How To Set Up a Planted Aquarium

How To Set Up a Planted Aquarium

What Are the Benefits of a Planted Aquarium?

Planted aquariums not only look great, but can also be a fantastic stepping stone for beginners entering the world of keeping aquariums. 

Setting up a planted aquarium tank can teach you all of the basics of keeping aquarium fish and building exciting and exotic underwater worlds in your own home. 

What Do I Need to Set Up My Planted Aquarium?

For a beginner planted aquarium, you should purchase the following items to set up your aquarium:

Substrate: A suitable and good quality substrate is one of the most important purchases for successfully setting up your planted aquarium. 

Why do aquariums need a substrate? Substrate is the loose material that layers the bottom of your tank. Aquarium plants need a substrate protect their roots and allow them to settle and grow. However, not all substrates are created equal!

Pebbles and gravel are some of the largest substrate options, often made from river rock or even coloured plastics. While they can provide a decorative and coloured look to your aquarium, they’re not a good choice for your plants. A substrate made from layered pebbles or gravel usually means large gaps, which are not ideal for your plants to take root.

Sand is an option for substrate as it’s very easy to keep clean and it also provides a natural environment in your aquarium. Sand creates very small gaps between grains, providing a great layer for your plants to readily take root.

Another popular substrate option for live aquarium plants is aquarium soil. Specially formulated to avoid creating muddy and cloudy water, aquarium soil has also been designed to provide the nutrients for your aquarium plants. For a beginner, a substrate made of aquarium soil is preferred, it provides an ideal environment for plants to take root, and aquarium-specific soil (the only kind you should be using), will help boost the nutrients your plants receive. 

Substrate depth of 7-8cm is ideal, providing a deep enough layer for your aquarium plants to thoroughly take root and flourish. 

Lighting: Lighting is very important for your healthy planted tank as it supports photosynthesis in plants. However, it’s important to keep the balance of light correct - too much light will likely do little more than promote the growth of algae. A good rule of thumb for light strength is 1.5 Watts per 4.5 litres of aquarium water. 

Always use fluorescent lights in your planted aquarium and never incandescent globes. 

The amount of light your plants receive per day is often referred to as the “photoperiod”. It should very depending on your set up. Initially, for the first few weeks, the photoperiod should only be approximately 6 hours per day. Once your planted tank has been established for a few weeks, you can extend the photoperiod to between 8 and 9 hours per day. Ideally, you should equip your aquarium lights with a timer, as it’s important to keep your daily photoperiod around the same time each day. This can help prevent algae growth and can help your plants keep a regular routine, just like in nature

Filter: A good filter that can provide a flow rate of 10-15 times the total tank volume per hour is essential for optimal tank health. The output of the filter - which flows back into your tank should be allowed to flow unrestricted, providing good circulation, preventing stagnant areas and evenly distributing nutrients throughout your aquarium. 

If available, canister filters are highly recommended for your planted aquariums, as they are known to provide fantastic circulation and filtering while not getting clogged, which can have a negative effect on flow and circulation within your planted aquarium. 

Fertiliser: Fertiliser can be added once every one to two weeks to help boost essential nutrients. Aquarium plant fertilisers are available in both liquid and substrate formulas. Using a substrate fertiliser allows you to dose less frequently. Whichever fertiliser you choose to use, it should only contain micronutrients. 

While fertiliser can help and support your plants in absorbing essential nutrients, it is far more important to establish appropriate levels of light and pH. Without these, your plants will be unable to absorb the nutrients they need to grow and flourish including absorbing essentials from any added fertiliser. 

Maintenance Accessories: There are a wide range of accessories and tools you can use to make your planted aquarium maintenance easier! 

A good starting point for your maintenance kit can include:

  • 3 in 1 Aquarium Cleaning Brush
  • Aquarium Tongs
  • Plant Anchors
  • Deep Reach Algae Scrub
  • Gravel Vacuum
  • Aquarium Test Kits

What Key Nutrients Are Essential for Live Aquarium Plants?

Calcium: Calcium in your planted tank is needed only in limited amounts (20-30ppm) to prevent stress on your plants. If calcium levels are allowed to remain too high, the phosphorous levels of your plants can be affected, leading to numerous health problems with your plants. 

New leaves will be the first to show signs of a calcium deficiency, with symptoms ranging from small new leaf growth, leaves cupping or sudden bends or twisting of the leaves. Plant roots may appear stubby and twisted, with the tips eventually dying. 

Copper: While copper behaves as an enzyme activator, excessive levels of copper can inhibit the root growth of your plants.

Dead leaf tips or withered edges can indicate signs of a copper deficiency in your aquarium. 

Iron: Iron is a key nutrient for photosynthesis and the formation of chlorophyll molecules. An iron deficiency can cause yellowing of your aquarium plants and stress which can eventually kill your plants.

New leaves are the first to show signs of an iron deficiency, with small growth and leaves may appear to be turning yellow or showing yellow patches. Fast growing plants are commonly the first affected.

Nitrogen: Nitrogen is an essential macronutrient which supports protein, amino acids and DNA, as well as supporting nutrient intake for your plants. A nitrogen deficiency can cause stunted growth in your aquarium plants.

Old leaves and plants will be among the first affected, with the entire plant eventually turning yellow-green. Older leaves will be more affected by the change to yellow than young leaves, however they will not typically die unless the nitrogen deficiency is severe and left untreated. 

pH: pH, the ‘weight of hydrogen’, is the amount of hydrogen and hydroxyl ions dissolved in your tank water. A pH of ‘7’ is a neutral pH - the ions are equally balanced. A pH lower than 7 is acidic and pH higher than 7 is basic. Most commonly, a pH range between 6.8-7.0 is ideal for most plants and fish. If possible, achieving a neutral pH level of 7.0 is optimal, as this allows flexibility when introducing new plants or fish. 

Phosphorus: Phosphorus, with nitrogen, are incredibly important for your aquatic plants. Phosphorus allows your plants to store and transport energy, allowing them to grow and flourish. A phosphorus deficiency can cause stunted growth in plants. 

Old plants and leaves will be the first to show signs of Phosphorus deficiency, with discolouration of dark green or even purple, building up over time. For some plant species, the only sign will be your plant staying small with premature leaf drop-off. 

Potassium: Potassium supports your plants by allowing them to break down carbohydrates, producing the protein needed to grow seeds and fruit.

Old leaves will be the first to show signs of deficiency, showing small dead areas which may start as small as a pinhead but will grow. New leaves will be smaller than expected and may turn yellow before dying. 

Zinc: Zinc is an enzyme activator, essential for the growth of leaves. Excessive zinc, however, can be a risk to your aquatic plants and can result in yellowed areas between nerves, typically starting at the leaf tips and edges. 

Old leaves will be the first afflicted by a zinc deficiency, with yellow areas between the nerves, starting on the leaf tips and edges. 

How Do I Set Up A Planted Aquarium?

Once you’ve chosen your tank and tank size, substrate, filter and lights, you can get to work starting your planted aquarium!

Placing your aquarium in the right spot from the beginning is key, away from a direct source of sun, windows and air conditioners or heaters. 

The next step is placing your substrate. Prior to adding it to your tank, check carefully to see if your chosen substrate requires rinsing. If it does, rinse it thoroughly until the water runs clear. Once completely rinsed, place a layer of 7-8cm on the bottom of your tank. Your substrate doesn’t need to perfectly even - you can create peaks and decorative levels. 

Once you are happy with your substrate, it’s time to fill your aquarium with water. You can treat your tap water with a water conditioner to help establish ideal conditions, removing chlorine and neutralising chloramines. 

You can then add your lights or lighting system (including timer), ensuring you have provided enough light for your plants.

You can set up your chosen filter and start it running. At this point, once everything is working, you can begin adding your plants! While you can add most plants in any arrangement you like, if you plan to add fish, you may want to add your tall plants at the back of your tank and your shorter plants at the front, leaving plenty of hiding spots at the back and plenty of free swimming space throughout the middle of your tank. 

To successfully add your plants, gently place them in your tank and ensure the roots are fully submerged in your substrate. This will allow the plants to properly take root and continue growing.Plant anchors can be used to wrap around live aquarium plants, securing them from damage. For a beginner, it may be a good idea to select common and easy to grow plants. These include Amazon Swords or Anubias Nana, which have less difficult lighting and care requirements. 

Before adding fish, it’s important to let your tank and filter cycle for two weeks. This will help your parameters establish, something that your aquarium plants will help greatly. 

Maintaining Your Planted Aquarium

Regular water changes will help maintain the health of your tank. If you plan to add fish, you should perform a weekly water change. If you plan to only have aquarium plants, you can afford to do water changes less frequently. The water you add each water change will need to be treated with a water conditioner prior to adding it to your tank.

Depending on your choice of substrate, you should also use a gravel vacuum to clean out any waste material and other hidden nasties in the substrate. Extra care will need to be taken around your plants, ensuring you don’t disrupt their root structures. 

Water change time is a great time to check your aquarium parameters using a test kit. Regular testing allows you to see what’s going wrong - or right! - with your tank, and can help provide guidance on when to add plant fertiliser. 

Your aquarium plants may need some extra care - if plants outgrow the water level, you will need to prune them using aquarium scissors, so that they don‘t decompose. Certain species of aquarium plants can grow surprisingly quickly (and tall!) - so depending on your plant choices, you may need to prune regularly. 


With the basics covered above, you should be well on your way to establishing and maintaining a successful planted aquarium.

Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can experiment with more exotic plants, add fish, and even work on bigger tanks. Try not to get discouraged if things go wrong at first - with the right equipment on hand and ability to test and maintain, you’ll be on your way to planted aquarium success in no time!

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