Freshwater Planted Aquarium Setup Tips for Beginners

Building a freshwater planted aquarium is one of the most creative ways to spruce up your tank for your fish or invertebrates. Here’s how to set one up.

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freshwater planted aquarium setup
A freshwater planted aquarium is a stunning way to not only showcase your fish but also give them a natural-feeling home. Photo: Icewall42

A freshwater planted aquarium is one of the most beautiful sights in the world of fish keeping, and with a little work, you can have one of your own.

Aquascaping, as it’s come to be called, began in the 1980s.

Large centerpieces, such as large rocks, driftwood or statues, were placed according to the aquarist’s plan inside the aquarium. This is referred to as “hardscaping.”

An assortment of plants is chosen according to size, height, or whether they’ll be used in the foreground or background. There are many plant types to choose from — some are free-floating, while others are rooted in the substrate.

Some of these tanks are the most gorgeous underwater forests built by human hands.

In this article, I’ll give you lots of tips for your freshwater planted aquarium setup.

Freshwater Planted Aquarium Setup Ideas

Tank Sizes

You can use anything from a 5-gallon to an aquarium in the hundreds of gallons as a freshwater planted tank.

The most common sizes, though, are 10–20 gallons and higher. These are used by most aquarists.

I used a 55-gallon tank for my own freshwater planted tank. This size is easier to maintain and generally doesn’t take up too much space in the home.

If you go with 10 gallons or under, be aware that smaller volumes of water can be harder to maintain in terms of water quality and temperature. You may need to use a heater to stabilize the temperature and be diligent about water changes in your freshwater planted aquarium if you have fish.

Larger tanks allow more room for intricate planning, while small tanks limit this space. Keep in mind that you’ll essentially be building a miniature underwater landscape.

Gravel is a great way to anchor greenery in your freshwater planted aquarium. Photo: Irina_kukuts

Freshwater Planted Aquarium Substrate


Substrates include gravel, which comes in many sizes, and the kinds of plants you keep will dictate the type of gravel your tank will need.

For rooting plants, the grain size needs to be fairly small to allow for planting and for the roots to take hold. It may be harder to get good results with larger-sized gravel.

You can also look into specialty gravels made as planting media for aquariums. What is the best substrate for planted freshwater tanks? The gravel I’ve used, Flourite, is rich in nutrients the plants can use.

Several types of gravels are available, and some people use the planting medium as the bottom-most layer, with other decorative layers of gravel on top. Some gravel types may affect the pH, which could harm some sensitive species of fish.

How you plan out the substrate is up to you as the builder.


This is a dense, nutrient-rich clay that is cost-effective when compared to other options.

The only issue? It can be messy and cloud the water for a while.

Don’t disturb this substrate after planting, and use a top layer of gravel to hold it down.


While I never use sand in my own tank, I’ve heard that not many plants like this as a rooting medium. If you already have a bottom layer of planting medium, though, you can put sand on top of that.

Low-light plants are generally slow-growing in home aquariums. Photo: uzilday

5 Low-Light Plants for a Freshwater Planted Aquarium

Your biggest discerning factor in choosing plants is lighting.

Below, I’ve listed the 5 most commonly available low-maintenance freshwater plants you can find. Before you get to those, though, here are some things to know when including them in your freshwater planted tank:

  • They aren’t overly demanding on water quality or fertilizer.
  • They are typically slow-growing, but with patience, you’ll find they establish well in the home aquarium.
  • If you decide to bump up lighting for these plants, they’ll speed up growth-wise.
Anubias. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

1. Anubias

This lovely broadleaf plant grows from a rhizome and slowly produces one leaf at a time.

When I first bought my Anubias, I needed to secure the plant to a rock with string so the roots would take hold on their own. I always got excited when this plant sprouted a new set of leaves.

There are many varieties of Anubias to choose from, varying in both size and color. They can make great additions to the background or center of your aquascape.

Java Fern. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

2. Java Fern

These underwater ferns are beautiful, and in the right conditions they can grow quite large. Also growing from a rhizome, Java Ferns need to be tied down to a rock or driftwood to allow the roots time to take hold.

Growth is slow, and not only are new leaves produced but also brand-new baby ferns will bud right off the mother plant.

You might find these babies floating around the tank after they detach themselves, and you’ll need to gently anchor them to a heavy object where they can attach their root. I used a thread for my baby plants since it’s thin enough to not put too much pressure on the plants.

You can buy Java Ferns in all sizes and use them in the background, center or sides of the aquascape.

Both fish and invertebrates love climbing and swimming through Java Ferns, and they add extra cover for any shy inhabitants.

Cryptocoryne. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

3. Cryptocoryne

This group of plants has a more traditional crown of roots than the ones above, making them a little easier to plant in your freshwater planted aquarium.

One quirk about Cryptocorynes is “crypt-melt,” which can occur occasionally without apparent cause. This is when their leaves appear to melt away for a time. Sometimes they recover — but sometimes they don’t.

There are many theorized causes for this, including:

  • Transplant stress
  • Changes in lighting
  • Changes in water chemistry or temperature
  • Chemicals released by other plants

Unfortunately, it isn’t a well-understood phenomenon. Treat them with care because of these possible sensitivities.

Cryptocorynes come in varying shades of green, with white and red thrown in. The species I had was Cryptocoryne wendtii, which worked well as foreground plants. My group of Kuhli Loaches loved weaving in and out of them.

These plants propagate themselves by producing offshoots that eventually pop up through the gravel nearby. When they fill in the foreground, it’s a satisfying sight to see.

Java Moss. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

4. Java Moss

This moss has its good and not-so-good points.

It can take over a freshwater planted aquarium if left unchecked and is difficult to remove fully.

If you’re game for some planted aquarium maintenance, however, Java Moss can add a nice accent to an aquascape. My ghost shrimp used to enjoy walking through it to pick up bits of food.

Some fish and invertebrates may eat some Java Moss, but in general, they’ll usually leave it alone.

Hornwort. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

5. Hornwort

Hornwort is a bushy floating weed that does well in low to moderate lighting conditions.

It offers cover for fish to hide under and helps oxygenate the water. Although it can be rooted, it does best when floating.

Freshwater Planted Aquarium Lighting Guide

Lighting for a freshwater planted aquarium requires that you provide 2–3 watts per gallon. You’ll need to upgrade that level if you intend to keep more demanding plants.

As for the lights themselves, your average aquarium hood might not provide what your plants need.

I opted for a shop-light fixture to hold the T8 fluorescent tubes I needed for my 55-gallon tank. You can buy a kit to help you retrofit your hood if you need to.

A variety of lighting types are available:

  • Metal halide
  • LED
  • T5 or T8 bulbs

It all depends on the size of your aquarium.

LED lighting is also a great alternative for these reasons:

  • It’s low wattage.
  • It doesn’t produce heat.
  • It offers very bright light.

Fertilizer/Additives for Your Freshwater Planted Aquarium

Liquid fertilizers are one of the keys to maintaining a healthy planted aquarium, just like any garden.

Flourish, made by Seachem, was one such fertilizer I used weekly for my own tank. Most liquid fertilizers should have all the micronutrients the plants will need.

Be aware that plants that have more red coloring need more iron than others. These additives can be expensive over time, but they may be a good investment for the health of the plants.

Along with commercially available options, you can also create your own blend of liquid fertilizer at home using online guides. Your local fish shop may offer a dry mix you can buy as well.

Check out this planted aquarium setup video:

YouTube player

Final Thoughts on Setting Up a Freshwater Planted Aquarium

Planted tanks can make amazing, living centerpieces to any room.

With time, investment and some effort, a project like this can become a rewarding part of fish keeping for both novice and advanced hobbyists.

Both visually appealing and more natural for the fish you keep, the freshwater planted aquarium can be built in just about anyone’s home aquarium.