Freshwater plants in an aquarium don’t just look great. They provide many benefits to the tank, including reducing algae growth and removing nitrates from the water. Plants boost oxygen levels and give your fish and other creatures a more natural environment.
If you’ve never grown plants in an aquarium, the process may seem overwhelming. Where do you start? Here’s everything you need to know about starting a planted tank.
Table of Contents
Starting a Planted Aquarium
Picking the Right Plants
Before we get into how to choose the right plants, it’s important to note that this process should begin with an empty tank without any fish. Once the tank is set up and cycled for a few weeks, you can start getting plants established.
The best way to start a planted tank is to choose the right plants. Freshwater plants have different lighting requirements, and some are more difficult to maintain than others.
Choose plants that are easy to care for to give yourself the best chance of success. Some of the best plants for beginners are lilaeopsis, anarchies, echinoderms, and Anubis. Amazon swords are a great tall plant that grows fast, and java ferns have long leaves that look great and provide protection for your fish.
If you want your tank to look lush right from the start, buy full-grown plants. Mature plants may cost a little more than immature plants, but you don’t have to wait for them to grow.
If you’re willing to take some time getting your aquarium ready, you can take cuttings from a plant or two as the plants grow. This approach is a much more affordable route than buying adult plants, but it does take some time and a lot of patience.
To take a cutting, locate the lowest stem node, and remove the leaves below. Plant the node in the substrate so that it roots and begins to grow on its own.
Just like any plant, aquarium plants use photosynthesis to produce energy, so they need the right type of lighting to stay alive. Each plant has its own lighting requirements. Some require full spectrum LED or fluorescent lights, while others can get enough sunlight from nearby windows.
Choosing a plant-friendly substrate is essential to growing plants in an aquarium. The substrate is the material that sits at the bottom of the tank. Just as houseplants need soil rich in nutrients, aquarium plants need the right kind of substrate.
The nutrient-rich substrate typically costs a little more than the regular substrate. It’s also more likely to cloud the water when disturbed. You can prevent this by adding some regular aquarium gravel to stop it from being disturbed.
Keep your fish in mind when choosing a substrate. Make sure that the one you choose isn’t going to alter the pH of the water too much as this can be harmful to your fish.
Research the plants you’re adding to the aquarium, so you know how they prefer to root. Some plants grow by rooting in the substrate at the bottom of the tank. Place the roots just under the gravel without burying the rhizome.
The rhizome is the thick green part of the plant that sits just above the roots. If it is covered, the entire plant might die.
Some plants, like java fern, grow better when anchored to wood or rocks. Use a fishing line to gently tether them to driftwood or lava rock before placing it on the bottom of the tank.
Before adding new plants to your tank, inspect them thoroughly for snails. Many aquarium plants have snails hiding in them. If these snails get into your tank, they reproduce very quickly and can affect the health of the aquarium.
To prevent snail infestations, you can dip your plant in saltwater. Use about a cup of aquarium salt in a gallon of water. Submerge the leaves in the water for about 20 seconds, leaving the roots above water.
After your tank has properly cycled and your plants have been in the tank for about a week, you can begin adding fish. Although it’s tempting, do not add your fish too early. If the tank isn’t cycled properly and the water parameters aren’t right, the fish won’t survive.
Begin adding fish a few at a time so as not to overwhelm the tank with a heavy bioload. Try adding a few a week, then test the water to make sure it’s stabilized before adding more.
This method works because the saltwater kills the snails attached to the leaves without harming the plant. When finished, be sure to rinse the leaves thoroughly before putting them in the tank.
Ideally, all plants should be kept in a quarantine tank for about a week after purchase. That said, not everyone who is just starting has a quarantine tank, but it is something to keep in mind for the future.
How to Care for Aquarium Plants
Visually inspect your plants daily to make sure they are doing okay. Prune any plants that outgrow the tank using sharp scissors or small pruning shears.
Clean the water weekly to make sure that the water parameters are what they should be. Fish are more sensitive to ammonia, nitrates, and nitrites than plants, but keeping the water clean and healthy will only benefit their growth.
You can add fertilizer to speed up plant growth, but it’s not required. If you have fish in your tank, the waste helps fertilize the plants.
If you have a lot of light in your tank, you may need to add a CO2 system. Aquarium plants absorb CO2 and turn it into oxygen. When plants are exposed to more light, it speeds up photosynthesis, which causes the plants to use up the available CO2 more quickly.
A Healthy Ecosystem
Planted tanks are a great way to create a balanced ecosystem where both plant and animal life can thrive. Remember, cycle your tank and add plants first. Check the parameter regularly, and when the tank is properly cycled, you can safely add your fish.
Keeping a planted tank takes a little bit of work, but it’s something anyone can learn to do. With the right plants, lighting, and substrate, your planted tank will be flourishing in no time.
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