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How to: Planted Aquarium

Updated on October 20, 2013

How to set up a low maintenance planted aquarium

Everyone loves fish tanks. When I was a kid, I always loved going to this one doctor's office just because of their fish tank! Last year, I decided to jump in and set up my own aquarium. I enjoyed it so much, that I went on to set up a tank at my office, and then my enthusiasm rubbed off on a friend, and I ended up setting up one for them too!

This lens catalogs the process I went through to set up my friend's aquarium. All the steps are exactly the same as I did for the other two, so if you ever were looking for a step-by-step guide to setting up a planted aquarium, here it is!

As you begin to look through this lens, it will quickly become clear that my method is vastly different from anything you have probably seen before (unless you have already done a good amount of research in this area). I am using a form of what is known as the El Natural, or Walstad Method, named after the pioneer of this method, Diana Walstad.

In a nutshell, the two main distinguishing elements are the use of regular dirt and low light. We'll get in to what that means later, but without further ado, let us begin!

Your planted aquarium starts with a tank - first things first, figure out where you are going to put the tank.

For this set up, the owner wanted a to start with a small tank. It was her first time owning a fish tank, so she decided starting smaller would be better. This is generally good advice, but just remember, the smaller the tank, the easier it is to make mistakes because a small change can have big effects. In a larger tank, the changes and mistakes are spread out more, so there is less effect overall. Pictured here is a 10 gallon tank.

10 gallons is pretty small...if you want to start with something small, 10 gallons is fine. But I would recommend going with a 20 gallon, which is still small, but big enough to give you a little more room to play with.

Typically, 20 gallon tanks come in 2 shapes: Standard and Long. The 20 gallon Long is a better look, in my opinion. It's not as deep, so it gives you more horizontal room to add more plants.

Some aquariums to look at

Fluval Edge 12-Gallon Aquarium with 42-LED Light, Black
Fluval Edge 12-Gallon Aquarium with 42-LED Light, Black

Fluvals are beautiful tanks. Great, simple setup, they give you everything you need to get started

Marina Style 20 Deluxe Glass Aquarium Kit - 20 Gallons
Marina Style 20 Deluxe Glass Aquarium Kit - 20 Gallons

This 20 gallon is a great size to get started with.

Ameriwood 55-Gallon Aquarium Stand
Ameriwood 55-Gallon Aquarium Stand

When you are ready to tackle a larger aquarium, you will need a sturdy stand for it. Something with storage space underneath is critical.

Tetra LED Cube Shaped 3 Gallon Aquarium with Pedestal Base
Tetra LED Cube Shaped 3 Gallon Aquarium with Pedestal Base

These tiny aquariums make great shrimp tanks. And you can get some great looking plants in these too!

Fluval Chi Aquarium Kit, 5-Gallon
Fluval Chi Aquarium Kit, 5-Gallon

The Chi is very easy to set up and has a great waterfall effect that is very relaxing to listen to.


Dirt! - Next, you need to buy some potting/top soil

Nothing special here. Dirt is dirt.

Two main things you want to avoid when selecting your soil are:

1. Fertilizers - these will harm your fish, and are just not good for the type of set up we're going for.

2. Perlite - this is an additive intended to retain water when the soil is used in the traditional manner. In standing water (aka, a fish tank!) it all floats to the top.

I forgot to mention the perlite to my friend, so she actually bought soil with it in the mix. This is not necessarily bad, because it will not really harm the fish or plants, it's just more of a nuisance, because it will have to be removed.

Get a bucket

Next you are going to dump a good amount of the potting soil into a 5 gallon bucket. You should add about three times the amount you think you will need to cover the bottom of your fish tank. In the coming steps, you will end up losing about half the soil you start with, and then it just a good idea to have too much to work with and have to throw away than too little, and be scrambling for more.

Let me take a few more moments to talk about the kind of soil we use. As I said before, really any regular old dirt will work. If you live in an area that you can easily go dig up some rich soil from a forest or something, that would work too.

Typically, though, as you look around on all the planted aquarium forums (those that deal with the Walstad method) you will find that most people use "MGOC" - Miracle Grow Organic Choice Potting Soil. This is widely used because it is readily available in pretty much any store with a gardening section, so it provides a nice reference and starting point for people when they talk about how they did things, what went wrong, what went right, etc. For a much more detailed discussion on soil selection, check out this forum post here.

Aside from MGOC, any generic natural potting soil or top soil will work. For my first set up, I just bought the cheapest stuff I could find, and it worked fine.

Dump soil in bucket

You might want to wear gloves when handling the soil as to avoid the hundreds of tiny splinters that result in handling it with bare hands.

The method I am going to describe here for prepping your soil is the easiest, most straightforward way to get you dirt ready for use in the aquarium. There are other, more complex methods that you can read about (see link above) that get the job done, and perhaps allow for a bit less work in the months immediately following the initial setup, but the method described here gets the job done just fine!

I have yet to use these more complex preparations, and my planted aquariums are all thriving!

Some people really enjoy doing things the most complex, thorough way possible. Other people just want to do what works and get it done. This lens is more geared towards this latter designation.

Next, fill bucket with water

This is the more straightforward, simple way of prepping the soil that I mention above.

Fill the bucket with your dirt until the dirt is covered by a good six inches of water. Give it a good stir with a stick or something.

Let it sit over night, or a full 24 hours.

Strain out anything floating

After your designated soaking period, you will end up with a thick layer of "stuff" floating on the surface of the water. Just scoop all this off and discard.

It will mainly consist of the bigger woody pieces in the soil. And anything else that floats (like perlite!)

Anything from the soil that floats you will not want in your planted aquarium, so don't worry that you are throwing away too much. Remember when I said to add three times the amount of soil you would need to cover the bottom of your tank? This is why.

After you get rid of the floaters, pour off as much of the water as possible without losing any soil from the bottom.

Then fill up the bucket of soil with water again, give it a stir, and let it soak for another 8-24 hours. The more you do this, the better, so it's really just a matter of what you patience allows for! I typically go through about three soaks.

Soaking not only helps get rid of the floating stuff you don't want coming up in your aquarium water, it also helps to start to get rid of the tannins. Tannin is a chemical in plants that, for our limited aquarium purposes, discolors the water. Using topsoil in the way I described will inevitably leave some amount of wood in the soil (peat will leach tannins also). The presence of this woody stuff will begin to turn the water into an "iced tea" color. This is not bad for the fish, or the plants, but is simply an eyesore to most people. Over time, and after many water changes, the water color will stay clearer longer.

Pre-soaking the soil will help to get rid of some of the tannins before going into your tank.

Final step in soil prep!

After you have soaked your soil a few times, you will need to spread the sludgy soil out on something. In the picture above, we used cookie trays.

Let it sit out (in the sun, if possible) for a day or two. Exposing it to the sun/air like this will help to begin to break it down, resulting less of this breaking down/decaying happening in your planted aquarium, which will in turn result in less dramatic changes in water parameters in the first few weeks.

Now your dirt is ready to use!

This is when the fun begins!

Add soil to your empty tank

Spread the dirt over the bottom of the aquarium, no more than 1 inch deep.

It is important that it is not too deep, because this will cause problems for you down the road. It might not seem like you have enough dirt, but just trust me, one inch is plenty!

Only 1 inch deep!

Only 1 inch deep!
Only 1 inch deep!

Next, add aquarium gravel

Begin adding gravel around the edges, then fill in the middle.

You can really pick any aquarium gravel you like. Just make sure the pebbles are not too big. Something half way between pea-sized and sand. Even coarse sand is fine to use (but not from the beach!). As far as color goes, I prefer to use a more neutral/natural color, like black or grey or brown. Black will really make the green of your plants stand out, and hide the fish poop! I prefer not to use colored gravel because I think it looks too "fake," when everything else in your tank is live, but it's your choice!

The amount of gravel you add is not as crucial as the amount of soil. With the gravel, you want to have at least an inch deep on top of the soil. Basically, the purpose of the gravel is to keep the dirt from coming up into the water column, so you need enough so that the dirt is completely covered and more.



More gravel...

More gravel...
More gravel...

Add rocks, driftwood, etc. - Make your planted aquarium look awesome!

Now go find some cool rocks and driftwood pieces you can add as part of the decoration.

For rocks, just about any natural rock will be aquarium safe. A quick simple test is to drip some white vinegar on the rocks you want in your aquarium. If the vinegar bubbles, throw the rock out. If nothing happens, rinse it off and add it to your masterpiece!

For driftwood, the most common for freshwater tanks is Manzanita. This is a very hard wood, and the branches of a Manzanita tree look really cool, so you can get all kinds of neat twisty-turny branches. If your driftwood is not "aquarium ready" you will need to strip any bark off the wood, and be prepared to come up with a creative way to keep it submerged once you add water. One good way is to incorporate rocks into your design, and have some of them holding down the wood.

At this point you could also add any other non-living decorations to the tank.

Also, you can see in the picture that I graded the gravel a little bit just to give it a little more variety than just flat. There's all kinds of things you can do in regards to this. Some people will even stack inert material (like tile) in different places before adding the dirt and gravel to give a multi-level look.

Pour in the water

Next, you will be finally making your aquarium into an aquarium!

Be careful when pouring in the water, as you don't want to displace a lot of the gravel and expose the dirt. A good way to avoid this is by placing a small dish in the bottom of the tank, and pouring the water onto this. This will help break up the stream of water and kinda spray the water around the aquarium, leaving your gravel relatively undisturbed.

Once you have filled it up completely, you should add a water conditioner. This primarily removes the chlorine and chloramine from tap water, which can be harmful to your plants, and also the beneficial bacteria that will begin to grow in the tank. You can get a bottle of tap water conditioner for a few bucks at your local fish store that will last you over a year.

Water conditioners

As you can see, there are many different options available. You won't need too much, because you won't be changing the water very often after the first few months.

API TAP WATER CONDITIONER Aquarium Water Conditioner 16-Ounce Bottle
API TAP WATER CONDITIONER Aquarium Water Conditioner 16-Ounce Bottle

This is my favorite, because you get the most bang for your buck. It's highly concentrated, so you only have to use a very little bit at a time. And it has a shelf life of a few years.


Turn your fish tank into a planted aquarium! - Add plants!

Finally, you will add your plants!

This is the best part of setting up your planted aquarium. For our method you will want to select plants suitable for "low-light" conditions. Just ask around, and do some research online, and you will find plenty of suggestions for easy to keep plants. A few off the top of my head are: Anubias, Java Fern, Ludwigia repens, Ambulia.

Where to buy plants: The two big pet store chains, PetSmart and PetCo, are NOT the best options to purchase your plants from (or your fish, for that matter...). Look for fish stores in your area that deal exclusively with fish and aquariums. Most times, these will be small shops, but occasionally you will run into a huge store--and these are awesome!

But the ultimate way to get plants is from fellow hobbyists. There are local clubs all around the world that you can research and join. This is a great option, because a lot of times, people will just be giving plants away, because plants grow, and need to be trimmed! And you can just take someone's trimmings, and plant it right in your aquarium, and it will grow!

There are also numerous online forums where you can order plant packages from people. You can also order from online fish stores.

How to plant the plants: Using your fingers (or tweezers if you opted for a more sand-like gravel) grab the plant by the stem at the base of the plant, and simply push your fingers with the plant through the gravel into the soil. When you withdraw your fingers, you may need to push some of the gravel back around the stem to keep it in place. You might find that some of your plants will be floating on the surface the next day. If this happens, just try to replant it. If it happens again, you will need to weight it down. I use small strips of lead that can be easily folded around the stem, or a group of stems, and planted in the manner described above. The lead is not harmful to the plant or the aquarium at large, and keeps the plant form popping back up quite nicely.

You will want to get a variety of plants, following the general scheme of tall plants in the back and small ones in the front.

You will also want to get a handful of a floating plant, such as water lettuce or frog bit. These are fast growing and will help control the water parameters in your young planted tank.

Added some moss

Here we tied some aquatic moss to the branch. To do this, just use cotton thread and wrap it around and around the branch and moss, and then tie it off. No need to go back in later and remove, because the thread will just decompose and add to the nutrients in the tank! You can also use super glue to attach moss to rocks and driftwood, but for this everything needs to be dry. Again, this is perfectly fine for you aquatic micro-ecosystem.

You can do all kinds of creative things with moss. Take sticks to make tree trunks, and add moss for the foliage. Or attach moss to some larger rocks for a mossy cliff side look.

Be creative and have fun!

Water clarity

You can see here that the water is very murky looking. This is because in the process of planting, some soil came up into the water column. You can leave your filter turned off for a day to let everything settle, or just fire up your filter right away, and let it go to work!

Another thing you will notice is the brown color of the water. As mentioned earlier, this is due to the tannins leaching out of the driftwood and woody stuff in the soil. Again, this is not harmful in any way, but simply not the look most people are going for. Over the next few weeks, you will want to do a 75% water change at least once a week. This will bring fresh water into the aquarium, and remove the brown water. Over time, you will find the water staying clear longer, until eventually, you will only need to change the water every 6 months or so.

Remember, every time you do a water change, add your water conditioner to the fresh water.

Install light, heater and filter

Now you will need to install a light, a heater and a filter. The heater you can get for pretty cheap on craigslist, or perhaps your tank even came with a heater. There are different sized heater for different size tanks, but for a 10-20 gallon aquarium, you will want a heater in the 50-100 watt range. Place the heater in the back corner of your aquarium, making sure the temperature adjustment is easily accessible. The temperature should be kept between 74 and 82 degrees F.

The filter you can also get on craigslist, or it came with your tank purchase. Again, you just want something that is rated to whatever size aquarium you have. If you are between sizes, or on the high end, just go one size up. Bigger is not going to hurt anything.

As for the light, you need to remember that you have live plants in your aquarium! This means you will need more light than what comes with a typical fish tank setup. This a quite an extensive discussion, so I will refer you to this forum thread for more detailed information. But for our limited discussion here, you will want to get something (either purchase or construct yourself) that uses fluorescent bulbs (the long tubes, or the compact spirals) that will give you somewhere around 2 watts per gallon tank size. So, for a 20 gallon aquarium, you would want about 40 watts of fluorescent light, or three 13-watt spiral compact fluorescent bulbs.

There are all kinds of lighting options available out there, and you can spend anywhere from $20 for a DIY setup to over $1000 for a high-end LED setup, so it's whatever your wallet can handle!

Planted aquariums are divided into two main categories: high-tech and low-tech. In a high-tech system, you are using high light (3-5 watts per gallon) adding fertilizers, adding CO2, doing frequent water changes, etc. Basically, lots of work! You can have a much wider range of plants in a high-tech system, but not necessarily better ones. In a low-tech system, like ours here, we are using low light (see above), no added fertilizers and infrequent water changes. The dirt provides the initial fertilizers to the plants, and then once that is depleted, the uneaten fish food and the fish poop are actually what provide nutrients to the plants. This is why we do not change the water very often, because typically changing the water is meant to remove all this waste...but for us, it's not waste!

3 months later

Here's the same tank 3 months later! Look how the moss just took off! Also, notice how much clearer the water is.

Also note the water level has dropped. Over time, water will evaporate out of your tank, and you will simply need to top it off with fresh, dechlorinated water every so often. Just add a few drops of water conditioner to a container of tap water, and carefully pour it into your aquarium, being careful not to pour to fast so as not to disturb the gravel at the bottom.

Eventually, you will also need to prune your plants. Nothing complex here...just carefully go in with a pair of scissors, and trim off any plants you think are too tall. You can replant these trimmings to add more plants to your tank, sell them/give them away to fellow hobbyists, or just throw them away.

We also added fish to the tank. You will want to wait at least one month before adding any fish. Before you can add fish to your planted aquarium, you need to be sure the water is safe. Buy a tube of test strips to check your water parameters. There are several different kinds, but you want something like a 5-in-1 test strip that checks for Nitrites, Nitrates, pH, Hardness, and Alkalinity. Of these, you will really only be concerned with Nitrites and Nitrates, but the others are good to at least have in mind.

The nitrites/ates need to be within the safe range for a couple weeks before you can add fish. These are harmful to fish. Your plants, on the other hand, thrive off of these nitrogens. Your tank will also begin to establish a colony of beneficial bacteria that help process these toxins into a safe form for your fish. The tank will become a natural "circle of life" with the fish waste becoming food for the plants, and the plant waste benefiting the fish, and keeping the water clean.

When your tank is ready for fish, make sure you do your research and get only fish that will do well in a planted aquarium. Some fish like to eat live plants; some fish like to dig. These types of fish will destroy your beautiful aquatic world, so make sure you know what you are getting. As far as number of fish, the typical rule of thumb is one inch of (adult) fish for every gallon of water. But for the type of tank we just set up, you want to stay a little below this mark. So if you have a 20 gallon tank, you could get five fish that grow to 2", and three or four that grow to 1", and one that grows to 2-3". All together that would equal 15-17 inches of fish total, which is suitable for a low maintenance planted aquarium.

Some aquarium essentials

API 5-IN-1 TEST STRIPS Freshwater and Saltwater Aquarium Test Strips 25-Count Box
API 5-IN-1 TEST STRIPS Freshwater and Saltwater Aquarium Test Strips 25-Count Box

These are absolutely essential in the beginning stages of your aquarium setup. The main things you need to monitor are Nitrates and Nitrites

Fluval Flora Stainless Steel Planting Tongs - 10.63-inches
Fluval Flora Stainless Steel Planting Tongs - 10.63-inches

Useful for all your big aquascaping plans! Especially useful for small plants, or plants with a delicate stem.

Fluval Flora Stainless Steel Aquatic Plant Scissors - 9.80-inches
Fluval Flora Stainless Steel Aquatic Plant Scissors - 9.80-inches

Easily trim your plants with these sharp precision scissors.

Marina 6-Inch Blue Fine Nylon Net with 12-Inch Handle
Marina 6-Inch Blue Fine Nylon Net with 12-Inch Handle

Just good to have on hand. Straining out stray plant trimmings, catching fish for transport, etc.


What do you like about fish tanks? - Let me know!

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • jeffersuan profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago

      @mel-kav: I totally agree. Sometimes I can just sit for an hour watching my aquarium.

    • mel-kav profile image


      4 years ago

      I find fish tanks to very relaxing and almost mesmerizing.

    • jeffersuan profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago

      @gadifi lm: watching a fish tank is better than watching tv sometimes!

    • gadifi lm profile image

      gadifi lm 

      5 years ago

      I love fish tanks or aquariums

    • Cynthia Haltom profile image

      Cynthia Haltom 

      5 years ago from Diamondhead

      My aquariums always start off low maintenance and then turn into my obsession, I haven't had one in quite some time.

    • jeffersuan profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago

      @flinnie lm: Yeah! I can sit and watch my aquarium for hours. Better than watching TV!

    • flinnie lm profile image

      Gloria Freeman 

      5 years ago from Alabama USA

      I love watching the fish.


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