Beautiful planted aquariums

Beautiful planted aquariums DEFAULT

In this guide on the best freshwater aquarium plants for beginners you will learn:

  • How to choose aquarium plants
  • The different types of aquarium plants
  • The best foreground (or carpet) plants
  • The best mid and background aquarium plants

Let’s get started.

Table of Contents

Overview Of The Best Aquarium Plants

Last update on 2021-09-30 / Commissions Earned / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

How to Choose your Aquarium Plants

Choosing live plants for your aquarium might seem as simple as heading to your local fish store and picking out a few bundles.

But, if you want your plants to thrive, you have to put as much thought into choosing them as you did for your fish and your other tank decorations.

There are many different live aquarium plants to choose from and they each have their own unique requirements for care.

So before you stock your tank with aquarium plants, you should take a minute to think about why you want them, which types would best suit your tank, and how you’ll care for them.

Let’s discuss how you can do this.

Think About Why You Want Aquarium Plants

Your first step in choosing live plants for your aquarium is to spend a moment thinking about why you want aquarium plants in the first place.

Live plants can provide a variety of helpful benefits, but you still need to consider how you want to use them and why.

Here are the  benefits live plants can provide in your aquarium:

  • Convert carbon dioxide into breathable oxygen for your fish.
  • Live plants use nitrates and other chemical waste products, helping remove them from the water column so they don’t harm your fish.
  • Saturates your tank water with oxygen which helps aerate the tank.
  • You achieve a natural look.
  • Provide shelter and security for fish and break up sightlines which can be beneficial for territorial fish.
  • Can be used to conceal aquarium fixtures to improve aesthetics.

In addition to these benefits, aquarium plants help improve and maintain the quality of your tank water.

High water quality is essential for the health and wellness of your fish. When water quality is low, your fish become stressed and that makes them more susceptible to illness.

Pro Tip:Frequent water changes are essential for maintaining high water quality in your aquarium. Change 10% to 15% of your tank’s volume once a week or every two weeks. And keep an eye on your filter to make sure it’s not clogged.

When thinking about why you want aquarium plants in your tank, the reasons listed above are important to consider.

The benefits of live plants are obvious, however, so you’ll want to spend a little more time thinking about the details – how you want your tank to look when you add the plants.

Live plants come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and colors.

Depending on the size and shape you choose, you can use aquarium plants to create a lush carpet along the bottom of your tank or a living backdrop to your aquarium.

The Different Types of Aquarium Plants

Now that you have a better understanding of the role aquarium plants play in your tank environment, you’re ready to start thinking about which plants you want to use.

Aquarium plants can be divided into three different categories based on their placement in the tank:

  • Foreground plants
  • Mid-ground plants
  • Background plants

Foreground plants are the plants you place at the front of the tank – they are generally shorter and grow fairly slowly.

Some foreground plants are called carpet plants because they tend to spread outward rather than upward, covering the bottom of the tank with a green carpet-like layer.

Mid-ground plants are taller than foreground plants and can be used along the sides of your tank and in the middle.

They can add to the aesthetics of your tank without taking away too much valuable swimming space.

Background plants are the larger plants you use in the back of your aquarium – they can create a natural backdrop for your tank as well as a place for your fish to hide.

What’s in Your Tank?

Something else you should think about when considering what kind of aquarium plants to get is the substrate in your tank.

Again, live plants require certain nutrients in order to thrive. And while they’ll absorb some nutrients from the water column, most of their nutrition will be absorbed through the roots – this is where your substrate comes into play.

Substrate is simply the material that lines the bottom of your tank and it is where you will root your plants.

Sand and gravel substrates are fine for fish-only tanks but a planted tank will require a complete substrate that provides nutrients.

If your tank is already set up, you’ll need to take your substrate into account when choosing which live plants you want to add and how many of them.

Pro Tip:  Though light is the primary source of energy for live aquarium plants, they also require certain nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and micronutrients like iron, manganese, and boron.

If you’re using a complete substrate like CaribSea Eco-Complete or ADA aqua soil, you have plenty of options – these substrates are designed specifically for planted tanks.

If you have sand or gravel substrate, you may still be able to add live plants, but you’ll need to fertilize them occasionally to make sure they get the nutrients they need.

Another type of substrate you may be using is Seachem Flourite.

This substrate is high in iron but lacking in other nutrients – it is also very dense and porous and not an ideal choice for plants with delicate roots.

If you have soil substrate, most plants are likely to do well but you should keep in mind that it may cloud the water in your tank if you disturb it to root your plants.

Pro Tip:  Some plants are column feeders, meaning they’ll get most of their nutrients from your tank water. If this is the case, you’ll have no problem keeping plants with a substrate that provides no nutritional value. 

Aquarium Plants and Lighting

Light’s a key source of energy for your aquarium plants – it allows them to complete the process of photosynthesis through which they convert carbon dioxide into energy.

There are many different options for aquarium lighting but not all of them are ideal for live plants. Some plants prefer low-lighting and vice-versa.

Your plants will need about 8 hours of full-spectrum light per day – full-spectrum light mimics natural sunlight and it is the best for photosynthesis.

Be careful about using natural light, however, (such as placing your tank next to a window) because too much light could contribute to algae growth.

The best type of lighting for a planted tank is LED aquarium lighting. LED lighting is highly efficient in terms of energy consumption and the bulbs last a long time.

These fixtures also do not produce heat like some fixtures (such as VHO or metal halide) so you don’t have to worry about overheating your tank. They’re also much cheaper to run.

Top 11 Aquarium Plants for Beginners Reviewed

Now you have a deeper understanding on aquarium plants, you can use the following information to make an informed buying decision.

How I have structured this section: 

To make things easier for you, I’ve split this into two section for you: foreground and mid/background plants.

The Best Carpet (Foreground) Plants for Beginners

Remember, foreground or carpet plants are the ones that grow slowly and have a limited height – they tend to spread outward rather than upward and they can create a lush carpet of green along the bottom of your tank.

Here are the best foreground plants for beginner aquarists:

1. Java Moss

Java Moss grows best in clean, well-circulated water and it will grow faster in bright lighting. It is an excellent carpet plant because it spreads quickly and is easy to trim.

  • Light Required: Moderate
  • Growth Rate: Fast
  • Ideal Water Parameters: 74-82°F, KH 3-8, pH 6.5-7.5
  • Difficulty: Very easy
Java Moss Portion in 4 Oz Cup - Easy Live Fresh Water Aquarium Plants
Java Moss Portion in 4 Oz Cup - Easy Live Fresh Water Aquarium Plants

Last update on 2021-09-30 / Commissions Earned / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

2. Lilaeopsis

Also known as Brazilian Micro Swords, Lilaeopsis is a short-stemmed plant that does well as a carpet plant. It can grow fully or partially submerged and it forms a dense carpet with the right combination of lighting, CO2, and other nutrients.

  • Light Required: High
  • Growth Rate: Moderate
  • Ideal Water Parameters: 70 to 83°F, pH 6.8 to 7.5, soft to moderately hard
  • Difficulty: Moderate
Brazillian Micro Sword Live Aquarium Freshwater Plants Decorations 3 Days Live Guaranteed by Mainam
Brazillian Micro Sword Live Aquarium Freshwater Plants Decorations 3 Days Live Guaranteed by Mainam

Last update on 2021-09-30 / Commissions Earned / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

3. Dwarf Baby Tears

This plant produces clusters of tiny leaves and it is ideal for breeding tanks. Dwarf baby tears form a dense carpet with proper lighting, and it is generally easy to care for once established.

  • Light Required: High
  • Growth Rate: Moderate
  • Ideal Water Parameters: 68 to 82°F, KH 0-10, pH 5.0-7.5
  • Difficulty: Moderate
Potted Dwarf Baby Tears Aquarium Live Plant by AquaLeaf Aquatics
Potted Dwarf Baby Tears Aquarium Live Plant by AquaLeaf Aquatics

Last update on 2021-09-30 / Commissions Earned / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

The Best Plants for the Middle or Background of Your Tank

Remember, middle ground plants are low to moderately high and they should be used as the focal point for your tank.

Background plants are taller and can be used along the back and sides of the tank to provide shelter for your fish.

Here are the best mid to background plants:

4. Water Wisteria

This plant produces lace-like leaves that vary in size according to the water temperature. Water wisteria can be easily propagated by taking cuttings from the lower leaves.

  • Light Required: Moderate
  • Growth Rate: Fast
  • Ideal Water Parameters: 74-82°F, KH 3-8, pH 6.5-7.5
  • Difficulty: Easy
6 Water Wisteria (Hygrophila Difformis), Live Aquarium/Aquatic/Stem Plant
6 Water Wisteria (Hygrophila Difformis), Live Aquarium/Aquatic/Stem Plant

Last update on 2021-09-30 / Commissions Earned / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

5. Amazon Sword

One of the most recognizable aquarium plants, Amazon sword is an ideal background plant that produces large, broad leaves. It is easy to care for and prefers loose substrate.

  • Light Required: Moderate
  • Growth Rate: Moderate
  • Ideal Water Parameters: 72 to 82°F, pH 6.5-7.5, soft to moderately hard
  • Difficulty: Easy
Mainam Amazon Sword Plant Echinodorus Bleheri Tall Bunch Live Aquarium Plants Freshwater Planted Tank Decorations
Mainam Amazon Sword Plant Echinodorus Bleheri Tall Bunch Live Aquarium Plants Freshwater Planted Tank Decorations

Last update on 2021-09-30 / Commissions Earned / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

6. African Water Fern

This plant grows fairly slowly, even in ideal conditions, and it is best anchored to a piece of driftwood instead of rooted in substrate. Once established, it is easy to maintain.

  • Light Required: High
  • Growth Rate: Slow
  • Ideal Water Parameters: 74 to 84°F, KH 5-15, pH 6.0-8.5
  • Difficulty: Easy
Water Fern Bolbitis Heudelotii Potted Live Aquarium Plant Fresh Water Plants by Greenpro
Water Fern Bolbitis Heudelotii Potted Live Aquarium Plant Fresh Water Plants by Greenpro

Last update on 2021-09-30 / Commissions Earned / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

7. Java Fern

This plant is extremely easy to grow and it comes in different sizes and leaf shapes. Java fern does well in moderate lighting – if the lighting is too strong, the leaves may turn brown.

  • Light Required: Low to Moderate
  • Growth Rate: Moderate to Fast
  • Ideal Water Parameters: 72 to 82°F, pH 6.0-8.0, soft to moderately hard
  • Difficulty: Easy
Aquatic Arts Java Fern - Huge 3 by 5 inch Mat with 30 to 50 Leaves - Live Aquarium Plant
Aquatic Arts Java Fern - Huge 3 by 5 inch Mat with 30 to 50 Leaves - Live Aquarium Plant

Last update on 2021-09-30 / Commissions Earned / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

8. Anubias

One of the easiest plants for beginners, anubias is hardy and easy to grow. This plant is commonly anchored to rocks or driftwood instead of being rooted. When rooted, the rhizome should be left above the substrate to prevent rot.

  • Light Required: Low
  • Growth Rate: Moderate to Fast
  • Ideal Water Parameters: 72 to 82°F, pH 6.5-7.5, soft to moderately hard
  • Difficulty: Easy
Greenpro Anubias Barteri Live Aquarium Plants Decoration for Aquatic Water Plants Freshwater Fish Tank
Greenpro Anubias Barteri Live Aquarium Plants Decoration for Aquatic Water Plants Freshwater Fish Tank

Last update on 2021-09-30 / Commissions Earned / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

9. Cryptocoryne Beckettii

Also known was water trumpet, this plant is a great mid-ground plant. It is very tolerant with water parameters and does well in low to medium light.

  • Light Required: Low to Moderate
  • Growth Rate: Slow
  • Ideal Water Parameters: 72 to 82°F, pH 5.5-8.0, KH 1-20
  • Difficulty: Easy once established
Mainam Cryptocoryne Beckettii Potted Live Aquarium Decorations Aquatic Plants for Fish Tank
Mainam Cryptocoryne Beckettii Potted Live Aquarium Decorations Aquatic Plants for Fish Tank

Last update on 2021-09-30 / Commissions Earned / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

10. Aponogeton Ulvaceus Bulb

A beautiful plant that produces rippled leaves, this species is very tolerant and spreads well as a background plant. A single bulb produces up to 40 leaves.

  • Light Required: Moderate
  • Growth Rate: High
  • Ideal Water Parameters: 68 to 72°F, pH 6.5-7.5, soft to moderately hard
  • Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Aponogeton Ulvaceus Bulb - Aquarium Plant for Aquariums with temperatures Under 72F
Aponogeton Ulvaceus Bulb - Aquarium Plant for Aquariums with temperatures Under 72F

Last update on 2021-09-30 / Commissions Earned / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

11. Dwarf Aquarium Lily

An attractive plant that produces uniquely shaped leaves, the dwarf aquarium lily is easy to care for. The bulb must be planted halfway out of the substrate or it will die.

  • Light Required: Low to Moderate
  • Growth Rate: Fast
  • Ideal Water Parameters: 72 to 82°F, pH 5.0-8.0, soft to moderately hard
  • Difficulty: Easy
Mainam Nymphaea Rubra Bulb Dwarf Water Lily Live Aquarium Plants Decorations 3 Day Live Guaranteed
Mainam Nymphaea Rubra Bulb Dwarf Water Lily Live Aquarium Plants Decorations 3 Day Live Guaranteed

Last update on 2021-09-30 / Commissions Earned / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Summing up Choosing the Best Beginner Aquarium Plants

When it comes to decorating your aquarium, you are free to use your own creativity.

If you want to  cultivate a lush and thriving tank with a natural appearance, however, you should include some live plants.

The live plants described in this article are perfect for a beginner, so take what you’ve learned and put it to use!

Happy fish-keeping!

Last update on 2021-09-30 / Commissions Earned / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Further Reading: Encyclopedia of Aquarium Plants
Further Reading: Encyclopedia of Aquarium Plants

Last update on 2021-09-30 / Commissions Earned / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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Christopher Adams

Hey there, my name is Christopher and I'm the creator and editor of this site. I've owned successful aquariums for the past 23 years. My mission is to educate, inform, and entertain on everything that's fish.


Using Live Plants in Your Home Aquarium

Aquatic Plants from Bulbs

Bulbs can be dried from some aquarium plants and planted. Dry and seemingly dead, under the substrate, once planted underwater, these “bulbs” will quickly sprout and grow very fast under the right conditions. The Madagascar Lace is a prime example of this type of aquatic plant. These plants, also available in aquarium stores from time to time, are easy to grow and can be very attractive. 

One drawback is that they have a definite growing season. They will grow and put out leaf after leaf from the base at a central core until finally, they produce a flower of sorts in the center of the core. Once a “flower” has been produced, the plant will go into decline and seem to die. The plant has not died, it is dormant; in nature, it would stay dormant through the dry season, storing its energy until the next rainy season. 

When you see this type of plant go into decline remove the “bulb” from the aquarium (sometimes there will now be two or three bulbs when you dig it up from the substrate). Dry it and keep it in a cool dark place for at least three months. If there are multiple distinct bulbs, separate them. Plant the “bulbs” the same way you did it originally and observe the cycle again.

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Setting up a planted aquarium can be extremely confusing, especially for beginners. 

Anyone can throw together a simple 10 gallon tank with gravel and cheap decorations; unfortunately, the same cannot be said for planted tanks.

Planted tanks have a unique set of requirements, some of which can be tricky to get just right.

That said, planted aquariums are extremely beautiful when done correctly. There is something simply amazing about an aquarium filled with luscious green plants. It’s almost like a piece of the Amazon River right in your living room.

In this guide, we will take you through the step-by-step process of setting up a planted tank. We will cover all of the necessary steps and equipment, so bookmark this for future use if you don’t plan on reading it all right now!

A Few Things You May Need

You may have to pick up a few pieces of equipment before setting up a planted aquarium. Here are a few things you may need:

  • LED Lighting: I always recommend the Finnex Planted+ or the Finnex FugeRay. Finnex is a great brand and I cant recommend them enough. Also, their LED lights are made specifically for planted tanks.
  • Substrate: Choosing a substrate is something that a lot of people struggle with. I would recommend either ADA AquaSoil (if you’re looking for something with lots of nutrients) or Eco Complete (no nutrients, but very high quality).
  • Heater: A heater is an absolute necessity for any tank. I recommend the Cobalt NeoTherm.
  • Filtration System: The type of filter you need really depends on your setup. If you’re setting up a tank larger than 40 gallons or so, you probably want to go with a canister filter. For smaller setups, a hang on back unit is usually fine. Check out this guide that covers the best fish tank filters on the market.
  • Test kit: This is an absolute must when setting up a planted aquarium. The API Freshwater Master Test Kit is the most accurate on the market.
  • Carbon Dioxide Supplements: as you probably know, CO2 is critical to plant health. As one of the main components for photosynthesis, healthy plant growth can be accelerated through supplements like API’s CO2 Booster, homemade, and prefab reactors like Sera Flore Active’s CO2 Reactor.

Step 1: Choosing a Substrate

Choosing a substrate for a non-planted tank is really easy – Just pick any type of gravel and you’re good to go.

So why doesn’t this work for planted tanks?

The answer is simple; plants need nutrients to survive.

Gravel, though simple and easy to clean, is sterile when first added to a tank. And because the grains are so large, it does not hold nutrients well enough to support most aquatic plants.

Think about the last time you ran your hands through the muck at a beach or river. The grains are all different sizes, from sand to rocks.

The varying sized grains allow organic material to collect and create better anchors for healthier root systems.

Inert vs. Active Substrates

When choosing a substrate for your planted aquarium, you basically have two choices – an inert substrate or an active substrate. In this section we will describe the differences and the pros vs. cons for each type.

Inert Substrates

Inert substrates do not contain any plant-specific nutrients. If you decide to use an inert substrate, you have to add fertilizers (either root tabs or water soluble fertilizers) to the tank to help feed you plants.

That being said, inert substrate basically last forever and do not break down. In addition, they are generally easier to manage that active substrates and do not encourage algae growth

  • Pros – last forever/do not break down, easy to manage, usually pretty cheap
  • Cons – do not contain any of the nutrients plants need to survive, so additional fertilizers are necessary

Active Substrates

Active substrates are packed full of plant specific nutrients. If you’re looking for aggressive plants growth, an active substrate is the way to go.

On the down side, active substrates can be a little harder to manage – they tend to stir up easily (making it hard to move around your plants) and can be a bit expensive.

  • Pros – packed full of nutrients, encourage plant growth
  • Cons – expensive, can cause ammonia spikes, need to be replaced every few years
planted aquarium substrate

Types of Planted Aquarium Substrate

So we know that plain gravel probably isn’t the best choice. Luckily, there are a few types of substrate that help nutrients well and facilitate great plant growth!

We mentioned a bit about our favorite choices earlier in the article, but now we will go into a little more depth:

Flourite (Inert)

Flourite is made from several different materials, including volcanic soil and clay. But what they all have in common is a non-compacting way of settling and a porous structure that allows both free water flow and nutrient collection.

This way, supplements, micro-organisms, plant roots, and organic matter can collect and create a living network throughout the substrate!

Quite a different picture from the hard lumps of gravel work, isn’t it?

If you decide to use Flourite, it is probably best to add a few root tabs (small discs that contain tons of nutrients and “leach” it into the substrate).

Flourite holds onto nutrients and then re-releases them over time in a natural, controlled fashion. This way, more of your supplements are taken up by plants as actual food, rather than being wasted in the water column, filtered out, or broken down by bacteria, in the case of traditional gravel substrates.

I recommend Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum for an amazingly sleek look on top of the incredible nutrient sponge capacity.

All-in-One Substrates (Active)

These substrates use actually a “mix” of several different types of substrate and are pre-packed with tons of nutrients (so there is no need for root tabs!).

If you’re looking for some serious plant growth, all-in-one substrates can’t really be beat. ADA Aqua Soil is a leader in the industry for all-in-one substrates and we highly recommend them if you want to go this route.

Note: If you decide to use a substate that is pre-packed with nutrients, make sure that you don’t have any fish present in the tank when you add it.

The spike of nutrients can cause high levels of ammonia for the first few days, which can be deadly for fish.

Check out our detailed article on the types of planted aquarium substrate if you would like more info on the topic.

Note: If you decide to use a substrate that is pre-packed with nutrients, make sure that you don’t have any fish present in the tank when you add it. The spike of nutrients can cause high levels of ammonia for the first few days as bacteria start to consume the new materials, which can be deadly for fish. Pre-loaded substrates can also shift the water’s pH and other chemical parameters too quickly for fish, causing death. Normally, acclimating fish to new pH levels is a process that takes days to weeks. Check out our detailed article on the types of planted aquarium substrate if you would like more info on the topic.

Laying the Substrate

Plant substrates have a pesky habit of clouding up the entire tank if not laid down correctly. Honestly, this can be one of the most frustrating parts of setting up a planted aquarium.

Before you attempt to put ANYTHING into the aquarium, make sure to rinse the substrate.

Floating dust is irritating to animal gills and just looks bad, plain and simple.

Use a five gallon bucket and rinse it until the water runs relatively clear. Nowadays, a lot of substrates claim that a pre-rinse is unnecessary but I usually do it anyways.

Next, lay 2 to 3 inches of substrate in your tank. A lot of people like to top it off with some gravel to hold everything together better, but this is completely optional (sand it also a good option, but make sure to only use aquarium sand).

It is important to know that even the best-washed substrate in the world will cause a mess if you don’t fill the tank carefully, so add water slowly!

A great tip to avoid a ton of clouding is to place a plate (any old dinner plate should do) on top of your newly-laid substrate and dump the non-chlorinated water onto the plate instead of directly onto the substrate.

This will prevent it from stirring up the soil/gravel and save you a huge headache. Do not rush this step!

Step 2: Lighting

Getting your hands on a good light fixture is vital when setting up a planted aquarium.

While most full aquarium hoods include fluorescent fixtures, the basic fluorescent bulbs they come with simply won’t cut it because the spectrum is wrong.

The light spectrum of a bulb is the wavelengths of light they create. Plants need specific wavelengths for optimal growth and even if you have a ton of light, it’s not always the right kind.

Normally, these bulbs create a color cast optimized for nice appearance. But these bulbs are usually too warm in temperature (under 5000K), too cool (above 7000K), and always far too dim!

And the deeper and larger your tank is, the more lights you need to keep your plants looking lush. As a very rough rule of thumb, we can use the following formula:

  • 0.25 Watts per Liter of water: Low Light Level
  • 0.50 Watts per Liter: Moderate Light Level
  • 0.80 to 1.0+ Watts per Liter: High Light Levels

A light fixture is definitely something you don’t want to skimp on; buying knock-off light fixtures will probably cost you more in the long run and can even be a fire hazard. Luckily, good lighting can actually be pretty cheap.

planted aquarium

Suggested Planted Aquarium Lights

Here are some of our most recommended light fixtures for planted tanks:

  1. Beamswork EA Timer – Definitely the most affordable light fixture on our list. Despite the low price tag, this unit packs quite a punch. In addition, it does a great job at hindering algae growth, which is pretty amazing for a light of this price range.
  2. Finnex FugeRay – The FugeRay is mid way in the pack in terms of price. The low profile fixture offers great power while boasting an ultra slim frame, so it definitely won’t take away from the look of your tank. Finnex makes amazing lights, so you really can’t go wrong with the FugeRay.
  3. Finnex Planted+ 24/7 – The Planted+ is a little on the pricier side, but you are definitely paying for quality. This unit has tons on extra features, such as sunrise and starry night simulators, customizable color channels, and storm effects. Though not necessary for plant health, these effects can really help bring your tank to life. In addition, the Planted+ is known for bringing out vivid colors, especially in red plants.

LEDs, fluorescent strips, and compact fluorescent fixtures are the most common lighting choices for your planted aquarium setup.

All work equally well, with LEDs being the most expensive but most efficient and longest lasting.

Compact fluorescents are a great happy medium. And fluorescent lights are the cheapest and shortest lasting, but still more efficient and longer lived than incandescent bulbs, sometimes provided in the very cheapest aquarium setups.

Incandescent fixtures are the worst choice for any aquarium, planted or otherwise.

As anyone who has ever touched a light bulb knows, they kick out a ton of heat, which can actually alter the water temperature in a small aquarium. Also, any splash of water can cause them to shatter, creating not only a glass hazard but an electrical shock hazard as well.

Feeling out a Light Cycle

When setting up a planted aquarium, it is important to know that no two tanks are alike. There is no magic light cycle or a certain number of hours you have to keep your lights on.

That said, I start out keeping my lights on somewhere between 10-12 hours a day If I want a little more growth out of my plants, I bump up the light cycle by an hour or two.

If I notice algae growth, I scale back a little. Some plants will be happy with 10 hour days while others may like a little more. It is important to feel out your tank and try out different cycles to get good growth and avoid algae.

What’s important is that you have one, however. Aquatic plants monitor light to figure out seasons, when to increase growth, when to slow it down, etc, just like surface plants do!

Step 3: Filtration

Pick out your filtration system may not be the most “fun” part of setting up a planted aquarium, but it’s important nonetheless. That said, I believe that most people tend to overthink their filtration setups. My recommendations are rather simple:

Tanks Under 50 Gallons

Smaller planted aquariums under 50 gallons (especially beginner tanks) are completely fine with hang on back filtration units.

Though not as powerful as their canister counterparts, HOB units are convenient, easy to clean, and function well.

I recommend the AquaClear Power Filter.

Tanks 50+ Gallons

Larger tanks over 50 gallons are best suited for canister filters.

Canister filters are capable of processing much more water, which can be a necessity for hard-to-keep plants like Madagascar Lace Plants.

Canister filters also have chambers you can customize with mediums specific to your needs.

Want to lower the pH for your Amazonian setup? Add some peat moss!

Having issues with ammonia buildup? Zeolite packages occupying one section are a great solution.

I recommend the EHEIM Classic. Combining a canister filter with a powerhead also allows you to potentially create a flowing water ecosystem. Instead of a “pond” aquarium, you can instead make a stream or river!

Important note: Whichever type of filtration system you choose, make sure to remove any activated carbon. While useful in a fish-only system, activated carbon removes the nutrients that your plants need to thrive.

I don’t recommend under gravel filters anywhere, especially in the planted aquarium. All they do is collect material under the gravel for it to rot over time. And cleaning out one involves ripping up your substrate, making a tremendous mess, spiking toxic chemical levels, and adding organics to the water column. Avoid at all costs!

Step 4: Adding Plants to Your Setup

One of the frustrating parts of setting up an aquarium is staring at an empty tank for weeks while it cycles.

In case you’re unaware, “cycling” a tank is the process where beneficial bacteria and other organisms develop and grow.

These bacteria help break down ammonia and other toxic compounds your fish and plants release into less toxic or even beneficial compounds critical for growth.

If you add all your fish at once into a non-cycled tank, the waste they release can pile up, causing stress and eventual death.

Plants are another story. Now you’re probably wondering – “Is it necessary to cycle my aquarium before adding live plants?”

Luckily, the answer is no!

In fact, live plants can actually help speed up the entire cycling process.

Make sure you still monitor the cycling process closely and never add fish until ammonia and nitrites are completely undetectable. In a fresh tank, this shouldn’t be a concern to begin with, but it never hurts to be safe.

You always want to add just a few fish to begin, to help start the cycling process.

Weekly, if your water parameters look good, you can add a few more, until you reach the carrying capacity of your aquarium.

Suggested Beginner Plants & Placement

As a beginner, it is important to start out with some easy-to-keep plants. These plants won’t require any special dosing or upkeep other than some occasional trimming:

  1. Java Moss (Carpet to Rock Accent Plant!) This low light plant grows extremely quickly, acting as a great nutrient sponge in case of overfeeding or chemical imbalance. Small fish and invertebrates also love wandering through the thickets it creates. Java Moss can attach to nearly any surface as well, including plastic filter piping if you need to hide them from view!
  2. Anubias Nana (Foreground to Rock Accent) Anubias are a strange genus of plant from Africa. They’re slow growing but extremely hardy. If your Anubias is dying, you’re doing something majorly wrong! They’re also tolerant of low light and actually prefer being attached to rocks or driftwood. In the wild, they grow in the splash zone of streams with alternating periods of submersion.
  3. Crypt Wendtii (Foreground) This Sri Lankan Cryptocoryne is a smaller species with beautiful reddish brown leaves. Like most crypts it’s quite hardy and does well in a beginner’s planted aquarium!
  4. Pygmy Chain Sword (Foreground) These are a great foreground plant if you’re looking to create a mini-jungle for small fish and shrimps!
  5. Micro Sword (Foreground) If you want your tank to feel like a lawn, Micro Sword plants are one of the best choices! Keep in mind they have medium to high light requirements, prefer a rich substrate, and have a relatively slow growth rate.
  6. Cryptocoryne (Mid-Ground) Coming in a variety of species, Cryptocoryne are not only very inexpensive and hardy but extremely attractive. They often come in dried bulb form as well, allowing you to establish your plants from the very beginning. Cryptocoryne are great show plants for tanks with medium to low light levels!
  7. Java Fern (Mid-Ground to Rock Accent) Like Anubias, Java Ferns are a hardy, low light tolerant species that are a great choice for a planted aquarium. WIth broad dark leaves, these ferns can grow in a substrate but prefer to be attached to rocks or driftwood! They even have a unique breeding method where young plants bud from the adult leaves!
  8. Water Wisteria (Background) These plants are one of the most common plants for the new planted aquarium! While tolerant of low light, they prefer having as much as possible and will reward you with tiny, streaming bubbles of O2 as they busily photosynthesize! They must have a rich substrate, however, or they’ll quickly die out!
  9. Amazon Sword (Background) One of the showiest of common aquarium plants for the planted tank, the various species of Amazon Sword Plant can grow feet in height and diameter. They love as much light and nutrients as you can offer and those broad leaves can be algae prone. This makes them natural platters for algae eating fish and shrimp!
  10. Hornwort (Background/Floating) Hornwort is so easy to grow that you don’t even have to stick it into the substrate. It actually prefers to simply float where it’s closest to rich light and can passively soak up nutrients from the water. Keep in mind that while attractive, floating plants will block light to the lower levels of the water column. Hornwort can also quickly grow out of control when floating and needs to be weeded constantly.

Carpeting Plants

These plants do exactly as their name suggests; carpet you tank floor is a beautiful green carpet. Carpeting plants such as Java Moss tend to grow quickly and easily, attaching to substrate, rocks, and driftwood at it grows. Keep in mind they often need open access to light; large plants like Amazon Swords and floating plants like Duckweed and Hornwort can shade them, causing them to weaken and die.

Foreground Plants

Foreground plants are meant to be placed in the very front of the tank. They tend to stay relatively short, so your view of the back of the tank won’t be obstructed. Species such as Anubian Nana and Pygmy Chain Swords offer great fill, but don’t take away from the look of your “main” pieces.

Mid-Ground Plants

Mid-Ground plants should be planted near the middle of the tank and are slightly taller than foreground plants. They tend to be a little thicker and fill out more of the tank, so they give the aquarium a nice “full” feeling. Mid-ground plants create a transition zone to the background.

Background Plants

These are your main piece showstoppers. Plants such as Amazon Swords are large, thick, and tend to be the main attraction. They are usually placed at the very back of the tank as to not obstruct the view. You’ll also usually have fewer background plants due to their space requirements. They also have a tendency to create large amounts of shade, so space them accordingly.

Proper Plant Care

There is more to setting up a planted aquarium than throwing some plants in a tank and calling it a day. Planted aquarium require a certain level of care to stay healthy.

Here are a few tips to keep your plants happy and healthy:

  • Bi-weekly water changes are a must – Water changes are beneficial for several reasons. Nitrate (hopefully no ammonia or nitrite) tend to build up in your tank over time. Unfortunately, sufficient filtration can only get nitrate levels down so far. Bi-weekly water changes help bring down nitrates to safe levels. When doing a water change, you should also consider adding a boost of beneficial trace elements like iron and potassium to aid plant growth and health!
  • Keep temperatures stable – There are tons of opinions and studies about the perfect temperature for planted tanks (I recommend somewhere between 78-82 degrees but this really depends on the plants, fish, and ecosystem you’re developing). In reality, keeping your water temperature stable is far more important than the actual temperature because both fish and plants can adapt to a few degrees in either direction. A reliable, good quality heater is a must. I use the Cobalt Aquatics Neo-Therm and it has served me well for years.
  • Trim your plants occasionally – Don’t get me wrong. Letting you plants grow out and fill up the tank is amazing to watch and you should definitely let this happen. You should try to avoid excessive growth, especially when it comes to tall plants. Tall plants that grow large can create too much shade, killing plants below them by restricting access to light. Trim your plants once in a while to make sure they’re not blocking other plants below. Dead and dying leaves should also be removed as needed. Pruning encourages new growth in aquatic plants as much as in your garden. And it keeps rotting matter from creating problems for your water chemistry.

Fertilizing your Plants

Low-tech setups usually don’t require and sort of dosing or special additions in terms of trace elements. A few fish should do this trick to keep you plants happy.

But, just like gardens, setting up a planted aquarium sometimes requires fertilization. The plants will often let you know with slowed growth, discoloured leaves, and other signs of weakness.

Here are two types of fertilizers that can help you achieve explosive growth in your new planted aquarium!

  1. Substrate Fertilizers – Substrate fertilizers are placed underneath of the substrate. These are especially effective when used with substrates such as Flourite due to its high CEC (ability to absorb nutrients). Plants use the nutrients over time, so nothing goes to waste.
  2. Liquid Fertilizers – Liquid fertilizers are most effective for plants that don’t grow roots in the substrate, such as Java Moss. Since they are unable to absorb nutrients from within the substrate, they pull nutrients from the water. Be careful with liquid fertilizers; they tend to promote algae growth if dosed in high quantities.

Remember, if you plan to keep easy plants in a low-light setup, fertilizing your planted aquarium may be unnecessary. I would recommend feeling out your tank for a while to see how growth is before dosing.

Step 5: Adding Fish to Your Planted Tank

Planted aquarium or not, adding fish is always a big milestone. Please do not rush this step. 

Even though plants sometimes help speed up the cycling process, it still isn’t an instantaneous process (usually takes 2-3 weeks).

Ammonia and Nitrites should read zero before any live fish are added. Pick up a API Master Test Kit and test often! Check out our fishless cycle guide if you need any more info on the subject.

planted aquarium

Once your planted aquarium is completely cycled, it is time to add fish.

Recommended Fish for Planted Aquariums

Here are some of the most popular fish choices when setting up a planted aquarium:

  • Tetras: Tetras are great because there are TONS of different species. They are active, colorful, and really bring a planted aquarium to life. Tetras should be kept in groups of 6 or more since they are naturally schooling fish. Neon, Black Neons, and Rummy Nose Tetras are small, hardy, attractive editions to any planted aquarium.
  • Corydoras:Cory Catfish are one of the most peaceful freshwater fish available. These bottom-dwellers are the perfect community fish and eat a variety of foods. If I could only recommend one fish, Corys would take the prize. Like Tetras, Cory Cats tend to be happiest is groups of 6 or more. They’re also partial air-breathers, rushing to the surface for gulps of oxygen before swimming back to the bottom!
  • Gouramis: Like Tetras, Gouramis come it tons of different colors and sizes, from rainbow colored Dwarf Gouramis to giant Kissing Gouramis. They tend to be very peaceful fish and are great for any community tank. Like the Bettas they’re related to, they can be aggressive towards each other on occasion. With their long, flowing sensory fins, try not to keep Gouramis with anything that nips fins like barbs, as this stresses them out easily.
  • Swordtails: One of the easiest-to-keep species on our list, Swordtails are beautiful livebearers that can liven up any tank with their diversity in colors, moderate size, and breeding displays. They are known to reproduce very quickly, so take that into consideration. If breeding and caring for baby fish is of any interest to you, any sort of livebearer is a great choice! Platies, Guppies, and Mollies are other livebearers that will breed just as easily as Swordtails if they’re happy.
  • Angelfish: One of the most popular freshwater fish, Angelfish make great inhabitants for any community aquarium (20 gallons or larger). They are beautiful, (relatively) peaceful, and tend to leave plants alone. In fact, they evolved their long, thin profiles to slip among Amazonian plants. As a result, they need plants to feel comfortable (and even to lay their eggs) or they’ll feel exposed and stressed out. Don’t keep adult Angelfish with small Tetras, as once they get larger they’ll eat anything that can fit in their mouths.
  • Dwarf Algae Eaters: These little guys aren’t the prettiest to look at but work incredibly hard at keeping algae growth off leaves, rocks, and glass. They also stay small, less than an inch long, unlike their more popular and gigantic relatives, the Plecos that everyone seems to love until they outgrow their aquariums and start knocking over and eating plants!

There are some critters you should actively avoid in the planted aquarium. Pacus are not only voracious vegetarians but also grow foot-ball sized or larger.

Many species of medium to large Cichlid love nothing more than digging and uprooting plants are they carve their territories.

Crayfish and many snail species will devour and destroy plants indiscriminately. Make sure you do your research before straying from the list of species above.

Step 6: Maintaining a Planted Aquarium

You have your substrate laid down, plants in the medium, water topped off and warmed, fish happy and swimming about.

How do we make sure our planted fish tank continues to thrive and prosper?

We need to pay close attention to things like water chemistry, nutrient intake, and plant maintenance to ensure everything stays lush and green.

Substrate Turnover

Keep in mind that over time, your substrate will mix if you’re using different grain sizes. A mix of sand and gravel will eventually become a layer of gravel on top of sand.

Most people use a siphon hose to gently probe and remove fish waste, uneaten food, and other material during a water change. In the planted aquarium, we still do this, only…Less so.

In fact, some aquarists stick to only taking water from the top and not touching the substrate at all! This is recommended only for fully mature setups, by the way.

The substrate is such an important component of the planted ecosystem, it can’t be overemphasized how careful we want to be about messing with it. It’s where plants eat, water is filtered, toxins broken down, and life thrives.

But until our beneficial bacteria and plants mature , we want to gently turn over the substrate to ensure material mixes and plant roots are undisturbed.

Gently turning your substrate during a water change is the best way to ensure not only a healthy, attractive mix but keeps anoxic areas from forming.

Anoxic pockets are spots where no oxygen flow reaches.

Anaerobic bacteria (those that don’t require O2) can thrive there and create especially toxic byproducts that then leach back into your ecosystem. The key word here is “gently,” by the way, so as to avoid damaging sensitive root systems.

Algae Growth

Algae is a constant enemy to aquarists, especially in newly set up planted tanks.

This is because there’s an abundance of light and free-floating nutrients but the new plants and beneficial bacteria aren’t able to take it up yet.

Algae are single celled plants that can quickly divide and soak up the available nutrients and form ugly green coatings on any surface available. 

Algicides like API Algaefix are a great, if sometimes temporary, means of keeping algae under control.

If you have a localized algae infection, like a patch of blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) on the substrate, hitting it with a dose of hydrogen peroxide is a great tactical nuclear option that won’t cause much harm to the rest of your ecosystem.

Algae eaters are a commonly used and great biological control method for green algae.

Dwarf algae eaters, as mentioned earlier, are model citizens for the planted tank, working hard to keep glass and leaves clear of algae.

Amano shrimp are easier to find nowadays as well! These tiny shrimp prefer to live in groups of 6 or more and will work tirelessly at picking leaves clean of algae. Just remember to keep them away from angelfish and other nippy fish who will see them as food!

Carbon Dioxide Supplements

Carbon Dioxide (CO2) supplementation is one of the best things you can do for your planted fish tank.

While it can sometimes involve additional equipment, this combined with a rich substrate and strong lighting is like rocket fuel for plant growth (and algae – careful!).

You have the following choices for supplementing your planted aquarium with CO2:

 CO2 Tablets

Supplements like ISTA CO2 tablets are one of the easiest and least expensive ways to get a boost in plant growth. Simply drop them in and watch them fizz!

One problem with these is that the boost is extremely temporary because most of the fizzy CO2 bubbles end up rising to the surface of the water and dissipating into the air!

One way you can get the most CO2 for your dollar is to place a small plastic cup or other concave surface over the tablet.

As it fizzes, a bubble of CO2 will collect underneath and slowly dissolve additional CO2 into the water over time.

CO2 Reactor/Diffuser

These are a bit more complicated and not really recommended for your very first planted tank.

These include diffusers that hook up to pressurized canisters of CO2 you can buy for a short boost of super tiny bubbles as well as other methods like liquid CO2 injectors.

In short: specialized tools for intermediate and advanced planted aquarium keepers. But if you’re looking to experiment with CO2, you can actually make your own yeast-powered reactor from a coke bottle, dry yeast, sugar, and a few extra tools!

For fishtanks under 30 gallons, these are a neat way to get a CO2 boost cheaply! I’ve done this myself and it’s loads of fun.

Aquascape Tutorial Step by Step 90cm Planted Aquarium


I am delighted with the tack taken in which you provide scientific information for hobbyists to make sound aquarium management decisions. I applaud the approach to educate non-scientists about their subjects; too often the scientific laypersons are greatly underestimated. I was particularly pleased with the book's total avoidance of gadgets that are mostly quite useless. The book's ecosystem approach and balance of the system is the only reasonable direction long-term. --Robert G. Wetzel, Biology Professor, and Author of 'Limnology'

Your new book is outstanding in every respect. In my opinion, this is a definitive, practical guide for the aquarist who wants to set up a beautiful planted aquarium. Beyond the basics, it is an in-depth exploration of the aquatic ecosystem and how if affects plants. --Don Dewey, former editor of 'Freshwater and Marine Aquarium'

Based on science but engagingly written... The best part is that, in the practical setup section, the author tells exactly what to do, in simple terms, in lists of instructions that one can read and understand. Hooray! --'Aquaphyte' (University of Florida)

About the Author

Diana Walstad is a long-time aquarium hobbyist. She trained as a microbiologist and spent many years doing medical research at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill). Her last position was as a cell biologist at the National Institute of Environmental Health Science. In 2012, she published 'Cooking and Experimenting with Pressure Cookers', which describes new pressure cooking techniques.


Aquariums beautiful planted

Planted aquascapes take a lot of knowledge and patience to put together. And once your plants are thriving and water parameters are exactly where they need to be adding fish can be the step that throws things out of balance.

Many fish are too large, create too much waste, or simply love to eat or tear up aquarium plants! It’s better to carefully consider the best aquascaping fish before stocking your planted setup.

Qualities to Look For in Aquascaping Fish

Selecting fish for carefully aquascaped aquariums isn’t always as simple as going to you local fish store and picking out whatever catches you eye.

Here are a few qualities that you should look for when choosing fish:

Small to Medium Sized

The vast majority of fish used for planted aquascapes are on the small end of the spectrum. Schools of 1 to 2 inch Tetras, Danios, and Rasboras work well because they provide a burst of color while having no impact on plants beyond a bit of extra CO2 and nitrogenous fertilizer.

Small fish are also less in competition with the design of your aquascape for the viewer’s attention. Hence modest schools of 1-inch Neon Tetras are regularly kept even in 100+ gallon Nature and Iwagumi-style aquascapes, which place a ton of focus on the placement of plants, rocks, and substrate.


Planted aquascapes tend to be either community tanks or aquariums dedicated to a single species of fish. Both schooling and solo fish can be kept together. In fact, I recommend it, as schools of small fish soothe the anxieties of solo species by acting as dither fish.

However schools of small fish help give a planted aquascape a busier feel if that’s the aesthetic you’re aiming for. And they have the least impact on the bioload and nutrient cycles of the tank.

Plant Safe

Larger fish sometimes bring in bad habits like digging and uprooting them (Goldfish, Cichlids, Catfish especially) or may simply find plants delicious. Choose fish that are small, mostly carnivorous, and spawn by scattering eggs. Nest builders sometimes collect plant leaves or dig into the substrate, which can disturb plant roots.

Best Planted Aquarium Fish

Here are a few of our favorite aquascaping fish species:


neon tetra dither fish

Tetras regularly top most lists of the best aquascaping fish because they have all of the qualities we’re looking for. They are nearly all carnivorous, small, schooling, and have bright colors that nicely complement the greens, dark reds, and browns of an aquascape.

There are dozens of species commonly found in the trade and hundreds all over the world. The vast majority come from South America, with a few African species like the Congo Tetra (Phenacogrammus interruptus) available on occasion.

As a group Tetras prefer soft, acidic water (pH 6.5 to 7.0) and temperatures on the warmer side (75-80F). Tank bred species like Neon Tetras are very flexible however providing these conditions results in not only good health but potential breeding!

  • Recommended Species: Neon Tetra (Paracheirodon innesi), Cardinal Tetra (Paracheirodon axelrodi), Gold Tetra (Hemigrammus rodwayi), Rummy Nose Tetra (Hemigrammus rhodostomus), Serpae Tetra (Hyphessobrycon eques), Marbled Hatchetfish (Carnegiella strigata)
  • Average Size: 1 to 2 inches
  • Minimum Aquarium Size: 5 gallons
  • Ease of Care: Very Easy


harlequin rasbora

Rasboras fill the same niche as Tetras in Asia: small, schooling fish that feed on tiny prey items. They are Cyprinids which makes them close cousins to Barbs, Danios, and Goldfish.

The Chili Rasbora (Boraras brigittae) is especially dear to blackwater aquascapers (pH 4.0-5.5). At less than an inch in length they are perfect for nearly any aquarium size. Yet they never fail to attract attention thanks to their vibrant scarlet tones and active disposition.

Since they aren’t as well known as Tetras, Danios, and other small schooling fish, Rasboras often get passed up by aquarists. Which is a shame because they rarely show their best color in aquarium stores.

When placed in planted aquascapes with full spectrum light, plenty of cover, and dark substrates they take on rich red and purple tones. And when male Rasboras display for the attention of females they become even more vibrant!

  • Recommended Species: Chili Rasbora (Boraras brigittae), Harlequin Rasbora (Trigonostigma heteromorpha), Scissortail Rasbora (Rasbora trilineata)
  • Average Size: ½ to 2 inches
  • Minimum Aquarium Size: 5 Gallons
  • Ease of Care: Very Easy


guppy fish

Guppies, Platies, Swordtails, and Mollies do just as well in planted aquascapes as they do in community aquariums. Live plants also offer their babies a better chance to survive, especially if you keep weedy plants like Java Moss or Micro Sword Plants.

Mollies should be treated with caution, however. They will eat soft bodied plants like Elodea as well as macroalgae. And their need for salt may not work for many freshwater plants.

Livebearers as a whole also prefer neutral to slightly alkaline water conditions (pH 7.0-8.0). Aquascapes with limestone, Seiryu, and other stones rich in carbonate and minerals help maintain conditions to their liking!

  • Recommended Species: Guppy (Poecilia reticulata), Platy (Xiphophorus maculatus/variatus), Swordtail (Xiphophorus hellerii)
  • Average Size: 1 to 3 inches
  • Minimum Aquarium Size: 10 Gallons
  • Ease of Care: Very Easy

Gouramis and Bettas

Trichopodus fish

Gouramis are available in nearly every aquarium store. Having been in the hobby for decades most species also come in several color morphs, from Electric Blue Dwarf Gouramis to albino Honey Gourami.

Chocolate Gourami are often kept in planted aquascapes as they are plant safe, delicately patterned, and being on the sensitive side, do best in carefully controlled environments. However nearly all small to medium sized Gouramis and Bettas are plant safe.

Gouramis prefer warmer temperatures and little to no current. Males tend to be territorial but only Bettas and Paradise Fish take this to lethal extremes.

  • Recommended Species: Chocolate Gourami (Sphaerichthys osphromenoides), Dwarf Gourami (Trichogaster lalius), Betta (Betta splendens), Sparkling Gourami (Trichopsis pumila), Pearl Gourami (Trichopodus leerii)
  • Average Size: 2 to 4 inches
  • Minimum Aquarium Size: 10-20 Gallons
  • Ease of Care: Very Easy to Moderate

Dwarf Cichlids

german blue ram

While most Cichlids will wreck your carefully placed plants and substrate some are excellent fish for aquascapes. Specifically, Dwarf Cichlids! The Blue Ram is not only easy to find but hardy and willingly breeds in planted aquariums.

Apistogramma are a genus of South American Dwarf Cichlids that get along well with all but the tiniest of fish and shrimp. Dwarf Cichlids do dig on occasion, especially when preparing to spawn. However they keep their destructive habits to a minimum.

And so long as they are kept in fairly spacious aquariums (30+ Gallons) their tank mates can avoid the increased aggression Cichlids display when guarding eggs and fry.

  • Recommended Species: Blue Ram (Mikrogeophagus ramirezi), Apistogramma species, Rainbow Krib (Pelvicachromis pulcher)
  • Average Size: 2 to 3 inches
  • Minimum Aquarium Size: 10 Gallons
  • Ease of Care: Easy

Angelfish & Discus


Angelfish and Discus are exceptions to the general rule of avoiding medium to large Cichlids. Both are found in blackwater environments in the Amazon basin where they school together and dart among flooded tree roots and water weeds.

They have tiny mouths for plucking at invertebrates and small fish which keeps them from digging and tearing up plants. Discus and Angelfish preferentially breed on the leaves of Amazon Swords and other broad leafed plants, making them model citizens for planted aquascapes.

Discus (Symphysodon), multi-colored cichlids in the aquarium, the freshwater fish native to the Amazon River basin

Both species prefer tropical temperatures (75-84F). Angelfish are tolerant of a wide range of water chemistries but Discus require soft, acidic water (pH 4.5-6.5).

  • Recommended Species: Common Angelfish (Pterophyllum scalare), Blue Discus (Symphysodon aequifasciatus)
  • Average Size: 8 inches
  • Minimum Aquarium Size: 55 Gallons
  • Ease of Care: Moderate


Killifish in freshwater aquarium

It’s a shame Killifish aren’t more popular in the aquarium hobby. A few species show up on occasion, including the American Flagfish and Striped Panchax. However some, such as the various Nothobranchius species, are as boldly colored as reef fish, and far easier to care for!

Killifish are plant safe and peaceful towards other fish. A few are territorial and males compete viciously for females but never do each other lasting harm.

Many Killifish can be challenging to feed, especially annuals, as they sometimes don’t recognize prepared food. They prefer frozen and live prey like Daphnia and Brine Shrimp but can be trained to eat prepared food if raised on it.

Planted aquascapes also offer the best chance to breed Killifish. They tend to be either egg scatterers (non-annual), egg depositors (annual), or a mixture of the two categories (semi-annual). I go into much more depth into their care in my Complete Guide to Killifish!

  • Recommended Species: Bluefin Notho (Nothobranchius rachovii), Banded Panchax (Epiplatys annulatus), Lyretail Panchax (Aphyosemion australe)
  • Average Size: 2 inches
  • Minimum Aquarium Size: 5 Gallons
  • Ease of Care: Easy to Moderate

Dwarf Catfish

Corydoras julii

When you think of Catfish the image of a large, chunky, slow moving bottom feeder usually comes to mind. However, several of the smaller species are some of the best aquascaping fish for the bottom of the aquarium.

Corydoras are peaceful, sociable, and attractively colored. Most are fully grown at around 2 inches and their habit of perching on driftwood and plants makes them even more endearing. Corydoras accept most prepared foods however you should ensure it’s sized appropriately and sinks quickly enough for them to get their fair share.

Otocinclus are ideal for planted tanks in need of algae control. Unlike Plecostomus, Dwarf Otos don’t grow larger than 2 inches and won’t eat soft leaved plants. Otos are also sociable and prefer being kept in groups of at least 6 individuals – when kept singly they tend to hide constantly.

  • Recommended Species: Dwarf Oto (Otocinclus vittatus), Corydoras species,
  • Average Size: 2 inches
  • Minimum Aquarium Size: 10 Gallons
  • Ease of Care: Very Easy

Freshwater Shrimp

crystal red shrimp

Since the best aquascaping fish tend to be small Freshwater Shrimp make perfect tank mates for them. Shrimp are voracious algae eaters yet do no harm to plants. Others, like Bamboo Shrimp, are filter feeders, picking out fine particles of plankton or powdered flake food from the water column.

Freshwater Shrimp can also be kept in shrimp-only aquariums. Some, such as the sensitive Bumblebee Shrimp (Atyopsis moluccensis) have exacting needs in terms of water hardness, temperature, and pH.

Bee Shrimp are also so small that even normally peaceful fish may find them tempting targets. However they get along great with other Caridina Shrimp as well as Amano and even Ghost Shrimp.

  • Recommended Species: Bumblebee Shrimp (Caridina maculata), Amano Shrimp (Caridina multidentata), Cherry Shrimp (Neocaridina davidi), Ghost Shrimp (Palaemonetes paludosus)
  • Average Size: 1 to 2 inches
  • Minimum Aquarium Size: 10 Gallons
  • Ease of Care: Moderate

Freshwater Snails

Snails should always be considered with caution. Some species will breed out of control, especially Ramshorn Snails. Others are easier to manage but tend to eat fresh plants if decaying vegetation and detritus runs low.

However, Assassin Snails are great additions to the planted aquascape. For one, they are entirely carnivorous and will eat protein-rich prepared foods, scraps of meat, and frozen food. If you already have problem snail populations Assassin Snails will eventually reduce or eliminate them as well.

Nerite Snails are algae eaters that have especially attractive shells with bold stripes, rich colors, and even spikes. Nerites also can’t breed in freshwater aquariums because the young have to grow up in saltwater, thus keeping them from becoming a nuisance.

  • Recommended Species: Nerite species, Assassin Snail (Cleo helena)
  • Average Size: 2 inches
  • Minimum Aquarium Size: 5 gallons
  • Ease of Care: Very Easy
The Rare Barb Aquarium: Beautiful Aquascape Tutorial w/ Rocks \u0026 Plants Only


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