Jump to content

Helping A Friend Set Up A First Fish Tank

Fish Folk

Recommended Posts

A good friend of mine who has been struggling with a debilitating illness for several years was given a 20 gal. aquarium for Christmas. He’s a brilliant guy, did enough research to understand the nitrogen cycle and basic set up. Once the tank tested positively for adding fish, he reached out inquiring if I had any fish he could buy. This unfolded into a lengthy exchange, my side of which I’m going to share here. I hope this may help some new aquarists, bring answers to a few things, and suggest ideas. Bear in mind that my answers are conditioned by what I have and keep — not necessarily what may be gotten elsewhere. All photos are from my aquariums. So here goes….

My first suggestion:

(1) Make a lush “garden of Eden” before adding fish. Think of it this way… we love to enjoy fish; but fish live to enjoy plants. Add at least 2x plants for every fish (I always remember @Brandy for sharing this good advice). 

The easiest plant for me is Water Wisteria. (Hygrophilia difformis). It can be floated or planted. As a stem plant, it is able to draw from substrate or from the water column. Its leaves will take on a slightly different shape corresponding to how much light they’re given.


An excellent warm temperature plant is the Amazon Sword. They’ll let leaves die off to “recharge” and send out new growth according to the levels of nutrients they get. Dead leaves can be cut off or pulled out. They really need root tabs buried down deep in the substrate beneath them to thrive.


Another beautiful stem plant is Lugwigia Repens. The pinkish underside of the leaves adds a gorgeous splash of color. Like Wisteria, these can be floated, drawing nutrients from the water column, or planted in substrate. They struggle in tall tanks if light does not penetrate effectively. They’ll drop leaves off bottom if they do not get enough light when planted.


Java Fern is a hardy rhizome plant that grows slowly, but makes a long-term impact on any tank. Just don’t bury the twiggy stalk. That’s where the life of the plant subsists.


Valisneria Americana is an attractive tall-grass-like plant that roots in substrate, but multiplies by sending runners out. It appreciates root tabs. It also does best in slightly cooler water.


Another rhizome plant is the Nana Petite. It is a very slow grower, but stunningly attractive in any aquarium. Remember: never bury the rhizome.


Pothos, a common house plant, grows out of many of our hang-on back filters. I never buy filter cartridges. I just fold a piece of thin porous sponge cut to size in half around the Pothos roots, jam that in the HOBs, and never think about it. This draws out excessive nitrates. 


Java Moss is a nice ornament to substrate, and provides both good context and hiding places for tiny newborn fish fry. It does not need to be planted. It just “hangs out” in the lower water column.


Najas, better known as “Guppy Grass” also just floats in the water column, but tends to settle more in the middle, depending on how much downward flow versus upward flow your tank has.


So that’s all I shared about plants with my friend. I recommended burying a root tab under each Val sprout and each Sword. I also recommended squirting 2x pumps of Easy Green per week into his 20 gal. tank once plants were added.

(2) Choose Your fish once the garden is all settled. My fish suggestions are all based on what I breed. I started with easy fish, moving towards more challenging ones.

I am working on a “mutt guppy” tank. Some nice blues are starting to mature. These are very easy fish to keep.


I keep mine warmer than necessary (80°-F) so they’re active, hungry, skinny, and make a TON of babies.


I also have a fairly inbred line of Firecracker Guppies. Same story… very warm, and high metabolism. But they were born this way.


I keep a third strain that’s quite attractive: snakeskin Guppies. They haven’t dropped a ton of fry yet, but they’re lovely to look at.



I also keep lots of very nice Cherry Shrimp. They can be fine tank mates with Guppies.



Another interesting fish I’ve got are Golden White Clouds. Originating from China, they’re hardy, peaceful, and a good alternative to more delicate tetras.


In a 20 gallon, as long as there’s a piece of driftwood, a single Bristlenose Pleco can enjoy a full life. They’ll help keep your glass clean from _some_ buildup, though they do need to be fed.


Now, for a different and more challenging aquarium setup, I also breed Emerald Killifish (Fundulopanchax Scheeli). They originate from Africa.   They’re less friendly. But if kept in numbers, their aggression is fairly dispersed.


They appreciate a well-planted tank. I keep ca. 50 of them in a 33-gal. long aquarium.


Unfortunately, they’re not always best mates for community fish tanks. They’ll definitely hunt down and eat any fish fry they find.

Now, for a more advanced fish I breed, I love the German Blue Ram dwarf Cichlid. They’re highly intelligent, and small enough to do well in a 20 gal. Their aggression tends to be only towards other dwarf cichlids, though they’re less dependably friendly than Guppies.

For an aquarist who loves color, they’re very remarkable. One thing they really need to thrive: keep aquarium temperature above 80°-F. They can survive lower, but will thrive “hot” (like Discus and Cardinal Tetras).



So that’s what I shared with my friend. He agreed plants first. So I packed him up a large styro full of easy plants — Java fern, Ludwigia Repens, Wisteria, Valisneria, Java Moss, several Marimo Moss balls, an extra bottle of Easy Green, and a few root tabs — and dropped it off on his front porch.

Next week he can choose his livestock! 

  • Like 1
  • Love 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

  • Create New...