How to Create a Self-Sustaining Ecosystem Aquarium

Owning fish and other aquatic animals can be fun. They're also beautiful to look at. But maintaining a clean tank takes time, effort, and money. If you feel like you spend more time cleaning your aquarium than enjoying it, it may be time to find a better solution.

Creating a self-sustaining ecosystem within your aquarium is an excellent way to limit manual maintenance and keep your tank looking and feeling incredible for your aquatic family members.

Wondering how to create a self-sustaining ecosystem aquarium and what its benefits are for you and your aquatic animals? Here's what you need to know. 

Benefits of an Ecosystem Aquarium

An ecosystem aquarium may sound overwhelming at first, but it's actually incredibly beneficial in the following ways for you and your underwater companions. 

Low Maintenance

Easily the number one benefit of creating a self-sustaining ecosystem aquarium is that it is low maintenance. That's right! If created correctly, the only thing you'll need to do for the first several months is top off the water from time to time as some of it will evaporate. 


The living, aquatic plants you place throughout your aquarium are designed to use nutrients in the water, which ultimately prevents algae from growing. Not only do the plants filter nutrients and minerals out of the water, but the proper substrate system will, as well.

Less Stress

Changing aquarium water frequently is not only stressful for you but for your fish, too. Removing your fish from their usual habitat can cause unnecessary anxiety for them. A self-sustaining ecosystem aquarium requires far fewer water changes, minimizing difficulties for your aquatic animals.

Healthier for Aquatic Life

Living plants in your aquarium mean your fish and other aquatic animals benefit from a healthier, natural environment. Think about it. Aquatic animals don't live among artificial plants in the wild, so why is it okay for them to do so in an aquarium?

No Need for Fish-Sitters

Since your aquarium is self-sustaining, there's no need to worry about who will feed your fish or clean the tank while you're away. The aquarium does that on its own.

How to Create a Self-Sustaining Ecosystem Aquarium

Now that we've addressed the benefits of starting an ecosystem aquarium, here's how to build one.

Want a tutorial to help you along the way? Axelrod Rasbora has some amazing YouTube videos on creating beautiful, self-sustaining aquariums.

  1. Add a layer of pea gravel. Pea gravel prevents bacteria growth, allows plants' roots to hold better, and gives room for fish feces to fall between the stones and become plan fertilizer.
  2. Add a layer of AquaSorb. AquaSorb provides nutrients to the plant roots. 
  3. Cover the first two layers with gravel. Aim for a thick planting layer. 
  4. Add a small amount of hardscape. Manzanita Wood, Black Lava Rock, Elderly Stone, Small World Slate, or Texas Holey Rock work great for this.
  5. Add aquatic plants. Best plants for an aquarium include Blyxa japonica, Cryptocoryne Parva, Sagittaria Subulata, Staurogyne Repens, Microsorum Pteropus, Myriophyllum Mattogrossense, Alternanthera Reineckii Mini, Marsilea Hirsuta, Rotala H'ra, and Java Fern. It's best to plant tall plants toward the back, with shorter plants in the front. It's also aesthetically pleasing to mix colors and shades. 
  6. Add water slowly
  7. Let the aquarium sit overnight to remove bubbles and to clear the water. 
  8. Add Tap Water ConditionerThis removes chlorine or harmful chemicals from the water.
  9. Add Quick Start. This product immediately adds beneficial bacteria to the water, allowing you to add fish right away. 
  10. Test the pH, ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels. The key to keeping your fish alive after adding them to the water is allowing the water in the tank to stabilize before adding any fish. Right after adding water, the water will be filled with gases and chemicals typically found in your tap water, which make it dangerous for fish. You must test the water's pH levels to ensure the water is at a safe level (typically between 6.8 and 7.8 pH) before adding fish. High ammonia levels can be caused when the tank hasn't been given enough time to nitrify, yet. But too much nitrite can suffocate the fish. While nitrate is less toxic, it can stunt fish growth if there's excess in the water. To be on the safe side, it's best to buy pH, ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate test strips to ensure your tank water is stabilized before adding your fish.
  11. Add the fish. 
  12. Add floating plants. These plants pull nitrates out of the water. From time to time you'll replace these plants with new floating plants and that acts as your filtration system. Examples of floating plants include Salvinia auriculata, Lemna minor, and Limnobium laevigatum.

Enjoy Your Self-Sustaining Aquatic Ecosystem

Now that you've created your beautiful self-sustaining ecosystem aquarium and integrated your fish, you can sit back and enjoy watching your aquatic life enjoy their stunning new home!

Visit Pets on Broadway for everything you need to develop and maintain your ecosystem tank.