It’s a popular belief that African cichlids and live aquariums plants can never go together. But with the right stocking choices, plants can be an excellent means of blocking line of sight and keeping alpha males from getting too aggressive. 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.
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. The clear lid permits light to reach the plants, while preventing fish from jumping out and water and heat from escaping as quickly. 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. We recommend using crushed coral if you prefer light-colored substrate or Seachem Gray Coast if you like 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.
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 air stone to the inside of a sponge filter helps to increase filtration efficiency and lessen the bubbling sound.
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. 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 will cause the plants to die off, whereas too much light will grow a nice crop of unsightly 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.
Our plant of choice for this setup is vallisneria. This tall grass-like species is perfect for African cichlids because the height of the leaves breaks up line of sight and allows individuals to escape from aggressive tank bosses. Plus, this low light plant is very prolific and can single handedly transform your entire aquarium into a dense, luscious jungle. 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 the vallisneria from spreading everywhere. You can also break these tiles in half into more natural shapes for improved aesthetics.
For a 75-gallon aquarium, we used four pots of vallisneria, and each pot contained multiple plants. Plant the vallisneria in the different sections of the substrate not covered by tile, such that the roots are buried but the base of the leaves is above ground. (Burying the crown, or base of the leaves, may cause the plant to die.) Vallisneria gets very tall, so plant most of them near the back of the tank with a few plants in 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 feeds off nutrients from both the substrate and water column, so make sure to bury root tab fertilizers near the base of each section of plants (since the substrate we chose has little to no nutrients). Then dose the water column with an all-in-one liquid fertilizer to further encourage healthy growth.
Give the vallisneria some time to get settled in before adding the cichlids, so that their roots are strong and harder to pull up. 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. Now sit back and enjoy your planted aquarium, a rarity in the African cichlid hobby!