How to Set Up a Freshwater Aquarium with Live Plants?

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freshwater aquarium

Keeping an aquarium with fish is already an interesting thing to do. But what is more interesting is keeping an aquarium with both fish and live plants. Live plants make your aquarium a perfect beauty. It makes it look just like the natural habitat of the fish in the wild.

One of the things that discourage most people from setting up a freshwater aquarium with live plants is they think it is difficult to set up. Setting up an aquarium with a live plant is simple. You just need to put a few things in place to ensure the adequate running of the aquarium with live plants.

And just as we have landscaping on land, planting live plants and arranging them in the aquarium to look good is called aquascaping.

Benefits of Live Plants

You may be wondering why you have to go through the stress of replacing your artificial plants with live ones. Live plants have a lot of benefits in an aquarium that make them desirable.

First, artificial plants are not natural and you can’t compare the scenery of an aquarium with live plants to the one with artificial plants. You want your aquarium to look as natural as possible since you are trying to create a home for the fish right there in the tank. The same way you will enjoy viewing your fish when they have live plants is the same way the fishes will enjoy staying in a habitat that looks just like its natural home.

Artificial plants are easier to maintain and set up in an aquarium. But here are some reasons why I think you should have a live plant instead of an artificial plant.

Live Plants Make Your Aquarium Look Like a Natural Habitat

This is the main reason why people set up an aquarium with live plants. It makes it look just like their natural home and fish enjoy staying in such an aquarium.

It Provides Extra Oxygen for Your Fish.

Live plants produce oxygen in the presence of light through a process called photosynthesis. This is the process by which they make their own food using carbon dioxide and water.

It Prevents the Growth of Algae in the Tank

Algae will grow in an aquarium when there is an excess of nutrients and the presence of light. The presence of live plants in the tank will help in the absorption of nutrients that are being released into the water from the excreta and uneaten fish food.

Live Plants Help to Filter Toxins From the Water

If you want to keep your water clean and healthy for your fish then you should consider setting up an aquarium with aquatic plants. The plants through their roots will take up harmful chemicals that could be harmful to the fish if left alone.

How to Set Up the Live Plants

As I said earlier, setting up an aquarium with “live plants” is easier than most people think. It makes a great hobby and it helps you to relieve stress. There is a satisfaction that comes from watching yourself set up a live plant and then adding fish to the tank.


Nothing is really hard when you have enough information about it. Research is the first step to almost everything you want to do for the first time.

I believe you’ve gotten your aquarium already and you want to add live plants to it now. But if you have not gotten an aquarium you still have to research to know what size and type you will be needing before buying it. It is important to know if the type of fish and the live plant you want to keep can stay inside the type of aquarium that you have.

You must consider the size of the fish and plant at maturity if the aquarium will be able to accomodate them. The tiny fish from your pet stores will not remain tiny forever. You need to get a tank that will be able to contain it when the size increases.

The requirements of each fish and plant may be different. You need to know if the plants and the fish can stay together. For example, the plant and the fish may have different temperature requirements. The plant may be able to survive at low temperatures but the fish may be a tropical fish that requires higher temperatures.

There are also other water parameter requirements that you have to consider. For instance, some plants may be able to tolerate harsh pH but the fish may die immediately if it is introduced into the same tank. You need to know this before you buy your live plants from your pet shop or Amazon!

Some fish and snails love eating aquatic plants. If you consider putting them together with leafy plants they may destroy it.

Position Your Tank in the Right Location

Location is important when setting up your aquarium especially when you want to add live plants to it. The position of the aquarium will contribute to its success at the end of the day. Do not place your aquarium where there will be direct penetration of sunlight.

Although sunlight is good and it is needed for live plants to grow, it is not advisable to place your aquarium directly under sunlight because it will also encourage the growth of algae. Some algae can grow so fast and take over your tank and make it look unattractive.

It is best to keep it in a cool place where you will have enough workable space and access to all the needed equipment.

Clean Your Tank

Before you introduce your live plant to your aquarium you have to clean it whether it is a new tank or an old one. Even new tanks can still have chemicals on the surface of the glass which may harm the fish. Cleaning an aquarium is not as difficult as you think. Get a sponge and wash it thoroughly with clean water. Make sure you avoid using soap or detergent to wash your aquarium because it may contain harmful chemicals that are dangerous to the fish and plant.

Preparing the Substrate

You already know that plants don’t grow in empty space, they need a substrate where they can find support and the essential nutrients needed for their growth. The first substrate that you need in an aquarium that is designed for live plants is soil.

Soil serves as the nutrient substrate and also the support for the root of live plants. You can buy the soil from any pet store and add it as the first layer to your aquarium. As you are adding it, break any large crumb that you find to make it easy for the plant root to penetrate.

Steps to Adding Soil to Your Aquarium

  • Spread it evenly at about 1 inch to 3 inches thick.
  • It is best to slope it and have about 2 to 3 inches at the back where you will have the deep-rooted plants. And about 1 inch in the front where you will have plants with shallow root.
  • Make sure you spread the soil evenly and do not add more than necessary. Too much soil can cause anaerobic conditions suitable for the growth of bacteria that can deplete the oxygen level.
  • After you are done with this process you will add water to the soil to compact it and reduce the dustiness.

There are two types of soil. The one that has nutrients and the one that has no nutrients. If you have soil that has no nutrients this is the stage to add the necessary nutrients to the soil. Check the recommendation and instruction from the manufacturer before adding it to the soil.

The second layer will be gravel. Some people prefer to add coarse sand to the second layer instead of gravel but both will work perfectly fine. Spread the gravel evenly to create a nice slope that will contribute to the aquascaping.

Fill it with water but make sure that you do not disturb the soil which will make them look muddy. You can place a plate in the tank and add the water directly on the plate to minimize the impact. You may still get dirty water no matter how careful you are. Just leave it to settle and the water will become clearer.

Arranging the Tank

There are no rules for how you arrange your tank and set it up with various decorations. You are solely going to use your discretion here and do whatever that you think is right. But most people like to add some woods and rocks to the tank which gives it a nice natural look. You can try varying positions until you like the arrangement.

At this stage, you can add your water filter and other accessories. A water filter will help you keep the water clean and healthy for both the fish and the plants. Depending on the type of fish you want to add to the aquarium you may not need a water heater

Adding Light to Your Aquarium

Your plants need light to survive. I have stated earlier that you should not place it where there is direct penetration of sunlight to avoid excessive growth of algae. LED light and fluorescent are a good source of light for photosynthesis. It is recommended at the rate of about 10-12 hours every day. These two sources of light are good because they produce little heat but enough light for the plant to grow. Incandescent bulbs are not desirable because they do not penetrate well into the water and they would affect the growth of your plants. LEDs last longer than the fluorescent but they are more expensive.

Adding Live Plants to Your Aquarium

I’m sure after going through all these processes, you are dying to add your live plants to your tank already. Before adding the plants to the tank, you have to plan ahead and know the exact location you want each one to stay.

Remember that they are live plants and you don’t want to be moving them from one spot to the other once they start having a firm root.

Also, you can plant taller plants that grow deeper roots behind while you get plants with shallow roots to stay at the front. You should vary the sizes and location of the plant to make it looks as natural as possible thereby improving the overall aesthetic.

General Arrangement of Aquarium Plants

There is a general arrangement that gives good scenery in an aquarium and I’m going to explain.

The first is having carpet plants that will create a good looking green floor for the aquarium. Java moss and hair grass will be good candidates for that and they are also easy to take care of.

Next, we have the foreground plants which will be taller than the carpet grass and are placed in front of the aquarium. They include common aquatic plants like the pigmy sword.

The next set of plants to be planted are in the middle. They should be tall and thick and will easily spread out to create a nice look just like in the natural water. The java fern and African water fern will fit into this category.

The last set will be the background plants which are usually the tallest and they are placed in the back of the tank which has more depth and is able to support them. You can consider Amazon swords.

Note: you cannot add fish immediately after this process. You will have to let the tank adjust itself and have stable water quality before introducing the fish. This can take from two weeks to almost a month before you can add fish to the setup.

Also, note that you cannot add live plants to an aquarium that has fish already. You have to start the process from the beginning. The plants can have excessive nutrients which will affect the fish and can even lead to death.

Conditions for Selecting a Live Plant

1. The Size at Maturity

Not every natural plant in water can be added to an aquarium. Some will grow too big or dominate the tank. Always consider the type of plant you want to add to your aquarium.

2. Size of the Tank

This is similar to the one above. The size of the tank you have available will determine the type of plants that you can add. Consider if the tank will be big enough to accommodate the plants and the fish.

3. Can the Fish Stay Together with the Plants?

There are some herbivorous fish that can destroy live plants if they are put together in the same tank. Avoid such fish when you are setting up live plants in an aquarium.

4. Ability to Grow in an Aquarium?

A plant may thrive when it is in the river but that doesn’t guarantee that it will do well when you bring it into an aquarium. You should select only plants that can survive in an aquarium.

Some Live Plants You Can Put in Your Aquarium

1. Vallisneria

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This is also called the American Eelgrass which is a result of its eel-like appearance. It is ideal for beginners because it grows very fast and it is resistant to a lot of harsh conditions.

2. Amazon Sword

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This plant has the name amazon because it is native to the freshwaters of the South America amazon. It has a sword-like appearance with broad leaves that can grow up to 20 inches in length. It is best to plant them in a coarse substrate that will allow for their roots to quickly grow and extend.

3. Java Fern

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This is a great plant if you are just starting and don’t know how to control a lot of water parameters. They can grow in different conditions and adjust to fluctuations and even under poor lighting. They can either be planted on the substrate or woods in the aquarium and they will do just fine wherever they find themselves.

4. Java Moss

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Just like the java fern, they can adapt to a range of conditions and survive. They grow on rocks and woods and tree trunks that are in the water. They will also do well under poor lighting and are simple to establish in the aquarium. They can easily spread out in your aquarium within little time. You can easily populate your tank with java moss.

5. American Waterweed

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You can call it American waterweed or simply Elodea. They can grow almost at any level of the water. That is, you can leave them to be floating freely or plant them in the substrate. They require adequate sunlight to do well and they also produce enough dissolved oxygen for the fish in the water.

6. Pigmy Sword.

pigmy sword freshwater aquarium live plant

They are best planted as a foreground plant where they produce excellent habitation for smaller fish and shrimps if you have them in your tank.

7. Water Wisteria

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This plant is excellent for beginners and they easily grow in an aquarium. They are tolerant and can grow under low light conditions and still release a lot of oxygen as they rapidly photosynthesize. The only problem is they die easily if they lack a nutrient-rich substrate.

8. Anubias Nana

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This is a plant that is native to Africa but do well in freshwater aquariums. They make an excellent choice because they are hardy. Although they grow slowly they hardly die in the tank. They can survive under low light and they are usually attached to rocks or woods in the tank.

Some Fish That Do Well With Live Plants

Not all fish will do well with your freshwater aquarium live plants. Some fish are grass eaters and they will disturb the aquarium vegetation thereby making it unattractive. Such fish are not good candidates for an aquarium that has live plants.

As a rule, the fish and the live plants should be in a symbiotic relationship. That is, both the fish and the plants are supposed to benefit from one another. The fish produces waste which is rich in nutrients and the plants make use of it to grow and produce more oxygen which is useful for the fish.

Another symbiotic relationship that can exist between the plant and fish is that the plant provides habitat for the fish while some algae eater eats the algae growing on the leaves of the plants making them healthy.

1. Tetra

tetra fish can live with freshwater aquarium plants

Generally, tetras are good for a planted aquarium. They are active, colorful and it makes it more fun to watch them around the live plants in an aquarium. They do not like to stay alone so make sure you keep them in a school up to 6.

2. Swordtails

swordtail fish can live with freshwater aquarium plants

They are great fish for beginners who want to keep a planted aquarium. They are livebearers and also reproduce very quickly. Their beautiful color will definitely add life to any tank.

3. Gouramis

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They are peaceful fish that will easily be kept with other fish in a community aquarium. They come in a lot of bright colors which gives wonderful sight. They have long fins so try to avoid fish that nibble on the fins of other fish to avoid stressing them.

4. Angelfish

angelfish can live with freshwater aquarium plants

Just like the Guoramis, angelfish are livebearers.  They are popular in freshwater aquariums. They are peaceful as long as they are still small and not living together with fish that are extremely smaller than them. They love to have plants around them because they use the leaves as their egg nest.

5. Cory Catfish

cory catfish can live with freshwater aquarium plants

They dwell with other fish peacefully and they also prefer to stay close to the bottom which means you can add them together with other fish that occupy the different levels of water. They are also best kept in a school of 6 fish.

Some notorious grass eating fish you should avoid include the silver dollars, Mbun Cichlids, and Buenos Aires Tetra.

Adding the Fish to Your Aquarium

You’ve done everything right and you now have healthy vegetation of aquatic plant growing in your tank. The next thing to do is to add your fish to the tank.

Don’t forget that you cannot add your fish immediately after you finish planting your live plants. The water chemistry is usually not balanced because of the excess nutrients that may be in the water.

If you add fish immediately they will add to the level of nutrients which will result in an ammonia spike and can stress the fish. You have to allow the aquarium to go through a cycling process which is the process by which the nutrient level is balanced and there will be no trace of ammonia again.

The temperature of the tank and where you are bringing the fish from may not be the same so you have to acclimatize the fish to the new environment before introducing them into the aquarium. There are two ways to do this.

You can either keep the fish in a nylon and leave it inside the aquarium for some time until the temperature becomes the same. Or you can keep adding the water from the aquarium to the water that you use to transport the fish gradually. Do this until the temperature is the same and release the fish gently into the water.

How to Care for Your Aquatic Plant and Fish

1. Create the right conditions all the time in the aquarium for the fish and plants.

2. Add algae into the tank to help with excess algae in the tank.

3. Trim the plants when they are growing too tall.

4. Introduce sufficient light for the growth of the plants.

5. Always make sure there is a balance of nutrients in the water.

6. Remove dead plants to avoid decomposition and depletion of oxygen.

7. Change the water frequently to avoid pollution.


Setting up an aquarium is fun and rewarding. If you want to take it a step further you should consider adding live plants as you have seen in this guide on how to set up a freshwater aquarium with live plants. You have to always do your research to know the best plants to bring in to your aquarium. There are different plants and you can experiment with them and see which one is best for you.

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Pet Aquariums

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