Starting a planted aquarium

Planted aquariums are known to be a calming and relaxing green underwater garden. In recent years, planted aquariums are getting more well known. Thus, in order to satisfy the curiosity regarding planted aquariums, This blog will help break down the steps required to start a planted aquarium. 

A summary of the important points are as follows; 

  • Substrate
  • Lightings
  • Filtration
  • Planting
  • The Nitrogen Cycle
  • Addition Of Livestocks
  • Maintenance
  • Let us now dive into explaining the important aspects of starting a freshwater aquarium.


    Behind every successful planted aquarium is the substrate. Substrate in a planted aquarium plays an extremely important role in terms of overall plant health. The process of setting up a planted aquarium usually starts with the decision to choose the type of substrate used at the bottom of the tank. Aquarium soil is commonly used due to its ability to release nutrients for plants in the aquarium. While sand and gravel are more often used for decorative purposes.

    The below shows a quick breakdown of the substrate most commonly used.





    • Extremely beneficial for plant growth.

    • Perfect for plant growth of all difficulties.

    • Lowers Ph and softens water, ideal for tropical fishes.


    • Plants can plant their roots deep in.

    • Easy to clean uneaten food and fish waste.

    • Allow fish to burrow.

    • Provides a natural look.


    • Plants will easily anchor themselves between gravel.

    • Inert, does not affect water chemistry.

    • Works with most types of filtrations.

    • Long lasting.


    • Expensive.

    • Not as long lasting.

    • Lack of variation.

    • Some soil can release ammonia and nitrite due to excessive nutrients, fueling algae growth.


    • Creates anaerobic dead zones.

    • Does not support plants with heavy roots growth.

    • Creates messy growth.


    • Could be accidentally swallowed by certain fish species.

    • Leftover food or fish waste are easily trapped in the space.

    • Regular vacuuming to remove any waste that is trapped.


    Now that the differences between the substrates are better understood we move on to the next point. Lighting.


    In terms of aquarium lightings, there are significant differences in color temperature or spectrum. The lighting you see in your convenience stores, clinic or even your homes all vary in color temperature. Before understanding what kind of light temperature or spectrum your aquarium needs,  let us first start by explaining the differences from low to high lighting temperatures. Color temperatures are usually measured in Kelvin units or (K). A low color temperature gives off a yellowish glow and has a rating of up to 3000K. A color temperature which gives off a blueish cool white glow has ratings of up to 10000K. A high light color temperature usually seen in marine or saltwater aquariums have ratings of up to 15000K.

    A planted aquarium however does not require much attention towards its color temperature or spectrum. This is mainly due to the fact that freshwater aquarium plants are not demanding and can grow to thrive under a wide range of Kelvin. The most noticeable light spectrum used in hobbyist’s freshwater aquariums is neutral light from around 6500K to 7000K. This is attributed to its potential in best simulating natural daylight.


    The kinds of filtration used in a freshwater aquarium is mostly dependent on the size of an aquarium and types of fish / plants kept. On average, the recommended turnover rate for a freshwater aquarium is 5 times. What this means is that if you have a 20 litres aquarium. The pump or filter should have a flow rate of 100 litres per hour. Canister filters are the most well known freshwater aquarium filtration unit that effectively keeps water clean. This is due to its larger water capacity and filtration levels.

    Nitrogen Cycle

    The below is a graph summarizing the nitrogen cycle.

    To understand the graph, we will help break the terms down for you.





    Ammonia or NH3 is the natural product of fish waste or leftover food. Some aquarium soil will also leech ammonia due to high excess nutrients. Ammonia is very harmful to fish and should be kept at zero levels.

    Nitrites or NO2 are the byproducts of nitrifying bacteria. Similarly to ammonia, nitrites should be kept at an undetectable range.

    Nitrates or NO3 are converted by nitrites. However, unlike ammonia and nitrites they are harmless in small amounts. Frequent water changes will keep them at an acceptable range.


    At the initial stage of setting up a planted aquarium, ammonia spikes are common. The type of soil used is mostly responsible as they leach ammonia due to excessive nutrients. With the dosage of live beneficial bacteria and water changes the process of decreasing ammonia happens quickly. As the beneficial bacteria becomes established, nitrites, the byproducts of the bacteria are released. In our experiences, nitrite usually takes a little longer to be converted into nitrates. When it finally happens, nitrate levels would usually be high and that signifies the end of the nitrogen cycle. At this stage, it is important to note that to minimize the stress of livestocks during their acclimation and addition into the aquarium, it is best to do a water change before adding livestocks into the aquarium in case the nitrate levels are too high.

    Addition of plants and livestocks

    The time in which you add your plants as compared to your fish or invertebrates in a freshwater aquarium differs significantly. Many hobbyists prefer to plant their plants during the earlier stage of the aquarium cycle. This is however entirely up to preferences, as some hobbyists also prefer to do planting towards the end of the aquarium cycle. However, for fish and invertebrates, it is extremely important to only add them in after the nitrogen cycle has ended, where ammonia and nitrite levels are at zero. This is to prevent any livestock casualties.


    The most commonly asked questions after starting an aquarium are usually “how often should I do my water changes?” and “I just want a simple aquarium setup without maintaining it, is it possible?”

    To answer the first question, we have to understand that in the wild, many waterways and rivers have low nitrates in the water due to the waste constantly flowing downstream. Unfortunately in an aquarium that is not the case. The byproduct of fish waste and food are nitrates. Livestock in aquariums can still do relatively well however, so long as nitrates are kept below 40 parts per million (ppm). A general rule of thumb in freshwater aquariums is to do 20 to 30% water change each week. This could vary depending on a few variables for example; when removing ammonia or nitrites leached by soil during the initial cycling phase, size of aquarium and stocking of livestock in an aquarium. In addition, it is important to note that adding water due to evaporation is not the same as changing water as the process of topping up water does not include the removal of nitrates, ammonia, nitrite, etc.

    Leave a comment

    All comments are moderated before being published