Betta fish adore planted tanks and will spend all day frolicking among the plants if you give them a chance to. While some plants are difficult to care for, there are also many plants suitable for beginners. They help clean the water and bring out your betta’s personality.
There are many different types of plants, both for advanced aquarists and beginners, and we will discuss options for both. Plants have basic needs different from that of fish, which are met through a mix of carbon dioxide, fertilizers, and lighting. Some of the less demanding plants can subsist on the nutrients from fish waste, but most cannot.
In this article, we will discuss low tech planted tanks, high tech planted tanks, fertilizers, lighting, substrate, low tech plants, high tech plants, low tech “carpet” plants, bettas with plants, cleaning a planted tank, common algae, and water flow and filtration.
A low-tech tank is often where you are going to be when you’re just starting out. Most of these have little to no fertilizers or have only a rich substrate. The majority of the plants you see in these types of tanks will be green. In addition, they will be plants that absorb their nutrients from the water column.
Low-tech tanks can still look beautiful; however, you will not see as many color variations or as thick and lush growth as you would in higher tech tanks. For example, plants grown in low tech conditions have thinner leaves and more space between the leaves than they would if they were grown in high tech conditions.
Lighting is also much cheaper, as aquarium lighting can end up costing several thousand dollars. This is not the norm for freshwater aquariums, however, it is not unheard of.
High-Tech Planted Tanks
A high-tech tank refers to a tank with high lighting, carbon dioxide injection, a special fertilizer schedule, and high-tech plants. These tanks often have plants with greatly varied colors, anywhere from purple to pink to yellow to green and a carpet.
Carpet plants are not suitable for low tech, and often not even medium tech tanks due to their picky nature and care requirements. A carpet plant tends to be green in color, grows low to the ground, and may cover the entire bottom of the tank. Aquariums that have these carpet plants look extremely attractive and beautiful.
Plants need a mix of carbon dioxide, fertilizers, and lighting in order to grow properly and to decrease algae. It takes a long time to figure out the exact balance you need for your tank and plants, and it often results in a specialized fertilizer schedule to meet the lighting and carbon dioxide in the tank.
Carbon dioxide injection is not as risky as it may seem, though if done incorrectly, the fish in the tank can die. This is often seen in DIY CO2 injection, as it is primarily done with yeast and sugar. The yeast does not produce a steady amount of carbon dioxide, and the amount produced can vary from hour to hour, so it is more dangerous than a set up that uses pressurized carbon dioxide.
High tech lighting is expensive, but there are several DIY methods that make the cost more manageable. Bettas are often kept in low light tanks with low light plants, though they do look stunning in a carpeted tank. A high-tech tank will give you more options in terms of plant color than a low-tech tank, which may help you design the color scheme around the betta.
Fertilizers can be tricky to understand at first. When you start googling and see words such as “EI dosing”, “PPS Pro”, “Dry ferts vs Liquid Ferts”, and a bunch of chemical formulas, it is very confusing.
Here we will discuss fertilizers in simple terms. Macros and micros are the two main things you need to be concerned with. Macros are the chemicals and nutrients that plants need and use the most of, while micros are things that plants still use but they need less of.
Overdosing either of these will lead to algae. Since you added more nutrients than the plants can utilize, the algae will use this opportunity to grow as much and as fast as possible. Most fertilizers have only one or two compounds or have only macros or micros, not both. Some of the names can also be misleading.
For example, Flourish Comprehensive sounds like it will have both micros and macros, but it contains only micros. This means that you will have to buy three or four other Flourish Macro bottles in order to care for your plants properly.
For a low-tech tank, the easiest way to take care of your plants is a simple all in one, such as NilocG Thrive. It is easy to dose (one pump per 5 gallons every week) and contains necessary micros and macros.
If liquid fertilizers are too expensive for you, you may want to consider dry fertilizers. You need to measure and mix these yourself before dosing into your tank. These are normally dosed based around the EI, or estimated index, method. Which requires a weekly 50% water change to prevent a buildup of nutrients and minerals.
Lighting is available in all shapes and sizes, and chances are, you got some lights that came with your tank. If the tank is new and came with a kit that had a light, you probably won’t be able to grow anything other than mosses and anacharis.
These plants can subsist on very low levels of light, while others need more light. Kit lighting is designed to allow you to see your fish, but it is not designed to support plant growth.
There are many different types of lighting available, though hood lighting and overhead lights are the most popular. You also have hundreds of different light makers to choose from. Fluval lights are highly recommended by most aquarists, as some are programmable, all are easy to use, and they range from low light to high light.
DIY lighting is also popular due to the cost of aquarium lights. Popular low light methods include CFL bulbs hung above aquariums and LED strips placed along the inside of a hood. However, the LED strips may not support good plant growth.
Since bettas love plants, it is good to start out with a light that can support plant growth. Bettas are not picky in terms of low-tech versus high-tech plants. So pick whichever light fits your budget and aesthetic preferences.
Some plants are water column feeders, which means they only need fertilizers in the water column, but others are root feeders. Which means they get their nutrients from the substrate. While having a nutrient rich substrate is best for a planted tank, there are some ways around this.
Just like the lighting, there are thousands of options for substrates. Gravel or sand are the two main options for tanks without root feeders. But there are also options available which will support plant growth. Some of these even buffer the substrate one way or another for different reasons.
Sand does not retain a good deal of nutrients, which makes it difficult for root feeders to grow. Gravel does retain waste and nutrients, so undemanding root feeders can grow well in this substrate.
Root tabs are an alternative to plant rich substrate. They are small capsules or tablets that you place under the substrate near a root feeding plant. The plant can feed off of these nutrients and they only need to be added under the plant every few months.
Some substrates, such as ADA Amazonia, are great for supporting plant growth and buffer the pH down to around 6.4-6.6, depending on your kH value. Bettas do prefer softer and more acidic water, so this substrate can be helpful for them, but they can easily adapt to a higher pH.
While most low-tech plants cannot grow under kit lighting, a $20 light should be all that they need. Most mosses, such as java moss, grow very well under such lighting and do not normally require fertilizer. Subwassertang is in the same category, but it is more difficult to find.
Anubias and java ferns are normally the most commonly available low light plants. There is a chance that you will not need fertilizers for these plants. But if the plant starts to turn yellow or transluscent, the new growth is a different color, or it starts to develop pinholes, buy some fertilizer!
The issue with plants showing signs of deficiencies, such as the ones listed above, is that the damage done will not be repaired. You simply have to wait until the old growth dies off completely, which can take months.
Good low light plants include plants such as pennywort, anacharis, dwarf sagittaria, vallisneria, amazon sword, hornwort, dwarf tiger lotus, red root floaters, dwarf water lettuce, frogbit, duckweed, blue hygro, ludwigia, rotala, scarlet temple, stargrass, banana plant, rosette sword, bacopa, anubias, java ferns, and various crypts.
As you now know, high tech plants are expensive to care for and difficult to keep. However, they are some of the most beautiful plants out there, and you can make a gorgeous carpet across the entire tank.
Some of the most popular carpet plants are dwarf hairgrass, Montecarlo, dwarf baby tears, glossostigma, and several species of Marsilea, which look like small clovers. These plants grow relatively close to the ground, which is part of the reason you need a very powerful light for them; it must reach through to the bottom of the aquarium with intensity.
With high tech equipment, you can grow any plant you want, even low-tech ones. However, you will have to adjust the fertilizer schedule if you use low tech plants, as they do not require as much as high tech plants.
That being said, you should not start off with high tech plants, as there is a learning curve associated with caring for aquatic plants. If you start off with high tech ones, they will likely die. On the other hand, if you start out with low tech plants and make some mistakes, they are much more forgiving and will recover.
Low-Tech “Carpet Plants”
While you cannot get true carpet plants to grow, or even survive, in low tech conditions, there are some faux carpet plants that can resemble carpet plants if pruned in the proper manner. These plants do not grow low to the ground and often have to be trimmed.
Some of the more popular ones are dwarf sagittaria, which is thicker and taller than dwarf hairgrass and looks more like a light-colored val. Normal baby tears, also called pearlweed, can easily be grown in low tech tanks. But it does not grow to the side, only upwards.
Staurogyne repens is another very popular one, and similar to pearlweed; it does not grow outwards, only up. Both of these plants need to be trimmed often. But unlike dwarf sagittaria, the trimmed pieces can be replanted into the substrate. They will put down roots and continue to grow.
This is the main difference between true carpet plants and faux carpet plants. The true carpet plants will grow and spread on their own and cover the tank for you. The faux ones have to be planted in every little nook and cranny and require much more upkeep and trimming than the true carpet plants do.
You may also use mosses and subwassertang as a carpet, though they have a tendency to grow upwards instead of to the side in lower light conditions, such as at the bottom of the tank. They also grow extremely slowly.
Bettas with Plants
Betta fish are prey fish in the wild and are often eaten by other species. Their small size makes them a good snack for larger fish. Due to this, they have an innate instinct to hide. While cave decorations can be helpful, most are often very sharp on the inside and they take up a good deal of space inside the tank.
Plants are a much better option in terms of providing hiding areas where your betta can feel safe. In the wild, plants are the main areas that bettas can hide in. Bettas absolutely love plants, and you will notice a change in your betta’s behavior if you add plants.
They often become more lively and will spend time weaving in and out of the plants, then popping out from behind one and stare at you. After that, they will excitedly come to the front of the tank to greet you, disappear into the plants, then come back out again, as if showing off their awesome ninja skills.
In addition to making your betta more active, they are also very useful in keeping the water clean. They add oxygen to the water, which helps your betta breathe easier. They also take in some of the nitrogen compounds in the water.
While fully cycled tanks should not have any ammonia or nitrite, though plants can take in small quantities of these. Most of the time, they take in some nitrates that are naturally produced through the nitrogen cycle in the tank.
Even though low levels of nitrates, 20 ppm and under, are considered mostly safe. It is much more beneficial to have no nitrates, so keeping them as low as possible keeps your fish as healthy as possible.
Cleaning a Planted Tank
You should do weekly water changes on your tank to keep the nitrate level low, as well as use a gravel siphon to remove waste trapped in the substrate. However, it is very difficult to use a gravel siphon around plants, as they may be too large to get under the leaves, or they could be delicate and may be uprooted easily.
However, you cannot skip these areas, as waste is easily trapped below plants and in their leaves, so you should pay extra attention to these areas. The easiest way to clean plants and the substrate under them is with a turkey baster.
Aside from a little extra care and cleaning around the plants, the rest of the tank should be cleaned as usual.
While you don’t need a planted tank to end up with algae, you will encounter a higher amount of algae in a planted tank. Small bits of algae can hitchhike in on the plants, and if there is a nutrient imbalance, the algae will begin to grow faster than the plants.
Most types of algae are not harmful to fish (though they can kill plants), but cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, can kill fish. It is not a true algae, but it behaves like one. This will appear as a blueish slime on plants and other surfaces on the tank. It is difficult to wipe off and will significantly lower the oxygen levels in the water, which is dangerous.
For most algae, the easiest and fastest way to eliminate them is to turn off all lighting on and near the tank for four days. Algaecides often result in fish death, and other methods, such as Hydrogen Peroxide dosing, can end up killing healthy plants as well.
The plants will be able to survive several days without light, but the algae cannot. Brown diatom algae is another common “algae” but will disappear about three to four months after a tank is set up. Hair algae is also common, and very difficult to remove from plants, so the blackout method is often best.
Water Flow and Filtration
Since plants act as obstacles to water flow, you will need more flow than the normal tank. For most tanks, a flow rate of 5 to 8 times the water volume is sufficient, but for a planted tank, you want a flow rate at least 10 times that of the water volume. For example, a planted 10-gallon tank should have a filter capable of producing a flow of 100 or more gallons per hour.
This helps circulate nutrients and keeps the water moving at an appropriate flow. The plants do block some of the flow and circulation, which is the main reason you need to increase the flow.
In conclusion, planted tanks do take some extra work and require higher grade lighting and fertilizers. They also have a slightly different cleaning routine, but the extra effort is more than worth it once you see your betta’s reaction.