Planted Aquarium Setup – Step by Step for Beginners

How to Setup a Planted Aquarium?

How to Setup a Planted Aquarium?

Live plants are more alluring than plastic plants, and they will make it seem like you have a piece of the underwater environment in your house.

The plants will boost the water quality and oxygenate it during the day. The process is, however, not as simple as adding the varieties you find in the fish store.

Poor planning can result in wilting plants impacted by algae, which can be frustrating to a beginning aquarist. The steps below will simplify the setup  for a planted aquarium:

Choosing Aquarium Size

The type of plants, as well as the varieties of fish you intend to keep, will influence the size of the aquarium you get. You can utilize nearly all aquarium sizes to setup a planted system.

Generally, pet fish are happier and healthier in bigger tanks. Not only are larger tanks easier to take care of, but they give fish a lot of space to roam and hide.

Maintaining suitable water conditions is always the challenging part with keeping an aquarium, that is factors like temperature and chemistry. If you decide to get a nano tank to start, plan for small fish that will thrive in the setup.

Aquarium Substrate

Aquarium Substrate

Aquarium Substrate

Rooted plants are especially demanding when it comes to substrates. Plants commonly rely on their root system for nutrients, and an ideal substrate should be capable of storing these nutrients.

Most beginner aquarists use an inert substrate, with the common ones being gravel, sand, and pebbles.

These substrates disintegrate very slowly, but they do not have substantial levels of nutrients, which means that you will need additional fertilization. The substrates are easy to manage, and they also add appealing aesthetics to your tank.

The grain size of your substrate will also determine how effective it is. Sand is, for example, small-grained and roots may be unable to penetrate deeply. Roots will also find it hard to grow in oxygen-starved areas in deep sand beds.

On the other hand, a thick gravel layer will result in the poor rooting of plants. The best grain size for any planted tank should be between 2 to 5mm.

You can also select between a composite or complete substrate. The former describes one type of substrate. Composite substrates involve laying a layer of gravel over the soil and making it hard for soil particles to rise to the water’s surface and cloud your tank.

Whatever substrate you choose, ensure it will be suitable for the kind of plants and fish you intend to keep.

Hardscape Setup

Hardscape mostly includes rocks, tree roots, driftwood, cosmetic sand, and other decorations. The first step is sourcing for the hardscape that will be suitable for your setup.

Keep in mind that heavy stones can damage the glass, although you can provide polystyrene at the bottom to safeguard the integrity of your tank. The layout of the hardscape will depend on your preferences, and a few pieces will be sufficient to create an interesting environment in your tank.

Choosing Aquarium Plants

Choosing Aquarium Plants

Choosing Aquarium Plants

Aquarium plants need as much focus as you give to your fish. As you will soon realize, they are many live aquarium plants in fish stores, and the choice will depend on the kind of aquarium setup you have.

Consider the benefits you intend to reap from the plants. For some aquarists, live plants aerate their fish tanks, provide shelter for fish, and remove waste while it is more of a cosmetic choice for others.

The most common aquarium plant groups are:

  • Rhizomes: The leaves of these plants blossom from a horizontal root. Common plants in this group are Anubias species and Java fern. You can attach them to hardscape as they do not need to be anchored in the substrate. Since they grow slowly, rhizomes are particularly easy to manage. The plants will also thrive in low-lighting.
  • Mosses– Mosses will commonly attach to a surface like wood by themselves, although you may need to attach it to the surface with glue or thread to start. These plants are sensitive to CO2 levels, and they may grow slowly if the levels are low. The Java moss is among the most popular plants in this group. It needs moderate lighting since bright lighting will result in stunted growth.
  • Carpets: These plants extend across the soil’s surface via runners. Finer plants in this category will need CO2 to thrive. Some like the dwarf baby tears will require C02 injection. They tend to be short, and they will only grow at the substrate level. If you desire a dense carpet, provide them with strong light.
  • Rosettes: The leaves of rosettes bloom in a circle from the plant’s base. Rosettes are incredibly easy to maintain. Crypts and Sword plants are some varieties in this category. Ensure that the crown of the rosette is above ground.
  • Stem Plants: Stem plants represent the most varieties, and they have varying shapes and hues. They grow vertically, and they will require constant pruning as they will often reach the top of the tank. Most stem plants with vibrant colors need CO2 and bright light to display their colors. It is also easy to propagate plants in this category. Only keep stem plants if you have the time to keep pruning them, or they will quickly overrun your tank.

Plants can be set either in the background, foreground, surface, or middle area. You also need to assess the compatibility of your fish and plants. They should both have similar water requirements. Varieties like grasses and mosses will suit most aquatic pets.

The plants should also suit the size of your aquarium. Tall plants will be unsuited for small tanks, while small plants will not be visible in big tanks.

Planting the Tank

Planting the Tank

Planting the Tank

After choosing your substrate and aquarium plants, the next step is planting the aquarium using the process below:

  • Lay the sand/gravel: Clean the sand and pour it gently to the bottom of the tank. Create a medium-thick layer that is about 1.2 inches. Sand is a better choice as it will avail nutrients to plants and filter the water. If you use gravel, make small-sized grains, and you can mix it with sand or another nutrient-oriented substrate.
  • Add the Plant Substrate: The substrate should be around 1.2 inches in thickness. Ensure the substrate of your choice is designed as a live plant for aquariums. Substrates that are clay-based are especially ideal because they make it easy root and anchor plants. You can source for substrates that have plant fertilizer for added nutrition. Use a cover that is easily removable to cover most of the substrate. The sheet will protect the substrate from disturbance as you add other components to the aquarium.
  • Add Water: The water’s temperature can range between 70 to 80ºF as it is an ideal range for most aquatic plants. Fill in the water carefully to avoid disturbing the substrate.
  • Add the Plants: Protect the integrity of your plant when removing it from the packaging. Observe the planting instructions to determine the depth at which it needs to be planted in the substrate. For potted plants, for example, you should dig a hole whose size is as wide as the plant. Ferns do not need to be positioned in the substrate layer, and you only need to attach them to something solid.

Aquarium Filtration

Aquarium Filtration

Aquarium Filtration

A filtration system will encourage water circulation and make it easier for aquatic plants to remove waste. Live plants perform biological filtration, and it can seem like adding a filter to perform the same function is redundant. Live plants will only replace the functions of a filter in a heavily-planted aquarium.

If you are keeping a moderately-sized tank with a few fish and a lot of live plants, your aquarium can do without a filter. The process is, however, not as seamless as it may seem. You can keep adding plants until you are convinced that a filter is no longer necessary.

Hang on the back, and canister filters represent the ideal filters for planted tanks.

Canister filters present flexibility when deciding on filter media, so you get more options in influencing the water’s chemistry. If you desire to adjust the water return, you can utilize a spray bar attachment which is positioned under the water. The water circulation provided by the attachment will promote the health of the water and fish.

Canister filters easily fit under tanks, and you can set up your aquarium close to the wall. Some of them come with reusable filter media, making it cost-effective. Canister filters are more compatible with larger tanks, and they are more difficult to clean when compared to HOB filters.

HOB filters will suit tanks below 55 gallons, and you may need several of them if you have a larger tank. They are more affordable and simpler to use than canister filters. The filter cartridges used in a HOB filter are disposable, which can be expensive, and you will need some space behind the tank.

Aquarium Lighting

Aquarium Lighting

Aquarium Lighting

Lights will naturally highlight the beauty of aquarium plants. In addition to the cosmetic benefits, light will also provide the energy needed by plants to grow. Fish also have lighting requirements, which varies from species to species.

Most aquarists keep exposure to direct sunlight to a minimum and instead rely on artificial lighting. The latter is best kept at eight hours a day.

Aquarists can choose between incandescent, fluorescent, and LED. Incandescent lighting is quite inefficient, and it will not evenly light up your tank. Fluorescent lighting can be effective if the fixtures used are specifically designed for use in an aquarium. Refrain from using standard bulbs that you would use in your home.

LED lighting represents excellent light penetration at 24 inches. The light spectrum of this kind of light enhances plant growth. LED is also more cost-effective than other kinds of light fixtures.

LED lighting also makes it easy to use specialty lighting. Some fixtures are water-proof and will be anchored to a tank’s glass with suction cups to illuminate the tank from different underwater angles. LED spotlights will be useful when you want to highlight a particular decoration.

The amount of light your aquatic plants get will determine if they survive in your tank or not. Strong lighting will encourage algae growth, which presents a host of challenges, particularly for beginner aquarists. On the other hand, plants receiving low light will die. When buying a light fixture, inform the dealer of the size of your aquarium so that you get a fixture that will penetrate to the depths of your setup.

Water Heating

Aquatic plants will typically thrive in temperatures between 73-81ºF. You should, however, research on the particular range that will suit the plants in your tank. In practice, it is more vital to keep the temperature stable since plants will not respond to sudden adjustments in temperature.

The choice of a heater will be dictated by the size of your tank. Most brands will reference the recommended aquarium size for their heaters. A heater should ideally take a short time to heat the tank to the intended temperature.

Heater options are plenty, ranging from submersibles, substrate aquarium heaters, thermofilters, and in-filters. Submersible heaters are especially popular because of their high efficiency. Ensure that the model you get is easy to maintain or fix in the case of damage.

CO2 System

Aquarists commonly wonder why they end up with failing plants even after availing nutrients and light. In addition to these requirements, plants also desire CO2. It is easy to uptake the gas in the natural environment, but an aquarium is a closed space, and the levels of CO2 will be limited.

A CO2 system is specifically designed to replenish the concentration of the gas in your tank and promote the health of the aquatic plants. The system comes in three types:

  • Manual Systems: These systems fundamentally support yeast fermentation. CO2 is a resulting byproduct of this process, and it will accumulate in a fermentation canister. The gas and the tank water mix in a reaction chamber via a diffuser. A manual system will be appropriate for a small tank as it is easy to use. The only downside is turning them on and off manually.
  • Semi-automatic Systems: These systems are a bit challenging to set up, but they utilize self-timers for scheduling CO2 injection. They are equipped with several components to control the level of CO2 entering the tank, including a diffuser, and a pressure regulator with a solenoid. You can time the solenoid to operate during a particular set of time. Such a system will complement a mid-sized tank.
  • Automatic Systems: These systems are fundamentally similar to semi-automatic models, but they additionally feature a probe and a PH controller. These additions continuously adjust the PH of the tank. The controller will automatically constrict the addition of CO2 it detects the PH falling below the set point. These systems are better for heavily-planted tanks and large aquariums with a high demand for CO2.

While these systems are very efficient in regulating CO2 in an aquarium, they can be quite expensive. Other options that aquarists explore include adding liquid carbon, increasing turbulence, or using plants whose leaves float on the water surface.

Cycling the Tank

The substrate and plants, as well as the decoration, will impact on the health and conditions of your aquarium. Let the plants take root in the substrate, extract algae and any other build up, and setup the filtration system before adding fish species.

This process is vital because the aquarium requires time to accumulate beneficial bacteria and nutrients in the substrate. These bacteria inhibit the build-up of nitrate and ammonia.

Adding the Fish

Adding the Fish to Aquarium

Adding the Fish to Aquarium

The tank should be left to establish itself for two to three weeks, after which you can add fish species. Ensure there are no amounts of nitrites and ammonia by testing your water.

Some of the most popular fish species for planted aquariums include:

  • Tetras – Tetras come in many varieties, each of which will brighten your aquarium with their vibrant colors. Ember tetras are among the most popular tetra species. They are distinctively small in size, and their bodies have a bright orange hue. Since they are schooling fish, they will brighten up any aquarium while swimming across it. Another stunning tetra species are the Cardinal tetras. They have a neon stripe while another deep red bar sits on top of the neon one. They typically reach a length of 1.5 inches, and they have a longer lifespan than other tetras. Neon tetras are also popular with planted tanks, and they closely resemble cardinal tetras. Neon tetras will only grow to under an inch in size, and you can keep a large school in a big aquarium. Another small tetra species is the Harlequin tetra, which has a characteristic rose sheen.
  • Gouramis – Gouramis are also available in varying sizes and colors. They are ideal for community setups because of their peaceful nature. Dwarf Gouramis are especially coveted for their red and blue hues. They will typically grow to around two inches in length, making them suitable for mid-sized and large tanks.
  • Guppies – Guppies are common staples in aquariums. They are quite hardy, although they are not schooling species. Guppies come in varying shades, and you can source for the kind that compliments your particular setup. Keep in mind that guppies respond to warm, slow-moving water.
  • Angelfish – Angelfish are becoming very popular with planted aquariums. The fish, however, does not respond well to changes in water conditions. If your setup uses a lot of CO2, you can limit the injection during the night. Angelfish will generally leave the plants alone but do not couple them with small tetras. Since the fish can grow quite large, they will better compliment a large setup.
  • Rainbows – Rainbows are known for their stunning colorations that will spruce up any tank. They will thrive in the low PH in a planted tank, thanks to constant CO2 injection. Species like the Dwarf Neon Rainbowfish are especially ideal if you want to add depth in your aquarium.
  • Corydoras – Corydoras are bottom-dwelling freshwater fish that are suitable for planted tanks. They will welcome various food, and they like to be in large groups.

Fertilizing Your Plants

In addition to CO2, PH, light, and substrates, aquarium plants will also need fertilizers to thrive. Plants will demand macro- and micro-nutrients, depending on the kind of live plants you have chosen.

Macro-nutrients represent the elements needed in large concentrations, including potassium, calcium, phosphates, sulfates, and sodium. These elements will be availed by fish and fish food, and they do not need to be added regularly.

You need to add micronutrients more frequently as they are needed for vital processes like cell growth and photosynthesis. Such nutrients include calcium, potassium, magnesium, sulfates, and sodium.

The fertilizers are available as either substrate or liquid fertilizers. Substrate kinds are more long-lasting, and you will have to add liquid fertilizers more frequently. If dosed in moderation, these fertilizers should not affect fish species. Before adding the fertilizers, however, the levels of PH, CO2, and light should be assessed and adjusted if need be.

Trimming the Plants

One part of maintaining your aquarium setup is trimming the live plants. The tools you should be equipped with include razors, shears, tweezers, and scissors.

Stem plants generally need more trimming, since they grow incredibly fast. You can cut them off at the top rather than at the roots. Do not get rid of more than half the stem to avoid damaging the plant. If you intend to propagate it, plant the parts you cut off in the substrate.

Moss is the easiest aquarium plant to maintain because you can cut it in any way. For Anubias and Java ferns, you have to split the rhizomes at the base of the plant.

What is an Aquascape?

What is an Aquascape?

What is an Aquascape?

An aquascape is an aquarium that has been skillfully set up with plants and hardscape like rocks and woods. These aquascapes are often the pride of seasoned aquarists, and they are even submitted for yearly competitions.

They can either be simple or complicated, and they can even take years to perfect. In building an aquascape, aquarists will begin with a layout and progress to filtration, lighting, and maintenance. Many aquarists will rely on fish and shrimp that eat algae to build a healthy setup.

Aquascapes come in different kinds. The Iwagumi aquascape, for example, borrows from the minimalistic Japanese style and mainly uses rocks.


A planted tank creates a stunning underwater landscape. Live plants present a host of challenges, however, ranging from heating, filtration, CO2 injection, and lighting. You will have to choose aquarium plants and a suitable substrate.

After cycling the tank, you can source and add the fish species of your choice, and work on maintaining the right water conditions for all the inhabitants of your tank.

Fishkeeping   Updated: October 3, 2019
avatar Hello, my name is Fabian, and I am the Chief Editor at Aquarium Nexus. I have over 20 years of experience in keeping and breeding fish. The aquarium hobby brings me immense joy, and I take great pleasure in sharing my experiences with others.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *