Step By Step Planted Aquarium Guide For Beginners

Planted Aquariums are exuberant nature at home
Beauty, pride and relaxation
Art and science

It can be difficult for a beginner to know how to set up a planted aquarium with the amount of conflicting information out there. But here at your online aquarium portal we want to present the guide to the planted aquarium for beginners. We are going to explain everything step by step for anyone who wants to get started with a planted tank.

We have the objective of collecting all the elementary information to know how to make a freshwater planted aquarium. Complete a basic guide on freshwater planted fish tanks to ease the way for anyone who wants to learn how to set up a planted aquarium step by step.

We are going to share planted aquarium tips for beginners on how to get started and succeed with a basic aquascape. If you want to create a planted aquarium that will truly captivate an audience, there is a lot to learn about aquarium plants for beginners.

Here you will find all the information you need to understand the science of planted aquariums step by step. On this website about online aquariums we have prepared this guide with which you will learn how to start a planted aquarium, how to install your own planted fish tank while keeping algae at bay.

Before starting work on the underwater garden, it is essential to understand the limits of your planted fish tank. It is necessary to understand the effect exerted by physical and chemical parameters, lighting and living beings.

As with many articles on, the publication has come out significantly large. To facilitate navigation through the article we added the table of contents.

How to start a freshwater planted aquarium step by step

The planted aquarium for beginners

It is very stimulating to keep live plants, they are much more impressive than plastic plants. In addition, it is possible to have a more natural and healthy aquarium.

It often happens that many aquarists want to go from having freshwater fish only to having a planted aquarium. Many times encouraged by the fantastic pictures of planted aquariums available.

But in addition to the beauty of natural plants like these, they provide biological benefits in the planted fish tank.

In fact, live plants benefit the tank ecosystem by providing more natural shelter, including food, for fish and fry.

Planted aquarium plants oxygenate the water during the day, absorb excess nutrients and/or release allelochemical defenses that can, to some extent, control algae.

Among the majority of beginners who wonder how to have a planted aquarium, there are usually two common profiles that decide to set up a planted aquarium:

The first, the beginner aquarist who goes directly through the online or local aquarium store. He buys some attractive natural planted aquarium plant varieties and plants them in his tank.

A few weeks later, the aquarist realizes that he has lanky, yellowed or withered plants, commonly infested with algae. Replacing this becomes expensive and frustrating, and it’s not uncommon for the hobbyist to abandon the planted fish tank and return to their artificial plant tank.

The second is the ambitious aquarist doing some research on planting a freshwater aquarium. The problem is that he often ends up “infoxied” by conflicting advice on how to set up a planted aquarium and unfamiliar terminology about the requirements of each desired species.

The second approach tends to produce more planted tank success stories, as you will find hardier planted aquarium plant recommendations and the easiest ways to maintain them.

We are now going to lay the foundations of a planted aquarium, for those who want to develop as an underwater gardener or aquascaper.

What is a Planted Aquarium?

It’s very simple, a planted aquarium is a tank with natural freshwater plants. But the most common thing to start in the aquarium hobby is to buy a complete aquarium kit, which includes artificial plants.

And many wonder: what is a planted aquarium for?

Aquatic plants help create a more natural and stable ecosystem in the tank, as well as beautify it.

Logically they also entail more work, research and maintenance, but any hobbyist will tell you that it is worth keeping a planted fish tank.

How to make a planted aquarium step by step?

Planted aquariums need the same basic equipment as any other tank:

  • Urn
  • Filtration Device
  • Substrate for aquarium plants
  • Lightning

When we talk about aquarium hobby, these are the essential fish tank accessories with which to maintain a prosperous small ecosystem.

Since setting up a planted aquarium is our goal, we need one more thing: natural plants.

This is the most basic to build the planted aquarium. But it is true that other accessories are also needed to carry out the control and maintenance of planted aquariums:

  • Water analysis kit
  • Thermometer
  • Utensils for water changes
  • Utensils for pruning and maintenance
  • etc

It depends on each fan how much they want to invest in their hobby. Of course, you can increment the list as much as you like:

  • Co2 injection
  • aquarium heater
  • aerator
  • high-tech equipment

Types of Planted Aquariums

We are going to see the main types of planted aquariums and the two main trends when setting up fish tanks planted with natural plants.

We can distinguish several types of planted aquariums depending on their design, style or use of technology.

Types of planted aquarium according to design

According to the composition of its design we can classify the different types of planted aquariums in:

  1. Rectangular:
    These aquariums arrange the vegetation proportionally throughout the tank.
  2. Central:
    The design of these tanks focuses on the center of the urn. It is very common in nano aquariums.
  3. Side:
    The composition concentrates the plants on one of its two sides, either left or right.
  4. V-shaped composition:
    This design is characterized by placing the vegetation on both sides, leaving the center freer.

Types of fish tanks planted according to your style

Dutch style: also known as Dutch style. The Dutch aquarium is characterized by the absolute protagonism of the flora. Neither wood nor rocks are usually used, and many times, not even fauna.

This type of planted aquarium uses a wide variety of plants located on terraces of different heights. The tallest plants are placed in the back, and more than 80% of the substrate is usually covered with vegetation.

It requires a lot of planning and work to get a real water garden.

Japanese Style: within the Japanese style we can find two major trends that we see below:

Naturist landscaping: also known as aquascaping or natural style, and its greatest representative is Takashi Amano.

This style is based on recreating natural terrestrial landscapes using an asymmetric layout with few flat species. Pursuing the beauty of minimalism, small-leaved plants, small aquatic ferns, and java moss are used.

Iwagumi: is a subtype of the naturalistic style in which the stones are the ones that take center stage in the composition.

The rocks form the main structure, with the usual use of 3 rocks, two small and one large. The large stone is located off-center and the rest occupy subordinate places with respect to the main one.

Jungle: this style is characterized by allowing the plants to take on their most natural aspect, to achieve a more wild appearance. Pruning and the use of rocks or wood are usually dispensed with. It is also not customary to leave open spaces.

It is customary to do without pruning. And the use of tall plants with thick leaves, floating plants and dark substrate is common.

Types of planted aquariums according to technology

High Tech Aquarium

The contribution of CO 2 in injection or tablet and a high level of lighting achieves a spectacular development of the plants, but also requires «spectacular» maintenance. This type of High Tech aquarium needs cleaning and pruning on a much more regular basis.

In addition, it is more difficult to find the right balance between lighting and nutrients.

Low Tech Aquarium

These low tech aquariums use lower light levels than high tech aquariums. Plant growth is generally slower. 5 to 10 times it has been observed in low tech planted aquariums without CO 2 injection.

Whether you choose a low-tech aquarium setup or a high-tech planted one, consider the combination of main factors well. You have to consider your motivation, your main goal for the planted tank. As well as the amount of time, effort and resources you want to spend on your planted fish tank. Each type of tank has its pros and cons.

In this article we are going to focus on the Low Tech planted aquarium, the planted aquarium without CO 2. Still, we will talk about the Co 2 factor, and go a little deeper into this important topic of the planted aquarium.

Low Tech Aquarium Basic Science

Broadly speaking, when Low tech plants carry out photosynthesis, they consume Co 2. Therefore, when planting an aquarium, the level of Co 2 drops a lot during the hours of light and photosynthetic activity.

The lack of CO 2 in a Low Tech aquarium essentially means that the growth rate of the plant is low. Due to that, the rate of absorption of nutrients by plants is also low as well. As a result, some planted aquarium plants can live on the nutrition provided by fish waste and decaying food.

The drawback is that in the Low Tech aquarium the ratio of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (p) and potassium (K) deviates from the ideal ratios. This can cause a long-term nutrient imbalance in planted tanks.

All this can lead to a growth retardation of some Low Tech plants. It can also be difficult to grow certain plants that are specifically sensitive to some of these limited nutrients.

In order not to limit growth in the planted tank, N, P, K and trace amounts can be added in very small quantities and occasionally. Once a week or every 2 weeks.

To avoid any accumulation of these nutrients in the low tech planted aquarium, dosing once every two months can be omitted, for example. Thus, the plants will consume the excess nutrients in the water column.

In this way, we can quite reliably maintain a non-limiting amount of nutrients in the tank. This allows all plants to grow without any nutrient-related inhibition.

It is important to have a high plant biomass in planted fish tanks. In this way, the plants can quickly recycle any ammonia in the system.

Advantages of the Low Tech aquarium

  • No testing is required and no water changes are required. This means that you can leave your planted tank alone for a week or two with no problem.
  • Much less pruning frequency due to slower growth.
  • Very low fertilizer dose, and only occasionally.
  • No risk of CO 2 overdose and suffocation of your fish
  • If any imbalance occurs in the low tech aquarium (nutrients, traces, sudden ammonia spike…), algae growth is much slower than in the high tech aquarium. This allows much more time to correct the imbalance in the system.

Low Tech Planted Aquarium Disadvantages

  • The slower growth of planted aquarium plants can be boring for some planted aquarium hobbyists. If you are the type of person who would like to prune and repot very often, you may not enjoy this type of planted fish tank as much.
  • It may be more difficult to grow some types of plants that rely heavily on high levels of CO 2 for growth. However, most plants can be grown in this type of planted tank, including many so-called «high light» plants.

Here is everything you need to know to set up your own low-tech planted aquarium.

Basic water chemistry in freshwater planted fish tanks

As with any type of aquarium, you should start with a properly cycled and established tank. With ammonia and nitrite levels reading at 0 ppm and nitrates at 40 ppm or less (ideally around 20 ppm).

If you do not know what these parameters are, or what role nitrifying bacteria play in the biological cycle of the aquarium. If you don’t know what cycling an aquarium is, you should go to our special article on this important topic.

Having the levels of ammonia, nitrites and nitrates under control, let’s see these other basic parameters of planted fish tanks to take into account.

pH level

A stable pH is important to the health of your planted fish tank. And for that it is necessary to control the level of this parameter with some type of meter such as the PH Pancellent Tester.

It is advised to buy fish suitable for local water conditions, rather than using chemicals to alter the pH. These can sometimes be stressful to both plants and fish.

Also, mixing the water to the exact pH at each water change can be too complicated. This would only cause the pH to fluctuate.

A stable pH is better for the health of the planted aquarium than a fluctuating one. And although some aquarium fish and plants are adapted to the limits, it is better to make the local water your natural water.

Water Hardness

The hardness of the water is also very important to keep under control also in the planted aquarium.

It is vital to the health of fish and plants, and is often overlooked by most new aquarists.

Having a good planted tank water analysis kit like the NT Labs NT170 allows you to monitor these important planted aquarium water parameters.

Water hardness comes in two forms: general hardness (GH) and carbonate hardness (KH), which are measured in parts per million (ppm) or degrees (dGH or dKH).

GH or General Hardness

Salts are an essential component of fresh water. They are a source of calcium, magnesium, potassium and other trace elements for fish and plants.

This parameter is also affected by the osmoregulation process in fish. That is, the internal-external maintenance of the salt/water balance.

A dissolved salt content above or below the tolerance of a specific species can cause a great deal of stress to the inhabitants of the planted tank.

Therefore, it is important to keep the GH of the planted tank at an appropriate level.

The addition of specially formulated aquarium salts (not common salt) can be used to increase hardness. It can also be by diluting very hard water with soft water or by using reverse osmosis.

The scale that measures this parameter ranges from 0 to 20. O dH is used as the unit of measurement, and in general we can establish these references for GH and water:

  • Soft: Below 8o dH.
  • Semi-soft-semi-hard: Between 8-12 o dH.
  • Hard: Above 12o dH.


Understanding KH is especially important in planted aquariums. This is because carbonates help the tank buffer fluctuations in pH. This is what is commonly known as pH buffers.

  • During the day plants photosynthesize and consume CO 2, which can be dissolved in water as carbonic acid. And the consumption of this acid can cause the pH of the planted aquarium to increase (ie the water becomes more basic).
  • At night, plants breathe like animals do. Along with aquatic fauna and bacteria, they will also add CO 2, and thus more carbonic acid, to the system. This will lower the pH of the planted tank (ie the water will become more acidic).

These changes in pH can harm fish and invertebrates in freshwater planted tanks, increasing their susceptibility to disease over time.

To dampen this rocking in planted aquariums, a carbonate acts by binding excess acid to create bicarbonate. With a more alkaline pH, the opposite occurs. Carbonic acid is created to once again balance the pH.

The CO 2 released in this reaction can also be consumed by plants. Carbonates are also a carbon source for plants when the level of dissolved CO 2 is normal, and the level of carbonic acid is low or absent.

When the KH level is very low, the carbonates are quickly depleted and the buffering capacity will disappear.

Levels below 3 dKH or 50 ppm, and the available CO 2 will be consumed by plant growth. Without buffering capacity, the natural cycles of aquarium plants can now cause dangerous fluctuations in planted aquarium pH.

Conclusions about the water of the planted fish tank

A level of 4 to 6 dGH and dKH, or about 70 to 100 ppm, is ideal for both plants and most tropical fish (excluding brackish fish and African cichlids).

To raise the KH naturally from the planted aquarium, a little calcium carbonate or baking soda can be added. Make sure it dissolves first before adding it to the tank. Calcium carbonate is preferred, as calcium is a much more useful supplement for fish.

Also keep in mind that adding bicarbonates can affect the pH making it slightly more alkaline. Therefore, monitor this parameter in the tank and at any water change. Making sure the pH stays constant is necessary for the health of your fish and plants.

Filters for the planted aquarium

We are not going to delve too deeply into the subject of aquarium filtration. For that we have our special article, Aquarium Filters, where we explain everything about the aquarium water filter. Types of filters, filter media, advantages, disadvantages, etc.

Here we are going to see a few tips about the planted tank filter.

Make sure you have a good filter with adequate flow, at least 3-4 times the volume of the tank per hour.

Also make sure the filter outlet flows unrestricted to create good circulation in the planted tank.

Good circulation helps disperse nutrients evenly among plants, thus avoiding stagnant areas. These areas where plants for planted aquarium do not receive nutrients should be avoided because they begin to die giving rise to algae.

Among the different types of filters for planted tanks, filtration systems that are placed outside the tank, such as this one, are highly recommended for the planted aquarium.

These provide excellent circulation and superior filtration capabilities, without clogging that negatively impacts flow and circulation.

If possible, try to get some filter material, be it foam or a biological medium, that is pre-cycled. This means that it is used in an established tank for a couple of weeks before installing it in your new planted tank.

Also, keep in mind that most planted aquarium hobbyists do not use activated carbon in their filters. Using this mineral removes some of the nutrients from the tank water.

Substrate for planted aquarium

Biological Filtration Purposes

The biological cycle of the aquarium is favored by the substrate, since it helps to eliminate plant debris, food scraps and fish waste. These must be eliminated to safeguard the general hygiene of the aquarium.

When you choose the right freshwater substrate, the good bacteria grow and colonize it. These colonies then naturally remove waste products, thus keeping the aquarium healthy.

Creating a natural habitat for fish

Substrates are available in different types to mimic the natural habitat of different types of fish. This will make the fish feel comfortable in the tank, making them stress-free and healthy.

Encourage plant growth

When you have a planted aquarium, it is imperative that you invest in the right substrate. This is because the plants grow well in these aquatic substrates, thus keeping your tank fresh and odour-free.

decorative purposes

Last but definitely not least, a substrate is important to decorate your aquarium and make it look visually appealing to your eyes.

Choosing the right substrate for a planted tank is challenging due to the sheer magnitude of products on the market today. For this reason, we have this article that goes deeper into the subject of substrate for planted aquariums. After reading this article, you will have a clear idea about choosing the specific substrate that best suits your needs.

Lighting for planted aquariums

Deciding which is the best Led screen for your planted aquarium depends on several factors:

  • the plants you would like to have
  • how fast you would like them to grow
  • if you plan to inject Co2 into the aquarium or not
  • How much time are you willing to dedicate to maintaining your plants…

Some plants have higher light demands, others have less demand. Often the more light is demanded, the more difficult it is for the plant to grow.

Like Glossostigma Elantinoides, this plant requires very high light intensities to achieve a lush green carpet, and can be difficult to grow otherwise.

A higher amount of light for the planted aquarium often requires more maintenance as well, as the plants will grow faster. This leads to increased pruning, fertilization, CO2 demands and water changes.

It is very easy to exceed lighting levels. Too much light can cause nuisance algae. This often leads many hobbyists to encounter problems for many years, and can lead some to leave the hobby altogether.

If you’re just starting out, it’s easier to opt for a low-light aquarium. The plants will grow more slowly, but it is much easier to grow healthy plants.

Fortunately, most plants will grow in less light, so we always mark the ones that need more light. Less lighting means less CO2 required and less fertilization. There is also less risk of an algal bloom.

If you have questions related to aquarium lighting, you can click on the link above to access our beginner’s guide to aquarium lighting.

Planted Aquarium space and population

Imagine the choice of aquarium decor and plants for a tall, narrow planted fish tank filled with peaceful tropical tetras. It will vary greatly from one that is half the height, low tech plants, 2 meters long and full of boisterous


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