Setting Up A Planted Aquarium

If you have an aquarium filled with fish – or if this is something you are interested in doing – it can be tough to get started. From knowing where to begin to understand how you are supposed to take care of your plants, it’s tough to get a handle on how you should be setting up your planted tank.

While just about anybody can put together a simple planted tank filled with gravel and decorations, it takes some additional effort to be able to maintain a planted tank. You need to understand how to meet the requirements of your plants while also not overlooking the needs of your fish.

Setting Up A Planted Aquarium

If you’re interested in setting up a planted tank, know that they can be quite beautiful when done correctly. There’s nothing quite like an aquarium filled with verdant green growth in your own living room – it not only will make your tank look nice, but it will also help your fish feel at home while filtering toxins out of the water.

Are you ready to get started? Don’t be overwhelmed. We’re here to help you make the most of setting up your own unique planted fish tank.

Equipment Needed


Setting up a planted tank does not need to break the bank, and it doesn’t require hours of shopping to get done, either. However, there is some basic equipment that you will need to get started with your planted tank.

To begin with, you will want to install some good LED lighting. There are plenty of LED lights designed specifically for planted tanks. We’ll talk more in a moment about the lighting you need for a successful, healthy planted tank.

You will also need to select a substrate. Again, we will go into more detail on this, but you really don’t want to cut any corners when it comes to your substrate. Choose one that is nutrient-dense and will best-suited for growing your specific type of plant. A high-quality substrate is key.

Next, you might want to consider a heater. This isn’t always necessary and can be skipped for certain types of plants. However, if you are growing most tropical plants, you are going to need a heater to mimic the natural growing conditions of this plant in the wild.

A filtration system is also important. The exact type of filter you will need will depend largely on the setup of your tank, as well as on the different types of fish that you have. However, you will usually need a canister filter for tanks that are larger than 40 gallons. Smaller tanks can usually work well with a hang-on back unit. Here are some of the best filters for you to consider as you are shopping for your aquarium.

Finally, you will need to select a test kit. pH testing – as well as testing for other water parameters, like hardness – is important when you’re growing plants. Although these parameters are of course important when you are simply raising fish in an aquarium, plants can be just as finicky – or even more particular – to the water conditions than fish, in some cases.

Select Your Substrate

Once you are done shopping for your other equipment, you can pick out your substrate. Choosing a substrate for a tank that is not planted is quite easy – all you need to do is pick some gravel or sand that will work well for your type of fish and you’re all set.

However, plants add another level of difficulty to the purchasing decision. Plants need nutrients in order to grow, so any old gravel simply just won’t do. You need to make sure you pick an aquarium substrate that is designed specifically for planted tanks.

A good substrate to consider is fluorite. This kind of substrate is unique, containing no nutrients but having the ability to absorb nutrients directly from the water. Fluorite is best added with root tabs, which are small discs that contain nutrients and leach them back into the substrate. Fluorite will absorb the nutrients from the tabs and then release them into the substrate to be used by your plants.

You could also go with an all-in-one substrate. These types of substrates utilize a mixture of multiple kinds of substrate and are often “pre-loaded” with nutrients so that you don’t need to add any root tabs. This kind of substrate will provide your plants with all the nutrients they need.

Be careful about adding substrate that is pre loaded with nutrients if you already have fish living in your tank. No matter how carefully or gradually you add this substrate, it will cause a spike in ammonia for a few days, which can be extremely harmful or even deadly for your fish.

Set Up Your Substrate

Photo by Daniel Lackey

Once you’ve picked out the perfect substrate, you will need to put them out in your tank. Be careful about how you do this – some substrates can cloud up your entire tank if you aren’t careful about laying them down slowly. This can be frustrating, but it’s important that you are thorough when adding your substrate to avoid any potential problems later on.

You will want to begin by rinsing your substrate. Rinse it out in a five-gallon bucket until the water runs clear. Some substrate packaging will claim that rinsing is not necessary, but it’s a good idea to clean it and to remove any contaminants from the package.

Put three or four inches of substrate down in the tank. It might be helpful to put down some gravel to help everything stick together, but you don’t need to do this. Make sure you add substrate carefully, and then add water even more slowly. Even if you are diligent about cleaning and laying down substrate meticulous and in a painstaking fashion, if you dump water in too fast, you will have substrate fly everywhere.

You can reduce clouding by placing a plate atop your newly-laid substrate. Dump the water onto the plate instead of on the substrate, which will prevent it from stirring up the substrate.

Install Some Lighting

Next, you need to pick out the lighting that you want to add to your tank. A good option is LED lighting, but you don’t need to spend a lot of money. Whatever you do, just know that a basic fluorescent light bulb that comes with your fish tank probably won’t be enough for a planted tank. While this kind of basic lighting is usually fine for a fish-only tank, plants have particular needs that require additional light.

Don’t purchase a knock-off lighting system. Instead, invest some money in this aspect of your planted tank. Why? Not only will a good light last you for years to come, but it will also be safer – cheaply made lights can become a fire hazard in many cases.

There are tons of lights for you to choose from, but you might want to consider one that offers reliable light at an affordable price. Some lights have special bulbs to help limit algae growth, while others operate on a timer so that you don’t have to be around to shut off or turn on your lights.

You may even be able to purchase a light with extra features, such as sunrise simulators, color channels, and storm effects, these can help bring your tank to life and in some cases, may help inspire vibrant color growth in your plants.

There’s no set requirement as to the amount of light that your plants need. Most plants, though, will need around ten to twelve hours of light. You can experiment with the growing requirements of your plants, but know that most will need a minimum of ten hours. It may take some time for you to feel out your aquarium and to figure out which cycles will work best for your plants.

Install A Filtration System


Filtration is important when it comes to setting up a planted tank. You don’t need to overthink your filtration, but you do need to provide some form of filtering so that your plants aren’t exposed to an overload of toxins.

Tanks that are smaller than 50 gallons can get away with hang-on back filtration units. These won’t be as powerful as canister filtration units, but they tend to function quite well and will get the job done just fine in a small planted tank.

If you have a larger tank, or one that is more than 50 gallons, you should opt for a large canister filter. These filters can process more water, so if you have plants that are vulnerable to fluctuations in water quality, they’re a good choice.

No matter what kind of filter you use, make sure you remove any activated carbon, if applicable. Carbon removes the nutrients your plants need to survive and makes it difficult for them to thrive in the tank.

Add Your Plants

Best Substrate for Planted Tank

While you need to cycle an aquarium for a few weeks before you introduce any fish, you can easily add plants before it has fully cycled. Live plants can actually expedite the cycling process, allowing you to get some fish in the tank sooner. However, you will still need to keep an eye on the cycling process and avoid adding any fish until the nitrites and ammonia are completely gone.

Once you’ve set up your tank, you need to decide which plants you want to grow. There are dozens of plants you might consider in your tank, and we’ll break down the different types of aquatic plants in a moment. However, if you’re just getting started, some easy-to-care-for fish might include species like:

  • Java Moss
  • Crypt Wendtii
  • Micro Sword
  • Java Fern
  • Amazon Sword
  • Water Wisteria
  • Hornwort
  • Cryptocoryne
  • Pygmy Chain Sword
  • Anubias Nana

You will be able to choose from background, foreground, carpeting, or mid-ground plants. Each can be adapted to suit various aesthetic and functional purposes in your tank.

Background plants will be the primary focal point in your tank. These are often large and thick, offering a gorgeous display of greenery in your tank. They are usually planted at the rear of the tank so as to avoid obstructing any swimming areas or views.

Foreground plants are short, so they are best placed toward the front of the tank. This way, you will still be able to see what’s going on behind them. Some good foreground plants to consider include Anubias Nana and Pygmy Chain Swords, both of which offer a gorgeous appearance without a lot of “volume.

Mid-ground plants are best planted near the center of the tank. Slighter taller than foreground plants, they are less thick than background plans and help fill out the tank.

Finally, carpeting plants serve as a carpet on the bae of your tank, species such as Java Moss will grow rapidly, clinging to the rocks, driftwood, and substrate of your tank.

Care For Your Plants

Setting up your planted tank goes beyond the first few days of design and assembly. You Need to make sure you are caring properly for your plants once you install them in your tank! Here are some tips to help you get started.

First of all, you need to make sure that you conduct regular bi-weekly water changes. Water changes aren’t only beneficial for your fish, but also serve your plants in a very important way. Water changes help remove nitrate, and even if you have a good filtration unit, a water change will be necessary to keep nitrates at safe levels. The process of changing out the water also replenishes trace elements in the water that enhance the growth of your plants.

You also need to make sure you keep the pH and temperatures in your tank stable. Most plants will require water temperatures of around 75 to 78 degrees. While there is some wiggle room in this, it’s more important that you provide a stable temperature versus maintaining a specific degree. You might want to consider installing a high-quality water to help keep things level.

Finally, make sure you prune your plants back every now and then, particularly if they are vulnerable to overgrowth. It can be quite fun to watch your plants flourish and expand, but if there is excessive growth, it can create too much shade, harming both the plants that are growing beneath as well as the other fish. Therefore, you should trim back your plants occasionally to make sure everyone has room to grow.’

Fertilize Your Plants (If Needed)

When it comes to fertilizing your plants, you don’t need to do anything special. However, a few trace elements here and there can really help your plants thrive. In most cases, your fish will do everything that you need to get done.

That being said, some plants will occasionally need just a little bit extra. You can add a substrate fertilizer, which is one you place directly under the fertilizer. Another option is a liquid fertilizer, which will be useful for plants that don’t produce roots in the substrate, like Java Moss. Since the plant can’t necessarily absorb nutrients from a substrate, they can extract usable nutrients from the water instead.

You need to be careful about using too many liquid fertilizers – these promote algae growth and can harm your fish in high quantities. If you are growing plants in a low-light setting, you shouldn’t need to use any fertilizers at all.

Add Some Fish!

Don’t rush this process – we know you’re excited! And truth be told, adding fish to the aquarium is one of the most exciting steps in setting up your planted tank. However, you need to make sure you have followed all of the above steps before proceeding to this final – and most fun! – one.

Plants can speed up the cycling process, but you still need to make sure you cycle for at least two or three weeks. There should be zero nitrites and ammonia before you add fish. Then, you can consider one of these top species for a planted tank:

Tetras – Tetras are colorful and offer lots of activity to a planted tank. Keep them in schools of six or more.

Corydoras – Cory Catfish are peaceful and love to hang out at the bottom of the tank. They can eat a variety of foods. Again, they should be kept in groups of six or more.

Gouramis – Gouramis also come in a variety of sizes and colors. As peaceful fish, they do quite well with planted tanks.

Angelfish– Angelfish are popular for planted tanks and they don’t have a tendency to eat the plants. They are popular options for community aquariums.

Swordtails – Swordtails are some of the easiest species you can keep. They reproduce quickly, but otherwise are easy to raise.

There you have it! That’s everything you need to know in order to set up a planted tank. So pick out your fish, pick out your plants, and get started – you have a world of beautiful color awaiting you.

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