(Step-by-step) How to set up a (freshwater) planted aquarium

Setting up a freshwater aquarium without plants is simple and straightforward to do, yet is it the most rewarding? Aquascaping your tank, including the addition of plants, is going to elevate your tank experience to the next level, not only visually but your fish are going to reap the benefits too. However, in the early days of my fish keeping journey, I wish I’d known how to do this properly, saving me a load of hassle going through the process of trial and error. This article will share the key information on what to do when setting up a fully operational planted aquarium, which will go a long way in keeping your fish friends happy.

What is a Planted Aquarium?

An aquarium is simply a transparent container made to exhibit and maintain aquatic life. Aquascaping is the creation of a unique and natural marine ecosystem, replicating the beautiful underwater environment of a fish’s natural habitat. 

To cultivate a successful planted aquarium involves a specific set of requirements and a balance of nutrients and light to thrive. The unique requirements needed are why some hobbyists go for fake plants since they believe live plants will require a lot of added maintenance. This could be partially true for those with entry-level knowledge about live planted aquariums. However, when you fully understand all the steps involved in the preparation, which we will discuss in this article, you will learn exactly why I believe the added time and money to be worth it.

 How to set up a (Freshwater) planted aquarium - (needyfish)

What do you need to set up a planted tank?

To set up a planted aquarium, you need a budget and a structured plan. Finance will play a significant role in getting the required materials for construction and other related expenses. 

A tank will, of course, be needed for the setup process. However, the other essential items are as followed: 

  1. Substrate
  2. Test kit
  3. LED lighting
  4. Carbon dioxide supplements
  5. Heater
  6. Filtration system

1. Substrate

A substrate is a material used to cover the ground at the bottom of the tank to provide a surface where live plants can grow roots as well as absorb nutrients. A substrate is not merely just gravel or sand; it has a primary role in providing a healthy habitat supplying nutrients to aquatic plants. Take your time when choosing a substrate because there are several types, such as ones infused with plant-specific nutrients or minerals. 

What type of substrate should I use?

Choosing a substrate for a non-planted tank is very straightforward – just pick any type of gravel that takes your fancy and you’re ready to go. However, for a planted tank it’s slightly more complicated. Planted tanks will provide a live aquarium habitat for plants to survive. When choosing a substrate, you should remember that different size gravel grains are going to hold the nutrients and support plants differently. There are two main types of substrates; inert and nutrient-rich.

Inert vs Nutrient-rich

Inert substrates come from rock minerals or hard-baked clay and are not rich in nutrients. Common inert substrates are gravel, turface and black diamond blasting sand. They’re known for not breaking down and lasting forever. They’re relatively easy to manage and have the added advantage of being an algae growth inhibitor. Inert substrates major downside is not being rich in nutrients; you’ll have to add additional fertilizers for your plants to survive. 

Nutrient-rich substrates are as the name suggests rich in nutrients. They’re made of organic materials; a popular example being Aquavotro Aquasolum. 

Since they’re pre-packed with nutrients, they can shift the PH of the water as well as having the ability to soften hard water. Because of these possible reactions, it’s advised not to add such types of substrate to the tank while fish are present. Active substrates can also cause ammonia spikes and will need to be replaced after a few years. 

2. Test Kit

How do you know if the water in the tank is providing a balanced environment? By looking at your plants and fish to guess what is happening. Wrong! You use a water testing kit. This will help you distinguish between poor and good quality water. The majority of kits will be able to test for the following: 

  • Calcium
  • Iron
  • Potassium
  • Silicate
  • Copper
  • Phosphate
  • Iodine and Iodide
  • pH
  • Ammonia
  • KH (Carbonate Hardness)
  • GH (General Hardness)
  • Nitrite (NO2)
  • Nitrate (NO3)

Regularly testing the water will help avoid chemical imbalances in the tank that could be fatal to your fish’s health.

3. LED lighting

LED lighting in planted aquariums, for good or bad, can have the following effects; firstly, they will help determine the growth rate of plants since it’s an essential element of photosynthesis. They will also affect the plant’s coloration and can be a determinant factor for algae control issues. 

Choosing the correct amount of lights for your aquarium is an important question you should be asking yourself and its entirely going to depend on the following: 

  • The type and number of live plants in the aquarium
  • Amount of ambient lighting present in the room
  • The type of fish
  • Algae level in the aquarium.

When choosing your ideal lighting, there are three main factors that matter; strength/ light intensity (measured in PAR), light/color spectrum (measured in kelvin, K) and light spreads/disperses. There is some debate on how long the lights need to be on each day. However, generally speaking, most aquariums require eight to twelve hours of sufficient lighting per day. The time-duration will also depend on the four mentioned subjects above. 

4. Carbon dioxide supplement

Carbon dioxide is one of the primary elements in a plant’s life, and to achieve faster plant growth in your aquarium, consider using a carbon dioxide supplement, which will come in gas or liquid form. It can also play a role in reducing algae growth caused by the lighting (anything above 0.5 watts per liter) in an aquarium, but only to the extent of 2WPG (Weights Per Gallon). However, there’s a catch when using carbon dioxide supplements on your plants. You need to get a balanced level and distribution of CO2, oxygen, lighting, and nutrients. Supplementation will depend on how much light you have, which plant you wish to grow, your budget, and the amount of maintenance and time you are prepared to undertake. 

5. Heater

Fish are cold-blooded animals. They, therefore, rely on the surrounding water to regulate their body temperatures. Understanding the type of fish you are keeping is vital as some will require warmer water than others, which is why a heater for some will be essential. 

6. Filtration system

Reliable filtration is very important for the overall well being of a tank whether you choose to have plants in it or not. It’s responsible for keeping the water free of particulate matter; and removing the toxic components that are hazardous to the living organisms in the tank. 

How to set up a planted tank: Step by step 

Now you have a good idea of what’s needed to set up an aquarium. We can now have a look at the steps to follow to build your dream planted aquarium. 

Step 1: Tank preparation

Before adding water to your tank, clean it thoroughly to avoid contamination. If the tank is new, get a damp cloth to wipe out the dust. New tanks can have chemical leftovers on the surface of glass or acrylic. However, please don’t use any detergent when cleaning since it can harm the plants; I’d recommend using vinegar. 

You will also need to check for any leaks in the tank. If you find any, use an aquarium sealant to reseal it. Finally, you will need to position your tank out of direct sunlight (I would strongly recommend this as this is a common cause of an algae bloom.)The tank stand needs to be strong and have a firm base. 

Step 2: Add substrates and water

Once you’re done cleaning the tank, it’s now time to add the substrates followed by the water. First, rinse the substrate before laying it at the bottom of the tank. As mentioned above, the substrate you choose will boil down to your specific needs, determined by the type of plants and fish you wish to keep. For example, some plants may need soil-based substrates, whereas fish such as catfish will require a sandy substrate. 

Spread a layer of the substrate two to three inches thick evenly across the basin of the tank. Then add an inch of gravel on top of the substrate to prevent it from mixing with water (this is however completely optional and more of a personal preference.) 

It’s essential to precondition the water before you add any to remove the chlorine. You can add water using a bowl or you can siphon it in, we would recommend the siphon technique using a gravel vaccum.

Step 3: Install all the pieces of equipment

The filter, lights and heater all need to be installed. The installation of each product will wholly depend on the brand you brought. 


At this stage, It is likely and advised to have already purchased your filter. Take the time to read the instructions as it’s essential to understand where to put it. For example, an internal filter should be placed at the rear corner of the tank, ensuring an electricity cable can reach a power source. In contrast, a canister filter should sit at the base of the tank, usually under the stand. It’s essential to prime your filter as well, without doing so will run the risk of damaging the motor. 


Heaters are relatively straightforward to understand. They will usually have lines to indicate how far to submerge it. The heater and the thermometer should not be on the same side of the tank. 


The light installation will require you to do the wiring and connect to a source of power. Remember to regulate the amount of light to the level you need. 

Step 4: Add plants and decorations

Now you have installed all the required equipment, it’s finally time to decorate your tank. You can create any theme you wish; whether that’s a densely planted fish tank or using a large piece of driftwood, complemented by just a few plants. Part of the fun is that you can customize it however you please. 

Be sure to continue to use the preparation plan you instigated in the early stages. Rinse each item you want to put in the tank. When planting the plants, follow the instructions given as some will need to be buried into the substrate, whereas others can float on the surface of water. 

Step 5: Cycle the tank

Cycling a tank is the process of cultivating an environment where other organisms and beneficial bacteria can develop and survive for the fish’s wellbeing. Essentially, it’s the process of having a fully operational nitrogen cycle in your tank. We give a detailed step by step guide ‘here’ on how to do this properly. 

Step 6: Caring for the plants

Before adding fish to your tank, it’s important to take care of the plants. Keeping your aquarium clean by changing the water regularly to balance the ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels (frequent water testing particularly early on is advised to gauge this accurately) as well as ensuring the filter and heater are working correctly. Using the heater will provide a stable temperature for the plants; however, don’t forget to provide sufficient light to allow photosynthesis. You will need to trim the plants that have overgrown as this will keep the ones that aren’t healthy. Make sure to remove the debris as dead leaves will decay and can cause blockages in the filter. 

Step 7: Introducing your fish to the aquarium

Congratulations on getting to this step! The introduction of the fish is the final step, and I can imagine the one you have been most eager to get to. You’re finally able to see all the time and money you invested paying off. However, be cautious not to add your fish before the cycling of the tank is complete. It’s advised you add your fish in phases. The number of fish to introduce daily or weekly will depend on how big or small your tank is. Stick to one inch of fish per ten gallons of water; so know your tank capacity. Once you have added your fish, it’s up to you to acclimatize your fish, helping them adjust to their new environment. 

Acclimatization may involve the following steps:

  1. Reduce the lights in the aquarium and the room. If possible, darken the aquarium.
  2. Adjust the fish to the aquarium temperature by floating them in the bag that they or it came in, on the surface of your tank. 
  3. Cut the top of the bag then roll it down to float.
  4. Take half a cup of aquarium water and add it to the bag.
  5. Repeat the process once more.
  6. Remove almost half of the water from the bag and take half a cup from the aquarium and add it to the bag every 4-5 minutes until it is full once more.
  7. Introduce the fish to the main aquarium, slowly using a net to remove them from the bag.
  8. Pour out the water in the bag and its contents.
  9. Monitor the behavior of the fish for one or two days to ensure they are adapting.


I hope the above has given you sufficient information and a clear idea of how to set up your own planted freshwater aquarium successfully. The most critical aspect of building an aquarium is sticking to the plan and following the rules at each set-up stage. Remember that fish are delicate, and if you miss out on a point, there is a high possibility that it’s going to be detrimental to your fish’s health. Good luck! If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us. 


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