Congrats on getting your new aquarium plant! Depending on which type of plant you have, there are different guidelines you should follow for introducing your new foliage. This quick guide leads you step-by-step through the recommend ways for adding live plants to your aquarium.
Most plants purchased online or from a local fish store come in a plastic pot stuffed with rock wool. In most cases, you want to remove this little basket and the stuffing, unless you bought a carpeting plant (see Section 8 below). Follow these instructions to easily remove your plant from its packaging:
The most popular types of rhizome plants include anubias, java fern, and bolbitis. They all have a rhizome, which is like a thick, horizontal stem or trunk. All the leaves and stems grow upwards out of the rhizome, while the roots grow downwards from the rhizome. The great thing about rhizome plants is that you don’t need any substrate to grow them. You can wedge them between cracks in rocks or mount them to driftwood using super glue gel or sewing thread. (For more details on how to use super glue gel in aquariums, read this article.) Eventually, the plant’s roots will grow and wrap around the hardscape so that it becomes difficult to remove.
If you would like to plant your anubias or java fern in the ground, you can bury the roots, as long as the rhizome is not covered by the substrate. Rhizome plants absorb nutrients primarily from the water column, so feed them an all-in-one liquid fertilizer as needed.
Swords are classified as a rosette plant, which means all the leaves grow out of the base of the plant in a circular pattern. Examples include the Amazon sword and red flame sword. Many sword plants grow very tall, so make sure to plant them in the midground or background of the aquarium so they won’t block your view of other plants. Use your fingers to dig a hole in the substrate and bury the roots of the sword, or you can use planting tweezers to push the plant roots into the substrate. Do not cover the crown (i.e., the base of the plant where all the leaves come out) with substrate. Swords are heavy root feeders, meaning that they prefer to absorb nutrients via their roots, so make sure to add lots of root tabs if you’re using inert substrate or if your nutrient-rich substrate is depleted.
Note: most aquarium plants are grown out of water at the plant farms and then must get used to living completely underwater when you put them in your fish tank. Therefore, you may see your sword’s big, round leaves (i.e., emersed leaves that were grown out of water) melt away as the plant reabsorbs their nutrients to make longer, narrower leaves (i.e., submersed leaves that are grown underwater).
Cryptocoryne plants, also known as “crypts” for short, are another kind of rosette plant that requires substrate and needs root tabs to grow well. Common types include Cryptocoryne wendtii, Cryptocoryne spiralis, Cryptocoryne parva, and many other species. Similar to sword plants, you want to bury their roots while keeping the crown of the plant above ground.
Crypts are very prone to melting whenever they’re introduced into a new aquarium, so don’t throw away your crypt if its emersed leaves fall off. Once the plant gets used to its new surroundings, submersed leaves will soon appear. Before planting the crypt, some aquascapers even recommend trimming off the emersed leaves to encourage the plant to focus its energy on growing submersed leaves, since it’s likely to lose all the old leaves anyway. However, don’t use this technique with Cryptocoryne parva, which doesn’t tend to experience crypt melting.
This category refers to vallisneria, dwarf sagittaria, micro sword, and other stoloniferous plants. These species propagate via stolons or runners – little horizontal stems that produce a small plantlet at the end, eventually creating a long chain of connected plants. As with rosette plants, plant the roots into the substrate, and don’t cover the base of the plant’s leaves. Oftentimes, one pot comes with several individual plants, so plant them separately (not in one, single bunch) so that there’s a little space between each one to grow and multiply. Depending on the size of your species, these plants can quickly propagate to form a grass-like carpet in the foreground or a tall seaweed forest in the background. If you would like to spread the plant into another area or a new tank, simply cut the runner (once the plantlet has its own roots and leaves) and then replant the new plant elsewhere.
Mosses are similar to rhizome plants in that they don’t require substrate and can be attached to hardscape via thread or glue. In fact, instead of being packaged in pots, they’re usually sold already affixed to a mesh rectangle, driftwood, or decor. Moss can also grow as a large, free-floating mass, which is great for colony breeding since baby fish can easily hide from the adults in the dense coverage. Java moss, Christmas moss, and peacock moss are some of the most readily available varieties on the market.
These plants are known for growing vertically from a single stem with leaves coming out directly from the stem. Think of bacopa, Pogostemon stellatus, and pearl weed. To prepare the plant, remove the basket, ring, or rubber band wrapped around the base of the stems. Plant each stem deeply, at least 2 to 3 inches into the ground, which means the substrate may cover some of the bottom leaves. Don’t plant the stem plants all in a single bunch but rather individually with a little space between so that the roots have some room to grow. Use tweezers to easily plant them, and if needed, wrap plant weights at the bottom to prevent them from floating away. If the stems have no roots, some people will float them at the surface until they develop roots and then plant them into the substrate. Stem plants prefer to feed from the water column and therefore appreciate a diet of liquid fertilizers.
The banana plant, dwarf aquarium lily, red tiger lotus, and aponogetons (also sold as “betta bulbs” at pet store chains) are all types of plants that grow from a bulb or tubers. Rinse the bulb or tubers to remove any rock wool or loose substrate covering it, and place it on top of the substrate. If the bulb starts floating, you can either wait for it to sink or place it loosely under a piece of hardscape to keep it weighed down. New leaves and roots should quickly sprout from the bulb, but if there is no growth after one to three weeks, try turning the bulb over because it may be upside-down. Bulb plants can grow very tall with leaves that reach the water surface, and they tend to take nutrients from both root tabs and liquid fertilizers.
There are many kinds of foreground plants and even mosses that can be used to cover the ground in your aquarium, but this section is specifically referring to short, dense carpeting plants with lots of tiny leaves and very weak roots. Examples include monte carlo and dwarf baby tears (not the grass-like carpeting plants such as dwarf sagittaria, micro sword, and dwarf hair grass mentioned in the previous Section 4). Most websites recommend breaking up a pot of carpeting plants into very small pieces and planting them around the aquarium with the hopes that they’ll spread, but we find that the roots are too small or delicate and the plant bits end up floating away.
Instead, we recommend inserting the whole pot into the substrate and allowing the plant to carpet out from there. The basket and rock wool will keep the carpeting plant from floating away and give it a good base to root from. Once the carpeting plant becomes well-established, you can go back and cut out the potted portion. Carpeting plants typically enjoy lots of light, pressurized carbon dioxide (CO2), and both liquid fertilizers and root tabs.
We don’t want to forget the easiest plant to add to an aquarium – floating plants! Familiar varieties include frogbit, dwarf water lettuce, duckweed, and even certain stem plants like water sprite. Simply place them on the water surface, provide lots of light and liquid fertilizers, slow down the current, and don’t let their leaves get too wet. Some people like to use fishing line or airline tubing to contain the floating plants and prevent them from getting pushed underwater by the filter output. Our final tip is to make sure that they don’t cover the entire surface of the water or else you may have issues with oxygen depletion for the fish and lack of light for the other plants down below.
Best of luck with your new aquarium plants! If you’re not seeing healthy growth for some reason, check out our free guide to plant nutrient deficiencies for help with troubleshooting the issue.