How to Set Up a Planted Aquarium

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Set Up a Planted Aquarium
Set Up a Planted Aquarium (Image: samitroy.org)

Live plants add a lush, lovely and natural element to a freshwater aquarium. Properly set up and maintained, a planted aquarium provides a more healthy and natural environment for your tank's other inhabitants.

Things You'll Need

  • Aquarium
  • Dechlorinated water
  • Test kits for Ph and hardness
  • Substrate (gravel)
  • Aquarium lighting
  • Aquatic plants

Choose a high-quality substrate. Your first choice in the process is also one of the most important. The substrate, or gravel, is the foundation of a healthy planted aquarium, so don't scrimp with the purchase. Many plants get nutrients from the substrate. Choose an iron-rich, finely grained substrate.

Add substrate. For the bottom layer, use a fluorite substrate to provide iron and other nutrients. Cover this with regular aquarium gravel. It's best to use finer-grained gravel as you go up, ending with the finest gravel or sand. Total substrate depth should be about 3 inches. Figure on about 1.5 to 2 pounds of substrate per gallon of water.

Fill the tank with dechlorinated water. You can use a dechlorinating additive with tap water or, if you have concerns about your tap water's hardness or purity, play it safe and use distilled water or reverse-osmosis water from an aquarium store. Place a small dish on the gravel bed and pour the water onto the plate to avoid displacing the gravel. Keep the water an inch or two below the aquarium's rim to leave room for other items in the tank, such as decorative rocks.

Add a filtration system and heater according to the manufacturer's directions. An external, hang-on filter is the best choice. Do not use an under-gravel filtration system in a planted tank. Set the water temperature at 72-82 degrees.

Test and adjust water pH and hardness according to the manufacturer's directions. Use a water conditioner to adjust pH to between 6.5 and 7.5.

Upgrade the lighting. Plants need more light than is supplied in most stock aquarium kits. A good rule of thumb is 2-3 watts per gallon of full-spectrum fluorescent lighting. So, a 55-gallon tank requires at least 110 watts of lighting. Compact fluorescent lights are a good option.

Choose your plants. Ask your local aquarium store personnel to recommend some hardy plants, especially if this is your first planted tank or you just set up the tank. Choose a mix of plant varieties and sizes. In broad terms, the types of aquatic plants available are stem plants, rosettes, bulbs, floating plants, and the ferns and mosses known as rhizomes.

In general, plant the short ones in the front of the tank, increasing in height toward the back of the tank. Don't be strictly formulaic, though. Mix it up a bit by growing a few shorter plants in the back. It will help create the illusion of depth and look more natural.

Plant the plants. It's important to know the variety before planting. It's best to allow stem plants to root themselves into the substrate, so clip them to rock or driftwood, or use weights available at any aquarium store. For rosette plants, poke a hole in the substrate and bury the root system, though you should leave a bit of the roots exposed. Plant rhizomes as deep as possible, with no root showing. Plant bulbs and tubers so that about half the bulb is visible above the substrate. Plant weights can be used on all these varieties to hold them down until they get established.

Feed your plants. After allowing a few weeks for your plants to get established, you'll need to provide nutrients on a regular basis. There are plenty of supplements available, but the basic requirement is carbon.

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