How to Set Up a Planted Aquarium

Planted aquariums are fun and a great outlet for creativity. But before adding plants to an aquarium, there are considerations to be taken into account.

Planted aquariums can be beautiful—capturing the imagination and passing along a sense of awe to other aquarists. These aquariums pose their own challenges, too. The startup cost for such an aquarium can be fairly expensive. The cost levied upon the aquarist also includes the time and maintenance that must be spent on the aquarium to keep the environment clean, manicured, and healthy. Planted tanks demand constant attention and frequent water changes. Neglect of these duties will lead to plant die-off or unchecked overgrowth resulting in a dominant plant choking out light and killing off less developed plants.


Lights are usually the primary concern for those starting a planted tank — they are also the most expensive component. There are various types of fixtures, bulbs, and lighting options out there, and each has its advantages and drawbacks. The aquarist must take the time to research the available options and choose the right aquarium plant lights for his budget and lighting needs.

The planted aquarium lighting you choose will greatly depend on what particular plants you want to keep. There are low light aquarium plants that will not require powerful aquarium lights, while others will necessitate the purchase of high output aquarium lights. Replacement bulbs also tend to be expensive and will need to be changed regularly.

As a general rule, the planted tank should receive roughly three to four watts of light energy per gallon. This means that for a 50-gallon tank, the aquarist should try to provide at least 150-200 watts of light.

Taking these basic lighting requirements into account, the second large expense in lighting planted tanks is the resulting power bill. Running powerful aquarium plant lights 12-14 hours per day can be expensive. The aquarist should be prepared for these expenses before setting up the aquarium.

Providing Carbon Dioxide

Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is a critical component in the process of photosynthesis. Some plants do not require supplemental CO2, as they can harness adequate amounts from the fish and substrate. Others, however, require large amounts of CO2 simply to survive. Once again, the decision of whether or not to incorporate supplemental CO2 will revolve largely around the aquarist’s plans for the aquarium. In any case, Carbon Dioxide is very beneficial for plants and aides in their growth. Any planted aquarium will benefit from the addition of CO2.

CO2 kits range in price, size, and functionality. The aquarist can go simple and low-tech, even using 2-liter soda bottles and constructing a DIY (do-it-yourself) kit, or shell out extra money and provide something far more complex and accurate such as a steel cylinder for CO2, plus a regulator and controller.

When in use, CO2 must be properly regulated. An excess of Carbon Dioxide in the water can drop pH levels and kill fish. A CO2 meter/indicator is always a wise investment.

Tank Substrate

Choosing the proper rooting medium will ultimately determine if and how well the plants will grow. Standard aquarium gravel is typically a poor choice as plants cannot properly spread their roots and send out runners to propagate.

There are many choices of substrates available. Plain, fine-grain sand works well because plants can root easily in it, but they can also become uprooted easily as well. There are many substrates designed specifically for growing aquarium plants that include nutrients to improve plant health and growth. Substrates for aquarium plants can be pricey sometimes, so pick well. Below are my 3 favorite substrates for planted tanks.

Ideally, a combination of aquarium substrates, properly layered, will achieve the best results.

Planted tanks capture the eye, the imagination, and when properly established, emulate conditions in the wild. An aquarium with healthy plants provides a type of safe-haven for fish, complete with food, shelter, and atmosphere. Above all, the accomplishment of creating a planted aquarium can be deeply rewarding for the aquarist.


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