How should a freshwater aquarium with living plants be set up?

I’m compiling my knowledge into this guide after more than three years of involvement in this activity. Although I also hope that seasoned hobbyists will find some pleasure in it, it is prepared with beginners in mind.

Every tank is unique is the first aquarium keeping guideline. Even while there are general guidelines we may and should adhere to, each tank will have some unique characteristics. This is appropriate because each planted tank contains a little ecosystem of its own.

freshwater aquarium with living plants

This manual isn’t intended to be all-inclusive. I’ll only be writing about what has always worked the best for me. This guide’s goal is to assist you build up a lovely planted tank for as little money as possible, as the title of the article suggests.

A planted tank needs the following elements to be effective:

  • TANK

Now let’s take a closer look at each element.


According to my view, you should always choose the largest tank that will fit in your house. Any tank smaller than 20 gallons should not be used by a beginner. Smaller tanks hold less water, making maintenance considerably more difficult. Less stability results from less water. You’ll have to labour more and run the danger of fish deaths and/or algae explosions when there is less stability.

Tank size, in addition to volume, are a key factor for planted tanks. Basically, you want tanks that are deep and have a low height. Greater depth allows you to construct a nicer aquascape, while lower height means your plants will receive more light.

I advise the basic 20-gallon, the 40-breeder, and the standard 75-gallon tanks, which are the most widely accessible tank sizes. For the aforementioned reasons, avoid tanks that are too high and thin.


In contrast to fish-only aquariums, your plants act as the primary filter in a planted tank. They purify the water in two ways: first, by immediately absorbing the fish waste; and second, by offering vast surfaces for the colonisation of good bacteria.

The water movement is where a mechanical filter really shines. The majority of aquatic plants take up nutrients through their leaves, and for this to happen, the water needs to be moving well. The dimensions and size of the tank determine how much water must be moved.

A single HOB (rated or somewhat over-rated for its size) is adequate for a 20-gallon tank. You might want to think about a canister filter for larger tanks. Otherwise, I would advise placing 2 HOB filters on either end of a tank the length, or 1 HOB filter and 1 power-head, again on opposing ends, for tanks like the 75-gallon.

The medium used for filters is not crucial. Simply use the cartridge that came with your HOB if you use one. The cartridge doesn’t even need to be changed; simply rinse it in a pail of tank water to get rid of the filth. Once your plants are flourishing, you can rinse the cartridge under running water without suffering any negative consequences. You may also take out the cartridge and put some water-loving house plants there instead, such dracaena (lucky bamboo) or pothos.


The science of substrates and aquatic plants is far too complicated to explain in this book, so I’ll just share what I’ve found to be effective.

First off, if you are a beginner, you probably imagine those lovely coloured pebbles. Unfortunately, despite how attractive they are on their own, they do not truly complement the organic appearance of a planted tank. If you want a planted tank that looks attractive, I advise against using coloured gravel.

In fact, you should completely avoid using gravel in a planted tank. Although it can work, gravel doesn’t give your plants any nutrients, so it isn’t as efficient as a substrate that is specifically designed with plants in mind. I suggest the following alternatives instead:

  • Fluorite
  • Netlea Plant Soil or ADA
  • Sand-covered mineralized topsoil

Option #1 is the ideal option if you don’t want additional labour or to spend a lot of money. When compared to alternative materials, fluorite is reasonably priced and simple to deal with.

Option #2 is suitable if you don’t want additional work but are willing to invest the additional money. Although Netlea is cheaper, ADA is said to be of higher quality. Both will benefit plants far more than fluorite.

Option #3 is the least expensive and most flexible choice, but you must read on and be ready to put in extra effort.

Mineralized topsoil (MTS) is soil from which the majority of the organic material has been leached away. This is crucial since an aquarium’s highly organic substrate might generate an algal bloom or, even worse, poisonous gas emissions. MTS virtually eliminates the risk of toxic gases while maintaining all of the essential minerals that plants require. It also significantly reduces the likelihood of an algae bloom.

MTS is made by regularly soaking regular backyard soil in water and then allowing it to air dry. As a result, you can only do this when the weather is still warm. You must first choose the right container. Since the former will dry out faster, wide and shallow boxes are preferable over high and narrow buckets. I recycled using a blue box.

You then remove some soil from your yard. Try your neighbor’s yard if you don’t have one.:)

Buy the least expensive garden soil you can locate if neither of those options is available. (Be sure it is dirt and not some strange soil substitute item.) The dirt should be free of any pebbles, twigs, roots, etc. before being placed in the container. You’ll need enough of it to cover your tank’s bottom in a 1/2″ layer.

Fill the container with water until it completely submerges the dirt. After a day of soaking, drain as much water as you can. Wait for the dirt to totally dry up while leaving the container in the sun. Repeat the process while adding more water once the soil has completely dried. Repeat this cycle until the soil is grey and brittle when dry, then stop. It usually takes 6 to 8 cycles.

MTS must be covered with a 3″ or thicker layer of sand. Sand is preferable to gravel since it is friendlier to bottom dwellers like cories and shrimps, yet gravel can also be used. Black sand is wonderful for highlighting the colours of shrimp, but white or tan sand seems more natural.

Your finest selections for black sand will be fluorite black sand or tahitian moon sand. Sand for gardening and pool filters are further choices. Avoid using any sand that contains calcium, such as aragonite. For planted tanks, no sand designed for saltwater or cichlids should be used. While most aquatic plants prefer softer water, these sands will make your water harder. Avoid using playsand since it is quite silty and can dirty your water if you don’t wash it very completely. If you come across a sort of sand that isn’t listed here, please sure to investigate it well before utilising it. Some sands may include substances that shouldn’t be used in aquariums.


This post won’t go into detail about lighting for planted tanks because it is a very complicated topic. Instead, choose a dual-bulb T5HO fixture to save time and money and to obtain the best value. This light will be sufficient to grow the majority of plants, unless you have chosen a particularly high tank (remember what I mentioned about tank dimensions?).

The length of your tank determines the size of the T5HO fixture. A 48″ fixture is required for a typical 75-gallon tank. If your tank is cubic, you could need two of these fixtures to provide sufficient lighting.

Make sure you pair your T5HO fixture with 6500K bulbs. However, 10,000K lights are less efficient. Actinic bulbs should not be used in planted tanks.

LED lights are more common these days. Compared to fluorescent lights, they look sleeker and more attractive and consume less electricity. The drawback is that choosing the proper light is more challenging, and the majority of LED lights advertised as planted aquarium lights will be fairly pricey. You should do some study if you decide to use LED lights, and you should!


I’ll presumptively assume that you have chosen the optimum position for the tank and that it is supported by a sturdy stand.

The substrate should be shaped in the tank such that it is taller in the back and lower in the front when you add it. As a result, the tank appears deeper. To improve the aquascape, you may also add rocks to the substrate, but be careful to use the proper kind of rocks. Rocks containing metal veins and limestone can kill insects as well as harden water. River rocks should usually be safe.

Tall plants go in the back, and short plants go in the front, according to the fundamental guideline of aquascaping a planted tank. The final, mature size of the plant should be taken into account rather than the current size when deciding whether a plant is tall or short. Vallisneria are excellent additions to aquascapes. It fills a tank on its own without your help, is simple to cultivate, and looks stunning in dense clusters.

Do not fill your tank entirely at once to make planting easier. First, only partially fill it with two inches of water or less above the substrate. Only after you’ve finished planting should you fill the tank. When you initially fill up your tank, the water will probably be murky or even hazy. That’s typical. Simply turn on your filter and wait a few days for your tank to settle. At most a few days should pass before your tank clears.

You can cycle your tank in just a few days if you have filter media from established tanks (also known as “seeded media”). By far, this is the finest choice. You have two choices if you are just unable to receive seeded media for whatever reason. Initially, you can cycle the tank without any fish by adding fish food or even just pure ammonia. The tank should complete its cycle in two months. A test kit is required to confirm that your tank has been cycled. In a typical cycle, you should first observe ammonia, then a spike in nitrite as ammonia falls to zero, and ultimately a fall in both ammonia and nitrite to zero as nitrate rises. Ammonia 0, nitrite 0, and nitrate > 5 ppm are reached.


A planted tank has the benefit of not requiring a lot of care. A balanced, healthy planted tank does not require water changes, but it does require topping off evaporating water. Be aware that I’m not suggesting that you can continue for years without changing a single drop of water. You can probably get away with only replacing a bucket or two every few months, though.

Additionally, there is no requirement to vacuum gravel. Gravel sweeping a planted tank would really cause more damage than good. Since it’s all plant nourishment, you actually want the filth to go into your substrate.

Finally, you won’t have to be concerned about unintentional feeding in a planted tank. Plant-filled tanks are steady enough to absorb any brief ammonia rise, unless your tank is less than 10 gallons or you fill it to the brim with food.

Additionally a wonderful little addition to any tank with a sand substrate are Malaysia Trumpet Snails. During the day, they tunnel beneath the sand, essentially turning it over for you. This prevents anoxic zones from growing as a result of sand compacting and ensures that large waste particles are buried.


To thrive, plants require three things: light, nutrition, and CO2. Additionally, if those three variables are out of balance, algae will take over and harm plants.

The following types of algae have ever been present in any of my freshwater planted tanks:

  • Algae with green hairs
  • Black beard algae
  • Green water
  • Algae with a green spot

The simplest way to get rid of green hair algae is to introduce some algae eaters and maintain a healthy mix of CO2, light, and nutrients. Siamese Algae Eaters, Bristlenose Plecos, and Amano Shrimps are the top algae eaters. They all enjoy green hair algae.

Getting rid of black beard algae is challenging. Only Siamese Algae Eaters have the capacity to consume those, and only a small percentage of them will do so. Balance between CO2, light, and nutrients is essential to preventing BBA from becoming unmanageable. Introduce some SAE to your tank if it is big enough to (ideally) mow down any BBA that is already there. But keep in mind that SAE can expand to a maximum of five inches. Not suggested for little tanks.

Ultimately, it is probably more efficient to just manually remove BBA. You’ll need to be aggressive, and you could even have to completely sacrifice some plants. Even worse, using this method won’t allow you to totally eliminate it. You can, however, maintain control of it.

However, if you’re fortunate, an SAE that enjoys BBA might come along. You won’t ever need to worry about BBA again after that. My SAE did this, but I never saw any BBA in that tank. In fact, the BBA would disappear over night anytime I added moss that had been covered in BBA (from another tank).

If your water is nutrient-rich, green water can be a concern. This is particularly likely to happen to dirt tanks if too much dirt was utilised. The fundamental problem (nutrients) will not be resolved by blackouts; only the symptom will be. You need plants that absorb a lot of nutrients from the water column to stop green water. Frogbits and duckweed also work well, as do plants with quick-growing stems. Using willow branches is another approach since these branches will easily develop roots in water. Simply trim some branches of their leaves and place them in your aquarium. After a few days, they will develop roots and absorb lots of nutrients.

The reason I detest green spot algae the most is that it is the only type that can only be eliminated by hand work. Although some claim that nerite snails consume green spot algae, I’ve never had any success. I eventually need to manually scrub the glass in pretty much every one of my planted tanks.

My suggestion for GSA is to scrub it more frequently because doing so will require less work overall. As it builds up, GSA becomes considerably more difficult to remove because it will calcify and harden.


The pastime of keeping plants in tanks contains a wide variety of species. Some can be very choosy when it comes to CO2 and light. The following plants have worked well for me as a novice: hornwort, java moss, vallisneria, hygrophila corymbosa, cryptocoryne wendtii, hygrophila difformis (water wisteria), hygrophila polysperma, and micranthemum micranthemoides (pearl weed).

The vallisneria is my favourite food. They thrive in low light conditions and almost self-aquascape by sending out runners and spreading across your substrate. It is lovely to watch a tank of multicoloured fish swimming over underwater grass blades in a moving stream.

The majority of hygros are simple to grow. Beautiful leaves are especially produced by water wisteria.

Another simple and quickly growing plant is pearl weed. Although it is a medium-light plant, it spreads like a weed. It will begin spreading runners on the substrate if you keep it clipped.

Last but not least, remember that occasionally a particular type of plant just won’t thrive in your tank, and typically there is no way to determine why. I’ve discovered that giving up on that plant and trying something else is simpler. It is far simpler to work with nature than against it.

Leave a Comment