Setting Up a Planted Aquarium

Setting Up a Planted Aquarium

Setting up a planted aquarium is not more difficult than setting up a fish aquarium. Just like you should to research the requirements of your fish if you want them to thrive, you should choose plant species that you know how to care for and come plants will appreciate roughly the same conditions. If you have not kept a planted aquarium before, ideally stick to sturdy and adaptable plant species. As you skills increase, you can proceed to more delicate species that require more care and equipment.

Choosing plants

If you are not willing to purchase extra strong lights, carbon dioxide injectors, and aquarium fertilizers, chose plants that will thrive without this type of boosting. Red plants will for instance almost always require really potent lighting. Many green-leafed plant species will however do fine with normal aquarium lighting (incandescent, fluorescent or natural light), absorb carbon dioxide produced by your fish and receive sufficient amounts of nutrients from the substrate and from fish excretions.

Only get aquatic plants. Some pet shops actually sell terrestrial plants to aquarists, but these plants will always decay when kept submerged for any longer period of time. You may be able to keep them alive for a few weeks, but the end result is always rotting plants that pollute the water. There is however no reason to stay away from boggy plants native to wetlands, since there are many semi-aquatic plants that can grow submerged as well as emerged. If you allow a boggy plant to grow up above the surface, it will often bloom and produce seeds.  

Examples of suitable beginner species

Plants that are especially good at keeping the levels of organic waste down in your aquarium:

Ceratopteris thalictroides (Water Sprite)
Hygrophilla angustifolia (Willow Leaf Hygrophilla)
Hygrophilla difformis (Water Wisteria)
Hygrophilla polysperma (Small Leafed Hygrophilla)
Vesicularia dubyana (Java Moss)

Other sturdy plant species:
Anubias barteri (Anubias)
Echinodorus Bleheri (Common Sword plant)
Limnophila sp. (Ambulia)
Microsorum pteropus (Java Fern)
Salvinia sp. (Fuzzy Duck Weed)
Valisneria spiralis (Valisneria)

These species are all commonly available and will not cost a fortune. If you cannot find them in your local pet shop, you can order them online or ask the pet shop to order them for you.

Aquarium size

Avoid tall aquariums since it is hard for the light to penetrate all the way down to the bottom in a tall aquarium. Really small aquariums should also be avoided, since they are more difficult to manage. If you have never kept a planted aquarium before, use an aquarium of at least 10 gallons, preferably 30 gallons or more.

Lighting in a planted aquarium

If your aquarium is no larger than 10 gallons, a single 15 watt bulb will be enough for low demanding plant species. Keep in mind that light bulbs grow weaker with age and exchange the bulb at least once a year.

For aquariums bigger than 10 gallons, the general rule is 2 watts per gallon, as long as you stick to low demanding plant species. 30 gallons will therefore require 60 watt and so on. It is better to get three 20 watt bulbs than one 60 watt bulb, since three bulbs will spread the light (and the heat if you use incandescent lights) more evenly.


Incandescent lights produce a lot of heat, but they are not the best way of heating your aquarium. Purchasing fluorescent lights and using a real aquarium heater with a thermostat is a much better solution. Fluorescent lights are a bit more expensive, but will lower your electricity bill and can actually be cheaper in the long run. The risk of burning fishes and plants is also lower with fluorescent lights.

Even if your aquarium heater has a thermostat, you should always buy a thermometer because thermostats can be unreliable. It is also important for you to know the water temperature far away from the heater. Place the thermometer as far away from the heater as you can in the aquarium and check it daily. If you have a small <20 gallon aquarium, a 150W heater will be enough for most tropical plants.


Beginner aquarists should not attempt to combine densely planted aquariums with undergravel filtration, since this can lead to CO2 deficiency. An internal or external power filter is a better solution. Really densely planted aquariums can actually be kept without filters, as long as the amount of fish is low and you perform regular water changes.


Use a substrate of at least 1-3 mm in size, because smaller particles can lead to anaerobic conditions that are hard for plant roots to cope with. If you want to provide you plants with some extra nutrients, you can add some iron rich clay, such as laterite. If you only keep plants that are not planted in the substrate, you can naturally choose any type of substrate as long as it does not produce any adverse effects, e.g. by polluting the water.

Water for a planted aquarium

In most parts of the world, potable tap water will work fine in a planted aquarium. Use your test kit to check the hardiness and the amount of phosphate and nitrate. If you have no test kit, ask you local fish store to test it for you. For most plants, the water should not be harder than KH 8, the phosphate levels should be under 0.5 mg/L and the nitrate levels should not exceed 10 mg/L. Local fish shops can often provide good advice since they know about the tap water in your region, the chlorine levels etcetera.

Setting up a planted aquarium                       

  1. Set up the aquarium and install the equipment just like you would set up an un-planted aquarium. You can find a guide here at AC Tropical Fish.
  1. Rinse the gravel under running water to prevent clouding of the water. If the gravel comes from another aquarium, it should be properly sterilized to avoid disease. If you want to add laterite, mix some of the gravel with laterite in a large bucket.
  1. Fill the aquarium with roughly 1-2 inches of the gravel-laterite mixture. Place plain gravel on top until the total depth exceeds 3 inches. You tank is only 10 gallons, 2 ½ inches is enough. 
  1. It is common to level the substrate, i.e. keep the substrate deeper in the back of the aquarium and shallower at the front to make it look more appealing.
  1. Add rocks, wood, aquarium decoration etcetera.
  1. Fill the water just like you would fill an un-planted aquarium. See our guide on setting up an aquarium. Only fill 2/3 up; this makes planting easier.
  1. Plant all the plants that should be planted in the substrate.
  1. Add the potted aquarium plants (if any).
  1. Tend to the aquarium plants that you want to anchor to rocks, driftwood etcetera.
  1. Fill the aquarium to the top.
  1. Add floating plants.

Different types of aquarium plants

  • If you purchase aquarium plants in small plastic pots, you should remove the rockwool from the roots since the rockwool can contain a hydroponic solution that encourages algae growth.
  • Stem plants are often sold in bunches and rarely have well developed roots. Remove the elastic band and plant a few stems at a time. Place pebbles around them to keep them down until they have rooted themselves in the substrate. You can also leave them in the water and wait for roots to develop before you plant them.
  • Java Moss can be tied to something, wedged between objects or left floating in the aquarium. Simply use a piece of string or a rubber band to anchor it to a rock or similar. After a while, the plant will have anchored itself and you can use a scissor to carefully remove the string if it is still visible.
  • Java Fern should never be planted in the substrate.
  • Water Sprite is an amazingly versatile plant that can be planted in the substrate or left floating.
  • Salvinia is a floating plant. If you do not want them to move around, you can tie them to something at the surface.
  • Anubias plants and other species with thick rhizome should have their roots, and only their roots, buried in the substrate.
  • So called “rosette” and “crown” plants should be planted in the substrate. The crown must be above the substrate, otherwise the plant may die. Only plant the roots.

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