Setting up a planted aquarium can be extremely confusing, especially for beginners. Anyone can throw together a simple 10 gallon tank with gravel and cheap decorations; unfortunately, the same cannot be said for planted tanks. Planted tanks have a unique set of requirements, some of which can be tricky to get just right.
That said, planted aquariums are extremely beautiful when done correctly. There is something simply amazing about an aquarium filled with luscious green plants. It’s almost like a piece of the Amazon River right in your living room.
In this guide, we will take you through the step-by-step process of setting up a planted tank. We will cover all of the necessary steps and equipment, so bookmark this for future use if you don’t plan on reading it all right now!
A few things you may need:
You may have to pick up a few pieces of equipment before setting up a planted aquarium. Here are a few things you may need:
- LED lighting: I always recommend the Finnex Planted+ or the Finnex FugeRay. Finnex is a great brand and I cant recommend them enough. Also, their LED lights are made specifically for planted tanks.
- Substrate: Choosing a substrate is something that a lot of people struggle with. I would recommend either ADA AquaSoil (if you’re looking for something with lots of nutrients) or Eco Complete (no nutrients, but very high quality).
- Heater: A heater is an absolute necessity for any tank. I recommend the Cobalt NeoTherm.
- Filtration System: The type of filter you need really depends on your setup. If you’re setting up a tank larger than 40 gallons or so, you probably want to go with a canister filter. For smaller setups, the AquaClear Power Filter is a great hang-on-back unit.
- Test kit: This is an absolute must when setting up a planted aquarium. The API Freshwater Master Test Kit is the most accurate on the market.
Step 1: The Substrate
Choosing a substrate for a non-planted tank is really easy. Just pick any type of gravel and you’re good to go. So why doesn’t this work for planted tanks? The answer is simple; plants need nutrients to survive. Gravel, though simple and easy to clean, does not hold nutrients well enough to support most aquatic plants.
Types of Planted Aquarium Substrate
So we know that plain gravel probably isn’t the best choice. Luckily, there are a few types of substrate that help nutrients well and facilitate great plant growth! We mentioned a bit about our favorite choices earlier in the article, but now we will go into a little more depth:
- Flourite: This substrate is unique in that it doesn’t naturally contain any nutrients, but is absorbs nutrients from the water very well. If you decide to use Flourite, it is probably best to add a few root tabs (small discs that contain tons of nutrients and “leach” it into the substrate). Flourite will suck up the nutrients well, which is then used by your aquatic plants as a food source. I recommend Seachem Flourite Black for an amazingly sleek look.
- All-in-One Substrates: These substrates use actually a “mix” of several different types of substrate and are pre-packed with tons of nutrients (so there is no need for root tabs!). If you’re looking for some serious plant growth, all-in-one substrates can’t really be beat. ADA Aqua Soil is a leader in the industry for all-in-one substrates and we highly recommend them if you want to go this route.
Note: If you decide to use a substate that is pre-packed with nutrients, make sure that you don’t have any fish present in the tank when you add it. The spike of nutrients can cause high levels of ammonia for the first few days, which can be deadly for fish. Check out our detailed article on the types of planted aquarium substrate if you would like more info on the topic.
Laying the Substrate
Plant substrates have a pesky habit of clouding up the entire tank if not laid down correctly. Honestly, this can be one of the most frustrating parts of setting up a planted aquarium.
Before you attempt to put ANYTHING into the aquarium, make sure to rise the substrate. Use a five gallon bucket and rinse it until the water runs relatively clear. Nowadays, a lot of substrates claim that a pre-rinse is unnecessary but I usually do it anyways.
Next, lay 3 to 4 inches of substrate in your tank. A lot of people like to top it off with some gravel to hold everything together better, but this is completely optional (sand it also a good option, but make sure to only use aquarium sand). It is important to know that even the best-washed substrate in the world will cause a mess if you don’t fill the tank carefully, so add water slowly!
A great tip to avoid a ton of clouding is to place a plate (any old dinner plate should do) on top of your newly-laid substrate and dump the non-chlorinated water onto the plate instead on directly into the substrate. This will prevent it from stirring up the soil/gravel and save you a huge headache. Do not rush this step!
Step 2: Lighting
Getting your hands on a good light fixture is vital when setting up a planted aquarium. The basic fluorescent bulbs that come with most fish tanks simply won’t cut it.
A light fixture is definitely something you don’t want to skimp on; buying knock-off light fixtures will probably cost you more in the long run and can even be a fire hazard. Luckily, good lighting is can actually be pretty cheap.
Here are some of our most recommended light fixtures for planted tanks:
- Beamswork EA Timer – Definitely the most affordable light fixture on our list. Despite the low price tag, this unit packs quite a punch. In addition, it does a great job at hindering algae growth, which is pretty amazing for a light of this price range.
- Finnex FugeRay – The FugeRay is mid way in the pack in terms of price. The low profile fixture offers great power while boasting an ultra slim frame, so it definitely won’t take away from the look of your tank. Finnex makes amazing lights, so you really can’t go wrong with the FugeRay.
- Finnex Planted+ 24/7 – The Planted+ is a little on the pricier side, but you are definitely paying for quality. This unit has tons on extra features, such as sunrise and starry night simulators, customizable color channels, and storm effects. Though not necessary for plant health, these effects can really help bring your tank to life. In addition, the Planted+ is known for bringing out vivid colors, especially in red plants.
Feeling out a Light Cycle
When setting up a planted aquarium, it is important to know that no two tanks are alike. There is no magic light cycle or certain number of hours you have to keep your lights on. That said, I start out keeping my lights on somewhere between 10-12 hours a day.
If I want a little more growth out of my plants, I bump up the light cycle by an hour or two. If I notice algae growth, I scale back a little.
Some plants will be happy with 10 hour days while other may like a little more. It is important to feel out your tank and try out some different cycles to get the good growth and avoid algae.
Step 3: Filtration
Pick out your filtration may not be the most “fun” part of setting up a planted aquarium, but its important nonetheless. That said, I believe that most people tend to overthink their filtration setups. My recommendation is rather simple:
- Tanks under 50 Gallons: Smaller planted aquariums under 50 gallons (especially beginner tanks) are completely fine with hang on back filtration units. Though not as powerful as their canister counterparts, HOB units are convenient, easy to use, and function well. I recommend the AquaClear Power Filter.
- Tanks 50+ Gallons: Larger tanks over 50 gallons are best suited for canister filters. Canister filters are capable of processing much more water, which can be a necessity for hard-to-keep plants. I recommend the EHEIM Classic.
Important note: Whichever type of filtration system you choose, make sure to remove any activated carbon. Carbon removes the nutrients that your plants need to thrive.
Step 4: Adding Plants
One of the frustrating parts of setting up an aquarium is staring at an empty tank for weeks while it cycles.
Now you’re probably wondering, “Is is necessary to cycle my aquarium before adding live plants?” Luckily, the answer is no! In fact, live plants can actually help speed up the entire cycling process. Make sure you still monitor the cycling process closely and never add fish until ammonia and nitrites are completely undetectable.
Suggested Beginner Plants & Placement
As a beginner, it is important to start out with some easy-to-keep plants. These plants won’t require any special dosing or upkeep other than some occasional trimming:
- Java Moss (Carpet)
- Anubias Nana (Foreground)
- Crypt Wendtii (Foreground)
- Pygmy Chain Sword (Foreground)
- Micro Sword (Foreground)
- Cryptocoryne (Mid-Ground)
- Java Fern (Mid-Ground)
- Water Wisteria (Background)
- Amazon Sword (Background
- Hornwort (Background/Floating)
Carpeting Plants: These plants do exactly as their name suggest; carpet you tank floor is a beautiful green carpet. Carpeting plants such as Java Moss tend to grow quickly and easily, attaching to substrate, rocks, and driftwood at it grows.
Foreground Plants: Foreground plants are meant to be placed in the very front of the tank. They tend to stay relatively short, so your view of the back of the tank won’t be obstructed. Species such as Anubian Nana and Pygmy Chain Swords offer great fill, but don’t take away from the look of your “main” pieces.
Mid-Ground Plants: Mid-Ground plants should be planted near the middle of the tank and are slightly taller then foreground plants. They tend to be a little thicker and fill out more of the tank, so they give the aquarium a nice “full” feeling.
Background Plants: These are your main piece showstoppers. Plants such as Amazon Swords are large, thick, and tend to be the main attraction. They are usually placed at the very back of the tank as to not obstruct the view.
Proper Plant Care
There is more to setting up a planted aquarium than throwing some plants in a tank and calling it a day. Planted aquarium require a certain level of care to stay healthy. Here are a few tips to keep your plants happy and healthy:
- Bi-weekly water changes are a must – Water changes are beneficial for several reasons. Nitrate (hopefully no ammonia or nitrite) tend to build up in your tank over time. Unfortunately, sufficient filtration can only get nitrate levels down so far. Bi-weekly water changes help bring down nitrates to safe levels. In addition, water changes help replenish beneficial trace-elements that boost plant growth.
- Keep temperatures stable – There are tons of opinions and studies about the perfect temperature for planted tanks (I recommend somewhere between 75-78 degrees). In reality, keeping your water temperature stable is far more important than the actually temperature. A good quality heater is a must. I use the Cobalt Aquatics Neo-Therm and it has served me well for years.
- Trim your plants occasionally – Don’t get me wrong. Letting you plants grow out and fill up the tank is amazing to watch and you should definitely let this happen. You should try to avoid excessive growth, especially when it comes to tall plants. Tall plants that grow large can create too much shade, killing plants below them by restricting access to light. Trim your plants once in a while to make sure they’re not blocking other plants below.
Fertilizing your Plants
Low-tech setups usually don’t require and sort of dosing or special additions in terms of trace elements. A few fish should do this trick to keep you plants happy. But, just like gardens, setting up a planted aquarium sometimes requires fertilization. Here are the two main types or fertilizers is you decide you want explosive plant growth:
- Substrate Fertilizers – Substrate fertilizers are placed underneath of the substrate. These are especially effective when used with substrates such as Flourite due to its high CEC (ability to absorb nutrients). Plants use the nutrients over time, so nothing goes to waste.
- Liquid Fertilizers – Liquid fertilizers are most effective for plants that don’t grow roots in the substrate, such as Java Moss. Since they are unable to absorb nutrients from within the substrate, they pull nutrients from the water. Be careful with liquid fertilizers; they tend to promote algae growth if dosed in high quantities.
Remember, if you plan to keep easy plants in a low-light setup, fertilizing your planted aquarium may be unnecessary. I would recommend feeling out your tank for a while to see how growth is before dosing.
Step 5: Adding Fish
Planted aquarium or not, adding fish is always a big milestone. Please do not rush this step.
Even though plants sometimes help speed up the cycling process, it still isn’t an instantaneous process (usually takes 2-3 weeks). Ammonia and Nitrites should read zero before any live fish are added. Pick up a API Master Test Kit and test often! Check out our fishless cycle guide if you need any more info on the subject.
Once your planted aquarium is completely cycled, it is time to add fish. Here are some of the most popular fish choices when setting up a planted aquarium:
- Tetras: Tetras are great because there are TONS of different species. They are active, colorful, and really bring a planted aquarium to life. Tetras should be kept in groups of 6 or more since they are naturally schooling fish. I recommend Cardinal or Neon Tetras.
- Corydoras: Corydora Catfish are one of the most peaceful freshwater fish available. These bottom-dwellers are the perfect community fish and eat a variety of foods. If I could only recommend one fish, Corys would take the prize. Like Tetras, Cory Cats tend to be happiest is groups of 6 or more.
- Gouramis: Like Tetras, Gouramis come it tons of different colors and sizes. They tend to be very peaceful fish and are great for any community tank. Try not to keep Gouramis with anything that nips fins, as this stresses them out easily.
- Swordtails: The easiest-to-keep species on our list, Swordtails are beautiful livebearers that can liven up any tank. They are known to reproduce very quickly, so take that into consideration. If breeding is of any interest to you, Swordtails are a perfect choice.
- Angelfish: One of the most popular freshwater fish, Angelfish make great inhabitants for any community aquarium. They are beautiful, (relatively) peaceful, and tend to leave plants alone. Don’t keep Angelfish with small Tetras, as they tend to eat anything that can fit in their mouths.