How to make a simple planted tank for African Cichlids
It’s a popular belief that African cichlids and live aquariums plants can never go together. Plants can be a great way to keep alpha males in check and block their line of sight. Here is a step-by-step tutorial on how to set up an eye-catching planted tank that will do well with fish like mbuna and peacock cichlids.
Step #1: Prepare the Aquarium
For our setup, we purchased a 75-gallon aquarium that is approximately 4 feet long and 1.5 feet deep. The background was painted black to hide the power cords and airline tubing, but you can easily purchase an aquarium background from your local pet store or even use poster board as the backing.
To cover the aquarium, get a glass top with a hinged lid for easy access. Clear lids allow light to reach the aquarium, but prevent fish from jumping out. Also, place the aquarium on a stand that is strong enough to support the nearly 1000 lbs. of water, plants, and fish.
Use a glass top to cover the aquarium to allow maximum light to reach the plants and to keep water from evaporating as quickly.
African cichlids require harder water and high pH than your typical freshwater fish, so if you have soft, acidic water, choose a substrate that will help buffer the water. Seachem Gray Coast is a good choice if you are looking for dark-colored substrate. Rinse the substrate thoroughly before placing it in the aquarium to minimize cloudiness in the water. Once the substrate is in place, fill up the fish tank with dechlorinated water.
Step 2: Install the equipment
Although there are many options for filtration, two large, coarse sponge filters can be used to filter the aquarium. They should be placed in the back corners. You can find instructions on how to put them in our article on sponge filters. Also, to quickly introduce beneficial bacteria to your aquarium, let the filters first run in another established aquarium for a couple of weeks before placing them in the new tank. The beneficial bacterial will provide a welcoming ecosystem for your new fish, greatly minimize loss of life, and make your aquarium maintenance routine much easier.
An air stone can be added to the sponge filter to improve filtration efficiency. It will also reduce bubbling.
Since we are using low light plants for this tank, a low intensity LED light such as the Finnex Stingray is sufficient for our setup. You may need different lighting requirements depending on your aquarium’s dimensions. Our LED Aquarium Lighting Guide will help you choose the right light for your aquarium. Connect the light to the power outlet and set a timer. This will ensure that your plants get enough light, usually 8-10 hours per day. Too much light can cause plants to become sick, while too little will result in a crop of ugly algae.
Also, think about your heating options. If you only have a few aquariums, install an aquarium heater to maintain proper water temperature for your fish. Our aquarium heater guide explains what size heater you need depending on the volume of the aquarium. However, if you have many fish tanks, it may be more cost effective to heat the entire room where they are housed.
Step #3: Plant the Flowers
This setup calls for vallisneria as the preferred plant. The tall grass-like vallisneria is ideal for African cichlids. Because the leaves are high, it breaks up the line of sight. This allows individuals to escape bosses and other aggressive fish. This low-light plant can transform an entire aquarium into a lush, dense jungle by itself. Since we still want to provide open areas for swimming, place two or three 12-inch square slate tiles (purchased from your local hardware store) into the substrate like a row of diamonds. This will prevent vallisneria spread to other areas. For a more natural look, you can cut these tiles in half.
For a 75-gallon aquarium we used four pots filled with vallisneria. Each pot contained multiple plants. Place the vallisneria on the substrate in the areas that are not covered by tiles. Make sure the roots are buried, but the base of your leaves are above ground. The crown (or base) of the leaves can be buried and cause them to die. Vallisneria grows very tall so you should plant them all near the back and leave a few plants at the front.
Place tiles in a geometrical orientation on substrate. You can also plant vallisneria there to create swimming areas for cichlids.
Vallisneria depends on nutrients from the substrate and the water column. So make sure you bury root tab fertilizers near every section of plants. To encourage healthy growth, add a liquid fertilizer to the water column.
Step 4: Add the Fish
Before you add the cichlids to your aquarium, give the vallisneria time to get used to it. They will be stronger roots and more difficult to pull apart. Ideally, the plants can be growing and cycling your aquarium, while the fish are in quarantine. Once you add the fish, observe them for aggression and see if you need to add more plants to their environment. Enjoy your plant aquarium, which is rare in the African Cichlid Hobby!