Have you seen a spectacular planted aquarium and would you like to be able to do something similar in your own home? Do you buy plants that die after a few weeks and you don’t know why?
In our guide we explain some of the most common mistakes beginners make. We also offer some tips for choosing the most suitable species of aquarium plants for beginners and how to care for them.
Why do you want aquarium plants?
Plants can provide a variety of benefits in the aquarium, but you still need to consider how you want to use them and why.
In addition to the obvious aesthetic benefits, natural aquarium plants also improve the quality of the tank water.
They consume the carbon dioxide (Co 2) and the ammonia produced by the fish. They also use the nutrients necessary for algae to grow, thus helping to reduce or even eliminate algae growth in the aquarium.
They offer shelter for fish, helping to keep them stress-free, and provide natural boundaries for territorial species. They also provide protection for the fry.
Here are the advantages that live plants can provide in your aquarium:
- They convert carbon dioxide into breathable oxygen for your fish.
- They use nitrates and other waste chemicals, thus helping to remove them from the water column preventing them from harming fish.
- They saturate the tank water with oxygen, thus helping to aerate the tank.
- They provide a more natural look.
- They offer shelter and security to the fish, and serve as lines of sight that can be beneficial when we have territorial fish.
- They can be used to hide aquarium accessories, thus improving aesthetics.
You should already know that water changes are essential to maintaining the quality of the water in your aquarium. You have to change between 10% and 15% of the volume of your tank once a week or every two weeks.
And also keep an eye on the filter to make sure it’s not clogged. If you don’t know these elementary things about the practice of aquarium hobby, perhaps our basic guide to aquariums for beginners is where you should start.
When thinking about why you want plants for your aquarium, the reasons listed above are important to consider.
The benefits of live plants are obvious, however you will have to think about the details, how you want your aquarium to look when you add the plants.
Live plants come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. Depending on the size and shape you choose, you can create a lush wallpaper on the floor of your fish tank or a natural backdrop in your aquarium.
How to choose aquarium plants for beginners
But if you want your plants to thrive, you need to do your research before choosing them, just like you should do research on fish before you buy them.
There are many different aquarium plants to choose from and each one has its own care requirements.
Before you think about buying plants for your aquarium, you should take some time to think about what types will be the best fit for your fish tank and how you will care for them.
It is common for new aquarium enthusiasts to end up wondering why the plants they bought have died. There could be several reasons why this can happen.
Plants need a combination of light, Co 2, micro and macronutrients to survive.
If you are determined to introduce natural plants, we are going to see what are the basic elements that you must know in order to enjoy plants in your aquarium.
Types of aquarium plants
Aquarium plants can be divided into three different categories based on their location in the tank:
- Foreground plants are the plants that are placed at the front of the tank. They are generally shorter and grow quite slowly.
Some foreground plants are called ground plants because they tend to cover the bottom of the tank with a green, carpet-like layer instead of growing upwards, such as Cuba (Hemianthus Callitrichoides).
- Buffer plants are taller than foreground plants and can be used on the sides of the tank and in the center.
They can add aesthetics to your aquarium tank without taking away too much space for your fish to swim.
- Background plants are the larger plants used at the back of the tank. They can create a natural backdrop as well as a place for fish to hide. The Java Fern (Microsorum pteropus) is a clear example of a background plant.
What species of plants do you have in your aquarium?
It is also common for the plants to come as part of a package when buying the aquarium, and they are not labeled. Therefore, the aquarist has little or no idea what he has actually purchased.
Aquatic plants vary in shape, size, and color, as well as having different requirements for lighting, feeding, and water parameters. If you add a species that is not suitable for your aquarium, you will have a hard time keeping it healthy from day one.
A little later we will list a number of commonly available and affordable aquarium plants that are tolerant of a wide variety of water conditions and lower light levels.
It is important that you select the right species for your tank and as a beginner try to avoid those with more difficult specific requirements.
The substrate in the aquarium
Living plants need certain nutrients to thrive. And although they will absorb some nutrients from the water column, most of their nutrition will be absorbed through the roots. This is where your substrate comes into play.
Substrate is simply the material that lines the bottom of the tank and is where aquarium plants will root. But which substrate is the best for the aquarium is always the subject of much debate among aquarists.
Large gravel is not suitable for fish like Catfish, for example, as the sharp edges of the gravel can damage their delicate barbels. So aquarists with catfish in their tanks use fine sand to prevent this.
What we mean by this is that the aquarist needs to think about what species of fish and what plants he wants to keep before deciding on a substrate.
Sand and gravel substrates are fine for fish-only aquariums, but a planted aquarium will require a complete substrate that provides nutrients. If you want to know how to set up a planted aquarium step by step, take a look at our guide.
What substrate to choose for my new aquarium?
We recommend that beginners avoid coral sand or gravel and peat. The former raises the pH of the water considerably and is only suitable for specialized facilities that house fish that require hard, alkaline water.
On the other hand, peat has the opposite effect and lowers the pH, which will lead to undesirable water conditions for hard water species such as guppies or mollies.
If you are preparing to set up a new aquarium and a planted tank is on your priority list, then it is best to avoid large diameter gravel as it is not an option for healthy root development.
You will get better results with smaller gravel, 2-3mm if this is the type of substrate you choose. Keep in mind that colored gravel can raise the pH of your aquarium and is best avoided, although it is also true that many think it should be avoided for reasons of good taste only.
Alternatively you can use sand. You can use sand from the DIY store, aquarium store, or pool filter sand. However, the arena has its own problems.
Keep in mind that it can suffer from compaction, so it is necessary to move it occasionally. This must be done to prevent the build-up of hydrogen sulfide gas which could be harmful to the aquarium inhabitants.
The best way to prevent this is to simply give it a good «wiggle» when you do your regular water changes.
Also, if the sand becomes compacted it can also be difficult for the roots of some plants to grow through it. Try to provide a depth greater than 3 cm, and make sure to clean the sand well before adding it to your tank.
This can be a long and laborious task. But to try to make it easier, you can put the sand in a clean old pillowcase, and run water over the sand until it’s clean.
The good news is that there are some substrates that are ideal for planted tanks.
There are commercial products such as Caribsea ECO-COMPLETE, which contains all the nutrients that root plants need. It is available in black and in a brownish red color that looks very attractive on the tank.
There are also clay-based products, such as Laterite, that can be added to gravel or sand to bulk up the substrate with a nutrient-rich material.
Keep in mind that it is best to avoid the older types of plate aquarium filters if you want to have live plants in your aquarium. The oxygen-rich water that runs over its roots constantly does not help its growth.
Substrate from an already assembled aquarium
If your tank is already set up, you will need to consider your substrate when choosing which plants to buy and how many to plant.
If you are using a complete substrate such as CaribSea Eco-Complete or Ada Aqua Soil – Amazonia, you have many options to choose from as these substrates are designed specifically for planted tanks.
If you have a sand or gravel substrate, you can also add live plants, but you’ll need to fertilize them regularly to make sure they get the nutrients they need.
Another type of substrate you may be using is Seachem Flourite. This substrate is high in iron but devoid of other nutrients, it is also very dense and porous, but it is not a suitable choice for plants with delicate roots.
If you have soil substrate, most plants are likely to do well, but be aware that you can cloud the water in your aquarium if you disturb it to place its plants.
Lastly, keep in mind that there are also some plants that are column feeders, meaning they will get most of their nutrients from the water in the tank. In this case, there will be no problem in keeping the plants with a substrate that does not provide any nutritional value.
Aquarium plants for beginners and lighting
There are many different options for aquarium lighting, but not all of them are ideal for live plants. If you want to delve into the topic of lighting in the aquarium, here you can see our special article on this topic.
Your plants will need about 8 hours of full spectrum light per day. Full spectrum light mimics natural sunlight and is best for photosynthesis.
However, be careful about using natural light, such as placing your tank next to a window, because too much light could contribute to algae growth.
What kind of lighting do you have?
It often happens that people assume that the plants will be fine whatever the supply in the tank. While this may be true sometimes, it is not always.
Some aquariums simply don’t have what some more demanding species need. Choosing the right species for your fish tank lighting is a big step in the right direction.
Gone are the days when aquarists had to make do with grolux tubes designed for horticultural use. Today’s aquarist can choose from a wide range of different types of lighting, including:
LED lighting for aquariums
Aquarium lighting with LEDs (light-emitting diodes) has become very popular in recent times, and with good reason. They last more than 50,000 hours and do not emit heat, so they can be placed very close to the surface of the water so that the plants benefit more from the light they emit.
Its small size makes it a very flexible element when it comes to positioning them as well. In addition, it is possible to buy tube-shaped LED lighting so that it can be put in the place of fluorescent tubes.
Also these types of lamps are usually much cheaper. If you want to know more about the Led Light in the aquarium you can go through our special article dedicated to the best led lamps.
Its main drawback is that the lights need to be replaced at least every year to be effective, perhaps even every nine months or so for plants to thrive. If your fluorescent tube is three years old and your plants don’t look “good”, replace it!
There are two main types of fluorescent lights used in the aquarium hobby. These are T5 and T8.
If possible, always choose the latest T5 version. These are a better option than the old T8 lights and have several advantages. The tubes are narrower in diameter, allowing more tubes to be installed in the bell should a densely planted tank be desired.
It is recommended to use full spectrum tubes (5000-7000ºK). Unfortunately, due to the different diameters, the T5 and T8 tubes are not interchangeable unless an adapter is used.
metal halide lighting
Metal halide is expensive both to buy and to use. It is usually used by those aquarists who have aquariums with deep marine fish where their corals and other invertebrates need to receive a lot of light. Therefore, we will say no more in this beginners guide to aquarium plants.
Lighting to avoid in the aquarium
This type of lighting is not compatible with most plant species, as it simply does not emit the correct type of light that plants need.
If possible, replace it with LED or fluorescent lighting. Plus, LED or fluorescent lighting is cheaper to use than incandescent lighting, so you’ll save money in the long run.
Regardless of the type of lighting you choose, you should ensure that your aquarium is lit for 8 to 10 hours a day.
Using a timer for your lamp will help you achieve a regular photoperiod without having to keep an eye on it.
If you start to experience algae growth, reduce the amount of time the light is on and monitor the situation closely, making adjustments as necessary.
Under normal conditions, light intensity has a better effect on plant growth than photoperiod.
How much light do aquarium plants need?
As for the amount of light, it is generally recommended that the aquarium with natural plants have at least 1 watt per 3 liters as a minimum.
If you have starter plants with a high light requirement, you may need 1W per two liters, even 1W per litre.
How to feed aquarium plants for beginners?
This is a huge mistake, probably the biggest plant-related mistake made by most beginning aquarists. By not adding fertilizer, you are essentially depriving them of the nutrients they need to survive.
While it’s true that fish waste, uneaten food, and even tap water provide some of the necessary nutrients, they don’t actually provide all of it.
You will most likely end up experiencing problems such as holes in the leaves, discoloration, stunted growth, small leaves, and eventually death.
Like terrestrial plants, they require macro and micronutrients, in addition to Co 2 and light. There are several different types of fertilizers available to the aquarist.
In essence they are almost like dirt or are made of clay-based compounds and as the name suggests they form part of the substrate in your aquarium. Therefore, these fertilizers can only be added when the aquarium is being built from scratch.
If your idea is to put together a heavily planted tank, then you should really consider using this type of substrate fertilizer. It lasts for several years and provides enough nutrients for many strong, healthy plants.
Almost every really impressive planted tank you may have seen will almost certainly have a substrate fertilizer.
fertilizers in tablets
Many brands make fertilizers in tablets or pills, which are readily available. These nutrient-rich “tablets” can be added directly to the growing medium, providing the necessary nutrients for plant species such as Aquatic Grass – Lilaeopsis Brasiliensis, Echinodorus, Cryptocoryne, and Vallisneria, among others.
One of its advantages is that the plants can be fed individually when using. Some aquarists also add this type of fertilizer when adding new plants to their aquarium.
These are by far the most common aquarium plant fertilizers used today. There are many different products available in the market and it is best to look for a high quality product.
Liquid fertilizers are generally used weekly, although it is normal to consult the instructions of each manufacturer, as this can vary.
They are ideal for plant species that absorb nutrients directly through their foliage, such as Egeria densa or Java Moss (Taxiphyllum Barieri). However, they do not provide enough nutrition to species such as the Amazon swordfish.
In those cases you may need to use a combination of liquid and tablet fertilizers to feed all your plants well.
If you have an aquarium full of fish, keep in mind that you should use a liquid fertilizer that does not contain nitrogen or phosphorous. Both of these nutrients are present in fish waste, and too high a level in the aquarium will result in undesirable algae growth.
Some people believe that adding Co 2 to the aquarium is necessary for good plant growth.
This is true in aquariums with large numbers of plants where competition for Co 2 is high. Also in aquariums with high lighting levels, where plants are unable to cope with the demands of photosynthesis derived from the amount of light.
But this is not the case with aquariums populated with only a few plants.
That said, there is no denying that supplementing Co 2 will boost plant growth. However, adding Co 2 to the fish tank is a complex issue, and should not be added lightly without conducting some additional research.
For now, at least you should know that an excessive supply can kill your fish and shrimp. But delving into this topic is beyond the scope of this guide.
Ultimate tips on aquarium plants for beginners
red aquarium plants
There are several species of red aquatic plants available for cultivation in the aquarium, and they are very popular due to their attractive appearance. However, as a general rule, they tend to need a higher amount of light than their green counterparts and are therefore more difficult to maintain.
Their red appearance is often dependent on being given iron supplements. So if you buy, for example, a bunch of red Cabomba (Cabomba piauhyensis) and do not provide iron supplements, the foliage will lose its red coloration and in a few weeks it will begin to show a more brown coloration.
be careful with your prawns
If you want to put natural plants and you have shrimp in your aquarium, you should read this.
Aquarium plants are produced commercially in Europe and the Orient, the vast majority being cultivated in the latter.
In order to enter the EU, the plants must be treated with pesticides to prevent the importation of unwanted “pests”. This is a legal requirement and no importation will be allowed without this treatment process.
Although these pesticides have no effect on aquarium fish, they can and will kill aquarium shrimp, sometimes killing them all very quickly.
Unfortunately, not all aquarium stores know this, or forget to tell their customers when they buy live plants from them. Online stores can pack your order directly after receiving your shipment from the Orient, so the plants are still covered in these particularly deadly chemicals.
When these plants are added to the aquarium without soaking or rinsing, the fate of the shrimp is sealed.
In an ideal world, every aquarist would quarantine all plants before adding them to their main aquariums. In the real world, this isn’t really practical for the vast majority of hobbyists.
Therefore, we strongly recommend soaking newly purchased plants in a bucket of room temperature water for eight hours or so, changing the water completely at least four times.
Once this is done, rinse well with lukewarm, not lukewarm, water under a tap to remove all traces of pesticide. This will ensure that your plants are “prawn safe”. Even if your supplier tells you that his plants are “shrimp safe”, it doesn’t hurt to have this procedure done just in case.
Some species of snails appear to be immune to the pesticides used prior to export. Therefore, before adding any plants to your aquarium, take a look at them and check that there are no snails or snail eggs.
Failure to do so can lead to an infestation and irreparable damage to your aquarium plants.
Of course, it goes without saying that after you have invested in lighting, substrate and the correct fertilizers, you have to check the characteristics of the fish in your tank, it is necessary to make sure that our fish do not feed on plants.
No matter how good the setup is, if you have species like thegoldfish that love to eat aquarium plants, your plants will never thrive. Therefore, if your idea is to create an aquatic landscape full of natural plants, you should research the feeding habits of the fish that you are going to keep in the same tank.
aquarium plants for beginners
These are ideal because they all tolerate a wide variety of water conditions, can survive in low light conditions and have no specific fertilization or Co 2 requirements.
Now that you know a little more about aquarium plants, you can use the following information to make a better purchase decision.
If you want to learn more about using live plants in the aquarium, you can take a look at our beginner’s guide to aquascaping, where the planted tank becomes an underwater landscape.