The Clear Beginner Guide to Start with Aquarium Plants

Live plants can seen daunting. Many pictures of beautiful and perfect looking aquariums may inspire you, but it can also be slightly intimidating. If you are reading this article you want to learn all about starting to keep live plants in your aquarium, awesome! Grab a coffee and relax. By the end of the article you will know enough to buy your first live plant and open up an entire new part of the hobby.

If you are looking for specific knowledge, help yourself using the table of contents. If not, allow me to guide you through everything you need to know. Let’s start with some of the benefits of growing live plants in your aquarium.

Benefits of live plants

There are many benefits of keeping live plants in your aquarium. They are beautiful, always changing, clean your aquarium water and provide shelter and hiding places for your fish. 

The first question you probably have is: “What are the benefits of live plants??” or maybe “Why would I add live plants to my aquarium?”. Well, I had this question two. And when you are reading this article, chances are that you already know the answer. There are numerous benefits that come with keeping live plants and in this section I will tell you all about it.

Live plants clean your water

Chances are that you are familiar with the nitrogen cycle in your aquarium. Fish poop ammonia, which is toxic in very low concentrations. It causes stress to your fish and could eventually kill them. Therefore, it is very important that beneficial bacteria that are housed everywhere in your aquarium (but especially in your filter) break down this ammonia into nitrite (less toxic but still pretty toxic) and finally into nitrate. 

Nitrate is not very toxic to fish up to about 50 ppm or mg/L. It needs to be removed from the aquarium water before it reaches a toxic concentration. The most common way is by doing water changes. When you remove a part of your aquarium water and replace it with fresh (treated) tap water you remove a part of the nitrate and lower the concentration. 

But there is another way to remove nitrate from your aquarium water: live plants! Nitrate is part of the nutrients that plants need to grow. Therefore, keeping live plants helps in reducing the nitrate concentration. The benefit for you is that you can do water changes less often. Instead of weekly or biweekly 25% water changes, you could for example do a water change just once per month. 

There is one risk, which happens when you think the plants do all the work and stop doing water changes. This could result in the nitrate level slowly creeping up and finally causing Old Tank Syndrome

Plants provide shelter

There are so many fish that feel much more comfortable in your aquarium when there are sufficient places for them to hide. You will notice this when you walk up to your tank and your fish quickly swim to a place to hide. This happens to shy fish, for me it’s my bristlenose pleco that quickly hides when I approach my aquarium.

Another use for live plants could be to break the line of sight. If your fish are territorial or might be constantly looking for attention of the other sex, providing something that makes sure the fish do not constantly see each other will give them great comfort. Examples of fish where this could be extra beneficial could be pea puffers, German blue rams, rainbow cribs and many more. 

Live plants add beauty to your aquarium

One of the main reasons why I am keeping live plants is because I love the way they look and love the way my tank always looks different. Seeing your plants grow is one of the most satisfying parts of the hobby (next to breeding fish). There is also a style of planted tank called “Dutch Aquarium Style” where the focus of the aquarium are the plants instead of the fish. This is a skill only few masters, but many admire.

The Live Plant Triangle

A plant needs three things to grow: CO2, Nutrients and Light. When all three are balanced, your plants will thrive. I have called this the Live Plant Triangle and created this visual for you. For the rest of the article, keep this in mind. If your plant is not doing well, it is because there is an imbalance in this triangle.

You need: Lighting for plants

Lighting is important for plants. Some need medium light while other plants need more intense lighting. You can choose LED or fluorescent light. LED is a bit more expensive but cheaper on the electricity bill. Start with 8 hours and see how your plants react. Choose a light temperature of around 6500K as this represents daylight.

When you are preparing to add live plants to your aquarium, there are a couple of things you need to consider. The first thing is light. Chances are that you already have light for your aquarium as you need it to see your fish, so it is easy to adapt to live plants. The light source could be any light, but it is recommended to choose one suitable for an aquarium or high humidity. 

Different plants have different needs concerning lighting. Some might need low light while others need high lighting. When you are a beginner, do not worry about buying expensive and high intensity lights as there are many plants suitable for medium lighting. One decision you should consider is choosing fluorescent lights or LED lighting for your aquarium. 

I reviewed a nice light for smaller tanks a while ago where I go more into depth about this subject. You can read it here if you want to!

LED vs. Fluorescent light

With the arrival of more affordable LED lighting more people start asking whether they need LED or Fluorescent lighting for their aquarium. In my opinion I would advice LED lights as they use less power compared to fluorescent light. They therefore are cheaper, and they are also more durable compared to fluorescent light. The only downside is the purchase price, as LED lighting still is more expensive. Over time it will be worth it in my opinion as one needs to replace fluorescent light every couple of years because they decrease in brightness.

Light duration per day

Whenever you start keeping aquarium plants I always recommend you start with 8 hours of light per day. And please make sure you put your lights on a timer to ensure constant hours. These timers are extremely inexpensive and save you a lot of effort. 

After you left your light on for 8 hours for about a week, you should make a decision whether it is too long, perfect or too short for your aquarium. This different for everyone which is why I could not give you one perfect answer if you asked me for it. You should watch for signs in your aquarium.

  • If brown algae starts growing, increase your light duration
  • If green algae starts growing, decrease your light duration
  • If your plants do not grow, try increasing your light duration

For the rest a lot of this is trial and error. Just start at 8 hours and experiment from there on. I myself ended on 10 hours a day, but I have heard people keeping their lights on for 12 hours as well as 6 hours a day.

Light strength

How strong your light should be depends on the plants you are growing as well as the size of your aquarium. Often an aquarium set comes with a lamp that is suitable for the size. A rule of thumb that people follow is between 4 to 8 Watts of fluorescent light per gallon (3.7 L). Personally, I would see what works for your tank and ask other people what they have for tanks similar to your aquarium.

Light temperature

It is important that the light temperature (the color of your lamp) matches daylight as close as possible. This is the optimal light temperature for plants to grow. Natural light is 6500K, so try and stay in a range from 6000K to 7000K.

You need: Substrate for plants

Recommended as a substrate is a fine sand (2 – 3 mm grain) for your plants to root in. Avoid sharp gravel as it causes injuries. Because there is no nutrients in plain sand, you can add soil for your plants to grow. An alternative is root tabs but I will tell you all about those in the fertilizer section.

While there are plants that are suitable to grow without a substrate in your aquarium, most plants need some form of substrate to anchor themselves in and take nutrients from. The substrate also serves a cleaning purpose as it collects the organic waste that falls down. There are many options when it comes to substrate. You could go for gravel, sand, dirt, or even artificial substrate with extra colors. All these options come in various sizes ranging from fine sand to big chunks of gravel. You can also add a lot of supplements to your substrate to promote plant growth or change the pH of your water. Examples are peat to lower the pH or crushed corals to increase pH. 

When it comes to plants, from experience I can say that it is tough to grow plants in large grain gravel. The plants struggle to get a grip with their roots. Instead, I would recommend going for a finer grain sand. I myself have had much success growing plants in 2 – 3 mm grained sand and would highly recommend getting some finer grained sand yourself. 

You should realize that plain sand or gravel does not hold any nutrients for your plants. There is nothing for them to “eat”, and therefore you could add a plant soil to your aquarium and top it off with a capping layer of sand. When plant your plants in the sand, the roots will be anchored in the soil. 

Cleaning your aquarium substrate is easy to do using a gravel vacuum. I have written an article about my recommended aquarium vacuum and is probably one of the best tools I have for my aquarium, especially for the price. If you do have a soil substrate disturbing it by vacuuming or removing plants will immediately make your water cloudy. This is one of the annoying things about soil, but I have found that a good filter will make it clear up rather quickly.

Fertilizing your plants

Plants need fertilizer and often fish poop is not enough. Therefore you can add liquid fertilizer for most plants or root tabs when the plants are root feeders. Do not add too much liquid fertilizer as this promotes algae growth. 

While there are many “easy beginner plants” out there, I have managed to kill quite a few of them. While it was a complete mystery why, I now know and want to teach you so you do not make the same mistake as I did. My plants were constantly dying due to a lack of nutrients. They would do well for a week after I added them, but after that they would slowly fall apart. Reason for them doing well probably was a high nitrate concentration due to my fish. After that period they would turn brown, or turn very weak, and I would scratch my head and ask myself what I was doing wrong. Turns out that I should have added fertilizers for them to do well.

There are multiple ways to add fertilizers. You can add liquid fertilizer to the water, root tabs to specific plants that need extra fertilizer or soil that contains nutrients. The way that I would recommend is using a combination of liquid fertilizer and root tabs. This has proven to be the most cost effective for me, which is something that is very important to me and possibly to you as well. Plant soil for aquariums can become rather expensive quickly.

Liquid fertilizers for plants

Some plants rely heavily on their roots to suck up nutrients. An example is an Amazon Sword plant. For those plants, adding liquid fertilizer is not as beneficial compared to plants like Java Ferns, Anubias, Moss, stem plants and other plants that are able to suck nutrients straight from the aquarium water. 

Often when you see that your plants are not doing very well, you need to consider adding liquid fertilizer. Read the dosage of the fertilizer on the package, and use this as a starting point. After adding liquid fertilizer, always keep a close look at your aquarium for the next week. 

Signs like increased green algae growth mean there is too much light, too much nutrients and too little plants. Brown algae means there is too much nutrients but not enough light. If there is no algae growing and your plants are doing well, you know the liquid fertilizer is doing its job. 

Root tabs as fertilizer

Plants like Amazon Swords, Cryptocoryne and other root feeders need a nutritious soil to thrive. As we already established, there is nothing for them in plain sand except for organic waste that falls like fish poop or dead plants. Therefore, you need to add some fertilizer as a supplement. Using root tabs is one of the cheapest options, as you can add fertilizer to just the desired places. It’s really targeted fertilization. 

Root tabs are definitely available on Amazon. If you want to order some through my site I earn a small commission. The root tabs are available in packets of 10, 40 and 80 with the price per root tab decreasing with larger quantities.

The dosage of root tabs is a bit more difficult, but I always add one for each big plant. When I notice the plant is doing worse, I add another. For me this means adding a new root tab every one or two months, but you can do as you feel is necessary. Just keep a close look at your plants and respond to things you see. If they are falling apart, they might need more nutrients.

The advantage of root tabs compared to liquid fertilizer is that root tabs do not increase algae growth as algae take their nutrients solely from the water. The advantage of root tabs over plant soil is that it is way less messy. Root tabs do not make your water cloudy when you disturb it. 

Adding CO2 or not?

Adding CO2 is an option you have and promotes plant growth. There are enough plants that do well without added CO2. Added carbon is necessary for difficult plants and when you have high lighting. You could add liquid carbon or use pressurised CO2. Liquid carbon is cheaper, but pressurised gas is better.

One of the three components of the Triangle of Plant Growth is CO2. Just like trees and other plants, the aquarium plants need CO2 to grow and produce oxygen for your fish. In nature, having enough CO2 is not a problem, as there is an enormous water surface that allows for sufficient gas exchange between air and water. In our fish tanks this is not the case, and therefore there is a permanent lack of CO2 for all your plants to grow optimally.

You do need to decide whether you want to add CO2, as plants can do fine without CO2. The main factors influencing your decision are how much light you have, what plants you want to grow, how much maintenance you want to do and how much budget you have. 

When I first started a planted tank, I did not use CO2 for two years. My plants did fine. You don’t have to use CO2 if you use medium lighting and suitable, easy plants.

When you have a high lighting for your aquarium, plants will need additional CO2 because otherwise algae will start to grow. Faster growing plants will increase the amount of maintenance you have to do. You should for example trim your plants more often. Also, there are plenty of beautiful plants that do well in tanks without added CO2, there will be a list of examples later in this article. Finally adding pressurized CO2 to your aquarium is expensive to purchase, but liquid carbon is cheaper.

Because of this reason, a lot of people in the hobby add CO2 to the aquarium water. There are several ways to increase CO2. 

Liquid carbon

You could add carbon in a liquid form. People call it liquid CO2, but in fact it’s more like carbon in a form plants can absorb from the water. It has been around for a long time and does work. It is easy to dose especially for smaller aquariums. Make sure to add it daily just before your lights turn on. The carbon is not absorbed as well as with pressurized CO2 in gas form. 

Pressurized CO2

The second way is to use pressurised CO2. While expensive to purchase, make sure you buy the best pressure regulator you can afford. If you buy a good one, it can definitely last you a lifetime. As adding CO2 is a complicated subject, I will only cover the bare essentials here. If you want to use pressurised CO2, make sure you use a solenoid valve to shut off CO2 supply at night. Also, do not run an airstone that produces bubbles when you are adding CO2 to the water. The reason for this is because of the increased surface agitation the CO2 will rapidly leave the aquarium water and you will be wasting money.

When you are a beginner I would recommend that you do not add additional CO2 to your aquarium, and first try to grow easy plants so you learn all about them first. And as a side effect, you will also appreciate CO2 better whenever you decide to add it to your tank. 🙂

Plant placement

Designing your aquarium is often referred to as aquascaping. While aquascaping often also involves the use of rocks and driftwood, the placement of your aquarium plants is very important. Different plants have different purposes and different needs. Some plants need high lighting while other prefer more shade/lower lighting. It is important to know how big a plant will grow, as you do not want to place large plants in front of smaller plants.

Background plants

Really tall plants are often referred to as background plants. Examples could be Amazon Swords, Vallisneria, Java fern, large crypts and tall stem plants like water weeds or cabomba. Using these plants in a creative way, you could use them to hide filter intakes, powerheads, heaters or other technology. It is important to do your research before buying plants. A good example is from my personal experience, where I got small cryptocoryne plants from a friend. I loved their red leaves so I placed them in front of my aquarium. Over time I realised that they would not stop growing anytime soon and I had to move them to the background.

Midground plants

These subheadings do not need as much explanation. Plants like medium sized crypts or anubias plants could be used as midground plants. They are tall enough to be seen but do not outgrow the tall background plants.

Foreground plants + Carpet plants

Plants that stay small are suitable as foreground plants or even carpet plants. While it is tough to grow a carpet without additional CO2 and high lighting, one could for example use java foss as a carpet. 

Combining the different plants and planning your aquarium will allow you to create beautiful aquariums where all plants come to into its own. I took this example from internet which shows how plants combined with wood and rocks can create beautiful aquariums. Keep in mind its complex to create such an aquarium so let it serve as inspiration. 🙂

Preparing your plants

When you buy plants, they often come with their roots in glass wool. Try and remove all the glass wool without damaging the roots too much. This can be a challenge. If there are tiny rests of glass wool you are fine to let those be, just remove as much as possible. 

Stem plants are often kept together with a piece of lead. Other plants can be weighed down using lead as well. Remove the lead as you do not want this in your water. 

Next, make sure you always rinse your plants with water before adding them. Doing this will reduce the chance of pest snails or snail eggs making their way into your aquarium. You should know that pest snails are not bad for your tank, but they can be a sore to the eye. 

Whenever you are buying plants you should check if you can split the plant into multiple smaller plants. Sometimes the plants are combined into one, but you basically bought 5 plants for the price of one. I prefer to not do this whenever I bought stem plants as just one stem looks rather lonely. 

Trimming your plants

When you have live plants in your aquarium, (hopefully) you will be spending some time every once in a while trimming your plants. I say hopefully, because this means they are doing well. Different plants have different ways of trimming. Stem plants are the easiest, you just cut these and they continue to grow. Other plants like Amazon Swords grow new leaves on the inside of the plant, so you can remove the outside leaves. There are plants that grow shoots from the mail plant and can get too dense. If this is the case, can remove some of the new shoots. 

When you are trimming your plants, think twice before you are going to throw away your cuttings. Why? Because of propagation!

Propagation

Many plants are easy to propagate in your aquarium. This is super awesome, as you can start with one plant that you bought or received as a gift from someone else and you can grow the plant in your aquarium to a point where you can propagate it and spread around your aquarium. Stem plants are especially easy to propagate, because you can simply push the cuttings back into the soil and they will start to grow and create roots again. 

Dealing with algae

Algae is the most common problem in the aquarium hobby. When you have algae, look for the cause and fix it. After that, remove all the algae in your aquarium by hand. This can be tedious work. Algae eaters like otocinclus can assist you in battling algae.

Algae is arguably the most common problem in all aquariums. Everyone struggles with algae at some point, and it is especially prominent in recently started aquariums. The reason for algae almost always is an imbalance in your aquarium. This concerns lighting and nutrients. When there is too much light, algae will grow. When there are too many nutrients in the water, algae will grow. When the CO2 levels are fluctuating, algae will grow. 

Algae can be so annoying! I personally have had to deal with brown algae, which often means there are too many nutrients in the water and not enough light. Green algae, such as string algae, often means too much light. At the time of writing this post I am trying to get rid of black beard algae, which most likely is caused by fluctuation in CO2 levels and a lack of water flow. 

Whenever you are experiencing algae in your aquarium, make sure you find the source of the problem. Measure your water parameters to see if there is a surplus or deficiency in nutrients. Try and figure out whether you have too much or too little light, and whether you have enough plants to consume all the nutrients that you have in the aquarium water. Have you considered cleaning your filter? When there is a lot of stuff sucked up by your filter it does not mean that the waste is out of your water. It can be that your nitrate level is extremely high due to waste in your filter. As a guideline, clean your filter once per month.

When you found the source, deal with it. If you can not find the problem, contact me and I will help you. When you tackled the problem, you need to remove the algae that is already in your aquarium by hand. This can be tedious work, especially when the algae is on all your plants, glass, ornaments, substrate etc. 

Consider adding algae eaters. Good algae eaters are otocinclus, bristlenose plecos, nerite snails and possible other invertebrates such as shrimp and other snails. These animals are part of your clean-up crew and reduce algae and uneaten food in your aquarium. However, do not assume you do not need to feed them. They can not survive on waste alone, so therefore add some wafers regularly. I go over this more in my article talking about what fish eat poop.

Dealing with snails

Unwanted snails enter your aquarium through live plants you bought. Either the snails or snail eggs are stuck to the leaves. They are harmless and a sudden snail population increase can mean you are overfeeding. To remove them, lure them with food or add snail eating fish or assassin snails.

Whenever you start with live plants you should know in advance that at some point you are going to see snails in your aquarium and think “Whereeee did they come from??”. Well I will tell you right now, these tiny snails got smuggled into your aquarium via the live plants that you have added. The snails, or eggs from snails, were stuck to the plants when you added them.

As soon as you see your first snail you have to make a decision: do I mind? If the answer is yes, I do not want these tiny snails in my aquarium, take the snail out immediately and start looking for more. If you do not mind, you can leave the snail be. It will multiply like crazy in no time. 

There are more ways of dealing with a snail infestation. There is an article on this site that will teach you everything. Maybe not relevant for now, but just so you know. 🙂

Should you mind? No, I don’t think so. They are not harmful to your plants, fish or tank. Even better, they help you clean your aquarium as they eat organic waste that falls on the bottom of your tank. Examples are uneaten food or dead plant leaves. 

You should see a sudden increase in snails as a sign you are overfeeding. When you are feeding modest amounts that your fish are eating, there is little left for the snails. If you are overfeeding, snails have food for days and can thrive and reproduce. Whenever this seems to be the case, reduce your feeding amount. Overfeeding can also cause an ammonia spike in your aquarium, potentially killing your fish.

Solutions to removing snails is luring them using a snail trap or using lettuce and cucumber. Another solution is to use assassin snails, which are beautiful snails that hunt and eat other snails. You can also eat snail eating fish like yoyo loaches or pea puffers. When adding new fish you should be able to care for them in the long term, and they should also fit within the current stocking of your aquarium. 

In theory you could also use chemicals to kill the snails, but please do not do this as it is not necessary and can also stress your fish and kill other invertebrates. 

Good beginner plants to choose

There are several good beginner plants you could choose from. While this is also depending on what plants your local fish store has in stock, I have a couple of names for you that are suitable to start with. In my list of easy beginner plants that do not use CO2 I go over all these plants in more detail. Here is the list:

  1. Java Fern
  2. Anubias
  3. Java Moss
  4. Cryptocoryne
  5. Amazon Swords

Java Fern

Java ferns are the most popular plants in the aquarium hobby. They are lush green and grow well in low/medium light. Due to their popularity they are widely available, so chances are that the plant is available at your local fish store. What you should know about this plant is that you can not bury the roots of the plants in the substrate. It does best when you tie the plant to a piece of wood or rocks. To do this, use some fishing line or superglue. 

Anubias

Anubias is a beautiful plant and arguably my favourite aquarium plant. It’s dark green sturdy thick leaves are beautiful. It’s a slow growing plant and needs low to medium light. The roots of this plant also should not be buried in the soil and you should use superglue to glue the rhizome (base of the plant) to a piece of driftwood or rocks. 

This plant also produces flowers just like the one shown in the picture below. 

Java Moss

Moss is extremely versatile. Many people use it for aquascaping, as you can make this plant grow on wood, rocks, substrate or let it drift freely. I would recommend taking some fishing line and tie some of the moss to a piece of driftwood. When it starts to grow, it will slowly cover the fishing line and also attach itself to the wood. 

Moss provides great shelter for shrimp and fish fry. This is also the reason why a lot of people have it in their tank. Using moss, you are able to allow fish fry to remain in the same aquarium as their parents as it decreases the risk of the fry being eaten.

Cryptocoryne

There are sooo many different cryptocoryne varieties. They differ in leaf shape, color and size. This is perfect as there is a variety for each occasion. Some varieties are more common than others, but as it is a popular plant your local fish store probably has a couple of crypts in stock. 

What you should know about this plant is that it melts when just planted. This means that it looks like its dying and eventually will look completely dead. The plant does this because often they are grown in air, and the plants need to shed all the air leaves and replace them with leaves suitable for underwater. Do not panic, this is normal. Do not throw them out, that would be a shame.

Amazon Swords

The last one on this list is the Amazon Sword plant. It is an echinodorus plant that is really common in the hobby. They are perfect background plants and grow quite tall and also quite wide. This plant is a heavy root feeder and therefore needs additional root tabs to do well. 

If you want to trim this plant, you can remove outside leaves as new growth emerges from the inside. This is recommended when growing too tall.

References:
Feature image – Author: The Wandering Angel Some rights reserved and edited
Dutch aquarium style image – Author: Shay Fertig Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported no changes
Aquarium image 1 – Author: Pete Brown Licensed by CC2.0 Cropped
Aquarium image 2– Author: Local River Licensed under: CC3.0 No changes made
Aquarium image 3– Author: Duc Viet Bui Licensed under: CC4.0 No changes made

Bart Sprenkels

I have been keeping multiple aquariums since I was 18 years old. Just like many of you, I started with two goldfish but quickly learned they were not suitable for aquariums. Later, I switched to a tropical community tank and I also have two pet musk-turtles in a bigger aquarium. You can read more about me here.

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