How to Grow Aquarium Plants

aquascape aquarium

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Welcome to the mesmerizing world of aquarium plant care and aquascaping! In this comprehensive guide, we will take you on a journey to unlock the secrets of cultivating a vibrant and flourishing aquatic ecosystem. Whether you are a seasoned aquarium enthusiast looking to elevate your aquascaping skills or a beginner eager to dive into the wonders of underwater gardening, this guide is your one-stop resource for success. With expert tips and techniques, we’ll show you how to grow aquarium plants, maintain water quality, and harmoniously balance the needs of both your plants and aquatic inhabitants. So, let’s begin this aquatic adventure and watch your underwater garden bloom into a breathtaking masterpiece!

Selecting the Right Aquarium Size

Choosing the right tank size is a critical first step in cultivating a flourishing aquarium. Larger tanks offer more space for diverse plant life and provide a variety of animals to coexist with your plants.  It is also easier to maintain more stable water parameters in tanks of higher volume, which is crucial for the health of your plants. However, keep in mind that larger tanks may come with higher setup and maintenance costs, lending to the rising popularity of desktop nano-aquarium systems that can offer quality filtration and integrated lighting systems with a small desktop-suitable footprint. Consider the growth potential of your chosen plant species and select an aquarium that accommodates their needs.

Deciding on the Type of Lighting

If the aquarium you purchase doesn’t already have a lighting system designed to grow plants, finding the right lighting is a key factor in the keeping your plants. For open-top aquariums, pendant-style lights ensure sufficient light penetration. Alternatively, if you prefer a covered tank, various light strips securely fit on the aquarium. LED lighting is highly recommended for its minimal heat production and allowing customizable light spectrum options to meet your plants’ specific needs.

It’s best to follow some simple guidelines to make sure that you’re purchasing a light that is a good value.

First, ensure that the light that you select is going to provide enough light intensity to support good plant growth, and remember that deeper aquariums will require lighting to be stronger than for more shallow setups. Additionally, the fixture should make specific claims regarding the color of the light and its intensity. The color spectrum the lighting fixture emits is typically listed as a color temperature in Kelvin degrees, and looks something like 6500K, where a “color temperature” of 6500K refers to a theoretical ideal “black body” that emits a light spectrum similar to daylight, often used as a standard for white light fixtures. The concept is if you head an object, its color will shift as it warms, from red hot to white hot. You will want a color temperature well below 10,000K, which are fixtures more suited to marine reef husbandry.

In addition, some lighting fixtures have detailed control options on either remotes or via an application on your computer or smartphone. These modern controllers allow you to shift light spectrums to your preferences, and some even allow for a shift in light intensity over the period of the day.

Purchasing reputable brands from a reputable retailer who can provide you valuable feedback and reading reviews on light fixtures is always a good idea as you narrow down your search for a lighting fixture.

Selecting the Right Filtration

Proper filtration is essential for maintaining water quality and creating a stable environment for your plants. Hang-on-the-back (HOB) filters work well for smaller tanks, and represent an economical and easy to maintain filtration option. I recommend the AquaClear HOB simply because it is easy to incorporate a multitude of filtration media, making proprietary filter cartridges unnecessary.

Canister filters offer better filtration capacity for medium or larger setups as they provide good filtration, run relatively silently, and offer the advantage of employing bulk filtration materials. In addition, depending on how the return is plumbed and oriented, canister filters can be operated in a way that minimizes surface agitation and gas exchange. This can be considered a plus in conditions where CO2 injection requires pinpoint precision, such as in cases of ultra-low alkalinity.

 In bigger aquariums, a sump-style filter with a wet-media bio-filter is an excellent choice, providing gas exchange while retaining CO2for your plants.

Adding Substrate and Décor

Choose a suitable substrate for your aquarium plants, such as fired clay or specialized aquarium-plant substrates that offer essential nutrients and root support. Enhance your aquascape with decorative elements like rocks, driftwood, and ornaments, creating an attractive environment while providing hiding spots for your fish.

If you’re using a standard gravel, the size of the individual gravel pieces should be as small as possible to allow the roots to hold tight to the substrate.

Avoid substrates that have an impact on water chemistries such as aragonite sand or crushed coral. Note that some substrates have crushed coral or aragonite mixed with traditional gravel for pH maintenance purposes. A well planned aquascape may have large tiers held in place by extensive rockwork. It is easiest to install much of this type of décor prior to the addition of water. You may even consider adding layers of specialized aquarium soil beneath the gravel, nutrient/fertilizer preparations, etc., before moving on to rockwork and/or driftwood features.

Aquascaping Techniques

If you’ve already planned your aquascape you can actually begin planting before filling your aquarium with water as well. It is a good idea to add enough water to wet the substrate to prevent your plants from drying out and to gently mist plants with a spray bottle filled with reverse osmosis filtered water to prevent them from drying out. You can also cover plants with pieces of plastic bag, again to prevent them from drying out while you work on your aquascape.

Gently tuck plants into the substrate with your fingers, chopsticks, or a suitable aquascaping long-stem tweezers. A slight tug upward on the plant will help orient roots vertically, so initially tucking the plant a tad deeper will help in some instances.

Slowly fill the tank using a plastic bag or dish to control splashing and to prevent disruption to your carefully placed aquascape décor.


For most aquascape setups you will want to fill your tank using reverse osmosis (RO) filtered water. Reverse osmosis strips the water of most salts and minerals, leaving behind mostly pure water. Depending on your water source, it may also be prudent to run your RO water through a deionization resin to push water to an even higher purity.

You will want some measure of alkalinity in your system to help keep pH stable. Again, depending on the quality of your water source you may consider simply mixing your tap water with your RODI water. My well water, for example, is perfectly find for mixing. If, however, you have Minneapolis tap water, notorious for low hardness and high chloramines, its probably best to pursue a product that will reconstitute your water with the appropriate minerals and salts.

Remember that you should always mix chemicals outside the aquarium and add them very slowly. Additionally, it is always prudent to test the ammonia levels in your aquarium before dosing an alkaline buffer.

The ideal method is to pre-mix your RODI water with the chemical to reconstitute the water, and only add this pre-mixed water to your aquarium. Some good goal chemistries should be a KH/alkalinity around 3-4 dKH, and a GH/hardness less than 4 dGH. Conductivity will give you a measure of your salts, and it is a good proxy measurement for liquid fertilizers.

Managing pH & CO2 Levels

Maintaining the right pH level is crucial for nutrient availability in your planted aquarium. Aim for a slightly acidic pH around 6.5 to optimize nutrient absorption by your plants, effectively reducing the risk of excessive algae growth. Adequate CO2 levels support thriving plant growth; however, natural CO2 production might not be sufficient for heavily planted tanks. Introducing additional CO2 ensures your plants have what they need to flourish. Check out our article on CO2 injection to help you decide if you want to take the step to make your aquarium a high-tech aquascape.

It is very prudent to employ a timer and solenoid to turn off CO2 injection at night when plants release CO2 during respiration. In addition, to maintain pH stability and keep your fish safe, consider implementing a reverse-timer-controlled aeration system to provide additional gas exchange at night.

Adding Fertilizers

With a slightly acidic pH, fertilizers become more bioavailable to your plants. A quality fertilizer will have appropriate macronutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. In addition, a quality product will also dose the following micronutrients

      • Iron (Fe): One of the most critical micronutrients for plants, usually provided as ferrous iron. Iron is essential for chlorophyll production and overall photosynthesis.

      • Magnesium (Mg): Provided as magnesium ions, it is a central component of chlorophyll and plays a vital role in photosynthesis.

      • Calcium (Ca): Crucial for cell wall development and overall plant structure. Often provided as calcium ions.

      • Sulfur (S): Essential for amino acid synthesis and overall plant metabolism. Usually provided as sulfate ions.

      • Manganese (Mn): A micronutrient that assists in enzyme activation and photosynthesis.

      • Zinc (Zn): Another essential micronutrient involved in enzyme systems and growth regulation.

      • Boron (B): A micronutrient important for cell wall formation and reproduction.

      • Molybdenum (Mo): A micronutrient involved in nitrogen fixation and enzyme systems.

      • Copper (Cu): A micronutrient that aids in chlorophyll production and plant metabolism.

    Ensuring that plants receive the right balance of both macronutrients and micronutrients is essential for healthy growth, proper development, and optimal functioning of the plant’s physiological processes.

    You can use a conductivity meter as a proxy for your fertilizer, dosing when it drops to specific levels. However, I’d advise caution employing this practice as conductivity can only inform you on the quantity of salts in the water, not the types of specific salts. Always follow dosing directions on your fertilizer product carefully.

    Introducing Animals

    When selecting fish for your aquarium, consider their compatibility with your chosen plant species and their behavior. Opt for small, peaceful fish like tetras and rasboras to avoid uprooting plants or disrupting the tank environment.

    Depending on the size of your aquarium, you may also consider adding some algae-eating fishes to help keep the tank walls clean. Good algae eating fish for your aquascape include dwarf bristle-nose pleco (Ancistrus temnickii) or Otocinclus sp., the later of which will actually help keep plant leaves free of some types of algae.

    Depending on the species of fish you’re housing, you can also add shrimp to the aquascape. A good species of shrimp for the aquascape is Caridina multidentata, made famous by the renowned aquascape Aquarist/artist Takashi Amano, author of the beautiful Nature Aquarium World series of books, valuable as both references and attractive coffee table selections.

    You may also consider employing a fish-less cycle to avoid causing stress or harm to your animals. Watch ammonia additions carefully as high ammonia can harm your plants.

    Maintaining Lighting Schedule

    Photoperiod is crucial for the health of plants in a planted aquarium, as it directly affects photosynthesis, growth rates, nutrient absorption, and oxygen production. A balanced photoperiod ensures optimal growth and prevents algae overgrowth. Plants can thrive in their aquatic environment if you simulate their natural conditions and avoiding light stress. Careful consideration of the photoperiod is essential to create a healthy and visually appealing planted aquarium.

    Provide 8 to 12 hours of illumination per day. If you have one of the more elaborate lighting fixtures, you can fine-tune your lighting schedule to include variations in spectrum or intensity. Even simple modern LED fixtures commonly have controllers built into the fixture, which should allow you to change lighting spectrum and maintain the proper photoperiod from day to day. On the simplest setups, a light timer can be employed to help you maintain a stable photoperiod.

    To optimize the photoperiod for your planted aquarium, it’s crucial to consider the specific needs of your plant species, the intensity of your lighting system and depth of your tank, as well as the presence of other aquarium inhabitants. By striking the right balance with the photoperiod, you can create an environment that supports the health and beauty of your aquatic plants, contributing to the overall success and enjoyment of your planted aquarium.

    Regular Water Changes and Maintenance

    Even though you are adding nutrients to your system in the form of fertilizers, you will still want to perform regular water changes to keep your aquarium in optimal condition. This will help prevent the buildup of harmful salts (which arrive with synthetic chemical fertilizers). It is also a great opportunity to replenish your pH buffering to ensure you have pinpoint control over your carbon dioxide concentration, and will ensure a stable aquarium environment as well.

    Prune your bunch plants regularly to encourage new growth and maintain an aesthetically pleasing aquascape. Vacuum the substrate to remove detritus, and regularly monitor water chemistry to ensure ideal parameters for your plants and fish. It is sometimes necessary to remove plants cuttings altogether to ensure your have a properly manicured aquascape. Some retail aquarium specialty stores will accept cuttings free of algae in trade, which is a convenient way to fund your fish food and fertilizers.

    By following these expert tips and techniques, you’ll create a thriving aquarium with lush, healthy plants that enhances your living space. Caring for your aquarium plants contributes to a balanced and harmonious ecosystem, providing a natural and captivating environment for all your aquatic pets to enjoy. So, dive in, apply these methods, and enjoy the rewarding journey of creating your own stunning underwater garden. Happy planting!


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