Adding live plants to your aquarium is highly beneficial and rewarding. Plants help to eat up excess nutrients from fish waste, provide cover and hiding spots for fish and make the tank even more beautiful.
Plus, if you’ve got any sort of a green thumb, it can add a whole new dimension to your aquarium keeping experience. Once you add plants, you’ve created a new little underwater garden that you get to tend to.
And there’s such a huge variety of tank styles, plants, substrates, lights and livestock, that no two planted tanks are ever the same.
But that huge array of choices can seem very overwhelming, especially when you’re a beginner.
So, I’ll go over the basic things you need to consider when you are creating a planted tank from scratch.
How to Make a Planted Tank
Doing some planning, and a TON of research, these will be extremely helpful when making a planted tank.
Here are some things you should consider ahead of time while planning your tank.
Tank Size and Shape
First off, how big of a tank do you want? What do you have the room and budget for?
You’ll need to know the dimensions of your tank so you can plan what kinds of plants and livestock you can keep, as well as how much room you’ll have for hardscape and substrate.
If you’re planning to keep fish in the tank, the bigger the tank the better. The more water volume you have, the more stable the parameters in the tank will be because it will take a much higher volume of wastes to affect the water parameters.
I recommend longer, more shallow tanks for low tech setups. That way, a much lower powered light can penetrate all the way to the substrate.
Deeper tanks are better for large, high light demand plants, like parrots feather or scarlet temple. More intense lighting can penetrate deeper to reach plants at the bottom of the tank.
It’s important to consider how much time and effort you’re willing to put into this tank in order to keep it up.
A low tech setup will mostly just require weekly water changes and a small amount of fertilizers.
On the flipside, a high tech setup could require you to dose it with fertilizers four times a week, constantly monitor the CO2 system and trim plants several times a month, all on top of weekly water changes.
If that sounds reasonable and enjoyable to you, go for it!
Just be honest with yourself and decide what level of maintenance is going to work for you and your lifestyle.
Not everyone is prepared to spend that kind of time and effort on their tank, and that’s totally fine! The whole point of this is basically to make you happy, so go with that.
Going low tech limits the plant species you have to choose from, but you can still have a gorgeous tank without a whole lot of extra effort.
Let’s face it, not all budgets are created equal.
Fancy, high maintenance, delicate or rare plants simply cost more than the hardy, run-of-the-mill plants that you can grow anywhere.
And the equipment—like high power lights and pressurized CO2— is much, much more expensive for high tech setups than for low tech ones.
Research prices so you have an idea what you’re getting into. And don’t just consider the cost to buy things, but also the cost to use them long term. For example, how much does it cost for gas refills for a CO2 system or how much electricity will your lights draw?
Again, be realistic about how these costs will fit into your lifestyle. If you’re on a budget, consider going with a 20 or 30 gallon. You can have gorgeous plantings in tanks these sizes without having to break the bank.
And you’ll have plenty of room for some smaller fish.
Type of Plants
The type of plants you keep in your tank will dictate what kind of equipment you’ll need in order to keep everything alive and growing.
Tough, hardy plants need little to no additional equipment and fairly basic lighting in order to thrive.
But, super finicky plants might need powerful lights, a constant source of supplemental CO2 and a powerhead to keep water flowing over them 24/7.
Most reputable plant sellers will provide a basic information sheet for each plant species and cultivar that lets you know what light levels they’ll need, whether they’ll need CO2 and how hardy or delicate they are.
Make sure you’ve got the right setup for a particular species before you bring it home. It’s no fun to spend money on plants just to have them all die.
Type of Livestock
The kind of fish that you keep in your tank can really have an impact on what kinds of plants you can keep.
If you just have a bunch of little nano fish and shrimp, you can have pretty much any kind of plants you want.
But, if you’ve got a tank full of large cichlids, you’ll only be able to keep super tough plants you can anchor to driftwood and rocks, like Java fern and anubias, and even those might get eaten up by a particularly difficult fish.
I had a female green severum who was pretty much the most evil and murderous creature I’ve ever run across. She would eat any plant, no matter how big or tough, she would chew it down to nothing within 24 hours.
Another thing to think about in regards to livestock and plants is temperature. Just like different species of fish, plant species have specific temperature requirements.
It’s especially important to cross reference ideal temperatures if you plan on keeping fish species that like it hot, like Discus or Bettas.
These fish prefer temps in the low 80s, WAY too hot for many species of aquarium plant.
So, again, research is key. Find out what kinds of plants can be kept with the kinds of fish you want.
I know I keep repeating myself about research, but it really is that important. Make sure to do research so you know if the plants and fish you want are compatible.
To CO2 or Not to CO2? That is the Question
Quite literally, it’s a question you need to ask yourself.
Injecting CO2 into your tank water can yield amazing plant growth at a speed that otherwise would be impossible.
But, the price for all that rapid growth is that you’ve added on another layer of things you now have to monitor and maintain. This all ties back into the question about maintenance level: how much extra time, money and effort are you willing to pour into this endeavor?
And, there’s a whole new learning curve when it comes to optimal CO2 levels, setting up and maintaining the equipment, monitoring the canisters of gas, etc.
Bottom line, if you’re OK with expending some labor and additional money, adding CO2 can really give your plants a boost.
But, if you want plants, but don’t want a high maintenance setup, skip the CO2, and go with hardy plants that don’t require it.
Decide on Lighting
Lighting is essential to any planted tank. Poor lighting will severely limit your ability to grow live plants.
But, don’t think that you have to race out and buy the most intense lights that you can find.
If you’re wanting a low maintenance/low tech setup, you don’t need the super fanciest light that makes it look like you have a constant solar flare going off in your living room.
Here’s a general guide for the different intensities of aquarium lights:
- PAR range: 20-30 μmol·s-1
- Good for: hardy, slow growing plants.
- Java fern
- Brazilian pennywort
- African water fern
- Some cryptocorynes
- Algae level: low. Keeping the lighting low in a tank will greatly decrease the amount of algae you have to deal with. You may still have to clear away some algae from slow growing leaves, but growth should stay be curbed enough that it’s simple to control.
- Maintenance level: easy. If you know in your heart of hearts that you just don’t have a huge amount of time, money and energy to put into your tank, but you still want beautiful live plants, go with a low tech setup and save yourself the hassle. There are SO many different kinds of anubias, Java fern and low light crypts, that you can make a beautiful tank without a huge effort.
- PAR range: 50-60 μmol·s-1
- Good for: medium growth rate plants.
- Amazon swords
- Dwarf water lettuce
- Micro swords
- Most cryptocorynes
- Java moss
- Flame moss
- Algae level: without proper aquarium maintenance, algae blooms can be a problem. It’s best to put your lights on a timer for better control.
- Maintenance level: medium. To maintain an aquarium with medium lighting, you will need to do weekly water changes, fertilize and trim plants occasionally. You don’t absolutely have to add CO2, but it will increase your plant growth and help keep algae at bay.
- PAR range: >90 μmol·s-1
- Goodfor: fast growing/delicate plants. High lighting will produce much more vibrant colors for red plants and will allow dense, dense growth.
- Dwarf baby tears
- Jungle val
- Monte carlo
- Rotala wallichii
- Rotala macrandra
- Scarlet temple
- Algae level: high lighting can cause algae to explode. You absolutely will need to be on top of algae control or else you will have a HUGE mess on your hands. You will absolutely need to put your lights on a timer to prevent overexposure.
- Maintenance level: hard. You will need to be on point with water changes, fertilization, added CO2, algae control, trimming, etc. I only recommend high lighting for the truly committed aquarist.
For some in depth information and real world reviews about some great aquarium lights, see our article here.
Choose Your Substrate
After lighting, substrate is the next most important consideration when you’re building a tank.
I cannot stress this enough, thoroughly research what kind of substrate you want before you put anything in the aquarium!!
The substrate will be the literal foundation of the tank. It’s one of the first things that you install when you’re setting up and it can have an enormous impact on your water parameters.
It is possible to change out the substrate on a tank, but it is a huge inconvenience and a whole lot of work.
Making a huge shift like that can upend your water chemistry, cause ammonia spikes and highly disrupt plant growth. Not to mention, changing out the substrate can require hours of backbreaking work.
Therefore, it’s much better to put in the right substrate from the beginning.
Here’s a basic overview of the different kinds of aquarium substrates:
- Made from small, smooth, inert rocks.
- Does not change water chemistry.
- Has limited nutritional value, especially when it’s first installed. But, over time, small amounts of fish waste can become trapped in the gravel, providing plants with a food source.
- Easiest substrate to clean. Just use a gravel vacuum to press deeply into the gravel in open areas during water changes.
- Can’t support heavy root feeding plants without supplementary fertilizers in the water column.
- A good choice for a low tech setup.
Baked clay substrate
- Very similar to old school, non-clumping kitty litter.
- A good choice for both high and low tech setups.
- Formed from clay that has been pressed together and exposed to high temperatures until it becomes hard, irregular pieces of gravel.
- It will continuously absorb nutrients out of the water.
- Good for the life of the aquarium, no need to tear down the tank every few years, it will replenish itself from the water column.
- Not a good choice for fish species with delicate barbels, like loaches or corydoras catfish. The rough surface of the clay pieces can wear away these important appendages.
- Installing this substrate is tricky and kind of a pain. It’s impossible to rinse the clay gravel clean; it will just keep disintegrating and pouring out more and more dust. The trick is to divide the bag into thirds, give each portion several rinses and then place it in the tank. When you fill the tank with water, make sure the water does not disturb the substrate AT ALL or else it will kick up huge clouds of dust and turn the tank into a giant tub of mud. Just let the water gently seep in until the tank is about half full. You can increase the flow from there, just make sure it flows gently.
- Most aquarium sands are inert, although aragonite sand can leach calcium and carbonate into your water column.
- Does not provide nutrients to plants, but trapped fish wastes can break down and feed plants somewhat.
- Better choice for low tech setups.
- More difficult to clean than gravel or baked clay substrates.
- Gives the tank a natural look that many find appealing.
- Can be used to cap (cover) other substrates, like aquarium soil, so the substrate has a nutrient rich layer, but has the look of sand on the surface.
- Similar to terrestrial potting soil, but pressed into a form that keeps it from breaking down into mud in the tank, at least, for a few years that is.
- Has to be replaced every few years when it runs out of nutrients. The whole tank has to be broken down in order to get the old substrate out and put in a fresh batch. And then another cycle of ammonia spikes and pH drops has to be dealt with for weeks.
- Best used in a high tech setup with heavy root-feeding plants.
- I don’t recommend aquarium soil for beginners!
- Most will drastically change the water chemistry for the first month after being installed. Many will drop the pH and cause a substantial ammonia spike.
- You will have to wait to add livestock until the substrate has leached out its ammonia.
- Rich in organics and produces phenomenal growth for root feeding plants.
- Very soft texture that is similar to the natural environment of many bottom feeding fish.
- Looks fairly natural in the tank.
- Installing can be tricky. It’s best to lay the soil down and slowly seep water into the tank.
Choose Your Hardscape
Your hardscape is made up of durable elements you add to your tank, like rocks, driftwood or decor.
There are so many options, combinations and possibilities out there that it’s impossible to go over them all, so I’ll just mention a few practical considerations.
- Driftwood can release tannins into the water. This can lower your pH slightly and dye the water, making it look like a weak cup of tea. Boil or soak driftwood to remove excess tannins. And you can also add activated carbon to your filter to remove tannins.
- You can use rocks you find in nature, just be sure to sanitize them (see link below).
- If you already struggle with hard water, make sure to only use inert rocks. Rocks containing calcium can leach further minerals into the water column. You can test rocks for calcium with an aquarium nitrate test kit. There are two bottles with the liquid test kit, the one labeled “bottle 1” contains hydrochloric acid. Put a few drops on the rock. If it foams, it has calcium and will slowly add water hardness. If there is no fizzing, it’s an inert rock.
- After you buy pieces of hardscape, put them in the tank without water so you can try out different combinations and placements. I even recommend snapping pictures as you go along so you can reference them for making your final decision.
- Watch out for sharp edges. Run your hands over the edges of rocks and decor. Don’t put anything in the tank that can cut a fish’s fins. You can try to file or sand sharp edges, depending on the material, but you may just want to use a different piece of rock or decor if you can’t easily smooth them out.
Do not boil or bake rocks. Pockets of air inside the rock can expand and blow the rock apart, possibly causing property damage or injury. For steps on cleaning and sanitizing aquarium rocks and decor safely, check our article here.
Decide on Filtration
The filter is arguably the most important part of your aquarium. It detoxifies the harmful byproducts from rotting fish waste.
Without a filter, a fish tank cannot function properly.
You don’t need to buy a specific kind of filter just because you want to add plants to your tank. You can have plants and use the biggest, most powerful canister filter on the market.
Or just use a simple sponge filter that gently bubbles in the corner of the tank.
As long as there’s some water circulation, the plants could care less.
So go with a filter that’s appropriate for the size and stocking level of your tank.
Starting Your Planted Tank Build
Once you’ve done all your research, and bought all your stuff, you can get to the super fun part, building your tank.
- Add your hardscape –
It might seem counterintuitive, but it’s actually best to build your hardscape before you add the substrate, especially if you’re going to be using large rocks. If you place your rocks on top of your substrate, you risk the substrate shifting and destabilizing rock piles. Place your heavy pieces on the bottom of the tank and then fill in substrate around them. If you’re using a lot of really heavy rocks, you might want to consider placing a sheet of plastic egg crate on the bottom glass before you stack your rocks. It will help to more evenly distribute the weight of the rocks.
- Add your substrate –
Thoroughly rinse your substrate and place it around your hardscape.
- Partially fill –
Begin filling your tank with water, add just enough water so that the water line is several inches above the substrate. Take this part very slowly so that you don’t kick up a bunch of debris from the substrate, especially if you used a baked clay or aquarium soil substrate.
- Place plants –
Begin placing your plants in the substrate. The low water line will give you plenty of room to work.
- Finish filling tank –
Slowly finish filling your tank with water. Keep the water flow slow enough so that you don’t uproot everything you just planted.
- Start up equipment –
You can now plug in things like heaters and filters, and place your lids and lights on the tank.
- Start your cycle –
Once you’ve got the tank together, you can start to cycle your tank to establish your filter bed and eventually add fish.
For more information on cycling your aquarium, see our in-depth article here.
Creating a planted aquarium is such a rewarding experience. There are endless possibilities with all the different substrates, lights, hardscapes and plant species.
I can’t emphasize enough, do lots and lots of research beforehand so you know what you’re getting yourself into. There are lots of resources available that can help you have a successful planted aquarium.
For myself, I like easy to take care of, low tech setups. I like to be able to run everything basically on auto-pilot.
But, it’s your tank, you can make it as elaborate as you want.
I hope you find this article helpful.
I wish you and your fish the very best!