Planted Aquarium Guide (Step-By-Step Tutorial)

by Kevin

Example of a planted tank.

How to Plan and Set Up Your Own Planted Tank

Live plants will take your tank to the next level.

Not only do live plants make a tank look better, but they also benefit the inhabitants of your tank by absorbing toxins, suppressing algae, and providing cover.

This guide will go over everything you need to start your own planted aquarium as well as specific fish and plant recommendations for your tank.

Step 1: Get a Tank

Aquarium for live plants.

The most obvious piece of equipment you need is an aquarium.

The factors that matter most when selecting an aquarium are size, shape, and clarity.


Almost any size of aquarium can be used to set up a planted tank, but aquariums between 5 to 20 gallons are some of the most popular sizes, likely for practical reasons like space, and cost.

My favorite size for a planted tank is a 5 gallon because the limited space inside a 5 gallon means that more thought and planning is needed to create a cohesive design.

Setting up a planted tank in a smaller aquarium also means using fewer plants, rocks, and wood, which reduces the cost of the setup.

But, smaller tanks also have a big disadvantage, only a small number of fish can be kept inside.

So, when selecting a tank, consider the types of fish, and how many, you plan to keep in your planted aquarium.

If you are curious about which fish do best in a 5 gallon, check out my article on the best fish for a 5 gallon aquarium.


Shape is not a crucial factor, but should be given some thought.

In the aquarium hobby, rectangular tanks can be found everywhere.

Square tanks (sometimes referred to as cube tanks) are also widely used, especially amound aquarists that love aquascaping.

Round tanks also make excellent planted aquariums but are less common.

While most round tanks (think fishbowls) available in pet stores are too small for keeping tropical fish, larger bowls are available online.

If you want to learn more about bowl aquariums, check out my article and video on setting up a betta bowl, which will explain why most bowls are not suitable for betta fish or any other tropical fish.


Glass clarity is not important to everyone, but if you want to see every detail on your fish, or shrimp, then having a tank with high clarity is crucial.

In the aquarium hobby, the tanks with the clearest glass are called “low-iron aquariums.”

As the name suggests, low-iron aquariums are built with glass that contains less iron, creating an optically clear and nearly colorless viewing experience.

Low-iron tanks are also typically “rimless,” which means that are assembled without plastic supports.

This gives the tank a more elegant look, but also means seams of the aquarium may be more fragile.

Step 2: Get a Stand For Your Tank

Planted Tank Stand

Having a stand, or a steady and even surface, for your fish tank to sit on is important because water is heavy.

In fact, 1 gallon of water weighs about 8.3 pounds; this means that a 10 gallon tank weighs 83 pounds plus whatever the glass or acrylic weighs.

So, when selecting a stand for your aquarium, make sure it can support the weight of the water your tank will hold plus a few extra pounds just to be safe.

Should You Buy A Stand Made For a Specific Fish Tank Size?

The problem with most stands made specifically for fish tanks is that they tend to be expensive and uninspiring to look at.

A cheaper and often better looking option is to buy a side table or shelf not specifically made for aquariums.

Side tables in particular are great for smaller tanks like 3 gallon bowls and 5 gallon cube tanks.

Just make sure they are rated to hold the necessary weight (I look for tables that can hold 200+ pounds).

If you plan to set up a planted tank in a larger aquarium, say 20-40+ gallons, then I would look for more specialized stands, or consider buying an industrial workbench (these can support significant amounts of weight).

Step 3: Add Planted Aquarium Substrate

Adding substrate to planted tank.

The best substrate for your planted tank is the substrate that helps you grow healthy, vibrant plants.

If you plan on having nutrient hungry Amazon Sword plants in your tank, then you’ll want to provide a nutrient rich substrate, or a mix of substrates, to keep your plants happy.

One of my favorite substrates for live plants is Eco Complete.

It contains nutrients and I find that it holds plant roots especially well, preventing them from constantly floating to the surface.

Fluval Stratum is also an excellent substrate for planted tanks.

It doesn’t hold plant roots as well as Eco Complete, but the miniature spheres of volcanic material give Stratum substrate a unique look.

If you want to learn more substrates and gravel, check out my article on the best substrates for planted tanks.

Step 4: Add Hardscape

Adding hardscape to planted tank.

What is hardscape?

In the world of aquascaping (carefully designed planted tanks), hardscape refers to stones and driftwood.

Some of the most popular hardscape used in planted tanks include:

1. Seiryu Stones

2. Dragon Stones

3. River Stones

4. Malaysian Driftwood

5. Mopani Wood

6. Spider Wood

7. Manzanita Wood

Not all stones and driftwood are aquarium safe, so avoid collecting random pieces of wood and rock for your tank.

Step 5: Add an LED Light

LED light for planted tank.

Plants need light to photosynthesize.

Photosynthesis allows plants to absorb water (H2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2), and ultimately produce oxygen and glucose by removing electrons from the water molecules and adding electrons to the carbon dioxide molecules.

At the end of the photosynthetic process, plants release the oxygen but store the glucose as a source of energy.

But, not all types of light is used by plants.

The light used by plants is called Photosynthetic Active Radiation (PAR) and refers to a range of light colors in the 400-700 nanometer range.

In the context of aquariums and planted tanks, the best lights are those that provide a sufficient mix of light colors (spectrum) while also being strong enough to reach plants at the bottom of a tank.

Step 6: Add Aquatic Plants

Adding live plants to planted aquarium.

A huge variety of aquatic plants exist, but only a small fraction are available to purchase in a pet store.

And, of the plants that are available, only a small number are suitable for beginners setting up a planted tank.

Selecting the right plants for your aquarium depends on how you want your tank to look, and how much maintenance you want to put into caring for the plants.

If you need some inspiration for how to design your planted tank, and want to learn about aquascaping styles, check out my article on easy aquascaping ideas, it contains a variety of tutorials on small tank aquascapes.

How Important is CO2 and Aquarium Plant Fertilizer?

In tanks that do not use supplemental CO2, aquarium fertilizer is less important because plants are not able to grow as quickly due to the limited amount of natural CO2 in the water.

But, in tanks that do use CO2, dosing plant fertilizer consistently is an important part of growing healthy and vibrant aquatic plants.

Is CO2 necessary for growing live plants in an aquarium?

No, but it does increase plant growth dramatically.

Most of my tanks do not use CO2 because I enjoy keeping low maintenance tanks.

But, if you want your plants to achieve their fullest potential, and grow rapidly, consider installing a CO2 system.

Step 7: Add Water

Adding water to planted tank.

Before dumping a bucket of water into your tank, or turning a hose on full blast, find a large piece of bubble wrap, or a plastic bag.

Place the plastic over the top of your plants, stones, and wood.

This will help prevent the water your add to the tank from dislodging your hard work.

Step 8: Add an Aquarium Heater

Planted tank aquarium heater.

Many commonly available aquatic plants are from tropical climates, and do best at temperatures between 74-80 Fahrenheit (23.33-26.67 Celsius).

Most tropical fish, and shrimp, also do well within that range.

But, if you plan to set up a cold-water tank (generally defined as temperatures below 70 Fahrenheit) then you should use plants that also prefer cooler temperatures.

Step 9: Cycle Your Tank

Cycling a planted aquarium.

In general, cycling an aquarium involves filling up your tank with water and waiting about 2-4 weeks for nitrifying bacteria colonies to establish themselves.

The amount of time that your tank needs to sit is dependent on a variety of factors, including temperature, size of tank, and how many fish you plan to keep in your tank.

If your tank is small (5 gallons or less), it should cycle quicker because fewer beneficial bacteria are needed to establish a functioning nitrogen cycle.

But, no one likes waiting 2-4 weeks to add fish.

Luckily, there are a few things that you can do to help the beneficial bacteria establish themselves more quickly and allow you to add fish sooner.

1) Add a Used Aquarium Filter

Sponge filters that have been filtering someone else’s tank are especially helpful for adding beneficial bacteria to your new tank.

If you have a friend or fellow aquarists willing to lend you one, simply place the sponge filter (do not rinse it) in your new tank for about 10 days.

If you plan on giving the filter back, consider placing a second sponge filter in your tank at the same time.

This allows the “used” sponge filter to pass beneficial bacteria to the new filter.

Having two sponge filters in the tank at the same time might look strange, but it’s a great way to help a new tank cycle quickly.

2) “Starter” Fish Method

The starter fish method is not something I recommend, it’s still practiced but is completely unnecessary.

This method involves adding hardy community fish to a new tank.

The waste produced by these fish typically spikes the amount of ammonia, which spurs the growth the nitrifying bacteria that process the ammonia.

The problem with the starter fish method is that the high amounts of ammonia, nitrites, and other substances will stress the fish, and may lead to disease and death depending on how bad things get.

Certain fish are better at handling these conditions than others but there are better methods for cycling a tank.

3) Cycling a Tank Without Fish

Planted aquarium with tiger barbs and loaches.

Fishless cycling typically involves setting up a tank and then adding commercially available ammonia to the tank to jumpstart the nitrogen cycle.

Many aquarium specific ammonia products exist and provide dosing instructions, but online aquarium forums and YouTube videos are also for getting an idea of how dosing ammonia works.

At a basic level, the three most common ways to cycle a tank without fish are:

A) Adding Pure Ammonia

Pure ammonia is typically dosed at about 5 drops per 10 gallons of water.

This may not be the best method for beginner aquarists, unless they have done sufficient research, ammonia is corrosive and can be dangerous.

Dosing ammonia is also labor intensive, the aquarist will need to dose ammonia daily until testing reveals significant nitrites.

Then, dosing can be reduced until nitrates are detected.

Once testing reveals that nitrates are present, perform a 30-40% water change, and your tank will be ready for fish.

B) Dosing Live Nitrifying Bacteria

Adding live nitrifying bacteria directly to the tank is also an excellent way to cycle a tank quickly.

Live nitrifying bacteria can be purchased from sites like Drs. Foster and Smith or your local fish store may carry it.

Tetra Safe Start, Bio-Spira, and Dr. Tim’s are a few of the brands recommended by fish keepers, but many more options exist as well.

In the saltwater aquarium community, adding beneficial bacteria to help a tank cycle is common practice, but in the freshwater community it seems less popular.

If you don’t mind spending the money, give it a try, your tank may cycle faster.

C) Add Fish Food

A simple and affordable DIY method for cycling a tank is to drop some fish food into your new tank and let it sink to the bottom.

As the fish food decomposes, it will release ammonia, which jumpstarts the growth of nitrifying bacteria and begins the nitrogen cycle.

While affordable, there is a potential downside to the fish food cycling method.

Tropical fish food contains a wide array of nutrients, including phosphate.

These nutrients get released into the water column as the fish food breaks down, creating the perfect environment for algae and less desirable bacteria to explode in growth.

Using this cycling method may result in your tank going through an “ugly” phase where the water gets cloudy and/or green.

It should clear up as all nutrients are absorbed, but you may want to do some maintenance/algae scrubbing before adding fish.

Adding aquatic plants (before using the fish food method) may lessen the severity of the ugly phase, give that a try if you are interested in trying this cycling method.

D) Add Plants

The fourth fishless way to cycle your aquarium involves adding aquatic plants that have been growing in an established tank.

This works best if the plants have actually been growing underwater, giving the right kind of bacteria a chance to colonize the roots and other parts of the plant.

If you order your aquatic plants online, there’s a good chance the plants were grown in greenhouses outside the water (it’s easier for the grower), and lack beneficial bacteria.

Tissue culture plants, often grown in little cups, are also not ideal for this method as they grow in a gel solution that lack beneficial bacteria.

If you want to cycle your tank with plants, find some aquarium plants that have been growing in an old aquarium that has been running for years (if possible).

Then add these plants to your tank and wait 10 days.

Keep testing your water everyday after that until you detect nitrates. Then it should be safe to add fish.

Step 10: Add Fish and/or Shrimp

Adding fish or shrimp to planted tank.

What are the best fish for a planted tank?

The best fish for a planted tank are the ones that do not eat your plants or constantly uproot them.

Thankfully, most commonly available aquarium fish are not interested in eating or messing with plants.

My favorite tropical fish to keep in planted tanks are fish that seem to take comfort in the presence of plants, or utilize plants as places to rest.

For example, Otocinclus and Pygmy Corydoras both love resting on leaves and using plants as hiding places.

One of my favorite fish to keep in a planted tank is not a fish at all, but a freshwater shrimp.

Cherry shrimp come in a variety of colors and look stunning in planted tanks.

They will crawl over every inch of plant material looking for algae to eat.

This makes makes them one of the most interesting creatures to keep in planted tank.

If you want to learn about setting up a simple planted 5 gallon tank for shrimp or guppies, check out my article and video on creating a planted shrimp tank.

Planted Betta Tanks

Betta fish in a planted tank.

One of the best fish to keep in a planted tank is a betta fish.

In the wild, betta fish are often found in ponds and small pools of water that are covered in dense vegetation.

Sadly, far too many betta fish are kept in a bare tank or bowl.

In my experience, betta fish live longer lives, and appear to be more active, in planted tanks.

If you want to learn more about which types of plants do best in a betta tank, check out my article on the best plants for betta fish.

What are the worst fish for a planted tank?

Silver Dollar plant eating fish.
Silver dollar (Metynnis argenteus), a voracious plant eater.

The least ideal fish for a planted tank are the ones that munch on plants and uproot them by digging around in the substrate.

Fish like Silver Dollars, Pacu, Goldfish, and Fire Eels are wonderful to keep, but tend to decimate live plants.

Silver Dollars and Pacu are plant eaters and are known as “plant piranhas” because they will shred any plants they find.

Goldfish can be kept in tanks with certain live plants (Anubias, Java Ferns and a few others), but may pick at and eat others types of aquatic plants. They also tend to uproot plants.

Fire Eels are not interested in eating plants, but do love burrowing in substrate.

This means that plants will get uprooted and need to be replanted frequently.

This makes the Fire Eel especially interesting creature to keep, but not ideal for carefully designed planted aquariums.

Planted Aquarium Video Tutorials

For those interested in learning more about how to create your own planted tank, check out these three videos on setting up simple planted tanks and aquascapes:

1. Planted Shrimp Tank Tutorial in a 5 gallon

This video shows how to set up a 5 gallon tank for keeping freshwater shrimp in a step-by-step tutorial. The plants used in this tutorial are incredibly hardy and tolerate a variety of conditions. I encourage anyone new to keeping shrimp, or setting up a planted tank, to use the video as a guide for setting up their own planted tank.

2. Dragon Stone Aquascape Tutorial

This video demonstrates how to aquascape a 5 gallon tank with dragon stone. The plants used in this setup need more care, but this build is beginner friendly. A single betta fish, or a group of shrimp, do well in setups like this.

3. How to Aquascape an 11 Gallon Cube Tank With Spiderwood and Seiryu Stones

This video shows, step by step, how to create an island style aquascape using seiryu stones and spiderwood branches in a cube tank. Cube tanks look stunning, and make excellent aquariums for planted tank setups.

Planted Aquariums vs Aquascapes

What’s the difference between planted aquarium and aquascapes?

The way I see it, all aquascapes are planted aquarium, but not all planted aquariums are aquascapes.

Aquascapes are a subset of planted aquarium that focus on design and fidelity to nature.

For example, Dutch aquascapes focus entirely on plants of different sizes and colors, no stones or wood are used while Iwagumi aquascapes focus on the balance between open space and large stones, creating a scape that resembles grassy fields punctuated by huge boulders or crags.

And some aquascapes simply mimic nature, like a particular lake bed, or portion of river where tropical fish live.

If you enjoy keeping and maintaining live plants in a fish tank, check out my beginner’s guide to planted nano tanks.


Planted tanks are rewarding to build and maintain.

Choosing where to place a stone or piece of wood is meditative and takes us out of our digitally focused lives for a time.

I hope this article provided you with the information and inspiration you need to set up your own planted tank, or if you are looking for a challenge, to create a carefully planted and designed aquascape.