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How to Care for Aquarium Plants: The Complete Step-By-Step Guide

Aquarium plants can be an extremely confusing topic, especially for beginners. 

Aquarium plants

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. One must do research on lighting, fertilizer, and carbon dioxide…All things that you might not be familiar with and are a little intimidated about learning.

That said, a plant aquarium is 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.

Plus you will get a close look at all of the different freshwater aquarium plant types to choose from. Whether you are interested in red aquarium plants, aquarium floater plants, or something else…Don’t worry – this comprehensive guide has you covered.

What Do I Need for Growing Healthy Aquarium Plants?

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 can’t 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, a hang on back unit is usually fine. Check out this guide that covers the best fish tank filters on the market.
  • 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.
  • Carbon Dioxide Supplements: as you probably know, CO2 is critical to plant health. As one of the main components for photosynthesis, healthy plant growth can be accelerated through supplements like API’s CO2 Booster, homemade, and prefab reactors like Sera Flore Active’s CO2 Reactor.

Step 1: Choosing a 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.

Aquarium substrate

Gravel, though simple and easy to clean, is sterile when first added to a tank. And because the grains are so large, it does not hold nutrients well enough to support most aquatic plants.

Think about the last time you ran your hands through the muck at a beach or river. The grains are all different sizes, from sand to rocks.

The varying sized grains allow organic material to collect and create better anchors for healthier root systems.

Sand is another popular choice for fish tanks. Sand has the benefit of holding nutrients better and being easier for plant roots to penetrate. But it also starts out sterile and completely lacking in nutrients.

So how can we provide nutrition for our aquarium live plants? Why, a planted aquarium substrate, of course.

Inert vs. Active Substrates

When choosing a substrate for your planted aquarium, you basically have two choices – an inert substrate or an active substrate. In this section we will describe the differences and the pros vs. cons for each type.

Inert Substrates

Inert substrates like basic sand and gravel do not contain any plant-specific nutrients. If you decide to use an inert substrate, you have to add fertilizers (either root tabs or water soluble fertilizers) to the tank to help feed you plants.

That being said, an inert planted aquarium substrate basically lasts forever and does not break down. In addition, they are generally easier to manage that active substrates and do not encourage algae growth

  • Pros – last forever/do not break down, easy to manage, usually pretty cheap
  • Cons – do not contain any of the nutrients plants need to survive, so additional fertilizers are necessary

Active Substrates

Active substrates are packed full of plant specific nutrients and are ideal for an aquarium with plants. If you’re looking for aggressive plant growth, an active substrate is the way to go.

On the down side, active substrates can be a little harder to manage – they tend to stir up easily (making it hard to move around your plants) and can be a bit expensive.

  • Pros – packed full of nutrients, encourage plant growth
  • Cons – expensive, can cause ammonia spikes, need to be replaced every few years
planted aquarium substrate

Types of Planted Aquarium Substrates

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 (Inert)

Flourite is made from several different materials, including volcanic soil and clay. But what they all have in common is a non-compacting way of settling and a porous structure that allows both free water flow and nutrient collection.

This way, supplements, micro-organisms, plant roots, and organic matter can collect and create a living network throughout the substrate.

Quite a different picture from the hard lumps of gravel work, isn’t it?

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 holds onto nutrients and then re-releases them over time in a natural, controlled fashion. This way, more of your supplements are taken up by plants as actual food, rather than being wasted in the water column, filtered out, or broken down by bacteria, in the case of traditional gravel substrates.

I recommend Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum for an amazingly sleek look on top of the incredible nutrient sponge capacity.

All-in-One Substrates (Active)

These substrates actually use 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 substrate 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.

Note: If you decide to use a substrate 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 as bacteria start to consume the new materials, which can be deadly for fish. Pre-loaded substrates can also shift the water’s pH and other chemical parameters too quickly for fish, causing death. Normally, acclimating fish to new pH levels is a process that takes days to weeks. Check out our detailed article on the types of planted aquarium substrate if you would like more info on the topic.

Adding an Aquarium Plant 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.

Adding an Aquarium Plant Substrate
dragon stone arrangement on soil substrate for making hardscape of aquatic plant tank.

Before you attempt to put ANYTHING into the aquarium, make sure to rinse the substrate.

Floating dust is irritating to animal gills and just looks bad, plain and simple.

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 anyway.

Next, lay 2 to 3 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 is 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 of directly onto 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 for a Plants Aquarium

Getting your hands on a good aquarium plant light fixture is vital when setting up a planted aquarium.

While most full aquarium hoods include fluorescent fixtures, the basic fluorescent bulbs they come with simply won’t cut it because the spectrum is wrong.

The light spectrum of a bulb is the wavelengths of light they create. Plants need specific wavelengths for optimal growth and even if you have a ton of light, it’s not always the right kind.

Normally, these bulbs create a color cast optimized for nice appearance. But these bulbs are Normally, these bulbs create a color cast optimized for nice appearance. But these bulbs are usually too warm in temperature (under 5000K), too cool (above 7000K), and always far too dim.

And the deeper and larger your tank is, the more lights you need to keep your plants looking lush. As a very rough rule of thumb, we can use the following formula:

  • 0.25 Watts per Liter of water: Low Light Level
  • 0.50 Watts per Liter: Moderate Light Level
  • 0.80 to 1.0+ Watts per Liter: High Light Levels

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 can actually be pretty cheap.

planted aquarium

Suggested Planted Aquarium Lights

Here are some of our most recommended light fixtures for planted tanks:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Finnex Planted+ 24/7 – The Planted+ is a little on the pricier side, but you are definitely paying for quality. This unit has tons of 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.

LEDs, fluorescent strips, and compact fluorescent fixtures are the most common lighting choices for your planted aquarium setup.

All work equally well, with LEDs being the most expensive but most efficient and longest lasting.

Compact fluorescents are a great happy medium. And fluorescent lights are the cheapest and shortest lasting, but still more efficient and longer lived than incandescent bulbs, sometimes provided in the very cheapest aquarium setups.

Incandescent fixtures are the worst choice for any aquarium, planted or otherwise.

As anyone who has ever touched a light bulb knows, they kick out a ton of heat, which can actually alter the water temperature in a small aquarium. Also, any splash of water can cause them to shatter, creating not only a glass hazard but an electrical shock hazard as well.

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 a 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 others may like a little more. It is important to feel out your tank and try out different cycles to get good growth and avoid algae.

What’s important is that you have one, however. Aquatic plants monitor light to figure out seasons, when to increase growth, when to slow it down, etc, just like surface plants do.

Step 3: Filtration for an Aquarium with Plants

Picking out your filtration system may not be the most “fun” part of setting up a planted aquarium, but it’s important nonetheless. That said, I believe that most people tend to overthink their filtration setups. My recommendations are rather simple:

Aquarium filtration

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 clean, 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 like Madagascar Lace Plants.

Canister filters also have chambers you can customize with mediums specific to your needs.

Want to lower the pH for your Amazonian setup? Just add some peat moss for a slow and steady drop thanks to the tannic acids it releases.

Having issues with ammonia buildup? Zeolite packages occupying one section are a great solution.

I recommend the EHEIM Classic. Combining a canister filter with a powerhead also allows you to potentially create a flowing water ecosystem. Instead of a “pond” aquarium, you can instead make a stream or river biotope aquarium.

Important note: Whichever type of filtration system you choose, make sure to remove any activated carbon. While useful in a fish-only system, activated carbon removes the nutrients that your plants need to thrive.

I don’t recommend under gravel filters anywhere, especially in the planted aquarium. All they do is collect material under the gravel for it to rot over time. And cleaning out one involves ripping up your substrate, making a tremendous mess, spiking toxic chemical levels, and adding organics to the water column. Avoid at all costs.

Step 4: Adding Plants to Your Setup

Adding plants

One of the frustrating parts of setting up an aquarium is staring at an empty tank for weeks while it cycles.

In case you’re unaware, “cycling” a tank is the process where beneficial bacteria and other organisms develop and grow.

These bacteria help break down ammonia and other toxic compounds your fish and plants release into less toxic or even beneficial compounds critical for growth.

If you add all your fish at once into a non-cycled tank, the waste they release can pile up, causing stress and eventual death.

Plants are another story. Now you’re probably wondering – “Is it necessary to cycle my aquarium before adding live plants?”

Luckily, the answer is no, it’s not necessary at all.

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. In a fresh tank, this shouldn’t be a concern to begin with, but it never hurts to be safe.

You always want to add just a few fish to begin, to help start the cycling process.

Weekly, if your water parameters look good, you can add a few more, until you reach the carrying capacity of your aquarium.

Good Aquarium Plants for Beginners & 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:

  1. Java Moss (Carpet to Rock Accent Plant) This low light aquarium plant grows extremely quickly, acting as a great nutrient sponge in case of overfeeding or chemical imbalance. Small fish and invertebrates also love wandering through the thickets it creates. Java Moss can attach to nearly any surface as well, including plastic filter piping if you need to hide them from view.
  2. Anubias Nana (Foreground to Rock Accent) Anubias are a strange genus of plant from Africa. They’re slow growing but extremely hardy. If your Anubias aquarium plant is dying, you’re doing something majorly wrong. They’re also tolerant of low light and actually prefer being attached to rocks or driftwood. In the wild, they grow in the splash zone of streams with alternating periods of submersion.
  3. Crypt Wendtii (Foreground) This Sri Lankan Cryptocoryne is a smaller species with beautiful reddish brown leaves. Like most crypts it’s quite hardy and are excellent aquarium plants for beginners.
  4. Pygmy Chain Sword (Foreground) These are a great foreground plant if you’re looking to create a mini-jungle for small fish and shrimps.
  5. Micro Sword (Foreground) If you want your tank to feel like a lawn, Micro Sword plants are one of the best choices. Keep in mind they have medium to high light requirements, prefer a rich substrate, and have a relatively slow growth rate.
  6. Cryptocoryne (Mid-Ground) Coming in a variety of species, Cryptocoryne are not only very inexpensive and hardy but extremely attractive. They often come in dried bulb form as well, allowing you to establish your plants from the very beginning. Cryptocoryne are great show plants for tanks with medium to low light levels.
  7. Java Fern (Mid-Ground to Rock Accent) Like Anubias, Java Ferns are a hardy, low light tolerant species that are a great choice for a planted aquarium. WIth broad dark leaves, these ferns can grow in a substrate but prefer to be attached to rocks or driftwood. They even have a unique breeding method where young plants bud from the adult leaves.
  8. Water Wisteria (Background) These plants are one of the most common plants for the new planted aquarium. While tolerant of low light, they prefer having as much as possible and will reward you with tiny, streaming bubbles of O2 as they busily photosynthesize. They must have a rich substrate, however, or they’ll quickly die out.
  9. Amazon Sword (Background) One of the showiest of common aquarium plants for the planted tank, the various species of Amazon Sword Plant can grow feet in height and diameter. They love as much light and nutrients as you can offer and those broad leaves can be algae prone. This makes them natural platters for algae eating fish and shrimp.
  10. Hornwort (Background/Floating) Hornwort is so easy to grow that you don’t even have to stick it into the substrate. It actually prefers to simply float where it’s closest to rich light and can passively soak up nutrients from the water. Keep in mind that while attractive, floating aquarium plants will block light to the lower levels of the water column. Hornwort can also quickly grow out of control when floating and needs to be weeded constantly.

Carpeting Plants

These aquarium live plants do exactly as their name suggests; cover your tank floor in a beautiful green carpet. Carpeting plants such as the Montecarlo aquarium plant tend to grow quickly and easily, attaching to substrate, rocks, and driftwood as it grows. 

Keep in mind they often need open access to light. Large plants like Amazon Swords and floating aquarium plants like Duckweed and Hornwort can shade them, causing them to weaken and die.

Also, since carpeting plants grow along the bottom they need very intense lighting to get enough illumination to grow. They also tend to require rich substrates and carbon dioxide supplements. In short, they are very needy residents for a live plant aquarium. So make sure you are willing to go the extra mile before buying some.

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 than 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. Mid-ground plants create a transition zone to the background.

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 so as to not obstruct the view. You’ll also usually have fewer background plants due to their space requirements. They also have a tendency to create large amounts of shade, so space them accordingly.

Proper Plant Care

There is more to setting up a planted aquarium than throwing some plants in a tank and calling it a day. A plant aquarium requires 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) tends 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. When doing a water change, you should also consider adding a boost of beneficial trace elements like iron and potassium to aid plant growth and health.
  • Keep temperatures stable – There are tons of opinions and studies about the perfect temperature for planted tanks (I recommend somewhere between 78-82 degrees but this really depends on the plants, fish, and ecosystem you’re developing). In reality, keeping your water temperature stable is far more important than the actual temperature because both fish and plants can adapt to a few degrees in either direction. A reliable, 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 your 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. Dead and dying leaves should also be removed as needed. Pruning encourages new growth in aquatic plants as much as in your garden. And it keeps rotting matter from creating problems for your water chemistry.
  • Stick to a regular fertilizer cycle – one reason why planted aquariums often have problems with algae is because fertilizers are dosed inconsistently. Plants are slow to adapt to sudden changes and need stability over time to efficiently use light, fertilizers, and so on. Once you have a system set up, stick to it and you will see good results from your plants.

Fertilizing your Plants

Low-tech setups usually don’t require any sort of dosing or special additions in terms of trace elements. A few fish will provide enough nutrients to keep your plants happy.

But, just like gardens, setting up a planted aquarium sometimes requires fertilization. The plants will often let you know with slowed growth, discolored leaves, and other signs of weakness.

Here are two types of fertilizers that can help you achieve explosive growth in your new planted aquarium.

  1. Substrate Fertilizers – Substrate fertilizers are placed underneath 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.
  2. 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 to Your Planted Tank

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 an API Master Test Kit and test often. Check out our fishless cycle guide if you need any more info on the subject.

planted aquarium

Once your planted aquarium is completely cycled, it is time to add fish.

Recommended Fish for Planted Aquariums

Here are some of the most popular fish choices when setting up a planted aquarium:

  • Tetras: Tetra fish 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. Neon, Black Neons, and Rummy Nose Tetras are small, hardy, attractive editions to any planted aquarium.
  • Corydoras: Cory 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 in groups of 6 or more. They’re also partial air-breathers, rushing to the surface for gulps of oxygen before swimming back to the bottom.
  • Gouramis: Like Tetras, Gouramis come in tons of different colors and sizes, from rainbow colored Dwarf Gouramis to giant Kissing Gouramis. They tend to be very peaceful fish and are great for any community tank. Like the Bettas they’re related to, they can be aggressive towards each other on occasion. With their long, flowing sensory fins, try not to keep Gouramis with anything that nips fins like barbs, as this stresses them out easily.
  • Swordtails: One of the easiest-to-keep species on our list, Swordtails are beautiful livebearers that can liven up any tank with their diversity in colors, moderate size, and breeding displays. They are known to reproduce very quickly, so take that into consideration. If breeding and caring for baby fish is of any interest to you, any sort of livebearer is a great choice. Platies, Guppies, and Mollies are other livebearers that will breed just as easily as Swordtails if they’re happy.
  • Angelfish: One of the most popular freshwater fish, Angelfish make great inhabitants for any community aquarium (20 gallons or larger). They are beautiful, (relatively) peaceful, and tend to leave plants alone. In fact, they evolved their long, thin profiles to slip among Amazonian plants. As a result, they need plants to feel comfortable (and even to lay their eggs) or they’ll feel exposed and stressed out. Don’t keep adult Angelfish with small Tetras, as once they get larger they’ll eat anything that can fit in their mouths.
  • Dwarf Algae Eaters: These little guys aren’t the prettiest to look at but work incredibly hard at keeping algae growth off leaves, rocks, and glass. They also stay small, less than an inch long, unlike their more popular and gigantic relatives, the Plecos that everyone seems to love until they outgrow their aquariums and start knocking over and eating plants.

There are some critters you should actively avoid in the planted aquarium. Pacus and Silver Dollar fish are not only voracious vegetarians but also grow foot-ball sized or larger.

Many species of medium to large Cichlid love nothing more than digging and uprooting plants as they carve their territories.

Crayfish and many snail species will devour and destroy plants indiscriminately. Make sure you do your research before straying from the list of species above.

Step 6: Maintaining a Planted Aquarium

You have your substrate laid down, plants in the medium, water topped off and warmed, fish happy and swimming about.

Aquarium maintenance

How do we make sure our planted fish tank continues to thrive and prosper?

We need to pay close attention to things like water chemistry, nutrient intake, and plant maintenance to ensure everything stays lush and green.

Substrate Turnover

Keep in mind that over time, your substrate will mix if you’re using different grain sizes. A mix of sand and gravel will eventually become a layer of gravel on top of sand.

Most people use a siphon hose to gently probe and remove fish waste, uneaten food, and other material during a water change. In the planted aquarium, we still do this, only…Less so.

In fact, some aquarists stick to only taking water from the top and not touching the substrate at all. This is recommended only for fully mature setups, by the way.

The substrate is such an important component of the planted ecosystem, it can’t be overemphasized how careful we want to be about messing with it. It’s where plants eat, water is filtered, toxins broken down, and life thrives.

But until our beneficial bacteria and plants mature , we want to gently turn over the substrate to ensure material mixes and plant roots are undisturbed.

Gently turning your substrate during a water change is the best way to ensure not only a healthy, attractive mix but keeps anoxic areas from forming.

Anoxic pockets are spots where no oxygen flow reaches.

Anaerobic bacteria (those that don’t require O2) can thrive there and create especially toxic byproducts that then leach back into your ecosystem. The key word here is “gently,” by the way, so as to avoid damaging sensitive root systems.

Algae Growth

Algae is a constant enemy to aquarists, especially in newly set up planted tanks.

This is because there’s an abundance of light and free-floating nutrients but the new plants and beneficial bacteria aren’t able to take it up yet.

Algae are single celled plants that can quickly divide and soak up the available nutrients and form ugly green coatings on any surface available. 

Algicides like API Algaefix are a great, if sometimes temporary, means of keeping algae under control.

If you have a localized algae infection, like a patch of blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) on the substrate, hitting it with a dose of hydrogen peroxide is a great tactical nuclear option that won’t cause much harm to the rest of your ecosystem.

Algae eaters are a commonly used and great biological control method for green algae.

Dwarf algae eaters, as mentioned earlier, are model citizens for the planted tank, working hard to keep glass and leaves clear of algae.

Amano shrimp are easier to find nowadays as well. These tiny shrimp prefer to live in groups of 6 or more and will work tirelessly at picking leaves clean of algae. Just remember to keep them away from angelfish and other nippy fish who will see them as food.

Carbon Dioxide Supplements

Carbon Dioxide (CO2) supplementation is one of the best things you can do for your planted fish tank.

While it can sometimes involve additional equipment, this combined with a rich substrate and strong lighting is like rocket fuel for plant growth (and algae – careful).

You have the following choices for supplementing your planted aquarium with CO2:

 CO2 Tablets

Supplements like ISTA CO2 tablets are one of the easiest and least expensive ways to get a boost in plant growth. Simply drop them in and watch them fizz.

One problem with these is that the boost is extremely temporary because most of the fizzy CO2 bubbles end up rising to the surface of the water and dissipating into the air.

Also, they cause rapid spikes in the concentration, which can cause algae to grow. Algae can take advantage of sudden changes in water parameters much faster than aquarium live plants can.

One way you can get the most CO2 for your dollar is to place a small plastic cup or other concave surface over the tablet.

As it fizzes, a bubble of CO2 will collect underneath and slowly dissolve additional CO2 into the water over time.

CO2 Reactor/Diffuser

These are a bit more complicated and not really recommended for your very first planted tank.

These include diffusers that hook up to pressurized canisters of CO2 you can buy for a short boost of super tiny bubbles as well as other methods like liquid CO2 injectors.

In short: specialized tools for intermediate and advanced planted aquarium keepers. But if you’re looking to experiment with CO2, you can actually make your own yeast-powered reactor from a coke bottle, dry yeast, sugar, and a few extra tools.

For fish tanks under 30 gallons, these are a neat way to get a CO2 boost cheaply. I’ve done this myself and it’s loads of fun.

CO2 and Aquarium Floater Plants

Something to note is that aquarium floating plants grow as fast as they do because they have unlimited carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The air holds several times the amount of CO2 that water does. So if you grow mostly aquarium floater plants you have the added advantage of not having to fertilize with any sort of supplemental CO2.

In Conclusion

Aquatic plant life is a major part of the freshwater aquarium hobby. They are a good analogue to corals in marine reef tanks: stationary additions that are very much alive and help cultivate the appearance of a living ecosystem. You can certainly keep fish without plants – but why, when they add so much extra interest to your setup?

A fish tank with aquarium plants is both a home for animals and a garden for you to tend. And as we’ve discussed above, plants and fish help each other survive in ways that are fascinating to watch. In nearly every fish tank I set up I add plants because the benefits they provide are too great to ignore.

Did you find the information in this guide helpful? Have additional questions or concerns? If so, I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.

More Frequently Asked Questions about Aquarium Plants and Planted Aquariums

Still interested in learning a little more about aquarium plants and how to care for them? Here are a few more frequently asked questions on the subject for you to ponder.

Which Plant is Best for Aquariums?

If you are a beginner to the world of aquarium plants then you should choose species that don’t have many demands in terms of light, nutrients, or carbon dioxide. That means staying away from carpeting plants, which need a lot of all three. Most of the plants in my Best Low Light Aquarium Plants collection are good species to choose from.

Do LED Lights Grow Aquarium Plants?

LED lights are excellent for growing aquarium plants. In fact they are one of the best lighting types to purchase. Their spectrums can be finely tuned to match the needs of plant growth. LED bulbs also last a long time and output very little waste heat. They are much more efficient and better for plant growth than both incandescent and fluorescent light fixtures.

Are Live Plants Good for My Aquarium?

Live plants offer several benefits to both you and your fish. Besides looking nice they provide cover that fish can swim into. Plentiful nearby hiding places helps fish feel secure enough to swim out in the open more, especially skittish species like tetra fish.

Aquarium plants also consume ammonia and other fish waste as fertilizer and soak up the carbon dioxide they exhale as food. They release oxygen into the water column in exchange, which fish then breathe. Lastly, plants provide ready spawning areas for many fish that scatter or deposit their eggs on plant leaves.

What Plants are Safe for Freshwater Aquarium?

Only choose live plants that are found in an aquarium store if you aren’t sure what plants are safe. Many houseplants are poisonous to aquatic life and should not be submerged for any length of time. A terrestrial plant will also almost certainly die if submerged for too long. Fortunately, most pet stores carry dozens of safe live aquarium plants for sale.

Jason Roberts
About Jason Roberts
Jason is an aquarium fanatic that has been a fish hobbyist for almost three decades.

19 thoughts on “How to Care for Aquarium Plants: The Complete Step-By-Step Guide”

    • It’s also called the dry-start method and I actually did this once with a 10 gallon tank, but I’ll never do it again.
      I started by sifting, just to get out the bits of wood, 3 bags of plain potting soil that had no added fertilizers. The result was a fine organic soil that I placed as the bottom 2 inch layer of substrate covered over with a 1&1/2 inch layer of regularly sized aquarium gravel.
      Next I planted a lot of small plants that would send out runners to fill in the front of the tank, I added just enough water to cover the gravel and waited.
      The plants did very well and after a couple of weeks, I could see their roots growing down into the potting soil at the front of the tank.
      I added some stem plants further back in the tank, finished filling the tank with water, started the heater and filter, and tested the water the next day. The levels of ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates were zero and stayed at zero for another week so I added two of my breeder guppies and two cories.
      Everything went great for about 5 years; plants were growing profusely, guppies were breeding regularly (of course it helps to feed them pureed nightcrawlers on a weekly basis), and the cories were doing great, but one morning I woke up to find that all of the fish in this tank had died.
      I saw gas bubbles rising from a corner of the tank so I tested the water and the ammonia level was through the roof.
      I removed the dead fish and rescued(?) the plants before I grabbed a gravel vac and started vacuuming the gravel.
      What I saw was enough gas bubbles going up the vacuum tube to convince me that the dry-start method is only good for a short time before the potting soil starts breaking down and creating ammonia.
      So why bother when there are safer alternatives available?

  1. Ive been considering converting my betta tank into a planted tank but i have so many questions! This article helped a lot! Thanks 🙂

  2. I have never kept fish before (just betta bowl once) and would like to start my first 20 gallon aquarium (I live in a small apartment so 20 gal is all I will be able to manage). A planted aquarium seems so daunting! But I wonder if a plastic plant aquarium is not good for fish because it is just not natural. I am not very picky about what kind of fish I keep, as long as I can keep a few ghost or cherry shrimps, and a snail that won’t get eaten. I like the tiny neon tetras, the rasboras, and small fishes like that. I feel intimidated with everything that goes with a planted aquarium, thinking maybe I would only have just a few plants instead of a jungle to maintain.

    • Hi CB, thanks for you comment! Planted aquariums are really not as complicated as they seem. As long as you’re not looking to keep difficult species, you can set up a basic planted aquarium pretty easily and inexpensively.

      A simple 20 gallon long aquarium should be a great starting point. That will be more than enough space for the species that you listed. The most expensive piece will probably be the light, but you can actually find lighting systems for relatively cheap nowadays.

      I’d definitely recommend giving it a shot.

      If you need any advice, feel free to send me an email with questions!


  3. Hi, I want to do a 10 gallon planted tank with an albino African clawed frog. They do not like filters as the vibration is like a tiny jack hammer to them. Would having no filter be a problem for a planted tank?

  4. Hi! Thanks so much for all the information. I just bought a 30 l (8 gallon) aquarium and ready to get some plants and substrate and start planting. I was wondering If using tap water is ok or If I need to condition the water for the first fill in any way. This is my first aquarium so I’m a little lost, sorry If this is a very obvious question.

  5. Hi Jason,

    I hope you’re doing well in the current *hand waves*. I was wondering, do you have any thoughts on converting a well established (2+ year) tank with sand as a substrate to the same with plants. Would I need to break the tank down, or could I …
    1) Get a proper LED system for a 29 gallon
    2) Slowly (2 weeks) add washed fluorite to the sand substrate
    3) Add plants…
    4) …
    5) Profit! (with a nice looking planted tank)

    Am I missing any steps? Is this a terrible idea? Let me know!

  6. Hi Jason, thanks for these great instructions. As soon as my husband finishes setting up his saltwater tank, I’m going to start on my freshwater planted aquarium. I was looking into adding a Sandfall . I have a 75 gallon corner tank. Did you ever make one? Thanks again for sharing your knowledge!


  7. Hello, I have a 125 gallon freshwater aquarium with a gravel substrate. I got an amazon sword for my very first plant and it did amazing! It grew so many runner plants off of it. I trimmed them and planted them as well once the roots were long enough. None of the little plants did well. They all stayed the same size, never grew and the leaves all just rotted and died. The main big plant just slowly got smaller and smaller and smaller until it was just a little lump of leaves sticking out of the substrate. I tried using fertilizer tablets and dosing the water with iron and I just couldn’t get the plant to bounce back. What am I doing wrong? I would love to have a lush planted tank but I just seem to not have a green thumb. I know the lighting is not the issue. I bought a Fluval Plant LED light. Any insight would be great!

  8. Hi Jason,

    Really helpful guide!

    I currently have a 150 litre fish tank with a variety of tropical fish. It is an all plastic fish tank however I’m keen to convert this to a natural fish tank. How would you recommend I make this change with existing fish? Would I be better off shifting them to a temporary tank for the 2-3 weeks of cycling?


  9. Hi, I just set up my 55 gallon tank and now I am thinking of switching to a planted aquarium i have around 12 fish already in the tank they would do well in a planted tank. my problem is how should i handle switching the substrate for the plants since i already have a gravel and fish in the tank.

  10. This was a helpful link for a newbie like me . I have a 20 Gallon planted tank now with Java fern/moss, Amazon sword, Vallisenaria and dwarf lily. I have few Amano shrimps, 6 neon tetras and 4 Rasboras. I had an algae issue for a while and i thought the amano shrimp would be able to handle it. Unfortunately the algae issue didnt subside. i read somewhere that snails can help so i introduced 4 Nerite snails to the aquarium and now within a week i dont have the algae bloom issue.

  11. Well written with lots of great info, thank you! I’m with CB on much of this. I’ve kept aquariums before, but a planted tank has always seemed intimidating. One of the plants you mentioned can become feet high, are there certain plants that are better suited to a 20 gallon tank?

  12. I have an established non planted community aquarium (55 gal). I am ready to get rid of the plastic plants. Can I put in new substrate (should I remove all the gravel? with the fish still in the tank, or do I move them out and start from scratch? Looks like if I keep the fish in, flourite is best?

  13. Hi my names glen im setting up a planted tank for the first time.. I’ve bought a biopro aquarium lamp it’s 60w. It’s a 6ft tank I thinks it’s roughly 600 litres including a sump filter I made.. my question is the light I bought going to be strong enough it’s 180 cm long


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