How to Set up an Easy Planted Tank for African Cichlids

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How to Set Up an Easy 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. Make sure to keep the aquarium hydrated with 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. After the substrate has been placed, you can fill the aquarium with dechlorinated waters.


Step 2: Install the equipment

There are many choices for filtration, but for ease of maintenance, you can use two large coarse sponge filters, placed in the two back corners of the aquarium. (For details on how to install them, see our article on how to use 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.

Adding an airstone to the sponge filter’s interior can increase the filtration efficiency and reduce the bubbling sound.

A low-intensity LED light like the Finnex Stingray will suffice for this setup, as we have low-light plants. However, your lighting requirements may vary greatly depending on the dimensions of your aquarium, so check our LED Aquarium Lighting Guide for suggestions on which light is right for you. Make sure to connect the light to a power outlet timer so that the plants get a consistent amount of light (generally eight to ten hours per day). Too little light can lead to plants dying, but too much will produce beautiful and attractive algae.

Finally, consider 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 plants

Our plant of choice for this setup is vallisneria. 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. Plus, this low light plant is very prolific and can single handedly transform your entire aquarium into a dense, luscious jungle. You can still provide swimming areas by placing two to three 12-inch square slate tiles (purchased at your local hardware store) in the substrate. This will prevent the vallisneria from spreading everywhere. For a more natural look, you can cut these tiles in half.

For a 75-gallon aquarium, we used four pots of vallisneria, and each pot contained multiple plants. The vallisneria should be planted in sections of the substrate that are not covered with tile so that the roots are buried and the base of leaves is above the ground. The crown (or base) of the leaves can be buried and cause them to die. Vallisneria grows very tall, so it is best to plant them in the back of the tank. There are a few plants at the front.

Place the tiles in a diamond shaped orientation on the substrate and plant the vallisneria in between to create open swimming areas for the 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 settle in. They will need to become stronger roots and are easier to pull apart. Ideally, the plants can be growing and cycling your aquarium, while the fish are in quarantine. Once the fish are added, watch for aggression and decide if more plants should be added to the aquarium. Now sit back and enjoy your planted aquarium, a rarity in the African cichlid hobby!