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15. Planted Aquarium

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Author : David Bogert

Published :

Time To Read :
5 minutes
Difficulty : Level 5

Excerpt :

There are as many types of planted aquariums as there are hobbyists with planted aquariums.
Types of Planted Aquariums
There are as many types of planted aquariums as there are hobbyists with planted aquariums. Each tank is different. But there are six broad categories of tanks. Three are “Natural” systems with no chemical fertilization or carbon dioxide gas (CO₂ gas injection) to speak of.
Low techWalstadFather fish
PlantsOnly very easyOnly easy onesOnly easy ones
FertilizerFish wasteFish food in excessFish waste
Bottom substrateTypically sand1 inch (2,5cm) nitrogen poor organic soil1 inch (2,5 cm) nitrogen rich organic soil
Capping substrateNone0,5 inch (1,2cm) gravel3 inch (7,5 cm) sand
Carbon dioxideNoneFrom Soil and FoodFrom Soil and Food
LightsModerate 16 off – 8 onModerate 5 on – 4 off – 5 on – 10 offHigh 14 off – 10 on
FilterSmallSmallDeep sand bed sump
Water movementSomeVery lightSome
Number of fishLightLightLight to moderate
InoculateNoneSoilPond mud

Then there are those systems which use chemical fertilization and/or carbon dioxide gas injection:

Hau methodHybridHigh Tech
FertilizerOnly fish food and root tabsLight fertilizationHeavy fertilization
Bottom substrate3 inch (7,5 cm) gravel1 inch (2,5 cm) wood pellets2 inch (5 cm) commercial planted aquarium soil
Capping substrateNone1 inch (2,5 cm) coarse sandNone
Carbon dioxideLow tech bottlesFrom the pelletsHeavy injection
LightsLight 8 on – 16 offModerate 4-4-4-4-4-4Very High 14 on – 10 off
Water movementLittleSome low in the tankVaries
Number of fishModerateLightLight
InoculatePlantsPond mudNone


It is POSSIBLE to have a successful planted aquariums which is a very simple affair without carbon dioxide additions and pretty much ANY combination of substrates, plants, aeration and filtration. I have only noticed one “guideline” with planted aquariums that is VERY challenging to break. This one “guideline” is:

Only have a Few Small Fish in the Planted Aquarium

Any experienced aquarium owner will tell you that when you enter the hobby there is a decision you must make. Do you want an aquarium of all fish or do you want an aquarium of largely plants? Do you want a fish aquarium or a planted aquarium? Creating a well planted aquarium with a heavy loading of fish is extremely difficult. Even a moderate amount of fish with a lot of plants is challenging. But then many enjoy a challenge.

In our meanderings over the years we have found several ways to have decent numbers of decent sized fish in an aquarium. Mother Nature is VERY flexible. These methods are reviewed in this link:

15.11. Many Fish Many Plants

Walstad Planted Aquarium
Walstad Planted Aquarium

If one really wants plants with their fish there are some plants which are the exception and simply can’t be killed and which seem to live under any and all conditions. While they will get some algae on their leaves the leaves are resistant to being smothered by algae. And they seem to live in under all conditions with no fertilizer at all. They even live with very low light conditions.

These plants include Anubias (just don’t put the bulbs INTO the substrate), Amazon Sword (Echinodorus amazonicus), Java Fern (Leptochilus pteropus, synonym Microsorum pteropus), and Java Moss (Taxiphyllum barbieri). Java fern and Java moss are both “epiphytes” and need to be either attached to a surface like a piece of wood or they need a very open substrate like aquarium gravel. If you bury the crown on Java fern in sand it will die.

Heavily planted aquarium
Heavily planted aquarium with a few fish

Definition of a “Planted Aquarium”

There is a distinct difference between a “planted aquarium” and an “aquarium with plants”. Beginners seem to think that one can put a few plants into an aquarium and within months the plants will multiply and take over the aquarium. It doesn’t work that way.

The aquarium below is one such aquarium. Note that the aluminum plant in the middle is terrestrial and will die in water. The other five species of plants will probably fare little better as there is an air stone operated sponge filter in the back. Air stones insure that the CO₂ level is too low for most plants to survive.

"Aquarium with Plants"
“Aquarium with Plants”

For an example of how not to set up a planted aquarium, let’s use a sixty-gallon (240 liter) beginner’s “aquarium with plants”. Let us add six different species of plants into a sixty gallon (240 liter) aquarium at a density of one plant per ten gallons (40 liter), six plants in the sixty gallon (240 liter). This is what one would term “an aquarium with plants”. Of the six plants in our example, two die back in the first month to stubs, two do nothing and two begin growing slowly.

The beginner is adding the recommended dose of a complete fertilizer twice a week, just like the directions say. They leave the light on from 7 in the morning till ten at night (15 hours). Because they are way over fertilized the two stubs and the two plants doing nothing die completely.

And the two plants remaining struggle because they are getting the fertilizer loading for about fifty plants and algae are thriving in the high light condition. Finally all the plants die, algae takes over the aquarium and the hobbyist is puzzled as to what happened. After all, “I fertilized per the directions“.

Low Tech Planted and Aerated Aquarium
Low Tech Planted and Aerated Aquarium

Experienced hobbyists who put together the beautiful high tech planted aquariums which are wall to wall with plants all either raise or buy plants in large quantities. They would plant this sixty-gallon (227 liter) aquarium with TEN plants of each species, sixty plants total. They would slowly ramp up the fertilizer along with the lighting over the span of a few months. They would NOT add any aeration. They would add some sort of CO₂ (including soil substrate) to bring the CO₂ level from 3 ppm to at least 10 ppm. This is a “planted aquarium”.

If one only has a limited budget and cannot buy sixty plants at once (at $5 per plant that is $300) one can raise the plants. But note that takes some thought. Here is a link on how to do it:

15.12. Propagating Plants

Planted Aquarium
Planted Aquarium

Recommendations for Planted Aquarium

There are several very general, frequently not followed, recommendations for a planted aquarium:

  • Light stocking of fish smaller than two inches (5 cm)
  • A carbon dioxide CO₂ level above 10 ppm first thing in the morning
  • A plant every three inches (7,5 cm) across both the length and the width of the aquarium
  • Little surface movement of the water and no air stones
  • Slowly ramp up light and CO₂ over a span of months

Note: Fertilization is NOT included in this list. Fertilization is MUCH less important than many seem to think.

High Tech Planted Discus Aquarium
High Tech Planted Discus Aquarium

Planted Aquariums in Depth

We go into more guidelines for all aquariums more in this article:

15.1. Planted Aquariums in Depth

planted aquarium
planted aquarium