Large planted tank

Large planted tank DEFAULT

Setting up a planted aquarium can be extremely confusing, especially for beginners. 

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.

That said, planted aquariums are 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!

A Few Things You May Need

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 cant 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.

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.

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 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, inert substrate basically last forever and do 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. If you’re looking for aggressive plants 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 Substrate

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 use actually 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 substate 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.

Laying the 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.

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 anyways.

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 it 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

Getting your hands on a good 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 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 on 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

Pick 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:

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? Add some peat moss!

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!

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

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!

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.

Suggested Beginner Plants & 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 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 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 does well in a beginner’s planted aquarium!
  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 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 plants do exactly as their name suggests; carpet you tank floor is a beautiful green carpet. Carpeting plants such as Java Moss tend to grow quickly and easily, attaching to substrate, rocks, and driftwood at it grows. Keep in mind they often need open access to light; large plants like Amazon Swords and floating plants like Duckweed and Hornwort can shade them, causing them to weaken and die.

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 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. Planted aquarium require 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) tend 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 you 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.

Fertilizing your Plants

Low-tech setups usually don’t require and sort of dosing or special additions in terms of trace elements. A few fish should do this trick to keep you plants happy.

But, just like gardens, setting up a planted aquarium sometimes requires fertilization. The plants will often let you know with slowed growth, discoloured 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 of 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 a 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: Tetras 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 is 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 it 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 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 are 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.

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!

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 fishtanks 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.


Planning a Planted Aquarium

Planted tanks are a popular and rapidly growing segment of the aquarium hobby, one that allows hobbyists to combine the beauty of nature with the benefits of a balanced ecosystem. Unlike a traditional aquarium, live plants are the primary focus, with fish being an accent or compliment to the overall effect.

Benefits of Live Plants in an Aquarium:

  • They enhance water quality and help prevent algae growth by using nutrients produced by fish waste, uneaten food and organic debris.
  • They produce oxygen during daylight hours, which is used by fish and helps stabilize pH. Fish, in turn, release CO₂, which plants use as a food source.
  • Fish tend to feel safe which encourages them to stay out in the open and develop more vivid colors.
  • Plants encourage many types of fish to spawn and give newly-hatched fry a place to hide while they grow.

Planning a Planted Aquarium:

Planted tanks are less work to maintain than conventional aquariums, but they require proper planning. Special attention should be paid to tank dimensions, lighting, substrate, fertilizers and choice of plant and fish species. A well-planned and maintained planted aquarium will provide years of enjoyment and relaxation. Let's get started!

Selecting an Aquarium for Live Plants

Consider the types of plants – and fish – you want to keep and then choose an aquarium that best suits their needs. Almost any sized aquarium can be used to set up a planted tank, however taller tanks require stronger lighting for certain plant species. Aqueon offers a  wide range of aquarium sizes suitable for planted displays.

Planted Aquarium Lighting

The key to success with aquatic plants is using the correct light intensity and spectrum. The spectral output should be between 6500 and 8000 Kelvin. Intensity depends on plant species and water depth. Aqueon OptiBright® MAX and OptiBright®+ LED lights offer the desired spectrum for aquatic plants, along with dimming capabilities and automatic sunrise/sunset to mimic a natural day/night cycle. Aqueon's Clip-On Planted Aquarium LED light is designed for small aquariums up to 20 gallons.

The term "watts per gallon" is often used for choosing the best light for a planted aquarium. Watts describe how much electricity a light uses, not how much light energy it produces. While not entirely accurate, it is a useable formula with standard fluorescent lights. With the introduction of HO T5 and LED lighting, this comparison no longer works across different lighting platforms. PAR (photosynthetically active radiation) is a better way of rating aquarium lighting for plants.

Aquatic plants can be divided into low, medium and intense light-requiring groups. If you're adding plants to an existing aquarium, ask your local aquatic store expert to recommend plants that are compatible with the light you have. The alternative is to choose the plants you want to grow and purchase a light that meets their needs. Be sure to exchange standard fluorescent and HO T5 bulbs with aquarium plant-specific bulbs and replace the bulbs every 10 to 12 months.

Substrate for a Planted Aquarium

Choosing the proper substrate is essential for success with rooted plants. Coarse sand or fine gravels work best. Avoid pebbles or large, chunky gravel (a little here and there is OK for accent, but not as the main substrate). Several plant-specific substrates are available that are infused with iron and other minerals to promote healthy plant growth. Some have the added benefit of buffering pH and softening water, both of which are desirable for many plant species. You can also use standard aquarium sand or fine gravel and add plant nutrient tablets where needed, or layer/mix it with plant-specific substrates. Do not use coral or dolomite substrates, as they slowly dissolve and may raise pH and alkalinity above desirable levels.

Planted Aquarium Water Chemistry

Water chemistry is important to plants. In general, they do best in moderately soft water at a pH between 6.8 and 7.8. If your tap water is exceptionally hard or has a high pH, consider using reverse osmosis or deionized water with trace minerals and buffers added.

Nutrients and Fertilizers for a Planted Aquarium

Aquatic plants use iron, magnesium and potassium as well as other macro and micro-nutrients to grow and develop their best colors. Some plants feed primarily through their leaves, while others are root-feeders. Some plants do both. Use an enriched plant substrate when setting up your aquarium for root feeders or insert fertilizer tablets around the roots on a regular basis. Dose liquid fertilizers such as Aqueon Plant Food weekly for leaf-feeders. Do not use liquid fertilizers that contain copper if you keep decorative snails or dwarf shrimp, as copper can be harmful to them.

Planted Aquariums and CO2

In addition to minerals and fertilizers, plants also use carbon to grow. The use of CO2 can be a significant commitment, but its effect on plant growth and color is dramatic and well worth the effort. Automated systems are the easiest to use, but more affordable DIY systems are not difficult to build. Liquid carbon supplements are also available. When adding CO2 or liquid carbon, it may be necessary to increase liquid and tablet nutrient dosing to keep up with more rapid plant growth.

Live Plant Selection For a Planted Aquarium

A planted aquarium is living art, and designing the layout requires careful thought and planning. Draw a rough sketch of the plant and hardscape – rocks and driftwood – layout. Once you've installed the hardscape, start in back with tall plants such as Vallisneria or Sagittaria grasses, or stem plants that grow rapidly. Use showy species like Amazon Swords, large Anubias or tiger lilies in the middle and low-profile plants like short Cryptocorynes, dwarf Anubias, mosses or baby tears in the foreground. Leave enough space around large broadleaf species to prevent them from blocking light to smaller plants as they grow.

Fish Selection for Planted Aquarium

As mentioned, fish are an accent in a planted aquarium, not the main feature. Choose species that complement the overall feel and character of the tank. In smaller aquariums, schooling fish like tetras or rasboras are good choices, along with rams and Apistogramma dwarf cichlids. For medium to larger sized aquariums, consider Congo Tetras, Kribensis or a collection of Rainbowfishes. Discus and Angelfish make excellent choices for aquariums of 100 gallons or more. Bottom cleaners can include Corydoras catfish, Otocinclus and certain species of loaches. Avoid herbivorous fish like Tinfoil Barbs, Silver Dollars, and plecostomus as they will eat your plants!

Finding Balance in a Planted Aquarium

When you first set up an aquarium there is no biological balance. This takes weeks, if not months to achieve, and in the meantime, things may not go perfectly. Planted aquariums are no different and, in fact, can be further complicated by using fertilizers, CO2 and strong lighting. Strong light produces rapid plant growth, which in turn, puts an increased demand on fertilizers and CO2. Adding too much fertilizer can cause algae blooms, and too much CO2 can cause fluctuations in pH.

The best approach is to start slowly, add nutrients in small amounts and be patient. If you make changes, make them minor and allow at least 2 weeks to evaluate the effects. Be consistent, put your lights on a timer, dose nutrients faithfully and don't make sudden drastic changes to the system. Take notes and keep a log of any changes in dosing, daylight hours, etc. Eventually your planted aquarium will find balance and go on auto-pilot.

Setting up a planted aquarium is a wonderful way to bring a piece of nature into your home or workplace. With good planning and consistent maintenance, the benefits can last a lifetime!


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Planted aquariums are gaining popularity at a heightened pace. Now that live plants are easily available at your local fish store and online at your favorite aquarium website, it is easier than ever to get the plants you want in a timely fashion. The secret is out on just how simple it is to grow live plants in a freshwater tank! It does take a bit more effort to maintain live plants, however, it can be both fun and functional at the same time – not to mention the added health benefit to the fish in the aquarium.

The best freshwater fish for planted tanks include Cory Catfish, Neon Tetras, Guppies, Rasboras and Loaches. These are some of the most common fish available for aquarium enthusiasts.

Are you ready to go into detail on the 20 best fish for your planted aquarium?  If so, then let’s begin…

Starting a live planted tank is very exciting. The possibilities are endless and the joy one gets from watching his/her beautiful creations come to life is so very fulfilling. Below we cover what are often considered the best small fish for a planted tank (and we even throw in a couple larger fish options for the bigger aquariums).

You will also notice we have made this process even easier by explaining (in an easy-to-read sub-heading format) which fish are compatible with which others so you can proceed to stock your community aquarium with confidence. The best schooling fish for planted tanks are also identified below.

1.   Freshwater Shrimp

Behaviour:A gentle, non-aggressive species that is active during daylight hours and spends most its time grazing along the bottom of the tank.

Diet: Fish flakes, pellets for shrimp and algae wafers are common edibles for this type.

Schooling fish? No they aren’t technically a schooling fish however having multiple shrimp in a live planted tank are always a treat to watch and take care of.

Proper PH: Between 6.5 and 8.0

Compatibility with other fish from this list: For your shrimp you could have them with Rasbora’s or some Cory Catfish. When researching other options stay away from carnivores as they will make quick work of your pet shrimp.

Recommended tank size: 5 gallons or larger. A good ratio is 5 shrimps for every 1 gallon of water.

2.   Corydoras Catfish

Behaviour: An active fish that spends most of its day swimming about while preferring to lay motionless at night.

Diet: These are bottom-feeders that prefer to eat fish flakes and pellets.

Schooling Fish? Yes definitely and they seem to be happiest when there are 5 or more grouped together.

Proper PH: Between 7.0 and 8.0

Compatibility with other fish on this list: Cory Catfish are very passive fish that go about the day minding their own business so feel free to place them with any passive fish in this list. Neon Tetras, Blue Ram, Dwarf Gourami are a few to choose from.

Recommended tank size: They can survive in as little as 5 gallons of water but larger is better, anywhere between 10 and 30 gallons especially when grouping these active fish with 5 or more.

3.   Black Ghost Knife

Behaviour: A nocturnal fish, this type is calm during the day, preferring to stay hidden in caves or foliage while becoming more active at night.  It is usually timid with larger fish but will fight with its own!

Diet: This species does not like fish flakes, but rather brine shrimp, bloodworms and frozen meaty foods.

Schooling Fish? No. Just no.

Proper PH: Between 6.0 and 8.0

Compatibility with other fish on this list: If you decide to own a Ghost Knife fish and place it in a live planted tank I would just keep the one fish. They really are timid and will not come out of hiding if there are other overly active fish in the tank.

Recommended tank size: The larger the better, at least 100 gallons of water or more. Just imagine how beautiful a 100 gallon live planted aquarium would be.

4.   Kuhli Loach

Behaviour: Considered a semi-aggressive fish when alone in a community tank, it is best to keep them in groups of at least six or more. Since Loaches like to burrow in the bottom of the tank you might find them digging up some plants that are not well rooted or planted. It is something to consider.

Diet: A carnivorous fish, they will often eat fish flakes and pellets but should also be given bloodworms, brine shrimp, mosquito larvae and other frozen meaty foods.

Schooling Fish? Yes as mentioned above to keep Loaches in groups of 6 or more.

Proper PH: Between 5.5 and 6.5

Compatibility with other fish on this list: These fish can be kept with most of the smaller fish in this list.

Recommended Tank Size: A minimum of 20 gallons of water is best.

5.   White Cloud Minnow

Behaviour: A peaceful fish that should be kept with at least six or more of its kind in a community tank, they are often recommended for beginner aquarium hobbyists.

Diet: An omnivore, this fish lies to eat fish flakes, brine shrimp, mosquito larvae and other frozen meaty foods.

Schooling Fish? Yes as previously mentioned the white cloud minnow should be kept with at least 5 or 6 of its own.

Proper PH: Between 6.0 and 8.0

Compatibility with other fish on this list: Select any of the peaceful smaller fish in this list and you should be good.

Recommended tank size: A 10 gallon tank is sufficient. That being said I would always recommend a much larger aquarium when having a community tank as well as all of the live plants. Go with 50 gallon minimum if you can afford it.

Cichlid fish

6.   German Blue Ram

Behaviour: A docile fish that should not be in a community tank with overly aggressive or active fish.  They need the company of other peaceful fish in order to feel safe.

Diet: This type prefers fish flakes and pellets as well as brine shrimp and other frozen meaty foods.

Schooling fish? Yes they can be kept in small or larger schools. Having two of these beautiful fish is a minimum.

Proper PH: Between 5.0 and 6.0

Compatibility with other fish on this list: Go ahead and place your Rams in with Angelfish and some of the smaller fish like Neon Tetras or Rasboras.

Recommended tank size: At least 20 gallons of water is required for this species to thrive although bigger is better!

7.   Molly Fish

Behaviour: A peaceful fish, this type does well in a community tank.

Diet:  This fish likes to eat fish flakes, blood worms, black worms, brine shrimp and other frozen meaty foods.

Schooling fish? Technically no however they can be placed in large groups of their own kind.

Proper PH: Between 7.5 and 8.5

Compatibility with other fish on this list? Gouramis and Tetras as well as a Betta fish are just fine.

Recommended tank size: A minimum of 30 gallons of water is required for this fish to survive.

8.   Arowana Fish

Behaviour: Also known as Monkey Fish or Dragon Fish, this type is considered a predator fish and can be quite aggressive in a community tank.

Diet: Carnivorous in nature, this fish prefers live or frozen fish as well as blood worms, insects, krill and shrimp.

Schooling fish? Yes but to have more than 2 you would need a gigantic aquarium.

Proper PH: Between 6.0 and 7.0

Compatibility with other fish on this list: If you go with Arowanas then that is all that should be in the tank.

Recommended tank size: Juveniles can survive in a 60 gallon tank however adults require a much larger aquarium of at least 250 gallons of water!

9.   Bala Shark

Behaviour: Although not an actual shark, this fish gets its name from its torpedo-like body shape and large fins.  When alone in a community tank, this type is usually timid and peaceful in nature.  With others of its kind, a dominant fish may try to bully the others.

Diet: This fish likes to eat blood worms, brine shrimp and crustaceans.

Schooling fish? No however they can be placed in a tank with other Bala sharks. Just be aware they are so fast and active they can easily disrupt your tanks décor.

Proper PH: Between 6.0 and 8.0

Compatibility with other fish on this list: Bala sharks can be placed with most other fish that are passive in nature.

Recommended tank size: A minimum of 150 gallons of water is needed, however, for this species, bigger is better!

10.     Kissing Gourami

Behaviour: this semi-aggressive fish will do fine in a community tank as long as there are no other fish that look similar to it, especially in terms of size and shape.  This species should not be in a tank with other types of Gourami fish.

Diet: As an omnivore, this type likes to eat algae flakes, blood worms, brine shrimp and other meaty foods.

Schooling fish? No. No more than two in your tank.

Proper PH: Between 7.0 and 8.5

Compatibility with other fish on this list: Most of the smaller fish in this list will work as well as the Cory Catfish.

Recommended tank size: A minimum of 30 gallons of water is needed for this fish, although more is often preferred.

11.     Dwarf Gourami

Behaviour: Unlike the larger Gourami species, these fish are quite peaceful in nature.  Males of the larger species will often attack or bully the Dwarf Gourami therefore they should not be kept in the same tank. These, however, can get along with their own.

Diet: These fish like fish flakes, frozen or freeze-dried food and vegetable tablets.

Schooling fish: No, but can live in a community tank in groups of two.

Proper PH: Between 6.0 and 8.0

Compatibility with other fish on this list: Again keep this fish with any smaller non aggressive fish from this list.

Recommended tank size: Unlike their cousin, the Kissing Gourami, these fish can survive in a much smaller tank, only requiring 10 gallons of water!

freshwater angelfish

12.     Angelfish

Behaviour: These Cichlids are, for the most part, peaceful when put in a community aquarium.  They can be aggressive towards each other and will sometimes eat smaller fish! One pair per tank is recommended.

Diet: This species is not fussy and will eat a variety of foods including brine shrimp, blood worms, frozen meaty foods, fish flakes and small pellets.

Schooling fish? No unless you call having two in a tank a school of fish. Make sure to have two Angelfish.

Proper PH: Between 6.5 and 7.5

Compatibility with other fish on this list: Rasboras and Cardinal Tetras are okay. Stay away from Neon’s as they are small enough that a large rogue Angel might decide to eat one someday.

Recommended tank size: A 30 gallon aquarium (minimum) is required for this species. Please put them in a much larger aquarium though.

13.     Harlequin Rasbora

Behaviour: This is a type of schooling fish that is both peaceful and lively.  It does well in a community tank with at least ten of its own present.

Diet: As an omnivore, this fish likes to eat spirulina, algae wafers, fish flakes and as a treat, frozen or live foods.

Schooling fish? Yes the more the merrier.

Proper PH: Between 5.0 and 7.5

Compatibility with other fish on this list: It’s hard to find fish Rasboras don’t get along with. Just make sure you select other peaceful fish.

Recommended tank size: A minimum of 10 gallons of water is needed for this fish type. Go larger though. 30 is a better bet.

14.     Cardinal Tetra

Behaviour: This is a lively fish that survives well in a community tank. It is a schooling type which should requires at least ten of its own to thrive.

Diet: Flake fish food makes up at least 75% of this species diet.  It also can be fed live or frozen foods.

Schooling fish? Yes again the more the merrier.

Proper PH: Between 6.5 and 7.5

Compatibility with other fish on this list: Cardinal Tetras can be kept with quite a few of the fish on this list. They are just great tank mates.

Recommended tank size: A 20 gallon tank is the minimum required for an aquarium with ten Cardinal Tetra Fish present.

15.     Neon Tetra

Behaviour: These are a very peaceful fish that do well in a community tank with other non-aggressive species of approximately the same size.

Diet:  As carnivores, these fish prefer to eat blood worms and brine shrimp but will also ingest most freeze-dried and flake-type foods.

Schooling fish? Yes you can put as many of these cute little guys as you can afford in your tank. Their bio-load is very minimal.

Proper PH: Between 6.5 and 7.5

Compatibility with other fish on this list: Neons can be kept with most other peaceful smaller fish. Careful placing them in with larger fish like Angelfish as they might get picked off.

Recommended tank size: A minimum of 10 gallons of water is required for a tank containing approximately twenty four Neon Tetras.

16.     Rainbow Fish

Behaviour: A very docile fish that gets along well with other small, non-aggressive fish in a community tank.

Diet: A variety of foods makes up this type’s diet including insects, tadpoles and algae as well as fish flakes and frozen foods

Schooling fish? Yes keep in groups of 5 or more.

Proper PH: Between 7.0 and 8.0

Compatibility with other fish on this list: Rainbows can be kept with other fish of similar or smaller size.

Recommended tank size: A 50 gallon tank minimum is required for this species as they need lots of room to swim.

17.     Killifish

Behaviour: Another great example of a peaceful fish that gets along well with others in a community tank.  However, males of this species can bully each other so it is best to have only one male (paired with one female) in an aquarium.

Diet: This type likes to eat brine shrimp, mysis shrimp, mosquito larvae and blood worms.

Schooling fish? No just a pair of a male and female.

Proper PH: A consistent PH level is best, between 6.5 and 7.0

Compatibility with other fish on this list: This is beginning to be a theme for this article. Keep your Killifish with other fish of similar size.

Recommended tank size: A 10 gallon tank is sufficient, however a larger one (30 gallons) is preferred.

18.     Discus Fish

Behaviour: A type of Cichlid, this species is usually calm and lives peacefully with other fish in a community tank.  However, the males can be aggressive with each other so one per tank is best, along with two or three females.

Diet: These fish prefer to eat brine shrimp, blood worms, earth worms and mosquito larvae.

Schooling fish? No however they can be kept with other Discus keeping in mind to only have one male in the tank.

Proper PH: A consistent PH level is key – 6.5 is ideal, no lower than 6.0 and no higher than 7.0

Compatibility with other fish on this list: Honestly if you have discus you might not want other fish in the tank. I would go with some Cory Catfish so you have something moving around on the bottom of the tank.

Recommended tank size: Bigger is better for this species so a minimum tank size of 100 gallons is required.

19.     Guppy Fish

Behaviour: This type is a calm, peaceful fish that prefers to be kept in groups in a community tank.  They are very active swimmers and are “on the move” constantly!

Diet: This species survives on edibles such as brine shrimp, blood worm, mosquito larvae and occasionally algae.

Schooling fish? Yes if you can afford 10 or more go for it.

Proper PH: Between 7.0 and 8.0

Compatibility with others on this list: The Cardinal Tetras are great and or the Rasboras to be kept with some Guppies.

Recommended tank size: A 20 gallon tank is best if you want at least ten guppies (2:1 ratio of females to males). Larger of course if you’re having other kinds of fish in the same tank.

20.     Betta Fish

Behaviour: An aggressive species (often referred to as the Siamese fighting fish), only one male is recommended in a community tank, with multiple females.

Diet: This species survives by eating brine shrimp, blood worms, mosquito larvae as well as Betta pellets.

Schooling fish? No

Proper PH: Between 6.5 and 7.5 – 7.0 is ideal

Compatibility with other fish on this list: Bettas prefer a calmer water so keeping that in mind Angelfish could be a good choice to have in the same tank or possibly German Blue Rams. Cory Catfish would be okay as well as they prefer to stay mostly on the bottom of the tank so shouldn’t disturb the Bettas swimming abilities.

Recommended tank size: Three to five Bettas can be kept in a 10 gallon tank, however, a larger aquarium (20 gallons) is preferred.

In conclusion

Creating a planted tank at home is easy and fun to do and has many health benefits for the fish present.  Live plants provide oxygen while eliminating harmful carbon dioxide and ammonia from the water.  The swaying greenery also adds visual interest and creates a sense of calm to those observing it.

If you prefer artificial plants, they are even easier to maintain as they require no fertilizer and little to no upkeep. They also do need a specific substrate, as live plants do.  As aquarium hobbyists (as well as fish lovers), we recommend live plants.  They provide a more natural environment for the fish as well as improving the water quality.  Now, off you go to create your own beautiful planted aquarium!

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Best Substrate for a Planted Tank - Pin

Next to saltwater reef tanks, the most beautiful type of aquariums are those filled with live plants. Planted freshwater tanks pose a challenge, however, because the ideal substrate for your fish may not support your rooting plant’s growth. If you want to exercise your aquatic green thumb you’ll need the best substrate for planted tanks!

Quick Comparisons of the 6 Best Substrate for Planted Tanks

Introduction to Substrates for Planted Aquariums

There are two types of plants typically found in freshwater aquariums: those that root in your substrate and those that grow on your aquarium decor. While all aquatic plants need the right amount of light and nutrients to thrive, your rooting plants need the extra support a good plant substrate can provide.

Benefits of Using Plant-Enhancing Substrates

There are many benefits to using special substrates in your planted tanks rather than using regular aquarium gravel or sand. Regular aquarium substrates don’t provide any extra nutrients or trace minerals your plants can use, and the texture and composition of these substrates can actually impede your plant’s growth.

Close up shot of hands putting plants on the low water aquarium.

The size and shape of a plant substrate are carefully calculated to help:

  • Protect delicate plant roots
  • Support healthy colonies of “good” aquatic bacteria
  • Prevent compaction and oxygen-depleted “dead zones” from developing

High-quality plant substrates also:

  • Contain trace minerals like iron and other nutrients to support healthy aquatic plants
  • Slowly release the nutrients over time, preventing ammonia and algae spikes
  • Last for many years and don’t need frequent replacement
  • Supports rooting plant growth and colonies of good aquarium bacteria
  • Particles are sized to prevent oxygen depletion and “dead zones” in your tank
  • Provides nutrients and trace minerals for healthy plants
  • Fertilizing qualities last for many years before replacement is needed
  • May be more expensive than traditional aquarium gravels and sand
  • Fewer options in terms of colors and textures
  • More complicated to use as you may need to add several types of substrate to your tank in layers or pockets to get the effect you want
  • May still need to add fertilizer and nutrients to the tank to support plants growing on decor

Types of Plant Substrates for Aquariums

Aquarium with cichlids fish from lake malawi

It’s not always easy to immediately identify a good substrate for your tank, because it depends on the types of plants or fish you want to keep. The best substrate for a planted discus tank would be different than one for African cichlids, for instance.

There are many types of substrates on the market, but the best aquarium substrates for planted tanks can be broken down into the following categories:

Sand and Fortified Sand Substrates

Aquarium sand is usually collected from streams and rivers or manufactured from silica and processed into a uniform size and shape. Any substrate with a particle size from 1/16 to 2 mm in diameter is considered “sand” no matter what it is made from.

Seachem Laboratories Flourite Black Substrate - 7Kilograms / 15.4 lbs

Most types of sand are not ideal for growing rooting aquatic plants. While plain black sand in planted tanks may look spectacular and show off your fish, they don’t contain nutrients or trace minerals to support your plant’s growth. Also, sand compacts down easily and inhibits good bacterial growth.

Sandy tanks nearly always have problems with dead zones and produce spindly and weak plants. Fortified aquarium sands for plants and shrimp are the exception to the rule. These products have a small particle size but are not truly sand. Especially when layered with another substrate, they can produce fantastic results!

Gravel and Fortified Gravel Substrates

A substrate is considered an aquarium gravel if the particle size is 2 mm or larger in diameter. Aquarium gravels can be harvested from the wild or manufactured artificially from resins, clay, or even soil. You’ll have to read the fine print to determine what each product is made from, as it isn’t always easy to tell.

The best fortified gravel substrates for planted tanks are usually manufactured from natural ingredients and slowly release nutrients and trace minerals into your aquarium water. They may contain volcanic ash, rich iron-infused clay or other natural ingredients that boost the fertility of the plants in your tank.

Best Betta Water Conditioner—Guide and Product Reviews - Aquarium with decorations and bubbles on water.

Regular aquarium gravel and products made from polished pebbles, glass or resins are not suitable for growing rooting plants. Your plants may do OK for a while, especially if you add fertilizers to your water, but they won’t thrive.

Potting Soils and Aquarium Soil

You might be tempted to make a potting soil aquarium, but I’d advise against that if you also plan to keep aquatic animals and fish in your tank. While potting soils can provide a decent environment for rooting plants, they quickly fade as the soil’s nutrients are depleted. You’ll have to replace the soil frequently, too.

They’re also nearly impossible to vacuum clean and usually don’t work with aquarium filtration systems. You can occasionally make it work by using a pocket of potting soil underneath a layer of sand or gravel, but this isn’t ideal for your plants. If you want to use something like potting soil, why not consider aquarium soil instead?

Technically, these soils are considered aquatic sands because of their fine particle size and some are labeled as both sand and soil. An Ada soil aquarium would be one option, or you could search for Controsoil for sale online. Look for products that specifically mention they support plant and bacterial growth and are safe for fish.

Laterite and Vermiculite

Leopard Wrasse in Marine Aquarium Tank

Laterite is a type of porous clay that is rich in iron, and vermiculite is a mineral-rich compact substrate that contains aluminum, magnesium and iron.

Laterite and vermiculite are both common additives to aquarium substrates for plants but are usually not used on their own. Back in the day, the only option was to make our own plant formulations so we’d have to layer or mix these into our base substrates if we wanted a lush planted aquarium.

These days we have complete aquarium substrates available so we’re not limited to mixing custom formulas. But you can still mix laterite and vermiculite into your base substrates to boost their power, or use vermiculite as the bottom layer of substrate and cover (cap) it with another product to enrich your rooting plants.

Aquarium Substrates to Avoid for Freshwater Planted Tanks

While it may be tempting to opt for another type of natural aquarium substrate like marble or coral, these are bad choices for planted tanks. While you can use crushed coral substrate in freshwater aquariums to help increase your water’s pH, it can be toxic to aquatic plants.

Textured background of crushed coral suitable for titles in horizontal.

Crushed coral and marble chips increase the hardness of your aquarium water. Most aquatic plants prefer neutral or slightly soft water and don’t thrive in very hard water. I’d avoid these types of substrate for planted tanks and opt for a mix that better supports your plant’s growth instead.

Tips to Choosing a Plant Substrate for Your Tank

When selecting a substrate or mix of substrates for your tank, consider the following factors as you research your options:

Complete vs Compound Aquarium Substrates

A complete substrate is one you can just add to your tank and start planting in right away.

  • You don’t have to mix or layer it in your tank (although you still might choose to)
  • A complete substrate supports the plant’s roots and provides the minerals they need to grow. All of the substrates reviewed below are complete products.
Aquarium decoration in beautiful background

A compound aquarium substrate is one that requires the addition of another type to make it viable for growing plants. Regular aquarium gravel, vermiculite and laterite are all examples of compound substrates. If you opt for this mix you’ll have to pay close attention to how you layer or cap your substrates to prevent cloudy water.

Appearance in the Tank

Obviously, you want to pick a product that gives your tank the look you’re aiming for. But you may be drawn to the appearance of a substrate that isn’t ideal for rooting aquatic plants, like a smooth sand or soil. What should you do in those cases?

  • You can always opt for a fortified version of the substrate you prefer if there’s one available.
  • Consider hiding pockets of high-quality substrate in sections along the rear of your tank and using your preferred substrate in the front. Then your plants can grow in the best stuff but you’ll only see the pretty parts!
  • You can also use a high-quality plant substrate for the lower layers in your aquarium substrate and then top or cap it with a better-looking product. But this might not support a dense growth of low-growing plants or ground cover.

Particle Size

Sea sand texture made of shell and stone pieces. Seamless texture

The particle size matters to your plants and aquatic animals and affects the function of your filtration systems. Some delicate fish like loaches prefer fine sand and gravels that won’t damage their barbells and some shrimp rely on fine sediment for feeding. If you choose an option with a very small size you may need to adjust the filter intakes.

Price and Amount Needed

Substrates for planted tanks can be much more expensive per pound than standard aquarium gravels and sand. While you’ll usually use about a pound of substrate per gallon of water to fill a fish tank, for planted tanks you’ll often use a lot more.

You want at least 2 to 3 inches of good substrate for your rooting plants, and you can use even more if you want to create the impression of hills or valleys in your tank. You’ll need to use about double the amount of fine products like fortified sands and soils since they compact down so much, too.

Longevity of Your Substrate

hands of aquarist preparing substrate in aquarium for planting water plants

Should you worry about changing aquarium substrates, and how often would you need to do that? If you pick a high quality complete planted substrate, like those in the reviews below, you should not need to swap out your substrates unless you’re completely redoing your aquarium.

You may need to add substrate occasionally to replace any that’s been lost to filters or gravel vacs. All substrates compact down a bit, and some types also may break down and decompose in your tank. Sand and soil substrates are the worst offenders of compaction and organic substrate pellets often decompose.

Maintenance Issues

Sand and aquarium soils are harder to maintain because gravel vacuums and filters can pick up the sediment along with the waste products. If you cover the filter intakes and gravel vacs to prevent this they will leave more waste behind, which could hurt your fish and plants.

Siphon gravel cleaner tool in the aquarium.

Gravel substrates are easier to maintain and allow more water flow to prevent dead zones. They tend to be better at supporting colonies of good aquatic bacteria too. These substrates also hide the debris and waste better since they blend into the gravel. Sand and soil-based tanks can often look messy by comparison.

Top 6 Substrate for Planted Tank Reviews

These six substrates represent some of the best options on the market for planted freshwater tanks that also support community fish and invertebrates. They are all high-quality products that should help your aquatic plants thrive for years to come.

You’ll still need to use plant fertilizers and other additives like CO2, however, especially if you’ve opted for a densely planted tank or one with plants that attach to your decor. It’s nearly always better to allow a planted tank to cycle for a few weeks before adding animals to your aquarium, in case of ammonia spikes.

1. CaribSea Eco Complete Coarse Red

CaribSea Eco-Complete Red Coarse-Grade Plant Substrate, 20 lbs.
  • Weight: 20 pounds
  • Type: Complete Fortified Gravel
  • Color: Red
  • Particle size: Coarse 3 to 6mm
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CaribSea Eco Complete Red is my current favorite when it comes to planted aquariums, and of all the options this could be one of the easiest to use too (along with the other Eco Complete formula below). The coarse red gravel is perfectly sized for all types of filtration systems and it’s easy to vacuum clean.

Your plants will get a jump-start when you add this substrate to your tank, because you won’t have to wait weeks for colonies of good aquatic bacteria to grow. Instead, the bag is filled with a patented “Amazon” black water along with the substrate. The best part is you don’t need to rinse it—just put it straight in your tank and plant away!

  • Coarse 3 to 6mm particle size is ideal for growing rooting aquatic plants and contains 25 essential minerals
  • Gravel includes “Amazon” black water that contains good aquarium bacteria
  • Requires no rinsing so you can add it straight to your tank!
  • The bags often break during shipping and may lose the black water that holds the good bacteria
  • Usually a premium-price product and may be expensive for large Planted tanks
  • CaribSea recommends against layering or mixing this with other products

2. Seachem Flourite Black Clay Gravel

Seachem Laboratories Flourite Black Substrate - 7Kilograms / 15.4 lbs
  • Weight: 15.4 pounds
  • Type: Complete Fortified Gravel
  • Color: Black
  • Particle Size: Approximately 2 to 3mm
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For many years Flourite was my go-to product for planted freshwater tanks. I’ve used it completely on its own in densely planted tanks and used it under the sand when I wanted a smooth lake bottom look to my aquariums. It’s a stable clay-based gravel that’s high in iron and the ideal size for filtration systems and rooting plants.

Flourite is a high-quality substrate that lasts for years and doesn’t really compact down, so you don’t need to worry about dead zones or adding extra gravel to your tank. But it has one big downside that caused me to shift to the Eco Complete line—it’s very dirty. It takes forever to rinse clean and it will still cloud your water.

  • 2 to 3mm porous clay particles are ideal for most rooting plants and supports healthy bacterial growth
  • Iron and mineral-rich clay compound supports healthy plant growth
  • Does not compact or decompose in your tank and lasts many years
  • Requires additional fertilizers as this formula doesn’t contain everything you need for balanced plant growth
  • Clay particles are rough and not ideal for growing plants with fine roots like ground covers
  • Very dirty substrate that requires a lot of rinsing and tank cycling

3. Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum

Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum, 8.8 lbs.
  • Weight: 8.8 pounds
  • Type: Complete Fortified Fine Gravel
  • Color: Dark Brown
  • Particle Size: Approximately 2mm
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If you have a small aquarium with plants and invertebrates, then you should consider this special plant and shrimp formula from Fluval. It’s the ideal size and shape for raising baby and adult shrimp, and it works with most types of filtration systems too. You can use it on its own or mix it with another substrate if you prefer.

The particles are made from Japanese volcanic soil and molded into a round shape. They provide minerals and iron to your plants and are porous to support aquatic bacterial growth. Rooting plants of all types will thrive in this substrate and it’s safe for most tropical fish as well.

  • Molded soil particles support plant growth and allow baby and adult shrimp to thrive in your tank
  • Porous particles help establish good aquarium bacteria and maintain your tank’s pH at neutral to slightly acidic
  • Round shape is ideal for plants with fine roots or growing dense ground covers
  • Soil pellets eventually breakdown and loses their shape so you may need to replace every few years
  • Lighter than aquarium gravel, so gravel vacs and filtration systems can accidentally pick them up
  • Shift to slightly acidic water pH is ideal for shrimp but not all aquatic fish and plants

4. Mr Aqua Plant Soil

Mr. Aqua N-MAR-066 1 L Fine Pet Habitat Water Plant Soil
  • Weight: Approximately 1.8 pounds
  • Type: Complete Fortified Gravel
  • Color: Black
  • Particle Size: Approximately 2mm
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Another option for a shrimp tank or slightly-acidic community tank is this long-lasting plant substrate from Mr Aqua. These gravel-sized particles are made from organic and inert materials that slowly release minerals to support healthy plants and bacteria.

You won’t need to use additional fertilizers for up to 16 months when you use this soil! But there are some downsides to the product. It’s really ideal for very small tanks and doesn’t come in larger sizes for bigger aquariums. Also, this type of substrate will compact and decompose and may need replacing every few years.

  • Ideal size for growing aquatic plants and supporting invertebrates like shrimp
  • The organic composition slowly releases fertilizer to your water over 16 months
  • Pellets are porous and allow good aquarium bacteria to become established in your substrate
  • Usually rather expensive and only sold in very small bags
  • Product is not very stable and decomposes over time
  • While product fertilizes plants for up to 16 months at some point you will have to start adding extra fertilizer to support your plants

5. Up Aqua Sand for Aquatic Plants

UP AQUA Sand for Aquatic Plants
  • Weight: 11.5 pounds
  • Type: Complete Fortified Sand
  • Color: Black
  • Particle Size: Just under 2mm
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If you’ve been considering using Ada soil but don’t care to deal with the downsides, then this aquarium “sand” for aquatic plants by Up Aqua could be a great choice for your tank. It isn’t truly a sand but rather small clay-based pellets the size of large sand particles.

They slowly release minerals into your water and help your plants to grow and thrive. The porous pellets also support healthy bacteria growth and allow water to flow through your substrate. This is an excellent option for growing ground covers with very fine roots and is soft enough for loaches too.

  • Small “sand” pellets slowly release minerals into your water and support plant and bacterial growth
  • No rinsing needed, so you can add it straight to your tank!
  • Particles are soft enough for delicate fish like loaches
  • Pellets will decompose over time and may compact down, especially on the lowest layers
  • Product is buffered, so if you have hard water this could raise your water’s pH too high
  • Substrate can fade in color and look more gray than black after a few years

6. CaribSea Eco Complete Black

CaribSea Eco Complete Black Planted Aquarium Substrate
  • Weight: 20 pounds
  • Type: Complete Fortified Sand and Gravel Mix
  • Color: Black
  • Particle Size: Mix 0.25 to 7mm
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This substrate closely resembles the red-colored Eco Complete but is black and has a wider mix of particle sizes. But like the other version, this product is ideal for planted tanks and all types of tropical freshwater fish. It supports lush plant growth and comes filled with “Amazon” black water for healthy bacteria proliferation.

The rich, dense black color will really highlight your plants and fish and the mix of gravel and sand sizes allows plants with delicate roots to thrive. You can easily grow ground covers with this substrate. Like the other CaribSea substrate, you won’t have to rinse this product and can start planting immediately!

  • Mix of sand and gravel particles allows plenty of water to flow through your substrate to prevent dead zones
  • Contains 25 minerals proven to support plant growth and comes filled with “Amazon” black water containing good aquarium bacteria
  • Ready to use straight out of the bag, with no rinsing needed!
  • Substrate does not mix well with other types and it’s recommended you don’t use this product in layers
  • Substrate contains particles too big for delicate bottom-dwelling fish like loaches
  • Usually a premium-priced option and can be quite expensive for larger aquariums


Beginner’s Guide to Aquarium Substrate—Sand vs Gravel in Freshwater Tanks - Fish tank and live plants

The best substrate for your planted tank depends on your budget and the types of fish and plants you want to grow. For growing more delicate ground covers and bottom-dwelling shrimp and loaches, finer sand-like substrates are best. But gravel substrates are easier to maintain and work with most filtration systems.

If you are still trying to decide which product is right for your tank:

  • The best overall choice would be the CaribSea Eco Complete Red, with the Flourite and Black Eco Complete being close runner’s up.
  • For planted shrimp tanks, the Fluval Stratum is ideal but the Mr Aqua is also a good option
  • If you prefer a sandy substrate, consider the Up Aqua Aquatic Sand, or use a good plant substrate for the lower layers and cap it with the sand of your choice.
Jen Clifford

Jen has more than 30 years experience as a biologist, aquarist, and fishkeeper. She is an expert in setting up new tanks and maintaining naturally-planted freshwater habitats, and has experience raising a wide variety of aquatic species.


Planted tank large

Planted aquascapes take a lot of knowledge and patience to put together. And once your plants are thriving and water parameters are exactly where they need to be adding fish can be the step that throws things out of balance.

Many fish are too large, create too much waste, or simply love to eat or tear up aquarium plants! It’s better to carefully consider the best aquascaping fish before stocking your planted setup.

Qualities to Look For in Aquascaping Fish

Selecting fish for carefully aquascaped aquariums isn’t always as simple as going to you local fish store and picking out whatever catches you eye.

Here are a few qualities that you should look for when choosing fish:

Small to Medium Sized

The vast majority of fish used for planted aquascapes are on the small end of the spectrum. Schools of 1 to 2 inch Tetras, Danios, and Rasboras work well because they provide a burst of color while having no impact on plants beyond a bit of extra CO2 and nitrogenous fertilizer.

Small fish are also less in competition with the design of your aquascape for the viewer’s attention. Hence modest schools of 1-inch Neon Tetras are regularly kept even in 100+ gallon Nature and Iwagumi-style aquascapes, which place a ton of focus on the placement of plants, rocks, and substrate.


Planted aquascapes tend to be either community tanks or aquariums dedicated to a single species of fish. Both schooling and solo fish can be kept together. In fact, I recommend it, as schools of small fish soothe the anxieties of solo species by acting as dither fish.

However schools of small fish help give a planted aquascape a busier feel if that’s the aesthetic you’re aiming for. And they have the least impact on the bioload and nutrient cycles of the tank.

Plant Safe

Larger fish sometimes bring in bad habits like digging and uprooting them (Goldfish, Cichlids, Catfish especially) or may simply find plants delicious. Choose fish that are small, mostly carnivorous, and spawn by scattering eggs. Nest builders sometimes collect plant leaves or dig into the substrate, which can disturb plant roots.

Best Planted Aquarium Fish

Here are a few of our favorite aquascaping fish species:


neon tetra dither fish

Tetras regularly top most lists of the best aquascaping fish because they have all of the qualities we’re looking for. They are nearly all carnivorous, small, schooling, and have bright colors that nicely complement the greens, dark reds, and browns of an aquascape.

There are dozens of species commonly found in the trade and hundreds all over the world. The vast majority come from South America, with a few African species like the Congo Tetra (Phenacogrammus interruptus) available on occasion.

As a group Tetras prefer soft, acidic water (pH 6.5 to 7.0) and temperatures on the warmer side (75-80F). Tank bred species like Neon Tetras are very flexible however providing these conditions results in not only good health but potential breeding!

  • Recommended Species: Neon Tetra (Paracheirodon innesi), Cardinal Tetra (Paracheirodon axelrodi), Gold Tetra (Hemigrammus rodwayi), Rummy Nose Tetra (Hemigrammus rhodostomus), Serpae Tetra (Hyphessobrycon eques), Marbled Hatchetfish (Carnegiella strigata)
  • Average Size: 1 to 2 inches
  • Minimum Aquarium Size: 5 gallons
  • Ease of Care: Very Easy


harlequin rasbora

Rasboras fill the same niche as Tetras in Asia: small, schooling fish that feed on tiny prey items. They are Cyprinids which makes them close cousins to Barbs, Danios, and Goldfish.

The Chili Rasbora (Boraras brigittae) is especially dear to blackwater aquascapers (pH 4.0-5.5). At less than an inch in length they are perfect for nearly any aquarium size. Yet they never fail to attract attention thanks to their vibrant scarlet tones and active disposition.

Since they aren’t as well known as Tetras, Danios, and other small schooling fish, Rasboras often get passed up by aquarists. Which is a shame because they rarely show their best color in aquarium stores.

When placed in planted aquascapes with full spectrum light, plenty of cover, and dark substrates they take on rich red and purple tones. And when male Rasboras display for the attention of females they become even more vibrant!

  • Recommended Species: Chili Rasbora (Boraras brigittae), Harlequin Rasbora (Trigonostigma heteromorpha), Scissortail Rasbora (Rasbora trilineata)
  • Average Size: ½ to 2 inches
  • Minimum Aquarium Size: 5 Gallons
  • Ease of Care: Very Easy


guppy fish

Guppies, Platies, Swordtails, and Mollies do just as well in planted aquascapes as they do in community aquariums. Live plants also offer their babies a better chance to survive, especially if you keep weedy plants like Java Moss or Micro Sword Plants.

Mollies should be treated with caution, however. They will eat soft bodied plants like Elodea as well as macroalgae. And their need for salt may not work for many freshwater plants.

Livebearers as a whole also prefer neutral to slightly alkaline water conditions (pH 7.0-8.0). Aquascapes with limestone, Seiryu, and other stones rich in carbonate and minerals help maintain conditions to their liking!

  • Recommended Species: Guppy (Poecilia reticulata), Platy (Xiphophorus maculatus/variatus), Swordtail (Xiphophorus hellerii)
  • Average Size: 1 to 3 inches
  • Minimum Aquarium Size: 10 Gallons
  • Ease of Care: Very Easy

Gouramis and Bettas

Trichopodus fish

Gouramis are available in nearly every aquarium store. Having been in the hobby for decades most species also come in several color morphs, from Electric Blue Dwarf Gouramis to albino Honey Gourami.

Chocolate Gourami are often kept in planted aquascapes as they are plant safe, delicately patterned, and being on the sensitive side, do best in carefully controlled environments. However nearly all small to medium sized Gouramis and Bettas are plant safe.

Gouramis prefer warmer temperatures and little to no current. Males tend to be territorial but only Bettas and Paradise Fish take this to lethal extremes.

  • Recommended Species: Chocolate Gourami (Sphaerichthys osphromenoides), Dwarf Gourami (Trichogaster lalius), Betta (Betta splendens), Sparkling Gourami (Trichopsis pumila), Pearl Gourami (Trichopodus leerii)
  • Average Size: 2 to 4 inches
  • Minimum Aquarium Size: 10-20 Gallons
  • Ease of Care: Very Easy to Moderate

Dwarf Cichlids

german blue ram

While most Cichlids will wreck your carefully placed plants and substrate some are excellent fish for aquascapes. Specifically, Dwarf Cichlids! The Blue Ram is not only easy to find but hardy and willingly breeds in planted aquariums.

Apistogramma are a genus of South American Dwarf Cichlids that get along well with all but the tiniest of fish and shrimp. Dwarf Cichlids do dig on occasion, especially when preparing to spawn. However they keep their destructive habits to a minimum.

And so long as they are kept in fairly spacious aquariums (30+ Gallons) their tank mates can avoid the increased aggression Cichlids display when guarding eggs and fry.

  • Recommended Species: Blue Ram (Mikrogeophagus ramirezi), Apistogramma species, Rainbow Krib (Pelvicachromis pulcher)
  • Average Size: 2 to 3 inches
  • Minimum Aquarium Size: 10 Gallons
  • Ease of Care: Easy

Angelfish & Discus


Angelfish and Discus are exceptions to the general rule of avoiding medium to large Cichlids. Both are found in blackwater environments in the Amazon basin where they school together and dart among flooded tree roots and water weeds.

They have tiny mouths for plucking at invertebrates and small fish which keeps them from digging and tearing up plants. Discus and Angelfish preferentially breed on the leaves of Amazon Swords and other broad leafed plants, making them model citizens for planted aquascapes.

Discus (Symphysodon), multi-colored cichlids in the aquarium, the freshwater fish native to the Amazon River basin

Both species prefer tropical temperatures (75-84F). Angelfish are tolerant of a wide range of water chemistries but Discus require soft, acidic water (pH 4.5-6.5).

  • Recommended Species: Common Angelfish (Pterophyllum scalare), Blue Discus (Symphysodon aequifasciatus)
  • Average Size: 8 inches
  • Minimum Aquarium Size: 55 Gallons
  • Ease of Care: Moderate


Killifish in freshwater aquarium

It’s a shame Killifish aren’t more popular in the aquarium hobby. A few species show up on occasion, including the American Flagfish and Striped Panchax. However some, such as the various Nothobranchius species, are as boldly colored as reef fish, and far easier to care for!

Killifish are plant safe and peaceful towards other fish. A few are territorial and males compete viciously for females but never do each other lasting harm.

Many Killifish can be challenging to feed, especially annuals, as they sometimes don’t recognize prepared food. They prefer frozen and live prey like Daphnia and Brine Shrimp but can be trained to eat prepared food if raised on it.

Planted aquascapes also offer the best chance to breed Killifish. They tend to be either egg scatterers (non-annual), egg depositors (annual), or a mixture of the two categories (semi-annual). I go into much more depth into their care in my Complete Guide to Killifish!

  • Recommended Species: Bluefin Notho (Nothobranchius rachovii), Banded Panchax (Epiplatys annulatus), Lyretail Panchax (Aphyosemion australe)
  • Average Size: 2 inches
  • Minimum Aquarium Size: 5 Gallons
  • Ease of Care: Easy to Moderate

Dwarf Catfish

Corydoras julii

When you think of Catfish the image of a large, chunky, slow moving bottom feeder usually comes to mind. However, several of the smaller species are some of the best aquascaping fish for the bottom of the aquarium.

Corydoras are peaceful, sociable, and attractively colored. Most are fully grown at around 2 inches and their habit of perching on driftwood and plants makes them even more endearing. Corydoras accept most prepared foods however you should ensure it’s sized appropriately and sinks quickly enough for them to get their fair share.

Otocinclus are ideal for planted tanks in need of algae control. Unlike Plecostomus, Dwarf Otos don’t grow larger than 2 inches and won’t eat soft leaved plants. Otos are also sociable and prefer being kept in groups of at least 6 individuals – when kept singly they tend to hide constantly.

  • Recommended Species: Dwarf Oto (Otocinclus vittatus), Corydoras species,
  • Average Size: 2 inches
  • Minimum Aquarium Size: 10 Gallons
  • Ease of Care: Very Easy

Freshwater Shrimp

crystal red shrimp

Since the best aquascaping fish tend to be small Freshwater Shrimp make perfect tank mates for them. Shrimp are voracious algae eaters yet do no harm to plants. Others, like Bamboo Shrimp, are filter feeders, picking out fine particles of plankton or powdered flake food from the water column.

Freshwater Shrimp can also be kept in shrimp-only aquariums. Some, such as the sensitive Bumblebee Shrimp (Atyopsis moluccensis) have exacting needs in terms of water hardness, temperature, and pH.

Bee Shrimp are also so small that even normally peaceful fish may find them tempting targets. However they get along great with other Caridina Shrimp as well as Amano and even Ghost Shrimp.

  • Recommended Species: Bumblebee Shrimp (Caridina maculata), Amano Shrimp (Caridina multidentata), Cherry Shrimp (Neocaridina davidi), Ghost Shrimp (Palaemonetes paludosus)
  • Average Size: 1 to 2 inches
  • Minimum Aquarium Size: 10 Gallons
  • Ease of Care: Moderate

Freshwater Snails

Snails should always be considered with caution. Some species will breed out of control, especially Ramshorn Snails. Others are easier to manage but tend to eat fresh plants if decaying vegetation and detritus runs low.

However, Assassin Snails are great additions to the planted aquascape. For one, they are entirely carnivorous and will eat protein-rich prepared foods, scraps of meat, and frozen food. If you already have problem snail populations Assassin Snails will eventually reduce or eliminate them as well.

Nerite Snails are algae eaters that have especially attractive shells with bold stripes, rich colors, and even spikes. Nerites also can’t breed in freshwater aquariums because the young have to grow up in saltwater, thus keeping them from becoming a nuisance.

  • Recommended Species: Nerite species, Assassin Snail (Cleo helena)
  • Average Size: 2 inches
  • Minimum Aquarium Size: 5 gallons
  • Ease of Care: Very Easy
Gorgeous Discus Planted Aquarium - Feeding Discus Moment in Large Tank

How to set up a simple - but stunning - planted tank

Because of our changing lifestyles many prefer aquariums that demand low maintenance and can suit more modest budgets. The example set up here is designed to fit that particular bill.

The plants chosen are mainly slower growers, such as Java fern, Microsorum pteropus, Cryptocoryne sp. and Amazon swords, Echinodorus spp. With the exception of the Java fern, these also feed heavily through their root system, especially when compared with the fast-growing stem plants.

Stems will require the majority of their nutrients through the water column, because of their comparatively weak root structure, but these root feeders love a nutri ent rich substrate in which to spread their roots.

Have you ever tried to uproot a large Echinodorus? Their roots can often span the whole length of the aquarium in their search for food and are nigh on impossible to remove once they have done.

Jungle feel

Once the plants become established in this aquarium and begin to spread, it will hopefully create a nice wild, jungle feel. Bushy Cryptocoryne mingling in with the E. tenellus, with Vallisneria twisting its way through tall Echinodorus draping over the surface will create the perfect environment for our tetras.

To provide the nutritional needs of these plants, we chose standard aquatic potting soil as the substrate. This will contain many of the requirements, making them readily available to the plants’ roots.

All the plants used in this set-up, again with the exception of the E. tenellus, can be grown using only a low level of lighting. E. tenellus prefers a higher amount of light, but will be fine under medium lighting.

A very general way to determine the light requirements of individual plant species lies in leaf formation. Plants with wide, darker green leaves will often cope better in lower light than those with thin, light green or even red coloration.

The tank, which has been created by Aquariums Ltd., is a nice size and design for aquascaping.

At 100 x 45 x 45cm/39 x 18 x 18" it provides plenty of room front to back for positioning hardscape and also for planting.

The glass on this model is thick and strong, with no stress bars. This one comes with an Opti White front pane, a low iron glass that is exceptionally clear.

How to set up the aquarium

1. I chose aquatic soil as the planting substrate. It is great for lower tech tanks and allows plants easy access to nutrients. It is also cheap when compared to commercially-prepared substrates, so suiting lower budgets. I pile it into two mounds at each end of the aquarium where most plants will be placed.

2. The foreground substrate is fine sand from Unipac. It should provide a nice bright look to the front of the layout and contrast nicely with the gravel in the planted areas. To separate sand and gravel areas, make partitions out of card to keep each section in place.

3. Next in is the gravel, chosen to be able to cover the soil substrate, holding it down and preventing it from leeching through and clouding the water column. Once both sand and gravel sections are in place, carefully remove the partitions. Ensure both sides of the card partition are level to prevent spillage from one to the other.

4. To cover the filtration aspect in this tank, I use a Rena XP4. It is way over-rated for this size of tank so should be very efficient, both mechanically and biologically. The heater is positioned next to the inlet, to ensure the heat is well distributed throughout the aquarium.

5. Before rocks can be positioned, make sure that they are clean, and free of contaminants. Once in the aquarium, I make sure they are pushed well into the gravel and secure. The last thing you want is for a fish to burrow underneath and for the rockwork to collapse.

6. The wood can be laid in place wherever seems best to you. Mine floats, as it hasn’t been soaked before use, so fishing line secures pieces to rocks. When doing this at home, floating wood should be soaked in a container until it sinks. This can also remove any unwanted tannins that may leach into the water.

7. I find it easiest to secure the plants such as Microsorum onto wood before planting up the rest of the tank. Find a suitable place and tie them to wood using fishing line or cotton. Line can be removed once the plants are established, but cotton should disintegrate over time.

8. I opt for having a mainly open foreground in this set-up and the plants come from Maidenhead Aquatics in Crowland, near Peterborough. The plant scheme for the foreground consists of some small Crypt wendtii and some larger than expected E. tenellus.

9. Moving towards the mid section of the aquarium, I plant some of the larger Crypt wendtii, as well some more E. tenellus and a couple of other Echinodorus spp. The wendtii will eventually create a perimeter around the E. tenellus once it becomes established.

10. Taller Echinodorus spp. are added in the background to give it some height. Some Vallisneria spp. was also planted among the swords and should eventually grow up to and trail over the surface of the tank. The Vallis should also spread using its runners, and thicken out and enhance the jungle feel we aimed for.

11. I choose ten Lemon and ten Congo tetras. They will complement each other nicely and should fit with the style of the aquascape. There is plenty of open space which the Congos in particular should enjoy; along with plenty of cover should it be needed. The fish were loaned, with thanks, from Maidenhead Aquatics in Crowland, Peterborough.  


Common name: Lemon tetra.

Scientific name: Hyphessobrycon pulchripinnis.

Origin: South America.

Size: 4cm/1.5”.

Aquarium: Minimum 60 x 30 x 30cm/24 x 12 x 12” with some plant cover.

Water conditions: 24-27°C/75-80°F; pH 6-7.8.

Notes: This is a lovely little fish that really shows its best colours once it has settled into the aquarium. A group of five or more is recommended.

Common name: Congo tetra.

Scientific name: Phenacogrammus interruptus.

Origin: Africa, Congo Democratic Republic.

Size: Up to 10cm/4”.

Aquarium: Minimum 90 x 38 x 38cm/36 x 15 x 15”, preferably larger; moderately to well planted, but with some open spaces for swimming.

Water conditions: 24-27°C/75-80°F; pH6-7.8.

Notes: A beautiful, showy fish and good examples look spectacular. Easy to feed, but they do like good water quality. Don’t keep this fish with tank mates that have fin-nipping tendencies. Keep a group of at least four. Males have elongated dorsal and caudal fins and are more colourful than the females.

Common name: Java fern.

Scientific name: Microsorum pteropus.

Origin: South-East Asia.

Height: To 30cm/12”.

Lighting: Low to moderate.

Water conditions: 18-30°C/64-86°F and not fussy about water chemistry.

Notes: This undemanding, slow-growing plant will tolerate a wide range of conditions. It shouldn’t be planted in the substrate but attached to bogwood or other décor using fishing line or cotton.


You will also like:

Bettas may survive just fine in those little cups at the pet store for a week or so, as they wait for you to bring them home, but they actually have all the same needs as any other fish for a long, healthy life. The wild ancestors of our domestic Bettas come from densely vegetated, quiet bodies of water. You can create a beautiful, small garden-home for your Betta, and have, not only a gorgeous slice of nature to sit on your desk, but also a home for your Betta that will keep him health, happy, and displaying at his best for you. And it’s not even hard! First tip, however… Don’t buy your Betta yet! Get his new home all set up for him FIRST and give it some time to settle in before bringing your new pet home.

You can find everything you need at your pet store or on line. The easiest way to a healthy Betta home, is to start with an “all in one” aquarium. I chose the Fluval Spec V. This is a 5 gallon tank. While you could get away with a slightly smaller tank, a 5 gallon tank is large enough to be pretty stable, and gives you some room for a pretty “aquascape” (the common term for a pretty garden style aquarium) The nice thing about these all-in-one tank systems is that you get the tank, light, and filtration system all combined. I like this particular tank because all the equipment is hidden in the end panel. There is no unsightly equipment showing inside the tank.

Bettas are warm water fish, even by tropical fish standards, and really need a heater in their tank unless your home is uncommonly warm. There is room in the Fluval Spec to put a small, submersible, adjustable, thermostatically controlled heater in the space behind the dark panel.  If you choose a tank that doesn’t give you this option, you can also hide a submersible heater by placing it horizontally, across the back of the tank. Set the temperature of your heater to between 75° and 80° F.

You will also need some “hardscape” materials (rocks and or wood) to decorate your tank. Most independent aquarium stores carry a good selection of hardscape materials these days.

The big box stores may have some, or you may have to venture further afield. Please patronize your good independent store if you have one. If not, there are lots of online sources of hardscape materials.

Last, you will need substrate for your tank. Plants need nutrition, just like your fish do, and the easiest way to provide this is with a commercial, soil based substrate. I have used Fluval Stratum in this tank, but there are other good options too. Be aware that there are a number of commercial “planted tank substrates” available that do not provide any nutrition for your plants. You can use these, but you will need to feed your plants from the very beginning, while in a nutrient rich soil based substrate, the plants can find their own nourishment for quite a while. You should avoid “fish tank gravel”, because it not only contains no nutrition, but it is also hard for the plants to grab with their roots.

One problem with these little tanks is that the light included is not very bright. For this reason, it is important to choose plants that will grow in fairly dim light conditions. But that’s OK! As long as you choose wisely, these shade tolerant aquatic plants will also grow more slowly, meaning you won’t have to trim your tiny tank too often! I chose the following plants, all available from Florida Aquatic Nurseries. You may be able to buy these right off the rack or out of the tanks at your pet store, but if not, ask them to order them for you. It is much better to have all the plants you need when you set up your tank rather than trying to add them piecemeal later. I have included the scientific names of these plants as well as the common names (where there is one) to avoid confusion. Lots of beginners prefer common names, but in the world of aquatic plants, often there aren’t common names, and sometimes common names are used for more than one, (sometimes quite different) plant. All of that can lead to confusion.

Java Fern (Microsorum pteropus)

Narrow leafed


Normal leafed

Cryptocoryne wendtii ‘Bronze’

“Moss Balls” (Aegagropila linnaei)

Bucephalandra “Green Wav

Anubias barteri Var. ‘Nana’

Anubias barteri Var. ‘Nana’ Petite

Hydrocotyle cf. tripartita

I chose these particular plants because they will all grow nicely in a “low tech” tank (low to moderate light without supplemental CO2) , and although they will eventually need trimming, none will get too large for a small tank.

Once you have all your plants and equipment it is time to get going! With a small tank like this, I find it convenient to set it up on my kitchen counter, where I can get as messy as I want. This size tank is light enough to be picked up and moved easily once it is set up, but before you fill it with water. With a tank much bigger than 5-7 gallons, you will want to set it up in its permanent position, on a sturdy surface designed to hold weight. Remember, water is heavy.  It weighs over 8 lbs. per gallon. That means that a little 5 gallon tank weighs over 40 lbs. once filled. A ten gallon tank weighs over 80! A 5-7 gallon tank is fine on the corner of most desks. A ten gallon tank will be safer on a dedicated aquarium stand unless you are certain the piece of furniture you plan to use is up to the task.

First pour your substrate into the tank. You do not need to rinse commercial aquatic plant substrates as long as you fill the tank carefully. We’ll talk about that later! Your substrate will look best if it is quite shallow and straight along the front edge, but you want more depth in the back so that plants can root. For this tank, I chose Fluval Stratum, which is soil based and perfect for growing aquatic plants that root in the substrate. You could also choose an inert substrate like Eco-Complete or Seachem Flourite. That type of substrate gives plants a good place to anchor their roots, but provides them with no nutrition. So it puts a little more responsibility on you in terms of their care. The cost of both types of substrate is similar, which is why I suggest Stratum, which will nourish your plants.

For this tank, I have chosen “pagoda stone” a rock commonly available at aquarium shops. Whatever stone you decide to use, stick to just one type in any particular tank. It will look much more natural. The wood I chose was a nice, branchy piece of “spider wood”, again a type of wood that is widely available through aquarium stores. Try to avoid having sawed off edges show. However, these tanks are narrow from back to front, and you may find that you need to trim your wood to fit. Just make sure that the cuts are in the back where they don’t show.

Also make sure that there is enough space all around your hardscape to be able to clean. You may not be able to fit your hand, but you need to at least be able to get a scraper through to clean the glass. 


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