Crazy plant growth! 

I don’t use fertiliser and my Nitrates are virtually zero – but my helferi has gone crazy! 



Trying to fix plant melt

So, the symptoms are losing leaves, holes in leaves and plant leaves that become ‘skeleton’  like, pale, transparent and seem to melt away and die. Sometimes only the root is left.

This is the first case of plant melt I’ve had – the same plants were fine in my old tank … so what has changed? I scoured the internet to find out what to do.

What causes plant melt?

Well first time round, I had no problems.

Putting plants underwater

Apparently plants that grow above the water (with only the roots below – called emmersed plants) can melt when they are put under water completely (immersed). It’s the shock of adapting to water / gas exchange / C02 levels and new soil. Some plants are more susceptible.  They try and shed their old leaves and grow new ones which are used to being under water.

Since my Cryptocoryne costata and Anubias were already in my other tank, this can’t be the reason.  I read that sometimes the new shoots take over and the plant recovers.

Natural death

Also, plants don’t live forever – they can die naturally after a few years! I have no idea how old my plants were when I bought them – so it might even be natural!

Could it be low CO2?

Plants feed on CO2 – it is absorbed during photosynthesis in the daylight. Well actually – they don’t feed on it – more like they use CO2 and other nutrients to turn it into sugar – which is their energy food. At night, plants release CO2.  I have a low tech tank – which means I don’t add CO2 gas to the water. Maybe there isn’t enough in the water, or too much?

So what causes low CO2?

  • lots of plants using it up too quickly? – It’s not heavily planted so maybe not this.
  • Low flow – circulation is lacking a bit in my tank as the spray bar from the filter is higher up and not pushing much water around. A plant will take up C02 better in a good flow. Plants are supposed to waft gently in the water – mine don’t so I can try and alter the angle as it’s on maximum as it is.
  • High aeration causing the plants to use more CO2? – I certainly pushed a lot of oxygen into it in the first few weeks. Water agitation can ‘gas off’ the CO2 as well.
  • Weak light – they can’t photosynthesis well and are in a state of stress …. or maybe too much light and they are absorbing a lot of CO2 but it’s not enough to meet their growing needs?

The light is certainly not as good in this tank because it is higher up – but the plants I chose are low light plants and not super fast growers – so not sure about this one. If they haven’t got enough light they can’t make food!

I could try and increase C02 in the tank – or at least stabilise it as it appears to be more often a lack of C02 in relation to the amount of light.

I could reduce the light so they don’t photosynthesis as much (if that is even true) – but I’m not happy with the low light as it is!! Oh what to do. My gut feeling is not enough light. Altering the period of ‘on time’ for the light won’t work – as it’s the intensity of the light that needs to change – if it’s not strong enough you could leave it on 24 hrs a day and it would not work!

Could it be the soil or water they don’t like?

  • Large water changes altering the stability – only done one small water change so far, so I don’t think they are dropping leaves in the hope that new ones will cope with the new water.
  • Lack of nutrients in the soil or roots not getting to the soil – this is possible as I had to trim the mass of roots on the Crypt before I replanted them – but I left a lot more on it than I had originally. It doesn’t explain the other plants though.

Light bulb syndrome

I use a fluorescent light – apparently after around 12 months they can still be on but not putting out the right light frequency – possible.


Shrimp soil and substrate choices

So… what to choose for soil and or substrate / stratum?

So I’m starting my second tank to replace the first – just to upsize a bit now I have an appreciation of what is involved.

My first tank used a base of Tropica Plant Growth Substrate, topped with Fluval Shrimp Stratum. My pH was around 7.5 with this combination with no leached ammonia, great plant growth and within 6 months no algae and always clear water. I had hard water so suspect the pH buffering was used up quick.

I’ve made notes on some that I have found – most say to use alone but other shrimp keepers use a combination. Substrate doesn’t last forever (and if it has to work hard against very hard water, it won’t bring the pH down for very long).

Possible choices I’ve seen include:

1) Scaper’s Soil by Dennerle (link here)

Scaper_s_Soil___DennerleThe website says this is a fertile volcanic soil suitable for shrimp. It is slightly acidic (buffers to 6-6.5) and made from ‘natural soils) to provide plants with trace elements. It has irregular grains 1-4mm and quite loose. It is a deep black colour (although in the picture it looks dark brown). It also reduce kH.

I like the idea of this one – and have always wanted slightly acidic water … but my Nerite (snail) likes to live in slightly alkali water and he is my main algae cleaner – so not so sure about that aspect.

It comes in 4 litres bags – suitable for a 30 L cube like mine (or 8 litres if you are lucky enough to have a 50L tank!). Costs around £15 for a 2.4kG bag.


2) Fluval Stratum -used to be Fluval Shrimp or Fluval Plant – now it appears to just be Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum. (Link here).

Fluval_2kg_Shrimp_Stratum__Amazon_co_uk__Pet_SuppliesThis is from Mount Aso volcano in Japan – so it is mineral rich, loose stratum that feels like little beads. It is dark black and my shrimp love to pick it up and turn it as they feed – which is quite amusing.  Fluvial say it promotes a neutral to mildly acidic pH.

It comes in 2,4,and 8 kg backs and you lay it about 1.5-2 inches deep.

A 2kG bag was fine for my 25 litre tank with a quarter left over (using it as a top soil). It costs around £8 per bag + £10 postage on Amazon (and currently can’t find it anywhere on the net for less). You can wash it to remove dust before putting it in.



3) ADA (Aqua Design Amano) Aqua Soil comes in three types (Africana, Malaya and Amazonia). It is the favoured soil of many highly planted tanks.

Colour varies from red brown to dark brown. They leach ammonia so cycling without shrimp is the way to go.

ADA also comes as a fine grain soil powder for small nano tanks (or layering it under of over other ADA soils. Costs can be £23-£50. Can last many years – but depends if you disturb it. Eventually the nutrients will be used up – so that could be a problem if you don’t use plant fertilisers like me.

*Note that ‘new’ versions of the soils may vary.

Here is a review over on red




4) Fluorite by Seachem.(Link here)

Seachem_Flourite_3_5kg_£12_99_-_Buy_Substrate_System_AccessoriesFluorite is a clay gravel that can be used with other products. It says it never has to be replaced and does not alter pH. You rinse it before use and comes in 3.5 or 7kg bags. (Comes in black, dark, red and also sand variations). The red version contains lots of iron and they are investigating it as a potential source of arsenic at plant toxic levels. See their website for updates.  It is also full of minerals like copper, potassium and they produce a chart to compare. *trace copper should be fine for shrimp. It is priced around £13-15 for 3.5kg.

5) Sands and gravel e.g. granite etc.

Many colours and grain sizes – huge range of good examples over on Aqua Essentials. I’ve used it in my tank to help keep the soil where I wanted it (although long term the soil made its way through). You have to wash it well in tank / dechlorinated water. They generally don’t alter pH but you do need a soil underneath for a planted tank.

6) Tropica Aquarium Soil and substrate range. (Link here)



This is what I used in my tank beneath Fluval and some granite sand. My plants loved it and it is a contender for my new tank. It is also cheap – £7 approx for 1 L which was enough for my Nano tank with some spare. (1 L does up to a 27 L tank)

It is a clay and sphagnum combination with slow release of nutrients to the plant roots. My water was clear (like any soil, dampen it down with the water your will use, top it off with gravel, and fill the tank up by GENTLY pouring water over a saucer – undisturbed the water will stay clear or at least clear up within 24 hrs).

Tropica have a soil range that doesn’t need covering up with a grain size 2-3 mm. It says it ‘naturally reduces KH and pH’ and ensure good water changes in a new aquarium suggesting it leaches ammonia but I’m only guessing.

7) Ebi Gold Shrimp Soil (Link here) or their rubbish website here.

This soil is popular amongst shrimp keepers. It has small grains 1-3mm and buffers the water to a pH of about 6-6.5 and TDS will reduce to around 150-180 (KH 1-2) Different types exist but it is essentially natural clay and volcanic minerals. It might need to be replaced after a year and it does leach ammonia/nitrite – so only introduce in a shrimpless cycle. It is one of the more expensive soils.


Cycling a shrimp tank

In the next month I will be setting up a new shrimp tank for my Neocaridina. I wanted to look for more information about cycling a shrimp tank and decided to put my notes into a blog which might be useful for other new shrimp keepers.

I will be using my previous filter and about 25% of my current tank water (but new substrate and soil).

As always, the information is conflicting with so many different views on how long to do it for and methods – so I’m trying to make the best of it as a newbie who only got a C in GCSE Chemistry.

So what is cycling?

It’s all about getting rid of toxins and keeping the water in a natural balance that won’t harm the shrimp. The key thing with shrimp is that they don’t like change and very small amounts of ammonia seems to kill them. It’s also a process which must continue – so it’s not something you do once and forget about (although if your tank habitat is well balanced it looks after itself eventually).

The Nitrogen Cycle is all about how nitrogen moves between plants, animals, bacteria, the air, soil and water.  We are concerned with how this occurs within our aquarium habitat.

The 4 main states include Nitrogen (N2), Nitrates (N03),  Nitrites  (NO2) and Ammonium (NH4).  It is bacteria which help it change states. The part we are interested in is ‘Nitrification’ where harmful ammonia is converted to less harmful Nitrate.

Ammonia –> Nitrite –> Nitrate

Every body of water has a nitrogen cycle – even micro habitats in containers left out in the rain. Oxygen is also an essential ingredient.

Utilising bacteria, an aquarium will go through a state of being able to convert toxic ammonia (from animal waste, uneaten food, decaying plants, tap water) into nitrate which is not toxic (and excess is removed with water changes).

The slightest hint of Ammonia and shrimp will die –  even before your test strips say it is present.

* Ammonia can also come from the soil you use in a planted tank


What is happening when the waste is converted?

The waste breaks down into either ionised ammonium (NH4) or un-ionised ammonia (NH3) [also called ‘free’ ammonia].

NH4 isn’t toxic to shrimp and is present if the pH is acidic i.e. below 7. However, in alkali water (above pH7) un-ionised ammonia forms (NH3) which will kill aquarium fish and shrimp – and keep rising if nothing breaks it down.

NH4 can be removed by the filter media. NH3 in high concentrations needs to be changed to a less toxic form.

The first change occurs where bacteria oxidise ammonia (NH3) – a by-product being nitrite.

The second change is where other types of bacteria convert the nitrite to nitrate.

  • A note on Bacteria

Why is it important to understand the latest findings in bacteria that work in this cycle – because you might be considering an over the counter start up culture that you pop into your tank and it needs to be the right sort and not a type of bacteria based on old research.

Bacteria (Nitrosomonas europaea) are some of the nitrifiers that will oxidise ammonia. Other bacteria can convert the nitrite to nitrate.

It was thought that Nitrobacter winogradskyi was largely responsible for converting nitrite to nitrate, however, some research has found that in freshwater it appears to be Nitrospira. You can read more about these findings in this link.

What happens to the Nitrate?

Nitrates must then be removed with water changes – as they can harm aquatic life if left to reach high levels. However, in a planted tank, with shrimp, the plants will take up nitrates and help with removal. Some people prefer to do very few water changes in a planted tank.

Nitrates also can cause algae blooms – another reason to do water changes (especially in a tank with no plants). The cycle continues so that ammonia is constantly being converted – as long as you have enough bacteria to keep up, ammonia should be zero.

Can the Nitrate change back into ammonia?

The other half of the ‘cycle’ is called de-nitrification. This is where nitrate is converted to nitric oxide (NO) and nitrous oxide  (N2O). Some may also turn back in ammonium which is eaten by algae and plants. Eventually the oxygen part is used up and the nitrogen goes into the air as nitrogen gas. Incidentally, blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) can use this nitrogen gas as ‘food’.

Getting the cycle going in a tank – growing ever larger numbers of bacteria.

The key is maintaining a cycle of stability. Cycling to a point of balance for the animals and plants you want to eventually have can take weeks or months.  There is much debate about whether to go fast or slow – and even around exactly how you do it!

You want to only add animals a little at a time so that the bacteria colony can cope with the ammonia coming from the poo of your first animal(s) – the cycle needs to keep up with the new amount of waste.  A week or so later, more are added, and so so until you gradually build up both your bacteria and tank animals to the level you choose.  Snails poo a lot – so add carefully! I have just one in my nano shrimp tank.

  • Do I need to add Ammonia?

Most people use the natural ammonia in a tank:

  1. Decaying bacteria (introduced from the water, air, even your hands)
  2. Decaying algae
  3. Micro organisms from rainwater (if used)
  4. Decaying plants,
  5. 1-2 fish or a few shrimp – *some fish / snail poo a lot and overload – but shrimp might not produce enough.
  6. tap water (note your tap water de-chlorinator might also remove ammonia so can’t be used to start a cycle).
  7. Soil – your substrate/soil might have ammonia in it (see substrate choices)

However, if you have a tank of just water (with ammonia taken out / purified/boiled/RO ) and inert gravel with no plants or animals, you might need to kick start it and get an ammonia source (natural or chemical).  This where some people choose to add ammonia liquid or some fish food in to decay. It’s controversial though and can go very wrong with chemical imbalances, and not relevant to a planted shrimp tank (see below). Too much ammonia and the nitrifying bacteria can die!

What might be relevant is remembering that ammonia is toxic when the pH is alkali (above 7) so if you use chemicals or naturally have a pH below neutral, the cycle won’t start. This might sound good – no toxic ammonia, until the pH goes slightly above neutral (and pH will shift somewhat if you are borderline below) and all hell breaks loose.

  • Do I need bacteria?

In nature, nitrifying bacteria are everywhere and the cycle happens naturally. In a tank you have a small enclosed habitat so bacteria are usually added from a shop based formula (see previous paragraphs). Bacteria grow in the ceramic media in your filter, on surfaces in your tank and under the soil / substrate (depending on soil type and aeration). Biorb tanks use the rocks which have a big surface area for the bacteria to thrive in.

  • Help the bacteria

Your bacteria will love oxygen, heat at 27-35 degrees and a dark place to thrive where there is no turbulent water movement.

Types of Cycling

There are many ways to cycle a tank.

  • Shrimpless cycling – non planted tank

A new tank may not have enough bacteria to cope with the quick conversion needed in a tank full of creatures .

In a cycled tank bacteria keeps up with converting the ammonia.

You aim for no ammonia and some Nitrate to show all is well.

Until the bacteria multiply to trillions, some ammonia may not be converted and stay in the tank – and kill the shrimp. If you have no plants and inert gravel, these levels of ammonia may be high but not be detectable by a test strip i.e. still be enough to kill livestock.

I use test strips when things go wrong mostly – so see if the deaths were an ammonia spike or something else.

This is one reason why you might cycle a tank with no animals in it.

  • Dry start cycling in a planted tank – where water is added just to beneath the top of the substrate in a planted tank which then has to be kept moist.
  • Silent cycling in a planted tank – No ammonia spike to notice because the tank is full of stem plants which use ammonia as a food source from the start (see below).

Cycling in a planted tank

A planted tank it is different because plants make good use of ammonia to keep it under control.

If you use soil in a planted tank – that can be the ammonia injection needed to start it going. Otherwise, choices can be natural decaying plant matter. If your soil doesn’t leach ammonia then most people cover the soil with some substrate, plant heavily and pop in some shrimp straight away. The bacteria can come from using some gravel or filter media from a previous cycled tank (that has not been washed) or ‘start up colony’ from an over the counter product of the right bacteria.  The shrimp bio-load should be minimal so the bacteria will probably keep up ok all being well.  Keep well oxygenated and the soil/plants/bacteria combo should be fine.

Basically you let nature do its thing and test for when ammonia is zero and nitrate is being read for reassurance (note you may not see the ammonia spike or even a lot of nitrate).

I started my first planted tank with no animals, soil that didn’t leach, filter up and running and an over the counter starter bacteria. I waited about 8 weeks before I added shrimp. I had no deaths from ammonia, healthy plant growth and good stable parameters.

I used test kits for ammonia (never saw a spike) and nitrates and nitrites.

If you have no shrimp – increase the temperature to 27-35 degrees C for maximum bacteria growth but not over 40.

Using over the counter products to remove ammonia – and a little about tap water.

Products exists such as AmQuel which reacts with free ammonia changing it to a non-toxic form (if you have no carbon in the filter). The higher your tank pH the quicker it acts. This original formula also removes chlorine an chloramine from tap water.  Some water dechlorinator products just break down chloramine into an ammonia bi-product which has to be removed by your bacteria. AmQuel does not leave ammonia in the water according to it’s website. AmQuel Plus is a new chemical formula that says it ‘Detoxifies all kinds of toxic nitrogen compounds’ amongst other things.

API produce Ammo Lock – and Nitra-Zorb  that ‘instantly detoxifies ammonia’. They have a number of ‘science’ articles and lab results which claims the product works.

Seachem Prime is another product that removes chlorine, chloramine, ammonia (binding nitrite and nitrate) and heavy metals. I have used Prime before as my dechlorinator before I switched to rain water. It is also one of those products, like AmQuel that renders ammonia harmless. Prime works by a process called reduction that all de-chlorinators use (chlorine gas is converted to chloride ions – a process that also breaks the bonds between chlorine and nitrogen within the chloramine molecule – producing ammonia). A second process then occurs to bind the ammonia to render it harmless. AmGuard is an emergency ammonia removal agent by Seachem. You can read more about how they work in their factsheet.

Keeping the cycle going

Some things might cause an ammonia spike which should be avoided such as:

  • Over feeding – feed only enough that the shrimp will eat over 1-2 hours.
  • Lack of oxygen – nitrate can transform back into toxic nitrite and cultures may reduce.
  • Do not clean out all the filter medium – leave 25-50% which have the bacteria on them.
  • An ammonia spike might happen if the bacteria die e.g. medications or extreme heat or being washed out by tap water during a filter change.
  • Limit snails so as to not overload the tank.
  • Dead animals – if you have a massive disaster with many deaths this can cause a deadly spike and kill what it is left.

Controversial …

Here are some of the things people get their knickers in a knot over – so it comes down to personal information seeking and deciding on one method.

  • Do use fish food v. never use fish food as it causes algae blooms.
  • Add snails first – they poo a lot v. don’t add snails they poo too much.
  • Never do a quick cycle v. quick cycles are ok.
  • Speed up the cycle with product such as Sachem Stability or introduce beneficial bacteria v. go oh natural
  • Putting fish or shrimp in with ammonia present is inhumane v. no harm will come to them.
  • Test kits work well v. test kits for ammonia are useless.
  • Messing around with the gravel and over cleaning in the first months disturbs bacteria v. go ahead and clean. describes a complex system lasting up to 3 months involving differing layers of substrate and bacteria cultures. It also talks about feeding the bacteria, adding additives and enzymes. Personally I find this over the top.

Some likely truths…

  • Cleaning your filter media or sponge in tap water will kill the bacteria and cause ammonia to rise.
  • Leaving 25-50% of old filter material allows the cycle to continue.
  • Soils can leak ammonia
  • Nitrate can kill if it builds up – so water changes are good (levels less than 15ppm / 15mg )
  • If you use an inert substrate, shrimp alone won’t produce enough ammonia to start the cycle (at levels good enough to start a cycle they will die) –  the bacteria will then die too (see fish food controversy above).
  • Snail poo is good for ammonia.
  • Air is good – get the surface water moving to help.
  • A proficient cycle is achieved around 3-5 weeks.