Natural Approaches to Cycling a Freshwater Aquarium

There are many ways to cycle an aquarium. Don’t overlook the living tools that can be added to the freshwater aquarium, including plants and invertebrates. While these methods aren’t the fastest way to cycle an aquarium, they certainly help establish the nitrogen cycle and can introduce the necessary nitrifying bacteria to the water.

Using Plants to Help Cycle the Aquarium

In nature, plants are a critical component of the nitrogen cycle. In the home aquarium, they help absorb ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates through the soil or substrate. They also utilize light and carbon dioxide to produce oxygen. While alone they don’t trigger the nitrogen cycle or introduce bacteria directly, adding plants to the aquarium is beneficial in that they provide hiding spots and oxygen, but they also absorb and break down organic matter and waste that can be introduced later. Adding plants to new aquariums is an excellent method to help establish and cycle the aquarium. Make sure that adequate lighting and substrate is provided for the plants to help them thrive. If possible, use plants in conjunction with used or established substrate that is thoroughly rinsed in aquarium water to protect the existing bacteria.

  • Moss balls – Japanese moss balls or “Marimos” absorb water like a sponge. They also harbor bacteria colonies from the water they reside in. Taking mossballs from established water and placing them in unestablished water will help introduce these bacteria to the system. The only drawback to mossballs is that they can sometimes be difficult to find in the hobby. Try to order them from a local pet store. Also, be sure that the product in question is actually a mossball that is being purchased. There are many imitations out there, including clumps of Java Moss tied up to look like a ball. Don’t be fooled!

Using Invertebrates to Cycle the Aquarium

There are numerous types of freshwater invertebrates available to the aquarist, and they all have their uses. Don’t overlook the benefits of these living tools! In the wild, invertebrates can be found everywhere, and they make up an important component of both the nitrogen cycle and the food chain. In the freshwater aquarium, invertebrates ultimately act as cleaners and supplements for filtration.

  • Clams and Mussels – These little guys are literally living filters. In the freshwater aquarium, they siphon water and extract organic matter and waste, feeding on it. The water they pump out is crystal clear. As a result, they effectively reduce ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates in the water. Clams and mussels shouldn’t be the first thing added to a new aquarium, however. In an unestablished aquarium devoid of organic matter in the water, these freshwater invertebrates would die of starvation. Rather, add them after several weeks when organic waste has already been introduced to the water and ammonia and nitrite levels are on the rise. They will reduce the levels of pollutants in the water and make balancing the ecosystem easier.
  • Shrimp – Freshwater shrimp are some of the hardest working inhabitants in an aquarium. They clean and eat algae and leftover food around the clock. Some species are filter feeders, leeching organic matter from the water. Make sure to research the particular species of freshwater shrimp to be added for any specific water conditions. Some species are very hardy and capable to tolerating environments with low levels of nitrifying bacteria, as well as high ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates. These hardy species, such as ghost shrimp, algae shrimp, and whisker shrimp, make excellent candidates to begin the nitrogen cycle.
  • Snails – Freshwater snails have a myriad of uses. They act as miniature vacuum cleaners that live off extra food, detritus, and dead and decaying organic matter. They are also sometimes known to feed on fish waste, especially those fish whose diet is largely herbivorous. Snails digest these substances and give off their own waste which is far less harmful to fish and the aquarium environment. Also, this snail waste, much like castings given off by earthworms, is packed with nutrients and highly beneficial to plants. Thus, combining plants and snails is an effective way to trigger the nitrogen cycle and balance ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels.

Properly cycling a freshwater aquarium can be a lengthy process, but if it is done correctly, any fish to be added to the aquarium will be much healthier and happier. Naturally cycling the aquarium by emulating the conditions of the wild will not only make the home aquarium look stylish and eye-catching, but will lower stress in fish by providing cover and hiding spots, creating ways to handle bio-load, and create a stable and useful community in the aquarium.