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How to Convert from Plastic Plants to Live Plants in an Aquarium
Welcome to the second part of your guide to setting up an epic planted tank! Part 1 gave you the low down on starting a planted tank from scratch. This post will be for folks who realized how awesome aquariums were before they knew planted ones were a thing. We'll give you all the tips and tricks you need to convert an existing, non-planted setup to a tank with plants so nice you'll throw your plastic ones out.
It's easier than you think. Getting a tank cycled and established is a lot harder than adding plants to an already thriving setup if you ask us. Let's get into it.
Step 1: Decide if you want to keep your setup the same and just add plants, or if you want new stuff
Your decision on this will determine how you follow the rest of the steps here. If you want to keep everything the same (yes, there are plants that can just grow in gravel and yes, they can look amazing), make a list of your tank's characteristics and get plants that will do well in those conditions. Or, find plants you want and figure out what kind of tank you'd need to make them grow.
We'll go into more detail on what plants are right for you in Step 3, but to get you thinking: what fish do you have? Some are herbivores or like rooting around in substrate and will tear through plants like your cousins tear through turkey at Thanksgiving. What's your water chemistry like (temperarure, pH, etc)? What substrate are you using? What's your lighting situation?
Four of many different sizes of aquarium lights
Step 2: Choose your new equipment
If you're keeping your tech the same, you can skip this step. But it might be worth grabbing some fertilizers even if you buy nothing else depending on your setup and what plants you're getting.
If you decide to change it up to get some fancier plants, you want to look at upgrades in three main areas: lights, substrates, and planted tank gear (e.g. planting tools, fertilizers, CO2, aquarium glue/thread, etc).
You don't have to upgrade your lights for all plants, but most will enjoy more light. And if you don't have a light at all (not sure why, but some people skip getting one)...sorry, you'll have to get at least a cheap one, even if it's just a strip light on a tank lid. Many of these plants are low light, but no plants are technically "no light" since they need light to make their energy.
If you do go for a lighting upgrade, find a fixture that fits your tank (Aquarium lights aren't one size fits all, but some are adjustable). If you have a really tall or deep tank, you may want more intense lights than you'd need normally because the light has to travel farther to get to your plants. Plant growth is influenced the most by red and blue parts of the light spectrum, so lights with those features are great as long as you're not overusing them. Also, if you want to keep some red plants, they'll hold onto more of that killer red color if you give them more light. Lastly, we'd recommend a light timer to get your plants what they need: not too little, not too much. Keep an eye out for a future post going into a lot more detail on lights.
Changing out substrate is the most labor-intensive part about converting to a planted tank with new supplies, but even that isn't a huge ordeal if you play your cards right. Your main concern if you want to completely switch it out is keeping the beneficial bacteria population there and in the filter media at an ok level, because they provide biological filtration to keep your tank healthy.
If you currently have no substrate, congrats, your life is easy. If you want to keep it like that, keep it like that. Recognize you're limiting your plant options and surface area for bacteria, but you can make it work.
If you don't, pick a substrate you like that'll work for the plants you want (more details below), take out your fish and put them in a temporary tank or bucket, add the substrate, and drain and fill the water a few times. Keep some of the original tank water to add for your final fill to keep the beneficial bacteria in the water column alive. Your water might be cloudy after your final fill, but with some filtering time, that will go away.
Plant growth in a dirt aquarium substrate
If you're completely changing out your substrate, try not to do it after a big water change or after you've changed your filter, or you'll be significantly limiting your bio filtration. Test your water after the change and make sure any new increase in ammonia goes away within the first few days. Most of the bacteria is in the filter media, but what is in the gravel is still helpful. So taking out the substrate completely may cause that temporary ammonia increase because there's less filtration.
Beyond that, the steps are basically the same as adding substrate to an empty tank: take the fish out, keep them out until the water clears and you know you're good, fill/drain/refill a few times, make your final fill with some of the original tank water, filter.
You'll hear some folks say you can add fish even if the water is cloudy, but personally, don't like to. You can add plants during that stage if you want, though.
If you want a better growing environment for your plants without having to swap out all the gravel, dirt is a great option (Dirt is really just a great option for a substrate regardless). Here's how:
Congrats. You've just added a place for plants AND good bacteria to grow. Win win.
Step 3: It's Planting Time
If you have a super low tech tank (think gravel substrate or no substrate, low lights, no fertilizers, etc) and are keeping your setup the same, you want plants that will give you that splash of green without needing too much to survive. Hardy, low light, and beginner-friendly plants will have you looking like an expert without doing too much extra work.
Cryptocoryne spiralis, a hardy aquarium plant that can grow in gravel and handle low light
Here's a quick guide for which aquarium plants are right for you based on your setup choices:
Can handle no-substrate tanks/can be floated: Java moss, Java fern*, Anubias**, duckweed, banana plants, water wisteria, water sprite, red root floater, hornwort, frogbit
Can grow in gravel/non-dirted/non planted tank substrate: Java fern, Anubias, Java moss, water wisteria, banana plant, Bacopa, Crinum natans, Anacharis, Cryptocoryne spiralis
Can handle low lights: Java fern, Anubias, Java moss, Red Tiger Lotus, water wisteria, frogbit, Bacopa, Jungle Vallisneria, Dwarf sag, Cryptocoryne spiralis, Anacharis, duckweed
Will survive without fertilizers/supplements: Java fern, Anubias, water wisteria, bacopa, banana plants, Java moss, Anacharis, duckweed
More likely to survive plant eaters like cichlids: Java fern, Anubias, Bolbitus, Crinum
Easy red plants: Red Tiger Lotus, Red Root Floater
Rhizome plants (can plant the roots, not the rhizome): Anubias, Java Fern, Bolbitus
*there are several species that will work: Narrow, regular, Windelov, trident
**there are several species that will work: nana, nana petite, barteri, Broadleaf, etc.
Moneywort (Bacopa monnieri), one of the easiest aquarium plants around
Step 4: Monitor
After you've got everything set up, keep doing your regular maintenance and water changes and watch for things like plant melt, algae, and changes in fish behavior.
When live aquarium plants are adjusting to a new environment, they sometimes go through a process called melting that makes new plant folks panic when they don't need to. If you look in your tank and your new plants' leaves have lost their color, look almost transparent, and start dropping, you're probably dealing with melt. It helps to get plants that were grown underwater from the getgo so they don't have to go through as drastic a change, but some plants (Vallisneria, we're looking at you) will just melt no matter how they were grown. They will come back. Monitor your tank water and be vigilant with your water changes, because decaying plants can cause an ammonia spike.
Jungle Vallisneria, a great plant choice despite being prone to melt
Keep an eye out for increased algae, too. Live plants actually prevent algae because they compete for the same resources algae uses, but some new planted tank owners will have an algae bloom because they "overloved" their plants: overfertilized, gave too much light, etc. For more info on how algae works in your tank, click here. Overall, you want balance.
As far as your fish go, live aquarium plants have tons of benefits for them, but adding anything new to your tank can change water chemistry. So keep an eye on them for signs of excess stress or illness and test water more frequently.
And that's really all there is to it. Told you it was easier than you thought. Welcome to the plant side. As you get deeper into it, hit us with questions or blog posts that might help you out if we haven't written on them already. As always, tank on!
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