How to set up a blackwater aquarium using aquarium botanicals by Betta Botanicals.

How to Set Up and Cycle a Fish Tank

Setting up a new fish tank in your home is always an exciting experience, but for first timers there is a lot of conflicting knowledge around how to do it. This aquarium guide for setting up a fish tank is the way I have done it for the past 20 years, without fail. Other aquarium hobbyists will have other tips and tricks which you can absolutely follow, but use this aquarium guide as a backbone (or overarching theme) for the necessary steps.

Top Tips for Setting up your First Aquarium

1) Don’t rush. Mother nature waits for nobody.

2) Bacteria are your friend. They are the life force behind a functioning aquarium.

3) Water changes. Every week(ish). About 30%(ish).

4) Research the fish you want, don't impulse buy...

 Let’s Dive In!


An empty botanical method aquarium for a future blackwater biotope by Betta Botanicals.
An empty aquarium which will eventually house a blackwater aquarium.

Step #1 in Setting Up Your New Aquarium

Fill up your aquarium with water on a level surface, and let sit for 24 hrs. You want to make sure that you bought a watertight glass box. This is especially important if you bought it second hand, or had it shipped to your home. Once that is done, you can drain out the water and lay your substrate. Substrate is a personal choice, but could range from rainbow gravel, to fine sand, to an aquasoil. Then, fill it back up with water and add water conditioner. I recommend Prime from Seachem.

Aquarium gravel in a botanical style aquarium by Betta Botanicals.

Adding substrate into an empty aquarium.

Aquarium Bacteria is the most Important Part to Success!

When fish pee, poop, don't eat all the food, or die, we need bacteria to consume and break down these materials into Ammonia, Nitrites and Nitrates. These bacteria live all around us, literally in the air we breathe, and we can help their establishment! Ask your friend who has an established aquarium for a piece of driftwood, a bit of filter media, a bit of gravel, or buy a pre‑made bacterial additive to jump start the aquarium. Bacterial colonization happens best in warm temps, so make sure your heater is set to 78F, and your filter is up and running. Whether you seed the tank with bacteria or not, pouring a 1/2 tsp of fish food into the tank is next! you wait. Grab a test kit (like from API) and buckle up for some science! Developing bacteria to process ammonia can take anywhere from 2‑6 weeks depending on your method. If you want to speed up the process, I will have to disappoint you because there are no shortcuts. You will need to be patient. However, in my experience of fish keeping, the use of aquarium botanicals drastically helps you to cycle an aquarium because they increase the surface area inside of the tank.

A test kit for a botanical aquarium by Betta Botanicals.

API water test vials for measuring ammonia.

Water Testing is Key in Your New Aquarium

Every other day after adding that fish food, you should test for Ammonia. I use a test kit from API. Once you’ve got Ammonia, begin testing for Nitrites, and subsequently for Nitrates. Once your Ammonia reading does not change color per test kit specifications, and the nitrite reading does not change (this means they are effectively zero), we are ready for the next step. Adding LIFE!

Go Slow, Nature Finds A Way

The first forms of life should only be added to your aquarium after you have;

1) ~Zero Ammonia and Zero Nitrites

2) Did your first 20% water exchange

3) Written down on your calendar a day of the week you plan to consistently do a 30% water change.

I love Wednesdays because #waterchangewednesday is a fun event to partake in on Instagram. Make sure your aquarium heater has warmed your water by reading your tank thermometer, and that your filter is running. The first forms of life you add should be something simple and hardy.

Examples; rams horn snails, mystery snails, pond snails, rasboras, tetras, platys, barbs or a BETTA! Proper research on stocking combinations is recommended. ie. Google.

Acclimating new fish to a botanical style aquarium with aquarium botanicals by Betta Botanicals.

Acclimating new fish to a botanical blackwater aquarium.

Your New Aquarium will be a Focal Point in Your Home

I want you to have an eye grabbing aquarium in your space. I recommend you get into the habit of weekly water changes of ~30%, feeding only what your fish eats in 60 seconds, and being patient. Adding in new tank inhabitants slowly are important. The bacteria you cultivated in the beginning will grow with the livestock you add, but not overnight. Aquariums function on the scale of weeks and months, and you will learn over time how your tank evolves. Do not overstock your tank, which you can learn more about through Google 😉. Run your lights for 6-8 hrs when you’re home, and maybe longer if you have plants (put them on a smart plug too!)

Do Your Research before Getting an Aquarium

Remember, don’t forget your water conditioner. This removes toxic chemicals in your tap water. Additionally, an aquarium is an ecosystem. Just because it doesn’t have live plants (yet!) or aquarium botanicals, doesn’t mean it’s any less of an ecosystem. You are in control of its health, and there are so many tools at your fingertips to help you. Go slow, purposely decide what fish you want before you get to the pet store, and spend some time looking at other tanks to see what you like, and don’t like. Send an email to if you have any questions, and if you made it this far in this guide, you’re well on your way to having a successful tank.

Have a great day!

Ben 🍂🌿




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