You have seen them in books, magazines, or on the net, those jaw dropping planted tanks that are works of art. They inspire you to get some plants into one of your tanks. Maybe you have heard the benefits of plants for your fish or how they can help keep the water parameters in check between water changes. Whatever the case, you added plants to the tank but they didn’t last long. They turned brown or got covered in algae. This is how I started, and so have many others. It left me asking why. After trying and failing a couple times I gave up. About a year later I got the urge to try again. This time I spent the time researching to figure out how to do it the right way. Over the last 6 years I have kept many planted tanks and helped many people find their way into the planted community.
Lighting is the most important aspect of a planted tank. The two most common problems I run into with people are that they add too much light or have too little. The whole key is finding a balance. Figure out the plants you would like to keep and then get a fixture which will supply the minimum amount of light needed to keep them alive. Many people will talk about the “Watt per Gallon” (WPG) rule. This guideline was started back when people were using T12 shop lights over the tank. These days there is more powerful and efficient lighting with compact florescent and T5 High Output. Today’s aluminum reflectors are more efficient at getting light into the tank than ever before.  What I am getting at, is, this is no longer a reliable guide. Watts is a measure of power not light but that’s another story.   There are four common lighting options with a 5th still out of the price range of most hobbyists. T12 and T8 are common in kit tanks. In smaller tanks these might be able to support basic low light plants. For larger tanks such as 55 gallons or bigger however, you would need to upgrade the lighting. Some people use shop lights since they are cheap. They can work but are made to light a large area not a small defined area. At one time I had 8 t8 bulbs over my 120. IT took up a lot of room and it was hard to get in and out of the tank. A growing option on smaller tanks 5-29 gallons is the spiral compact florescent lamps (CFL). These allow a fair amount of light in a small area but they are just not that efficient.  Compact fluorescent (CF) bulbs are commonly available and a good source for light. There are countless companies making them though I do find to have the best reflectors for them.  More on their importance later. T5 and T5 High Output is the new best thing. They run cooler, can be more efficient than CF fixtures, and are available in more configurations making it easier to achieve your proper lighting needs.  The 5th type that is coming soon is LED. I am sure that at some point these will be the best way to light your tank with or without plants. They are already available on the market, but I don’t believe that the technology is really there yet, especially considering their comparatively high price tag . I left out Metal Halide (MH) because I am not a fan at all. They are hot and eat up a lot of power but do give a look you can’t find with the other lights. MH mimics sunlight better than any of the fluorescent options. In high light tanks or some really large tanks they might be the best option available. Reflectors are an extremely important part of lighting and often over looked. Reflectors are the key to CF and T5 HO. All in one reflectors are common in most lights, they reflect more light then shop lights, though the key is to get a fixture with individual reflectors. claims to reflect up to 62% more light into the tank with their angled reflectors than flat regular flat reflectors. While I can’t say for sure this number is 100% correct I have tested flat and angled reflectors and the angled ones win hands down.  With T5 HO, the bulbs are smaller creating less restrike, thus getting more usable light into the tank.
If you are ready to take it to the next step there are new questions to ask. Do I add CO2, new plant substrate, fertilizer?  As a new challenge with increased plant options, medium light set up can be as hard or as easy as you wish. I will start off by saying CO2 isn’t a must but can be helpful in many tanks. CO2 helps boost plant growth and helps keep some kinds of algae at bay. If you decide CO2 is the way for you I highly suggest a CO2 drop checker. This is a visual way to measure the Co2 in your tank. There are 3 ways to add CO2. Pressurized systems have a semi high set up cost at around $150-250 but over time they are the cheapest option. Do it yourself CO2 is another option. I find it works best in smaller 5-20 gallon tanks. It’s harder to keep stable and in larger tanks you may need several bottles at once. Excel is another option for CO2. It’s a liquid made by Seachem. It’s not as good as the gas and it can kill some plants like vals. You do not need a special plant substrate. Many of them look nice and can help the growth of the plants, but in most cases, they aren’t really necessary. I have grown plants in sand and pea gravel and there are even plants that don’t even need substrate at all. Flourite and Eco complete are common plant substrates. Both have minimal trace elements. Both have decent Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC) which means it can take fertilizer from the water and release for the root systems of the plants. Aquasoil has both trace and micro fertilizer. It grows plants very well since it has the nutrients needed for the plants. There are also many DIY substrates and lesser known options out there. It’s worth looking into if you enjoy diy type projects. Fertilizers are the most complicated and easiest way to throw off the balance of the tank. If you just start dumping fertilizers into the tank without knowing what you are doing you can cause an algae outbreak. There are many guides and methods out there to help you. The two common ones are EI (Estimative Index) which you add plenty of fertilizers for the week and do a large water change at the end of the week or PPS (perpetual preservation system) which adds just enough fertilizers for the week.  If you decide to add fertilizers to your tank invest in dry fertilizers, which can be easily purchased online. One person worked out that buying the liquid fertilizers is 44 times more expensive. Save some money, buy the dry chemicals, and mix them yourself.
I often tell myself and others KISS (keep it simple, stupid). Set yourself up for success. The key is setting reasonable goals. I always advise starting with low light, easy plants. This way you can learn the basics and move up if you wish. Starter plants include anubias, crypts, java ferns, and moss. There are many amazing low light low maintenance plants out there. Lower light tanks tend to be less work and often under rated.  A dream of having that amazing, jaw dropping tank is fine, and you definitely don’t need to go high tech to do it. By following basic design elements and choosing interesting focal points like driftwood or aquarium rocks, you can make gorgeous tanks that don’t require the same intense maintenance as those high tech setups. It’s also important to remember that most of those aquarists spend hours getting their tank just right for the photos, also, many have been keeping planted tanks for years. Give yourself time. If that’s your goal, then you will get there. Having a couple plants to liven up the tank and help keep the water in check is also a great goal. Just remember to keep at it and don’t give up.