Adding aquarium plants to your tank is an excellent way to create a healthy environment for your fish. They will use them for cover to hide from threats, lay eggs or spawn, and occasionally feed on them. However, most aquatic residents won’t bother them too much, with few exceptions. Just like your fish, plants have varying needs. Some are well-suited for beginners, and others, not so much.
Aquatic plants have the same basic needs as your fish. They require a stable environment with minimal changes in temperature or water chemistry. Remember that many species live in large bodies of water that experience seasonal patterns. Our guide will walk you through the process of adding plants to your tank.
Before You Start
First, here is an overview of aquarium plant pros and cons to make sure that this endeavor is right for you. Adding plants won’t change the regular maintenance of your aquarium too much. It’s like putting a few more fish into your tank. Still, there are a few things to keep in mind.
Choosing the Right Plants
There are many species available from which to choose, whether you have a freshwater, brackish, or saltwater tank. You’ll find plants that prefer any of these conditions. There are several types that differ in their growth pattern, size, and light needs.
Think of it as landscaping when you start researching your choices. You should choose a variety of heights and types to make the layout of your aquarium look pleasing. You can group them into foreground, middle, and background plants.
We strongly urge you to do your homework and learn about their needs — and height! The last thing that you need is a plant that takes over the entire tank. Ideally, you’ll have enough of them to create an interesting landscape while leaving your fish enough room to explore.
A planted aquarium should have plenty of additional features for the sake of symmetry and balance. Planning out where all of the plants are going to go is more important in an aquarium than it is in a garden. Gardens have more space so people don’t have to economize on the space as much.
Lots of people might want to put rocks, wooden pieces and other features in their aquariums for balance. Natural areas have a lot of texture and some might want to give their aquariums the same sort of look. Even the largest aquariums don’t have that much space and people are going to need to decide what goes where initially.
Preparing Your Tank: 6 Essentials
Before you get started, take a look at this list of key things to consider. There are quite a lot of factors involved in growing plants the right way, so we have listed the six most important essentials. Ideally, you’re starting from scratch with an empty aquarium. It’s much easier and safer to begin without any fish in the tank. It’ll be less stressful for everyone.
1. The Substrate
The first and probably the most important thing that you need to do is to pick a good substrate for your plants (we have covered our top 6 on this article). Now, the substrate you choose is going to depend on the type of plants you are looking to grow. However, generally speaking, your best bet is to go with an aquarium substrate that is ideal for plants. Some kind of soil-like substrate, which can be soil or something that mimics soil, is your best bet.
Plants need to be able to develop a strong root system, which a soil-like substrate which allows for. Some plants can grow in fine gravel or sandy substrate, but those are not as usual as ones that thrive the best in a soil-like substrate. Like we said, this depends on what plants you have. Some plants do better when anchored down to rocks or driftwood. There are of course floating plants too, ones that do not require any substrate at all.
Make sure that you get a type of substrate that is very rich in nutrients and minerals. Plants need a lot of nutrients and minerals, and you will need to provide those for the plants. This is of course a moot point if you have floating plants because they will take all of the nutrients right out of the water, not the substrate. At any rate, if you are using substrate, make sure to rinse it off well before placing it in the aquarium. You want to do this to remove any toxins and contaminants.
Like everything else that has been and will be said here today, keep in mind that it all depends on the plants you have. On a side note, when it comes to planting, some aquarium plants need to be tied down to a rock or some driftwood. This is the case if they don’t develop good root systems, don’t do well in solid substrate, or just tend to float around. Your best bet for anchoring plants down to a rock or driftwood is some simple clear fishing line.
Your plants are going to need lots of nutrients to grow well. This is true for all aquatic plants, whether they are rooted in substrate, anchored to a log, or floating on top of the water’s surface. However, keep in mind that all plants are different. In other words, the best way to grow aquarium plants is in terms of nutrients in order to meet the needs of the specific plant or plants you have.
Some plants need tons of nutrients and CO2 and some need barely anything at all. That being said, substances like carbon, nitrogen, potassium, and a few others are going to be crucial to the healthy growth of your aquarium plants in most cases.
Now, for plants rooted in substrate, you won’t need to add as many nutrients, at least not for the first few months. Most of the nutrients your plants need are going to be in the substrate. However, those nutrients will run out and you will need to add some liquid fertilizer into the water. Be careful though because too much fertilizer can kill fish.
A regular injection of CO2 won’t hurt either (we have covered a good option for smaller tanks here). Just like you and your fish breathe oxygen, plants need carbon dioxide (CO2) to survive. Now, for plants attached to rocks or driftwood, or ones floating on the water’s surface, you will more than likely need to add liquid fertilizer as they do not have any roots in the substrate.
3. Water & Water Quality
The next thing that you are going to need to do is add water into the aquarium. In terms of the water, make sure that you get dechlorinated water. Chlorine is a big no-no for both fish and plants. There are a few other things to keep in mind here as well.
First of all, you need to get yourself some kind of water softener or hardness regulator (we have reviewed our favorite ones here). This is going to depend on the plants and fish in your aquarium, but you need to make sure that the water hardness is ideal for both the plants and fish you plant on getting.
The same thing goes for the acidity and pH level. You need to get a water treatment solution to keep the pH between 6.5 and 7.5. This does depend on the plants once again, but generally speaking, something close to a neutral pH level is best (if you need help lowering your pH level then check out this article). Another thing that you will need to get yourself is a good water filtration unit.
There is nothing worse for a plant than dirty and toxic water. A good three-stage filter that engages in mechanical, biological, and chemical is definitely a must-have thing for your aquarium plants. Toxins like ammonia, nitrites, nitrates, and other unwanted compounds will do you no favors when trying to grow aquarium plants.
We really can’t stress enough how general and vague this article is, mainly out of necessity. The simple fact of the matter is that all plants are different and have different needs. The best way to grow one plant may be the worst way to grow another.
Anyway, another thing you will need to consider is heating. In general, most plants you get for a freshwater aquarium are going to be tropical, or at least not able to survive in cold water.
If you live in a warmer climate, the air is probably warm enough to keep the aquarium at a good temperature. Even then, depending on the plant, you might need a heater. You will definitely need a heater if you live in a place that has cold season or if it is just not all that warm in general.
Most aquarium plants are going to need to be in water that is between 68 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit (20 to 30 Celsius) in order to match their natural habitat. So, if the air where you live is not consistently at or above that aforementioned temperature range, a good heater is probably necessary for the best growth of your plants (we have reviewed some heaters on this article).
Once again, you need to research the specific plants you are aiming to get before you can know what the best lighting to grow them is. We can’t exactly tell you that you need this kind of light and this much of it, because it all depends on the plants in your aquarium. Generally speaking, the majority of aquarium plants need medium lighting, which means a fairly bright light for 12 to 16 hours per day, followed by a rest dark period to simulate night time.
This is true of most plants that can grow in an aquarium, whether floating or rooted. Plants need rest too. Some are different, but most plants can’t handle 24 hours of light, just like you.
There are some plants, especially ones that tend to grow somewhere near the equator, or that grow in hot and sunny areas, that are going to need stronger light. This does not necessarily have to do with the equator, but there are some plants that need lots of UV to grow best regardless.
At the same time, there are also many plants, especially those which tend to grow at the bottom of tanks, AKA bottom dwellers that don’t grow high up, that don’t need much light. Once again, it could also be a floating plant that is just genetically built to survive with low lighting.
Some can even survive with absolute minimal lighting, with a few being able to survive without any source of light at all. The point is that you need to know exactly what your plants need before you can come to a conclusion here.
At any rate, a good light is probably going to be necessary. UV light is very important, but also remember the different spectrums of light. For plants that flower you are going to need to look at blue and red lights, or at least combination led lights that have white, blue, and red light.
Red and blue light is crucial to the vegetative and flowering stages (respectively) of flowering plants. This blue and red color thing is not as important for grasses and bushes, but it still helps with growth.
6. The Fish
This is not a huge deal, but there are fish that will eat your plants. Certain fish like to eat certain plants. So, for the best chances of survival, just make sure you have a combination of plants and fish that work well together. Trying to grow some plants when you have hungry plant-eating fish around just is not going to work.
How to Grow Aquarium Plants:
Before you start, thoroughly wash your hands with warm water and soap. Do not use hand sanitizer that may harm your aquatic plants. You’ll need the following items:
The 14 Steps for Growing Aquarium Plants
1. Plan Your Design Before You Start
Transplanting fish into a new tank is taxing enough without uprooting the plants too. Figure out where you want everything to go before you begin. The chances are that the plants are wrapped in damp newspaper, so you have time to move them without stressing them too much. Lay down towels on the floor around the tank.
2. Rinse the Gravel and Place It in the Tank
Place the gravel in a clean bucket, and add water to rinse it. You may need to repeat this once or twice to remove any dust. If you have an under-gravel filter, place it in the empty tank before adding the gravel. You should plan on adding 1–1.5 lbs. per gallon of water. That should give you a 2–3-inch layer of substrate to anchor the plants properly.
3. Partially Fill the Tank
Next, fill your aquarium one-third to halfway with water. You’ll find it helpful to pour room temperature water onto an upside-down saucer or small plate to avoid moving the gravel. Taking this approach will help minimize how much water ends up on the floor instead of in the tank. The temperature is vital to avoid shocking your new plants.
4. Add Fertilizer to the Water
Put fertilizer into the water as per the directions on the bottle. This step is crucial to the health of your plants. There are no nutrients currently present in the water. That comes later after you add the fish, and the nitrogen cycle has run its course. That process takes time, depending on the aquarium size, setup, and the number of fish.
5. Gently Rinse the Plants With Lukewarm Water
Carefully unwrap the newspaper from each plant as you get ready to put them in the gravel. Rinse each one with lukewarm water, taking care to include the leaves. You might find a few stowaways, e.g., snails, on them. Discard them in the trash.
6. Place the Plants in the Gravel as per Your Plan
Here’s the fun part. Put the plants into the gravel according to the layout that you did earlier. Begin by digging out a hole, begin careful not to go all the way down to the bottom. Mound the substrate around the stem to anchor it in place.
7. Add Any Tank Décor After Rinsing Off Each Piece
Make sure to remove any tags when you rinse off your tank décor before placing them into the aquarium. You may find it helpful to use your tank décor to weigh down larger plants that might float to the top.
8. Fill Up the Aquarium
You can now fill up the rest of the tank using the saucer tip if needed. Don’t be alarmed if the water appears cloudy. Things will settle down with time. If you have a heater or outside filter, turn them on to create a welcoming environment for your plants.
9. Put on the Hood Light
Most plants will need at least 12 hours of light a day. The UV light supplies the energy that they need to undergo photosynthesis and grow. There are a few plants that prefer low-light conditions. We suggest that you stick with the average needs of the species that you have chosen.
10. Give the Plants Time to Adjust to Their New Digs
This step involves waiting. Plants need time to adjust and start their root networks. For some species, it’s the first time that they’ve been fully submerged. Everything that they’ve endured up to this point is stressful. That’s one reason that we suggest delaying the addition of fish.
11. Monitor the Condition of the Plants
In the meantime, keep an eye on your plants. They may seem like they’re wilting and not doing well. Once they’ve adapted to their conditions, they’ll bounce back. Make sure to keep adding fertilizer as per the manufacturer’s recommendations.
12. Add Your Fish — Slowly
Taking your time to fill up your tank is a smart move for your plants, fish, and the water chemistry. It can take up to 6 weeks for the aquarium to go through a complete run of the nitrogen cycle, as it takes time for the bacteria to get on the job. Waiting will also prevent a spike in ammonia levels, which are toxic to any organism.
13. Check the pH and Ammonia Levels Regularly
We strongly urge you to monitor the water quality often, especially when you start adding fish. The pH and ammonia levels will likely fluctuate for these first few weeks. That’s another reason that we recommend so-called beginner plants that can tolerate these conditions.
14. Set Up a Water-Changing Schedule
An aquarium is a closed environment. Therefore, it behooves you to take over Nature’s role and help maintain the water quality. That means weekly water changes of 10% of the tank’s total volume once a week. It’s a smart way to prevent the buildup of toxins that can create an unhealthy environment.
Final Thoughts About Growing Aquarium Plants
Adding live plants to your tank is a rewarding experience. If you enjoy gazing at your fish, you’ll find it even more pleasurable with plants to add atmosphere. You’ll likely find that your fish are more active with the presence of cover around them. The key to keeping everything healthy is balance, with stable conditions in a well-maintained environment.
Featured image credit: TTONN, Shutterstock