7 Easy Steps For Setting Up A Planted Aquarium

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One of the most beautiful freshwater aquarium setups is the planted tank. Unlike fish-only tanks, setting up a planted aquarium requires some more works such as choosing the right supplies (substrate, filter, light, CO2...), aquascaping, planting, etc. Don't worry! This article will provide you a step-to-step guide for establishing a beautiful and long-lasting freshwater planted tank as well as gather all things you will need in one place to fulfill the process.

Step 1. Aquarium preparation and position

planted tank setup

A 20-gallon aquarium is an ideal and manageable choice for a beginner. 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.

Choose a large enough location with level and well supported surface for your aquarium and stand. The total weight of an aquarium would be approximately 10 pounds per gallon of water, so a stand sufficient to hold the weight of the filled aquarium is a necessity. Make sure to leave enough space for electrical connections and other equipment as well as space around the aquarium for maintenance.

The aquarium should be located where light and temperature can be regulated and not influenced by sources such as windows or heating. Sunlight can be responsible for green algae in the tank. Ideally, you should select a location that will help in maintaining a constant temperature between 76 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

Step 2. Set up the substrate

An aquarium with soil substrate

After carefully cleaning your aquarium and placing it on a stand in a proper location, cover the bottom of your tank with a layer of substrate. If you want to grow stem plants in your planted tank, choose a soil substrate. If you want a low tech planted tank with moss, anubias, and epiphytic plants, use a gravel or sand substrate.

You will need 2 lbs of substrate per gallon of tank volume to fill a 2-inch bed. This rule of thumb is fairly useful for rectangle tanks. The exact number may vary according to your aquarium shape, it decreases in a tall tank and increase in a long one.

The base substrate will form the breeding ground for the beneficial bacteria that breaks down the organic waste substances. Once this is set up, it is difficult to clean the tank, and is impossible to clean the substrate frequently, so be sure your substrate is set properly before you proceed. The bacteria in the substrate and the roots of aquatic plants require a good supply of oxygen to grow. In order to meet this requirement, the substrate you select must remain loose and porous.

CaribSea Eco-Complete 20-Pound Planted Aquarium, Black
  • Complete substrate for freshwater planted aquariums
  • Contains major and minor trace elements to nourish aquarium plants
  • Substrate encourages healthy plant root growth

Eco-Complete Planted Black aquarium substrate is a ready-to-use substrate for growing aquarium stem 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, this substrate contains live microorganisms that are ready for establishing a good environment in your tank and nourishing your plants.

The Eco-Complete substrate is ready to use and doesn't need to be rinsed. However, if you use a fry substrate, ensure to rinse it well with clean water before adding to your tank.

Step 3. Positioning hardscape (rock and driftwood)

Stones and driftwood serves as the basic framework of your aquarium layout. The artistic composition of your planted tank is based almost entirely on the arrangement of stones and driftwood.

Golden ratio

Most people feel that an object would look more attractive if it is positioned slightly off-center. This balance is called the golden ratio which is expressed by the ratio of 1:1.618 (approximate value is 2:3). Originally founded by an ancient Greek mathematician, the golden ratio is said to be the most harmonious proportion to the human eye and is used as the aspect ratio for postcards and various packages.

Golden ratio in an Iwagumi layout

In an Iwagumi layout, the largest main stone which constitutes the main focal point of the layout should be placed in the position determined based on the golden ratio in order to achieve visual balance. The standard size of the largest main stone is about two-thirds of the tank height when it is placed on the substrate. The golden rule of Iwagumi is to arrange the stones in order of size from largest to smallest.

Besides stones, driftwood is a natural composition material essential for planted aquariums. It is vital to select driftwood appropriate to the tank size in order to produce a good driftwood layout. The shape of the driftwood is essential, but the most important factor is its size. Too large a piece of driftwood makes the viewers feel visual pressure from the layout, so it is advisable to combine a few pieces of driftwood.

Step 4. Planting and filling the tank

Fill the tank to the surface of the substrate for easy planting

After properly positioning the stones, gently pour dechlorinated water (tap water treated with a water conditioner) 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 more simple.

Now, start preparing and planting your aquarium plants. 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.

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Using tweezers helps you easily to plant some popular carpeting plants such as Glossostigma elatinoides and Eleochalis acicularis. Remember to water the plants and always keep them well moistened while you consider your design layout.

If you want to sow the substrate with aquarium plant seeds, do this after adding water to wet the substrate and wait until the seeds germinate. It may take you about 3 days for the seeds to germinate and 10 days for the new plants to develop their roots, which then will help the plants to stand against the water current from the filter. Carpeting a planted aquarium with this method takes more time than using mature plants but it is worth the waiting time.

A moss tree made with driftwood and Java moss

You can tie your stones and driftwood with moss to make them look more naturally. You can also attach different types of moss to bonsai driftwood to make appealing moss trees. Cotton threads and super blue gel are very useful for moss attachment.

Bonsai Driftwood Aquarium Tree DLS (9 Inch Height x 12 Inch Length)...
  • Natural Fish Tank Decoration – This 9” x 12” bonsai driftwood tree is made from genuine driftwood and crafted into small landscape pieces perfect for organic tank layouts.
  • Helps Balance pH Levels – Driftwood bonsai trees contains tannic acid which helps soften and condition the water for healthy, natural balance ideal for fishes.
  • Create a Stunning Theme – Safe for fish, shrimp, and turtles, combine our wood with rocks, moss, water and air plants to create beautiful aquarium, terrariums, mini landscapes and fairy gardens!

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 dechlorinated water if you use a substrate with live helpful bacteria or want to add several fish right away after setup. 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, trim any plants that affect the overall appearance of the layout.

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 a sand flattener.

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

Step 5. Set up equipment for the planted tank

Filter selection and setup

Hang-on-back power filter

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 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 aquarium filters you can use for a freshwater planted aquarium. 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 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.

The thumb rule for choosing aquarium heaters is "4-5 watts per gallon" if you don't live in a region with extreme temperatures. The difference between your room temperature and the temperature you want to achieve, and the aquarium capacity are important factors for choosing the right heater. I have a complete guide for choosing the right aquarium heater by tank size here.

Lighting for aquarium plants


In a planted aquarium; CO2, lighting, and nutrients in the substrate are crucial factors for the 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.

A planted tank LED light, which provides white light at 6800-7000 K, is a 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 demanding. Then, choosing the right light rated for the tank size and the plant types.

  • Low light plants need approx 60 lumens per gallon (10-20 Lm/L).
  • Average or medium light plants need approx 110 lumens per gallon (20-40 Lm/L).
  • High light plants need over 150 lumens per gallon (> 40 Lm/L).
Bonsai Driftwood Aquarium Tree DLS (9 Inch Height x 12 Inch Length)...
  • Natural Fish Tank Decoration – This 9” x 12” bonsai driftwood tree is made from genuine driftwood and crafted into small landscape pieces perfect for organic tank layouts.
  • Helps Balance pH Levels – Driftwood bonsai trees contains tannic acid which helps soften and condition the water for healthy, natural balance ideal for fishes.
  • Create a Stunning Theme – Safe for fish, shrimp, and turtles, combine our wood with rocks, moss, water and air plants to create beautiful aquarium, terrariums, mini landscapes and fairy gardens!
Finnex Planted+ 24/7 Fully Automated Aquarium LED, Controller, 20 Inch
  • Fully Automated Aquarium LED Fixture w/Controller
  • Hands Free: Simulating Fire Red Sunrise to Blue Starry Night
  • Four Customizable Color Channels, Dimmable

Finnex Planted+ 24/7 v2 LED light 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 repeating a preset lighting cycle without daily turning on/off the light by your hands.

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

CO2 supply system

co2 supply system

If your have demanding plants that require much CO2 to flourish, you should consider a CO2 supply system. This type of system is fitted with a CO2 regulator for adjusting the CO2 injected into your aquarium. A good CO2 regulator will come with all compositions in the previous picture. (Read the full guide).

CO2 drop checker

The CO2 concentration can be easy measured by using a cheap CO2 drop checker. The ideal CO2 level in a planted tank is 26-35 ppm, where the indicator solution of the drop checker changes to green color. You should ensure that the CO2 is provided at this range, which is best for the plants to thrive 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.

CO2 bubble counter

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 to quantify the amount of CO2 injected by counting how much bubbles per second. The amount of CO2 necessary differs according to the size and the growth stage of aquarium plants. It is recommended that you should supply approximately 1 bubble per second during the initial stage of your planted tank, then gradually increase the supply to 2-3 bubbles as the plants grow.

More details about CO2 supply system: https://lovefishtank.com/co2-regulator-supply-kit-planted-tank/

Step 6. Test and adjust the pH and water hardness

You should test and adjust the pH and water hardness before running the tank to make these parameters ideal for the healthy growth of your aquarium animals and plants. API test kits are the best ones to use. Remember to monitor the pH often when your planted aquarium has been set up.

The optimal pH range for each tank will depend on the types of plants and fish in that tank. The pH range from 6.5 to 7.5 meets the survival threshold of most freshwater plants and fish. Most aquarists maintain their planted aquariums at that range.

The true and scientific way to reliably change the pH of aquarium water is to change its buffer ability from supporting for neutral pH to acidic/alkaline pH. Seachem buffers are very efficient to do this work. Use 1/4 teaspoon (2g) of either of the buffers (depend on your purpose) for every 20 gallons of water daily until achieving your desired pH. For more details, read the guide for pH adjustment.

If your water is too soft or not well buffered, this is not good for aquarium creatures. Use both of the Seachem buffers together according to your target pH and the suggested ratio from Seachem to improve the hardness and buffer capacity of the water.

If you have the problem with hard water, the problem may come from your tap water, stones and/or other things you add into your tank. The fastest and cheapest way to solve the problem is to dissolve your water (aquarium water or tap water when changing) with RO/DI water. You can also use an aquarium softener to soften very hard water and make it ideal for your aquarium's inhabitants.

Step 7. Cycle the new setup planted aquarium

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, there is no water leakage, the filter works with no problem, etc. Now continue to the process.

Aquarium nitrogen cycle

Any new setup aquarium needs to be cycled before it can accommodate and keep fish healthy. The main purpose of this process it to accumulate helpful nitrifying bacteria, which process toxic ammonia and nitrites from fish and aquarium wastes, as much as possible to prepare for stocking live animals.

You have two options to cycle your aquarium, with fish or without fish. Read more about this procedure: https://lovefishtank.com/new-fish-tank-nitrogen-cycle/.

Affiliate links & Images from Amazon Product Advertising API. Last update on 2022-09-11.

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