Grow Healthy Live Aquarium Plants With This Care Guide
When you decide to keep live freshwater aquarium plants, you don’t simply buy some plants, add water, and walk away hoping everything works and the plants live.
Just like with your fish, you need to choose the right plants for your aquarium but you also need to know how to take care of them. Every plant has different needs as do different species of fish.
When it comes to taking care of live freshwater aquarium plants, there are many other different factors that play into their survival.
These factors include things like different types of fertilizers, as well as lighting, substrate, and CO2.
All of these need to be at the right levels in order for your plants to thrive.
As you read on you’ll discover why it’s important to have plants in your aquarium, how to take care of them, and what the most common types of aquarium plants are.
Putting all of these pieces together will give you a better chance of having beautiful plants that will live longer.
- Grow Healthy Live Aquarium Plants With This Care Guide
- Why is it important to have plants in an aquarium?
- What are the benefits of having live plants in an aquarium?
- Caring for freshwater aquarium plants
- Using Fertilizers
- Using CO2
- The Substrate
- Planted Tank Set up
- Plant Placement
- Planting Live Aquarium Plants
- Plant Propagation
- Plant Maintenance
- Best Beginner Aquarium Plants
- Most common types of aquarium plants
- Where to buy aquarium plants
Why is it important to have plants in an aquarium?
Sure, having plants in your aquarium makes your aquarium more aesthetically pleasing. But, plants play a vital role in an aquarium.
Plants in your aquarium produce oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide from fish during the day. At night, the reverse happens, which is also vital to having a well-maintained tank.
Small algae can settle on the plant leaves that help clean the water. Additionally, the plant can help to keep the tank clean by reducing the toxins in your tank produced from the waste of your fish.
Lastly, when plants are healthy they give off small amounts of oxygen through their root systems which can help prevent your substrate from decaying.
All of these things make your entire tank healthier for fish and plants. Without plants in your aquarium, the processes above cannot occur.
Plants are a vital part of an aquarium when you’re looking to keep a balanced and healthy fish tank. They also provide shelter and security for fish and make your tank feel more natural leading to fish that are calm and stress-free.
What are the benefits of having live plants in an aquarium?
There are many benefits to having live plants in your aquarium that stretch far beyond oxygen and carbon dioxide needs.
If you’re considering live plants, take a look at these benefits.
Plants act like a natural filter in your aquarium. Unlike filters that hang on the back of your tank, plants are in the trenches of your tank which allows them to absorb waste and other debris within the tank, thus keeping it healthier for your fish.
Besides absorbing waste, plants also create additional surfaces for beneficial bacteria to grow on.
No one wants algae in their aquarium. The more plants you have in the aquarium, the fewer algae you’re likely to have.
This is because plants can out-compete algae for nutrients thus allowing for fewer algae to grow.
A better home for fish.
Since plants provide shelter within the tank, they allow different types of fish to co-exist much better.
Fish can hide from other fish in the tank if they need to. Some types of fish are also known to breed and leave eggs on the plants.
When there are more plants in the tank the ratio of fish per gallon is generally increased.
Another food source.
Don’t worry most fish won’t devour your plants. But, in the event they need another food source (or you forget to feed them) the plants are there as another source of nutrition.
Plants encourage natural fish behavior.
Think about where fish thrive. It’s not typically in a glass tank with plastic decor.
Fish are used to being around plants.
When you add plants you’re providing fish with a little taste of home. When fish are comfortable in their surroundings they are more likely to thrive, much like us!
Caring for freshwater aquarium plants
In order to reap the benefits of plants in your aquarium, you need to take care of them properly.
Without the proper TLC, you can’t expect plants to thrive. They certainly won’t be able to keep algae away or complete any of the other tasks that make them so beneficial for aquariums.
How you take care of plants in your aquarium is just as important as how you take care of fish. The two go hand in hand.
When you take care of both properly you’ll have a tank that looks healthy with fish that are just as healthy.
Plant care consists of fertilizing them as well as providing the right level of CO2 and lighting.
Sometimes no matter how well you may think you are taking care of your aquarium plants, something goes wrong.
This “something” can be anything from plants turning brown to them actually melting. It’s important to know how to deal with these issues as well.
Let’s start with basic plant care.
How to care of aquarium plants
Taking care of aquarium plants starts with choosing the right ones. You want to make sure to start by choosing plants that are easy to care for.
Once you select your plants, it’s time to focus on fertilizer, lighting, substrate and CO2 levels which we’ll touch on in just a bit.
Proper planting is also just as important. If you don’t plant them the right way none of the other factors will even matter.
How to keep aquarium plants healthy
When it comes to keeping aquarium plants healthy Dr’s Foster Smith recommend you want to make sure the following things are in place:
- Plants are getting a full spectrum of light at least 8-12 hours a day
- The tank temperature is between 75-88 degrees Fahrenheit
- The pH is between 6.5-7.4
- 25% water changes every other week
- Use a good substrate for root growth
When all of these stars are aligned, you can feel confident that your aquarium plants are healthy.
If you notice your plants looking not so hot, take a look at the list above to see if something is off.
Chances are you’ll notice something is not right and you can adjust before it’s’ too late.
How to get lush green aquarium plants
Just as people want lush green lawns, they want their aquarium plants to be just as green.
In order to achieve lush green aquarium plants, consider these tips from Algone:
- Use the right type of fertilizer in the right amounts
- Make sure the plants are getting enough light
- Be sure you have the right type of substrate in the tank
- Check nutrient levels regularly
- Check water hardness level
All of these factors can help you get those lush green aquarium plants that everyone wants to have along with thriving fish.
Why are my aquarium plants dying?
Aquarium plants should be nice to look at, but when they’re dying, you know there’s nothing pretty about that scene.
There are many reasons why your plant may be dying.
These reasons include:
- Not getting enough light
- Wrong type/amount of fertilizer being used
- Wrong type of substrate for a particular plant
- In a tank with fish that are too aggressive (getting eaten)
- Water temperature too low
In order to figure out exactly what is causing your plants to die might be a case of trial and error.
It may mean changing one factor to see if it affects plant growth. If one thing doesn’t work, you may need to try another until you can find the right combination.
Why are my aquarium plants turning brown?
One of the reasons why your aquarium plants may be turning brown could be caused by phosphate levels that are just too high.
An excess of nitrates may also be to blame. Since you may not know which one is at fault, the best thing to do is to perform a large water change.
This will ensure that fresh, clean, and hopefully, balanced water is now surrounding your aquarium plants.
If you see an improvement you’ll want to change the water weekly to avoid brown plants again. It’s a simple task that means the difference between plants that are turning brown and ones that are thriving.
Why do aquarium plants melt?
You may not think that aquarium plants can melt, but they certainly can. The type of substrate you are using may be to blame, especially if it’s of the sand variety.
Sand substrate provides neither nutrient content nor the ability to absorb any nutrients. Without this factor, your plants could appear as though they are melting.
Sand is also very dense and can actually suffocate some types of aquarium plants. That’s why it’s so important to choose the right type of substrate for your aquarium plants.
You may also want to check the lighting level to make sure it’s not too high. This can also lead to plant melting.
A major part of plant care has to do with fertilizers.
Fertilizer helps live freshwater aquarium plants grow and thrive. Without the right fertilizer plants are not able to grow because they’re lacking the appropriate nutrients.
Using the right fertilizer in the right amount will help your plants live a long life inside your aquarium.
Choosing the wrong fertilizer or dosing incorrectly will have a negative impact on your aquarium.
How to fertilize aquarium plants
Before you add any type of fertilizer you need to first make sure the light and pH levels are right.
Water pH should be between 6.5-7.5 and you should make sure the plants are getting enough light for photosynthesis to occur.
Once the conditions are right it’s time to choose which type of fertilizer to use. It comes in a liquid form, a substrate form that can be mixed or in a tablet.
If you are using the liquid you’ll have to do it more frequently than if you’re using a substrate or tablet formula.
How often to fertilize aquarium plants
How frequently you need to fertilize your plants will depend on the type of soil, plant size, and water temperature.
When the water temperature is below 70 degrees you should fertilize your plants less often and any water temperature over 80 degrees means you may need to fertilize your plants more often.
The colder water temperatures will slow the rate of growth. The warmer the water, the more growth, meaning fertilizer will be needed more frequently.
Carbon dioxide or CO2 is pivotal in all of our lives, even the lives of plants.
As we all learned in science class in elementary school, we breathe in oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide.
Plants, on the other hand, take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen through a process called photosynthesis, which also requires light in order for it to happen. That’s probably another process you learned about in elementary grade science class!
When it comes to live aquarium plants you need to pay extra attention to the carbon dioxide levels so that both the plants and fish can live well together.
Why do you need to add CO2?
Aquarium plants need nutrients to grow, mainly CO2. If you don’t add CO2 to your aquarium, plants have to do it with what fish and bacteria release naturally.
They have to be totally dependent on those factors which may not give plants all of the CO2 they need to grow effectively.
Without enough CO2 plants cannot complete photosynthesis which is vital for their growth. As plants grow they use up their existing supply of carbon dioxide.
If you think you need to add CO2 to your tank, adding compressed CO2 is often the most recommended way.
What aquarium plants need CO2?
When you’re starting off with your aquarium you want to be aware of the CO2 levels and what your plants need to survive.
One thing to remember is that the more light you give your plants, the more CO2 they will need to survive. In general, the addition of C02 is beneficial for your plants.
However, most low light/easy to care for beginner plants will require very little C02. But most intermediate to advanced plants will require some form of C02 additives.
With that thought in mind, generally, most plants with a bright red or reddish orange color indicate a need for additives like CO2 and iron.
What aquarium plants don’t need CO2?
While there are plants that need CO2 to grow and thrive, there are others that are extremely low maintenance and require little in the way of CO2.
These plants include, but are not limited to:
- Water Wisteria
- Java Moss
When you’re looking for aquarium plants and don’t want to worry if there is enough CO2, any one of those three plants are good to start.
As you become more skilled in taking care of your aquarium plants and balancing levels in the tank, you can look for plants that need more of your attention.
Just as important as CO2 is lighting for aquarium plants. Without the proper lighting (and carbon dioxide) photosynthesis can’t occur.
When plants are in a natural habitat, they can depend on the sun for the lighting needed for photosynthesis.
But, when they are in an aquarium, that light must come from artificial lighting. The artificial lighting can perform the same function as the sun does in nature.
If your plants don’t get enough light then they will not grow and will not thrive.
What is the best light for aquarium plants?
You can’t just turn a regular old light on and shine it on your aquarium. Most plants require the red and blue spectrum of light.
In order to recreate this in the aquarium, fluorescent, metal halide or LED lighting made to emit those two spectrums is used.
The exact strength of light needed will depend on the size of the aquarium. Usually, two watts of lighting per gallon is recommended for plant growth.
If you follow that recommendation and realize that it doesn’t work for your aquarium then you can adjust it accordingly.
Sometimes it’s a case of trial and error to see what works for you.
How many hours of light do aquarium plants need?
As the wattage of light in aquarium plants can vary so can the number of hours of light the plants in the aquarium need.
Generally speaking, eight to twelve hours of light is suggested for a planted aquarium. If you have trouble keeping track you can buy an inexpensive light timer so that you are keeping everything on a schedule.
If you think your plants are not getting enough light you can also adjust the time to more or less depending on how rapidly you are looking for your plants to grow.
When people talk about the substrate for an aquarium they are referring to the material at the bottom of the tank.
While it may seem you can put whatever you want at the bottom of the tank, it really does matter what you choose.
This affects water chemistry, filtration, as well as how well the fish and plants survive. Choosing the wrong substrate can have a negative effect on your plants’ health.
What is the best substrate for aquarium plants?
Generally speaking, there are three main types of substrate used for aquariums; gravel, sand, and dirt/soil.
Each one has its list of pros and cons regarding how they affect live plants. So when you’re looking for the best substrate, it all depends on which type you want to use.
Some types are better for certain aquariums and plants than others. Let’s take a look at the three main types and their benefits and disadvantages.
Gravel substrate comes in a fine variety or something coarser that can consist of almost entirely quartz.
If you’re using gravel substrate for planted aquariums it’s usually recommended to use it only a top later.
Usually, this type of substrate is used for fish-only aquariums. It does require regular maintenance because you need to vacuum it frequently, especially if you want to remove any uneaten food particles.
If you have many plants in your aquarium, you may want to choose another type of substrate.
If you’re looking for a substrate that’s low maintenance and gets the job done then sand substrate is probably the better bet.
It’s known to be the cleanest substrate of all. Sand will compact itself which means food particles won’t penetrate the surface.
If you have a good filter you won’t have to clean the tank as much as you would if you were using other substrates.
Besides being good for plants because it’s low maintenance it’s also good for fish that are bottom dwellers.
There are two different types of sand substrate to choose from, sandblasting sand and play sand. Sandblasting sand is more coarse than regular sand and mainly consists of quartz. Play sand has a finer consistency.
In order to determine the amount of sand you need, multiply the length by the width and depth of the sand you would like. Divide your answer by 20 to give you the approximate amount you need in pounds.
Soil substrate can be a great choice for people who have a lot of plants in their aquarium. Many soil substrates are rich in nutrients and are an excellent base for plants to grow.
They allow aquatic plants to get their roots and grow healthy.
Soil substrates also help to lower the pH levels in water. Lower pH level allows plants to absorb nutrients better.
If you do choose soil substrate it’s recommended not to vacuum it because the soil substrate may get sucked up too. Another thing to consider with soil substrate is its price as it’s typically more expensive than other substrates.
Planted Tank Set up
When you add plants into an aquarium it’s more than just putting them in there and walking away.
Just as when you add fish to your tank, there is a process to follow. When done correctly, fish and live plants can live in harmony together.
Fish provide carbon dioxide and nutrients for healthy plant growth while aquatic plants not only give fish oxygen but also provide oxygen and filtration to keep fish healthy.
Once you have the aquarium and stand in place, add the substrate, but be sure to rinse it first. You may also want to add a small amount of water to pack it down a bit.
- Fill the tank with water and then install the filter and heater.
- Add any water conditioners.
- Add light fixtures.
- Add aquatic plants.
- Let the aquarium settle for two to three weeks before adding the fish.
- Fertilize and add C02 as needed.
Those are the quick steps for beginners. For an in-depth visual tutorial, you can also check out this video.c
As you’re setting up your tank you’ll want to make sure you place the plants in the right location.
While you could just try to wing it and place the plants wherever you want in the tank to make it look nice, those spots may not be the best places for optimal growth and survival.
In order to give all plants the best chances of survival, the main rule of thumb is to use short plants in the foreground and then add plants in ascending order to fill the midground and background.
If you do this, you’re on the path to success. Here’s a look at how you should place your plants:
Tall (background aquarium plants)
One of the main things you want to look for in background aquarium plants is for the plants to grow upwards instead of outwards.
You don’t want any “fat” plants because they’ll take up too much room and move into the mid-ground which would steal the spotlight from those plants.
The following plants follow the “tall and skinny” rule, thus making them good choices for background plants:
- Rotala Indica
- Ludwiga Repens
- Green Cabomba
Although these plants are tall and skinny they are still robust enough to provide a good backdrop for the rest of the tank.
Medium (midground) aquarium plants
Medium or midground plants go just where their name suggests, they sit in the middle of the tank and grow somewhat tall.
But, they don’t grow too tall so they won’t block what’s behind them. They tend to grow outwards just as much as they grow tall.
Some of the plants in this category to consider are:
- Rotala Macrandra
- Alternanthera Rosanervig
- Java Fern – Microsorum Pteropus
Small (foreground) aquarium plants
When it comes to foreground aquarium plants, the main thing to remember with foreground plants is to choose ones that stay low.
You don’t want ones that will grow extremely high because then they will hide the other plants in the tank.
Some plants in this category to consider include:
- Dwarf Sagittaria
- Starurogyne Repens
- Crypt Parva
Carpeting aquarium plants
Carpeting aquarium plants do just what their name suggests; they act like a carpet at the bottom of your tank.
They can make it look pretty awesome but still need some care.
Sometimes people have trouble growing these types of plants. If you’re a beginner, it’s important to choose plants that don’t require a lot of maintenance.
Here are some to consider:
- Java Moss
- Dwarf Baby Tears
- Dwarf Hairgrass
Planting Live Aquarium Plants
Planting aquarium plants is far different than planting in your garden.
For starters, your plants are surrounded by water. This is a totally different element than when they are in soil outside.
Because of this, you have to take into consideration things like the pH level, CO2 level, and levels of other nutrients in the water.
When done properly and maintained on a regular basis, you’ll see your plants flourish. Let’s take a look at some common maintenance tips to keep your aquarium in top shape.
How to clean aquarium plants before planting
It’s often recommended to clean aquarium plants before planting to eliminate any snails or bacteria that could cause problems in the tank.
If your plants were in enclosed tanks when you bought them you may want to rinse them under tap water and prune any dead leaves before putting them in the tank.
If the plants were in a tank you may want to soak them for about an hour in a mild bleach solution and then rinse them with tap water.
Some people go to extremes and quarantine their plants for about a week before putting them in a tank by first putting them in a copper-based parasite killer.
Learn more from our friends over at Expert Aquarist who made a great guide about how to quarantine plans before adding them to your tank.
How to acclimate plants to the aquarium
Many people suggest getting your plants in the aquarium soon after buying them. This is to prevent any contamination or other bacteria from growing.
If you clean your plants before planting them there shouldn’t be much you need to do to acclimate them.
Some plants may acclimate better than others when it comes to water and pH levels so you may need to keep an eye on that situation.
How to plant aquarium plants
When you’re planning on planting you should keep the following things in mind:
- Plants need 8-12 hours of sunlight daily to grow properly
- Don’t plant too many plants because you want to leave enough room for the fish to swim around freely
Once you’ve got this down, follow these planting steps:
- Layer the bottom with 2-3 inches of substrate
- Add fertilizer according to instructions on the package
- Fill the aquarium half-way with water
- Put plants in the gravel up to the base of their stems. For bulbs and tubers, cover the bulb with gravel up to the growing tip
After all of those steps are complete you’ll want to add any decorations and then finish filling the tank with water.
How to anchor aquarium plants
If you’re looking to anchor down the aquarium plants, there are many different options.
Check these out so you can find the one that works best for you.
Use heavier rocks around the plant’s base. This will help to weight them down.
Keep them in their pots. If they came in one. Or, you can also buy a small clay pot to use. If you don’t mind the tank permanently in your tank this is an option.
Buy plant anchors. These are soft, bendable lead strips that you can wrap around the plant to hold them down.
Use Nylon Mesh. This is a good choice for mosses and small carpeting plants. Cover them with the mesh that will hold them down while giving them something to attach themselves to.
Tie to Driftwood. If none of these work you may want to try attaching your aquarium plants to a piece of driftwood.
You can string the entire plant under a piece of driftwood. The wood will hold the center of the plant down while letting the rest of it float.
How to grow plants on top of the aquarium
Some people like to grow plants on top of an aquarium. This is referred to as a hydroponic growing aquarium.
The best way to do this is to set up a tank under a light.
You can choose to plant seeds in rockwool or oasis cubes. Once the seedlings start to grow, you can put them in holes on a polystyrene board.
You can insert the board on top of the tank so it floats on top of the water. If you cut 1-inch square holes in the board about six inches apart you can grow six different plants in the aquarium at once.
When someone refers to propagation in regards to aquariums they are referring to the process of making more plants to keep a plant variety alive.
When you divide a plant and replant it, you are stimulating new growth. The purpose of propagation is to improve the health of the plant.
How to propagate aquarium plants
There are two ways to propagate aquarium plants.
- Vegetative propagation happens when a part of the plant is used in the process. This could be cutting a stem, tuber, corn or any other part of the plant. This is the most common way to propagate aquarium plants.
- Sexual or seed propagation happens when a spore or seed of the parent plant is used to grow a new plant.
If you are taking the vegetative propagation route you should use long sharp scissors as you prune your plants.
Long stemmed plants should be trimmed to keep the balance of your tank. Typically, each cut sprouts 2 or 3 new leaves.
Growing plants is only part of the process. You need to take care of them in order to keep them healthy and thriving.
Here are some basic tips.
How to clean aquarium plants
One way to clean aquarium plants is to bleach them. Make a solution of 10% bleach (4 tablespoons) to one gallon of water.
Remove the plant from the aquarium and place it in your solution for about five minutes. After the five minutes is up, take the plant out and soak it in regular water.
Be sure to let them air dry before putting them back in the tank.
How to remove algae from aquarium plants
The process of removing algae from aquarium plants is much the same as just cleaning them. You want to use the same concentration of bleach solution, but when you remove the plant you’ll want to rub the leaves gently to remove any algae.
If you spot the algae quickly you may even be able to rub it off while the plant is still in the tank without removing it.
How to remove snails from aquarium plants
If you want to remove snails from aquarium plants you can make a Potassium Permanganate solution.
Mix enough of it in a bucket of water that it turns the water a dark pink color. Soak the plants for about 10-20 minutes before rinsing the plant in fresh dechlorinated water.
Be careful with the Potassium Permanganate because it is a strong oxidizer.
You can also try aquarium salt to get snails off. Use this or Kosher salt to make a solution of one cup per gallon of water.
Rinse the plants in the solution by holding the roots above water. When you’re done, rinse the plants in dechlorinated freshwater before putting them back in the aquarium.
How to trim aquarium plants
You want to trim your aquarium plants so that they don’t take up much space in the aquarium.
Be sure to use a long aquascaping tool so that you don’t get too wet. You can use tweezers, scissors, or a razor to trim the plants. The process of trimming will depend on the type of aquarium plant you have.
This guide provides all the tips you need for each type of popular aquarium plant.
Best Beginner Aquarium Plants
If you’re just starting out with live aquarium plants, you want to choose ones that don’t require a lot of maintenance.
Below, we list each type of plant from the hardiest to the ones that need less lighting. This should help you as you shop for plants for your aquarium.
Hardiest aquarium plants
- Dwarf Sagittaria
Fast growing aquarium plants
- Water Wisteria
- Dwarf Baby Tears
- Java Fern
Low tech aquarium plants
- Java Moss
- Java Fern
Low maintenance aquarium plants
- Amazon Sword
- Anubias Nana
- Java Fern
Most common types of aquarium plants
When you’re just starting out with aquarium plants, it’s usually a good idea to start with some of the most common ones.
This way you can easily find advice and information about taking care of them. Let’s break them down into several categories:
Low light aquarium plants
- Java Moss
- Java Fern
Medium-light aquarium plants
- Marimo Moss Ball
- Java Fern
- Dwarf Lily
- Crypts Tank
High light aquarium plants
- Water Sprite
- Elatine Hydropiper
- Fissidens Fontanus
Floating aquarium plants
- The Azolla (The Mosquito Fern)
- The Bladderwort.
- The Normal Duckweed.
- The Normal Salvinia
Colorful aquarium plants
- Hygrophilia Polysperma
- Rotala Indica
- Alternanthera reineckii
Flowering aquarium plants
- Sagittaria subulata
Where to buy aquarium plants
Once you decide which type of aquarium plants you want to buy, you need to know where to get them.
You can purchase them at your local pet store where fish are sold or online at a variety of sites. The best move is to search the types of plants you want and see if they can be bought near you or if you should go online.
That’s everything you need to know about freshwater aquarium plants! Get your tank and materials ready and enjoy your beautiful aquarium!