Planted tanks can be incredible snapshots of nature in your home.

But, they can also be little intimidating to setup.

What kind of gravel or substrate is needed? Can an aquarium kit light grow plants?

What is the difference between a planted tank setup and an aquascape?

This article will answer these questions and more along with showing what you need to to build your own planted tank.

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Planted Tanks vs Aquascapes

When aquarium hobbyists talk about planted tanks they are typically describing an aquarium that is setup to grow plants.

This means that the tank is equipped with a strong LED or T5 aquarium light and uses substrate like Eco Complete and possibly aquarium fertilizer and CO2.

If the planted tank is “low tech,” then the aquarist typically avoids using CO2 and fertilizer and focuses on growing easy aquarium plants like Java fern, Anubias, and Cryptocoryne.

Aquarium Aquascapes are also considered “planted tanks” but an aquascape is intended to be art while a planted tank is intended to grow plants (at least according to me).

In my view, an aquascape is a planted tank but a planted tank is not necessarily an aquascape.

The distinction is whether you put thought into creating an aesthetically pleasing layout as opposed to randomly placing rocks and inserting plants into gravel.

The goal of an aquascape is to evoke the same feelings that a painting would, a sense of curated rather than random beauty.

But, like painting, aquascaping takes practice, and that practice can be achieved through building planted tanks.

So, what do you need to get started?

Planted Tank Equipment

To create your own planted tank, you will need:

1) An Aquarium

2) Substrate or gravel

3) Lights that grow plants

4) A heater

5) A filter (optional)

Let’s discuss what these essential pieces of equipment provide.

Best Aquariums for Growing Plants

Plants and driftwood in a planted aquarium.

The best aquariums for aquatic plants are tanks that are short and wide instead of vertical and tall.

If your aquarium is tall or vertically oriented, then light may not adequately reach the bottom of your tank, where most of your plants are growing.

Growing plants is much easier in shorter tanks because light intensity is drastically reduced with each inch of water between your plants and your aquarium light.

Tall tanks are, therefore, not ideal for growing aquarium plants but aquariums like a 20 gallon long, a regular 10 gallon, or nano tanks like a 5 gallon cube or a 2.5 gallon bowl/jar make much better planted tanks than a portrait style aquarium.

Also keep in mind that smaller tanks are easier to fill with plants and substrate, allowing you to create an impressive setup while keeping costs down.

Filling a 20 gallon long or 40 gallon breeder tank with carpeting and background plants as well as an inch or two of substrate is much pricier than filling a 5 gallon tank with the same materials.  

Aquarium Substrate for Planted Tanks

The substrate for planted tanks is different from the regular gravel you might find at a pet store because it contains a mix of micronutrients and macronutrients that promote plant growth.

Some aquarium plants like Amazon Swords require a constant supply of nutrients, like iron, for optimal health, while other plants like Java Fern appear to grow without the need for substrate or fertilizer.

So, the answer to “what is the best planted tank substrate” depends on what kind of aquatic plants you want to grow.

My favorite aquarium substrate is called Eco-Complete and contains nutrients as well as beneficial bacteria.

Planted Tank Lights

Aquarium lights are probably the most misunderstood piece of equipment for growing plants.

Too often an aquarist will get all the right equipment and create ideal conditions for aquatic plants to grow, but the aquarium light is too weak to reach the bottom of the tank.

Without adequate light, most aquarium plants hang on for a while and then eventually dissolve into a brown mess.

In fact, the beautiful carpeting plants seen in aquascapes typically require powerful lights and CO2 to achieve lush growth.

If your plant light is too weak, your plants will look spindly and stretched out.

Most aquarium kit lights do not provide enough light to grow a thriving collection of aquarium plants.

So, does that mean you need to drop a few hundred just to have nice looking plants?

Not at all.

In fact, in the last handful of years, LED light technology has improved immensely and produced affordable, yet powerful lights for growing aquarium plants.

For a deeper review of LED aquarium lights, check out my article on fish tank lights that grow plants.

Some of my favorite lights are:

1) Hygger LED Aquarium Light

2) Finnex Stingray LED Clip Light

Planted Tank Hardscape

Dragon stone and driftwood in a planted tank setup.

The hardscape in planted tanks and aquascapes refers to the stones and wood that comprise the design.

Typically stones and wood are placed in a way to mimic a specific habitat, like a stream bed, or are used to create intriguing landscapes like caves and volcanoes.

Planted tanks without hardscape are also popular, and use different sizes, colors, and textures of plants to create visual appeal.

But, to create a quick and easy planted tank, I suggest finding some aquarium stones, like Seiryu stones, and a few branches of driftwood (make sure it is aquarium safe wood).

Creating depth and interest with stones and driftwood is much easier than using plants alone.

The stones and driftwood also provide a place to place attractive low light plants like Anubias and Java fern.

Covering the hardscape in Java moss and Weeping moss also adds interest to a design.

Easy Aquarium Plants

By “easy” I mean plants that grow well under the aquarium lights recommend above and do not require substrate to grow.

1) Java Fern

Java fern comes in a variety of leaf shapes, making it a striking addition to any planted tank.

In fact, a planted tank of just Java fern would have massive visual appeal and would be super easy to maintain.

Java fern grows from a rhizome, which means it does not require substrate.

The best way to display Java fern in a planted tank is to attach it to rocks or wood, where it will anchor itself.

2) Anubias

Anubias is a hardy low light plant with thick green leaves that grow out from a rhizome.

Like Java fern, Anubias plants can be attached to rocks or wood and do require substrate to grow.

In fact, if you cover the rhizome of an Anubias plant with gravel or substrate, it may rot and kill the plant.

Some of the best ways to use Anubias plants in aquascapes and planted tanks is to glue it or wedge it between rocks.

Anubias plants are available in a wide range of sizes and leaf textures.

For more information on Anubias and other low light plants, check out my article on almost unkillable aquarium plants.

Best Schooling Fish for Planted Tanks

1) Harlequin Rasboras (Rasbora heteromorpha ) and Lambchop Rasboras (Trigonostigma espei)

Harelquin or Lambchop rasboras in a school

Harlequin rasboras, sometimes mistakenly called Lambchop rasboras, are a striking fish with red/copper accents and a black drumstick or triangle shaped mark on their bodies.

Harlequin and Lambchop rasboras look extremely similar, with the Lambchop rasboras having a deeper copper/orange tone and Harlequins having a more red/pinkish tone.

Both Lambchop and Harlequin rasboras are, arguably, some the toughest schooling fish you can keep in your aquarium.

While large pH swings and hard water may kill neon tetras, Harlequin and Lambchop rasboras are able to tolerate conditions that other brightly colored schooling fish cannot.

Harlequin and Lambchop rasboras make an excellent addition to any planted tank, and also make great tank mates for Betta fish and cherry shrimp.

They do best in schools of 5+ so bigger tanks are generally better for these aquarium fish.

2) Neon Tetras (Paracheirodon innesi) and Cardinal Tetras (Paracheirodon axelrodi)

Close up of neon tetra

Neon tetras and also cardinal tetras tend to be nervous fish and definitely thrive in bigger tanks, but can make excellent fish for a smaller tank if given plants and some structure like rocks and wood.

Both neons and cardinal tetras thrive in softer, acidic water (6-6.5 pH) and have a reputation for being somewhat fragile if water conditions fluctuate too much.

Neons and cardinal tetras feel safer in schools of 5+ and so a larger tank setup is typically better.

If you are new to keeping schooling fish, consider keeping some of the hardier tetras, like the Rummy-nose tetras below, before buying a school of neon or cardinal tetras.

3) Rummy-nose Tetra (Hemigrammus bleheri)

Rummy-nose tetra in a planted tank.

If Santa’s sleigh was pulled by fish, it would be Rummy-nose tetras.

These fish aquarium fish make excellent additions to planted tanks and community tanks.

Their bright red heads and zebra striped tails add contrast to the green background of a planted tank.

Rummy-nose tetras feel safer in larger schools, but keeping 5-6 fish in a school is feasible, especially in heavily planted tanks.

4) Pygmy Corydoras (Corydoras pygmaeus)

Pygmy corydoras in a planted nano tank.

Pygmy corydoras, or pygmy corys, are the only bottom dwelling fish on this list that also school.

A group of 5+ pygmy corydoras cruising along the bottom of a tank, digging through the substrate, adds new interest for those used to watching mid-tank swimmers.

Corydoras habrosus, Corydoras hastatus, and Corydoras pygmaeus are three species of cory catfish that only reach about an inch in length.

These miniature cory catfish have become popular for nano tanks and may be challenging to find in your local pet store.

Aquarium Fish That Uproot Planted Tanks

Some aquarium fish are not suitable for planted tanks because they either uproot plants or destroy them entirely.

Some of the more well know planted tank destroyers include:

1) Goldfish

2) Pacu

3) Loaches

The Best Filter for Planted Tanks

Planted tanks can actually be enjoyed without a filter, especially if the residents of your aquarium are small and produce little waste, like cherry shrimp.

But, a filter may be highly beneficial, depending on your planted aquarium setup.

When a filter is most useful:

1) Densely stocked tank

In densely stocked tanks, meaning tanks that generally have about .5 to 1 gallon per fish, filters help process waste and prevent ammonia spikes between water changes.

Filters with lots of surface area, like sponge filters, provide a home for bacteria that process chemicals like ammonia and nitrites, thereby preventing sudden decreases in water quality, which could kill your fish.

2) Growing certain plants

If you plan to grow plants like African water fern (Bolbitis heudelotii), you may want a filter that creates a decent amount of water current to mimic the plants natural habitat of swift flowing streams.

This water current not only seems to help Bolbitus thrive, but the current also appears to reduce the likelihood that your Bolbitus will be covered in hair algae.

3) Your Planted Tank is a Betta Tank

If you are creating a planted tank for a betta fish, then a filter is highly recommended as these fish live much happier and longer lives when water quality is stable.

A sponge filter is particularly good for betta fish because sponge filters do not create strong currents, which may stress a betta fish.

Other Planted Tank Equipment

1) Cobalt Aquatics Flat Neo-Therm Heater

2) Aquascaping tweezers and other tools

3) Aquarium Plant Fertilizer


Planted tanks provide your fish with better water quality and also enrichment, as plants help recreate the native habitat of tropical fish.

Planted tanks are also the gateways to creating the pieces of art we call aquascapes.

Creating and maintaining an aquascape is pure fun and your design choices make them uniquely yours.

If you want to level-up in the aquarium hobby, consider building your own planted tank.

As always, stay zen aquarists.