The planted Aquarium

Welcome to the next step up in having an aquarium, the planted aquarium. "But wait.... I have had plants in my tank before?" Yes most people have, but a planted aquarium attempts to mimic a natural environment.

Creating a planted tank helps you to understand the chemistry within the water that allows the plants to grow and flourish if presented with the right environment. There are hundreds of types of plants that encompass different requirements, colors and sizes.

Steps to starting your planted Aquarium

Decide what type of plants you want in the tank. It is usually a good idea to stick with one central theme e.g. Stem plants, Anubais, Java Ferns and crypts. These are among the major types, moss is another plant that will grow in almost all conditions; it makes a fine addition to any planted aquarium.

Examples of Common Plants:

Stem plants will fill the back of the tank nicely and can be shaped very easily through trimming. The trimmed stems can then be propagated into the substrate and grown again, meaning soon your tank will be full of lush plants. Stem plants usually come as a bunch and have a plant weight at the bottom. They are cuttings of plants and usually don't come with roots although roots will soon grow.

Anubais and java fernsARE NOT placed in the substrate, they are plants that feed directly on the water column and if placed into the gravel they will die. They grow quite slow but they look very nice if attached to driftwood or a rock.

Crypts and potted plants can be placed in the gravel and they are attractive looking plants, because they are usually easy to keep they are incredibly popular and also fairly affordable; crypts are a good starter plant.

Moss will grow fast or slow and display different structures depending on nutrients and lighting but is a great looking plant and perfect for the beginner. Java moss and Christmas are among two of the most abundant, only a little bit is needed to grow a whole lot more.

Hair grass is a great looking plant that looks like underwater grass, why not have paddocks in your aquarium? When the types of plants you are using have been decided we must think about what requirements the plants need to grow, a nutrient rich substrate will work but in this case is not entirely necessary.


The major factors we must look at are:

Lighting – a decent light is needed to grow and keep plants healthy, for java ferns, moss and basic stem plants around 1-2 watts per gallon will do very nicely. E.g. if your tank is 50 gallons, you would want between 50-100w of light, about 90 being ideal.

Nutrients – just like fish, the plants require trace elements and vitamins that just aren’t there in a tank, in the wild fresh flowing water will replenish these but sadly not in the aquarium. I advise you to buy a liquid plant fertilizer such as Seachem Flourish, which will provide the plants with nutrients it needs to grow, especially plants like java fern and anubais which feed directly from the water column. Fertilizers for planted aquascape

CO2 – carbon dioxide is the third major factor affecting the growth rates and health of plants in the aquarium, many professional aquarists use large CO2 canisters which diffuse into the aquarium. This works very well but is quite expensive especially for the beginner. A better option would be to use DIY co2 where yeast reacts with sugar in a Coke bottle, slowly releasing co2 increasing the plant growth rate dramatically. This is a very cheap method it can be a hassle, a possibly better option would be to buy a product such as seachem flourish excel, a liquid that provides a different form of carbon for the plant but works in the same way.

Some brief pointers:

If you have followed the above, you will have 3 variables to play with – Lighting, Nutrients and CO2. These need to be in equilibrium with each other so the plant can consume each evenly, if there is excess of one it can lead to unwanted algae. When dosing both the excel and flourish (or other products with the same purpose) it is not essential to dose what is required on the label, this is a lower-tech setup and does not require large amounts of fertilizers. If you choose the method of DIY CO2 be sure to calculate how much you want bubbling out which in turn will govern the size of the bottle/s that you use. Only keep the lights on for 8-10 hours a day and try to avoid all natural light, leaving the light on for too long will promote excess algae. Never leave it on 24 hours a day either, it will not let your fish rest, nor will it let your plants respire, killing them.

Planting Your Aquarium

Planting the aquarium is an important part of a planted aquarium, a bit of time is needed for planning to make sure that you know a) where everything is going to go at the beginning b) what you want the tank to look like after a few months.

Adding interesting rocks and wood can give your aquarium a very nice feel, usually using one type of rock or wood a few times through the tank gives the most aesthetically pleasing results.

If you have bought your plants and the tank is ready, it’s time to plant! This is an important part which will take some time and could be frustrating, make sure you give yourself a few hours alone.

Planting the different types of plants:

Stem Plants – when bought these usually come with elastic or wire around the base holding the stems together, take this off to separate. You can plant stem plants all in one bunch but it gives a nicer feel if they are spread out along the background, if you don’t have enough don’t worry they will soon grow and you will be able to propagate the stems. A great effect is having taller stems in each of the corners and then shorter ones in the centre; this will also hide the heater/filter. I have found stem plants without roots should be laid on top of your susbtrate or about 1/8" down in your susbtrate. Soon they will grow roots and there growth will rocket!

Anubais and Java Fern – These types of plants will need to be attached to the wood or rock for the best effect. Sometimes you can wedge them somewhere but often they will need to be tied on. Fishing wire does work but cotton thread is by far the best option, it will eventually dissolve but by this time the plant will be well adhered to the rock.

Crypts/potted plants – these will generally come in small plastic or clay pots with wool. Take out the wool and remove the plant from the pot, these can also be placed directly into the substrate, the easiest way to do this is dig a small hole in the gravel, push the plant into it and cover it up on all sides.

Moss – moss will look best when it is placed on wood or rocks but can be grown just about anywhere. To attach it to a rock the same method is used for anubais and java ferns. This is a very frustrating process but will be very rewarding in the long run, the easiest method to tie on the moss is with very fine cotton string and doing it OUTSIDE of the water. Don’t make the mistake of not being able to move your wood and rocks and trying to do this in the water it is very frustrating. Another excellent way is to put coins on the moss to weigh it down, this works very well and within a week or so they can be taken off and the moss will have grown onto the ornament.

Hair grass - should also come in small little pots, it can be planted directly into the substrate and will give a nice carpet effect within the aquarium. Try planting the stems a little apart to give it room to expand.

Now that you have planted the aquarium, make sure to remember to dose both a fertilizer and a carbon substitute (unless using co2) regularly to keep the health of your plants in good order.

How to trim your plants:

Your plants should grow very quickly and start to fill the aquarium nicely, over a month or so they may become too large and take up too much space. In this case they need to be trimmed.

Stem plants should be cut about 4-5cm from the top of the stem which can be replanted to grow a new plant, the original stem will soon produce new offshoots if you cut them very short they will soon grow back thicker, doing this multiple times can grow you a very thick hedge, which looks great!

Most potted plants can be divided when they get large enough leaving you with two plants!

Moss can just be ripped/cut apart and thrown away or put somewhere else.

Java fern and anubais can be divided in two, for anubais the rhizome (the large centre piece where the stems originate) can be broken up, ferns can just be separated. When cultivating any root plants, be sure not to remove too much of the root mass as this is how they consume nutrients.