Step-By-Step Guide - Starting Your First Planted Aquarium!

Step-By-Step Guide - Starting Your First Planted Aquarium!

How To Create Your First Freshwater Planted Aquarium

Where to start? Tank size? Fish choices? Much more!

This article will serve as a guide for someone who is brand new to fish keeping. If you are about to embark on your first aquarium or first planted aquarium, please read the entirety of this guide and form a plan! Like many things in life, if you have a solid plan your chances of success are exponentially higher. Thanks for taking the time and I hope this helps! 

Be Prepared, Do Your Research

Think of another hobby that you have. How did it start? Where it it lead? If you're anything like me, you start out cautious of how much money you're spending. You opt. to get the cheap or lesser version of this or that. Like other hobbies or activities you start and then fall in love with, you end up quickly realizing you should have got this instead of that. Knowledge and experience is power! Example- It would have been much better for you to get the canister filter instead of the hang on back, etc. Before your even start, DO YOUR RESEARCH! Watch a bunch of YouTube videos, read blogs and articles like this one. Find out what you want to create and reverse engineer how to get it. Don't be afraid to spend the money, you wont regret it! I think most people that exit this hobby do so not because of lack of interest but rather to a lack of understanding. Ok, rant over, lets begin! 

Step 1: Pick A Tank!

Your first decision is what size and style of tank you would like. For someone just starting out, I always recommend around 20 gallons. If that sounds like a large tank, trust me it's not! 

It might be tempting to grab that 10 gallon that's on sale, but trust me, you will out grow it faster than you think. I recommend anyone who's starting out in the aquarium hobby check out the ultra clear low-iron glass aquariums made by Waterbox. If you spend any amount of time in this hobby you will quickly notice the appeal of rimless aquariums. Furthermore, starting out with a 20 gallon tank give you more choices when it comes to selecting fish and having room to experiment with different plants. 

Step 2: Picking The Substrate

Every planted aquarium needs a good substrate! This refers to the layer of sand, gravel or special plant mixture that you add first to your new tank. There are a million different choices, techniques and strategies when it comes to this very important step, but ill try and simplify it for you.  

While it is very possible to grow aquatic plants in plain sand or gravel, I think you are better off as a new fishkeeper spending a few more bucks and purchasing what's called an active nutrient substrate. This is a fancy term, but just means that it's a substrate that comes packed with nutrients perfect for your new plants. Plain gravel and sand is relatively inert and contains nothing that our plants need to grow. Rather than waiting several weeks or months for that material to accumulate nutrients from fish waste, why not hit the ground running and get a leg up. Add enough substrate to cover the bottom with roughly 1-3 inches and try sloping it from front to back. 

Can You Use Dirt In A Fish Tank?

You might be wondering about soil. My first planted aquarium was a dirted tank and if that's a term you are unfamiliar with, that totally fine, just skip this part :) Using soil in your aquarium is definitely an effective method for growing strong plants but it has a few drawbacks specifically for the beginner and why I wont recommend it. Changing up your plant locations once they have rooted can be a nightmare and a lot of work. I have received many emails from new fishkeepers complaining of a never ending brown tinge in there water due to not using an appropriate sand or gravel on top. The end result is having to start all over in many cases.  I think it is well worth the cost of an active substrate especially for your first tank. Save the soil for a future build. 

Step 3: Time To Aquascape

Aquascaping is a term used to describe the layout or scene that you create in your aquarium. Think of it as landscaping but underwater. Some key components that will make your aquascape look awesome:

1.) Rocks

2.) Wood

3.) Plants

Lets break this down a bit because it can get overly complicated. It is possible to use natural rock and wood you find in nature although I highly urge you not to for your first tank. While most river rocks are perfectly aquarium safe, other rocks that you find in non aquatic environments could cause issues. More so, the same can be said for wood or driftwood. While highly unlikely in North America, natural driftwood found in a stream could contain algae or fish pathogens and may require you to boil and sanitize before use. Some types of terrestrial found wood may have saps that can cause problems in your tank. Save the el natural strategy for a future tank.    

Some great rock and wood for your new aquarium include:

1.) Dragon Stone

2.) Seiryu Stone

3.) Spider Wood

4.) Manzanita Wood

What Aquarium Plants Are Best For Beginners?

This is also an area that can get overly complicated, let's make it simple. Aquarium plants are very diverse and typically grouped by difficulty to keep alive and grow. Since this is a beginners guide, I will only highlight the bulletproof plants, the ones that you will have the best shot at keeping healthy. 

10 Great Beginner Aquarium Plants

1.) Anubias Nana and Anubias Nana Petite

2.) Java Fern (Java Fern coco fiber mats are a great choice)

3.) Ludwigia palustris 

4.) Jungle Vallisneria (any Val. for that matter, best in tall tanks)

5.) Marimo Moss Ball

6.) Cryptocoryne varieties 

7.) Java, Christmas, Spikey, Flame moss 

8.) Sword plants (get big, best for large tank)

9.) Rotala rotundifolia

10.) Bacopa 

Once you have your materials and plants selected, now it's time to aquascape! Think high in the back, low in the front. This will help give your aquarium an more natural feel and be more aesthetically pleasing. At the end of the day, it's 100% up to you and feel free to experiment with placements and have fun!   

Step 4: The Right Equipment 

Here's where your tank size and fish selection really matters. We have not yet discussed livestock (we will later) but lets keep going with our 20 gallon tank example. Lets assume you are going for a peaceful community tank. Ill make a few references to alternatives just incase you are going smaller or bigger, don't worry. 


For a 20 gallon community tank, I highly recommend a small canister filter like the Oase filtosmart thermo 100 or the fluval 107. You can totally use a cheaper hang on back filter no problem, but I think you will appreciate the flow pattern and filtration capacity the canister filter offers. Don't over think this component, just search out a filter that's flow rate is recommended for your size of tank (on the box of all filters). If your tank is larger than 35 gallons I highly recommend a canister filter over any type of internal or hang on the back filtration. 

Lighting Your Tank

Get an LED. 99.9% of the lighting for aquariums these days are LED's so they shouldn't be hard to find. Some decisions to make- Do you want to have app control? Or do you want to plug into a timer and not have to fuss with it? Totally up to you, one is not better than the other. 

Whatever tank you might have, just find an LED that is purposely built to promote plant growth. Most will say they do, although some are cheap and make false claims. I highly recommend the following brands and specific fixtures:

1.) Current USA Serene Sun

2.) Fluval Plant LED 3.0

3.) Finnex 24/7 

If your aquarium is less than 24 inches then you might want to find a clip on or nano tank led. Here are a few:

1.) ONF Flat Nano

2.) Fluval Nano LED

3.) Finnex FugeRay Planted+

The Aquarium Heater

For most tropical freshwater fish, a heater is very important. The vast majority are looking for a temperature around 76 F. Unless you can keep the room that houses your tank at a minimum of 72 year round, your going to need a submersible heater. One of the reasons why I love the Oase thermo canister filters is they have a 100-300W heater built in. This allows you to keep you aquascape free of this additional component. For tanks 10 to 30 gallons I like to use a 100W heater, tanks 30-55 gallons I use a 200W and tanks above 55 gallons get a 300W. 

These are the few things you need to get started with a new planted aquarium. Larger tanks might benefit from additional pump or two, but that's pretty much it. Since this is a beginners guide, I won't be discussing CO2 supplementation. If you are up for the task or happen to be more experienced, check out this article about how to use it. Let's now talk about a few extra things that will help you out tremendously if you are brand new to fishkeeping.  

Your Tank Is Complete! Now What?

Make Changing Water Easy

You will be changing water frequently when your aquarium is new. Make it easier by getting a proper aquarium siphon like a python. This system will allow you to fill and drain water directly from a nearby sink. If you tank is smaller than 20 gallons, you can get away with a simpler tube and 5 gallon bucket. 

Water Test Kits

API Master Test Kits are a great resource for the new fishkeeper. They offer the ability to detect important compounds and ensure your tank is safe for fish. Before going to the fish store, preform the nitrogen based tests to ensure ammonia (NH3) and nitrite (NO2-) are undetectable. Nitrate (NO3-) should be in the range of 10-30 ppm, if it's higher, preform a waterchange to bring it down a bit. This process might take a few weeks to happen, just be patient. To speed up this process add a small pinch of fish food into your tank and follow it up with some beneficial bacteria. The fish food will provide your bacteria with a food source and the nitrogen cycle can be as short as a 5-6 days. 

What About The Fish?

Once you have confirmed your tank is safe for fish, it's time to select what creatures you would like to keep. 

6 Great Fish For A Beginner Community Tank-

1.) Neon or Cardinal Tetra

2.) Corydoaras Catfish

3.) White Cloud Minnow

4.) Zebra danio

5.) Harlequin rasbora

6.) Guppies

One of the keys to a successful aquarium is not over stocking it. Too many fish in a small or large tank will make it more difficult to maintain and prevent other issues such as nuisance algae. You may have heard to the X inches of fish per gallon rule but I never liked that concept. For a 20 gallon aquarium, you're going to want to stick with small fish close to the size of a neon tetra. For example, 6-12 Neon Tetras and 6 Cory Catfish would make a great beginner tank. Less is more, trust me. 

If your tank is small, stay away from:

1.) Common Plecos

2.) Siamese or Chinese Algae Eaters

3.) Bala Sharks

These are just a few popular fish that might be small at the aquarium store but can get very large with time. Always do you research about a fish you're thinking about adding to your tank. A quick google search will provide you with minimum tank size recommendation. 

That's all I can think of for now, I hope this guide has helped clarify things for you. Being a fishkeeper is a fun, exciting journey that can provide many therapeutic benefits. Hang in there, have fun and don't be surprised if it becomes a new passion in your life. 


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1 comment

Would dirt capped w gravel still have tannin issues?


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