I’ve been asked recently how to set up a tank like mine, so I’m breaking it down step-by-step and including shopping lists for both a 5.5 gallon set-up and a 10 gallon set-up. I’m going to follow up this post with stocking recommendations for both set-ups and try to have as much as possible with links in one place.
Disclaimer: I’m new to all this still (started my first tank May 2016), but I had to search a lot of places to assemble the method I’m using and I’m trying to reduce that search for you. But as always, do your own research too. Also, I only know one way to do this as natural planted, low-tech tanks are what appeal to me so it’s what I learned. I can’t answer your questions about how much CO2 to do or anything else like that. But if you want a detailed guide to a natural planted, dirted, nano tank for your betta or other nano resident, you’re in the right spot. I’m not explaining the nitrogen cycle in this post, I just walk you through how to set up a tank to “silent” cycle so you don’t get ammonia and so you can add fish sooner. You still need to understand it, so go read up on that!
Go shopping and make an Amazon order! You won’t be able to proceed until you get these things!
Home improvement store:
- Miracle grow organic potting mix (smallest bag you can find)
- Play sand
- 2- 5 gallon buckets with lids
- 1-creeping Jenny plant if you can find it (if you buy this, soak it completely for a few days before planting it in your tank).
- 8 inch clamp light or desk lamp
- LED Daylight bulbs (5000K)
Local Fish Store (LFS), decently kept chain pet store or online order:
- Tank: I use standard Aqueon black rimmed tanks from Petco. You can also buy glass canopies there, or your local fish store, or on Drs Foster and Smith (they have free shipping on orders over $19. It takes about a week, but you can get your Aqueon Versa Top, Theo heater, thermometer, and Mignon filter all in one go for your 5.5 gallon that way).
- Hardscaping: Rocks and driftwood. I use what’s called Zebra rock and also just larger river rocks I got at Petco. My LFS sells rock the pound and has a lot more variety. I also added Manzanita branches with anubias tied on purchased from Manzanita Driftwood.
- Frozen food: Buy frozen (not freeze-dried!) bloodworms and daphnia (and brine shrimp if you want to) and stash them in your fridge. If you’re feeding just one fish, you can thaw some and keep the extra in the fridge for up to 1 week. I feed frozen food in rotation, alternating with pellets, usually every other day.
DON’T buy your plants until the day you’re ready to plant the tank (except the creeping Jenny if you’re using that as mentioned above).
General aqua scaping rule of thumb, pick one kind of rock and stick with it, it will unify your aquascape. Use rocks and driftwood sold for aquarium use to be sure they won’t mess with your pH or introduce chemicals that are unsafe for your fish.
DON’T BUY ANY FISH YET! I know it’s tempting, believe me, I know! But you need to be set up first.
Assuming you’ve gotten your Amazon order and found all the items listed to get at the home improvement store, you can now go BACK to the fish store and pick out your plants. I’d stick with plants recommend for 5-10 gallons in the The 101 Best Freshwater Nano Species: How to Choose & Keep Hardy, Brilliant, Fascinating Nano Fishes, Plants & Invertebrates (Adventurous Aquarist Guide).
Plants: see plant section in The 101 Best Freshwater Nano Species. This article is also very helpful. IMPORTANT: Get enough plants to plant AT least 50% of your tank (as viewed from above). You need to start out heavily planted for this to work smoothly.
Planting the tank:
Step 1: pour about 8-10 cups of sand into one of those handy five gallons buckets you bought and rinse it, as in agitate it, and pour the water off about 5-6 times. you should see the water settle back on it clear after that. this will keep you from having to drain and refill the tank multiple times.
Step 2: put 1 to 1 1/2 inches of soil in the tank. Pick out the largest pieces of wood, but you don’t have to spend a ton of time on this step, the wood will get waterlogged under the sand.
Step 3: Mist the soil with your hose or a spray bottle that’s never had anything else in it, like anything. Don’t rinse a spray bottle you’ve used for something else. You can also just pour water in: get it thoroughly wet, but not a mud puddle, you don’t want standing water at this stage, it’ll just make your tank water dirty.
Step 4: Add your rinsed sand one inch deep over the soil.
Step 5: Put the tank where you want it (remember even a 10 gallon tank is going to weigh about 100 pounds when it’s full. Make sure you have something that will support the weight). Make sure it’s dry underneath. There’s no moving it after this unless you drain it. Decide where you’re going to put the filter and leave at least 4 inches of space (for the filters I’ve recommended, if you choose a different filter you may need more!) for that between the tank and any wall.
Step 6: Put a plate on top of the sand and fill the tank half way. This doesn’t have to be conditioned water, you may want to empty some of this back out.
Step 7: Take the plants out of their bags. If they are groups of stems, remove the weight band thing. if they are in pots remove them from their pots and take off any of the weird wool stuff they grow them in without damaging the roots as much as possible. Inspect them for any algae and either rub it off with your fingers or remove affected leaves. Rinse them off.
Step 8: plant your plants by wiggling them into the sand with your fingers. Some soil may float up at this point. Don’t plant the moss ball, that just sits on the sand 😉
Step 9: Let everything settle and decide if you need to take water out, or just skim off any pieces that floated up.
Step 10: Fill tank to bottom of black band.
Preparing for cycling and fish:
Step 1: Add Prime to your tank, about 12 drops from an eye dropper if you have one, or you can estimate with the lid according to the instructions on the back.
Step 2: RINSE about a handful of the Matrix if using the Palm filter until the water is clear! If using the Aquaclear, rinse the included bio-media in the included mesh bag very thoroughly.
Step 3: Set up the filter. (will add a video later of how I have mine set up).
Step 4: AZOO: put one of the included sponges in the front of the filter, vertically behind the outflow. Then: Put the rinsed Matrix in the filter box, evenly spread out. Follow included instructions to prime filter AQUACLEAR: Put the sponge in the bottom of the filter basket followed by the mesh bag full of bio media. DO NOT use the carbon, it’s not intended for planted tanks and will take nutrients out. Follow instructions to prime filter.
Step 6: Set up the heater: IMPORTANT. Poorly written instructions on the Aqueon heater. AFTER you submerge it, WAIT 30 minutes before you turn it on. It does say this but it’s in a bad order. Otherwise, you can follow the included instructions. Also, when doing a water change, unplug the filter and the heater first! If you run the heater dry, it can malfunction and fry your fish, either by heating them because it doesn’t cut off or electrocuting them. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s a possibility, so let’s not have that happen! Supposedly the Hydor heater doesn’t have that problem but I’m still turning it off to be safe.
Step 7: Filter should be running nice and smooth by now, add Stability to the tank according to instructions on bottle. This plus the plants will make your tank cycle silently (meaning you can have the fish in and you won’t see an ammonia spike) once you add a fish or two. Make sure you add Stability according to the instructions for the whole week.
Step 8: Set up the light and timer. I just clamp my light to the side of my tank, or the shelf above so it shines at an angle from the long side. I plant my higher light plants near the light and the lower light plants on the far side of the tank. Set the timer for a 5 hours on-4 hours off-5 hours on pattern to start with. You many need more or less depending on things like how much algae you start getting (you have too much light), plants growing too slowly (you need more light), light coming from nearby windows (you’d need less from your lamp). The “siesta” in the middle allows the natural CO2 levels to come back up and keeps you from having to add CO2 in most cases (double check your plants by googling them before you buy and make sure they say “easy” and don’t say they need high CO2).
Stocking your tank:
Yes, now you can go buy your Betta, or if you’re adding a schooling fish to a 10 gallon add 3-6 of those (to start with, the goal is 8-10 of a schooling species). Don’t add dwarf or Amano shrimp at this time as you won’t have any bio-film for them to graze. Wait at least a month to add shrimp. Ghost shrimp on the other hand are scavengers and will eat left over fish food. You only want to stock about 20% every 2-3 weeks, until you hit about the 90% of recommended stocking on aqadvisor.
Schooling fish compatible with Bettas that can live in a 10 gallon (be sure you have a back-up plan in case you have a betta that won’t tolerate any tank mates!):
- Ember Tetra
- Lambchop (or Espei) Rasboras
- Sundadanio Axelrodi
- Chili Rasboras (really any of the Bororas family)
- Celestial Pearl Danios
- Pygmy Coradoras (Pygmaeus, Hastatus, or Habrosus)
Many other schooling fish are too large or too fast to be kept in a 10 gallon. All these are an inch or less. Plan on about 10 of each (again run your stocking plan on Aqadvisor and research!) because you’ll get more natural behavior that way. When I had 5 Ember Tetra they hid much of the time. With 12, they’re almost all out in front all the time. The Betta is super mellow and pretty much ignores them. It’s recommended to only keep one kind of schooling fish with a Betta, and in a 10 gallon you only have room to keep enough of one species anyway.
Non-fish tank mates can include: African Dwarf Frogs, shrimp (be sure they won’t become lunch! I tested my betta with a ghost shrimp before I added amanos to his tank), and snails (big bioload for some though, again, do research).
Betta fish forum
Planted tank forum
Aqadvisor: helpful site for thinking about stocking options. When starting out stay below 90% and only stock 20% ish at a time, waiting at least 2 weeks before adding more.
Forum thread on tank mates in a 5.5 gallon. It’s a big debate in many places, I’m still deliberating. I think if I do try tank mates (other than 2 Amano shrimp and a nerite snail per tank, I will probably upgrade the filter, possible straight to Aquaclear 20’s, even if I have to baffle them some for the smaller tank).