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Cycling troubles


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Hello, I'm brand new to fish keeping - I always wanted one but thankfully my parents had more sense than child me and refused to put fish into a bowl. I have a tank that I got second hand and disinfected thoroughly, it holds just under 30L(5.5gal?) with all my hardscape, it is filtered with a basic foam filter and an air pump, it's heated and is maintaining a temp of 21-23oC, has a substrate mix of fluval stratum and regular gravel, and is planted with quite the variety (I went a bit overboard) of low needs (I think) plants. I hope to put a plakat or wildtype betta in there and a nerite snail. I would like a bigger tank, but I've got over the itch for the moment, I hope to upgrade my future fish in the future though.
But... I'm having major trouble getting it to cycle properly. I set up the substrate and hardscape, added water after conditioning it and dechlorinating it, added some nitrifying bacteria, turned on the filter and heater, and then added aquarium ammonia up to 2ppm. I wanted to have the ammonia turn to nitrate only once and then add plants to continue cycling, and i think that was my mistake. It took about 12 days from the ammonia and nitrite to become 0ppm and nitrate to 20ppm, so I added my plants let it settle and bought it back up to 2ppm ammonia. It went down to 0.25ppm in 6 days after that, so i brought it back up to 2ppm and it hasn't dropped since. It's been 13 days now, it will appear to have dropped only to rise again, for instance I tested it a couple of days ago it was 0.5ppm and then i tested it a few days later and it was 2ppm. about a week ago it had risen to 4ppm - at which point i did a 50% water change and gravel vacced. Nitrite has been at 2ppm and nitrate at 40ppm pretty consistently (which would warrant a water change if fish were in there I know, but I want to find out how quickly the plants uptake nitrate. Or I would if everything was working properly)
I did add some root tabs, but I don't think they were high quality, they were all I could find. potentially they are leaching into the water? I accidently agitated the gravel near them while replanting a plant that had floated away and they had just turned to dust. I tried vacuuming them away completely after that.
The plants are all showing new leaf and root growth, but I did have some melting and die off with almost all of them initially. Is the plant detritus also responsible for some of the ammonia increase? should I just do a full water change, cut back the die off and start again? I've even been considering just getting that larger tank like I want and just transferring my plants and hardscape, and using this one as a nursery or for emergencies only 😅 but maybe I don't have the room.
pH 6.5-6.8
kH 40ppm
GH 60ppm


Edited by Scrumtion
grammar and clarity of reading
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I would just leave it alone.  When I set up a new planted tank I just get the tank running and add the plants.  I then add the appropriate liquid ferts or root tabs or both and just observe.  After the plants do the "melt and come back" and a bit of algae starts to grow you know your good.  To speed up the process you can add "bacteria in a bottle" like Turbo start or a similar product or bacteria laden material from a cycled tank..  Again...when the plants show new growth and you get some algae you know your on the right track.  I never "feed" the cycle with ammonia or food or any other nonsense because that method while successful for some people is so unpredictable as to be useless IMO.  So in summary...

1. Set up tank 

2. Add plants

3. Add appropriate ferts for the plants

4. Add bottled bacteria or cycled material from an active tank

5. Wait for plants/algae to grow.

6. Add fish

Obviously test along the way.


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I don't water change if I'm doing a fishless cycle, its hard work but the best thing you can do it leave it all to sort itself out.

If the tabs are deep enough they shouldn't be causing an issue. Plants like ammonia so don't take them out, do remove dead leaves.

Stirring up the gravel can cause things to alter as the bacteria in the surface and the deeper bacteria can be different and doing different things.

Early cycling can be delicate light touches to tidy up the plants and see how it goes on the bright side when the bacteria kicks in they will be more than enough for your Betta 

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