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Freshwater Aquarium Plant Care Tips

Freshwater aquarium plants are an essential item to add to your aquatic habitat. While some pet parents opt for plastic plants for their freshwater aquarium, adding live aquatic plants can provide environmental benefits their fake counterparts can’t. Among other things, live aquatic plants produce oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide, help control algae growth, improve water quality and provide a renewable food source.
Although care for plastic plants requires less maintenance than live plants, aquarium plant care will become a regular part of your overall aquatic life maintenance plans. If you’ve decided to include the benefits of live plants in your freshwater aquarium, remember that thriving plants will likely mean thriving fish. Here are some tips on how to help achieve healthy aquatic plants.

Pick the right freshwater aquarium plant

An aquatic plant, by definition, is a plant that can survive when completely submerged under water— but different aquatic plants require different levels of care. Echinodorus, Lilaeposis (Sword Plants), Anarchies and Anubis are often recommended for freshwater aquariums as they are easier to care for species. Other examples of aquatic plants to consider include:

  • Cryptocoryne
  • Ludwigia
  • Microsorium
  • Vallisneria
  • Hygrophila
  • Bolbitis

When picking your plant life, don’t forget to check each plant’s compatibility with your water condition and fish. Some fish will dig up or even eat all the plants!
Choosing plastic plants for your aquarium requires fewer considerations than picking the right live aquatic plants for your fish’s habitat–such as the size and look of the plants and how they will fit into your aquarium.

Determine your freshwater aquarium plant substrate

Live freshwater aquarium plants generally come either potted or in a loose bunch. Although plants can typically grow in any aquatic substrate, the optimal condition for aquarium plants is 2 to 3 inches of laterite—a soil and rock combination that’s rich in iron and aluminum—covered with an inch of larger substrate, like gravel. If you won’t be using laterite, be sure to provide the plants with fish-safe food additives, iron supplements and fertilizers. Some aquatic plants could also benefit from the addition of CO2, as well. Removing any potted plants from their pots and planting them directly into the substrate can also be more conducive to root development.

Invest in a beneficial light source

You already know that light is an essential source of energy for plants to photosynthesize, but the type of aquarium plants you have should dictate the type of aquarium light you use for optimal growth. Most plants benefit from full-spectrum lighting and they generally need about 10 to 12 hours of light per day. Some plants have more specific needs, though. For example, some common freshwater aquarium light needs include:

  • Dracaena sanderiana (bamboo): This easy-to-care for plant is a favorite for betta habitats, and it does best in medium to high lighting
    • Note: While dracaena sanderiana can be fully submerged in water for short periods of time, it should never be submerged in water for more than a month at a time. After that it needs to come out of the water for a rejuvenation period
  • Bolbitis: Is often a good beginner plant and requires at least medium lighting to thrive
  • Echinodorus: Typically only require a low to medium light, depending on the exact plant chosen

As you choose the various plants you want to add to your aquarium, consult an aquatics specialist to ensure that the lighting needs for your plants are complementary and can be accommodated in your specific aquarium.

Fertilize and practice aquascaping

A fish-safe, iron-based fertilizer can enhance your plant’s growth and overall vitality. However, be sure to keep an eye on all that growing! While some aquarium plants won’t require ongoing pruning, taller ones like Rotala Indica can grow across the surface of the water if not pruned. Since overgrowth in plants like this can block essential light, continually ensuring that they are cut back is essential for the health of the rest of your aquatic life. Remove all dead and decaying leaf plant particles, too, as these affect your aquarium’s overall water quality.

Keep your aquarium clean and water quality good

Like your fish, freshwater aquarium plants also require a clean environment for optimal growth. Cleaning your fish tank regularly with the appropriate fish tank cleaner can help, but it’s essential to stay on top of algae growth. Algae competes with aquarium plants for light and nutrients, but it’s not always as simple as using an algaecide, which may have adverse effects on your aquarium. Instead, opt to include one of a variety of herbivorous aquatic life to the tank to help keep algae in check, or physically remove the algae with an algae scraper every week. If you use fertilizer for your plants, avoid using one with phosphates, since algae thrive on phosphates.
Keep in mind that most plants prefer a pH level of 6.5 to 7.8 (though a few prefer a more alkaline or acidic environment) so continual water checks are essential for their care as well as the rest of your aquatic life.  
With the proper care and attention, freshwater aquatic plants can be a beautiful way to add natural elements to your aquarium. Learn more about aquatic and terrarium plant care, or stop into your local Petco store to speak with a store partner.