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Care Tips for Freshwater Aquarium Plants

With lush foliage and vibrant green hues, plants can be an enchanting addition to your freshwater aquarium.

In addition to aesthetics, plants help establish a natural ecosystem. They produce oxygen while absorbing carbon dioxide and nitrates, helping to keep your aquarium clean and healthy. Additionally, fish appreciate the ample shelter they provide.

But plants, like all living things, require care. While certain plants may require a greater degree of knowledge, there are numerous plant species that are great for the beginner aquarist.

If you’re ready to add plants to your freshwater aquarium, follow these tips for providing the right kind of care.

Choose the right plants

Caring for your plants begins with choosing ones that are suitable for your aquarium. Make sure the plants you choose are confirmed as underwater plants, which means they can survive completely submerged in water.

A few examples of hardy, easy-to-care-for underwater plant species include Echinoderms or Lilaeposis (Sword Plants), Anarchies and Anubis.

Keep in mind that most plants prefer a pH level of 7 to 7.2 (though a few prefer a more alkaline or acidic environment). And be sure to check each plant’s compatibility with your water condition and fish. Some fish will dig up or even eat plants!

Supply the right substrate

Aquarium plants need substrate—material used to cover the bottom of an aquarium—in which to anchor their roots. Plants can grow in most types of substrate, but two to three inches of laterite covered with an inch of gravel is ideal.

It’s possible to keep your plants in the pots in which they were sold. However, “planting” your plants in substrate provides for a more natural look, and is more conducive to root development.

Provide the right light

Without proper lighting, your plants won’t survive. Plants need light for photosynthesis, a process in which they generate energy for growth. An added benefit of photosynthesis is that it produces oxygen for the aquatic life in your aquarium.

Full-spectrum, fluorescent lighting is a must. Make sure to give your plants 10 - 12 hours of light per day. If using fluorescent lighting, remember to change your light bulbs at least every 12 months, as their intensity may fade. If your light fails to emit a full spectrum, your plants won’t thrive.

Use the right algae-reducing techniques

Like a garden weed, algae competes with aquarium plants for light and nutrients. There are several solutions for eliminating algae. Algaecide, a formula based on antibiotics or chemicals, kills the algae but may have adverse affects on your aquarium. There are a variety of herbivorous aquatic life that can help keep your algae in check. You can also physically remove the algae using an algae scraper. For best results, scrub algae weekly. And don’t forget—overfeeding your fish can cause algae growth.

Use the right fertilizer

You can enhance plant growth by adding a fish-safe, iron-based fertilizer. Look for special slow-release fertilizers that are designed to aid in freshwater aquarium plant growth. Never use a phosphate fertilizer, as algae thrive on phosphates.

Practice the right “aquascaping” skills

Certain types of aquarium plants require pruning, especially tall stem plants like Rotala Indica. These plants will grow across the water’s surface if not pruned back. When this happens, they can block precious light from other plants. Be sure to remove dead leaves and dying plants, too. Decomposing matter will affect your aquarium’s water quality.

Enjoy the right balance

Plants require care, but they offer valuable benefits in return: improved water quality and a more natural, sheltered environment for your aquatic life.