Step-by-Step Guide For Starting an Epic Planted Tank

Posted by Augusta Hosmer on

Read Time: 12 minutes

How to set up a planted tank, tips and tricks for beginners, and freshwater aquarium plant recommendations 

This is the start of a two-part series, so buckle up, fish tank people. In part one (this post), we'll help you start a planted tank from scratch. In part two, we'll tell you how to put live aquarium plants in an existing, non-planted tank and convert it to something amazing. Those of you who have an empty tank and want to get some plants going, this post is for you. Here's how to do it: 


Step 1: Answer Some Questions, Decide What You Want, and Go From There

Before you go out and buy anything and regret your retail therapy, ask some questions. Starting a planted aquarium has a lot of moving parts, so you want to nail those down before you get in too deep. Here are some good questions to keep in mind:

-What kind of fish do you want? Do you want animals other than fish in your planted tank? Or are you thinking plants only?

-Have you seen a really cool aquarium plant in particular you want to try, or do you just want easy plants that will survive and look good?

-Are you interested in trying something more specialized like aquaponics or biotope tanks? Or do you just want a good-looking tank without having to get all specific? 

-Where are you going to put the tank? Is it outside? Is it going to get a lot of sunlight? Is it in a place with a lot of temp fluctuations (e.g. by an exterior door, or by a vent?) How much activity/traffic is going on around where you want to put it? Will other pets and kids have access to it? Is there an outlet by the place you've picked out? How much work will it be to do water changes (i.e. how close is your tank to a water source)? 

-How big is your tank? Bigger is WAY easier, but do you have the space for a big tank?

-On that note, what's your skill level? Even if you're new to aquarium plants, have you kept a fish tank or non-aquatic plants before? Or are you a total beginner? How much time do you want to spend messing with your tanks every day? 

-What's your budget on all the stuff you need? It can add up quickly. 

Answering these questions can steer you in the right direction, and this post will give you advice for a bunch of different scenarios and setups. 


Step 2:  Buy Your Equipment Based on How You Answered Those Questions

The advice for this section is very general so we don't accidentally write a textbook instead of a blog post, so you'll want to do more reading for your unique setup. We'll link more posts with more specific info, but this post should set you on the right path to start a planted tank. You're going to need: 

  • A tank (obviously)
  • Something to put the tank on (could be an aquarium stand, but you can use other furniture as long as it's sturdy enough. Remember, tanks are heavy). 
  • Most of the time, a tank lid
  • A filter (unless you have a heavy plant load and are very experienced, or you're keeping plants without fish)
  • Substrate
  • Heater or Cooler
  • Something for Oxygen/Aeration (Air stone/air pump; power filter, etc.)
  • Lights
  • Maybe a CO2 system/liquid CO2 (Not always necessary - depends on what you're trying to grow)
  • Aquarium Fertilizer
  • Water dechlorinator
  • Monitoring Tools (Thermometer, water testing kits, and so on)
  • Equipment Accessories (Cleaning tools, siphons, planting tools, thread/aquarium glue, timers, etc.)
  • Decor (Driftwood, rocks, or whatever you want!) 
  • The fish or other animals you want to add
  • Food and other care necessities for your animals
  • And, of course, your live plants!

Tanks: For choosing your tank, you need to figure out how much space your fish need and how much space you have. You also should choose one big enough to accommodate the tank design you want to do. If you want really tall plants, for example, tall/vertical tanks look like good options, but they can also be a pain.  If you're a beginner, the bigger and wider the tank, the more forgiving it is. There are also pros and cons to the tank material (glass vs. acrylic). You then have to consider where you'll get your tank. Pet stores are great, but they can be expensive. But if you get a used tank from Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, etc, there are extra steps like making sure it holds water and is safe for your fish. 

Tank Lids: Lids aren't 100% necessary and there are some gorgeous tanks without them. But a tank lid will make your life a lot easier most of the time. If you have pets, kids, or fish that like to jump, a secure lid is your best friend. It also helps with keeping temps and water chemistry consistent. Plus, environmental contaminants have a much harder time getting into your water if there's a barrier. 

Filters: If you only have plants, you don't really need one. If you're adding animals, you do. A common question is, "Do I really need a filter if I have aquarium plants? I thought they absorbed toxins." They do, but they may not absorb enough to keep your tank at stable levels for fish, and they can't remove debris like a filter can. It depends on your plant to fish ratio. Plus, filters give more surface area for good bacteria to grow. 

For a basic guide, look for filters for the number of gallons you have, determine if your fish/plants need a stronger or gentler flow, and look at the pros and cons of different filter types (hang on back filters, cannisters, under gravel, etc). If you have low fish stock and/or a heavy plant load, you might be able to get away with no filter with a good water testing regimen. But definitely wouldn't recommend that for beginners. Still: a heavy plant load helps with your bioload a LOT. 

Substrates: There are tons of substrates on the market, but the most common are gravel; specialty planted tank substrates like Fluorite, Eco Complete, or Fluval Stratum; sand; and dirt. There are advantages and disadvantages to each. You can also go the no-substrate route, but that limits your plant options. Even if you weren't placing plants, though, substrate is useful for providing surface area to grow benefifcial bacteria and gives your tank a more natural look.

Plant Growth Progression Pictures in a Planted Aquarium with Dirt Substrate
Plant Growth in a Tank with Dirt Substrate

Make sure you get enough substrate for what you need. Some plants need to be planted more deeply than others, and you want to have enough substrate to cover the bottom of your tank. Usually, substrate packaging will tell you how much you need for a particular tank size. General rule: 1 pound of gravel per gallon of water. 

Heaters/Coolers:  The only way you can get away with not having some kind of heater is if your tank is in a location that is consistently at the desired temp. Spoiler alert: most of the time, it's not. Most tropical plants and fish need temps between 75 and 80F. Some species, like axolotls, need colder water. It's usually just easier to get a heater (or a cooler) - many are preset or easy to set to a particular temp. 

Aeration/Oxygen: Your fish and bacteria have to have oxygen and other gases circulating in their water to survive. There are a few ways to achieve this. Filters with higher flow rates agitate the water surface more, which can improve gas levels (just make sure your fish/plants can tolerate higher flow. Fish with long fins and plants with fine leaves sometimes don't). Another cheap, easy way to improve your levels is with an airstone/air pump. We swear by them. 

An Aquarium Air Pump
An Aquarium Air Pump

LightsThere are dozens of small considerations to take into account when making your lighting decisions. Some plants can thrive in low-light. Others need more intense lights to even have a chance at surviving. If you have a deep or tall tank, you may need stronger lights even for medium/low light plants because the light has to make it through more water to reach them. If you have a long aquarium, you may need multiple small lights or a longer light with a greater reach/spread. If you don't have a lot of plants, too-intense lights combined with other imbalances can lead to an algae bloom.

The two main types of lights on the market are LED and fluorescent. LED's are quickly becoming the more popular of the two due to longer life and energy efficiency.  Regardless of which type you get, we recommend a timer to maintain day/night cycles for fish, guarantee your plants are getting the hours of light they need, and prevent algae blooms. Also, red and blue parts of the light spectrum help with plant growth, so look for fixtures that have that. 

CO2 Systems/Supplements: Many beginner-friendly plants won't need extra CO2 on top of what your fish are producing, but some of the more advanced ones will. CO2 supplementation can help plants of any skill level thrive, but it can also get expensive and isn't always a necessity. 

Fertilizers: Even though fish will do a lot of your fertilizing for you, fertilizers are still a good investment. Yes, some low-maintenance plants can survive without dosing ferts. But all plants grow better with good fertilizing strategies. 

Dustin's Fishtanks Liquid CO2 Supplement
Dustin's Fishtanks Liquid CO2 supplement

Monitoring Tools: Some of the things on this list are optional. These aren't. Thermometers and water testing kits are must-haves. You can't keep a fish tank healthy long-term if you aren't keeping track of temperature and water chemistry and making adjustments where you need to. 

Fish: Choose fish based on your skill level, your tank size, and compatibility with each other. No sense getting cool-looking fish if they're going to eat each other on day one. 

Plants: We'll go into more detail on plant recommendations in Step 4, but you want to pick plants that match your skill level and tank specs. Some are more adaptable to colder temps and lower lights than others, some can't be kept with certain fish species, and some need more tech, fertilizers, and attention than you might want to give them. 


Step 3: Set up Your Hardscape/Equipment

Hardscape is just a short way of saying all the non-living stuff you put in your tank: substrate, driftwood, rocks, decorations, and so on. It's common practice to rinse substrate before you add it. If you have a clay-based substrate like Fluorite, rinsing can take an obnoxiously long time (To put into perspective: I poked holes in the bag and left it under running water for an hour, came back, and the water coming out of the bag was still brown. I don't know if I just had a possesed bag of Fluorite, but the point stands). You don't absolutely have to rinse substrate off, but it will limit cloudiness and dust. You can also put your substrate in on a slant to give the illusion of more depth in your tank, but that's optional. For your filter, heater, and air stones, follow your specific product instructions (it's usually super easy). 

If you're adding wood to your tank, you'll probably have to do some prep work - especially if you just picked it up off the ground somewhere (Yeah, we've done that). Untreated wood leaches brown stuff called tannins into your tank that can darken your tank water and lower your pH. They're not harmful to your fish and can actually be beneficial, but unless you're trying to set up a blackwater tank, they might not be attractive to you. They can also sometimes make the tank water so dark you can't see anything. Also, wood is porous and holds onto microorganisms and parasites really easily, so sterilizing it before you add it to your tank is a no-brainer. Boiling sterilizes and gets rid of a lot of tannins at the same time. Not sure you'll ever entirely get rid of the tannins, though.

A piece of Malaysian driftwood
A piece of Malyasian driftwood, an awesome choice for your hardscape


Biggest piece of advice: there's no wrong way to design your tank as long as it's safe for its inhabitants. You can get inspiration from famous aquascapers, but get creative and make your tank truly yours. If it makes you happy, don't compare it to someone else's. 


Step 4: Pick and Place your Plants!

This is where the fun begins. If you're a total beginner, on a low budget, or want a low-maintenance/low-tech tank, we recommend easy aquarium plants like java ferns, Anachariswater wisteria (Hygrophila difformis), Anubias, and other hardy plants. You can also buy easy aquarium plant combos that include several hard-to-kill species. Of course, these aren't limited to just beginners. Who doesn't love these plants? 

If you have more experience with keeping plants or aquariums (or you just want a challenge), you can try more advanced plants like Ludwigia or some Rotala species. 

A few stalks of Anacharis, a hardy, green aquarium plant
Anacharis, an Easy, Low-Light Aquarium Plant


If you're keeping plant-eating or destructive fish like cichlids or goldfish but still want a planted tank, tough species like the beginner ones we mentioned are your best bet. For more info on plants for plant killers, click HERE

You can also choose plant species based on where you want to put them (foreground, midground, background, floating, etc). And if you'd like a flash of color, you can get red aquarium plants, too.

Some plants, like java fern, Anubias, and Bolbitus, have rhizomes (modified, horizontal stems) that can't be buried in the substrate or they'll rot. You can plant the roots, but not the rhizome. For those plants, you can try tying them to decor or attaching them where you want with aquarium glue. 

African Water Fern (Bolbitus)
African Water Fern (Bolbitus)

When you place new plants, it's tempting to overdose with fertilizer to give them a good start, but you don't want to provide too many resources without growing plants to use them or you're asking for an algae outbreak (especially if you have strong lights and/or no CO2 supplementation). Dosing a little bit and building up as needed is the safer way to go. Also, trim off dead/dying leaves when you're planting. 

One last tip: when buying aquarium plants, look for places that sell plants that have been grown submerged underwater (hint: you're on the site for someone who does that). Plants that have been grown above water or only partially submerged go through an adjustment period to fully underwater life, and they look pretty ugly in the process due to something called melting. Melt involves plant leaves dying and dropping off as the plant adapts to its new environment. It will adjust eventually, but it will require more time and attention than plants that have already gone through this. Some plants will still melt even if they've been grown submerged (Vallisneria is notorious for this), but overall, you'll have better luck with submerged growth. 

Oh. And yes. You do take off the little sponge and rock things before you place your plants. ;)

A few Rotala wallichi, a red aquarium plant species, being grown underwater
Rotala wallichi: an Awesome, Intermediate Red Plant Being Grown Submerged

Step 5: Cycle Your Tank

This is the part people don't like (myself included). If you're like us, you want to jump straight in and have a fully-fledged fish tank right away. But if you want a healthy tank, you have to be patient. 

Cycling is just building up good bacteria in your tank via the nitrogen cycle. Fish, decomposing fish food, and decaying plants produce waste that contains a lot of nitrogen in the form of ammonia (NH3), which bacteria then break down into chemicals called nitrites. Ammonia and nitrites are toxic to fish, so you want to build up the bacteria that breaks those down further into nitrates, which are only harmful in large amounts that can be prevented with water changes. Note the difference between nitrItes and nitrAtes.

To start your cycle, fill your tank with dechlorinated water, and then provide it with an ammonia source (this can be pure ammonia or fish food that will slowly decay and cause an ammonia spike). If you've already put plants in your tank, make sure you don't dose with too much ammonia. Even though it's used as a plant fertilizer, it can cause damage/melt in high amounts. Ammonia also has a greater effect in warm, acidic tanks, so keep that in mind. Test your water regularly and monitor how ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels change over time. 

If your tank is cycled properly, you shouldn't be able to detect ammonia or nitrites once it's established. The whole process usually takes 4-8 weeks (I know. I hate it, too) depending on your setup and if you take steps like adding bacteria or old filter media to speed it up. If your tank water gets cloudy during this process, don't freak out. That'll go away on its own as the cycle continues if you don't have too much ammonia. 

The good news: plants can help with your cycling. Nitrogen is one of the primary elements plants need to grow, and they can use ammonia and nitrates to get it (but not nitrites). This is yet another reason live aquarium plants are so awesome: they provide another form of filtration and shorten cycling time. 


Step 6: Add Your Animals

Finally, you've finished that cycling headache. Ready for some fish or shrimp or whatever you want to put in there? Heck yeah. Get your animals from reputable sources, quarantine if you're introducing them from different tanks, and make sure they're compatible and won't try to murder each other on sight. Acclimate them slowly to their new home.

Once you've added them, watch for fighting or signs of stress. They should settle down and become more confident in a few days to a few weeks, depending on how timid your fish are. So if you see them hiding or zooming around at first, don't worry too much. 

A good, short piece of advice for stocking fish: more plants are better than more fish, and it's better to understock fish than overstock. 

Step 7: Establish A Regular Maintenance System, and Enjoy!

After all this, do regular water changes, cleaning, and fertilizing. Everyone has a different system and some tanks are more high-maintenance than others, so figure out what works for you and your tank. Then sit back and watch your plants grow. 

Steps 8, 9, 10, 11...get more planted tanks and repeat. You'll want to. Trust us. 

Here are some videos from Dustin on setting up your first tank: 

How to Set Up Your First Aquarium: Part One

How to Cycle Your Aquarium

NEW AQUARIUM SETUP: Step by Step Guide to Set Up Your Fish Tank- Part One

NEW AQUARIUM SETUP: Step by Step Guide to Set Up Your Fish Tank - Part Two - Adding Plants

How to Set Up An Easy, Low-Tech 10 Gallon Fish Tank

TOP 5 Ways to Make Your Planted Aquarium Easier

Stay tuned for the post on converting non-planted tanks to planted, coming next week! As always, toss blog ideas and questions our way anytime, and tank on!

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