A PICTORIAL ARTICLE
ON HOW TO SET UP A PLANTED TANK
USING GRAVEL AND SAND AS A SUBSTRATE
With this article it is my hope to help those that are interested in a
Planted Discus Tank achieve their goals through a pictorial step-by-step
setup using gravel and sand as a substrate. I will also discuss some of
the planning that is involved in such a setup. Links to sites mentioned
will be placed at the end of this article.
The Discus' needs should always come first and foremost before anything
With that said let's move on to the first steps.
It is always important to do some preliminary research and drawings of
This should include:
What Type / Style of planted tank setup you want to achieve
What Plants will be used for that type / style that you have chosen?
What type of Substrate will you be using?
What kind of Lighting system will be appropriate for the plants?
What type of Heating will you choose?
The type of Filtration used
CO2 to add or not add and why?
Preliminary Drawings of the setup
TYPE / STYLE:
One of the first choices you will be faced with is deciding on what
type / style of planted tank you want. There are two "Main"
types / styles to choose from.
The "Dutch" style:
This type of tank is one that focuses more on the overall aesthetic look
of the plants and how the colors and shape of leaves interrelate together.
The "Geographic Specific" setup:
This type of tank only uses plants that originate from South America.
I have chosen the latter type / style for my tank setup and this
Before you get started in choosing the plants you want, you have to
take into consideration the compatibility of the Discus and their
environmental needs with those of the plants. The last thing you want to
have happen is end up with your prized Discus having constant health
problems due to their needs not being met. On the other hand you do not
want to plant your tank wily - nilly without any regard for the plants
either. You could end up with a tank that has all the plants melting down
The basic needs of the Discus are as follows:
- pH range of 5.5 to 7
- Total hardness range of 7-15 DH
- Temperature range of 82-88F (28-31C)
Keeping this in mind the next step is to do some research on plants.
One of the best places I have found to do this research is at Tropica's
web site. They list all of the requirements the plant will need and some
extra info that you will find useful. You will be able to find out about
- Family name
- Region of cultivation / origin
- Lighting needs
- Temperature needs
- Hardness requirements
- pH requirements
- Speed of growth
- Fertilization requirements, if needed.
There are other suppliers of aquatic plants as well. I would suggest
hunting for as many as possible to collect as much information as you can.
Another good place to go is the Discus forums and plant mailing lists.
There you will find people to ask about experiences with specific plants
that you may be considering choosing.
When doing research on the plants, keep in mind that if you find a
plant and its listed needs are, for example, a pH range of 6-10, that
specified plant will thrive in the middle of that range i.e.; a pH of 8.
This holds true for all their requirements unless otherwise stated by the
suppliers site or other's experience with that specific plant.
Ok, so now you have done your research and compiled a list of plants
that you know will thrive in Discus waters, what now?
From my own experience I found that it is best now to break up the list
into smaller subgroups. The easiest way to start is to group plants
together that have similar requirements, the more similarities the better,
this will help you:
- In deciding Substrate, Lighting, Heating, Fertilization and
requirements and needs
- In deciding in what spot in the tank you will be planting your
- And will help pare down that long list of plant choices. You might
suddenly find that beautiful plant that you thought you were going to add
to your setup will not work because its substrate or lighting requirements
are different than all the other
The plants that I have chosen for my tank setup are as follows:
- Echonidorus Tenelus
- Echonidorus Quadricostatus
- Echonidorus Bleheri
- Echonidorus Ozelot 'green'
- Echonidorus Palaefolius
- Hygrophila Polysperma - this plant is from South East Asia
- Limnophilla Sessiliflora - this plant is from South East Asia
- Rotalia spec. 'Green'
- Vallisneria Spiralis
- Vallisneria Spiralis 'Tiger'
You will notice in the above list that there are two types of plants
from South East Asia. They were picked for their speed of growth. These
fast growing plants will help in the uptake of excess nutrients out of the
water column (water in your tank above substrate level) while the other
slow growing plants are trying to get a foothold. This will help in the
initial setup for the control of algae.
Once the slow growing plants get a foothold in the tank, the fast
growing plants will be removed from the setup. When removing these plants,
do it slowly so as not to create an imbalance in the tank. The last thing
you want to do is have a sudden major algae bloom due to removing these
plants too fast.
Why the combo of gravel and sand as opposed to just using a gravel only
substrate? Let us look at the benefits and disadvantages of both mediums
in conjunction with the keeping of Discus in the same tank.
- Readily available to most hobbyists.
- Available in different sizes
- Available in different colors
- Promotes water circulation
- Gravel only as a substrate is not a good
medium to use due to its ability to act as a
catch basin for left over foods, which are then hard to vacuum out of the
- Sand has a small particulate grain size and is good for planting and
keeping down small plants with very fine root systems. Sand also has the
added benefit of not allowing left over foods to imbed themselves, thus
making it easier to clean.
- The appropriate type of sand needed is not
easy to find. Sand does not promote good water circulation as a substrate.
If sand were to be used solely we would end up with anaerobic areas all
over the tank, due to it having a tendency to compact very easily. If you
do not choose the right type of sand you may drive your KH up due to
leaching of Carbonates into your water column.
WHERE TO FIND SUBSTRATE:
Can be found at any aquarium or pet supply store. You want to get 3mm
sized gravel. Some substitutes that will also work; Cat litter; This can
be used but make sure that you buy the non treated or perfumed stuff.
Turface; This can be found at any gardening center, test it to make sure
it is inert using the Strong Vinegar or Muriatic Acid test.
Can be found at a building supply or from a sandblasting supply company.
Look in your regional yellow pages for listings. The type you want to get
is Quartz Silica Sand, do the Strong Vinegar or Muriatic Acid test on this
also, just to make sure.
You want to test the materials you have chosen to see if they will leach
Carbonates into your water column. If they do, this will drive your
Carbonate Hardness (KH) up, if you bought your materials (substrate) at an
aquarium supply store, the chances are they will be fine and no test is
needed. I would test just to make sure.
To do this test all that is needed is a very strong vinegar or Muriatic
acid. If you are going to use Muriatic acid be very careful and wear
appropriate protective gear such as a long sleeved shirt, goggles and a
good pair of rubber gloves plus use in a well-ventilated area. Remember it
is a strong acid and can give you a nasty chemical burn if it gets on
- Vinegar: Put a small sample of material to be tested in a glass jar.
Fill the jar with vinegar and leave for 24hrs. If the next day you notice
bubbles rising from the material it has carbonates in it and will not be
suitable for your setup, pick another material and test again.
- Muriatic Acid: Do the same as the above method not forgetting to
wear the appropriate protective gear. The difference with using Muriatic
acid for the test is that it will give you instant results.
What Depth should the substrate be?
In my setup I have decided to have an overall depth of 5" in the
back sloping to 2" in the front. The reason for the depth of 5"
in the back is some of the plants that I have chosen need a lot of depth
of substrate to accommodate their root systems. The degree of slope chosen
is to facilitate cleaning of the tank. All the debris and mulm will make
its way to the front of the tank, easier for sucking out at water change
time and regular daily cleanings. We still need a good balance of water
circulation in the substrate and also enough depth of sand to utilize its
benefits. I will be setting the depth of the sand to 1" and the rest
will be made up by gravel.
There are many sites out there that you can look at to find the right
choice of lighting that you will need, (i.e. type and color temp needed).
I will just cover some of the basics. If most of the plants that you have
chosen are light loving plants you will need at least 3-4 watts of light
per gallon. If most or all are shade-loving plants you can get away with
1-2 watts per gallon. The duration your lights should be on is 10 to 12hrs
a day no matter what type of lighting you choose. I will provide some
links at the end of this article.
There is enough info out there to easily be found. The choice of what
type of heating system you will have is dependent on providing stable heat
at 33C/92F on a constant basis, even though this is the extreme top end of
temperature that you would have it is better to pre plan for it.
Some things to keep in mind when choosing the right filter for the job:
Plants do not like fast water currents, they prefer a slow gentle current,
if you are adding CO2 to your setup the more vigorous the agitation the
more CO2 loss you will have, do not add carbon to your filter, it will
negate any of the fertilizing you are doing and will adsorb any of the
beneficial micronutrients that you are adding to the tank as food for the
CO2 plays a very important role in the planted home aquarium. To
understand this better we have to go back to the basics for a second.
During the daytime hours plants and fish need oxygen to survive. Both
exhale carbon dioxide. The plants on the other hand also use carbon
dioxide during the day for photosynthesis. The act of photosynthesis on
the plants part creates oxygen. At night fish and plants use oxygen and
produce carbon dioxide.
So from the above statement we know that plants need both oxygen and
CO2 in proportion to survive during daylight hours. One of the other
factors in this relationship we have to keep in mind is that; the more
light you give the plants the faster they will grow, the faster they grow
the more oxygen and CO2 they will consume to survive and thrive. If there
is not enough CO2 for them to consume the plants will look for it anywhere
they can get it. One of the places they can get CO2 from is extracting the
Hardening Constituents from the Carbonate Hardness (KH) this process is
called: Biogenic decalcification.
Biogenic decalcification is when there is a deficiency in CO2 in the
water. The plants take the Carbonates and break them down into CO2 and
precipitates carbonates. What this means in your tank is that the pH will
rise and you will see calciumcarbonate deposits on the leaves of your
plants. Calcium deposits look like a coating of "white powder".
If left unchecked for an extended period what will eventually happen is;
the KH of your water will drop to dangerously low levels and you will
suffer a pH crash! To avoid this, the addition of CO2 is recommended.
Do you need CO2? :
Your tank setup will dictate whether or not you need CO2 addition. If
you are choosing a setup where the lighting needs of most if not all the
plants will be low, then no I do not think that you will need a CO2 setup.
If on the other hand the plants that you have chosen need high lighting
amounts or CO2 to thrive, then yes more than likely you will need CO2
addition. If you have decided not to add CO2 to your tank you may need to
add it later on. The best way to tell if you will have to is to do daily
testing of your water parameters and keeping an eye out for the tell tale
signs of "white powder" forming on the leaves.
What method of CO2 injection and equipment needed? :
Ok so you have decided to add CO2 to the tank or the tank has decided
for you. How do you set it up and what equipment will you need. The
cheapest way is to make a DIY (do it yourself) setup. There are many
sources out there for this type of setup.
If you are intending to use a CO2 bottle and regulators here is what
you will need:
- A CO2 bottle. A 5lb one will do for your needs. This size has and will
last me up to a year on my 100G. This is the holding tank for the CO2.
- A set of regulators. Pay extra and get good ones. They must be approved
for CO2 use. This regulates the amount (pressure) of CO2 that will be
flowing into your tank.
- Solenoid valve. This is used to automate your system so the CO2 shuts down
when your lights do and turns on when the lights come on.
- Secondary Regulator, that you can fine-tune the pressure down with (the
amount of pressure needed to supplement the tank with CO2 is very small).
Again it must be approved for CO2 use.
- Needle Valve. Again pay the extra bucks and get a good one. This is the
super fine tune for the system.
- Bubble Counter. This unit is used to count the amount of CO2 entering the
- Diffuser or Generator. What these units do is mixes the CO2 into your
- You can substitute #'s 4,5 and 6 by buying a pH controller that monitors
your pH levels and at the same time automates the CO2 injection by the
levels at which the pH is read.
- CO2 resistant airline tubing.
Most of the CO2 equipment you will need from the above list can be
purchased at a Specialty Gas Supplier, they can be found in your yellow
pages. The Bubble Counter and Diffuser or Generator can be found at an
How to set it up? :
First off let me say that I will only be able to tell you in what order
to set your equipment up in. You will have to figure out how much CO2 to
inject into your water by the needs of your particular setup and by the
water parameters in your area. A little fiddling and patience is all that
First the CO2 Bottle. Make sure that when you attach the regulators
that they are on tight. Use a crescent/adjustable wrench. I have placed
mine at the side of the tank. If you have enough room you can place it
under your tank.
Next run the CO2 resistant tubing to the Solenoid. The Solenoid should
be wired to a timer. Run more airline now to the Secondary Regulator.
The next piece of equipment is the Needle Valve. Run the CO2 tubing to
it from the Secondary Regulator.
From the needle valve we now run the CO2 tubing to the Bubble Counter.
To the last piece of equipment! Run one last length of tubing to the
Diffuser or Generator. In my setup I am using a Diffuser which is inside
I would explain how to setup a pH controller instead of all this other
stuff but since I don't use one you will have to do that research on your
You will need to fertilize your plants on a regular basis. There are
two ways to fertilize. One is to fertilize the water column using a liquid
fertilizer. For liquid fertilizers it is recommended to use products
specifically meant for aquatic plants. These can be purchased at any
Aquarium supply. There are many to choose from. If you are going to
experiment with them to see which one will give you best results may I
suggest using one type for at least a couple of months following the
manufacturers instructions before switching to another product.
The other is fertilizing the substrate under the plants to feed the
root system; this method uses solid fertilizers. Again the LFS will carry
many different supplys, follow the instructions given. As a substitute in
this case, you can use "Jobe Sticks for palms" these can be
bought at a local gardening centre for a couple of dollars for 30 to 40
sticks. To use these you have to cut them into quarters and place beneath
the soil under the root ball of the plant. The plant will dictate to you
how often you have to feed it with these "Sticks".
A lot has been written about fertilizing plants, the things to look for
incase of deficiencies (fertilizing, micronutrients etc.), and too much of
any of the aforementioned. Again the links provided latter on will help
you on this topic.
So you are ready to plant! Not yet! One of the things you should do now
is do some Preliminary Drawings of your setup the way you would want/think
it should look like. This will save you a lot of grief and headaches later
on. Try to do it to scale this will help in the placement of your
equipment, depth and incline of substrate and layout of your plants. Do Topographical,
Side and Frontal view sketches. Below you will find
examples from my setup.
Now that we have done most of the research that we can do lets move on
to planting the tank.
read further on the next