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Aquarium Seasoning is Better Than Aquarium Cycling (and Here’s Why)

Whenever someone has a fishkeeping problem and asks for help on social media or online forums, people immediately ask if the fish tank is “cycled.” Yes, it’s important to know about the aquarium nitrogen cycle, but just because a tank can process ammonia waste does not necessarily mean it’s a good environment for housing live fish and plants. For example, just because someone has an official college diploma does not mean that he or she is automatically skilled in that field. There are many, many other factors that could be affecting your aquarium — like a pH crash, new fish that brought in a disease, a broken heater, lack of oxygen, and more. Therefore, when a customer comes to our fish store with an emergency, we instead like to ask, “How long has the tank been set up?”

goldfish aquarium

Even if a fish tank is “cycled,” it may still run into problems if it is newly set up and hasn’t had time to get established.

Cycling vs. Seasoning a Tank

If you search on the internet, one of the most popular methods of aquarium cycling is using ammonia or fish food to start a fishless cycle. The idea is that you grow enough beneficial bacteria with these food sources so they can process your fish’s waste. The problem is that many beginners have trouble with this cycling method and they end up staring at an empty tank of water for 2-3 months because the cycle stalls. Also, as soon as they get the “right” measurements of 0 ppm ammonia, 0 ppm nitrite, and a little hint of nitrate, they race off to the fish store to make purchases. They often stop testing the water and then don’t understand why their new fish are failing.

Cycling an aquarium only focuses on keeping fish alive by building up a sufficient population of beneficial bacteria, which is constantly changing and can even die off in the wrong conditions. Seasoning an aquarium is about establishing a mature ecosystem that sets up fish to really thrive and breed in the long term. A newly cycled aquarium of two months may experience an ammonia spike if you accidentally add too much food, whereas a seasoned aquarium is robust enough to handle the many curveballs that life throws at it.

skittles colorful dwarf Neocardina shrimp on moss

Dwarf shrimp do much better in a seasoned, mature tank where there are plenty of things to graze on.

How to Season an Aquarium

This concept has been in the fishkeeping hobby for a very long time compared to aquarium cycling. Veterans know that nature is magical and that the longer an aquarium has been running, the more it will develop not just beneficial bacteria, but things like algae, mulm, detritus worms, seed shrimp, and useful microorganisms. Therefore, instead of fixating solely on growing bacteria, we prefer to season our tanks by growing live aquarium plants. Plants have the amazing ability to absorb nitrogen waste, as well as heavy metals and other toxic substances from the water. Plus, the rock wool that the plants come with will help seed your tank with beneficial bacteria, and you can further increase their numbers by adding Fritz Zyme7 nitrifying bacteria.

aquarium cycling with plants

Instead of cycling an empty-looking tank, focus on growing a lush garden of live aquatic plants.

We find teaching people how to grow plants a lot easier than teaching them how to cycle a tank. Unlike bacteria, you can visibly see when the plants are growing well and producing new leaves. You get to set up a beautiful, underwater garden that also serves as enrichment for the fish, blocks line of sight to lower aggression, provides places for hiding or breeding, and cultivates tiny microflora for fish to feed on. Here is a high-level overview to help you get started with aquarium plants:

  1. Choose beginner-friendly plants that are easy to care for and don’t require a lot of maintenance.
  2. Get a plant-growing aquarium light that fits the size of your fish tank. If you splurge on one feature, get a planted tank LED that has adjustable brightness so you can use it to grow either low or high light plants.
  3. Pick a substrate or ground covering for the bottom of the aquarium. Some plants like anubias and java fern primarily absorb nutrients from the water and can grow without substrate, while other plants like Amazon swords and cryptocorynes primarily feed from their roots and therefore need nutrients in the substrate.
  4. Use the right method to plant the aquatic plants. Depending on the species, some plants should be inserted deeply into the ground, while others should rest on top of the substrate or be glued to rocks.
  5. Set the aquarium lighting schedule and properly fertilize the plants to make sure they get all the nutrients they need to thrive.
  6. Continue to balance the lighting and nutrients to minimize algae growth and prevent nutrient deficiencies in the plants.

We personally consider a tank to be “seasoned” if at least six months have passed since we last made any changes — such as adding new fish, adding or removing plants, altering the amount of food or fertilizer used, and so forth. In the case of our founder Cory’s 800-gallon monster tank, it was seasoned for a long time, but then when he moved it to his new house, the water was emptied and the tank sat dry for a while. Therefore, even though he eventually set it up again with the same filter and substrate, the aquarium was no longer seasoned, and the ecosystem was less stable for a while.

Bottom line: let’s change the conversation from “cycled aquarium” to “seasoned aquarium.” Of course, we want the tank to be able to process ammonia and other toxic waste, but we also want plants, microorganisms, and little detritivores that contribute to building a healthy, robust ecosystem. To better understand your aquarium, peruse our collection of articles on how to keep good water parameters for your fish.

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