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Aquarium Setup: a Step-by-Step Guide


After getting to know the basic elements of a Nature Aquarium we will present you a step-by-step setup of a 60 liter fish tank.

We will follow-up the aftermath of this setup with pictures so you will also see what happened to this tank after completion. You can click on all images for high-res picture (found on our Flickr page).

Nature Aquarium


This 60x30x36 cm fish tank has 64 liters. We usually do not calculate with aquarium volume in our setup plants, we start from aquarium length (this is 60 centimeters in our case) because the light, the cabinet, the filter and the hardscape will be all selected to fit this standard size. This aquarium is big enough to host a stable ecosystem and small enough to be a good starting tank for all beginning aquascapers. The small size is important because of the setup costs (equipment, substrate, plants, etc.). Green Aqua has decided to present you with this aquarium install procedure taking all of the above into consideration.


Setting up the substrate system and hardscape

Base Layer Fertilizing Substrate

This special layer will release nutrients for plant roots for about 6-8 months. It will also ensure growth of nitrifying (filter) bacteria and the Plant Fertilizing Substrate will help with biological filtration.

Plants will not take up nutrients the same way. You will need to prepare your Substrate System to meet their needs. Bigger plants with stronger roots will show better growth with well-prepared substrate. The lack of a proper Base Layer Fertilizing Substrate will result in slower growth or even a stop in plant growth.

Products used: ADA Power Sand M - 2 liters

Base Layer Fertilizing Substrate

Base Layer Fertilizing Substrate



Spreading the Substrate

Pour the contents of the 2-liter bag in the middle of the empty aquarium and spread it making an even layer at the bottom (it will generally be a 1 cm high layer, which can increase towards the back of the tank if we have enough base material for that). Professional substrates should not be rinsed, they are ready to use. Make sure you leave a couple of centimeters empty along the front glass - this serves visual purposes.

Base Layer Fertilizing Substrates will have to be covered with 4-5 centimeters of General Substrate and if you use the bottom layer along the front glass you will have at least 5-6 centimeters of substrate there - that is just not esthetic.

Base Layer Fertilizing Substrate

Base Layer Fertilizing Substrate



Substrate Additives

Stable biological equilibrium of new aquariums can be achieved much quicker if we use different additives for improving bacterial life. Some products will be used in the substrate as dry powders, others will be placed in the external filter and there are also those, that can be dosed in liquid form in the aquarium water later.

We will complete our Substrate System in this case with Bacter 100 and Clear Super additives. Sprinkle the additives evenly on the Base Layer Fertilizing Substrate. This little box shown on the picture will be enough for many aquariums, it might be enough to buy a smaller amount for a 64 liter tank.

Substrate Additives

Substrate Additives



General Plant Substrate

We will use 9 liters of ADA Aqua Soil Amazonia for this tank. If you plant to make higher hills with the substrate you might want to consider 2-3 times more than this amount. You should also not rinse this substrate before use. The ADA Amazonia soils are the best ones of the active clay-based substrates, they contain extra nutrients that promote plant growth.

The Amazonia will stabilize the water to parameters to be suitable for your plants, it will initially soften the water and decrease the pH. Spread the soil evenly, do not mix it with the bottom-layer substrate!

General Plant Substrate

Spreading the General Plant Substrate



Hardscape - Wood

We used Red Moor wood, trying to find smaller roots, to improve the scale of the scape and to give the impression that this aquarium is bigger than it actually is. The wood does not have to be prepared, it can be placed in the aquarium after some rinsing.

Let you creative energies flow. Place the wood to express proportional and natural shapes. Turn it, tilt it and even break the branches if needed. The scape can later be refined as we progress with the setup.

Hardscape - Wood

Hardscape - Wood



Hardscape - Stones

Our substrate will tilt slightly towards the front and right. We tried to follow this line with our groups of roots. The construction is almost ready. We used flat stones to accentuate the natural feeling and to support the wood and the substrate.

This layout does not follow the Golden Ratio rule, but we tried to arrange the hardscape in a balanced manner. We left a 10 centimeter wide area empty at the front glass so our fish can shoal comfortably there.

Arranging the Wood

Hardscape - Stones



General Plant Substrate - Covering Layer (powder)

If you plant to use a lot of foreground plants or your aquarium is smaller you have the wonderful option to use powder-type General Plant Substrates. These can be spread at 1-2 centimeters on the top of the existing substrate. Plants with smaller roots can spread more densely and we will get a more compact foreground.

Smaller grain size will result in a more balanced view of Nano tanks, this technique is much better than using just regular substrates. Similar to the previous substrates - never rinse the Amazonia Powder. Use a small cup to spread it on top of the Amazonia.

ADA Amazonia Powder

ADA Amazonia Powder



Last Adjustments

However careful we were when spreading the top Substrate Powder Layer, we could not avoid covering some of the important hardscape elements. We can brush now brush them off with a regular painting brush. You can also make small adjustments to your hardscape at this point.

In our case we placed some additional wood on the left side to give a more detailed view and accentuate the left part. Our eyes will now be guided gently towards the lower right side by the structure. We broke the branch that almost reaches the water surface in the middle and that has improved the scape a lot.

Hardscape Plan

Hardscape is ready


Preparing the plants and planting them

It is time for us to prepare the plants for planting. Attention! This process might take a longer time, please give yourself plenty of time to complete this task and you might want to ask for some help from family members or friends. Potted plants should be taken out of the cotton. This can be done in a bucket or a dish full of water, it is easier to remove the cotton under water as it softens and roots can be pulled out of it more easily. Roots of some plants tend to interweave the cotton and that is impossible to remove with your hand. Use a pinsette for that.


Preparing the Plants

Wash the jelly off the lab-grown plants. The bunched plants placed in ceramic cylinders should also be removed from it - the cylinder is only used to weigh them down. Mosses can be tied to the hardscape or you can use the moss-net to put them on ADA Riccia stones, or you can even glue them on rocks or wood. Always use the easiest method.

We were using the Dennerle Moss fixing net that allows as to fasten the moss to an ADA Riccia Stone in seconds. We divided the other bunches of plants in smaller groups because larger bunches are really difficult to plant - they will keep coming out of the substrate. Plants divided in smaller groups will start to spread quickly.

Preparing the Plants

Plants prepared for planting




Do not forget to keep your plants humid, because they will easily dry out at room temperature and that can damage them. You should not forget about spraying them even through the whole process of planting. They tend to dry out even quicker under the light of the dry aquarium.

You will need to humidify the substrate before planting. It is very difficult to plant in dry substrate, and plants will float up if you did not do a good job with planting. Use a regular plant sprayer to humidify them regularly but you can also use its bigger counterpart - the one we have on the pictures. This will enable us to introduce a few liters of water without stirring the substrate or moving the clay granules.

Preparing the Substrate for Planting

Preparing the Substrate for Planting



Planting: Tying Plants on Wood and Stones

Let the planting begin! We started with the plants that can be placed on the wood. These could have been tied to the branches with Riccia Line or Wood Tight, but we decided to fasten them to small Riccia stones - similar to the mosses. This will enable us to move them to other locations later. Also, these stones will serve as useful weights to keep the wood down.

The plants are on the wood. The mosses on the Riccia stones are also placed - they also have a secondary purpose: they will keep the substrate in place. We did not want to use tall plants in the rear-right corner, so we planted Lilaeopsis Brasiliensis there. This is slightly higher and thicker than the grass in the foreground and will give a nice and wild effect later, when all plants have grown together.

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Humidification and Planting the Foreground

Do not forget to spray the whole tank and the prepared plants during planting as room temperature and humidity will damage them! Use a pinsette with narrow tips for quick success. These tweezers are the best for planting. It is easy to pin the plant down into the substrate and the roots are not going to come out together with the pinsette, once you released them and you pull the tool out of the substrate. Sizes S and M are best suited for this aquarium size.

The grasses have been planted to the right side. These will cover the foreground wonderfully - even if we can not get to certain corners because of the small space. We planted higher stem plants to the rear-left side, these will form a nice bush in the coming weeks.


Planting the Foreground



Finishing the planting and weighing down the wood

We placed some slow-growing plants between the stones in the foreground. These plants will thrive under low-light conditions so it will not be a problem if the stem plants will cast a shadow over this part of the aquarium.

If you are ready with planting, you will need to put some stones on the wood, because - unless you soaked it for weeks before setup - the Red Moor wood can float up for the first 2-3 weeks. You can use almost anything for this purpose: stones, a small dish, a cup, etc. It is also important to only use materials that will not release harmful substances in the water. If you are not sure of your stone, do not use it. Place a weight anywhere you think it is needed to keep the wood down. These weights will all be taken out in a couple of weeks and the Red Moor will remain in place under the water.

Finishing Planting

Weighing the Wood



Filling the Aquarium with Water

All stones are in place, all hardscape is securely fastened. Never mind about the visual problems of the stones at this point, keeping the hardscape in place is our main goal. When you take them out, the neighboring plants will occupy their space and everything will be balanced.

We can start filling the tank with water now. This should be a really slow process, we start with the water only dripping from the hose. A nice and calm start will have better results. Clay granules are too light at this point, everything can capsize at this point if you rush things. You can use a dish, a plate or even a colander or the bag of the substrate laid on the bottom and foreground plants and let the water drip on that. This will protect the plants and the substrate and you will have a crystal-clear water after you filled up your aquarium.

Hardscape with weight

Filling it with Water



Continuing the Water Filling

The level of the water rises nicely. Do not change the speed of the process. Never mind if a couple of small plant bunches come out, you might be able to plant them back later. When you are ready with 1/3 of the tank height you can increase the speed of the filling just a bit but make sure that the gravel stays undisturbed. The slow flow will keep the aquarium water clean and the clay was not stirred up.

We are slowly ready with filling up the water. The surface is full with small substrate particles and plant leaves. Some of these can be removed with a fish net, the other can be removed with kitchen towels placed on the surface. It is best to use a skimmer (Eheim Skim) because that will clean the surface in seconds. When the aquarium is full, you can mount the external filter and start it, making sure that the flow will not tear the plants out of their places. You can always increase the filter flow later, when the plants have already grown roots and are more stable in the substrate.

Filling the Water - at 1/3

Water Filling is Ready



We are ready!

Set the lights to the proper period, strong lighting will require a maximum of 7-9 hours. Set the CO2 system on timer and start it.

We were using a lot of lab plants in jelly so you should start adding plant fertilizers from the first day and repeat the process daily. There is a smaller chance for algae because we planted a lot of plants and we will also reach the desired view more soon. It will take about 8-12 weeks for the plants to reach their full size.

Algae eaters can be introduced 1 week after setup, other fish around 2-3 weeks. The aquarium was built on February 17, 2016, the next image was taken on Day 9. The fish were introduced sooner, because we were using a filter that was already cycled.

Day 9.

The image below was taken one and a half months' after setup (on April 5, 2016):

One and a Half months' Old

This is the two months' image (taken on April 23, 2016):

2 Months Old


We wish you all a pleasant Aquascaping! :)