Plant Placement 101
Figured out you want to grow some live aquarium plants, taken the plunge and ordered some, and staring at a fistful of plants you don't know what to do with? Been there. Fortunately, most aquatic plants can be broken down into four categories of where to place them: foreground, midground, background, and floating plants. Some plants overlap into more than one category depending on how you want to grow and trim them, but generally, you can gauge where to put something based on how a species falls into these.
If you ever hear these terms thrown around in aquascaping conversations, they're pretty much exactly what they sound like - we'll go into more detail below.
Just as a quick caveat: the plants generally will grow anywhere in the tank with the right resources (except the floating species, obviously). So if you really want a tall "background" plant in the foreground of your tank for the design you have in mind, go for it! Plant your tank how you want. But in general, to give your tank more depth, balance, and visibility, you'll want to follow these as a rough guide. Here are some of our favorite aquarium plants by placement and some tips and tricks for each of the four categories.
1. Foreground Aquarium Plants - Little But Fierce
These guys usually stay short, small, and compact, and are placed in the front of your tank. Some of them are carpeting species that knit together like a lawn and can eventually spread all over your substrate among your other plants. The biggest tip we can give you on foreground plants (or any species, really) is to mimick nature. They're shorter with smaller leaves, so they can't access light as easily as a taller plant. In the wild, you'd find foreground species in shallow, nutrient-rich, high-light environments. So if you want success with them, keep those factors in mind, and maybe shy away from them if you have a very deep or tall tank.
Also, we've included mosses in this category, and they tend to like water a little on the cooler side.
Some of the best foreground species for your tank:
Dwarf Sagittaria subulata - One of the easiest carpeting plants out there, and the easiest foreground plant on this list. It stays fairly short and can handle lower light despite its placement. It's also tolerant of a wide range of tank conditions, so if you're a beginner with this placement category, cut your teeth with some Dwarf sag.
Staurogyne repens - fantastic choice if you want a foreground plant with broader leaves. Stayrogyne is hardy and fairly easy to grow.
Dwarf Hairgrass (Eleocharis parvula) - Another carpeting species; it's more demanding than something like Dwarf sag with its finer leaves, but absolutely gorgeous if you get it going. When people think "carpeting plants," this is usually what comes to mind.
Java Moss (Taxiphyllum barbieri) - Java moss rivals Dwarf sag with how dead easy it is. It's insanely low light tolerant and hardy (honestly may be harder to stop growing than get growing). It's also great in terrariums; I keep some wet in a hide for my crested gecko and he loves it when he sheds. Java Moss is technically a foreground or a floating plant.
2. Midground Aquarium Plants - A Happy Medium
Midground plants are the most versatile and varied of the categories. These usually go in the space behind your foreground plants and in front of/between your background plants. Several of these can turn into foreground, floating, or background plants with the right setup or management, though. If you have a tall tank, maybe a midground plant becomes a foreground. Or if your tank is long and shallow, maybe some of the taller ones on this list would look better in the back. Always experiment with midgrounds.
There are also a couple of midground species that have a rhizome (a modified stem) that can't be buried in the substrate or the plant will rot, so you can tie or glue these to decor and move them around if you want.
Some of the best midground plants for your tank:
Anubias species - Want a bulletproof, cichlid/goldfish proof plant even you can't kill? Anubias is your guy. There are tons of varieties, and they all boast the same Anubias hardiness we know and love. Some of the smaller leaf varieties may be a little less hardy than their broadleaf counterparts, but they're still tough as nails. Anubias nana is one of the most popular aquatic plants out there for good reason, and it also comes in a petite version that can be used in the foreground or midground. We also love Anubias afzelii (below) for its ease of handling and cool red stem. Anubias is one of those rhizome plants I mentioned - you can plant the roots, but not the rhizome.
Crypts - Cryptocorynes are awesome midground plants. One of the easiest to keep is Cryptocoryne spiralis, with thick leaves and a tendency to shoot off runners that grow in other parts of your tank. For slightly broader, arrow-like leaves, Cryptocoryne pontederifolia is a cool choice. We also really like the red stems on Cryptocoryne lucens for some extra contrast. Crypts tend to melt when they're moved, but they're very hardy and will come back twice as strong.
3. Background Aquarium Plants - Not Just Background Noise
These are the tall plants that shoot up before you know it. If you have an aquarium with a lot of vertical space or a shorter tank you're looking to add another level or contrast to, these guys are for you. You typically want these at the back of your tank so they don't block your view or make the tank look smaller than it is, but with a taller tank you have some more room to play around with it.
Some of the best background plants for your tank:
Aponogeton species- Aponogetons are bulb plants typically native to Madagascar, and they make for excellent background plants. Aponogeton boivinianus is one of the best overall background plants and fairly easy to keep. Boivinianus has thick, hardy leaves, and it likes a bit of water flow. It's tough enough you can try keeping it with cichlids. If you want more of a challenge with a plant that needs more nutrients and better substrate, give its cousin, the Madagascar Lace Plant (Aponogeton madagascariensis) a try! They have unique leaves filled with natural holes that give them their name. Aponogeton ulvaceus is another great, fast-growing choice that can fill some empty vertical space quickly with the right care.
Vallisneria species - These things get massive, and you have a few species you can choose from for a varied look. One of the easiest is Jungle Val (Vallisneria americana). For a different texture, you can also try the spiraling/corkscrew species Vallisneria torta or Vallisneria asiatica "biwaensis." Interestingly, Vallisneria spiralis is also a good val choice but it doesn't really spiral like the others. Just keep in mind with Val that it likes to melt back when you first introduce it. Don't worry though: it'll come back.
Vallisneria asiatica "biwaensis"
Crinum Species - Want a unique looking background plant? Check out Crinum - especially the ruffled Crinum calamistratum. Crinum natans or Crinum thaianum are also fantastic options. Though these plants are striking, they are more intermediate and need a bit of time to get going. But they're well worth the extra effort, as you can tell from the calamistratum below.
4. Floating Aquarium Plants - No Substrate, No Problem
As a whole, this is the easiest category of the four. For starters, you don't even have to plant them. Just stick them in the water and enjoy. Because they're so close to the surface, they also are easy to take care of when it comes to light (it's that aerial advantage Dustin's talks about). For more detailed info on floating plants, check out this blog post.
Some of the best floating plant species for your tank:
Red Root Floater (Phyllanthus fluitans)- for a flash of contrast and easy red color on your water's surface, this is your go-to.
Water Lettuce (Pistia stratiotes) - makes for a great fast-growing cover plant for ponds or just an easy floater for a tank.
Water Wisteria (Hygrophila difformis) - this is one of the hardiest plants on the list, and it can be planted as a midground or floated (we usually like to float it). It has uneven, ruffly foliage (which is where the "difformis" part of its name comes from) and is always one of our plant suggestions for beginners. If you find Hygrophila, think "tough."
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