Planted Freshwater Aquarium—8 Quick, Eye Popping Beginner Tips
By Jecinta Muturi @aquariawise
I love planted freshwater aquariums as much as I do fish tanks. So, I’m well aware a planted tank is only as good as the person who thought it out.
Granted you are equally bold and want to start your own planted tank, wear your big boy patient pants and a thick coat of resilience.
Planted aquariums will sure give you the pleasure of creating a garden you can watch without the annoying parts like bugs and foul weather. But they are definitely not a walk in the park.
To help you a tad bit, in this article, I’ll share 8 hacks I’ve picked up over time through failure, success and kickass insights from better-refined hobbyists.
A friendly word though, I’m still a little rough on the edges, work in progress I could say, but these hacks I will swear by. So if you are just starting out, I recommend you try each tip. Rest assured, most will push you a step closer to success.
Tip #1— There are Two Ways to Start a Planted Aquarium
When starting a planted freshwater aquarium, you can either start one that is low-light, low tech with easy plants and a basic substrate.
Or you can opt for one that is high light with a specialized substrate and CO2 injection for fast plant growth.
The first option is easy and simple to start hence perfectly beginners friendly. It also fairly failproof, meaning you can try different strategies as you gradually hone your skills.
So, before you move up to the more sophisticated planted aquarium, consider starting a basic planted environments first. Plus research as much as you can to eliminate any guesswork when you upgrade to the more intricate tank.
Tip #2 — Know Your Plants To Start Easy
Generally, aquarium plants vary in how easy they are to maintain. From those that are barely hard to start to others that’ll give you a good challenge before you figure them out.
Being a beginner, you’ll want to go for the easy plants first.
Plants that will survive a wide range of water conditions and are barely fussy about things like fertilizer, lighting, substrate, and C02.
Some easy plants most newbies can try include:
- Java fern
- Water Wisteria
- Amazon Sword
- Anubias Nana
- African water fern
Tip #3 — Think Fore, Mid and BackGround
Once you go shopping for your plants, there is a chance you will be barraged with endless options. And since we’ve already figured out the easy options part, the other thing you’ll need to figure out is the layout.
Live aquarium plants are be divided into foreground, mid-ground and background plants.
To put things into perspective, if you’ve done a little gardening, you’ll know there are ground plants mostly the runners. Then, you’ve got your shrubs and taller flowers and finally your trees and maybe plants that crawl on walls.
Well, in a planted aquarium the scenarios are eerily similar!
So lets get into the plant details concisely.
Foreground Aquarium Plants
As the name suggests, these plants are usually placed at the front of the tank because they are fairly short and won’t obscure any plants growing behind them.
Sometimes they grow fairly slow taking longer to establish than other aquatic plants.
However, they are beautiful and some like Java moss form stunning carpets albeit a little tasking to start. They usually spread outward and only grow upwards with help like in moss walls and trees.
Good foreground aquarium plants for beginners include: Java moss, dwarf baby tear, Marsilea Minuta, Marsilea Hirsute, Hemianthus Callitrichoides.
But remember to check how easy there are to grow because you don’t want trouble from the get-go.
These plants are usually taller than foreground plants and run through the middle part of a planted tank. They also spruce exposed aquarium sides.
The best types should jazz your tank without taking away valuable swimming space from your fish especially when you have active species. They should be able to move and hide within your mid ground canopy.
Also, the plants are best planted in a layout that can provide a link between the foreground and background and even conceal less desirable bottom portions of background plants.
Interestingly, some foreground plants can be attached to driftwood or rocks and used as mid-ground plants. Especially if they are slow growing stems species that are easy to maintain.
Some good mid-ground plants are Anubias, Java fern, Amazon sword, and cardinal plant.
Background plants are generally larger species, probably the biggest size that can be accommodated in most aquariums.
They create a backdrop for your tank and sometimes a place for your fish to rest or hide.
Backgrounds plants will usually grow taller than wider and compared to foregrounds, they tend to move upwards as opposed to spreading outwards.
Mostly, experienced aquarists like to use them in rear corners where they create outstanding aspects without getting clouded by the fore and mid plants.
Good options include Madagascar laceleaf, Vallisneria, Rotala Indica and onion plant.
However, these are not necessarily easy plants to grow, so again do a little digging before you start them.
Tip #4 — Familiarize Yourself With Aquarium Grow Lights
When starting a planted aquarium, you will most likely need light, but the amount will depend on the aquatic plant you choose.
From what I’ve gathered, low light plants are best for beginners. This, coupled with low care requirements and good compatibility will ensure you have a soft start to your hobby.
When accessing light intensity in aquariums, the term low light commonly refers to light that is less than 1.5 watts per gallon of fluorescent glow light, or 10 to 20 lumens per liter.
The light is just enough to see your fish and plants and is usually included in start-up tank kits.
Plus the light will only grow the hardiest of aquarium plants like Java Moss, Java Fern, Anubias species, Amazon Sword, Jungle Val, and Water Sprite.
Nevertheless, adding light to your aquarium will ensure your plants establish faster and healthier. Preferably, use medium light which is 4 to 5 watts per gallon of fluorescent light or 20 to 40 lumens per liter.
Another aspect of lighting you need to be privy to is the algae problem. To much light in the aquarium helps blue-green algae thrive.
On the flip side, very low light will encourage brown algae, especially in new tanks.
A pinch of salt if I may, the metric used to decide the light quantity designated as low, medium or high is not entirely reliable. Therefore, its also best to apply your own judgment as to what qualifies as low light.
Also, most aquarium plants need between 8 and 12 hours of light, followed by an almost equal period of darkness for them to replenish.
Tip #5 — Can You Grow Aquarium Plants Without CO2?
Every organic molecule of a living organism is carbon-based. So given this fact, CO2 does play a vital role in planted aquariums.
Aquatic plants generally use CO2 in the photosynthesis process where growth is strongly correlated to the availability.
Another advantage of CO2 dosing is that you’ll generally avoid algae. Plus your plants will be more robust, and you’ll be able to use more light in your tank.
The need for CO2 dosing in a planted aquarium is however not exactly set in stone. In fact, beginner low tech plant tanks will do fine with just the CO2 dissolving in the water from the atmosphere and from fish respiration.
But as always, there is a caveat. If you don’t add CO2 in the water and only depend on the amount dissolved in water, it’ll only enough to support plans growing under low light.
A good rule of thumb is, no need to use extra C02 unless you have three or more watt per gallon of fluorescent light. Which falls only in the low light range but not moderate and high range.
Therefore, if you need your plants to grow faster add CO2 as you increase the light input.
Even so, no aquarium is the same, they all vary depending on setup, fish load, and maintenance routines. Thus dissolved atmospheric CO2 will only be sufficient to the extent you follow best practices.
Tip #6 — What Substrate is Best for a Beginner Planted Aquarium?
The substrate provides a base for plants to root and also forms a home for healthy bacteria.
The said bacteria are important since they breakdown organic waste from fish and older plants into nutrients that are taken up by your plants.
Planted aquarium substrate can range from simple to exotic with the choice depending on the planted tanks you want to start. Plus a fair sprinkle of preference.
Certainly, the substrate options will go by a number of names, you know, because of brands and what have you. However, they can essentially be put in three main categories.
- Inert substrates: Sand, gravel, baked clay.
- DIY planted tank substrate: Turface, pool filter sand, black diamond blasting soil.
- Commercial aqua soil.
The best and economically viable options to use in a first time planted tanks would be either inert or DIY planted tank substrates.
Inert substrates are mostly derived from rock minerals or hard baked clay so they last a long time and breakdown slowly. Hence are the easiest planted aquarium substrates to manage and replanting and reshaping is much simpler.
Unfortunately, most inert options don’t have enough nutrients and require occasional fertilizing.So much so that when you upgrade to a high tech plant aquarium or start growing high light plants, you may have to change to aquasoil. Which although risk altering your water parameters, have superior nutritional aspects ideal for growing plants.
DIY planted tank substrates are virtually an option for hobbyists who want the superior qualities of aquasoil but are unwilling to pay the high price.
Generally, garden tops soil is used to base a coarse layer of an inert substrate to prevent the stirring up of the soil layer in most DIY substrates.
One last thing to note about your substrate choice is, in almost all freshwater aquariums gravel is the go-to option. Sand and blasting soil substrates are more common in marine tanks.
Plus sand substrates contain a huge amount of silica hence are very likely to support brown algae growth.
Tip #7 — Do You Need a Filter for a Planted Aquarium?
Whether you’ll need a filter in your planted aquarium will depend. There are successful filterless tanks, so a filter is not an absolute must.
However, if you are going to have fish in your aquarium together with the plants, a filter is absolutely necessary.
Plants and substrates will be good filters in plants only tanks considering this environment don’t have a lot of debris and chemical waste like fish tanks.
As a supplement, added rocks and other decors will do a good at cleaning the tank although at a lesser scale.
So, if you are going to start a filterless tank, focus on plants and maybe only add shrimp or other low maintenance inverts like freshwater crabs.
That said, you will need a filter or air pump for water circulation especially if you are going to dose and fertilize your plants. Because the supplements need to rich all your plants.
Also, filters will keep your water clean in a way plants cant.
Tip #8 — Some Fish are Not Good for Planted Aquariums
It takes a lot of effort to establish a planted aquarium, hence you don’t want one wrong fish putting down your effort.
While most algae eating fish are good for your tank, some fish species will notoriously feed on live plants instead.
For instance, silver dollar fish will descend on your plants and in a couple of weeks completely obliterate plants in the tank.
Thus it’s paramount to research a fish feeding habits before adding it to your planted aquarium. It’s also imperative to point out that many beginner hobbyists fall into this trap.
Apart from feeding, other species like Oscars have a tendency to redecorate by moving things around and digging the substrate hence may destroy delicate plant roots.
Some fish species to avoid when starting your first planted freshwater aquarium include:
- Silver dollars
- Tiger Barbs- Though not always
- Oscars -This species and corydoras might dig-out delicate plant roots
- Apple snails
If you already have some of this species in your tank, establish hardy plants that will withstand the shock. Which include java fern, Anubias, any of the mosses, Amazon sword and Cryptocoryne.
Enjoy Your Planted Aquarium.