May 27

The Essential Guide on How to Start a Planted Tank Aquarium


Aquarium-building is no easy task. It’s hard to tell what even the first task is going to be.

There are so many steps involved and without any clear direction, one can get lost in the madness. But we’re here to help!

Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you achieve a beautiful-looking aquarium in the easiest and most no-nonsense way possible.

Types Of Planted Aquariums

Before you begin anything, it’s important to consider and decide what style of aquarium you’re trying to build.

The aquascapes for aquarium-building consist of various styles and designs based on their plant density, overall look, and layers.

Here are a few examples:

Natural Aquascape

natural aquascape

The most commonly seen aquascape – a natural aquascape is nonetheless extremely beautiful.

It can exist in the form of various depictions of nature. These can range from the likes of terrestrial forests, and mountains to islands. 

Dutch Aquascape

dutch aquascape

A densely pack aquascape with not many stones or driftwood, but more layers of plants, the Dutch aquascape has many layers.

Taller plants line the back of the tank whereas the front of the tank has smaller, denser plants.

How to Set Up a Planted Aquarium


Now, let’s get to the actual setup of the aquarium. We’re going to list everything involved in the process:

Few Things You May Need

Before starting to build your aquarium, make sure to pick up:

  • Filtration System


    Aquarium-LED lights

    • Carbon Dioxide Supplements

    carbon dioxide tablet

    • Heater

    heater for fish

    • Substrate

    substrate for aquarium

    • Test Kit

    test kits

    Step 1: Structure and Analysis

    While getting a tank, it’s highly important that you carefully analyze the plants, fish, and other species you intend to maintain in it.

    Prepare a checklist and gather details on the exact specifications each one requires, and then check whether they are appropriate for each other or not.

    After doing your analysis, you need to have a good estimate of the size of the tank you will require for attaining your ideal aquarium.

    So that you have decided on which types of plants to maintain, you can draw a few drawings of how you wish the completed aquarium to appear.

    This will avoid subsequent unneeded rearranging, which could disrupt the substrate and result in hazy water.

    Step 2: Getting the Tank Ready

    If you bought a brand new tank or a used one, you will still have to wash and sanitize it. New aquariums could contain toxic materials remaining on the glass or acrylic surface.

    While washing your tank, don’t utilize any type of soaps and chemicals since they could be toxic to plants. Rather, employ vinegar and a washcloth to clean glass tanks.

    Step 3: Choose an appropriate place

    A fish aquarium has to be preferably located beside a power socket and also a supply of water for simple water replacements.

    To reduce algae development and temperature changes, avoid putting the aquarium in open sunlight or close to an AC outlet.

    In addition, avoid dense activity places in which the aquarium might be stumbled over by people or inspected by intriguing pets and children.

    Step 4: Choosing a Substrate

    types of aquarium substrate

    For a non-planted tank, any type of gravel would do. But for a planted aquarium, the type of gravel needs to vary in order for nutrients to settle and form.

    A varied kind of gravel allows for plants to be better rooted.

    Laying the Substrate

    To begin with, rinse your substrate of choice multiple times. Take your tank and lay down enough substrate to cover the entire bottom of it, with around 2-3 inches on top.

    Also, make sure to slope it from front to back.

    Types of Planted Aquarium Substrate

    For a planted aquarium ecosystem, to help with the growth of your plants and nutrient accumulation within the substrate, there are options far better than just gravel. Here are some options:

    All-in-One Substrates (Active)

    As evident from the name, these substrates contain a little bit of everything. They are a mixture of different substrates and already contain pre-packed nutrients.

    These allow for your aquarium to exist full of nutrients from the get-go without having to wait for any accumulation.

    Flourite (Inert)

    A great anchoring substrate is fluorite. This substrate is an amalgamation of different materials including clay and volcanic soil, etc.

    These materials are porous in nature, allowing for a better flow of water and nutrient settlement.

    Inert vs. Active Substrates

    Two types of substrates exist in the context of aquarium building. Here’s what both of them mean:

    Active Substrates

    These substrates are packed full of nutrients and result in aggressive and wonderful growth of your plants.

    However, they also require to be replaced more often and stir up a lot easier than its counterpart.

    Inert Substrates

    On the other hand, inert substrates last forever and do not break down. They also prevent algae growth.

    But, they do not come with any nutrients and require fertilizers and other supplements to be added to them.

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    Step 5: Lighting for Plants & Fish

    led lights

    Often, overlooked, this is one of the most important steps while building an aquarium. The type of planted aquarium light that you use can greatly affect the entire plant fish tank.

    These lights can range from incandescent or fluorescent lights to LEDs. The latter one, though expensive is the most viable solution, whereas an incandescent bulb can create an abnormal amount of heat and disrupt the entire ecosystem.

    How much light do I need?

    The deeper and bigger your tank is; the more lights you require to illuminate the planted tank.

    Which light fixtures work the best?

    When it comes to planted aquarium light, it’s important to not skimp out and buy knock-offs. While they may be cheaper wouldn’t last nearly quite as long and can even induce a risk of fire.

    Invest in good LEDs, rather than incandescent bulbs.

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    Step 6: Filtration

    filtration for aquarium

    Filtration is an important yet often overly thought-out part. Don’t sweat it too much. If your tank is around 50 gallons or smaller, opt for a hang-on back filtration unit.

    However, in case your tank is bigger than that, a canister filter might be the best option for you. These filters have the capability to process a larger quantity of water.

    You can also add different materials to them to combat different deficiencies within your aquarium.

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    Step 7: Load the tank with the components and hardscape

    The heater and filtrations are not switched on at this point but are simply placed in the aquarium so that they could be hidden by plants and accessories.

    The pebbles and wood will serve as the core or structure of your planted aquarium style, so give it your best shot and reposition the objects as required in this phase.

    Step 8: Adding Plants to Your Setup

    Aquarium Plants

    When knowing how to plant aquarium plants, it is important to keep in mind the “cycling” process within the tank.

    Cycling is the process in which you allow beneficial bacteria and other microorganisms to grow in your tank, which in turn help break down the toxic emissions released by your fish and plants.

    You cannot place fish in your tank before “cycling” has completed, but you most certainly can add fish tank plants in the mix. In fact, they aid in its expedition!

    Proper Plant Care

    Keep in mind, that these are real plants. You can’t just neglect them to death.

    Plant maintenance and care include bi-weekly water changes, stable temperatures, and appropriate trimming.

    Fertilizing your Plants

    This is a step that requires close observation of your natural fish tank. The plants will show signs themselves in form of welting or slow growth.

    In which case, you should opt for a fertilizer, otherwise, in a small aquarium ecosystem, it’s not that necessary.

    Liquid Fertilization

    Some plants are unable to absorb any nutrients from the substrate itself, and rather intake them from the water.

    Liquid fertilization is the most effective for them. However, it can also induce some algae growth.

    Substrate Fertilization

    The simplest way of fertilization is placing it under the substrate itself. It is nutrient-rich, so plants use it up over time and none goes to waste. Simple!

    Choosing Your Flora

    For a beginner’s aquarium, it’s important to understand how to start a planted tank, what type of flora goes where, and what its function is.

    Background Plants

    Pretty self-explanatory from their name, these plants are at the very back of your fish tank and serve as the main visual point, and are responsible for tying the whole look together.

    They are usually bigger in size, so make sure to place them few and far between and be mindful of the shadow they cast on the smaller plants underneath.

    Mid-Ground Plants

    These plants are located more in the middle of your tank and a bit smaller than your background plants. They mainly serve the purpose of making the aquarium feel fuller and richer in terms of plants.

    Foreground Plants

    These smaller plants are at the very front of the tank. These little guys are placed so they don’t obstruct the view of any of the plants in the back.

    Carpeting Plants

    You also require a base for all of these plants and a top. That is where carpeting plants come in. They cover the soil or the substrate and are usually mossy in nature.

    They require ample sunlight as sometimes the bigger plants on top can prevent their sunlight intake.

    Easy Aquarium Plants

    Now let’s learn a bit about which are the easiest-to-plant and take-care-of live aquarium plants:


    These are great background plants, amazing for taller tanks with a lot of space and room to fill.

    Amazon Sword

    One of the most show-stopping background plants, that also requires tons of nutrients and sunlight.

    Java Fern

    A great mid-ground plant that does not require a lot of light and can attach to driftwood turning your tank into a driftwood planted aquarium.

    Java Moss

    One of the most adaptable carpeting plants that can grow on almost anything and is adored by the fish to swim around.

    Pygmy Chain Sword

    This is a quite common foreground plant and can be used to create a small yet dense jungle-like feel at the forefront of your tank.

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    Step 9: Adding Fish to Your Planted Tank

    a variety of fishes

    Here comes the main event: adding the fish! However, enticing this step may be, do not rush it.

    “Cycling” takes a good 2-3 weeks to get rid of all the ammonia and nitrites from the water.

    Once the water is clear of all of that, it’s time to add in the fish.

    Recommended Fish for Planted Aquariums

    different types of fishes

    Some of the popular planted tank fish are:

    • Swordtails – Easy to take care of with beautiful features
    • Tetras – Colorful and come in a lot of varieties
    • Dwarf Algae Eaters – Not the showiest but keep off algae
    • Angelfish – Most popular for 10 gallons planted tank or bigger
    • Gouramis – Peaceful and very colorful
    • Corydoras – The most all-rounder fish

    Step 10: Maintaining a Planted Aquarium

    jungle planted aquarium

    Okay so now that you’re done with everything else, what next? Well, you’ve got your aquarium.

    But proper and regular maintenance comes with it, or it can all go south very quickly.

    Carbon Dioxide Supplements

    It’s common knowledge that plants and an aquatic ecosystem, in general, require CO² to function. This requirement sometimes requires external CO² supplements to fulfill this need.

    Just be careful not to overdo it.

    CO² Reactor/Diffuser

    Not recommended for beginners or first-time users, these diffusers however work great. They are attached to pressurized canisters and diffuse adequate CO² inside the tank and short successions.

    CO² Tablets

    These are the smaller, more cheap alternative. Just drop in the CO² tablet and watch that gas fizz. However, a lot of the gas can also fizz out from the tank through the water surface so you need to be strategic and careful.

    Substrate Turnover

    Even though this usually happens to an extent as well, it is important to mix and turnover your planted aquarium substrate. This allows for an even and healthy substrate mix in your fish tank. 

    It is really important to do this step and even more important to do it extremely carefully. Messing up your substrate can end up ruining the entire ecosystem.

    Algae Growth

    Finally let’s discuss the enemy and nightmare of every aquarium owner, which is the green layer of plant that covers every surface of their tank – algae. 

    Using algicides or localized hosing with hydrogen peroxide will do the trick of getting rid of these guys.

    You can also add algae eater fish in the mix who will do the job for you. It’s a slow but more long-term efficient plan.

    Algae: The Nemesis

    Algae start propagating in your tank due to surplus light, and tons of nutrients. This creates the ideal environment for algae to grow, especially because at the earlier stages, the beneficial bacteria aren’t able to use all of this. 

    This alga can be localized or even go rogue and grow all over your tank. It can turn the water green and murky and can devastate the overall look of the aquarium.

    Wrapping It All Up

    While we did say that this is no easy task, we hope we broke all steps down to help you feel more confident in this venture. Bottom-line, aquariums are just fun!

    Whether you find it daunting or all this sounds pretty doable and easy to you, the end result is going to be very satisfying. 

    Doing it all step by step and making sure that you don’t rush any step is the key.

    Whether it comes to “cycling” or even as simple as pouring water on top of your substrate, you need to take your time with every step.

    Make sure to upkeep proper maintenance of this ecosystem. It is a living, breathing system. A well-balanced and clean environment will keep your fish happy as well.

    We wish you the best of luck in trying out this endeavor! And remember to always start easy. You can always go advanced later.

    Frequently Asked Questions About How To Start A Planted Tank Aquarium

    How Do I Remove Hair Algae?

    There are several ways for getting rid of hair algae in your planted tank.

    The first approach is to physically pick it with your hands, while a small brush is quite good for taking out hair algae that have been entangled with your plants.

    Another option is to buy some algae removing agents from a nearby pet shop.

    However, when applying these agents, make sure to properly implement the guidelines on the box, since abuse of these chemicals could damage your tank plants.

    How Long Should Tank Lighting Be Left On?

    Distinct aquatic plants need varying water conditions and sunlight. Several diverse plant types can survive in low light settings but more illumination can help them grow.

    In particular, you need to provide light for about 10 to 12 hours every day at an optimal temperature.

    Should I Rinse My Tank And Its Parts?

    To minimize hazy water, rinse the tank, substrate, and hardscape with water (without detergent). If you want, you can also add a tank backdrop.

    At this stage, many individuals prefer to isolate their live plants in order to eradicate duckweed, pest snails, and other types of bugs.

    How Do I Install A Planted Tank?

    Doing your homework and analysis is by far the most critical stage in putting up a planted tank aquarium.

    Particular criteria are required for various plants and fish to grow and live in a tank setup.


    We have given you detailed step-by-step instructions for putting up a planted aquarium all throughout this post, and we recommend that you carefully follow every point.


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