How to Grow Aquarium Plants?

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Aquarium plants are necessary for every aquatic setup, no matter the fish species you’re housing. Some fish species may not work well with plants (African cichlids, anyone), but most will absolutely enjoy them.

Live plants will provide your fish with food, hiding, and environmental diversity, mimicking the fish’s natural habitats.

But how should you grow your plants, which are the best to consider, and what are the essential requirements to keep in mind?

We’ll answer these questions in today’s article to help you navigate the topic more easily.

Choosing the Right Plants

This is the first step to consider, given that multiple types of plants are available.

Understanding the type of plants you need depends on several factors, such as overall layout, available space, and the fish species you have.

Here are some overall considerations to write down:

  • Floating plants – These are great for bottom dwellers or more aggressive fish with higher energy levels. The fish won’t bother the floating plants, as these occupy the water’s surface for the most part. These plant species will lower the amount of light reaching the tank’s lower regions, making them ideal for shier fish species like catfish or other bottom scavengers. They’re not great for labyrinth fish who breathe at the water’s surface occasionally and top-dwelling species that feed there. They’re also not ideal in tanks with rooted plants since the floating species will cut out the light that the lower plants require to survive.
  • Rooted plants – Good for bottom dwellers as they provide them with food and shelter, but they also work great for just about any type of fish. These come with amazing variety in terms of leaf size, height, coloring, root structure, etc. They don’t work well with substrate diggers, especially cichlids, and aggressive fish that will either unearth, eat, or simply destroy them. Rooted plants also require a nutritious substrate and root tab fertilization if you’re using inert substrates like sand.
  • Mosses and grass-like plants – These are more fitting for breeding, nano, and shrimp tanks. Grass-like plants are great for sheltering shrimps and fish fry that must keep a low profile to avoid any interactions with other tank inhabitants. Mosses are also great thanks to their aesthetic effect and the beneficial effects they have on the environment.

These are just 3 factors to consider, but there are many more to keep in mind when searching for the right plant type.

We’ll discuss as many as we can in detail today, so let’s get to it.

Setting Up Your Aquarium

Once you’ve decided on the right plants, you now need to prepare the environment properly.

You basically have 3 major points to note:

Substrate for Plants

The type of substrate you’re using is critical for your plants’ growth. If you’re going for floating plants, the substrate doesn’t matter as much.

Floating plants take all of their nutrients from the water column.

When it comes to rooted plants, consider the following tips:

  • Go for nutrient-rich substrates – Soil is the best choice here, given its high nutrient content. The problem is that soil is more difficult to clean in-depth, although you may not need to. The vacuuming job typically aims to clean the substrate’s surface, as you rarely need to perform any in-depth cleaning. Soil doesn’t require additional fertilization, as it generally contains all the nutrients your plants need to thrive.
  • Extra fertilization for inert substrates – Sand and gravel has no nutritional value, yet people still prefer them over soil thanks to their ease of cleaning and aesthetic impact. Your plants require more personalized assistance and maintenance with these types of substrates, though. The first in line is managing the anchoring problem. Sand is too compact and can strangle the plants’ roots, while gravel lacks proper anchoring capabilities. The second problem is the need for consistent and regular root tab fertilization to keep your plants well-fed and colorful. The type of plant you’re getting will dictate the amount of root tabs it needs within a week.
  • Anchoring support – Most plants require anchoring support until their roots can take over the task themselves. You can achieve this by either planting the plant between rocks or using tape or nylon meshes to bind the plant to various aquatic decorations. The goal is to keep the plant down so the water currents won’t unearth it. You can remove the ties once your plant shows stability and proper anchoring.
  • Proper burying depth – You’re good with about 2-4-inch-deep substrates in most cases, but this can differ based on the type of plant. Some plants have longer and deeper root systems, while others, like bulb plants, only require semi-burying. Burying the entire bulb can cause the plant to rot. So, you should understand your plant’s substrate depth needs to craft the setup properly.

Lights for Plants

All live plants require up to 10-12 hours of light per day. A good day/night cycle is necessary for the plant to perform photosynthesis and exchange chemicals and nutrients with the surrounding environment.

The problem is that different plants require different light intensities and duration.

Some thrive in high-light conditions, while others do just fine in shadier settings. Also, you can manipulate the light intensity to control the plant’s growth rate.

Some plant species grow faster and taller if the light is insufficient so that they can reach the areas with brighter lights.

If your tank doesn’t have access to direct sunlight, you need to invest in the right lighting setup. The setup itself depends on the plants you’re getting and the tank’s size.

In terms of light requirements, plants qualify as easy, medium, and advanced, as such:

  • Easy plants – Up to 0.5 watts per liter (10-20 lumen)
  • Medium plants – Between 0.5 and 1 watt per liter (20-40 lumens)
  • Advanced plants – Above 1 watt per liter (at least 40 lumens)

The tank’s size also plays a critical role in this aspect. As such, you may need:

  • One 15-watt tube for a 10-gallon tank
  • One 30-watt tube for a 20-gallon tank
  • Two 20-watt tubes for a 30-gallon tank
  • Two 30-watt tubes for a 40-gallon tank, and you get the picture

Cycling Process

The cycling process is designed to stabilize the aquatic ecosystem from a chemical perspective.

The underlying goal is to create colonies of denitrifying bacteria that will manage the ammonia and nitrites that your aquatic life will produce.

You can cycle your tank without plants, but I recommend using plants during the process.

There are several reasons for that, such as:

  • Plants aid in cycling – Plants consume ammonia and nitrites considerably faster than bacteria. Especially when you consider that an uncycled tank doesn’t have any bacteria, to begin with. This means that plants can keep the environment more stable before bacteria even begin to form. This provides you with the interesting opportunity of adding your fish before even completing the cycling process. The plants will consume all of the ammonia that your fish will produce, keeping the ecosystem healthier and safer.
  • The ecosystem matures faster – Many people cycle the tank first and add plants and fish after that. This means you’re already wasting approximately 2-3 weeks for the cycle to complete, then wait for another 2 weeks or so for the plants to settle. Adding plants right from the start will cut those waiting periods in half. This way, when your cycle is complete, your plants will have already settled and built the ecosystem you want.
  • Easier to determine the cycle’s completion – You can tell that the cycling process is over when your plants begin to grow. This means that they’re getting the nutrients they need and that they’ve found their spot in the ecosystem. Naturally, you can’t rely on this fact alone to determine whether cycling is over. You should also use a water tester kit to assess ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels before adding your fish.

Overall, the cycling process should be shorter in planted vs. plantless tanks.

Planting Aquarium Plants

This is a more complex topic than you might expect, given that there’s no universal way of planting your plants.

The planting procedure depends on the type of plant you’re getting.

Here’s what I mean by that:

  • Rhizome plants – These don’t necessarily need a substrate, only some type of anchor to keep them down. Rhizome plants have hairy roots that they use to entangle various objects in their vicinity for anchoring purposes. This means that you can ‘plant’ rhizome plants even in bare-bottom tanks. Just attach the plant to a rock or any other stable and permanent aquatic decoration and tie it with some sewing thread to give it some anchoring time.
  • Sword plants – These types of plants grow very tall, so you need to position them wisely, so as not to mess up the tank’s aesthetics. You can’t place them in the front or middle of the tank, as they will obscure the rest of the layout. You should always plant your sword plants in the background for the best aesthetic effect. Bury the plants’ roots but keep the crown (the area where leaves start growing) out.
  • Cryptocoryne – Cryptocoryne plants are similar to sword plants in terms of planting requirements. The primary difference is that this species of plant is more sensitive and take longer to adapt to the aquatic environment. The plant may lose its submerged leaves at first and require a period of accommodation. You know the plant has adapted to its habitat once the submerged leaves begin to grow back.
  • Grass-like plants – Grass-like plants have narrower and thinner stems, so you need to plant them separately rather than in bunches. That’s because the different plants will eat each other’s nutrients, causing some to die in the process. This means that it may take longer to plant your grass plants properly, but the result is definitely worth it. Also, be mindful of the plant’s growth rate and spread. Grass plants can take up quite a space, and you don’t want them to suffocate the entire layout.
  • Mosses – Mosses aren’t individual plants but more like plant conglomerates. They usually come in compact patches and require a different planting approach than other species. Fortunately, mosses are easier to plant since you only need to secure them on top of the substrate (or any hard surface you want your plant to cover), and that’s about it. The plant will grow its thin, hair-like root system and attach to whatever solid mass is present nearby.
  • Bulb plants – Bulb plants have a bulbous root structure (or tubers, depending on the species), so they require a different planting approach. You should either bury the bulb halfway into the substrate or simply place it on top and secure it to keep it from floating. The bulb will eventually attach itself to the substrate and begin to leech nutrients to support the plant’s growth. Don’t bury the bulb, or it will cause the plant to die.
  • Stem plants – There are multiple types of stem plants, but they all require similar approaches. You only need to bury the plant’s roots 2-3 inches into the soil, depending on its type and size, and you’re good to go. Remember to secure the plant to prevent it from floating. Your plant will eventually anchor itself in the substrate, at which point you can remove the ties or whatever measure you used to anchor them.
  • Floating plants – These are probably the most beginner-friendly aquarium plants on this list. Floating plants require no substrate since most of them will simply float at the water’s surface. Liquid fertilization is necessary to support your plants’ growth rate, as well as regular trimming to prevent them from covering the tank’s entire surface. You don’t want the plants to cut off the light from the rest of the tank; this isn’t ideal for fish or any other rooted plants dwelling in the bottom levels.
  • Carpeting plants – These are also relatively easy to plant. Just follow the tips I’ve provided for mosses, and you should be fine. Most carpeting plants are highly adaptable species, capable of latching onto pretty much any surface. The main problem is that most carpeting plants have thin and sensitive roots, causing them to lose stability and float away at first. Anchoring them can be tricky, given the plants’ frailty. I recommend planting the whole pot into the substrate to provide your plants with the support they need to grow their roots properly.

As you can see, there are multiple plant species to consider, each with its unique requirements.

Plus, you should also consider plant compatibility in case you plan on using more than one plant species, which most people do. You can’t pair floating with carpeting plants, for instance.

Floating plants cover the water’s surface, naturally lowering the light levels reaching the substrate.

The problem is that carpeting plants thrive in high-light conditions, which means the floating plants will kill them.

Caring for Aquarium Plants

Fortunately, plants don’t require too much maintenance in the long run.

They do need a handful of specific conditions, though, such as:

  • The right nutrition – Feed your plants according to their needs. Some may require more nutrients than others, as well as different types of fertilizers (root tabs or liquid fertilization.) Some plant species don’t need additional fertilization, as they will get most of their nutrients from the environment. This is more often the case with fish tanks since fish will produce much of the prime matter that plants use as nutrition.
  • CO2 supplementation – CO2 injections are sometimes necessary to boost the plant’s growth rate and coloring. But not all plants require CO2. On a side note, you better get some CO2-hungry plants if your tank has algae problems. The added CO2 will suffocate the algae while providing your plants with the necessary growth boost at the same time.
  • Proper lighting – All live plants require some level of light, but they’re not all equal. Some species do just fine in dim environments with minimal light. Learn your plants’ needs and adapt to their profile accordingly.
  • Adequate water conditions – Plants vary wildly in terms of temperature and pH requirements, although most of them will fall within the same ranges. Aim for: temperatures between 65 and 80 F, pH levels between 6.5 and 8.0, water hardness between 50 and 100 ppm, and alkalinity between 3 and 8 dKH (54-140 ppm). Unless your specific plant species prefer different values, of course. Also, ensure moderate water currents for sustained nutrient and oxygen circulation and have a chemical filtration system in place. The latter is necessary to keep the water clean and eliminate any potential chemical contaminants that could poison your plants or fish.
  • Proper tankmates – Not many people highlight this issue, but I think it’s worth mentioning. Your plants could get all the care they need; it’s all for nothing if they’re housed with plant-hating fish species like African cichlids. These fish won’t only unearth plants but even eat or simply destroy them. Always choose your tank fish carefully, depending on the plant species already present in the habitat.
  • Trimming and pruning – These depend on the plant’s type and your overarching goals. Each plant requires specific trimming based on its size, shape, spread method, and growth rate. Adapt to each plant’s profile to learn how to control your plant over time.

Feeding Aquarium Plants

This is an even easier point, given that you can feed your plants via 2 different means:

  • Root tabs – You bury these in the substrate, close to the plant’s roots. These tabs dissolve over time, seeping nutrients into the substrate and the water column. You need to replace them regularly, depending on your plant’s nutrient consumption rate. Some plants need new tabs every 2 weeks, while others need new ones several times per week.
  • Liquid fertilizers – Both rooted and floating plants extract nutrients from the water column with a plus for the latter. Liquid fertilizers are a great source of calcium, magnesium, iron, and other trace elements that are vital to your plant’s growth and overall health.

Just keep in mind that not all plants require fertilization, and some need more than others.

Using fertilizers when unnecessary will lead to algae bloom, especially in the case of liquid fertilizers.

Conclusion

Aquarium plants come in different shapes, sizes, and colors and with different requirements.

They are necessary elements to any aquatic setup thanks to their numerous benefits in the long run.

I hope today’s article can assist you in learning how to manage your aquatic plants. In case of any confusion, post your question below.

avatar 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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