Dark Start Method: a healthy approach to setting up your aquascape






July 12, 2023

Dark Start Method

Are you tired of dealing with start-up algae and struggling to keep your aquatic plants alive? It’s probably one of the most annoying and disheartening aspects of our hobby. We’ve all been there unfortunately. Luckily, there’s a new innovative approach to setting up a planted aquarium, designed to minimize the risk of algae blooms and promote healthy plant growth: the Dark Start Method 🙂

In this blog post, I will explain the what is the dark start method, the benefits of using this method and a step-by-step guide on implementing the dark start method. Ready? Let’s go!

Table Of Contents

What is the Dark Start Method?

First things first: what is the “Dark Starth Method”?

The dark start method involves setting up the hardscape and adding a nutrient-rich substrate to the aquarium. The tank is then filled with water, and the filter is kept running without any lights, CO2 injection, or plants for a period of several weeks to over a month. This allows beneficial bacteria to establish in the substrate and filter before introducing plants and starting a regular lighting schedule.

The result is a healthy environment for your aquatic plants before you have even planted them without the high risk of algae during the first weeks.

Benefits of Using the Dark Start Method

The dark start method offers several advantages for aquarists:

1) It reduces the risk of algae

Starting an aquarium the “classic way” with plants, lights, and CO2 can be challenging because the ideal conditions for plant growth clash with the necessary parameters for establishing nitrifying colonies. During this initial period, plants need to grow and metabolize while simultaneously competing with algae for resources and space within the tank. Meanwhile, the tank is also trying to establish and grow the necessary nitrifying colonies. Unfortunately, more often than not, algae tend to outperform the plantsduring this period.

One significant benefit of using the dark start method is that it eliminates the above “new tank syndrome” caused by inadequate nitrifying bacteria breaking down waste produced by your aquatic pets alongside other sources. It also limits the appearance of start-up algae by removing the combination of light and high levels of nutrients and ammonia (from the soil) which can cause algae outbreaks during start-up.

2) It’s cost and time-effective

In addition to reducing the risk of algae, the dark start method can also help save money and time on massive water changes. Since no large water changes are necessary during startup when using this technique, you’ll conserve both water and any additives that you introduce into your tank during that period.

Dark Start Method: a healthy approach to setting up your aquascape | PlantedBox

3) It allows for greater flexibility in aquascape design

Beyond these practical benefits, it also allows for greater flexibility in planning out your aquascape design without worrying about disrupting bacterial growth within your aquasoil or substrate. You’ll have ample opportunity to fine-tune your hardscape elements such as rocks or driftwood while waiting for beneficial bacteria colonies to develop fully – ultimately leading towards an even better aquascape!

Setting up your aquascape
Dark Start Method can improve the setup of your scape. Here, only water needs to be added and then the Dark Start can commence!

Implementing the Dark Start Method Step-by-Step

If you want to set up a healthy planted aquascape, the dark start method is a great way to go. Here’s my step-by-step plan on how to do it:

  1. Create a plan: make a sketch of the aquascape you want to create or print some pictures of aquascapes you want to recreate.
  2. Prepare your substrate and hardscape: Get your favourite aquasoil and hardscape materials ready. Put the substrate in your tank and add the hardscape elements based on the sketch you created earlier.
  3. Do NOT add any plants, just the soil and hardscape.
  4. Install essential equipment without turning it on: Install all the necessary equipment like filters, lily pipes, heaters, and CO2 systems, but don’t turn them on yet.
  5. Fill the tank with water: Fill your tank with tap water or RO water. There’s no need to add aquarium fertilizers.
  6. Optional: turn on aeration, this will help beneficial bacteria to grow faster.
  7. Now, turn on the filter. Optionally, add a pre-filter and use activated carbon
  8. Maintain darkness during the initial weeks: Keep the lighting OFF  for 4-8 weeks while you wait for bacterial colonies to establish themselves within the substrate and filter media.

It’s important to maintain darkness and avoid any disturbances during this waiting period to ensure that bacterial growth isn’t disrupted and unwanted algae blooms don’t occur due to too much light exposure. To ensure you don’t disrupt the cycling process, follow these tips:

  • Move hardscape elements gently and avoid stirring up the substrate.
  • If adding new rocks or driftwood pieces, rinse them thoroughly before placing them in your aquarium to prevent introducing unwanted contaminants.

Once the waiting period is over, you’ll be ready to introduce plants and fish into your aquarium completely. I will explain how to do this in the next chapters.

How to avoid algae growth during the initial weeks

Everybody hates start-up algae, right? Luckily these are algae are much less of an issue when using the dark start method. However, to really avoid algae growth as much as possible, here are a few tips for you.

First, keep your tank in darkness for the recommended 4 to 8 weeks and resist the urge to turn on the lights or add CO2 too soon. This allows beneficial bacteria colonies to develop without competition from fast-growing algae species. If you expose your aquarium to light too soon, you risk triggering an outbreak of start-up algae. These opportunistic organisms thrive in nutrient-rich environments with ample lighting and can quickly overtake your tank during start-up if not controlled promptly.

Some algae that might pop up during this phase:

  • Diatoms: brownish-colored single-celled organisms that often appear as a brown film on surfaces within new tanks.
  • Cyanobacteria: also known as blue-green algae (BGA), these photosynthetic bacteria form slimy green mats that emit foul odors when disturbed.
  • Hair Algae: long strands of green filamentous growths that attach themselves onto various surfaces such as rocks or plant leaves.
Thread Algae
One type of algae that can occur during start-up.

When to introduce plants and livestock?

After 4 to 8 weeks, it’s time to bring your dark start aquascape to life by adding aquatic plants and fish livestock. Follow these essential steps for a smooth transition:

  1. Conduct a massive 90% water change in your aquarium to refresh the environment and remove any potential buildup of harmful substances. This will create optimal conditions for both plants and fish.
  2. Choose suitable aquarium plants based on the aquascaping plan that you made earlier and carefully plant them
  3. Turn on your aquarium lights as well as your CO2 system, your lighting duration should be between 6 to 8 hours
  4. Test your water parameters, there should be no measurable ammonia or nitrite levels at this stage
  5. Gradually start adding your fish and livestock

Pro tip: fine-tuning your aquascape during dark start period

Since you don’t have to worry about start-up algae or other issues, the dark start method provides an excellent opportunity improve your aquascape:

  • Improve your hardscape design: use this time to analyze your rock formations or driftwood placement. You might find new ways to create depth or enhance visual interest in your aquarium setup. Just try to not stir the soil too much.
  • Better plant selection: with more time on hand, research different types of aquatic plants that suit your tank conditions and desired aesthetic.

So, go ahead and experiment with different designs and plant combinations to create an aquascape that you can be proud of.

Dark Start Method in aquascaping
The Dark Starth Method is super useful for nano scapes with lots of soil.

Proper care routines post-dark start method

So, you’ve successfully implemented the dark start method and introduced plants and fish into your aquarium? Congrats! But, don’t get too comfortable just yet 🙂 It’s crucial to establish a consistent maintenance routine to ensure the continued success of your aquascape and prevent pesky issues like algae blooms and nutrient imbalances.

Performing regular water changes is key to maintaining a healthy planted aquarium, I recommend reading this article about aquarium maintenance. And of course, don’t forget the usual maintenance stuff:

  • Aquarium water: provide ample CO2 and nutrients for your plants to grow well
  • Aquatic plants: prune dead or unhealthy leaves and provide adequate nutrients for optimal growth.
  • Water flow: ensure proper circulation by adjusting the position of your filter or adding a powerhead if needed.


Dark start method aquascaping is a great way to ensure a healthy and thriving aquarium  while avoiding the annoying parts of the tank setup 🙂

Just add substrates, hardscapes, essential equipment, and beneficial bacteria while avoiding light exposure. Introduce plants and livestock after the dark start period when enough bacteria have colonized the filter. After this, start with routine maintenance and your aquascape will continue to flourish for years to come.

Got any other tips? Let me know in the comments below!

1 Comment on "Dark Start Method: a healthy approach to setting up your aquascape"

  1. Not really new its an old style fishless cycle get all the soil and filter full of good bacteria and bung in the plants and some fish at the same time
    was the recommended method with the deep substrate system in the late 80s
    both with and without RF under gravel filters

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