How to Care for Aquarium Plants

Caring for aquarium plants is easy, and your fish will enjoy them too.  Live plants create a natural balance and harmony for your fish, giving them something to nibble on and places to hide.  These are only some of the reasons why keeping a planted aquarium is a clever idea.  The benefits are not only for your fish, but live plants will save you time on cleaning too.  You can create an attractive garden to admire while you are enjoying your tank.

This guide will give you everything you need to know to care for a planted aquarium.  From setup, which will include everything you need to do to create an aquarium that will support the growth of your plants.  To understand how to grow plants from seeds, seedlings, and cuttings, which will save you money and have many other advantages.

How to remove snails from aquarium plants, disinfect and quarantine new plants.  It is essential to keep your display tank free of pests, and harmful bacteria could be destructive to other plants and your fish. 

Although you should not need to know how to clean algae off live aquarium plants in a well-balanced aquarium, we will take you through the steps of cleaning your living plants.  If algae or slime is growing on your plants, you need to decrease your light and plant more plants to compete for food against the algae.

We supply an extensive list of plants to help you make the right selection for you and what you can provide for these plants.  These lists include Low and high light aquarium plants, plants that are easy and hard to take care of and hardy plants that tolerate changes.  Various kinds of mosses you get each with different textures and heights.

We will take you through the steps of what your plants need to thrive and answer some essential questions that will help you keep aquarium plants.

How to Set Up a Planted Aquarium

 Aquarium plant care takes a bit of effort, but live aquarium plants help you keep your fish tank environment clean.  To minimize problems, you need to set up a living fish tank correctly, and any new additions (fish or plants) need to be cleaned and sterilized before being added to your fish tank.

Fish tank plants serve three essential functions.  The plants keep algae at bay by competing with it for the same nutrients as created in the nitrogen cycle, making it harder for algae to take hold.  It creates a natural environment for fish.  Living plants keep fish less stressed by providing places for them to hide and a little something to nibble on between feeding.

How to Create a Planted Aquarium

It is better to start with the plants if you want to create a planted aquarium.  With an empty fish tank, you have many different options.  You can purchase seedlings, grow your plants from seed or just buy fully grown live plants from your local fish store. 

The number of plants you will need depends on several factors.  The number and type of fish you are planning to keep and how much waste they produce.  The place you are planning to house your fish tank.  The light, how changeable the environment will be, and how much effort you want to put into caring for the plants.  If you select plants that match your criteria, you will create an environment that will suit you.

Plan the layout of your aquarium with tall aquarium plants at the back or sides with lower ones in front of the fish tank.  If you want to include aquarium decorations like aquarium rocks and driftwood, consider attaching plants to coordinate them into the aquascape. 

If you have a large tank and want to fashion a bed of varying heights, you can create mini-mountains and valleys.  Use lava rocks in netting bags, harmless to the environment, and will allow roots to grow through them.  After you cover them with substrate and plants, these rocks will be stable and invisible.

All these factors will play a role in the type of plants.  The decisions that you make are: 

  • Plan the look of the garden scape
  • Understand the environment you are creating for your fish
  • Select plants that suit the look and the environment

You need aquarium plant tools to work with these small plants for both planting and pruning like Aquarium Aquascape Tools or similar and a net to scoop up the leaves.

Also read – How to Build Your Own DIY Fish Tank – A Step by Step Guide

How to Create Aquatic Plants Soil

No matter which type of aquarium plants you decide to use or if you plan to use seeds, seedlings, or full-grown plants, the substrate is the same.  You begin with a clean, sterilized, empty tank.  If you are not sure how to do this, read our article on how to clean a freshwater fish tank if you need to find out how.  Once it is dry and all the chlorine has evaporated, you can begin.

If you are creating valleys and hills, position your lava bags around the aquarium.  Fill the bottom of your tank with fluorite or another feeding substrate that will supply nutrients for your plants and a place for their roots to anchor and take hold.  Add Eco-complete as your next layer, and this creates your fish tank substrate, and you are ready for plants.

Add your other fish tank plant decorations, for example, aquarium rocks and driftwood (boil to sterilize) to your tank.  Water the substrate well as it is easier to plant into wet soil, and both your plants and your seeds would appreciate it.

Grow from Seeds Using the Dry Start Method

Are you confused with the idea of a dry start for aquarium plants? Most plants are semi-aquatic rather than aquatic and begin life in a wet environment but not completely covered with water.  Keep your substrate wet but not pooling and water a few times a day as soon as you notice that the sand is drying.  The soil needs to remain wet.

All you do is buy the required seeds.  Sprinkle seeds evenly around your tank on top of your substrate.  Plant more seeds than the number of plants you want, some seeds may not take, and if you have too many, you can remove them or plant them in another area.

Now that you have planted your seeds, you have to create an environment that will help them grow.  Cover the tank with cling wrap; this will keep the habitat warm and wet for your fish tank plants.  Lift the cling wrap off the tank to allow it to breathe daily for about half an hour.  Use this time to add more water before you replace the cling wrap check if the substrate is wet.  Keep light on your fish tank for about 12 hours a day, as seeds need plenty of light to grow.

It will take between 4 to 7 days for your aquarium plants to show growth (this may be a bit longer depending on the conditions you have provided for your plants.)  Once the plants are established, your fish tank is ready for the water.

Fill your tank with prepared water slowly.  Pour it directly on the sides of the fish tank to prevent your plants from lifting.  Replanting them is harder.  Add a filter and heater if you need to.  Pour stabilizer into your filter, add primer and plant food, and your underwater plants will thrive. 

Add your other decorations to your tank, and you are ready to cycle your tank for fish.  Fish tank plants decrease the cycling time test every two weeks to see if the nitrogen cycle is ready for fish.

An Aquarium Planting Guide

A quick explanation for planting aquarium plants is:

  • For seeds sprinkle around the fish tank
  • For seedlings and plants use tweezers to hold the plant and push it into the substrate and cover using the thumb of your other hand as you pull the tweezers out
  • Water if necessary
Planting, Seedlings or Offshoots

The first step to planting any plants is to wet the substrate thoroughly.  Keep a mist spray bottle handy to keep your awaiting plants hydrated while you are planting and after you have planted it, before moving onto the next one. Don’t worry about overwatering, remember these are semi-aquatic plants that need an abundance of water.

There are two basic types of root systems fibrous and stems; treat each differently.  If you have purchased your seedling, you will have an extra step, remove packaging to expose the roots.  Fibrous roots system: pull parts of the plants into separate sections.  Be gentle, and don’t damage the roots or plant.  Each section needs roots and leaves.  For the stem roots, you will plant each root separately.  If you have purchased a pot, there will be more than one plant per pot.

To plant either hold the plant with tweezers and push the roots under the substrate.  Use your thumb as you pull out the tweezer and balance the plant into the substrate.  Water if you need to.  As you plant them, remember to leave enough space for the root system to develop and space for the leaves to spread. 

Tip for fibrous roots: For well develop long roots, you can trim them but use this tip with caution as it could damage the plant.

Aquarium plants that don’t need soil (Lithophytes) like the Anubias and moss attach to driftwood or rocks.  To plant them simply place them on or into the holes or fissures of the rocks or driftwood.  If you want to attach these plants or moss to another place without either use florist glue, like Oasis Floral Adhesive to glue the plant to the rock or wood.  Put a small amount of glue onto the wood or rock; attach the plant onto it.  Hold the plant in place for 30 seconds to a minute.  The root system and plant will develop and grow.

Also read – Glass vs. Acrylic Aquariums – Which One is a Better Choice?

Pruning Your Plants, the Right Way Will Make Cuttings Too

Planting pruning and rerouting aquatic plants is the same as their terrestrial counterparts.  Pruning plants, the same way you trim them to create cuttings, will minimize the stress on the plant.  Less stress means a healthy growing plant.

How to Prune Aquarium Plants

Most plants will have new offshoots; once they have grown and become stronger, you can prune them away from the parent plant.  Place the cutting into a glass and allow it to grow roots and replant them.  Below is more specific advice for a stem, rhizomes, and creepers.

Pruning and shaping stem plants are similar to pruning and shaping bonsai, changing the growing direction and shape.  Cutting the nodes and branches above them will create two separate branches and will add width rather than height to your plant.  If you want to add height, trim the side branches off at the nodes.  Change the direction a branch is growing in: tie a string around the branch the other end to a rock or another branch.

If you wish to cultivate this plant from the cuttings, place each cutting (node end) into a glass of water and wait for roots to develop.  Replant the healthy-looking roots that are white and firm, slimy, off-color, or grey roots have rotted.

Rhizomes and other fern-like plants are trimmed from the bottom and sides by cutting the stem at the base.  Trim all yellowing leaves (usually located near the base of the plant) and cultivate the rest into the shape you want.

Creepers and runners: You must keep a sharp eye on these and prune offshoots quickly before they overtake parts of the tank where you don’t want them.  If you want more in a different location, plant the cut off in the new area and it will grow.

When and How to Prune Your Aquarium Plants

Once your plants grow too tall for the aquarium or too bushy, you will have to trim your live aquatics plants.  Depending on how fast your plants grow and how neat you wish to keep, it will determine how often you need to prune your plants.  If you have to do this more than every two to three months, or you have algae growth reduce the number of hours they spend under light or the amount of food they have available.

Using pruning scissors and tweezer to hold and cut leaves at the stems.  Removing the leaves you have in the tweezer from the tank is a bit of extra work but will save you time later. Continue until you achieve the desired shape.  Consider the shape of your plant background throughout your tank as you are shaping each of the plants.

Don’t get carried away; other plants may be low maintenance and may not require pruning at this time.  After this, the tank will need a deep water change up to 40% to remove all debris.  Top up with prepared water and you are done.

Tips for Pruning Aquarium Plants
  • Prune plants the same day you are planning to clean your tank as you have to siphon 30-40% of your tank.
  • Turn off the heater (if you have one attached) and filter
  • Remove the lid and lower the water to prevent spillage
  • Remove all floating debris and leaves with a net
  • Work on alternative sides to create balance in your planted aquarium
  • Use the cuttings to add to your aquarium or replace plants without having to purchase and disinfect new ones.

How to Clean Live Aquarium Plants

If you purchase your plants, you will have to sterilize then clean your plants.  For a planted aquarium, if you have algae on aquarium plants, you may have to clean your aquarium plants.  If you have an algae outbreak, you need to clean your plants to help you maintain the habitat, keep your plant looking healthy, and help decrease the algae overall.   

Try one(or all) of the following methods to get rid of algae in your tank:

How to Clean Aquarium Plants

Fill a sink or container with water and match the temperature to the temperature in your fish tank. Remove the plants from the aquarium or packaging carefully to prevent stems and leaves from breaking.  Take great care to wipe the algae from each leave from the top and the bottom of each leaf.  Trim rotten and eaten leaves from the plants.  Rinse with clean running water and clear running water.  Scrub the stem of the plant.  Rinse the roots thoroughly.

Soak the plants for 10 minutes and rinse with dechlorinated water before you replant your salt or freshwater plants.  For new plants, you can keep the plants in quarantine, or you need to disinfect the plant.

Adding new aquarium plants to you fish tank

With planted aquariums, you may want to purchase new plants.   Live aquarium plants may have snail eggs or other pests and bacteria that may cause your fish or plants to get sick or cause an outbreak of snails.

It is crucial to disinfect aquarium plants before adding them to your aquarium.  There are three methods you can use. 

Using Seedlings That Are Not Infected

There are three different options you can use.

Purchasing Vitro or Tissue Cultured Plants

Purchasing Vitro plants is the most expensive method, but if you don’t want to sterilize your underwater plants, you can buy fish tank plants that are tissue cultured known as Vitro plants. 

These plants are grown in sterile laboratories and are free of pests and diseases.  An example of this plant is the Greenpro Micranthemum.  Remove the growing medium and separate the plants and push them into the substrate.  Vitro plants need a good amount of feed to encourage them to grow at first.

Using Cuttings from Your Fish Tank

Using cuttings from your fish tank is the longest but cheapest of the three methods but has many benefits.  These plants are from your aquarium, and if you use aquarium water to cultivate and grow your root system, you will not add any foreign materials to your fish tank.

Purchasing Plants from Fish Only Aquascapes

Purchasing from aquascapes may be the least effective as the plants may carry bacteria that may infect your other plants.  Many good pet stores cultivate plants and keep them in aquascape tanks, and if you purchase your plants from these tanks, they will not have snail eggs or other illnesses carried by fish.

How to Disinfect Aquarium Plants
You Can Disinfect Plants With a Bleach/Alum Solution for Freshwater Plants

If you buy plants, they can be infected with snail eggs, but you may not want to have these eggs hatch in your tropical aquarium.  To kill snail eggs, use a bleach or Alum solution, which is less harmful but won’t kill all the snail eggs.

For less sensitive plants, you can use bleach.  Use 1 cup regular bleach to 20 cups water, Soak the plants in the bleach solution for 2 minutes and no longer or it will kill your live aquarium plants.  Rinse thoroughly with dechlorinated or RODI water to remove chlorine from the plant.

If the idea of cleaning your living plants with bleach puts you off, you can clean aquarium plants with vinegar.  It means more time wiping away algae, but you will not get as much off as with bleach.  You will have to place the plant in quarantine as you cannot kill snail eggs with it.

For Alum, add 2 – 3 teaspoons of Alum to a gallon of water and soak the plants for 2-3 hours.  Rinse thoroughly with dechlorinated or RODI water to remove chlorine from the plant.

To Disinfect Saltwater Plants, You Can Use Saltwater

You can use this method with live freshwater aquarium plants, too, if you do not want to use bleach or vinegar on your plants.  If you have saltwater plants, use aquarium saltwater solution and dip the plants into the water for a while and rinse well before adding it to your aquarium.

Also read – How to Clean a Saltwater Fish Tank (A Step by Step Guide)

Keep Sensitive Plants in Quarantine

It is a good idea to keep all creatures and plants separate before you add them to your aquarium.  Keeping them in quarantine for a period may help for some bacteria from 2 to 4 weeks for sensitive aquarium plants. 

Some aquarium plants do not like sudden changes.  While the plants are in quarantine, add aquarium water to their tank every day to adjust to the environment.  Snails eggs hatch in about 4 weeks, so dipping the plants after will help prevent snails from entering your aquarium.

How to Keep Live Plants in an Aquarium

Underwater plants are often treated as disposable elements of an aquarium, but they are there to be cultivated.  Aquarium plants, like all living things, plants need care to keep aquarium plants from dying.  Many plants sold are only semi-aquatic but will grow in water if they have all the elements they need.

Fish tank plants need three things to thrive:

  • Light
  • Nutrients
  • CO2

Aquarium plants like traditional plants photosynthesize, and for this, plants need both light and CO2 to keep your aquarium plants healthy and growing.  If you are experiencing the death of your plants, one of the three elements is missing.

CO2 for Aquarium Plants

CO2 is the one element required for plants to photosynthesize and to create CO2 for them; you have two options.

Using Gas CO2

Purchase a CO2 gas canister and release it into pipes that will run the gas through a diffuser and release it into your fish tank.  The CO2 will dissolve in the water, and this will be taken up by your fish tank plants.  The system can be purchased as a complete unit like the Cobella Spiral CO2 Diffuser.  Or you can create a DIY system.

Using Liquid CO2

Liquid CO2 is a less effective and more expensive method.  Using Gluterdehyde, which is a form of carbon that plants can create CO2.  The concentration differs between brands add the amount required to the aquarium as per the directions on the bottle.

Lighting for Aquarium Plants

There is different lighting you can choose from depending on what you need.  From illumination and lights with different wavelengths to stimulate the growth of different elements that are in your tank from corals to plants. 

The basic tube or LED light that the aquarium comes with will not be sufficient.  If your plants turn brown and die within a few weeks, replace it with a plant growing tube or LED light.  The strength of which will depend on the amount of light your plants need.

Aquarium Plants Fertilizer

The nitrate levels may decrease, and you may find the need to feed underwater plants.  For this, you use fertilizer.

Pellets Which Will Last a Few Weeks (Root Uptake)

Fertilize in the form of pellets are for plants that take up their nutrients through their roots system, bury the pellets into the substrate.  Feeding plants with pellets last longer, and you do this less frequently.

Liquid Fertilizer Used About Once a Week (Leaves Uptake)

Liquid fertilizer is easy to use for plants that use their leaves to take in nutrients.  Add a cap full (or as otherwise directed) directly into the tank weekly.

If you are just setting up your fish tank and want to use live aquarium plants, use a fertilizing substrate like Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum under your primary substrate; this eliminates the need for any more fertilizer.  Line your tank with 1 to 2cm with substrate, and plant your seedlings into this soil.  Add particle element to your water as an when you need to. 

To Make Homemade Fertilizer

Clean and break up eggshells removing the membranes, purchase charcoal, and bury this mixture into the substrate for the plants to use.  Charcoal releases carbon for the plants to use, and eggshells give the plants calcium.  If you use this method, check the PH level of the water after a few hours.

Lists of the Best Aquarium Plants Depending on Your Needs

To help you select the right type of plants for your fish tank, we have created 6 different lists.

  • high light aquarium plants
  • low light aquarium plants
  • easy aquarium plants
  • hardy aquarium plants
  • hard water aquarium plants
  • aquarium moss types

Each section has different heights, textures, and colors for you to have a variety, no matter what your needs are.  You will find that some plants make multiple lists depending on their main characteristics.

High Light Aquarium Plants

  • Cardamine Lyrate
  • Blyxa Japonica
  • Cardamine Lyrate
  • Cryptocoryne Crispatula
  • Cryptocoryne Parva
  • Echinodorus ‘Barthii’
  • Glossostigma Elatinoides
  • Hemianthus Micranthemoides
  • Hydrocotyle Verticillate
  • Lagenandra Meeboldii ‘Red’
  • Limnophila Aromatica

Low Light Aquarium Plants

  • Alternanthera Reineckii ‘Mini’
  • Anubias Barteri Caladiifolia
  • Anubias Barteri Var. Angustifolia
  • Bacopa ‘Compact’
  • Anubias Barteri Var. Angustifolia
  • Anubias Barteri Var. Nana
  • Anubias Gracilis
  • Anubias Nana ‘Large’
  • Bacopa ‘Compact’
  • Cryptocoryne Wendtii
  • Cryptocoryne Wendtii ‘Green’
  • Helanthium ‘Quadricostatus’
  • Lilaeopsis Brasiliensis
  • Marsilea Hirsuta

Easy Aquarium Plants

  • Anubias Barteri Var. Angustifolia
  • Anubias Barteri Var. Barteri
  • Anubias Barteri Var. Caladiifolia
  • Anubias Barteri Var. Nana
  • Anubias Nana ‘Large’
  • Anubias ‘Petite’
  • Bacopa Caroliniana
  • Bucephalandra Sp. ‘Red’
  • Cryptocoryne Beckettii ‘Petchii’
  • Cryptocoryne Undulata ‘Broad Leaves’
  • Cryptocoryne Undulatus ‘Red’
  • Cryptocoryne Usteriana
  • Cryptocoryne Wendtii
  • Cryptocoryne Wendtii ‘Green’
  • Echinodorus ‘Bleherae’
  • Echinodorus Cordifolius ‘Fluitans’
  • Eleocharis Acicularis
  • Limnobium Laevigatum
  • Ludwigia Palustris
  • Marsilea Hirsute
  • Microsorum Pteropus ‘Narrow’
  • Phyllanthus Fluitans
  • Salvinia Auriculata

Hardy Aquarium Plants

  • Anubias Barteri
  • Anubias Barteri Var. Nana
  • Bucephalandra ‘Kedagang’
  • Bucephalandra Sp. ‘Red’
  • Bucephalandra ‘Wavy Green’
  • Ceratophyllum Demersum ‘Foxtail’
  • Cryptocoryne Albida ‘Brown’
  • Cryptocoryne Undulata ‘Broad Leaves’
  • Echinodorus Cordifolius ‘Fluitans’
  • Eleocharis Acicularis
  • Helanthium Tenellum ‘Green’
  • Lilaeopsis Brasiliensis
  • Microsorum Pteropus

Hard Water Aquarium Plants

  • Aponogeton Boivinianus
  • Aponogeton Longiplumulosus
  • Aponogeton Ulvaceus
  • Bacopa Australis
  • Blyxa Japonica
  • Bolbitis Heudelotii
  • Cryptocoryne Crispatula
  • Cryptocoryne Parva
  • Eriocaulon Cinereum
  • Hemianthus Callitrichoides ‘Cuba’
  • Hygrophila ‘Compact’
  • Lagenandra Meeboldii ‘Red’
  • Limnophila Aromatica
  • Micranthemum Tweediei ‘Monte Carlo’

Aquarium Moss Types

  • Fissidens Fontanus
  • Hygrophila Pinnatifida And Moss
  • Monosolenium Tenerum
  • Riccardia Chamedryfolia
  • Riccia Fluitans
  • Taxiphyllum Barbieri
  • Taxiphyllum ‘Flame’
  • Taxiphyllum ‘Spiky’
  • Taxiphyllum ‘Taiwan Moss.’
  • Vesicularia Dubyana ‘Christmas’
  • Vesicularia Ferriei ‘Weeping’

FAQs on How to Care for Aquarium Plants!!!

How Many Plants Do You Need in Your Aquarium to Make a Difference? The amount of plants you need depends on the nitrogen cycle of your tank and what you want to do with them.  Live aquarium plants absorb nutrients at different rates, and the amounts of waste your fish create differ.  As a rule of thumb, if you see algae growth, you need more plants.

If you want to keep your aquarium clean, start with high-density plants.  Test your nitrate levels if they are too low nitrate remove plants.  Monitor your tank and if you see them turning yellow or dying.  Keep going until you find a balance. Check out how to lower nitrate in your aquarium.

If you are using plants to create a beautiful tank, only add the number of plants, you need to create the look you want.

How Many Hours of Light Do Aquarium Plants Need? The amount of light you need depends on the type of plants you have, low or high light aquarium plants.  Some plants can live in low light aquariums but produce different colors if provided with high-density lighting.  As a rule of thumb, high light plants need about 8 hours of light and low light plants requiring about 6 hours.

In the beginning, only use 6 hours of light for your plants to grow without encouraging algae until the plants have established themselves then move to 8 hours of light.

What Is the Best Substrate for Aquarium Plants? Aquarium plants need food, and the best aquarium substrate for plants provides not only food but a good purchase in the tank. 

Try either the Seachem Flourite Black Clay Gravel or the UP AQUA Sand for Aquatic Plants for plants.

How to Harvest Wild Aquatic Plants for a Home Aquarium? I wouldn’t recommend harvesting wild plants as these plants may carry bacteria or pests.  If you are going to use this method, you need to sterilize the plant before you add them to your aquarium.  Cut the plant as appropriate read the section on how to prune aquarium plants.

Cut extra pieces in case some do not cultivate and collect some of the water at the same time.  Add the cut sections into the water the plant was taken from and wait for roots to develop.  Sterilize the plants as per section on how to disinfect aquarium plants; I would use bleach and hope for the best. 

Keep the tanks in quarantine in clean water and add some of the water from your tank daily to allow the plant to acclimatize to the new environment.  Keep the plants in quarantine for two months cleaning the water when you start the second month.

A Planted Aquarium Can Be a Hobby on Its Own

When creating your planted aquarium, think of it as an aquatic garden.  With many different textures, colors and heights, you have the freedom to create any landscape you want.  Remember the heights and colors when you are planning your planting, and you will love this as an addition to your fish keeping hobby.  Replanting your cuttings has two benefits, you will save money and not introduce foreign elements to your tank.  The only drawback is this method takes time.

If you live in an apartment and want to care for a garden, you can keep these plants as semi-aquatic in a fish tank and have all the benefits of an attractive indoor garden.  The only difference (other than not adding fish) is you will not fill the fish tank with water.  Keep the substrate wet, but don’t fill the fish tank with water.  You can keep smaller bowls to brighten any corner of your home with a splash of greenery.

Also read – How to Choose the Best 55 Gallon Fish Tank on the Market

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