. The excrement is quickly broken down by snails and bacteria. If I were to dig into the sand it would be slightly cloudy, naturally, and after I feed the pellets/disks to the cories and loaches, stuff does get stirred up but that is normal.

"Deep cleaning" should not be necessary...but again it depends. If you had goldfish for example, or large cichlids, etc, this would be a very different approach.

Even in my two tanks with no substrate-rooted plants, but only Java Fern and moss growing on chunks of wood, I do not clean into the sand substrate.

But everything is relative. What works in one tank may not in another.

As for your substrate question...I would only have play sand in with cories. They dig, and some of the so-called enriched substrates can damage them, I've had it once. Plus, these money-wasters tend not to do much if anything beneficial for plants. With planted tanks, you have to decide if it is going to be plants primarily with few or no fish (high-tech approach), or fish primarily with plants as beneficial addition (natural or low-tech). Or something in the middle. Light is the primary issue as it drives photosynthesis and each plant species has a different level for this. With more intense lighting you need more nutrients, meaning supplements perhaps daily, and perhaps including diffused CO2. There has to be a balance of light and available nutrients for the plant species and numbers, and this balance has to be in check or algae will take advantage.

With cories, you should be aiming for a more natural tank, with moderate (at most) lighting, and a sand substrate. I use play sand in all my tanks as it looks natural, it is very highly refined so it is extremely safe, and plants do grow well in it.
 

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Forgot above...here are some photos of some of my tanks with play sand, moderate to low lighting, and cories. The quality of the photos isn't very good, due to my old and cheap camera, but they should give you the idea of what we're talking about.
 

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Monty2451

Monty2451

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The surface debris can vary, depending upon the size (and obviously number) of fish. You mentioned cories, and they do not produce waste to the extent that it will pile up on the substrate. I have 50 cories in my 70g and I never see this. I have similarly-sized upper fish (tetras, hatchets, pencilfish), and I have other tanks with similar fish and loaches. The excrement is quickly broken down by snails and bacteria. If I were to dig into the sand it would be slightly cloudy, naturally, and after I feed the pellets/disks to the cories and loaches, stuff does get stirred up but that is normal.

"Deep cleaning" should not be necessary...but again it depends. If you had goldfish for example, or large cichlids, etc, this would be a very different approach.

Even in my two tanks with no substrate-rooted plants, but only Java Fern and moss growing on chunks of wood, I do not clean into the sand substrate.

But everything is relative. What works in one tank may not in another.

As for your substrate question...I would only have play sand in with cories. They dig, and some of the so-called enriched substrates can damage them, I've had it once. Plus, these money-wasters tend not to do much if anything beneficial for plants. With planted tanks, you have to decide if it is going to be plants primarily with few or no fish (high-tech approach), or fish primarily with plants as beneficial addition (natural or low-tech). Or something in the middle. Light is the primary issue as it drives photosynthesis and each plant species has a different level for this. With more intense lighting you need more nutrients, meaning supplements perhaps daily, and perhaps including diffused CO2. There has to be a balance of light and available nutrients for the plant species and numbers, and this balance has to be in check or algae will take advantage.

With cories, you should be aiming for a more natural tank, with moderate (at most) lighting, and a sand substrate. I use play sand in all my tanks as it looks natural, it is very highly refined so it is extremely safe, and plants do grow well in it.

Wow! That's a good looking tank. Thank you for all the information, I really appreciate your insight on this. I only mentioned the Cory cats because I was talking about tank cleaners, but I do plan on having other fish as well. I'm going for a non-aggressive community tank (live bearers, small tetras, danios, etc., and maybe a show fish or two such as a pearl gourami, a dwarf cichlid, or one of a few other candidates I have in mind). So with that being said, I want the tank to be planted purely to create a more natural environment and help with maintaining a strong nitrogen cycle. If I could go with just sand, it would definitely be easier, but being as I want to have a carpet of dwarf grass on the majority of the tank floor, I'm not sure I can. I definitely don't want to get into having a CO2 system that just seems excessive for what I'm trying to accomplish, not to mention the additional expense. This picture below is what I'm going for, with the addition of some marimo moss balls and additional cover. I have a feeling though that it may be too exposed and high light level for a South American community tank, but we'll see. If I do go with just sand, what would I need, if anything, in terms of fertilizer (both for startup and maintenance)?
1pinheiromanso2008.jpg
 

Byron

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I won't be able to help much, given that photo, since that is not a style of aquarium I have ever tried. I have fish tanks that happen to have plants, rather than approaching it from the reverse, simply because I am concerned over the needs of fish and feel I am obligated to provide what they need. Fortunately the result is to my liking, but that is probably due to the fact that I know without question that the fish will be healthier and happier in a more natural surrounding so I am happiest in providing such. I mean, nothing like that photo exists in nature. And that is not to say it is not worth your effort, nor is it wrong, but when fish are intended it can become the wrong approach.

Fish have "expectations" for their environment. These are programmed into their DNA. "Environment" in this context means everything that is part of their world, from water parameters, to the aquascape, to light, to water current, to numbers of their species (for shoaling species), to other species. Each of these factors must be understood for the species, and then provided. It doesn't need to be technically authentic, it can be artificial, but whichever it is it must provide what the fish expects. If not, the fish will not be at its best in terms of health; it will definitely be under stress, and stress weakens the immune system at the very least. The fish may survive, but it will not thrive, and that in my view is inhumane as Dr. Loiselle said in the green citation below.

An example from the fish you mentioned...gourami, dwarf cichlids and similar would be very unhappy in the pictured tank, and frankly not live a normal lifespan. You will note that I have floating plants in all my tanks, and that is for a reason...the fish need them, or will certainly be in better health with them, which is really the same thing.

I'll pick up on something else you mentioned, about cories being cleaners. They are not. They must be fed food that is intended for them, such as one of the good quality sinking pellet/tab/disk foods. They will not eat upper fish food that happens to fall to the bottom, which is what I have assumed you were thinking of. Snails will eat such food, along with all organics including fish excrement, breaking it down so the bacteria can get at it faster. I believe some view shrimp as more cleaning, but I have never maintained shrimp.
 

NickAu

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Hi

I love the photo of the tank you posted. But in my opinion that tank is not suitable for most fish people who own tanks like that keep fish as a source of ammonia.
 
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Monty2451

Monty2451

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I won't be able to help much, given that photo, since that is not a style of aquarium I have ever tried. I have fish tanks that happen to have plants, rather than approaching it from the reverse, simply because I am concerned over the needs of fish and feel I am obligated to provide what they need. Fortunately the result is to my liking, but that is probably due to the fact that I know without question that the fish will be healthier and happier in a more natural surrounding so I am happiest in providing such. I mean, nothing like that photo exists in nature. And that is not to say it is not worth your effort, nor is it wrong, but when fish are intended it can become the wrong approach.

Fish have "expectations" for their environment. These are programmed into their DNA. "Environment" in this context means everything that is part of their world, from water parameters, to the aquascape, to light, to water current, to numbers of their species (for shoaling species), to other species. Each of these factors must be understood for the species, and then provided. It doesn't need to be technically authentic, it can be artificial, but whichever it is it must provide what the fish expects. If not, the fish will not be at its best in terms of health; it will definitely be under stress, and stress weakens the immune system at the very least. The fish may survive, but it will not thrive, and that in my view is inhumane as Dr. Loiselle said in the green citation below.

An example from the fish you mentioned...gourami, dwarf cichlids and similar would be very unhappy in the pictured tank, and frankly not live a normal lifespan. You will note that I have floating plants in all my tanks, and that is for a reason...the fish need them, or will certainly be in better health with them, which is really the same thing.

I'll pick up on something else you mentioned, about cories being cleaners. They are not. They must be fed food that is intended for them, such as one of the good quality sinking pellet/tab/disk foods. They will not eat upper fish food that happens to fall to the bottom, which is what I have assumed you were thinking of. Snails will eat such food, along with all organics including fish excrement, breaking it down so the bacteria can get at it faster. I believe some view shrimp as more cleaning, but I have never maintained shrimp.

That's a fair assessment. I do want it to be a fish tank with plants and not an aquascape that happens to have fish in it, which is why I was trying to figure out a way to possibly incorporate the moss bonsai into something more natural, but it just doesn't jive with anything else really. I was concerned about the lighting and cover issue as well given that the fish I intend to keep in that tank prefer lower light levels and a decent amount of cover. So I'll have to reevaluate it and see if I can come up with some suitable array that I still find appealing. If the tank were longer, I might be able to get away with both, but it's a 20" cube, so floor space is at a premium.

As for the Corys, I apologise for the confusion. I group them in with "cleaners" because they help maintain the tank ecology mostly by helping to aerate the surface substrate, but I may be mistaken in that as well, I haven't really had any experience with them since my father kept them when I was a kid. Even if they don't though, I'd still want them in there, they're a fish with a lot of personality, which you don't see too often.

Thanks again for the input, it's been very helpful and given me a lot to think about. I'll get back to you all when I come up with something new.
 

hobby5

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I totally agree with what was said by Byron.

You don't need corries or any other particular fish species for the tank biology. Snails and plants can do the job alone.

Imho the best substrate is plain quartz sand with uniform grain size (smaller than 1mm). The pore size is so small that nearly no debris will enter. This results in no need for cleaning. Plants will grow well anyway. Sometimes there will be a build up of mulm in some corners with low current over time, which can be vacuumed from time to time.
 

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