How to Set Up a Planted Aquarium: Complete Guide for Beginners

how to set up a planted aquarium
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Last Updated: September 9, 2023 by Flora Gibbins

If you’ve ever been mesmerized by those lush, underwater gardens you see on social media or in public aquariums, you’re in the right place. I’ve spent years dabbling in the art of aquascaping, and I’m here to share my insights on starting your very own planted tank.

Whether you’re dreaming big or starting small, this comprehensive guide will lead you through the intricacies—from selecting substrates to nurturing fish and aquatic plants in harmony.

Why a Planted Tank?

So, why opt for a planted tank instead of a standard fish-only setup? Trust me, once you go planted, you never go back. A well-curated planted aquarium is more than just pleasing to the eye; it’s a slice of nature right in your living room.

These underwater gardens mimic natural aquatic ecosystems, making your fish happier and healthier. Plus, live plants aid in water filtration and provide essential hiding spots for your finned friends. The end result is a balanced, vibrant community that’s as fascinating to observe as it is rewarding to create.

How to Start a Planted Tank: The Steps

Ready to dive in? Setting up a planted tank is an intricate ballet of elements—water, light, flora, and fauna—each requiring its own set of steps. Let’s journey through these layers, unraveling the complexities and discovering the joys of building your underwater utopia, one detail at a time.

Step 1: Planning & Constraints

Before diving into the alluring waters of aquascaping, let’s hit pause and get our bearings. Trust me, this step saves you a lot of heartache down the line. Here’s where you envision what you want your aquatic Eden to look like, while keeping some earthly constraints in mind.

Spatial Considerations

First off, how much room do you have? This isn’t just about tank size; it’s also about where you’ll place it. Ensure you have a sturdy, level surface that can bear the weight of a fully-loaded planted aquarium.

Budgetary Constraints

Ah, the eternal question—what can you afford? Between lighting, filters, aquatic plants, and potentially even livestock, costs can stack up. Prioritize based on what your dream tank looks like and what is essential for its inhabitants’ well-being.


Here’s where it gets intricate. Plants have preferences for light, substrate, and water chemistry. If you’re planning to introduce fish or other critters, you’ll need to choose plants that coexist well with them.

Low-Tech vs High-Tech

A quick note—planted tanks in general can be high-tech with advanced lighting and CO2 systems, or low-tecg, relying on natural light and simpler setups. Your choice here impacts every other decision you’ll make, from equipment to plant species.

And there we have it—your first step towards a thriving planted tank. By wrestling with these considerations upfront, you lay a solid foundation for the complex, beautiful ecosystem you’re about to build.

Step 2: Assemble the Tools & Equipment

Alright, you’ve mapped out your vision and wrestled with the constraints. Now comes the exciting part—gathering all the gadgets and gizmos that’ll bring your planted tank to life. This is the craftsman’s stage; your tools define your art.

Basic Aquarium Gear

You’ll obviously need a tank, but don’t forget the other essentials like a stand or cabinet, a hood, and a thermometer. These foundational items are like the canvas and frame for an artist.

Lighting Systems

Light is the lifeblood of your aquatic plants. The type of lighting system you choose is determined by your plant choices and whether you’re going for a high-tech or low-tech setup. LED lights are often a versatile choice.

Filtration Systems

A good filtration system does more than just keep the water clean; it helps circulate water, ensuring that nutrients reach every leaf and root. Canister filters are popular, but sponge filters may suffice for low-tech tanks.

CO2 Systems (Optional)

If you’re going the high-tech route, a CO2 system is almost a must. Aquarium plants thrive when they have ample carbon dioxide, but remember, this adds another layer of complexity and cost.

Water Conditioners and Test Kits

Regardless of your tech level, you’ll need water conditioners to remove chlorine and other harmful chemicals. Test kits for pH, ammonia, and other water parameters are non-negotiable; they’re your toolbox for water chemistry.

Planting Tools

Finally, get your hands on some aquascaping tools. Tweezers for planting, scissors for pruning, and perhaps even a gravel vacuum for substrate maintenance. Think of these as your paintbrushes in this aquatic art form.

Step 3: Choosing the Substrate

When I first ventured into the world of planted tanks, I’ll admit, I didn’t give much thought to the substrate. But I quickly realized, you can’t build a house without a proper foundation, right? In much the same way, your substrate serves as the indispensable base layer for your aquatic haven, a cornerstone for plant growth and biological filtration.

Types of Substrates

You’ve got options, from gravel and sand to specialized aqua soil. Trust me, it’s more than just “dirt.” Each type has its own set of pros and cons. I’ve had success with aqua soil, especially when I’ve aimed for lush plant growth, but it does require a keen eye on water chemistry.

Nutrient Considerations

If you’re leaning towards something less nutrient-rich like sand or gravel, you might want to look into root tabs or a nutrient base layer. From my experience, providing essential nutrients can make a world of difference in plant health.

Aesthetic Choices

Don’t overlook the aesthetic side; your substrate’s color and texture will set the tone for your entire tank. I personally love darker substrates; they make the greens and reds in plants really stand out, not to mention the vibrant hues of fish.

Substrate Depth

This took me some trial and error to get right. You want enough substrate to securely anchor your aquarium plants, but not so much that it causes problems like anaerobic pockets. A 2- to 3-inch depth has been my sweet spot.

Compatibility Check

Here’s a pro tip: Make sure your substrate gels well with the kind of fish or critters you plan to keep. I once had a sand substrate that my Corydoras absolutely loved sifting through.

Step 4: Install Lighting & Filtration Systems

We’re stepping into the technical arena now. Your choice of lighting and filtration systems can significantly affect both plant health and water quality. I’ve learned that cutting corners here is a gamble you don’t want to take.

Lighting Systems

  • Type of Light: Whether it’s LEDs, fluorescents, or specialized plant growth lights, each type has its advantages and disadvantages. I’ve found LEDs to be efficient and versatile, but your mileage may vary based on your specific needs.
  • Light Intensity & Duration: This can be a tricky one. Too much light can lead to algae blooms; too little can stunt plant growth. I’ve experimented with timers to provide a consistent day-night cycle, and it’s done wonders for my aquatic plants and fish alike.
  • Installation: You’d think this is straightforward, but even the angle at which light hits your plants can matter. I recommend adjustable mounts or brackets to tweak your setup as needed.

Filtration Systems

  • Types of Filters: From hang-on-back to canister filters, each type has its niche. For my larger, more complex planted tanks, I swear by canister filters. They’re powerful and customizable but do require a bit more of an investment.
  • Flow Rate: The rate at which water circulates through your tank is critical. Too strong a flow can uproot plants and stress out fish, while too weak can result in dead spots. Finding the sweet spot took some tweaking, but it’s essential for a balanced ecosystem.
  • Media Choices: Don’t underestimate the importance of filter media. Biological, mechanical, and chemical media each play a role in water quality. Over the years, I’ve found that a blend works best for my setups.

Step 5: Pick Your Aquarium Plants

Ah, the pièce de résistance! Selecting the plants is, for me, the most joyous part of setting up a tank. It’s akin to picking the colors for a painting. But be warned: not all plant species are created equal, and some are downright divas.

Beginner-Friendly Aquarium Plants

If you’re new to this, some plants are far more forgiving than others. Anubias and Java Fern are almost bulletproof, making them excellent choices for those still testing the waters. I started with these and they never let me down.

Advanced Aquarium Plants

For those with a bit more experience or ambition, the world is your underwater oyster. Think about more challenging plants like Dwarf Hairgrass or Red Tiger Lotus. They demand more but reward you with stunning visual appeal. I’ve kept these in high-tech setups with incredible results.

Placement & Function

Your live plants serve both aesthetic and practical functions. Some plant species are excellent background pieces, while others work well as a carpet. My personal hack? Use tall plants to hide unsightly equipment!


Not to sound like a broken record, but make sure your plant choices are compatible with your fish and other critters. The last thing you want is for your beautifully planted backdrop to become an all-you-can-eat salad bar.

Purchase & Quarantine

From experience, I can tell you it’s a good idea to buy plants from reputable sources and to quarantine them before introducing them to your main setup. This minimizes the risk of introducing pests or diseases.

Step 6: Assess Water Chemistry

Water chemistry can sound daunting, but it’s essential for a thriving planted tank. I used to dread this part, thinking it was too scientific for an amateur like me. But let me assure you, a basic grasp can go a long way, and you get the hang of it surprisingly quickly.

pH Levels

A pH between 6 and 7.5 is generally safe for most freshwater plants and fish. But be aware: different plant and fish species have specific pH needs. I had a hard time with certain delicate plants until I got my pH just right.

Hardness & Alkalinity

Hardness and alkalinity are all about mineral content, affecting both plant health and fish comfort. Initially, I struggled to find the right balance, but testing kits and conditioners helped me fine-tune my water parameters.

Nutrient Levels

Plants need various nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Too little and they starve; too much and you risk too much algae growth. I’ve used specialized fertilizers to address specific deficiencies in my tanks.

Ammonia, Nitrites, and Nitrates

Pay close attention to these, as they directly impact fish health. An initial cycle to establish beneficial bacteria is critical. In my first planted fish tank, I skipped this step, and it was a disaster.

Test Kits & Monitors

Do invest in quality water test kits. I’ve also seen folks use electronic monitors for real-time tracking. While not essential, they do offer an added layer of control and peace of mind.

Step 7: Execute the Planting

Finally, we’re at the step where our aquatic canvas starts to take on color and form. I still remember the first plant I ever put into the substrate; it felt like setting a cornerstone for an underwater empire. However, the actual planting requires precision and attention to detail.

Prepping the Plants

Before diving in—literally—it’s a good idea to prep your live plants. Remove any dead leaves, trim the roots if needed, and soak them in a water conditioner. In my earlier days, I skipped this step and learned the hard way when I had to uproot half-dead plants later.

Tools of the Trade

Invest in some decent aquascaping tools. Long tweezers and curved scissors have made my life infinitely easier when it comes to planting and maintenance. They offer the control you don’t get with clumsy, improvised tools.

The Art of Planting

Start from the back and work your way forward to create depth and perspective. I find it best to plant the taller species in the background and shorter ones up front. Also, don’t jam your plants too deep or too shallow; the roots should be well-covered but not buried.

Recheck and Adjust

Once all the plants are in, take a step back and assess. You’ll likely find a few spots that need tweaking. Trust your gut here; if something looks off, it probably is.

Initial Watering

I know this sounds strange in an aquatic setting, but your newly planted greenery will appreciate a good misting to help them adjust. It’s a little trick I picked up that’s served me well.

Initial watering refers to the practice of gently misting newly planted aquatic plants with a spray bottle filled with dechlorinated water. This step is done before the aquarium is fully filled and helps keep the plants hydrated, eases their transition to a submerged state, and allows for easier adjustments in their placement.

Step 8: Add Water and Cycle the Tank

You might think adding water to a fish tank is straightforward, but doing it correctly sets the stage for a thriving aquatic ecosystem. In my early days, I thought water was just water—how wrong I was! And cycling the tank? It’s like the prologue that sets the tone for the entire narrative.

Adding Water


I use a plastic bag or a small plate to disperse the water flow, minimizing disturbance to the substrate and plants. Trust me, the last thing you want is to uproot everything you’ve just planted.


Water conditioners to remove chlorine and chloramines are not optional; they’re essential. I learned this the hard way when I lost a few plants and fish in my initial planted aquariums.


Matching the water temperature to your tank’s future inhabitants can save you from many headaches later. I usually aim for a range that satisfies both the plant and fish species in my planted aquarium.

Cycling the Tank

What Does  Cycling the Tank Mean?

Simply put, cycling is the process of establishing beneficial bacteria that will help break down fish waste. You’re essentially setting up the tank’s bio-filter.


You can cycle a tank using fish food, a hardy ‘starter’ fish, or bottled bacteria. My go-to method has been to use bottled bacteria for a quicker and more reliable result.


You’ll need to regularly test the water for ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates. When the levels stabilize, your tank is cycled and ready for its inhabitants.


Cycling takes time. For me, the average has been around 4-6 weeks, though your experience may vary. Although there’s a way to cycle a tank in 24 hours, if you’re not the patient type.

Completing this step means you’re almost at the finish line. Don’t underestimate the importance of water quality and a well-cycled tank. It’s a fascinating mix of chemistry, patience, and anticipation. And, like everything else in this hobby, it adds an intricate layer of perplexity and burstiness to the overall experience.

The Low-Tech Alternative

I get it, not everyone wants to delve into the world of high-tech planted aquariums with intricate lighting, CO2 injection systems, and specialized filters. For those who prefer a simpler approach, the low-tech planted tank is an appealing option. I’ve dabbled in low-tech tanks myself and found them to be wonderfully rewarding, albeit with a different set of challenges and rewards.


In a low-tech tank, you can often rely on ambient lighting or less intensive LED lights. I’ve successfully used simple desk lamps in some setups. Just be mindful of algae growth, which can become a problem if you’re not careful.


Nutrient-rich substrates become more important in low-tech setups since you’re not adding CO2 or using high-end fertilizers. I usually opt for organic soil capped with gravel.

Plant Choices

Not all plant species require intense lighting and CO2 to thrive. In my low-tech tanks, I’ve had great success with Anubias, Java Moss, and even some Cryptocoryne species.


A basic sponge filter is often sufficient for low-tech setups. These filters are great for biological filtration and are generally quieter and less energy-intensive.

CO2 and Fertilization

In a low-tech environment, you’re relying more on the natural processes within the tank to supply CO2 and nutrients. This usually means slower plant growth, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a more “set it and forget it” style of tank management, which I’ve found to be quite relaxing.

Low-tech doesn’t mean low-effort or low-reward; it’s just a different approach to creating a thriving underwater world. It’s simpler, but that doesn’t make it any less complex or nuanced. Indeed, the low-tech route offers its own brand of perplexity and burstiness, inviting you to master a different set of skills and challenges.

Choosing and Caring for Aquatic Life

So, you’ve got your live plants in, your tank cycled, and everything is looking pristine. It’s easy to think the hard part is over, but choosing the right aquatic life and caring for it properly is an art form unto itself. Believe me, I’ve had my share of trial and error, and each new creature is a lesson in biology, behavior, and environmental synergy.

Fish Species

Community or Species Tank?

freshwater community fish

First, decide if you’re going for a community tank with a mix of species or focusing on a single type. In my community tanks, I’ve found that tetras and rasboras coexist nicely with a variety of plants.

Temperament and Size

Consider the temperament and adult size of the fish. I once put a Betta fish in my planted aquarium not realizing it would terrorize my slower-moving species.



Snails are great for algae control but be cautious; some species can overrun your tank. I like Nerite snails; they’re efficient cleaners and won’t reproduce in freshwater.

nerite snail


Freshwater shrimp like Cherry and Amano shrimp are fascinating to watch and beneficial for plant health. Just remember that they can become snacks for larger fish species!

female cherry shrimp in aquarium

Compatibility with Plants

Certain fish and invertebrates go well with live plants, benefiting each other in a symbiotic relationship. My planted tanks with corydoras catfish have always been vibrant because they help aerate the substrate.

Feeding and Nutrition

Proper nutrition is key. I’ve found that a varied diet, including both flake food and occasional live or frozen treats, keeps my aquatic pets happy and healthy.

Regular Check-Ups

Keep an eye out for any signs of illness or stress. I’ve learned to spot early warning signs like color changes or erratic behavior.

Maintaining Your Planted Aquarium

Ah, you’ve made it this far—your tank is up, your plants are flourishing, and your fish are swimming happily. But the journey doesn’t end here; in fact, it never really ends. Maintaining a planted tank is like nurturing a garden that’s constantly evolving. Over the years, I’ve discovered a rhythmic dance of upkeep that brings me closer to this mini-ecosystem I’ve created.

Routine Check-ups and Observations

It might sound a bit obsessive, but I like to spend a few minutes each day simply observing my tank. It’s not just enjoyable; it’s also essential for spotting early signs of trouble, whether that’s a sick fish, dying plants, or the dreaded algae bloom.

Water Quality

Trust me when I say, don’t skip your water tests. Monitoring the pH, hardness, and nutrient levels regularly can prevent a lot of problems down the line. I’ve had my share of mishaps when I got a bit too relaxed with my water testing schedule.

Water Changes

A 10-20% water change every week or two keeps things fresh. I use this opportunity to vacuum the substrate a bit, especially in areas where detritus accumulates.

Plant Trimming and Replanting

Just like a terrestrial garden, a planted tank requires pruning. Some of my stem plants grow like wildfire and need regular trimming. Don’t toss those trimmings; they can be replanted or shared with other aquarists.

Algae Control

Algae is the bane of many an aquarist’s life. I’ve fought battles against green hair algae and won, but it took a multi-pronged approach involving light control, nutrient balance, and algae-eating fish and non-fish critters.

Equipment Maintenance

Filters, pumps, and lights need love, too. I make it a habit to check and clean my equipment monthly. A well-maintained filter not only performs better but lasts longer.

Maintaining your planted aquarium is a labor of love, a series of intertwined tasks that are as rewarding as they are challenging. There’s something immensely satisfying about solving a problem or making an improvement and seeing the positive impact ripple through your aquatic community. And as you get to know your tank, the tasks develop their own ebb and flow—a mix of routine and improvisation.

Troubleshooting and Common Pitfalls

Plant Health Woes

Yellow or Brown Leaves

One of the first signs that something’s off? Discolored leaves. This could be due to nutrient deficiencies or less-than-ideal water parameters. I remember scrambling to identify the cause in one of my first tanks, only to find out I’d neglected my iron supplement.

Melting Plants

If your aquatic plants are “melting,” it could be an adjustment period, especially for newly planted specimens. But sometimes it’s more serious, like inadequate lighting or CO2.

Fish and Invertebrate Concerns

Unexplained Deaths

Finding a dead fish or shrimp is disheartening. It could be age, but often it’s water quality. Always test your water parameters if this happens.

Aggression or Stress

Seeing my fish chase each other around used to amuse me, until I realized it was a sign of stress or territorial disputes. Rearranging your tank decor can sometimes alleviate this.

Algae Outbreaks

These can be incredibly frustrating. Light imbalance, nutrient excess, or lack of water movement—each could be a culprit. I’ve had to strip down a tank completely to eliminate a particularly stubborn algae type before.

Equipment Failures

Leaking or Breakage

A leak can be disastrous. Regularly inspect your tank and equipment for any signs of wear and tear.

Electrical Issues

A malfunctioning heater or filter can wreak havoc. Always have a backup, especially if you’re going away for an extended period.

Navigating these pitfalls requires a mix of scientific reasoning, keen observation, and sometimes, a bit of luck. Troubleshooting becomes more intuitive over time as you become attuned to the intricate dynamics of your tank. You’ll find that each problem not only has its own unique set of solutions but also adds layers of complexity and variability.

FAQs on Planted Aquariums

What size tank do I need for a planted aquarium?

Size matters, but not as much as you might think. Even a small 5-gallon tank can host a stunning mini-aquascape. That said, larger tanks provide more room for error and creative expression. I started with a 20-gallon, and it was forgiving for a beginner like me.

Can I use tap water in my planted aquarium?

You can, but it may need to be treated to remove chlorine or chloramines, which are harmful to both fish and beneficial bacteria. Some plants may also be sensitive to the mineral content in tap water. Personally, I always test and condition my tap water before introducing it to the tank.

Can I just add plants to an existing aquarium and call it a planted aquarium?

Technically, adding live plants to your aquarium means you have an aquarium with plants in it. However, calling it a “planted aquarium” generally implies a more systematic approach focused on creating an aquatic environment where the plants are not just decorative but integral to the tank’s ecology.

In a true planted aquarium, you plan for the plants: you consider lighting, substrate, fertilizers, and CO2 levels to optimize plant health. You think about plant compatibility and arrangement, planning layouts like you would a garden. You’re not just adding plants as an afterthought or decoration; you’re crafting an environment where plants and aquatic life coexist in a balanced ecosystem.

Do planted aquariums need CO2?

CO2 can help your plants grow more robustly, but it’s not strictly necessary for all types. I’ve run tanks both with and without CO2 injection and had success in each.

What’s the ideal temperature for a planted aquarium?

The ideal temperature largely depends on the plants and fish you have. Most tropical plants prefer temperatures between 72-78°F. I use a reliable heater to maintain a consistent temperature.

How often should I fertilize?

Fertilization schedules can vary widely depending on your plants’ needs. Slow-growing plants might need less frequent fertilization, while fast-growers might require weekly or even daily doses. I find it’s best to start slow and adjust as you observe your plants’ responses.

Can I add fish right after planting?

Patience, young Padawan! Your tank needs to cycle to establish beneficial bacteria, which can take up to 6 weeks. Adding fish too early can lead to spikes in ammonia and nitrites, which are harmful to fish.

Glass vs acrylic tanks: Which is better?

Ah, the age-old debate. Glass tanks are generally cheaper and more scratch-resistant, but they’re heavier and can be more susceptible to breaking. Acrylic tanks are lighter and offer more shape versatility, but they scratch more easily. Personally, I lean towards glass for its clarity and durability, but if weight or a unique shape is a major concern for you, acrylic might be the way to go.

Embarking on an Aquatic Odyssey: Your Final Dive

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! You’re not just dabbling your toes in the water anymore; you’re ready to take the plunge into the captivating world of planted tanks. Over the years, I’ve found that each tank I’ve set up has been a microcosm of life itself—filled with ups and downs, challenges and triumphs, perplexities and bursts of sheer joy.

Don’t be daunted by the intricacies or occasional setbacks. They’re all a part of the rich tapestry of this rewarding hobby. And remember, each twist and turn in your journey adds to the depth of your experience, inviting both the highs of accomplishment and the lows of troubleshooting to coexist in a vibrant aquatic dance.

So go on, start sketching out your dream tank, pick up that first bag of substrate, or finally introduce that shoal of neon tetras you’ve been eyeing. Your planted aquarium awaits, and I can’t wait to hear about the incredible ecosystem you’re about to create. Dive in, and let your underwater adventure begin!

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