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Planted aquarium: fishless cycle before planting or cycle with plants?

arcturus

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Hello!

I am currently finalizing buying the equipment to set up a 120x50x50 cm (~270L) aquarium with CO2 injection and strong lighting. My goal is to build an aquascape with a significant amount of hardscape and a large number of plants, including carpeting plants. I plan to hold a medium load of livestock consisting of small schooling fish along with shrimp and snails. Most of the plants I will use are in-vitro, so they will take some time to establish. I also plan to add a few fast growing potted "helper" plants to the initial setup, but these will be either removed or heavily trimmed down later on. By the way, I am not new to this hobby but returning after a long pause. However, I have never kept an heavily planted "high tech" aquarium before. I have spent the last months reading, checking forums and viewing videos on how to build such aquariums, but I mostly found radically contradictory opinions on how to cycle and set planted aquariums. I have read many extremely informative posts on this forum and elsewhere, but I still have questions on how to properly set up a planted aquarium. I tried to summarize below two possible approaches to cycle a new planted aquarium.

Option 1: Fishless cycle, followed by adding plants and livestock
  • The AQ is set up with the hardscape only. No plants or livestock.
  • The initial cycle is done using the "classic" fishless process: the AQ is heated, filtered and aerated. No CO2 or lighting is used. The cycle is bootstrapped using ammonia and the bacteria will mainly colonize the media in the external filters. The colonies should start stabilizing some 6-8 weeks after the set up. Note: I have no access to used filter media or other source of bacteria; the cycling process will start from zero.
  • After the nitrogen cycle is stable, plants and a moderate amount of livestock are added at once because the bacteria are theoretically able to handle the biological load.
  • Regular partial water changes are performed after plants and livestock are added (e.g. 50% daily for the first week, then 50% every 2-3 days for 3-4 weeks, and then 50% weekly).

I have not found a clear discussion on how to use this approach with aquariums that will be heavily planted. My goal is to complete the fishless cycle and then add all the plants and around half of the taget livestock (shrimps + ~20 small schooling fish) after the cycle is complete. My concern is that the system can become unbalanced because of the rapid switch to a set up featuring dozens of plants, invertebrates, fish, lights, fertilization and CO2 injection. Has anyone practical experience of using the fishless cycle this way?

Option 2: Cycle with plants
  • The AQ is set up with hardscape and with plants (most plants will be in vitro + a few potted fast growing plants).
  • CO2 injection, fertilizers, lighting are used from day 1. No ammonia is added.
  • Several weeks later invertebrates are added if ammonia and nitrite levels are zero.
  • Several weeks later fish are slowly and gradually added to the system.
  • Regular partial water changes from day 1 (e.g. 50% daily for the first week, then 50% every 2-3 days for 3-4 weeks, and then 50% weekly).

Is there any advantage of using this method instead of Option 1? Option 1, seems to be more resilient because of the stable bacteria colonies that are available. However, a majority of aquascapers in this forum and elsewhere seem to be using option 2 instead of option 1. The only apparent advantage of this option is that the aquarium will be planted from day 1, but then it can take a long time to slowly add the livestock. Has this option actually any benefit when compared to option 1 when it comes to the long-term stability of the system? Any reason not to use option 1?

Many thanks for your input on this subject!

Cheers!
Artur
 

Tim Harrison

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There is no need to add ammonia to cycle a planted tank. It probably doesn't encourage the optimal nitrifying microbial community anyway. Follow the link that @jamila169 posted above, there are many more. This subject comes up quite often.
If you plan to use ADA AS or similar with in vitro plants, perhaps best to give some thought to dark cycling for a period of 3 weeks or so. It should reduce the chances of melt and algae, particularly diatomaceous or brown algae.

 

dw1305

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Hi all,
Welcome to the forum. It is an interesting question.
Is there any advantage of using this method instead of Option 1?
Yes, option 2. , the "plant and wait" method, just has a much higher probability of long term success.
Option 1, seems to be more resilient because of the stable bacteria colonies that are available.
This is the heart of it, recent scientific advances in identifying the nitrifying organisms that occur in aquarium filters have found that they aren't the ones we thought they were and <"they don't need high levels of ammonia">.

I won't go any further as @jamila169 has linked <"in a thread with lots more information">.

cheers Darrel
 

arcturus

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I'll direct you to Darrell's links in this thread for the reasoning Cycling a planted tank
Thank you. have read that thread as well as dozens of linked and related threads on this forum and elsewhere. But these threads mostly focus on the complex biology of nitrogen cycles, on bottled bacteria, on different filtration method and related topics. But I have not found an answer to my question and that is why I asked it again. I have basic knowledge on how a cycle with plants works. However, I failed to find reasonable explanations on how to add the livestock. With fishless cycling, a moderate amount of livestock can be immediately added after the cycle is stable. But there completely contradictory reports on what with do with a planted aquarium. Some recommendations point to add a only a few invertebrates and fish every few months. Others say that a a planted aquarium can easily handle the introduction of a moderate amount of livestock at once (similar to fishless cycling) - there are journals on this forum reporting doing without aany apparent issues.

So, in short: if one uses "option 2" (cycling the tank with plants from day 1), when and how can livestock be introduced? Can livestock be introduced in cycled planted aquarium in the same way livestock is introduced after fishless cycling?
 

Tim Harrison

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Is there any advantage of using this method instead of Option 1? Option 1, seems to be more resilient because of the stable bacteria colonies that are available. However, a majority of aquascapers in this forum and elsewhere seem to be using option 2 instead of option 1. The only apparent advantage of this option is that the aquarium will be planted from day 1, but then it can take a long time to slowly add the livestock. Has this option actually any benefit when compared to option 1 when it comes to the long-term stability of the system? Any reason not to use option 1?
That's not necessarily true for a planted tank. A planted tank is often far more robust and stable. My tanks usually cycle sufficiently enough to start gradually adding critters within a week or so. And that is without additives of any kind, bacterial or ammonia.

And not only but also, plants are well documented water purifiers, and have been used for wastewater remediation for a very long time. Regardless of any tank cycling method it will take several months for the optimal microbial community to develop. In the meantime plants infer a great deal of resilience, and thereafter as well.
 

dw1305

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Hi all,
So, in short: if one uses "option 2" (cycling the tank with plants from day 1), when and how can livestock be introduced? Can livestock be introduced in cycled planted aquarium in the same way livestock is introduced after fishless cycling?
The simple answer is that once you have a reasonable biomass of plants in active growth you can actually add more fish to the tank than you could if the tank was reliant on "microbe only" nitrification in the filter.

Plants are net oxygen producers and it is oxygen (not ammonia) that is the <"most important metric in nitrification">. I like <"six weeks as a growing in period">, it is probably overly cautious, but I'm naturally fairly cautious.

<"Work from phytoremediation"> has shown that "plant/microbe biofiltration" is potentially an order of magnitude more efficient than "microbe only" biofiltration.

I like floating plants, because they have access to atmospheric CO2, which allows them to show a quicker response to elevated fixed nitrogen levels.

However, I failed to find reasonable explanations on how to add the livestock. With fishless cycling, a moderate amount of livestock can be immediately added after the cycle is stable.
<"Cycling" as a binary switch"> between "fish-unsafe" and "fish-safe" isn't a very useful concept. The microbial community is never "stable", it is a <"continually changing assemblage of microbes">, dependent upon the amount of oxygen and the ammonia loading.

If you have plants they greatly increase the surface area where nitrification can occur and provide these environmental gradients (edge effects) that foster a diverse microbial community and in ecology (and aquariums) diversity brings stability.

cheers Darrel
 

arcturus

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There is no need to add ammonia to cycle a planted tank. It probably doesn't encourage the optimal nitrifying microbial community anyway. Follow the link that @jamila169 posted above, there are many more. This subject comes up quite often.
If you plan to use ADA AS or similar with in vitro plants, perhaps best to give some thought to dark cycling for a period of 3 weeks or so. It should reduce the chances of melt and algae, particularly diatomaceous or brown algae.

The "dark start" process is a variation of the fishless cycling process. The main difference is that the fishless cycling uses an external source of ammonia along with monitoring of the ammonia and nitrite levels. The "dark start" process uses the soil as the source of ammonia because soils such as the ADA AS - and even the ADA AS Light or Tropica Soils - are laced with ammonia and other nutrients that will leach into the water column for weeks. Leaving the system running for a few weeks without water changes will eventually build up nitrifying bacteria that will consume the excess ammonia. The question that remains is about the amount of livestock that can be safely added to the system at the end of the process...
 

Kevin Eades

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I find the plants will create enough waste while transitioning to your tank that the bacteria has a food source. Along with the small steady ammonia release from the aquarium soil this allows the bacteria to have a food source. I also add a very small pinch of fish food about day 3 as this simulates some of the waste they system will expect. Very very small amount or you feed the algea. Also your plants bring some bacteria with them so this essentially means you don't start at zero. As Tim said above I think, I find within a week I have zero ammonia and nitrite by the end of week one. I allow until week 2 for clean up crew. Then a week for first fish. Then it's just standard aquarium practise not to add too many fish at once. The bacteria level stays at bio load so takes a while to grow once more added. I use this method as I dont need to buy ammonia its that simple
 

dw1305

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Hi all,
The "dark start" process is a variation of the fishless cycling process. The main difference is that the fishless cycling uses an external source of ammonia along with monitoring of the ammonia and nitrite levels. The "dark start" process uses the soil as the source of ammonia because soils such as the ADA AS - and even the ADA AS Light or Tropica Soils - are laced with ammonia and other nutrients that will leach into the water column for weeks. Leaving the system running for a few weeks without water changes will eventually build up nitrifying bacteria that will consume the excess ammonia
@Cor has used this method. If I started with an ammonia rich substrate I'd still carry out water changes, even with a dark start, because there isn't any advantage to having a microbial assemblage that was produced under higher ammonia loadings that you are ever going to have when the tank is populated with livestock.
The question that remains is about the amount of livestock that can be safely added to the system at the end of the process...
After the "dark start" and planting I would still let the tank grow in before I added the livestock. The process never really ends, as the plants grow in the potential bioload that the aquarium can successfully sustain just becomes larger.

I've never had a very heavily stocked tank, so I don't have figures for where that maximum bioload value would be.

cheers Darrel
 

Tim Harrison

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The "dark start" process is a variation of the fishless cycling process. The main difference is that the fishless cycling uses an external source of ammonia along with monitoring of the ammonia and nitrite levels. The "dark start" process uses the soil as the source of ammonia because soils such as the ADA AS - and even the ADA AS Light or Tropica Soils - are laced with ammonia and other nutrients that will leach into the water column for weeks. Leaving the system running for a few weeks without water changes will eventually build up nitrifying bacteria that will consume the excess ammonia. The question that remains is about the amount of livestock that can be safely added to the system at the end of the process...
Well yes perhaps, but I'm not conflating this with tank cycling as such. It's just advice you might like to follow if you're using Gucci substrate with in vitro. In vitro are delicate and don't always transition well especially planted in fresh nutrient rich substrate. This will perhaps give you the best chance of a good start.
 

foxfish

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I am only assuming that this is your first C02 injected tank?
Personally I would not even consider adding any fauna like fish or shrimps until you have really got the tanks plants established and growing well.
If you already have experience with C02 and know how to get it to work with correct flow and timings, then that is fine but otherwise it could take you several weeks of experimenting to get the tank running well with strong plant growth and little algae.
If you add any fish to soon then you run a high risk of killing them while you experiment with your gas settings.
 
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jamila169

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I find the plants will create enough waste while transitioning to your tank that the bacteria has a food source. Along with the small steady ammonia release from the aquarium soil this allows the bacteria to have a food source. I also add a very small pinch of fish food about day 3 as this simulates some of the waste they system will expect. Very very small amount or you feed the algea. Also your plants bring some bacteria with them so this essentially means you don't start at zero. As Tim said above I think, I find within a week I have zero ammonia and nitrite by the end of week one. I allow until week 2 for clean up crew. Then a week for first fish. Then it's just standard aquarium practise not to add too many fish at once. The bacteria level stays at bio load so takes a while to grow once more added. I use this method as I dont need to buy ammonia its that simple
This is what I've been experiencing, I've got john innes and peat under the gravel in daughter's tank and it just steadily chuntered away at zero ammonia and nitrite after about a week -the nitrate came down about week 3-4 and it's been steady ever since - only thing that kept me waiting longer was being extremely risk averse with animals of all sorts. the cube is different again, I reckon it'll be ok by now, 2 and a bit weeks in b/c its full of stratum and has more plants per square inch than the bigger tank and they're growing quicker
 

arcturus

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I am only assuming that this is your first C02 injected tank?
Personally I would not even consider adding any fauna like fish or shrimps until you have really got the tanks plants established and growing well.
If you already have experience with C02 and know how to get it to work with correct flow and timings, then that is fine but otherwise it could take you several weeks of experimenting to get the tank running well with strong plant growth and little algae.
If you add any fish to soon then you run a high risk of killing them while you experiment with your gas settings.
Thank for the advice! I kept "low tech" community tanks but this will be my first CO2 tank. So, I will definitely take my time to stabilize the system without any livestock in. There is much to learn. I plan to add invertebrates only after there is sufficient plant mass in the system. This will take some time because I will mostly use in vitro plants. So, I will use this period to adjust CO2, lighting and fertilization. Fish can be added much later - I have no hurry.
 

foxfish

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That is a very good plan, it will give you time to get the C02 set up.
For some reason that I cant quite grasp, many people seem very surprised that it takes more than one bubble per second of C02 to produce vigorous plant grow in 200 ltr of water.
So don't be surprised if you loose count of the bubbles required for your 270 ltrs
 
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