Plants Fish Tank Guides

Live Plants in The Aquarium (The Basics)

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Beginners guide to adding live plants to your aquarium

Adding Plants to Your Aquarium

The Benefits of Live Plants in the Aquarium

Adding live plants can be great for your aquarium.  They bring several benefits to your tank, the most obvious being looks.  Live plants look great and add colour to your setup.  They are also great for your fish, plants provide something interesting to swim around and a place to hide if they are feeling a little nervous.

Many new aquarists can feel a little daunted adding plants to an aquarium, but there are many easy-care plants to get you started that don’t require too much in the means of care.


planted tank with shrimp

Why Add Live Plants?

Live Plants Act as filters

  • Live plants bring several benefits. Not only do they look great and provide your fish with some light entertainment, but they also help to keep your water clean and clear.

Plants use nitrate and phosphates as food, two things that naturally build up in your aquarium that need to be removed. If left to build up, nitrates are toxic to your aquarium inhabitants, this is why we do water changes to remove them.  Having plants will mean that your maintenance burden will be less as the plants remove some of that nitrate for you.

Phosphates enter your aquarium from feeding your fish, phosphates are a nutrient for algae which can make your aquarium look messy,  plants will absorb it before algae get a chance, meaning your aquarium could stay algae free.

It is possible that if you have a heavily planted and lightly stocked aquarium that you will not need to do water changes, just top up what has evaporated.  This is because your light stocking produces a small enough amount of waste that the plants are able to absorb all of it, preventing any build-ups.

While plants absorb nitrate at the end of the nitrogen cycle, they will also help at the start by absorbing ammonia.  Ammonia is actually better for them than nitrate or nitrite, plants consume ammonium, which is more easily converted from ammonia than later in the cycle.

One of the wastes produced by plants is oxygen, clearly, this is useful to your fish and as plants photosynthesize light they will bubble (pearl) away adding oxygen to your tank.  Plants will also use your fish’ waste as a fertiliser.  Essentially a plant is a mini-filter for your aquarium and a very good one.


planted tank producing oxygen



Taking Care Of Your Plants

What Do Plants Need?

For plants to be happy and healthy in your aquarium they will need a couple of things.  Like all living things they need food, plant food comes in various forms, some of which we have already covered.  Some food they will get through your water, in the form of your fish’ waste.  This is win-win, your tank is cleaner and your plants get fed.

They also get food from photosynthesis, this is where a plant converts light energy into food, just like outdoor plants do from the sun.  For photosynthesis to occur, plants need four things, light, water, carbon dioxide (CO2) and minerals.  Most of this is covered by your aquarium already.

Nitrogen and phosphorus are provided from your fish’ food and waste, CO2 is trapped within the water and, clearly, water is covered.  Lights will be covered shortly.  Many planted tank owners opt to increase the CO2 input.  This is done by adding a CO2 diffuser to your aquarium.  Adding more CO2 will make your plants grow much faster and thicker, so it’s certainly worth having a look at if you’re looking for quicker results.



Important things to remember

Lighting is really important for plants, the wrong light will mean that they cannot photosynthesize.  The lighting you require will ultimately come down to what type of plants you keep, some plants like lower levels of light whilst some require intense light.   Low light requiring plants are much easier to care for and much better to get you going into the world of planted tanks.

Lumens:  This is a measurement of how much visible light a bulb will produce.  More lumens = brighter light.  As an example, a low light requirement plant will need a light that produces 15 to 25 lumens per litre of water, medium-light plants will require 25-50 and high light requiring plants will need 50+ lumens per litre.

Watts:  Older style lighting, such as T5/T8 bulbs may be measured in Watts rather than Lumens, this rating comes from the amount of power the bulb uses rather than the light it produces so they can be a little trickier to get right.  In general:  0.25W per litre = low, 0.5W per litre = Medium, 0.8W+ per litre = High.

Colour temperature:  This is another factor to consider when setting up your aquarium lighting.  Colour temperature simply means the colour of the light produce and it is measured in Kelvin (K).  Normal daylight is around 6500K.  Plants don’t particularly care about what colour you choose, however, the colour of your light will affect the look of your plants, anywhere between 5000 – 8000k will look pretty natural.

PAR (Photosynthetically Active Radiation):  PAR can be very complicated and, to be honest, pretty boring.  To simplify it, this is how much of the light produced is useable by your plants for photosynthesis.  Different plants require light of different wavelengths to thrive so this becomes more important with difficult care plants.  Most aquarium plants will be pretty happy providing your light is bright enough for them as light produces a mix of wavelengths anyway unless you have a very special bulb.


You may be thinking after reading this that having plants means expensive lighting.  This isn’t the case, we have had great success keeping plants with an Aquarien Eco LED that cost around £25.  So, it doesn’t have to break the bank.


planted shrimp tank aquarien eco




Helping Your Plants Flourish

Just like the plants in your garden, aquarium plants will appreciate a little fertiliser.  Adding fertiliser tops up the food and nutrients available to the plants and helps them to flourish.  Plant fertilisers come in various forms, tablets that can be buried in your substrate, liquid that you pour into the tank, it can even be included in your substrate.

Plants absorb nutrients in a variety of ways, so it doesn’t particularly matter which way you add nutrients in most cases.  Plants can absorb them through their roots, from the substrate and directly from the water column.  Some plants, such as Anubias, moss and Java fern need to be attached to wood/rocks and not have their rhizomes buried, these type of plants rarely have roots in the substrate so will take their nutrients from the water column.

If you have invertebrates in your aquarium it is important to check the contents of your fertilisers, many contain copper, which is good for plants but lethal to invertebrates such as snails and shrimp.

As you add fertilisers they are absorbed and used up by your plants, so regular top-ups will be in order.  There are usually instructions on how much to dose, but keep an eye on your aquarium as too much fertiliser will feed algae too, which will spread quickly.


Common problems

Things To Look Out For

There are a few common problems that can occur when you first add plants to an aquarium.  This regularly causes the idea of having them to go out the window.  But most issues are easy to fix.

One of the most common issues is that the plants seem to almost immediately die off.  This is common because many aquarium plants are grown in an emersed (above the water) state before they are sold.  This gives the plant a bit of a shock when it is suddenly dunked under the water and commonly lands them in the bin, presumed dead.  However, once they get over this shock they usually bounce back pretty quickly, so give them a little time to settle in.

Some fish will eat plants.  In the wild, plants would be a food source for vegetarian or omnivorous fish.  So don’t be too surprised if your plants get snacked on occasionally.  Some fish though will utterly destroy them.  Goldfish and larger Cichlids are certainly in this group so if you keep these and you want to add plants, go for a tougher plant such as an Anubias.   I keep Anubias with my CA Cichlids, they just about survive.


Planted tank


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About the author

James @Seriously Fishy

I am a fish keeping enthusiast with over 20 years experience. I currently keep American Cichlids (CA) which are my favourite fish to keep so far. I started Seriously Fishy as I noticed a large volume of people on various web pages looking for help with Aquarium basics. I created the first Seriously Fishy book to solve the issue in 28 pages, that led to the Seriously Fishy UK fish forum and blog.

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