Beginner’s Guide to Setting Up a Planted Aquarium

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Planted aquariums strive to mimic the natural environment, which explains why they’re difficult and why many aquarists, and especially beginners, struggle to get them right.

As a beginner, you need to have a good understanding of the water chemistry that allows these plants to flourish in order to recreate an environment in which they can develop and thrive.

If you’re planning on keeping fish that require a planted tank or you simply want to dabble in aqua-scaping, in this beginner’s guide I will teach you the basics of setting up a planted aquarium.

I will discuss the types of plants you may use, the lighting, fertilizer and substrates you should consider, and I will also offer some maintenance tips that will come in handy.

Before we get started, here’s a quick rundown of the things you will need for your planted aquarium:

  • Aquarium Test Kit;
  • Substrate;
  • LED lighting;
  • Filter System;

Choose a high-quality test kit, because without precise readings, you’ll struggle to get things right. I recommend the API Freshwater Master Test Kit.

The Substrate

You’ve picked out the perfect tank for your fish and now you’re ready to put together a planted aquarium.

First, you’ll need a substrate. You may be inclined to pick gravel, which is affordable, easy to clean and works so well for a non-planted aquarium.

Problem is, gravel is inert, meaning it doesn’t have the nutrients to sustain plant life, plus it’s bad at absorbing nutrients from water or retaining them.

Well if gravel is no good, you may think that sand is a better option. Unfortunately, I must disappoint you again – sand, just like gravel, simply doesn’t pack enough nutrients for plants to grow.

Plus, sand compacts over time essentially strangling the roots of plants. It’s also a pain to clean and stirs up too easily causing clogging issues in the filter system of your aquarium.

Plants need nutrients to survive and grow, so you need to get a substrate that’s designed to sustain plant life.

In this sense, there are two main options that you can go with – fluorite-based substrate and all-in-one aquarium substrate.

1. Flourite Substrate

On its own, fluorite is also an inert substrate that’s devoid of enough nutrients to promote plant growth. Unlike gravel and sand, however, fluorite is excellent at absorbing nutrients from water.

It’s also a substrate that can be mixed with other substrates. Just make sure to add a few root tabs that will leach nutrients, which will be absorbed by fluorite and delivered to plants.

If you decide to go with this type of substrate, check out SeaChem Flourite Black, which offers a great contrast against the green foliage and will last for the entire duration of your tank.

Add some SeaChem Root Tabs too, and you’ve got yourself a substrate that can help plants to flourish.

2. All-in-One Aquarium Substrate

If you want something that’s packed with nutrients out of the box, all-in-one aquarium substrates are the way to go.

These substrate mixes make it much easier to grow plants and you don’t need to use fertilizers to jumpstart the growth process of your plants.

I recommend ADA Aqua Soil as a staple of all-in-one aquarium substrates. It’s 100% natural and it’s packed full of nutrients essential for healthy plant development.

It also has a beneficial pH buffering effect, allowing you to maintain stable pH levels in the tank.

How to Lay Down the Substrate?

This is one of the most frustrating steps in setting up a planted aquarium because no matter how careful you are, you’ll usually end up with cloudiness in your tank.

To avoid this, I recommend thoroughly rinsing the substrate. You may find that some brands claim that you don’t need to pre-rinse the substrate but do it anyway just to be one the safe side.

Add 3-4 inches of substrate, making sure you lay it carefully. To avoid stirring things up, place a plate on the substrate and slowly pour water on this plate instead of pouring directly on the substrate.

If you do things carefully and slowly enough, you’ll be able to pull off laying down the substrate without causing too much of a stir in your tank.


The next thing you need to accomplish is to set up the light fixture in your tank. Here too, you have multiple options – metal halide, T5 fluorescents, LED. etc. I recommend LED lights.

It’s currently the most advanced lighting option for plants and aquariums, and although they’re initial setup is costlier, their long service life, lightweight structure and the fact that they emit low heat, makes them the perfect candidate for aquarium lighting.

One brand that I can wholeheartedly recommend is the Finnex Planted+ 24/7, which is a fully automated LED setup.

It’s pricey, but well worth the extra bucks considering the great features it comes with:

  • 7k/Multi-color Blend for Plant Growth;
  • 4 customizable color channels;
  • Fire Red Sunrise and Blue Starry Night simulator;
  • Good weather, cloudy days and storm effects, etc.

If you’re looking for a budget-friendly option, the Beamswork EA Timer is an affordable option. You can buy it in multiple size configurations. It features 2 modes – Day and Night.

It’s a long-lasting fixture that’s powerful and it’s timer-ready, but you do need to purchase the module separately for it.

A middle ground option between the two products is the Finnex FugeRay, which has an ultraslim body that’s splash resistant. Apart from the daytime mode, it also features a moonlight mode.

After you pick out the light fixture, next you need to think about light cycle.

Light Cycle Duration

When it comes to light cycle, you need to balance plant growth with potential algae growth. In nature, plants get light from sunrise to sunset, so this can be a good starting point to follow.

Start by giving your plants 10-12 hours of light per day and adjust accordingly. If you see that your plants are not growing the way you expect, bump up the light cycle by an hour or two.

Meanwhile watch out for algae growth as some algae enjoy the same favorable tank conditions as your plants do. If you notice algae growth, scale down the light cycle.

You’ll need to experiment with the light cycle until you hit a sweet spot that’s good for your plants and doesn’t lead to algae problems.

Filtration System

When it comes to the filtration systems, many aquarists are faced with the question of choosing a hang-on-back (HOB) filter or a canister filter.

If you’re a beginner aquarist with a tank under 50 gallons, a HOB filter is a great option for you. They’re reasonably priced and user-friendly.

Canister filters are better suited for 50+ gallon tanks since they’re designed to filter larger volumes of water than HOB filters. They’re also more expensive and maintenance-intensive.

If you’re going with a HOB filter, check out the AquaClear Power Filter, or if you need a filter with more punch, choose the EHEIM Classic External Canister Filter.

If the filter you’re going to add to a planted tank contains activated carbon filter media, make sure you remove it as it can absorb fertilizers that you’re using to stimulate your plants.

You now have everything set up for your plants, it’s time to do some planting!

Aquarium Plants

One difference between setting up a normal tank and setting up a planted tank is that you can add plants right away, without having to wait for the nitrogen cycle to complete.

Plants can even help speed up the process, so it’s an extra bonus. Still, make sure you don’t add any fish until readings of ammonia and nitrites come back all clear.

It’s also important to start with beginner-friendly plants that don’t require special dosing and they’re easy to upkeep.

You should also take some time to plan out where you’ll be placing each plant, rock or driftwood to create aesthetically pleasing results.

There are various categories of plants like carpet plants, foreground plants, background plants, and mid-ground plants.

If you’re a beginner, I recommend starting with the following plants:

1. Anubias Nana



This foreground plant has arrow-shaped leaves that are large relative to the body of the plant. It’s a slow-spreading plant that grows low and stays relatively small.

It attaches itself to driftwood or other objects in the tank and it doesn’t need much light. The Anubias Nana is a plant that’s easy to care for and I recommend it to beginners.

2. Crypt Wendtii



Another foreground plant species, the Crypt Wendtii comes in many variations – leaves can have various sizes, textures and colors (red, green, brown). The leaves usually have waved edges and they can grow in length to as much as 18 inches.

This plant thrives in any lighting conditions but tends to be sensitive to sudden changes in tank conditions.

3. Micro Sword



Given the right conditions, this foreground plant can carpet the entire aquarium. It’s a slow growing plant that enjoys a lot of light, therefore, I don’t recommend it in low-light setups.

When grown, it resembles a grass carpet with leaves between 2 and 5 inches long.

4. Pygmy Chain Sword



This hardy plant is easy to care for and it’s the smallest of all the sword plants. It’s mainly used in small aquariums, but also in bigger ones as a foreground of mid-ground plant.

If you want to create a green carpet in the aquarium, the Pygmy Chain Sword is a good option.

In small aquariums it can thrive even in moderate light, in larger aquariums in needs better light conditions.

5. Java Moss



Native to tropical areas, the Java Moss is a common planted aquarium plant. It has small oval-shaped leaves and since it doesn’t have roots, it attached itself to items in the aquarium.

It can also float freely in the tank and absorb nutrients directly from the water without having to attach itself to a nutrient-rich substrate.

6. Java Fern



Generally long and thin, these plants enjoy low-light aquariums and can reach heights of 14 inches. They’re an excellent plant for beginner aquarists.

They can float freely in the tank or anchor themselves to the substrate. They start out slow and expand rapidly across the aquarium.

7. Cryptocoryne



Known also as Micro Crypt, this plant is the smallest of the crypto variety. Its leaves are long with ruffled edges.

It grows slow and it doesn’t grow bigger than a few inches. It likes low-light environments and it’s easy to care for.

8. Amazon Sword



The Amazon Sword is a common freshwater plant that makes a great background plant. Thanks to its lush leaves, it can create a green forest-like effect when planted together with others of its kind.

It’s a top choice for community tanks and it requires moderate to strong lighting 10 to 12 hours daily.

9. Water Wisteria (Hygrophila Difformis)



This aquarium plant is not suitable for nano tanks since it tends to grow into a large plant. It’s usually kept as a mid-ground or background plant in aquariums of at least 10 gallons.

It’s not fussy about water conditions, although it needs some dosing with fertilizers. Other than this, it’s a hearty and easy-going plant that’s suitable for beginners.

10. Hornwort



The plant has an appearance of a bushy tail because of the leaves that grow outwards in shoots. The Hornwort is a beautiful plant that thrives even in low light conditions.

It grows quickly, creating a suitable environment for newborn fish. Since it has no roots, it doesn’t require a solid substrate.

These are just some of my favorite aquarium plants that I recommend for those who are still learning the ropes of planted aquariums.

Caring for Your Plants

Just like your potted plants or the plants in your garden, the plants in your aquarium require some care to stay healthy.

Here are some quick tips when it comes to aquarium plant care:

  • Don’t skip water changes!

Water changes are not only for keeping your fish healthy, they’re also useful in making sure that nitrates that accumulate in the tank are washed away and diluted.

Make sure you perform water changes at least every other week to get nitrate levels down and to replenish the water with nutrients.

  • Strive for Stable Tank Conditions

Sudden changes in temperature and water chemistry can have negative effects on your plants and your fish.

Make sure to invest in a good quality water heater and monitor tank conditions closely.

  • Trim Your Plants

Just like you wouldn’t like your garden to overgrow with plants, you shouldn’t let plants in your tank to overgrow.

Overgrowing can cause too much shadow and kill off or block light from smaller plants. Of all plants, stem plants need trimming more frequently than other plants.

Adding Fertilizers

Although most of the plants that I recommended in this article don’t require any special treatment or additional care, some plants do require dosing with fertilizers.

However, if your plants are struggling to grow, you can help them out with a fertilizer. There are two types of fertilizers you can use:

1. Substrate Fertilizers

Substrate fertilizers like Seachem Flourish Tabs are placed underneath the substrate for plants to use over time.

They’re suitable for substrates with a high nutrient absorption capacity like fluorite.

These fertilizers are most suited for plants that grow roots in the substrate and absorb nutrients through their roots.

2. Liquid Fertilizers

Plants that float around in the tank or those that don’t grow roots, need to get their dose of nutrients by absorbing them from the water.

Liquid fertilizers are designed specifically for these types of plants, just be careful not to overuse them because they can promote algae growth as well.

Just as I mentioned, not all plants require fertilizers, especially plants that prefer low light conditions.

If you’re happy with how your aquarium looks like, you’re ready to populate your aquarium with fish. But first you need to make sure the nitrogen cycle is fully completed.

Test the water for ammonia and nitrites and if everything looks in order, you can slowly start adding the fish.

Don’t add the fish all at once! Add one and wait a few days to see if everything is ok, then add the next one.

Adding Fish

Setting up a planted tank takes a fair amount of time and planning, so when it comes to adding fish, you want to make sure you’re choosing the right fish.

Some herbivorous fish can end up eating all your plants and destroy all the hard work you’ve been putting in setting up the tank.

You’ve probably already picked out which type of fish you’re going to add to your planted aquarium, but if you’re still searching for a few ideas, here are my picks for the best aqua-scaping fish:

1. Livebearers



Mollies, guppies, swordtails, and platies are a good choice for planted tanks and a suitable choice for beginners as well since they’re adaptable, hardy fish.

These fish are unlikely to munch on live plants and destroy your plants, so it’s another reason to choose these fish species for your planted tank.

They’re also peaceful fish that are suitable for a community tank if you’re looking to house different species. Make sure to look out for incompatibilities when choosing tank mates from different species!

2. Tetras



Another good species for a community tank, tetras come in a lot of varieties – Ember Tetras, Cardinal Tetras, and Neon Tetras are all good choices for a planted aquarium.

Most Tetra fish species are peaceful by nature and stay relatively small. They prefer being kept in groups of at least 5 or 6 and display beautiful and unique colors that add life to any aquarium big or small.

3. Angelfish


Angelfish are another common freshwater aquarium choice that tend to leave plants alone, so they’re suitable for a planted tank. They can be great community fish if housed with the right species.

Don’t house Angelfish with fish that tend to nip at the fins of other fish, or with fish that are small enough to fit their mouths like Tetras. Avoid keeping Angelfish with aggressive fish species like Bettas.

4. Corydoras


Corydora Catfish are the most peaceful bottom dwellers that I absolutely recommend as an aqua-scaping fish, but also as a beginner-friendly fish.

They’ll eat most food types (flake, frozen, live) and like to scavenge in the substrate, but won’t bother your plants. They will use them for breeding though.

5. Gouramis


Gouramis also come in many varieties, but they mostly stay away from plants. They peacefully coexist with a variety of species, which makes them a great choice for a community tank.

You can keep Gouramis together with other peaceful species, but avoid fish that will occasionally nip at fins, because that puts too much stress on them.

Even though some fish don’t eat live plants, they can still wreak havoc in your tank. A good example are Cichlids that will dig around the substrate and potentially damage the roots of your plant.

If you do decide to keep herbivorous fish in your tank, you need to feed them enough herbivore flakes and pellets, dried algae, and fresh vegetables, so they don’t start devouring your plants.

You can also use plants that grow quickly or plants that can withstand the occasional grazing your fish may engage in.

Fish that are a bad choice for a planted tank include Goldfish, Silver Dollar Fish, Monos, Scatfish, Buenos Aires Tetras.

Some of these fish are voracious plant eaters that can devour large amounts of foliage in a short amount of time.

Final Thoughts

When it comes to planted aquariums, there’s a bit more work that goes into setting them up compared to simple tanks, which usually consist of a gravel substrate and some decorations.

Even so, with a little patience and planning, you can create breathtaking aquatic landscapes that will beautifully contrast the colors of your fish.

Plus, planted tanks do have a more natural feel and provide enough shade and hiding spaces for your timider fish species.

Not only that planted tanks are more beautiful, but some fish species will feel more at ease in a lush green foliage.


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Author Image Fabian
I’m Fabian, aquarium fish breeder and founder of this website. I’ve been keeping fish, since I was a kid. On this blog, I share a lot of information about the aquarium hobby and various fish species that I like. Please leave a comment if you have any question.
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