How to Grow Live Plants in a Fish Tank: The Essential Guide

How to Grow Live Plants in a Fish Tank_The Essential Guide By FishkeepUP

The beauty and functionality of live plants in a fish tank make growing an underwater garden a great idea. The green and exotic plants that you can grow in your fish tank or aquarium can add a forest of color and freshness to the room. Fish will thank you for your decision to grow live plants in your fish tank. 

How do you grow live plants in a fish tank? To grow live plants in your fish tank, there are several options which include the steps below:

  • Find plants that grow in freshwater.
  • Isolate plants before putting them in the aquarium.
  • Design your tank for visual appeal.
  • Choose light for your plants.
  • Add a substrate to the bottom of the tank.
  • Anchor your plants.
  • Add your fish.

When fish have a suitable living environment, they are healthier. Live plants can add safety and health to your fish tank environment. Plants also add a pleasing backdrop to any room. Finally, you can grow the plants yourself like an underwater gardener. Use this easy to follow step by step guide to learn how to choose, cultivate, grow, and care for live plants in your fish tank. 

How to Grow Live Plants in a Fish Tank 

The benefits of a fish tank with live plants are numerous. If you think cultivating an underwater live plant garden in your fish tank or aquarium is for you, then this step-by-step guide will help you to purchase and create the essential things needed to support the live plants thrive. 

Step #1: Buy New Plants That Grow in Freshwater

First, you must decide what plants you will grow and how you will get the plants. Beginner plants are easy to take care of and are usually labeled at the pet store as ‘easy’ care plants. The next thing you need to determine is the size of the plants you want. Some are taller, and some are considered middle-height. Others grow on the surface of the bottom of the tank.

Buying New Plants

The most popular veterinarian recommended aquarium plants for beginners are Java Moss, Java Fern, Amazon Sword, Moss Balls, Anarchis, Dwarf Sagittaria, and Hornwort. (Source: PetMD)

Tall Freshwater Plants

Some of the best tall leafed plants for your fish tank are Amazon Sword and Java Fern. Java fern and Amazon Sword Plant both grow fast and abundantly and will cover the filter parts of the container. Also, their long leaves provide excellent protection for your fish.

Some of the benefits of Amazon Sword include:

  • Hearty, thick growth
  • Tall leaves for background plants
  • Creates a place for fish to take shelter

Java Fern is an excellent aquarium plant to choose because:

  • Easy to grow 
  • Fast-growing
  • Broad leaves for a full look
  • Creates a place for fish to take shelter

Medium Height Freshwater Plants 

Other great plants that fill out the bottom half of your tank are plants like the dwarf Sagittaria, which will grow with large leaves that are broad and encircle the solid tank decorations such as porcelain and stone ships. 

Plants to Cover the Bottom 

Mosses are a great option to give a natural look that covers the bottom of the fish tank. Some of the most popular choices for moss are:

Since moss will grow near the bottom of the tank, it can be put in the front and not block access to plants or view of fish. Also, moss grows fast and will keep your tank clean by absorbing and using the sediment that would typically sit at the bottom of the tank. 

Buy Mature Plants for a Full Look with Less Work

Even though it may cost more money upfront, buying mature, full-grown plants will give a quick full look to your tank and are less work than waiting for the younger plants to grow. You also won’t have to wait to get the style and look of the aquarium that you are going for.

What to Look for With Full-Grown Plants

If you are buying mature plants, that means that they have been held in an aquarium or box at the pet store for longer. Look out for snails, algae, or shrimp that may try to hitch a ride back to your fish tank. Also, research the supplier for your fish tank plants to make sure that no one is has reported buying sick plants from them. 

Propagating Plants

You can also buy full-grown plants and then use cuttings from these plants for a fuller look in your fish tank that is more spread out. These cuttings will need time to grow, but this is a less expensive option if you don’t want to buy many mature plants from the pet store or online all at once. Follow the tips below to make sure that you don’t damage the plant you are getting the cutting from and that the cutting lives past infancy and takes root. 

How to Take a Cutting from a Fish Tank Plant

Taking a cutting from one plant and then planting that cutting to grow a new plant is called propagating. There are several approaches to propagating aquarium plants, depending on the look and type of plant.  

The most common types of fish tank propagating are runners, offsets, and plantlets. 

  • Offsets: Offsets are just like what they sound like. The parent plant has new shoots that will come out of the plant. These can be cut away and planted elsewhere. 
  • Runners: Propagating runners is more popular and effective because you are getting root material with the cutting. New shoots of a plant that come out of the bottom of a parent plant’s root structure are known as “slips.” These slips can be removed and anchored to another part of the tank until they take root.
  • Plantlets: Propagating plantlets is where you grow a smaller plant from the body, root, or leaves or stem of a larger plant. After the smaller plant has had some time grown and becomes more robust, it will usually detach itself. If it does not separate, you can detach it with scissors or a knife and anchor it somewhere else.

Step #2: Isolate Plants Before Putting Them in Your Aquarium

Before placing a new plant into your fish tank, you should isolate it in another bowl of water. Make sure the plant is completely submerged in water and is sitting on its own in this bowl. Isolation or quarantine can help you to spot pests like shrimp and snails before they reproduce in your fish tank and allow you to treat the plant with a solution of bleach to sterilize it. The isolation should last about a week.

How to Sterilize Your Fish Tank Plants with a Bleach Solution? 

To sterilize your plants in bleach, create the solution detailed below and follow the directions carefully:

  • Create the bleach solution with one part of bleach and 20 parts water. 
  • Submerge the plant in the solution for no more than two minutes. 
  • Remove the plant and rinse it off with cold water thoroughly.
  • Replace in the isolation bowl for the remainder of the week in quarantine. 

How to Remove Snails from Your Newly Purchased Fish Tank Plants

Everyone knows what happens to snails when you sprinkle salt on them. An easy way to deal with snails that you may have cast-away on your newly purchased fish tank plant is to dip the plant in saltwater immediately after purchasing. Be careful not to drop the roots in the saltwater as this could shock the root system and kill the plant.

Step #3: Design Your Tank for Visual Appeal

The heights and colors of your plants will make a big difference for the visual appeal of the overall environment of the tank. Using different sized plants in your fish tank will create an excellent effect and make your aquarium much more attractive. 

How Do You Layer Plants in Your Fish Tank? 

You also want to try to layer the plants at different heights by putting the taller plants in the back and the medium and smaller or bottom growing plants in the front of the tank. This will give more depth to the tank and provide a better environment for the fish within your aquarium. 

What are the Best Design Accessories to Add to Your Fish Tank?

There is no correct answer here, and it all depends on your preference and the size of the tank. Some larger containers may benefit from having an open cave-like space such as a stone skull on the bottom of the tank for fish to swim in and out of. Other figurines, wood, and rocks are all your choice. Have fun decorating! 

Some of the best options for decorating include: 

Step #4: Lighting for Your Plants

Aquarium Lighting for Live Plants

Lights will continue to help your plants grow in your fish tank. Some plants require high brightness lights while others are sufficient with medium or low brightness. The plants in your fish tank still need to use photosynthesis to grow and live, even though they are located underwater, and UV lights for aquariums provide them this. 

In other words, lights help keep your plants alive. Don’t just depend on the sun in the window as this could be too hot for the fish.

What are the Different Types of Lights for Your Fish Tank?

Both fluorescent and LED lights work well for fish tanks because they offer full-spectrum UV. 


  • Brighter lights
  • More compact
  • Longer light bulb life

Some of the best Fluorescent fish tank lights include:


  • Better energy efficiency
  • Adjustable lighting options

Some of the best-LED fish tank lights include:

You can research the amount of light that your plants in your fish tank need, in terms of wattage. A good rule of thumb is to use less than two fluorescent watts per gallon of water.

Step #5: Add A Gravel or Substrate to the Bottom of Your Fish Tank

Marbles vs. Gravel in Fish Tank_ What Works Better_Pros & Cons of Gravel as a Substrate for Your Aquarium

Many of your plants will need a substrate or gravel at the bottom of the fish tank to root completely. You may need to tie plants down before they root in place thoroughly. You can also anchor plants by burying them in the substrate or gravel. Some substrates even come with nutrients that are great for the plants early on in their development. Feel free to read in-depth gravel vs. marbles comparison in this post.

What are Some of the Best Substrates for Growing Plants in Your Fish Tank? 

Various gravels are great for a look that is clean and can anchor your plants to the bottom of the fish tank using their root systems. However, some substrates provide nutrients for your plants, as well. 

Aqua Soil

Aqua Soil is one of those miracle products that do it all. 

  • The nutrients feed the plants and even the shrimp (if you have any).
  • It has a consistency that allows for roots to develop for all plant types. 
  • It maintains a pH balanced at a perfect neutral 7. 


A less expensive option is to use certain types of clays, such as Seachem Fluorite Red Clay Gravel as a substrate in your fish tank. 

  • They produce nutrients for your plants
  • They have a consistency that promotes rooting for plants. 
  • The clay may take more time to settle in the tank as it is a bit chalky. 

Seachem Flourite

Seachem is porous clay gravel that gives the best of many of the assets that clay and gravel have. 

  • The nutrient-rich substrate feeds your plants. 
  • It provides enough weight that can hold down unrooted plants until they dig in with root structures.
  • It can be used with gravels. 

Step #6: Anchoring Your Plants

Plants need to be anchored to the location where they will spread roots or shoots and grow from. There are two methods of anchoring that depend on the type of plant that you are trying to build: gravel anchoring and tie-down anchoring.

Gravel Anchoring 

Many of the plant types that you may consider for your fish tank will need to take root. Roots that go into the substrate are collecting nutrients and anchoring themselves so that they won’t float away. Anchoring a plant is planting it in a layer of the gravel that coats the bottom of the tank. Professionals warn not to cover the “rhizome” or green part above the roots as this can kill the plant. 

Tie-Down Anchoring

Some plants can be grown from the face of a large rock or other porous structure in the fish tank. These types of plants can still do well without direct contact with the nutrient-rich substrate. If you are considering a plant that needs to root down into rock or wood, such as Java fern or moss, you will need to tie these plants to the surface of the area where they will grow. 

How to Tie-Down Anchor a Plant to Wood or Rock

Since some plants can’t be buried under gravel, they will need to be tied-down. This process only requires a fishing line and something like wood, a rock, or a stone figurine to tie the plant to. 

  • Using a fishing line, loop several loops of the string around the plant and rock or wood piece. 
  • Gently tie the fishing line in place and then place the rock or wood with the plant tied to it to the aquarium. 
  • Roots take time to take hold, so leave on for at least a few weeks up to a couple of months. 
  • Leaving the fishing line on will not disturb the plants growing, so feel free to do so until you are sure the plant is secured on the rock or piece of wood.

Step #7: Adding Your Fish

After a week has passed, it is safe to add your fish to your stabilized fish tank environment. You want to wait a week because there is a “cycling” that the plants go through along with the help of a few flakes of fish food. You risk your fish dying if you put them in the aquarium environment with plants if the water was not cycled and stabilized. 

Why Is Cycling Important? 

Cycling is the nitrogen cycle, and it can help to remove toxins from nitrogen waste. The beneficial bacteria that needs to do this work takes about a week. The bacteria need to get established in the filter of the fish tank.

Caring for Your Aquarium

If you start to see that your plants have stalks or leaves that are turning yellow or grey, prune them from the stem of the plant. If the leaves or other parts of the plant detach, they can clog the filter or decompose and become toxic for the fish or other animals that you are keeping in your tank. 

Clean the Water on a Bi-Weekly Basis

Cleaning the water in your tank can be done on a bi-weekly basis by following these steps:

  • Remove the algae on the glass. 
  • Only remove about a quarter of the water in the tank.
  • Let the bowl of water equal to a quarter of a tank sit out to acclimate to room temperature. 
  • Replace the water with dechlorinated water.

Why Use Live Plants in Your Fish Tank? 

Sometimes, the easiest way seems like the best. Plastic plants look real, and some even feel rubbery and similar to the blades of underwater plants. So, why go through the trouble of purchasing, growing, and caring for live plants in a fish tank?

  • Your fish tank will be healthier overall as the plants use fish waste as nutrients and create an oxygen-rich environment. 
  • You will gain monetary benefits from live plants that you can cultivate for other projects. You can make cuttings and sell these healthy cuttings to others. 
  • Growing and planting live plants in your fish tank takes love and patience that end up being therapeutic as well as looking good. 

Fish Will Thank You for the Live Plants in Your Fish Tank

The hassle that you are worried about with growing live plants in your fish tank is nothing compared to the benefits that it can give you fish. According to PetMD, live plants can filter the water for fish and provide richness in oxygen, keeping your fish healthier and happier and absorb damaging carbon dioxide. 

Also, live plants in a fish tank fight against the growth of pesky and damaging algae that can cover the surface of the inside of the tank. Finally, fish enjoy the shelter that live plants provide and will even sleep propped up in them. 

Cultivating Live Underwater Plants Adds Value

One of the best ways to grow live plants for your fish tank is to take cuttings from plants that you already have and then plant them elsewhere in the tank. This adds value as you now have your own underwater live plant farm. You could even grow and sell these plants to others with fish keepers who are looking for live plants. Some plants are rather expensive, and you could start your own side business.

Growing Underwater Live Plants in Your Fish Tank as Therapy

Practicing patience while increasing your marine plants can be a form of therapy. Working on your gardening by cutting, pruning, and planting can relieve stress and help you to slow down your day. 

A study detailed as an article in the PLOS One academic science journal titled, The effects of interacting with fish in aquariums on human health and well-being: A systematic review, found that after studying nineteen aquarium situations at people’s homes, there was an overall benefit of relaxation and well-being in humans who owned the aquariums. 

What Are the Five Easiest Plants to Grow in an Aquarium?

Some plants are better for beginners than others. Mostly, the plants that are the easiest are the ones that are the hardiest. Hardy plants don’t tend to die and are robust enough to make it through a mistake or two.

My top pick of Freshwater fish Tank Plants list:

  • #1 Java Fern
  • #2 Java Moss
  • #3 Dwarf Sagittaria
  • #4 Mainam Staurogyne Repens
  • #5 Amazon Sword
  • #6 Moss Ball

Let’s break down our list closer. Here is a list of the five best plants to grow in an aquarium if you are just starting.

#1 Java Fern

Java fern is a plant that would naturally grow by slow-flowing streams. If you have a filter in your fish tank, place the Java fern near the filter current. If you use too strong of light with Java fern, it could start to die and turn brown. Java fern is a plant that should be tie-down anchored since the rhizome is sensitive. 

  • It does well with mild lighting.
  • Long broad leaves for a full look
  • Excellent habitat for fish to hide

#2 Java Moss

Most fish tank owners want to have some sort of layering coverage at the bottom of the tank. The plant Java moss is a great option that is very easy to grow and care for.

  • Grows on any service. 
  • Grows in virtually any lighting conditions. 
  • Compatible with almost all fish types.

#3 Dwarf Sagittaria

The Dwarf Sagittaria plant is a medium-height plant that can be a great addition to your fish tank. It will work around the rocks and wood for the fish tank. The dwarf Sagittaria needs to root down into rock or wood. The lighting that the dwarf Sagittaria needs are medium strength.

  • Easy maintenance plant 
  • Grows up to 6 inches in height. 
  • Good with most fish types.

#4 Mainam Staurogyne Repens

One of the most beautiful leafed plants on this list. The Mainam Staurogyne Repens has a rounded leaf design that is an excellent look for any fish tank. 

  • Unique design to leaves
  • Works best with the medium lighting 

#5 Amazon Sword

Amazon sword is an inexpensive and great addition to your fish tank. It is grown in most lighting conditions and is one of the most abundant live plants you can get for a fish tank. 

  • Long leaves are great for background plants 
  • Gives the environment more hiding places and safety for your fish
  • Adds to the full environment of the fish tank reducing stress for your overall tank of animals

#6 Moss Ball

There are numerous benefits to adding one or more marimo balls to your tank. These range from benefits to the aquarium’s residents and the water quality in your tank to benefits to your convenience and enjoyment as an aquarium keeper. As a rule, moss balls are a great addition to any tank. There are few exceptions due to demanding care or downsides. A complete guide about Moss Balls is to be found in the link.

In Conclusion

Adding live plants to your fish tank can make the tank environment look great and also provide safety and protection for your fish. Just make sure that the plants that you choose are compatible with lighting and the fish you are placing in your fish tank.

Also, make sure to choose a nutrient-rich substrate for the plants to stay healthy. Follow the pruning steps to keep the plants healthy.

Also, if you are thinking of adding more plants, consider propagating before buying a new one. Finally, make sure to cycle the nitrogen and toxins of new plants in your fish tank before adding fish.

If you can follow the steps in this article, you should be well on your way to create a paradise environment with plants and fish.

Recent Posts