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How to Grow Aquarium Plants for Profit

Caring for live aquatic plants can begin with a bit of a learning curve, but once your planted aquarium starts flourishing and becomes overgrown, what do you do with all the extra vegetation? Is it possible to sell your extra trimmings as an extra source of income? As with most side hustles, you need to determine how much time, money, and effort you are willing to invest. Some people are hobbyists who just want a little fun money to help offset their aquarium keeping costs, while others are more serious entrepreneurs who plan to compete against major plant farms. To address these different levels of commitment, let’s discuss three approaches for selling aquarium plants, in order of increasing effort and potential revenue.

Easy Mode: Selling Plants to Fish Stores

If your fish tanks are growing well and you need a place to offload your excess floating plants or stem plants, then your local fish store is the good place to start. There isn’t a lot of competition (besides the wholesalers), and the store takes care of all the customer support. However, most stores don’t like to buy from hobbyists because people bring in a giant bag or bucket full of trimmings, and it takes too much work to separate the plants, count them, cut them to the right length, and throw away those covered in algae.

In the general manager’s eyes, it’s a lot simpler dealing with a wholesaler because they can order whatever they want from a list and it shows up packaged in a box. Therefore, if you want to compete with the wholesaler, you need to supply the fish store with an alternative that saves them time and effort. Prepackage your stem plants in bunches of 4-5 stems that are 5-6 inches (12-15 cm) long. Because they can die quickly in bunches, stores tend to buy them at a very low cost. If you want to raise the price, invest the extra effort to place the plants in pots of rock wool with a ½ inch (1 cm) of space between each stem. This prevents the stems from rotting and allows them to begin producing roots, which in turn helps customers to grow them more successfully at home.

alternanthera reineckii in a pot of rock wool

Increase the value of your plants by placing them in plastic pots of rock wool that look professional and are ready to sell.

Another way you can make the store manager’s life easier is to drop off the plants at non-peak times, usually during the weekdays. Yes, those times may be inconvenient for you if you have a full-time job or school, but you don’t want to bring in your goods during their busiest periods when they won’t have time to help you. Usually stores want a fresh stock of plants ready to sell right before the weekend rush when sales are the highest, so talk to the manager to find out the best time to stop by each week.

Not only should you find out when the store wants to buy plants, but also what kind of plants they need. If they keep taking less and less of a certain plant you have, stop selling them as much of it. Make sure not to pressure them to buy your entire available stock because if you are too difficult to deal with, the relationship is damaged and the store will stop buying from you.

Intermediate Mode: Selling Aquarium Plants Online

If you are producing more than your store wants to sell, the next step may be to try selling live plants through AquaBid, eBay, Craigslist, Etsy, or other e-commerce websites. Yes, there are a lot more buyers on the internet than store customers, but prices may sometimes be cheaper because there’s also a lot of supply from other hobbyists and importers.

When you sold to your local fish store, they made things easier because they managed all the customer interactions. However, as an online seller, you must put on the new role of salesperson. Create listings that have appealing descriptions, attractive plant photos, a list of your water parameters and growing conditions, and clear explanations of shipping costs and live arrival guarantees. Another responsibility added to your plate is customer support if something goes wrong. Be prepared to promptly answer questions on what kind of lighting you use, why the plants are doing badly, and how to submit a refund.

Be clear about what you are selling and meet expectations. Start building a reputation for having high-quality plants that are healthy, come with roots, have no algae, are free of duckweed, or have other benefits that differentiate you from the competition. If you do your job well and customers have a good experience, they will come back to you for repeat sales.

Aquarium snails feeding under Christmas moss

Most plant farms that grow submersed plants cannot guarantee their plants are snail-free, so if this is the case for you, make it clear to your customers upfront to avoid disappointing their expectations.

Expert Mode: Ramping Up Production of Aquatic Plants

The main difference between being a professional versus a casual seller is scale. Instead of only selling plants that you already keep in your aquariums, now you are buying dedicated tanks and equipment to increase production. You are competing with a lot of large plant farms that primarily grow their plants emersed or out of water. Your main benefit to fish stores and online customers is that your plants are grown submersed or underwater, so you are saving the customer the time of having to convert their plants from emersed to submersed. This advantage allows you to charge more than the farms because (a) submersed plants have a higher likelihood of surviving in the customers’ aquariums and (b) stores don’t have to waste time cleaning out all the melted leaves that fall off emersed plants.

The key point when buying supplies is to spend the least amount of money as possible where it makes sense. Remember that you are also competing with other smaller plant farms like yourself who may have certain advantages like outdoor ponds, great weather, and so forth. They already have a leg up in terms of cost of production, so you need to save expenses in other areas if possible. Some items to purchase include:

  • Water containers: You don’t have to just use aquariums to grow plants, so consider cheaper, bigger options like plastic tubs, hydroponic racks, and outdoor cement bins. Taller tanks require stronger lights to reach the plants but are well-suited for stem plants that need to grow 6-8 inches (15-20 cm) tall. Shallower tanks can be equipped with lower lighting and might be good for smaller plants like anubias nana petite. 
  • Carbon dioxide (CO2): When combined with appropriate levels of lighting and nutrients, CO2 gas is an important building block that helps plants to grow faster, which means you can sell them sooner. Depending on your budget and number of tanks, there are different methods for injecting CO2, each with their own pros and cons. The most expensive but reliable technique is pressurized CO2 injection using cylinders of CO2 gas, regulators, and manifolds to spread to multiple tanks.
  • Fertilizer: To make sure our plants have enough food or nutrients to grow, we add Easy Green all-in-one liquid fertilizer to our water using an automatic dosing machine. If you are experienced with plant keeping, measure your water to determine if certain nutrients are lacking and find the fertilizer that is most appropriate for your water.
Emersed grown aquarium plants from plant farms

Commercial plant farms prefer to grow their aquarium plants emersed so that the leaves are above water and can grow bigger at a faster rate, but emersed plants do not always do well once they are submerged underwater in the customer’s aquarium.

As for which plants to buy and cultivate, this depends on which market you want to go after, what people in that market want to buy, and what kind of plants you are good at growing. If you want to sell to beginners, they usually look for easy and hardy plants like Anubias barteri, java fern, and java moss (which is hard to find as a submersed-grown product). The beginner market has a ton of buyers, but plants tend to go for cheaper prices. The high-end market, on the other hand, is interested in rare specimens like Anubias nana ‘Pangolino’ or newly discovered Bucephalandra species. These plants of course sell for higher prices, which means you will have fewer customers and potentially fewer tanks to maintain. However, be aware that rare plants eventually get picked up by the commercial plant farms that can produce them in much higher volume than you can, so you will constantly need to be hunting for the next new species to add to your inventory. 

Our final tip for plant sellers is to avoid being “out of stock” as much as possible. If you have a rare plant but are only able to sell it every 6-8 months, then you are probably better off not selling it at all. You don’t want your website to be full of products that are out of stock because then customers may become frustrated or assume you are no longer in business. Instead, stick to a few species or categories of plants that you can mass produce and specialize in. If you decide to expand, make sure you can still keep your current offerings in stock or else buyers will look for another, more reliable supplier.

If you are interested in selling aquarium fish and invertebrates as well, check out our article on breeding aquatic species for profit for more information on the best fish to breed, what supplies to buy, and how to sell them.

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