In this article, I am going to talk about some practical tips for rooted aquarium plants that can help you to become more successful. The point is that everybody was once a beginner and I am not an exception. I have definitely made my share of mistakes with rooted plants. However, unless we are willing to learn from them, we will never become skillful.
Of course, some planted tank gurus may wonder what is so complicated? If it is a low-light tank, all you need is to have good low to medium LED lighting, nutrient-rich substrate, and adequate fertilizers.
Well, it is true … but unfortunately, all these basic requirements include lots of other things like the time schedule for lights, the substrate’s depth, appropriate tankmates, trimming, types of fertilizers (liquid or root tabs), etc. With time these planted tank masters forget what it is to be a beginner, therefore, obvious things for them can be an absolute revelation to a novice.
Without further ado let’s start.
1. Substrate Choice
In the aquarium hobby, we have plants that get most of their nutrients from the water and then we have plants that get most of their nutrients from the substrate.
So, when we are talking about substrate we basically mean something that is going to help root-feeder plants to grow. Therefore, we need to have a substrate that has a lot of nutrients to draw from.
Although there are many different ways to pave the bottom of the planted tanks, and more than one type of substrate, some of them will be a significantly better choice for rooted plants in the tanks. For example, gravel and sand do not have the required nutrients and, basically, cannot provide anything for the growth of the plant.
That is why a nutrient-rich substrate is the only viable and reasonable option for us.
Of course, some people can say that if we add fertilizers and root-tabs it is possible to have root-feeder plants even in sand or gravel. Yes, it is possible but it will require a good understanding of what you are doing and way more money.
Note: If you like the look of sand/gravel but want the plants to grow well, you can have two layers of the substrates – a layer of sand or gravel on top of the plant substrate.
For more details, you can read my article “Top 5 Substrates For Planted Aquariums”.
2. Deep Substrate
People often complain that their plants die off or that they cannot root them properly. But what else can they expect when they have 1 inch (2.5 cm) deep substrate?
So, how deep is too deep?
In most cases, 2 – 3 inches (5 – 8 cm) should be good enough for the most root feeding plants.
Otherwise, if the substrate is not deep enough, there will not be sufficient nutrients for the plants. In addition, it can be really hard for the plants to develop a healthy root system and they can float systematically.
3. Root Disturbances
Some hobbyists periodically move their root feeding plants in the tank. Unfortunately, they do not even realize that most plants are very intolerant of root disturbance. Actually, it has a profound effect on the leaves as well.
Plants need a lot of time to settle in. It can often take them 2 – 3 weeks to just accommodate in a new place. Every time we uproot or disturb plants we interrupt this process and they have to start from the beginning.
At the same time, because the root system is not developed, plants cannot grow leaves. As a result, they cannot perform photosynthesis and, eventually, die. So, think beforehand where you are going to plant them in the tank. Once you plant them – do not disturb them unless you do not have another option.
Note: You can also plant them in little plastic containers, so you can move them around the tank any time, while you are cleaning or simply rearrange the aquascape.
4. Anchoring Live Plants
Sometimes it can be really hard to work with plants that have not developed long roots yet. Every time we place them into the substrate, they may look like they are down but the next morning there is always one or two of them that are floating up at the surface.
- Use the plant weights (Do not use metal made of copper for that. Copper is very dangerous for the fish, shrimp, snails, etc.).
- Use the glue trick on stem plants. Attach them to a small rock (like we do for Java Moss, Anubias, Java Fern, etc.) and bury it. The rock will hold it down until the roots get established. However, I would not advise using this trick too often. Do not overdo it.
If it is possible, small lava rocks will be the almost ideal choice, because the roots can bond to the porous structure.
5. Fish, Crayfish, and Crab Choice
Do your research on what species you are planning to keep in the planted tank because it can save you a lot of money.
Unfortunately, some fish (for example, Cichlids, Goldfish), crabs (for example, Panther Crab, Matano Crab, Rainbow Crab, Fiddler Crabs, Red claw crabs) and especially crayfish (Marmorkrebs Crayfish, Cherax destructor, Blue crayfish, Procarambus Clarkii) are not compatible with planted tanks. They can eat and uproot everything in the tank.
While some snail species can eat live plants (read more about it), others (like Rabbit snails) can also uproot newly planted plants. Of course, with time, when the plants develop their root system, even big snails will not be a problem. However, in the beginning, they can be a temporary problem, keep it in mind.
Fortunately for us, freshwater snails can also greatly benefit any planted tanks. Therefore, instead of asking how do I get rid of the snails, we need to keep them because most of them are amazing scavengers and clean up crew.
- They eat leftover food.
- Snails eat algae.
- They eat dying leaves.
- They stir up through the substrates. Substrate aeration is a great benefit to planted aquariums as it promotes air exchange and root growth.
In general, snails eat a lot and produce a lot of waste. They consume the mulm and detritus turning it into something your plants need, nutrients, that acts as a natural fertilizer for them. Therefore, in a well-balanced tank, there is no need to vac the substrate more than once or twice a year. If you also have shrimp, you will not have to do it at all, in most cases.
7. Emersed Plants Melt
Nowadays many plant farms use a popular technique that is similar to the Dry Start Method. Basically, it means that the plants are grown with the stems and leaves in the air and the roots underwater.
This is a very efficient method because aquatic plants grow much bigger and faster when they have unlimited access to carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and their leaves are also free of algae and snail eggs. The only problem is that when we take those emersed grown plants and put them into the water their leaves go into shock, start turning brown, fall off or melt away.
Some people say “that sucks” and throw away the plant. DO NOT do that!
Once submerged, these plants will lose most or all air adapted leaves. Therefore, they need time to adapt and grow leaves that can consume CO2 and oxygen from the water and not from the air.
Give your plants time to adapt. It can take a few weeks but they will be OK.
8. Adding Fertilizers and Root Tabs
Even if you have a perfect nutrient-rich substrate for your rooted plants it does not 100% guarantee that it can be enough for the plants. With time, plants will absorb the majority of these nutrients and will starve.
In this case, we need to add some root tabs to the tank because many rooted plants are heavy root feeders and they need some sort of food inside the substrate for the roots to feed on.
When do we have to add fertilizers and root tabs?
Well, it is not rocket science. You will notice that the plants do not grow as they used to. In addition, they start to lose coloration and die back because they do not have enough food to consume in that tank.
The problem is that adding root tabs to the substrate can have some side effects. For example, some aquarists were having issues with fish and shrimp dying or they had a huge rise in ammonia.
It can happen if the root tabs leach up through the substrate into the water column. Therefore, one of the keys here is to make sure that the root tabs are deep enough into the substrate. At the same time, you do not want to go too deep because you do not know if your roots are that deep yet.
Of course, another option is to find fish and shrimp safe root tabs.
Related article: How to Make DIY Root Tabs. Pros and Cons. Comparison.
Adding too Much Fertilizers
Another mistake people often make is adding too much fertilizer when they panic. Of course, it can be very sad to see the plants dying but still… this is not an excuse to ‘drown’ them in fertilizers.
Even something good can become bad if it is excessive. That is why, if you have not added fertilizers before to this tank, I would even recommend to start with a 1/2 dose and not as often just for safety sake.
Adding Fertilizers too Soon
Sometimes people become overzealous and start adding fertilizers as soon as they start a new planted tank.
Do not add fertilizers to soon, it does not make any sense. As I have already mentioned, plants need time to adapt. They simply cannot absorb all these nutrients when their root system is not ready.
Keep in mind that excess nutrients in those early days will definitely lead to more algae. It will be absolutely everywhere. Do you need that?
Use 1 in 1 Fertilizer
There are so many products on the market that it can easily confuse even advanced aquarists.
Leave all these complex ways of fertilization to the plant nerds and stick to the rule – the simpler the better. All you need is to have an all-in-one solution: one liquid fertilizer and one type of root tabs.
When you use one fertilizer, you do not have to get in and start learning how much iron, phosphate, potassium, etc. the plants need.
Another advantage is that using the same product will give you an understanding of how much is not enough or too much. You can control the doze and understand how much the plants need.
Fertilizers and Water changes
Some aquarists recommend not to add plant fertilizer for 24 hours after doing a water change as the water conditioners will remove all the trace minerals from the fertilizer and make it less efficient.
Actually, it depends on the conditioner. Some of them do detoxify heavy metals and can reduce the effect. However, if you are using Seachem Prime (check the price on Amazon), in this case, there should not be a problem.
According to the Seachem “Prime can be used to condition the water and fertilizers dry or liquid can be mixed and dosed accordingly to the tank with no problem. Prime conditions water by detoxifying chlorine, chloramine, ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, and heavy metals found at low levels in the water. Most macronutrients such as N,P, K, and trace minerals will be fine to add.”
It means that after water change we have removed the nutrients that were in the water. Therefore, we need to immediately add them after the water change.
Note: Although root feeding plants receive most of these nutrients from the substrate, they still appreciate liquid fertilizers as well.
Fertilizers and Fish, Shrimp, Snails, Etc.
If you have fish, shrimp, snails, crabs, etc. in the tank I would highly recommend checking the composition of the fertilizer before buying it. Make sure that it does not contain any trace of a copper element or that it is almost non-existent.
Check out my article for more information:
9. Do Not Be Afraid to Trim Plants
Do not be afraid to trim your plants.
- Trimming helps the plant attain a healthier look.
- This will help make your tank dense and lush.
- It will prevent them from growing too tall.
- With some plants, it is possible to propagate this way. You can plant trimmed parts.
- Trimming is crucial with carpet plants (like Dwarf baby tears, Monte Carlo, Dwarf Hairgrass, Glosso, etc.). The reason is that when the thickness of the carpet is more than 4 – 5 cm (~2 inches), the lower parts of the plant will rot and the entire cap might float to the surface!
10. Lighting Requirements
It is not possible not to mention lighting. It could but the most important part and THE MAIN reason why people often fail. You have to pay attention to your lights and what lighting requirements the plants you want need!
- Some of your root-feeding plants can require high light while others can thrive only in low light. You have to keep it in mind.
- Your lights have to be on a timer. Instead of turning your lights on each morning and off each night, you can easily program a timer to automatically do this for you. Once you set the timer, do not play with it. As with the fertilizers, it will allow you to balance out fertilizers and CO2 if you decide to use it later.
It is recommended to have as much as 8 – 10 hours every day in low-tech planted tanks. However, in a new planted aquarium setup, you can start light at a lower amount (for example, 6 hours) when first planting. This gives the plants more time to settle in, establish strong roots, and begin new growth while limiting algae’s chance to flourish and grow.
Read more in my “Advanced Guide to Planted Tank Lighting”.
Finally – Be Patient and Do Research
When we are talking about low-tech tanks (tanks that do not require high light and CO2 injections), patience is crucial. We have to understand that the majority of root-feeding plants will not grow super-fast. On the contrary, they usually grow slow or very slow.
That is why we have to give plants time to grow and yes, it can take plants up to several months!
In addition, it is important to know what kind of plants you are growing and what they require for optimal growth in the aquarium. It is very important that you do your research before you buy any plant and make sure that you have an aquarium that will suit the needs of this plant.
That being said awesome planted tanks can be achieved through good planning, research, and patience.
- Purchase a good nutrient substrate for your plants.
- Keeping it deep.
- Do not uproot plants. Leave them alone once planted.
- Anchoring plants is easy.
- Some fish and most crayfish and crabs can be very destructive. Do your research.
- Snails are good for planted tanks.
- Emersed plants often melt but they will regrow. Do not worry.
- Fertilizers are important.
- Do not be afraid to trim the plants.
- Set your lights on a timer.