Few freshwater aquariums look more stunning than a planted tank. But its the first few steps of setting it up that can make the difference between an average looking scape and a jaw-dropping Nature Aquarium.
Start at the bottom by placing a deep layer of aquatic soil on the base of the tank. Aquascaping soil is soft for roots to bury into, holds nutrients to fertilise plants and holds rocks and wood in place easily. There is no need to pre-wash soil so pour it straight onto the tank base and bank it up, front to back, so its about an inch deep at the front of the tank and anything up to six inches deep at the back. Use your hand, a dry paintbrush or a gravel rake to smooth the soil surface.
Wood is next, so choose, large, appealing pieces that look natural, without squared off or sawn corners. Be brave with your wood choice and choose one or two pieces of the same type of wood, laying them diagonally with the fat end in the soil and the thin, branching ends pointing up towards the water surface. Wood can be placed so that it sticks out of the water, for added, natural effect.
Once the wood is in place choose one type of rock and place chunks of it around the base of the wood. Place the largest pieces next to the trunk and radiate smaller pieces outwards from that. Rocks can be broken up with a hammer and small fragments scattered around the outward faces of the rocks.
Fill the tank with tap water to a depth that just covers the soil, as it makes it easier to plant into. Prepare potted and tissue cultured plants by removing any growing medium from the roots, and teasing them into small, 5cm sized bunches, ready for planting. Using tweezers, plant each clump of plants into the soil, placing tall species at the back and small, carpeting species at the front. Cryptocoryne look particularly effective when placed in the crevices in and around rocks and wood.
Tie Java Fern, Anubias and mosses to the wood using fishing line before filling the aquarium. Dechlorinate, add a complete fertiliser, then fit a CO2 diffuser in an area of strong circulation and a drop checker (to indicate CO2 levels,) at the other end of the tank. Fit external filter pipework, plug in heater, switch them on and set the light to come on for a fixed eight-hour photoperiod every day.
About a week later introduce the first algae grazers like Otocinclus catfish and Algae eating Japonia shrimp, Caridina multidentata. Change the water regularly, fertilise on a daily basis and wait for your underwater garden to grow.