Setting up a Planted Aquarium

(Unedited version)
Originally appeared in the September 2008 issue of
Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine

This month we're going back to the beginning and look at setting up a planted aquarium from the start. I decided my 50 gallon living room tank really had gone past the point of little fixes and decided to totally strip it down and use it as the example this month. Sometimes you start with a brand new aquarium, sometimes you may start with a used tank or you might have an aquarium that you want to re do, but the basics are the same. Also you may notice that different aquarists do some things differently, sometimes radically differently. There is a wide range of high to low tech options. What kind of aquarium that will fit with your life and your desires is something you will have to research and make your own personal decision on. In this set up I'm using a middle of the road approach, with a moderately high level of florescent lighting, a specialty substrate, and yeast based CO2.

In addition to the type of planted aquarium you'd like to set up you will also have to consider both the size of the tank and where you're going to put it. Large aquariums have advantages in the number of plants and fish you can keep in them and they are less prone to fluctuations that can cause problems. However they are larger, take more space, and can be more expensive. Smaller aquariums, including nano tanks are quite popular right now. These take less space, are usually less expensive to set up and, if you're using RO, or other specialty waters can be easier to make water changes. They are more susceptible to fluctuations in temperature, and chemical make up of your water, if something goes wrong it can happen much faster in a smaller aquarium. You will also need lighting designed for a planted aquarium. There are many lights available now that are specifically for aquarium plants or if you're handy and do your research you can build your own light fixtures.

Once you've chosen the type and size of aquarium you want and the location, you'll want to have some idea as to what you want your tank to look like. You may have very clear ideas about the design and type of plants you want to use, or you may just have some general ideas. Some people like to draw out plans of what they want the aquarium to look like before hand. If you want very specific plants you may find it easier to mail order what you need. There are many good businesses that sell plants through web pages or auction sites. If you aren't as picky about the specific plants local stores can often supply you with plants. Local aquarium clubs and other hobbyists are also great ways to find new plants.

You will also need to decide what sort of substrate to use. There are a lot of choices out there, from make your own formulas to already made mixes, or plain gravel. In this instance I decided to use a purchased plant specific substrate on the bottom and add plain black gravel to the top. I went to a local store that has some specialty plant materials and chose a substrate that I thought would suit my needs. The plant substrate was placed in the tank and leveled off first. With 2 layers I didn't want to mix too much of the bottom substrate in with my gravel. I find it's easiest to start putting your top layer of gravel in one place and then smoothing it out over the bottom substrate from there. It's not a bad idea to save a little bit of gravel in case you find you need some more in some areas while your planting. If you're going to slope your gravel or create hills in your tank you can do that, but be aware that the gravel will try to flatten out when you put your water in the aquarium, and continue to flatten out over time. Keeping hills or slopes will require you to maintain them.

I wanted to put some wood into this tank. I had a little pile of pieces I'd gotten that I'd intended to use for this tank. It's a really good idea to check your wood before you put the tank together. The same is true of any pieces of rock work you'd like to use. You might want to do this before you put your substrate in if you think you might disturb it too much. I knew what I had in mind in this case and wanted to see more of what it would look like when finished. I ended up not using all the pieces I had and had to trim some of them to get the affect I was looking for. If you're using wood in the aquarium you'll have to consider that there's a good chance it may float. There are pieces of wood you can purchase that don't float and some are glued on to flat rocks that can be placed under the substrate, but sometimes at first even these pieces may be inclined to float a bit. You can also soak your wood prior to setting up your aquarium, or you can do what I did and use some large rocks to hold the wood down.

Next I took the wood back out and filled the tank most of the way with water. Some people like to plant with no water, or a small amount. I like to plant with the tank mostly full. I don't fill it all the way so the water displaced by my arms in the tank while planting and decorating won't make it overflow. Be careful while filling the tank that you don't send your gravel and substrate flying. You can use your hand, newspaper, or a plate at the bottom of the tank to keep the water flow from hitting the substrate with a strong blast.

At this point you'll want to put any wood or large rock work back into your tank. To naturalize the rocks and wood I tied plants to them. I used flame moss (Taxiphyllum species) on the wood and some Anubias nana on the rocks. I use cotton sewing thread. For the moss I used a dark green to try to match it and for the rocks I used a tan color about the same shade as the rocks to try to hide the thread as much as possible. You can also use fishing line, though it won't eventually rot away like cotton thread will. Some people even use staples to attach plants to wood, though obviously this won't work with rocks, and I would be somewhat worried about the damage it might do to some plants.

Finally you can add the rest of your plants. I start with the larger plants in the back and around the wood or rock work. If you have plants with large root systems, like an Amazon sword, you can slide them through the gravel a bit starting a bit away from where you actually want them to be, as they slide through the gravel the roots become buried behind them. This is also where that extra gravel you left out comes in handy to help bury in roots or add a little help where you need it. Most stemmed plants have small or no roots when you get them. Only use a few stems at a time which can be slid in or just poked in to the substrate. I like to use my fingers but this doesn't work for everyone and there are a number of tools available to help you plant your aquarium. You can find them for sale at some aquarium stores and in stores on line or through catalogs.

To plant small foreground plants you have a few options. In this tank I used Glossostigma elatinoides. This can be planted straight in to the substrate. To do this I started at the back of the areas I wanted to plant, put a few stems in at a time and then planted the area in front of that. Some foreground plants, like Riccia, don't grow roots and any portion placed in the substrate would die anyway. These plants should be tied to rocks. Even plants like Glossostigma can be tied to rocks as a more convenient way to plant them.

In the aquarium I'm using as an example I decided to use CO2, though you can keep a planted aquarium without additional CO2, it has become popular in recent years and does help in the growth of some plants. I have rather moderately hard alkaline water so it does allow me to grow plants that are very difficult if not impossible without it. Though I will admit that I only use CO2 in very few of my aquariums. There are several options for delivering CO2 to your aquarium. You can get special equipment with CO2 tanks, use commercial yeast set ups or make your own. I used 2 of the commercial yeast set ups in this tank. Each comes with a ladder to keep the CO2 bubbles in the tank long enough so that most of the CO2 gets in the water before the bubble escapes through the water surface. Other systems use different methods. Not surprisingly CO2 tanks and specialty equipment is going to be more expensive than a DIY system using an old soda bottle, aquarium air tube and an airstone. However a more expensive system will give you more control over the amount of CO2 delivered to the tank and you won't have to keep making up the yeast mix. You will have to research the different methods and decide which is best for you and your personal budget.

It's a good idea to wait at least 24 hours to start adding living animals to your planted aquarium. Basic rules of stocking aquariums still apply. Beginning by adding algae eating snails, shrimp and fish is a good way to start keeping ahead of algae before it starts. In this instance I used nerite snails and snowball shrimp. As of this writing the tank has been set up for less than a week and I haven't added any algae eating fish yet, though I have added a small school of Danio margaritatus that so far have been extremely camera shy. As an added bonus I'm going to keep taking photos and keeping some notes on how this tank developes. You can see more photos and updates on the Web Extra page on the Tropical Fish Hobbyists web site at

If you haven't started a planted tank yet I hope this brief explanation of how to set up your planted aquarium will encourage you to do so. I can't possibly cover all aspects of setting up your tank in one column but hopefully there is enough information here to get you started and point out the areas that you will need to do further research. In my experience planted aquariums aren't really any more difficult than ones with out plants, and any extra work is outweighed by the beauty of the plants and the benefits to the animals that live in them.

Welcome to the Jungle | Into The Forest | The Creepy Crawlies | A Clearing in the Thicket | Algae Eaters for the Planted Aquarium
North American Natives | Why things go wrong Pt 1 | Why things go wrong Pt 2 (Algae) | Algae Eating Shrimp | Lo-Tech Tanks
Welcome to the Fish Room | The Stemmed Plants | Mosses | A Livebearer Biotope | Planted Tank Social | The Genus Hygrophila | Cyanobacteria
Easy Plants | What I Did Last Summer | Decorations in the Planted Tank | Botany-An Introduction to Plant Biology | Botany-Anatomy of a plant
Botany-How Plants Work | Easy Rosettes | Going High-Tech | Floating Plants | Dealing with Success | Bringing the Outside In | Vallisneria
Hair Algae | Flowering Aquarium Plants Part 1 | Flowering Aquarium Plants Part 2 | Liverworts in the Aquarium | Elements of Design
Planted Aquarium Maintenance | More Mosses | Invaders | Ferns in the Aquarium | Setting up a Planted Aquarium
Seaweeds of the Pacific Northwest | Proserpinaca | Hardware for the Planted Aquarium | Rotala | Neocaridina Shrimp | Lo-tech Tank Tips

Home | Forum | Articles | Plants | Inverts | Store

Vote for us daily on Aquarank

Search the Natural Aquariums web site

Discover new ways to explore your aquarium hobby every month with "Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine". The World's Aquarium Magazine since 1952.

For more information about planted aquariums, Natural Aquariums recommends "The Simple Guide to Planted Aquariums" by Terry Barber and Rhonda Wilson.

Natural Aquariums


Ask questions
Share your successes

"Nature Aquarium World 2" The second Nature Aquarium World book from Takashi Amano. Mr. Amano's aquariums and photography make him the most celebrated planted aquarist in the world today.

Christel Kasselmann's "Aquarium Plants" is the most complete encylopedia of aquarium plants to date. A must have book for the aquatic plant enthusiast.