Aquariums are more than just a hobby, they are an art form. Selecting, positioning and maintaining plants which complement not only each other, but also the fish within the tank takes a great degree of skill, attention to detail, and mindfulness.
But as painstaking as it may seem, creating a visually stunning and ecologically healthy is truly one of the most rewarding pastimes. Let’s dive straight into 31 of the most imaginative planting ideas, from traditional perspective planting, to rare and unusual plants (and how to care for them!).
The fundamental theme in any visually impactful planted tank should always be perspective and balance. This means that your plants should be positioned according to size, to create a naturally balanced perspective which draws the viewer into your scene. Foreground plants should be the smallest plants in your aquarium. They usually have a low-growing, spreading growth habit.
Mosses are a great choice for foreground planting. There are also plenty of dwarf versions of larger plants which can be placed in the foreground of your tank, such as Alternanthera reineckii ‘Mini’ which produces a shock of dense yet compact scarlet foliage.
Midground plants, unsurprisingly, should be placed around the midpoint of your tank. They should have a moderate height and spread and help to create a visually smooth transition from foreground to background.
Water Hyssop is a great midground plant, with a creeping growth habit that may even produce delicate, pale-coloured blooms if conditions are right. African Water Ferns are one of the most popular midground plants, producing delicate, deep green foliage.
Your background plants should be the tallest in your aquarium with the widest spread and most vigorous growth habit. They provide the backdrop for your underwater world, as well as plenty of shelter for your fish.
Cabomba plants are a popular choice for background planting, producing tall, feathery stems that resemble a bottle brush in reds, purples, and greens. Rotala Indica is a more unique background plant option, characterised by tall stems studded with elegant circular leaves.
Floating plants are a dynamic addition to any aquarium, sure to bring a sense of calm as you watch them travel peacefully through the water.
There’s a huge variety of floating plants to choose from. Hornwort is a great low-maintenance floating option, with its whispery foliage giving the whole tank an ethereal beauty. Duckweed is a floating plant which sits atop the water’s surface, similar to lily pads. It does tend to spread prolifically though, so needs regular maintenance to keep it in check.
Carpeting plants are low-lying, fast-spreading plants which provide ground cover along the bottom of your tank. They are commonly used as foreground plants and bring a naturalistic aesthetic to tanks.
Pretty much all mosses have a carpeting effect. Java Moss is one of the most popular and lowest maintenance carpeting mosses, spreading effortlessly from just about any surface or substrate, and in almost any water and light conditions.
Perhaps you’d like to recreate a miniature underwater garden in your tank, and of course, no garden is complete without a lawn. Grass plants provide lawn-lookalike ground cover with a carpeting growth habit.
If you’re setting up a cold water tank, the great news is that there are a huge variety of aquatic plants which are perfectly adapted to live in cold water environments. Everything from mosses to ferns to grasses will grow abundantly in temperatures as low as 15 degrees.
Warm water aquariums are typically used to house tropical fish that are used to temperate conditions. If you’re planning a heated tank, opt for tropical plant species that can tolerate warmer temperatures.
The majority of aquarium setups use freshwater, and this is great news for your planting since the vast majority of aquarium plants grow in freshwater conditions, so your planting options are almost limitless!
Selecting plants for a saltwater setup can be a little trickier than freshwater since the environment is more specialised. But there are still plenty of stunning saltwater plants for you to choose from!
The other-worldly Dragons Tongue Algae will brighten up any saltwater tank with its shock of twisted scarlet stems. You can even keep coral in a saltwater tank, creating a truly supernatural underwater reef scene!
Incorporating flowering plants is a great way to bring a touch of elegant beauty to your aquarium. Many plants will only bloom if conditions are just right, so ensure you meet the exact needs of each plant if you want them to bloom.
Madagascar Lace produces stunning violet inflorescences, as well as intricately perforated foliage in a lace-like pattern. Anubias are a great flowering plant for low-light setups. They produce architectural blooms which are not dissimilar to Calla lilies.
If you have limited space for an aquarium, consider setting up a nano tank. Nano tanks are fully-functioning aquariums, just on a miniature scale. Of course, you will need miniature plants to fill it.
Cryptocoryne parva are a tiny but leafy plant which won’t take up valuable space in a nano tank. Hailing from Sri Lanka, Parva are the smallest of all the Cryptocoryne plant species, rarely exceeding six centimetres in height. Marimo Moss Balls are truly unique plants resembling tiny green pom-poms. They grow perfectly spherical and rarely exceed six centimetres in diameter.
Just like terrestrial plants, aquatic plants need a certain amount of light to flourish. If you want to avoid the harsher illumination created by the brightest artificial lights, you will need to select plants which are accustomed to gloomier conditions.
You don’t need to be an expert horticulturist to create your planted aquarium. There are plenty of super easy care plants that are perfect for beginners.
Amazon Swords are one the most straightforward aquatic plants to grow. They aren’t fussy about water, substrate, or light conditions, and they will quickly develop into a dense green backdrop for your tank. Aponogeton crispus is a beginner-friendly plant with scalloped leaves. Purchased as bulbs, they simply need to be placed into the substrate and pretty much left to their own devices.
Stunning aquariums needn’t require masses of time and effort dedicated to laborious upkeep. There are plenty of low-maintenance plants to choose from.
Java Fern is possibly the lowest maintenance of all aquatic plants and will produce plenty of lush dense foliage with very little attention. Its slow growth rate means it rarely needs pruning and it is robust enough to withstand low light levels, low nutrient levels, and even the most destructive fish species. Dwarf Sagittaria is a midsized plant which needs very little in the way of care, pruning, or maintenance. Adaptable to most water and light conditions, you won’t need to spend ages making precise adjustments to your setup for them to flourish.
Often, the substrate you use will be dictated by the type of plants you want to grow and the overall desired aesthetic of the tank. Sand is a common choice since it closely resembles the natural habitat of many aquatic plants.
Vallisneria is a tall, grass-like plant which roots well in loose, sandy substrates. Also known as Eel grass, it provides plenty of shelter for resident fishes. Anacharis is another plant that is well suited to sandy tanks.
Gravel is a great alternative to traditional sandy substrates. You can purchase aquarium gravel in pretty much every colour of the rainbow to create a wacky foundation for a truly show-stopping aquarium.
Asian Ambulia is a fast-growing aquatic plant that does very well in gravel substrate. They produce plenty of dense, feathery foliage which softens the aesthetic of coarse gravel substrate. Bucephalandra is a compact yet bushy aquatic plant with deep green and burgundy-hued foliage. It will root effortlessly in gravel tanks, so long as its rhizome is not smothered by pebbles.
Epiphytic plants don’t require any substrate, so offer plenty of versatility since they don’t need to be rooted at the bottom of the tank. Instead, they can be anchored to decorative driftwood.
Dwarf Baby Tears has a carpeting growth habit that roots easily in all driftwood. Its delicate, rounded foliage will creep elegantly over decorative driftwood adding a real naturalistic aesthetic to your tank. Mosses are also a great choice for driftwood, creating a naturalistic underwater wilderness effect.
It’s not just driftwood that can be used to anchor your epiphytic plants. Decorative rocks can be adorned with a variety of plants too!
Riccia Fluitans is a bushy, moss-like plant that will happily grow from rock crevices and caverns. Its slow growth and low-maintenance temperament make it the perfect decorative plant for a fuss-free, rocky aquascape. Just like driftwood, rocks make a great home for mosses too.
Pots and Baskets
Consider suspending pots or baskets throughout your aquarium to create a multidimensional, multilevel planted display. Pots are portable, meaning you can change up the configuration of your tank whenever you fancy, and they are simple to remove for easy access maintenance and pruning. Opt for trailing or vining plants which will cascade elegantly downwards from the basket. Simply fill the basket with substrate and plant like you would a houseplant.
Cardamine Lyrata is an almost neon-green trailing plant that can cascade down for up to thirty centimetres in larger tanks. Weeping Moss has a more compact trailing growth habit of around an inch which is perfect for smaller setups.
Ferns are the quintessential aquatic plants, having a low-maintenance temperament and perfectly accustomed to the dim light levels of underwater worlds.
Java fern and African Water Fern are the most common aquatic ferns, but there are plenty of weird, and wonderful ferns available too. The delicate Water Sprite Fern has a dense sprig of whispery foliage, whilst the rare Fishtail Fern has leaves which diverge in a forked shape to resemble a mermaid’s tail.
Mosses are another classic aquarium plant. Beloved by experts and beginners alike for their low-maintenance temperament, naturalistic charm, and versatile growth habits. Most mosses have a carpeting spread, making them perfect for foregrounds.
Christmas Moss has bright green, dense foliage and a sprawling growth habit so will cover a large area quickly. Taiwan Moss is highly decorative, with an abundance of feather-like leaves which grow to around two inches tall, creating a thick moss carpet wherever it spreads.
Whilst algae are often seen as a nuisance, they can actually bring enormous benefits to your aquarium’s ecosystem if managed correctly. Green algae especially is a sign of a healthy tank, generating oxygen and offering additional nutrients for fish who nibble on it. Just make sure that algae are not left to multiply exponentially, as too much can destabilise conditions in your aquarium.
Your planted aquarium needn’t be a sea of green! There’s a whole rainbow spectrum of aquatic plants on offer for you to experiment with.
Echinodorus Aflame is a stunning midground plant with large oval-shaped leaves ranging from bright purples to deep maroons and dark browns. Hygrophila Chai is a truly otherworldly aquatic plant featuring slender star-shaped foliage in a shocking neon pink colour which creates a stunning contrast when planted alongside vivid green mosses. Ludwigia Pantanal produces magnificent firework-like displays of orange, scarlet, and green leaves in a striking rosette formation, able to reach great heights of up to forty centimetres!
Houseplant enthusiasts will know just how coveted variegated plants are, and just like terrestrial plants, aquatic plants can produce wonderful variegation patterns on their foliage too.
Anubias Panda White is a rare and sought-after plant that produces delicate sprays of dainty round leaves, each with a stunning green and white marbled, splattered, or spotted variegation pattern.
Fast growing plants
If you want your freshly planted foliage to fill out in a hurry, there are plenty of vigorous aquatic plants to do the job.
Amazon Frogbit is a very fast-spreading, floating plant with foliage that resembles miniature lily pads. Water Wisteria is capable of growing two to three inches per week in the right conditions. Because of its size and vigour, its best used as a background plant in larger aquariums.
Fish breeding and shelter
The plants in your aquarium are not merely for decoration. They play important roles in the aquatic ecosystem as a whole Many species of fish like to shelter in amongst the foliage, whilst others lay their eggs amongst the greenery.
Guppy Grass is a bushy plant that many species of fish will breed in. The thick foliage protects both eggs and juvenile fish from potential predators. Subwassertang offers plenty of safe places for fish to lay eggs on its flat leaves, and its dense foliage provides hiding places for larger fish.
Aside from breeding and sheltering, your aquarium plants should also provide plenty of nutrition for your fish. Before introducing a new plant, always check that it’s safe for your fish to consume.
Hygrophila is a great choice for hungry fish. It is fast-growing but is kept in check by hungry fishes. Aponogeton are serene-looking plants with crinkled, scalloped leaves. Their foliage, flowers, and seeds all provide food for fish!
Aquatic plants can even help with tank maintenance! Many plants purify and filter the water, helping to keep the ecosystem clear of toxins such as ammonia. They also absorb excess nutrients from the water to prevent harmful algal blooms.
Willow Moss is an efficient purifier absorbing toxic minerals from the environment whilst also being incredibly low-maintenance. In fact, most mosses possess incredible purification properties to help keep your tank clean with minimal effort.
As well as keeping your tank clean, many aquatic plants provide supplementary oxygen as well as sequester excess carbon dioxide generated by the fish.
Ludwigia repens is a prolific oxygenator and also a highly decorative plant, available in hues of reds, browns and greens. Hornwort, Eelgrass and Cabombas are all excellent oxygenators too. Aim to plant at least one oxygenator in your setup.
Your aquarium garden needn’t be limited to aquatic plants! There’s plenty of scope to think outside the box and incorporate water-tolerant terrestrial plants too. Many traditional houseplants are actually pretty happy when grown in water. Pothos, Philodendron, Spider Plant and even Monstera can be positioned as emergent aquarium plants, meaning they are only partially submerged to create a truly unusual aquatic display as they protrude from the water’s surface.
Setup and Maintenance
Now you’ve seen plenty of planting ideas to get your creativity flowing, let’s take a look at the setup and maintenance requirements for your planted aquarium.
Begin by planning what kind of fish you intend to keep, and which plants are well suited to that species, or vice versa. Decide how big your tank will need to be to comfortably accommodate your chosen plants and fish. Try to create a symbiotic relationship between the fish, the plants, and the water, in order to create a stable and healthy ecosystem.
Once you have decided which plants to grow in your aquarium, you will need to select an appropriate substrate. You could opt for traditional sand or gravel, or even something a bit less conventional, such as coloured glass pebbles. There are also specialist aquatic soils available for plants who need a more fertile substrate.
It’s very important to get the water conditions just right in your aquarium to avoid potentially catastrophic problems in the future. Always use purified water, and depending on the size of your aquarium, you may need to install a filtration system to avoid buildups of harmful bacteria. If you are planning a tropical tank, you may also need a water heater to maintain a stable temperature.
Once established, you should regularly monitor the pH level of the water to ensure it doesn’t fluctuate outside of your inhabitants’ preferred levels. You will also need to change the water fairly regularly. The frequency of water changes will depend on the size of your tank, whether or not you have a filter and the kind of organisms living in your tank.
Artificial lighting is an essential part of your planted aquarium. Without it, your plants won’t be able to photosynthesise, and will soon die. The intensity of light needed varies from species to species, so chose a light which suits your plants. Fluorescent bulbs are the most common form of lighting, but LEDs are also an effective light source. The more intense the lighting, the more fertiliser and carbon dioxide your plants will need.
Fertiliser and Carbon Dioxide
Just like terrestrial plants, aquatic plants need fertiliser too. Sometimes, the natural life cycle of decay and decomposition will provide enough nutrients for your plants, but often, it’s necessary to include additional supplements. There are plenty of aquarium-safe water-soluble fertilisers available for a variety of different plant needs. Plants also need a constant supply of CO2 in order to photosynthesise and grow normally. This is usually obtained from the fish, but if you have a high-intensity light setup, you may need to install an additional carbon dioxide injection system.
How long will my aquarium last?
The lifespan of your aquarium will depend on the level of care and maintenance it receives. Theoretically, a well-maintained aquarium can have an infinite lifespan, so long as dead livestock and plants are regularly replaced, the water is kept clean and the ecosystem is stable.
How much maintenance will my aquarium need each week?
The level of maintenance will vary from tank to tank, depending on its size, what fish and plants it contains, and whether there is a water filter or not. Chose low-maintenance fish and plants if you only have a few minutes to spend on maintenance per week. If you can dedicate more time, then by all means opt for tropical fish or rare plants.
When it comes to planting out your aquarium, the possibilities really are endless. It’s a chance for you to let your imagination run wild, and the more time you spend maintaining your plants, the more skilled, and more intricate your planting will become. So water you waiting for? It’s time to dive into the wonderful watery world of aquatic planting!