Carpet Crash Course: Carpeting Plants 101

Posted by Augusta Hosmer on

Read Time: 4 minutes

If there's one thing everyone in the aquarium hobby might actually agree on, it's that aquascaped carpets look epic and we all secretly (or not so secretly) want one in our tanks. "How do I get my tank to look like that?" is one of the most frequently asked questions when it comes to carpeting plants. Unfortunately, a lot of people jump in head first, can't get a carpet established, and get discouraged without realizing where they went wrong. Carpets can definitely feel daunting, but they don't have to. 

If you've ever asked the questions "How do I set up carpeting plants in my tank?", "What species should I get?", or "Can I grow carpeting aquarium plants without CO2?" we have your answers here. You CAN have carpets, and we'll tell you how. 

Why You Want Carpeting Plants

To begin with, once you get a carpet established, it looks badass no matter what species you choose. It's also a good indicator that you're figuring out your planted tank skills, because carpets can be tricky and require more patience than stem plants. Like all live aquarium plants, these species help prevent algae buildup and oxygenate your tank. And, as an added bonus, carpeting plants make great hiding places for fish fry and shrimp.

A bunch of Dwarf Baby Tears Aquarium Plants

How to Establish Carpeting Plants: Biology and Keeping It Natural

One of the biggest reasons people struggle with aquarium plants (carpets in particular) is not understanding plant biology. Or, even simpler for the folks who want a blog post and not a science class they didn't sign up for: not noticing how these plants survive in the wild without try-hard fishtank people hovering over them with cans of carbon dioxide and lots of four letter words.

Usually, troubleshooting carpeting plants comes down to three things: light, human error, and/or essential chemical elements. It's deceptively simple: in the wild, these plants typically live in very shallow water (i.e. an environment with full sunlight, easy surface access for CO2, and fertile riverbank soil). This means if you try most of these species in low light, deep tanks, and/or substrate without essential micro and macro nutrients, you're setting your plants up for failure by putting them in an environment that's the exact opposite of the one in which they evolved.

Even in the wild, these plants typically have delicate and/or shallow root systems, so two common mistakes people make with carpeting plants are accidentally damaging the roots with rough handling or not planting them correctly in their substrate to maximize nutrient uptake. 

You should also pay attention to how these plants interact with each other in natural settings. Many have long runner/stem systems that grow out horizontally, and eventually, a group of these plants will join together if they're close enough to do so. 

Dwarf Chain Sword

So, knowing all those things, how do you grow carpeting plants? First, know your experience and choose your plants accordingly. You don't have to pick a difficult species to have a cool carpet. We've listed some out by skill level below. Along those lines, we've also listed the types of substrate/light levels in which they'll grow. Obviously, all of them would grow better with higher light and CO2, but there are some you can get away with if you don't have those things. They may grow more slowly, but you can make it work. Similarly, all of these would thrive in a dirt substrate or in a planted tank substrate like Fluval, but some either don't need a substrate or can grow in just plain gravel, too. Overall, though, if you want to grow a carpet quickly, amp up your lights and nutrients and consider CO2 supplementation. 

With regard to the roots and stems, planting these in a grid-like pattern can help your plants stitch themselves into a carpet with enough initial resources for each individual plant. You should also plant them deeply enough to maximize root surface area without burying the leaves. You may have to anchor them for a while to keep them from floating, as well. 

Also, an important note with all these guys: if you have cichlids or other plant destroyers who enjoy digging in your substrate and you're thinking of starting a carpet in their tank...don't. Unless you're a masochist; we aren't telling you how to live your life. If you're not, try these plants out instead. Carpeting plants' leaves are fine enough that cichlids and goldfish laugh before they rip them apart. It'd be like manicuring a lawn and then turning goats loose on it. 

Carpeting Aquarium Plant Species To Try

  1. Dwarf Sagittaria subulata (Dwarf Sag)
    Skill level: Beginner. Light level: low to high. Substrate: likes plant substrate or dirt but can also just grow in gravel. CO2 supplementation needed: No

    Dwarf Sag Aquarium Plant
    Dwarf Sagittaria Subulata

  2. Java moss (Vesicularia dubyana)
    Skill level: Beginner. Light level: low to high. Substrate: whatever you want; it doesn't need it. CO2 supplementation needed: No

    A ball of java moss

    Java Moss
  3. Staurogyne repens
    Skill level: Beginner. Light level: low to high. Substrate: this plant loves dirt because it's a root feeder. CO2 supplementation needed: No

    A carpet of Staurogyne aquarium plant
    A carpet of Staurogyne? Yes please.
  4. Micro Sword (Lilaeopsis brasiliensis)
    Skill level: Advanced beginner. Light level: medium to high. Substrate: dirt or planted tank substrate. CO2 supplementation needed: not necessarily, but it will do better with it
    Micro Sword Live Aquarium Plant
    Micro Sword
  5. Dwarf Chain Sword (Echinodorous tenellus, AKA Helanthium tenellum) 
    Skill level: Advanced beginner. Light level: medium to high. Substrate: Planted tank substrate or dirt. CO2 supplementation needed: not necessarily, but will make your life easier
    Dwarf Chain Sword Aquarium Plant
    Dwarf Chain Sword
  6. Dwarf Hair Grass
    Skill level: Intermediate-advanced. Light level: high. Substrate: Planted tank substrate or dirt. CO2 supplementation needed: Yes
    Dwarf Hair Grass Aquarium Plant
    Dwarf Hair Grass
  7. Dwarf Baby Tears (Micranthemum callitrichoides)
    Skill level: Intermediate-advanced. Light level: high. Substrate: Planted tank substrate or dirt. CO2 supplementation needed: Yes
    Potted Dwarf Baby Tears Aquarium Plant
    Dwarf Baby Tears

If you're someone who learns better with a video than text, Dustin has some great carpeting/foreground plant videos, too: 

Best and Worst Carpeting Plants

How to Grow Foreground/Carpeting Plants

How to Plant Dwarf Baby Tears

How to Trim Aquarium Plants: Trimming Baby Tears

If you want a post on a particular fish tank topic we haven't gotten to yet, let us know! There's nothing I won't write about. As always, tank on!

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