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How to Start and Maintain a Low-Tech Planted Tank (Guide)

get 5 secrets to thriving plants

I’ve had a low-tech aquarium for a long time before I pulled the trigger on more expensive equipment. I sometimes catch myself thinking about switching back because there are so many benefits. Let’s dive into all that low tech planted tanks have to offer.

To successfully set up and maintain a low-tech planted tank, you need the right plants, substrate and lighting. Choose easy plants such as java fern, cryptocoryne or anubias that thrive in low light. Invest in nutritious soil or use root tabs as fertilization. The light should not be too bright.

A low-tech tank can save you a lot of money, but only if you know where to cut expenses. If you’re not careful you’ll end up killing plants and collecting algae. Therefore I make it my mission to provide you with everything you need to know to not only start but to maintain a low-tech planted aquarium for many years. Let’s get to it!

Aquarium plants that do well in low-tech situations

I’m not going to make you wait and read on for ages, that’s not what this site is about. Picking the right plants is what it is all about and you’re going to want to try sticking to plants on the following list:

  1. Java Fern
  2. Java Moss
  3. Anubias
  4. Cryptocoryne
  5. Echinodorus
  6. Vallisneria
  7. Hygrophila Polysperma
  8. Moss balls

For you right now it’s not relevant to dive into all the the details for each plant, but I will cover the basics. If you end up choosing any of these plants, you can always find more information in my article “15 Easy Aquarium Plants For Absolute Beginners“. Do not be offended by the word beginner, because it’s just a fact that plants with low requirements are also suitable for beginner aquarium keepers.

All the plants on the list above have something in common: they do well in low light situations and do not require additional CO2 injected in the water. The first plant, microsorum pteropus but usually called “Java Fern”, is a plant that grows slow and therefore does not require a lot of nutrients. This also goes for Anubias, Cryptocoryne and in fact most other plants on the list. From experience I would appoint cryptocoryne as my favorite low-tech plants. Let me tell you why.

There are many different varieties of Cryptocoryne plants. Cryptocoryne (or crypt for short) is the name of the genus to which many varieties belong. All these varieties, of which most are readily available at a local fish store, do well in low-tech tanks. They use their roots to obtain nutrients, but we’ll dive into fertilization ways in a minute. There’re tall crypts such as the Cryptocoryne wendtii but also short crypts that are more suitable for a foreground of a tank. The shortest crypt variety is the C. Parva.

Something else you should know is that both Java Ferns and Anubias plants don’t rely on their roots for nutrients. Do not bury the roots in substrate, instead tie the whole plant to a piece of wood or a rock. They suck their food straight from the water.

If you’re going to buy plants in the store, always tell them that you’re buying them for a low-tech tank. The very first time I went to the store for my new tropical tank I bought plants that needed bright lights and plenty of CO2. Needless to say that these plants did not make it. If you want to avoid disappointment (as much as possible) do your own research, ask experienced people and don’t blindly trust the store employees, they do not always know everything.

The right fertilization for low-tech planted tanks

Too many sources on the internet claim that plants can survive on the nutrients produced by fish. While fish do produce some nutrients that plants can use, it’s not enough. Therefore, you need to add more fertilization to your tank. There are several ways to do this, and just a few can be considered “low-tech”.

The best option is to buy aquarium soil that contains nutrients. These planted tank soils are amazing for low-tech aquariums because you do not have to add liquid fertilizer for your plants. Aquarium soil requires the least amount of effort over time, but it has a major downside: that stuff is expensive!! If you want to go for aquarium soil and want to support my site, you can buy it through Amazon with my affiliate link, but I would first read the other options if I were you.

The option I would go for is adding root tabs as your fertilization. Root tabs are tablets that contain all the nutrients a plant needs. You can push those tabs or sticks into the substrate as close to a plant as possible. The roots of the plants can find the root tab, which provides the plant with the nutrients it needs. I still use this method to “feed” my Crypts and my Amazon Sword (Echinodorus) because those plants are root feeders. I recommend Flourish Tabs from Seachem, they’re available on Amazon here. As you see they’re not too expensive and you only need to replace a root tab every 3 months.

If you want to know more about root feeding plants, check out my article called “7 Aquarium Plants That Are Root Feeders and Need Root Tabs“.

The final way to fertilize your plants is to use liquid fertilizer. With liquid ferts you have to add the right dosage every week or two times per week. This is more work than the aquarium soil and the root tabs, so this might not be what you want from a low-tech planted tank. Still, I find it a great way to feed your plants.

Choose the right light for a low-tech planted aquarium

It’s important to choose a set of lamps that’s not too bright. Under bright light, plants want to grow faster and therefore require more nutrients and more CO2. Nutrients isn’t the problem, but more CO2 is something that we can not provide in a low-tech setup.

Make sure to keep your lights on for between 8 and 10 hours every day. This is enough for the plants, and if you leave them on longer algae might start to grow faster.

Under less light, the plants have less requirements. While writing this I’m assuming that you’re asking if a light is necessary at all. To this question my answer is: yes. Not only does a light allow you to see and enjoy your aquarium better, it’s also necessary for plant growth. Just do not overdo it.

As long as you’re not going out buying expensive and bright LED aquarium lighting you’re fine. The beauty about a low-tank planted tank is that you can cut on the lighting expenses and use an inexpensive one or even the light that came with your aquarium.

Both fluorescent light and LED lights are fine. Put them on a timer so you don’t have to every worry about turning your lights on and off ever again. Those timers are available in most hardware stores but also here on Amazon (again, these are affiliate links so I make a small commission to keep my site online).

Low-tech tank filtration

Filtration is something that you can not completely remove from the aquarium. There are many “no filter no co2” video’s online, but I’d like to tell you why it’s unnecessary and ridiculous to take filtration out of the equation.

First of all, a filter ensures that the water is safe for your fish to live in. The bacteria that are housed primarily in your filter break down ammonia (toxic in low concentrations) all the way to nitrate, which isn’t toxic to fish in normal concentrations. While live plants do consume ammonia and therefore help removing it from the water, they’re too unreliable and you’ll end up stressing and regularly measuring your water parameters.

Besides efficiently removing ammonia, a filter provides circulation to your tank. If you want to keep your tank low-tech, chances are that you are looking into simple and affordable ways to filter a tank.

Well, the simplest way to filter a tank is through a sponge filter. A sponge filter requires air to cause a water flow and filter the tank. I would personally not choose a sponge filter for just one tank because the air pump and air bubbles make quite a bit of noise. I would personally go with a hang-on-back filter.

A hang-on-back (HOB) filter is the easiest filter to install, because you simply hang it on the back of your aquarium. They’re easy to clean and also produce surface agitation in the process. Overall, these are great options if you want to maintain that low-tech feel. While there are many different HOB filters on the market and you’ll need to do some research before buying any given model, I’d recommend one of the MarineLand models such as this one on Amazon. They’re affordable and do a great job.

A canister filter or internal filters are a bit more work and less convenient to handle and clean. That’s why I’d not recommend them if you’re going for that low-tech setup, but they’d still do a great job. It’s completely up to you.

Why low-tech planted tanks do not need CO2

It’s a common misunderstanding that “low-tech plants” do not need CO2 to grow: they do. Why is it that low-tech tank setups do not need expensive CO2 systems? Well, that’s because we pick slow growing plants that don’t require too much CO2 per day.

There’s always CO2 in an aquarium, often it’s just not enough for plants to grow. In nature, there’s way more CO2 in the water compared to in our little aquariums. Instead of going out and buying a way to add CO2 to the water, we utilize whatever CO2 is left in the water and pick plants that can deal with this. By balancing little CO2 with dim lighting and just enough nutrients, the plants will do great; just not very fast.

CO2 still enters the water of a low-tech aquarium through the water surface. Gas exchange at the surface allows CO2 to dissolve for the air to the aquarium water. Surface agitation, caused by our filter for example, improves gas exchange and allows more CO2 to enter our low-tech tank.

Maintaining a low-tech planted tank: algae and trimming

Now you’re ready to set up your very own planted tank. The size doesn’t really matter (but it’s easier to obtain a biologically balance if the tank is larger) and you can make all other choices. The next thing is to learn how to maintain a low-tech tank so you can enjoy it as much as possible.

First I’d like to warn you for algae, as you’re bound to struggle with algae at some point. In the starting phases of each aquarium, you’ll often find brown algae, green thread algae or even worse: black beard algae. Try treating any algae that you see as soon as possible and know that it’ll get better after a couple of weeks. Once your tank has had time to establish, the algae will have a harder time competing with the plants in the tank.

Besides algae you’ll have to do regular maintenance. If you’re a beginner I’d recommend doing a 30% water change every week to ensure good water quality. It’ll keep your water clean so you don’t have to stress about that. If you’ve got a bit more experience or own a water testing kit you can do a water change every other week or maybe even once a month in an established tank.

If your plants are doing well, they’ll help remove some of the waste in the aquarium water by consuming ammonia, nitrite and nitrate and converting it to leaves and new growth.

Your plants will probably be growing slowly because those plants are most suitable for a low-tech tank. This means that you don’t have to trim them as often. If you do trim your plants, be careful not to disturb them too much. Also, if you did go for an aquarium soil, you’ll quickly notice how murky your water gets when you disturb some of the soil.

For cryptocoryne and echinodorus plants it’s normal to “melt” when you first add them to the tank. This means that they’re basically going to look like they’re dying for a couple of weeks. The plants from the store are often grown emersed or outside the water. The leaves of emersed grown plants are not suitable for underwater life and will therefore die off. The energy of the old leaves is used to grow new leaves that are suitable for underwater life.