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Transition Stress

May 26, 2024 3 min read

Transition Stress

Above: During transition, healthy plants in perfect parameters will easily look terrible for 2 to 3 weeks- with algae, deteriorating leaves and lacklustre colours. But it is a natural, temporary phase of adaptation.

Plants typically undergo transition for 2 to 3 weeks in new tanks, when they are moved / replanted, and when tank parameters change in a big way (eg. new light or filter, change in CO2 amounts).

Transition Stress is more pronounced in 'high energy tanks' with strong lighting, CO2 and fast growing or picky plants.

This can be a frustrating and worrisome time.

How do we manage this phase?


#1 Observe new leaves. 

The appearance of larger, algae-free and more vibrant foliage (note the newest Lobelia leaves above) signals that the plants are adapting well. 

Old leaves generally deteriorate further- that is expected and natural. Aquatic plants are not perennial, and channel their energy to new growth instead of preserving damaged leaves.  

If new leaves fail to appear, or if curled, stunted, smaller or appear diseased, it signals that deeper problems exist. 

Another example, featuring Samolus parviflorus red above. Note the smaller, new algae-free leaves. The same plant is shown 3 weeks later below:


#2: More frequent large (70%) water changes.

Do this 2 or even 3 times per week and remove surface detritus. Our aquariums are tiny closed systems even if they look 'natural', and organic waste extends beyond measurable ammonia, nitrites and nitrates.

Of course, this works if our water supply itself is stable. In areas where tap water is highly variable, water changes can introduce more unknowns.


Above: a lovely scape courtesy of a community member. The tank looks 'filled' but it actually considered very sparse and barely 30% planted. Note the open areas in the foreground and the area taken up by the hardscape. The stem plants are tall but not dense.

#3 Add new healthy plants to target "70% planted".

This is extremely effective for sparse tanks and tanks with mainly slow growers. New plants aid the complex microbial biodiversity that underpins healthy, stable tanks. For experienced aquarists, this also serves a useful test. If the new plants are happy, it quickly indicates that things are likely to improve. If they fare poorly, it calls for a deeper review of existing tank conditions.

#4 Keep the environment stable.

This means keeping to a consistent fertilisation regime, and to keep flow, lighting and CO2 stable. The worst thing is to add new additives every few days "oh today I suspect potassium deficiency- let me add more" and to tweak flow, lighting and CO2 every few days in the attempt to 'hit the right spot'.

Physiologically, plants expend considerable amounts of energy to adapt to their environment.

But how can I trust that my existing environment is OK?

This is a good question. When growing more demanding or picky plants, CO2 has huge impact but is deceptively tricky to get right. As we describe in detail, relying on drop-checkers can give a false sense of security. The 1pH drop approach is simple and effectively (best done with an electronic pH reader. Kits that depend on interpretation of color change tend to be less accurate, as determining color can vary considerably).

APT's comprehensive Capstone Formula makes it easy to remove any nutrient deficiencies or nutrient-related concerns. As APT is so concentrated, dosing per recommended dosage or less is more than sufficient. Where nutrition is concerned, simply 'more' is seldom better.

Can I avoid this transition phase?

Hardy plants (Java Fern & Anubias species in particular) in low -tech environments (above) can often avoid this phenomenon. This is because with CO2 injection, metabolism and change takes place ~10X slower, so the plants often appear to have little or no transition phase. To many beginners, this makes the low-tech approach attractive. Hardy plants are by definition also more versatile.