Unlike a freshwater tank setup, setting up a planted aquarium requires some more steps such as choosing the right equipment (filter, lighting, CO2…), aquascaping, planting… Known that, what I do in this article is providing you a step-to-step guide to establish a beautiful and long-lasting freshwater planted tank as well as gathering all thing you need to fulfill the process.

Step 1. Aquarium preparation and laying substrate

I strongly recommend a 20-gallon glass fish tank, an ideal and manageable size for a beginner. These are two basic types of aquarium tank: it is either made of glass or acrylic. When choosing an acrylic tank, one should select a tank with a high degree of transparency. However, the main drawback of using an acrylic tank is that it tends to be scratched easily.

First, clean the interior of your new aquarium with salt using a soft piece of cloth, then rinse it well with boiling water to get rid of the harmful organism and residue sediments, then wipe dry. This will ensure the elimination of any harmful bacteria or algae spores.

Next, cover the bottom of your tank with a layer of substrate, Eco-Complete planted black aquarium substrate is the best and ready-to-use substrate for growing aquatic plants. This substrate contains almost major and minor trace elements required to make your aquarium plants thrive and you don’t need to supplement anything to it. Moreover, live microorganisms are also included and ready for establishing your tank and nourishing your plants.

Eco Complete planted black aquarium substrate, 20 poundEco Complete planted black aquarium substrate, 20 pound

Tank size Dimensions Substrate weight Substrate height
5 gallons 16″ L × 8″ W × 10″ H 9 lbs 2-inch
10 gallons 20″ L × 10″ W × 12″ H 14.4 lbs 2-inch
20 gallons 24″ L × 12″ W × 16″ H 30 lbs 3-inch
20 gallon long
29 gallons
30″ L × 12″ W × 18″ H 39 lbs 3-inch
30 gallons 36″ L × 12″ W × 16″ H 48 lbs 3-inch
55 gallons 48″ L × 13″ W × 20″ H 68 lbs 3-inch

Step 2. Aquascaping, positioning stones and driftwood

The positioning of stones serves as the basic framework of your layout aquarium’s design. The artistic composition of your planted tank is based almost entirely on the arrangement of stones. You can tie the stones with willow moss to make it look more natural if you want. There is a Japanese gardening technique called “Sanzon Iwagumi” that is the most basic of all Iwagumi aquascape. To use this technique, place the stones in a triangular formation.


The largest stone of the three, slightly in the foreground and the second largest, in the back-right corner. The smallest stone is then placed in the back-left. Be sure to keep a balance so that in the front view, the ratio of left and right becomes 2:3. Three imaginary lines that connect the center of each stone should form a triangle.

Pine Bark stone shape landscaping decoration, 6.5 lbsPine Bark stone shape landscaping decoration, 6.5 lbs

7lbs of aquascaping Seiryu stone7lbs of aquascaping Seiryu stone

Petrified wood 5.5 lbsPetrified wood 5.5 lbs

Pine Bark stone 5.5 lbsPine Bark stone 5.5 lbs

Zilla Reptile Décor Malaysian DriftwoodZilla Reptile Décor Malaysian Driftwood

Zoo Med Tag Mopani WoodZoo Med Tag Mopani Wood

Step 3. Planting and filling the tank with dechlorinated water

After properly positioning the stones, gently pour dechlorinated water (use) into the tank until the substrate is well soaked. The weight of water makes the substrate firm, thus preventing the plants from coming loose when planted with tweezers and make the planting procedure simple.

Remember to use dechlorinated water (tap water treated with a water dechlorinator or conditioner) to protect helpful bacteria in the substrate. Remember to water the plants and always keep them well moistened while you consider your design layout.

Now, start preparing your aquatic plants. I classify the plants into three groups. The foreground plants (or undergrowth plants) form a carpet base for the aquascape, the midground plants are used to fill in the middle space, and the taller background plants form a green backdrop for the layout. Presenting depth and congruity in your aquascape is crucial. The size, growth rate and colors of the plants are all contributing factors to the layout and therefore, when planting, a certain basic order is necessary.

  • Adjusting the water to the level where the substrate is barely submerged
  • Using tweezers help you easily plant some popular carpet-base plants such as Glossostigma elatinoides and Eleochalis acicularis.

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After planting all your plants, slowly and gently fill the tank to its capacity with warm water at 78-80 degrees Fahrenheit (25-27 oC). Remember to use the water conditioner to neutralize the chlorine and gently fill the tank to prevent the water pressure from destroying your work.

A final examination of the overall layout is required. By taking the time to make this meticulous check, you will strengthen your knowledge of and your relationship to every intricate detail of your layout aquarium. As one of the final touches, it is necessary to cut the Eleocharis acicularis (hair grass) in the foreground with a pair of trimming scissors to about 1-inch high. This cutting allows new leaves to grow and also helps to prevent the growth of algae, however, the Hair Grass in the shadow or the background of the stones should be left untouched.

At this point, many small remnants of aquatic plants and other debris would be floating in the water. Replant anything that can still be used and then, with a fine mesh net, removes all the remaining debris. As another final touch, level the front part of the substrate again with the Sand Flattener.

Finally, the planting is over! All that remains now is the setup of the aquarium equipment such as filter, heater, lighting and CO2 supply system. Once that is done, you will have successfully completed the initial setup of your planted aquarium.

Step 4. Set up equipment for the planted tank

Filter selection and setup

Once the planting stage is over, it is time to start setting up various support equipment to keep the ecosystem in your tank alive and healthy. Filters play a crucial role in dissolving all the unneeded organic substances and waste products of your aquarium. In other words, the filter is responsible for keeping the tank’s water clean and clear.

There are many different kinds of filtration systems such as power filter, canister, internal, undergravel… When choosing, avoid selecting one that is too small for your aquarium, and not use an undergravel filter because it can drain away precious bacteria and nutrients from the substrate. I love to use an external power filter (Hang-On-Back) that is easy to use and very efficient in keeping your aquarium water clean for a long period.

You should choose a filter that is large enough to accommodate as many filter media as possible. The larger filter capacity offers to better filtration and longer maintenance. You should use all 3 types of filter media (biological, mechanical and biochemical) to completely purify your aquarium to not only make it clean and safe for fish but also clear for the great enjoyment.

Finally, install the filter and check if it works properly. Then, unplug it and set up your heater and other equipment.

Heater installation


As you know, colorful tropical fish are an essential part of a beautiful and lively planted aquarium, and these fish need a warm water at 78-80 degrees Fahrenheit (25-27 oC) to thrive. A good aquarium heater with thermometer helps to control and maintain the temperature at that point. For choosing the heater, it depends on the difference between your room temperature and the temperature you want to achieve, and the aquarium capacity. There is a guide available for you to choose a right heater by tank size as well as how to handle with a heater that you can check here.

Lighting for aquarium plants

In a planted aquarium; CO2, lighting, and nutrients in the substrate are crucial factors to plant growth. Aquatic plants could grow in an aquarium only if both light and CO2 were provided. Like plants in nature, plants in the aquarium also use light and CO2 in the morning for their photosynthesis and they need an alternate mode between day and night to thrive. Over lighting doesn’t help to grow plants, vice versa it can cause stress and kills them.


Choosing the right light used for aquarium plants, an aquarium plant LED light is the great choice. The light you need depends on the plants you have in your tank. Consider all your plants and determine if they are low-, medium- or high-light plant. Then, choosing the right light rated for the tank size and the plant types.

Finnex Planted+ 24/7 fully automated aquarium LED, controller5 star rating (5/5 by editor)Check on Amazon.com

Finnex Planted+ 24/7 LED fixture with controller is the best thing to buy for your planted tank, it features a 7000K/multi-color blend for the plant growth. Moreover, it has a 24/7 feature that allows for automatically repeat a preset lighting cycle without daily turning on/off by your hands.

Read my guide for this problem: https://lovefishtank.com/planted-aquarium-led-light/.

CO2 supply system

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is supplied by a CO2 supply system and can be adjusted with a CO2 regulator. If you are new to the CO2 system and your system doesn’t include a CO2 bubble counter, you should install one. The CO2 bubble counter helps you know the amount of CO2 injected into your aquarium. The amount of CO2 necessary differs according to the size and the growth stage of the aquatic plants. Supply approximately 1 bubble per second during the initial stage of injection, then gradually increase the supply to 2-3 bubbles as the plants grow.

Measuring the CO2 amount in the water by a CO2 drop checker to ensure that the CO2 is provided just enough to the plant need but still lie at the level the fish can live happily. This is very important, as the shortage of CO2 supply will result in the undergrowth and in many cases, the death of plants. On the other hand, the over CO2 supplied can harm your fish and shrimps. The ideal CO2 level in a planted tank is 26-35 ppm, where the indicator solution of the drop checker changes to green color.

Read more about the CO2 system: https://lovefishtank.com/co2-regulator-supply-kit-planted-tank/.

Step 5. Test and regulate pH and water hardness

Test and regulate pH and water hardness with API test kits before running the tank to make these parameters ideal for stocking fish.

API Freshwater PH Test Kit, 250 testsAPI Freshwater PH Test Kit, 250 tests

API GH and KH Test KitAPI GH and KH Test Kit

Depending on your source water, use Seachem Acid Buffer or Neutral Regulator to lower the pH to the appropriate range for both plants and fish (pH 6.5-7.5). Once your planted aquarium has been set up, remember to monitor the pH often. Use an aquarium softener to remineralize very hard water and make it ideal for your aquarium’s inhabitants.

Seachem Acid Buffer 300 gramSeachem Acid Buffer 300 gram

Neutral Regulator, 500 gramNeutral Regulator, 500 gram

API Water Softener PillowAPI Water Softener Pillow

Step 6. Plug your equipment in, wait and add some fish

After installing all aquarium equipment, plug them in and start them up. Let the tank run for over 24 hours until you ensure everything are working properly. The water is adjusted to the optimal temperature for stocking fish, the filter works with no problem, etc.

Congratulations! You now have your new aquarium filled with water, decorated the way you like, and your heater and filtration are operational! Great job, you now can add some fish to the aquarium, make sure to acclimate the new fish properly.

Note! before your fish tank gets cycled, only add a few fish, I strongly recommend hardy fish for new tank setup. Not buy all your fish in the first time because the aquarium needs to be cycled before it can accommodate and keep more fish healthy. Read more about this procedure: https://lovefishtank.com/new-fish-tank-nitrogen-cycle/.

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