How to Set up an Easy Planted Tank for African Cichlids


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. 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.


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. 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. After the substrate has been placed, you can fill the aquarium with dechlorinated waters.

Step 2: Set up 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.

The addition of an air stone inside a sponge filter can help increase filtration efficiency while reducing bubbling sounds

We will be using low-light plants in this tank so a low-intensity light source such as the Finnex Stingray LED light is enough. 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. You should connect the light to a timer that turns on the power supply so the plants have consistent lighting. This is usually eight to ten hours per night. Too much light can cause plants to become sick, while too little will result in a crop of ugly algae.

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

This setup calls for vallisneria as the preferred plant. 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. 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 vallisneria spread to other areas. 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. 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, which is the base of the leaf’s, should be removed. This will cause it 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 needs nutrients from both the substrate as well as the water column. Therefore, make sure to place root tab fertilizers near each section of plants. The substrate we used has very few nutrients. 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!