Aquarium Plants: Our Complete Guide

Aquarium Plants: Our Complete Guide

When it comes to aquarium plants, there are so many things to consider: the type of plants you want, the type of water in your aquarium, lighting, planting, etc. In this in-depth guide we will break down the basics of aquarium plants, including which ones are best for different types of ecosystems and what to do when you come across certain issues. If you’re stuck for time, view our content guide below to skip to specific questions.

How to keep live plants in an aquarium
How long does it take aquarium plants to root?
Will aquarium plants die without co2? What is aquarium substrate?
How to make co2 for aquarium plants How much substrate do I need for my aquarium?
How long do aquarium plants live? How to clean aquarium sand substrate
Can aquarium plants kill fish? What is a good substrate for aquarium plants?
How to grow aquarium plants The roots of my aquarium plants are above the substrate, what do I do?
What is the best light for aquarium plants? How to clean fake aquarium plants
What types of water can aquarium plants live in? How to get algae off aquarium plants
What plants can I keep with African Cichlids? How to remove snail eggs from aquarium plants
What plants are good for beginners? How to propagate aquarium plants
What are the benefits of live plants for an aquarium? Why are my aquarium plants rotting/dying?
Are plastic aquarium plants safe? Why are my aquarium plants changing colour?
How to plant aquarium plants Why are my aquarium plants melting / disintegrating?


How to keep live plants in an aquarium

Aquarium plants are a fantastic addition to any tropical or cold water aquarium. They provide the inhabitants (i.e. fish and invertebrates) with a more natural ecosystem. Additionally, plants are a healthy food source, they provide shelter for smaller fish and their offspring and most importantly they absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen for the aquarium. With this in mind, it is a good idea to keep your aquarium plants alive or alternatively replenish regularly. 

In order to keep aquarium plants alive, careful selection is key. While most plants sold in aquatics shops can tolerate submersed conditions, many are not true aquatic plants. True aquatic plants, as a rule of thumb, cannot support their own weight out of water (such as Elodia Densa), and when held out of the aquarium they will flop over. 

While it may seem like a good idea to only go for true aquatic plants, some of the nicest looking varieties (e.g. Dracaena Marginata) are unfortunately the semi-aquatic type. As mentioned, these will tolerate submersed conditions, but looked after well can last a very long time. As with anything living, some species are much easier than others, such as Amazon Sword and Moneywort, so do your research first. 

At the simplest level, plants will feed on carbon dioxide produced as a by-product of the fish breathing alongside the nitrite and ammonia produced by fish waste. Keeping your plants in tip-top condition will require the addition of liquid aquarium fertiliser, such as plant boosters.

For anyone looking at serious planted aquariums, lighting is absolutely key. Lighting allows plants to photosynthesise i.e. the process of converting carbon dioxide into energy for growth. In aquariums, this generally comes in the form of a performance planted aquarium light tuned to the specific spectrums of light that plants thrive off. A great example of this is the Plant Spectrum LED Light by Fluval. This particular light is a high performance LED which is programmable and tuneable to suit individual plant requirements.

To summarise, if your aquarium is correctly lit and well fed with plant fertilisers, plants should thrive.  

Will aquarium plants die without co2?

In short, no, plants will not die without carbon dioxide. Growth is relative to aquarium set ups. If your lighting is sufficient and you add nutrients, plants will generally do well. 

On the contrary, if you are looking for robust accelerated plant growth, then CO2 is often recommended. On top of this, adding CO2 (when combined with good plant spectrum lighting) can reduce algae issues to a certain extent, but be prepared to get the scissors out to regularly trim and prune your aquatic plants!

How to make co2 for aquarium plants

At the basic end of the spectrum, CO2 can be added into your aquarium in tablet form or with canisters. CO2 canisters exist as small kits, but some experienced aquarium hobbyists prefer to use CO2 fire extinguishers. 

It is worth noting at this point that CO2 naturally exists in an aquarium – it is created by the fish and also exchanged between the water and air, so adding CO2 in one form or another is designed to increase the CO2 PPM.

How long do aquarium plants live?

Most aquatic plants are tropical and therefore perennial in nature. This means that they never die but instead, split and just keep growing. 

Naturally, the amount of time they live depends on how well you take care of them - if neglected, they can die much sooner than expected!

Can aquarium plants kill fish?

No, aquarium plants cannot directly kill fish. They exist together naturally in the wild. 

However, if plants are left unattended in an aquarium and die, the decaying plant matter can turn into ammonia/nitrite which can stress or even kill fish. If plants are kept alive and healthy, they actually have the opposite effect as they absorb and neutralise ammonia/nitrite keeping your aquarium water healthier.

How to grow aquarium plants

When growing aquarium plants, lighting is critical. This may be in the form of a good spot near a window, so the aquarium receives ample natural daylight, or in the form of an artificial light such as a T5/T8/LED. When looking into aquarium lighting as a rule of thumb, the more premium lights on the market are generally better suited to growing plants.

Aquarium plants come in various shapes and sizes. The most commonly seen is an aquarium plant bundled into sponge and weighted down with lead. To put these in your aquarium, you simply place them where you want them. It is possible to bury the roots in the substrate if required but it is important to leave the lead weight on to stop the plant from floating. 

Plants can also be bought in pots or tubs. In these instances, the plant is normally unpotted and planted directly into aquarium substrate using your hands or aquascaping tweezers. Good quality aquarium substrate is absolutely key when properly aquascaping/planting aquariums. We like H.E.L.P. advanced soil, which promotes rapid plant growth.

Finally, in order to promote plant growth, it is vital to introduce additional nutrients into the water. This can be in the form of liquid fertiliser as previously mentioned but can also come as CO2 tablets or gas. 

Contact us if you have further questions about growing aquarium plants that weren’t answered above.

What is the best light for aquarium plants?

At Complete Koi & Aquatics, we love the Plant Spectrum LED by Fluval. This particular LED aquarium light is designed to create thriving planted aquariums. The light works alongside the FluvalSmart app, allowing you to customise the colour spectrum specific to your planted aquarium. Additionally, the light has programmable sunrise – sunset features mimicking natural daylight. 

What types of water can aquarium plants live in?

As a rule of thumb, plants can tolerate a wide variety of water conditions:

  • pH 6.5 – 7.8 
  • General Hardness (GH) 50ppm – 100ppm
  • Alkalinity (kH) 54ppm – 140ppm

This covers most bases, with tropical/cold water aquariums. Aquascaped/planted aquariums may require more specific conditions dependent on the plant species selected. Aquarium plants cannot be kept in marine aquariums as they will die in the saltwater.  

What plants can I keep with African Cichlids?

African Cichlid aquariums generally have different conditions to all other tropical aquariums. Typically, we see a much higher pH at around 8.2 with Carbonate Hardness (KH) and General Hardness (GH) at 180ppm – 300ppm. These aren’t ideal conditions for most plants; however, some species are hardy enough to tolerate such conditions: 

  • Anubias – Hardy plant with thick leaves, originating from central and west Africa

  • Java Fern – Arguably the easiest aquarium plant to grow. The Java Fern originates from East Asia and prefers to be attached to a rock or wood.

  • Vallisneria – Prevalent in the tropical and sub-tropical regions of Asia, Africa, Europe and North America. Vallisneria must be planted in the substrate and requires around 8 hours of light a day.

Although these plants can survive, it is worth noting African Cichlids are builders by nature and have a habit of uprooting sand along with anything in it - including plants!

What plants are good for beginners?

Choosing the correct aquarium plant should be given as much thought as the fish species. Every plant has specific requirements and as a result, some are much easier to keep than others. For beginners we recommend the following species: 

  • Java Moss – grows well in clean, well circulated water. Java Moss, by nature, will carpet the surrounding substrate but is easy to trim.

  • Water Wisteria – this beautiful plant produces lacey leaves. In moderate lighting, it will grow quickly and can be propagated by taking cuttings from lower leaves.

  • Amazon Sword – this hardy plant is a beginner staple. It produces large wide leaves and is ideally positioned at the rear of the tank as a background feature. It requires moderate lighting levels and prefers loose substrate. 

  • Java Fern – another plant which will flourish in moderate light. Available as several different leaf size / shape species.

  • Anubius – This hardy plant is easy to grow and prefers being anchored to a rock or wood. This can be achieved with glue or nylon.

  • Dwarf aquarium lily – These attractive miniature aquarium plants resemble true water lilies. They will thrive in low – moderate light and must be plants in the substrate.   


  • Elodia Densa - arguably the easiest aquarium plant of them all. Elodia Densa will grow in virtually any conditions. It is most often acquired in a bunch weighted with lead. Simply drop these into your aquarium substrate and watch them grow.

Visit our shop or contact us to find out if we have any of the above in stock to purchase.

What are the benefits of live plants for an aquarium?

There are many benefits of having live aquarium plants, such as: 

  • They provide great shelter for fish and/or their young.
  • They provide the fish and/or invertebrates with a more natural ecosystem.
  • They’re a fantastic and healthy food source for almost any fish which has a herbivorous diet. 
  • During photosynthesis, they convert carbon dioxide (CO2) into oxygen which the aquarium cohabitants will require to breathe. 
  • By nature, they will absorb ammonia and nitrite from fish waste, and use the potentially toxic elements to grow. 

Are plastic aquarium plants safe?

Plastic aquarium plants are absolutely safe for aquariums. They’re a great alternative from real plants and require very little maintenance. Plastic, as we know, is extremely durable, so it is incredibly unlikely they will ever need replacing. When algae grows on the surface of the plastic plants, this can be washed off with water and an aquarium cleaner

How to plant aquarium plants

Aquarium plants come in a variety of forms, all of which require slightly different planting techniques. At the most basic end are bunches of plants which are bundled in foam and weighted down with a lead band at the root end of the plants. Planting this particular variation of plant is as simple as inserting the lead weight end of the plant into your substrate, whatever that might be i.e. gravel, sand or aquarium soil. 

Aquarium plants which come in small pots or tubs normally require a little more work. These should be carefully removed from the pot/tub and inserted into the substrate (which tends to be aquarium soil), which is normally done with aquarium tweezers. There may be a bundle of small plants in said tubs, in which case these can be prised apart and planted in the desired locations of the aquarium. 

For aquarium plants, such as Anubias or Java Fern, which prefer to grow on a rock, wood or ornament, these must be bonded. This can be done with fishing nylon or a rubber band, but in our experience super glue works best. Generally, this technique will work better on smaller plants:

  1. You must first remove any foam, plant rock wool etc. from the plant. Locate the rhizome of the selected plant (which is the largest lateral part of the plant between the leaves and the roots). 

  1. Select the area of the rock/wood which you would like to attach the plant – a natural crevice or dip works well. 

  1. Spread a healthy amount of superglue on the dedicated area and attach the aquarium plant at the rhizome. 

  1. The aquarium plant should be dry before bonding – this can be achieved with a paper towel / kitchen roll. 

  1. Hold the plant in place for a couple of minutes to secure, then allow to dry for 10-15 minutes before returning the rock/wood and plant to the aquarium. It is important to work fairly quickly as aquatic plants can dry out very quickly.  

How long does it take aquarium plants to root?

Aquarium plants in the correct conditions will generally take root within 7-10 days. Of course, this depends on many variables - the species of the plant, the temperature, pH, water hardness, the amount (and quality) of light, the health of the plants before planting, and the availability of carbon (in the form of dissolved CO2 or in fertile substrate).

If you have trouble rooting your aquarium plants, contact us for further advice.

What is aquarium substrate?

Aquarium substrate quite literally is any loose material which occupies the bottom of an aquarium. In real terms this can be aquarium soil, sand, gravel, pebbles or rocks. 

How much substrate do I need for my aquarium?

We would recommend 1” – 2” of substrate in an aquarium. Sand and gravel are fantastic dirt traps, so the thicker you go, the more cleaning will be required. For true planted aquariums it is common practice to have an additional 1” nutrient layer (aquarium soil) below the gravel.

How to clean aquarium sand substrate

Cleaning aquarium substrate is generally done with a gravel cleaner:

  1. To begin you must first start a siphon with the gravel cleaner. 
  2. Once the water is flowing from the aquarium into a large bucket, you should use the head of the gravel cleaner to poke around in the substrate, to dislodge dirt and hoover it up. 
  3. When using finer substrates such as sand, it is advised to reduce the flow of the gravel cleaner by kinking the pipe slightly, so as to not hoover up large amounts of sand. 

Gravel cleaning should be done on a weekly basis OR whenever the gravel is visibly dirty. It is important not to remove large volumes of water from the aquarium as this can negatively affect the water chemistry. We generally recommend removing 10-20% of the aquarium water when gravel cleaning. This should be replenished with room temperature water which has been dechlorinated. 

In instances where the substrate is particularly small, i.e. sand and fine gravel, it is possible you may need to top up the substrate infrequently as some may be lost to the gravel clean. 

What is a good substrate for aquarium plants?

When planting an aquarium properly, it is good practice to have a nutrient layer of aquarium soil/compost below gravel. This helps retain the aquarium compost in place and provides the aquarium plants with an anchor for the roots and sufficient nutrition for growth. We like H.E.L.P. advanced soil, which promotes rapid plant growth.

The roots of my aquarium plants are above the substrate, what do I do?

If the aquarium plant in question requires its roots to be below the substrate, then the best thing to do is to take the plant out and replant correctly. 

How to clean fake aquarium plants

Aquarium plants are available in both plastic and composite silk. In each instance, they can be cleaned in a bucket of clean water with an aquarium cleaner solution.

Alternatively, subject to the composition, fake plants and ornaments can be put in the dishwasher, which will remove the vast majority of grime. 

How to get algae off aquarium plants

When live aquarium plants are coated in algae, the easiest way of cleaning is to treat the whole aquarium for algae. We like to use Protalon anti-algae treatment by eSHa. This particular product is designed to completely eradicate algae from an aquarium. It is well tolerated by both fish and plant species and prevents algae returning to the aquarium in the short term. 

How to remove snail eggs from aquarium plants

If live snails are coming in on aquarium plants and causing issues, the best course of action is to eradicate the snails and eggs with a treatment. We prefer to use Aquatic Snail Treatment (Gastropex) by eSHA.Gastropex stops snails destroying aquatic plants and transmitting diseases to the fish. This can be used as a preventative bath for new plants or as a whole aquarium treatment. By nature, it prevents snail colonisation and the run-away growth of microorganisms. 

How to propagate aquarium plants

Plant propagation is the process of growing new plants from sources such as seeds and cuttings. Aquarium plants typically don’t seed and instead spread better from cuttings. For plants with a stem (such as Elodia), it is as easy as cutting around 50% off a mature plant's existing length. This should then be carefully inserted into an inch of rich substrate, until the new plant produces roots. Once the roots have established this can then be re-planted. 

For aquarium plants with rhizomes (i.e. Java Fern and Anubias), simply split the rhizome at the base of the plant. The two separated pieces of aquarium plant can then be bonded to a new rock / wood structure using super glue.

When propagating any aquarium plant successfully it is important to ensure the new growth has sufficient nutrients and light in order to give it the best possible chance. 

Why are my aquarium plants rotting/dying?

There are several reasons why plants may start to rot. The first of these is due to inadequate lighting. As mentioned previously the lighting can be as simple as a sunny spot near a window but may also be a T5/T8/LED. When using LED lighting (which most hobbyists are now), it is important to get a good quality LED ideally designed for plant spectrums to encourage growth. When the lighting is poor, it is typical to see leaves of the aquarium plants begin to start turning yellow. In these instances, change the position of the aquarium OR upgrade the lighting.

Plants may also begin rotting or dying due to nutrient deficiencies. Plants require potassium, phosphorus, iron, carbon and nitrogen to grow. The easiest way of adding these into the aquarium is via aquarium plant fertilisers


Just like fish, plants can also succumb to water quality issues. For aquarium plants, excessive levels of nitrate and phosphate can cause issues. The most effective way of reducing these levels is to perform a partial water change, which is generally done during a gravel clean. We recommend removing no more than 20% as this can have adverse effects on the water chemistry and can damage the fish. The replenished water should be allowed to come to room temperature, and should be treated with a dechlorinator solution.

Why are my aquarium plants changing colour?

Aquarium plants will often demonstrate decaying with different colours subject to the cause:

  • Brown – When aquarium plant leaves begin turning brown this is generally due to excess Nitrate or Phosphate. The easiest way of rectifying this is by doing weekly gravel cleans / water changes of around 10-20%. The new water added to the aquarium will be free of both Nitrate and Phosphate thereby diluting the potential issue. 

  • Yellow – Yellow leaves can be caused by either a lack of good quality light OR a potassium deficiency. If the lighting is suspect the aquarium should be moved to a sunnier spot or the lighting upgraded. If the lighting is good and leaves are yellowing, then it is almost certainly due to a potassium deficiency. If there is a lack of potassium in the aquarium, liquid aquarium fertiliser (ideally rich in potassium) should be added. 

  • Black – Much like brown leaves, Black leaves are generally caused by water quality issues. The easiest way of remedying this is by performing weekly water changes of around 10-20% with gravel cleans. 

  • White – White leaves on aquarium plants are generally caused by a lack of iron in the aquarium. In these instances, liquid aquarium fertiliser (ideally rich in iron) should be added to the water. 

  • Transparent – Aquarium plants with transparent or white leaves are generally lacking calcium or magnesium. In these instances, liquid aquarium fertiliser (ideally rich in calcium/magnesium) should be added to the water.

Why are my aquarium plants melting / disintegrating?

When aquarium plants become brittle and start disintegrating, this is generally due to a nutrient deficiency so liquid aquarium fertiliser should be added to the aquarium. Other causes of disintegrating plants can be as follows: 

  • Fish eating them – plants are a fantastic food source for most fish species. As a result, it is not uncommon for your fish to snack on the aquarium plants. If this is causing you issues it is often best to reduce fish stocks and focus on the aquarium plants. 

  • Cryptocoryne Rot – Small holes will normally start to form in the leaves and those leaves will then break down and disintegrate. The cause of this particular aquarium plant disease is unknown but quite often excess nitrate is a factor.

  • Excessive phosphate / nitrate – As previously mentioned phosphate and nitrate will naturally increase in aquariums over time, and this can damage aquarium plants, causing them to disintegrate. The quickest and most simple way of reducing these elements in the aquarium, is by performing a 10-20% water change with a gravel clean. 

Where to buy aquarium plants

You can buy a wide variety of aquarium plants here at Complete Koi & Aquatics. Contact us today to begin your journey with gorgeous additions to your aquarium!

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