Planted Aquarium Care 101: Part 1

I’ve been receiving a lot of questions about taking care of planted aquariums. So, I decided to start a new Aquarium Care series that covers this topic. Over the next several Aquarium Care articles, I’ll explain the basics of keeping aquariums with a thriving assortment of plants.

First, a quick introduction:

So, what is a planted aquarium anyway? What makes these aquariums different from other tropical fish tanks?

To put it very briefly, planted aquariums are ones that rely primarily on plants for aesthetic appeal. In other words, plants serve as the heart of the planted aquarium with tropical fish accenting and complementing the lush underwater garden.

For this reason, planted aquariums are specially made for providing plants with a suitable environment. Success with this planted type of aquarium, therefore, requires a bit of extra planning in order to ensure the health of your plants. Indeed, lighting quality, water-flow, substrate type, the variety and amount of tropical fish your aquarium sustains, and perhaps the addition of extra equipment are all issues to consider before setting up a new planted aquarium or converting an existing freshwater fish tank into an aquatic garden.

That said, the extra planning and input will go a long way. Moreover, both the presence of plants and the extra attention you’ll pay to maintaining optimum water conditions will significantly contribute to the health and vitality of you fish. Believe it or not, tropical fish and aquarium plants share many basic needs.

Lighting the Planted Aquarium

Like all plants, aquarium plants rely on photosynthesis for the production of food. They need light for nutrition and growth. Choosing suitable aquarium lights, therefore, seems like the natural starting point for planning a planted aquarium.

While regular tropical fish tanks will do well with normal output fluorescent lights, planted aquariums require a more heavy duty solution. That’s because normal output bulbs – the type used for household use and, unfortunately, for most aquarium “kits” and complete setups – produce a small amount of poor quality light.

In other words, the intensity of normal output fluorescent bulbs is not strong enough to sustain aquarium plant growth. These bulbs also tend to produce a reddish yellowish hued light that will stimulate algae growth, but won’t do wonders for your plants.

Fortunately, there are other lighting solutions for the planted aquarium. Metal halide bulbs work wonderfully. Nevertheless, they are both costly and expensive to operate (they’ll double your electricity bill!). Power compact fluorescent bulbs are also great and cost much less than their metal halide counterparts, but they’re still not the best way to go.

Instead, I highly recommend T5 fluorescent bulbs for planted aquariums.

T5’s are long lived, they produce a high quality of light, they pack more punch per Watt than other bulbs (excluding metal halides), they’re more compact than their normal output fluorescents (T12’s or T8’s, depending on where you live), and they don’t produce excessive heat! T5’s stay cool. They are by far the best lighting solution in the planted aquarium hobby.

With T5 bulbs, I suggest getting about 2 to 3 Watts per gallon. This arrangement will ensure that your aquarium plants will receive the sustenance they need to thrive under your care.

That’s it for this Planted Aquarium Care 101 post. In the next installment of the series, I’ll discuss plant varieties according to lighting needs: namely the so called low light, medium light, and high light aquatic plant categories.


2 people commented on "Planted Aquarium Care 101: Part 1"
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  • Chris says:

    Very informative piece on setting up a planted aquarium. I have just ventured in to the hobby, after having numerous aquariums all my life I have finally taken my first step towards my planted tank.

    I purchased a Nova Extreme T5 36″ 2×39 Watt with one 10,000k Daylight Bulb and one Freshwater Bulb. I also purchased Flourish Black substrate along with Tahiatian Moon Sand.

    I am now in the process of re-homing my current cichlids, finding a suitable piece of driftwood and I will begin the process.

    I am wondering how to go about setting up a Co2 System in my tank, as well as how long to wait after adding water to add my plants or should that be done at the same time.

    Again I appreciate your information and your website.



  • admin says:

    Hi Chris,

    Looks like you’re doing everything perfectly thus far. The T5’s are an excellent choice for a planted aquarium.

    CO2 systems are one of those contraptions that actually work! And, they work really well! They will not only provide your aquarium plants with bio-available carbon, but also (when coupled with a pH controller) will noticeably stabilize your aquarium pH!

    Let me explain.

    CO2 lowers pH, and adding a CO2 system will do the same in your tank. For this reason, many people attach their CO2 systems to a pH probe and controller.

    The probe measures the pH, and when the pH falls below the desired level you set, the controller stops the addition of CO2 to your aquarium – this mechanism most often kicks in at night when your plants stop producing oxygen (they stop photosynthesizing) and start producing CO2 instead.

    In fact, most heavily planted aquariums see a pH drop at night precisely because of plants’ above mentioned metabolic function. You can imagine the potential damage done when the plants’ natural nightly mode of respiration is coupled with (unregulated) addition of CO2 into the aquarium! A pH controller, of course, will allow you to effortlessly and completely circumvent this problem.

    That said, I think you should go for the CO2 system Chris! And, spending a little bit more on a pH probe and controller will ensure that everything goes smoothly.

    Also, the addition of CO2 to your aquarium requires the use of a CO2 reactor. This mechanism aids in dissolving the CO2 into your water (all aquarium CO2 systems I’ve seen come with a reactor). So, keep in mind that you’ll need space in your aquarium for not only the pH probe, but also the CO2 reactor. Some people place all this equipment in their aquarium sump, but for those aquariums without a sump great aquascaping skills are required to hide the presence of these “machines.” Just giving you a heads up 😉

    Hopes this helps, and take care,

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