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Choosing live plants for your aquarium can be difficult when you're just getting into the hobby. There are dozens of species to choose from. Many require high light levels or, in some cases, carbon dioxide injection. To make selection even more complicated, many stores sell plants that are not truly aquatic.

Knowing what plants will thrive in your aquarium as a beginner can save you a lot of headache. These 5 beginner aquarium plants are all hardy enough to tolerate relatively low light and less than ideal water parameters.

Beginner Planted Tank Shopping List:

# 1: Java Fern (microsorum pteropus)

Microsorum pteropus
Microsorum pteropus

Java fern, named after the Indonesian island of Java, is a slow growing aquatic fern that is widely known as one of the best beginner aquarium plants. Microsorum pteropus will tolerate low light quite well, so you won't need to go out and spend a lot of money on a high output light fixture. There are several varieties of java fern available in the hobby, including "narrow leaf", "needle leaf", "Windelov", and "trident".

To cultivate java fern in your aquarium it is best to attach the rhizome (the stem that the roots emerge from) to a rock or a piece of driftwood. Burying the the rhizome in soil or gravel will usually cause it to rot away and die. For this reason, java fern can even be grown in a tank with no substrate! This makes it an excellent choice when setting up a bare bottom quarantine or breeding tank.

#2: Anubias (anubias barteri)

Anubias barteri "nana" on driftwood
Anubias barteri "nana" on driftwood (photo: @odinaqua)

Another slow grower, anubias is a genus of aquatic and semi-aquatic flowering plants native to Africa. Anubias barteri is one of the most common species in the aquarium hobby and can be found in multiple varieties. Like java fern, anubias tolerates low light very well. It also doesn't need to be planted in a substrate.

#3: Cryptocorynes (cryptocoryne wendtii)

Cryptocoryne wendtii
Cryptocoryne wendtii (photo: @odinaqua)

Cryptocoryne is a genus of aquatic plants containing dozens of species. Crypts come in a variety of colors, sizes, and leaf shapes. There are hardy green varieties, such as Cryptocoryne wendtii, and also varieties that have brown, red, or even pink foliage.

Unlike the first two plants on this list, crypts need to be planted in a substrate for their roots to develop. The good news is they can usually be grown in a basic sand or gravel bed under low to medium light. While they are somewhat slow growers, crypts will send out small runners (baby plants) that can be uprooted and replanted, or allowed to form a carpet.

#4: Vallisneria (vallisneria spiralis)

Dirted tank featuring a Vallisneria jungle (photo: @odinaqua)

Also called tape grass or eel grass, vallisneria is an aquatic grass that can grow quite long - in some cases up to 6 feet - if left untrimmed. Vallisneria can be planted in a standard gravel substrate, or a soil base capped with sand or gravel. When it has enough light and nutrients, it will send off lots of runners and start to form a tall forest of underwater grass.

The tank shown above is a "dirted tank", which is a great way to get rapid and healthy vallisneria growth. This method was popularized by Diana Walstad, whose book, Ecology of The Planted Aquarium, is a great resource on aquatic plants.

#5: Guppy Grass (najas guadalupensis)

Guppy grass
Guppy grass

Named for its utility as a hiding spot for baby guppies, guppy grass is easy to grow under low light and does not need to be planted or attached to anything. It grows into floating bunches that provide cover for small fish and will branch off into a tangle of thin stems and leaves. Like all the plants on this list, it does not require CO2 injection for successful cultivation, and is not too picky about water parameters.

1

Adult Yellow Tiger Endler Males
Adult Yellow Tiger Endler Males

I recently purchased a few pairs of adult yellow tiger Endler's livebearers. The photo above is a couple of the males in my planted 10 gallon display tank. The best thing about livebearers is how easy they are to breed once you have a pair of adults with good genetics. I set up a simple fry rearing tank, added a very pregnant female, and within 24 hours of moving her I had 15+ newborn Endler fry.

Female Endler After Giving Birth
Adult Female Endler

Tank Setup

Fry Tank Setup
Fry Tank Setup

This setup is optimal for rearing young fish, whether they are livebearers or egg-layers. It requires no substrate and no decorations. All you need is a heater, a filter, and some moss or other plants for the fry to hide in. I am using a 20 gallon "long" size tank, which is shorter vertically and longer horizontally than a typical 20 gallon "high". The light is a 30" Nicrew LED, although a light is not required for raising fry.

1 Day Old Endlers in Java Moss
1 Day Old Endlers in Java Moss

These baby Endlers will be fully grown and ready to breed in about 3 months.

Filtration

Bacto-Surge Sponge Filter
Bacto-Surge Sponge Filter

I'm using a Bacto-Surge sponge filter in this fry tank. A sponge filter is by far the best type to use in a tank with very young fish. Hang-on-back and canister filters have intakes that will suck up and kill newborn fry. Although you can use intake sponges on these types of filters, its much simpler to use an air-driven sponge filter. A 5 watt air pump can drive multiple sponge filters, filtering more than one tank with less electricity than a single hang-on-back.

Bare Bottom

Although you could put gravel into a tank you are using to raise fry, it is much better to run a bare bottom tank. I painted the back and bottom of this tank using black acrylic paint. The bare bottom allows you to easily vacuum out uneaten food and waste to maintain high water quality for the young fish. Having no substrate also saves you about $20 in a 20 gallon tank like this one.

Plants

Plants, such as guppy grass or java moss, provide the fry (or eggs) with a place to hide from their parents, who will often eat their own young. Additionally, plants provide fry with a high surface area to graze on infusoria, which are minute aquatic creatures such as ciliateseuglenoidsprotozoa, and unicellular algae.

Java Moss
Java Moss

I pulled a large quantity of java moss out of another tank that I was rescaping specifically for this setup. You can see several 1 day old Endler fry hanging out beneath the moss in the photo below. If you don't have access to such a large quantity of java moss, guppy grass, also known as najas grass, is often available at local fish shops.

1 Day Old Endlers in Java Moss
1 Day Old Endlers in Java Moss

Feeding The Fry

I feed newly hatched brine shrimp to all of my young fish. Brine shrimp are cheap to produce and can be hatched from eggs in 36 hours. They are small enough for newborn Endlers and Guppies to eat, high in protein, and irresistible to most fish. Fry that are raised on live brine shrimp will quickly outgrow fish that are fed only crushed flakes or other prepared foods. The photo below shows a culture of brine shrimp ready to be harvested.

This post has more information on hatching brine shrimp.

Live Baby Brine Shrimp
Live Baby Brine Shrimp

Update: Endler Fry Tank 5 Months Later

After setting this tank up I added dwarf water lettuce which has spread to cover most of the surface. The java moss has more than tripled in size and now hosts a colony of blue dream shrimp in addition to multiple generations of Yellow Tiger Endlers.

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Betta Barracks at About Fish Inc. in Westminster, CO
Betta Barracks at About Fish Inc. in Westminster, CO

Do bettas need a filter?

Yes.

Although bettas are often seen in unfiltered bowls, they need filtration to survive longer than a few weeks. See this post on the nitrogen cycle for more info on why all fish need filtration. A big or expensive filter is not necessary. A small sponge filter like this one is sufficient for a single betta.

Betta posing with a heater and a sponge filter
Betta posing with a heater and a sponge filter

Do bettas need a heater?

Yes, unless they are kept in a room that never drops below 74 °F. Betta Splendens are native to the Chao Phraya River in Thailand. Temperatures there are consistently warm all year, ranging from 75-90 °F. If you live in a tropical climate, you may not need a heater. Betta species prefer a water temperature of around 75–82 °F.

Bangkok Average Temperature

A small heater like this one will only run you about $10-$20 and will keep your betta a lot healthier than consistently cold water. Always use a thermometer so you can keep an eye on the temperature.

Can a betta live in a bowl?

Yes, if it holds at least 2 gallons of water. Not sure how much water your bowl will hold? Use a milk jug or soda bottle to measure the amount of liquid you can add. Two gallons is equivalent to about 7.5 liters. Anything smaller than this will require frequent maintenance to remove waste so that the water is not foul, and will be too small to add a filter.

Even better than a bowl, though, is a nano tank like the Fluval Spec. These small aquariums come as a kit with a filter and a light, and make a perfect home for a single male Betta Splendens.

So why do stores sell Bettas in cups?

Because money.

Bettas are a member of the gourami family, which means they are aggressive. This is why another name for the Betta Splendens is the Siamese Fighting Fish. Male bettas cannot be housed together, and they don't do well with most other species of fish. This makes housing bettas in a store properly not very cost effective. It is cheaper for a large percentage of them to die than to provide each one with adequate space in a heated and filtered system.

The other reason that bettas are so often sold in cups is that they have a special labryinth organ that allows them to take gulps of air from the surface. This is a common characteristic of anabantoids, a group which includes gouramies. Because of this organ, bettas last longer in low oxygen environments than other fish. The problem, however, is that ammonia from fish waste can still burn their gills and kill them. In a tiny, unfiltered container, ammonia levels can quickly become deadly.

The solution to this, which all pet stores should implement, is a betta barracks. This is a rack system that houses each individual male betta in a small container, but each container is plumbed together. The water is heated and filtered as it moves through this rack system. This video by Aquarium Co-Op explains how to build a DIY betta barracks. Unfortunately, this system costs money to implement. But it is far more humane than keeping fish for sale in small plastic cups.

Healthy betta in a planted 10 gallon aquarium
Healthy betta in a planted 10 gallon aquarium

What can you do to change the way bettas are treated?

Don't buy a betta - or ideally, any fish - from big chain stores that keep them in cups. I have been to several local fish stores that had bettas in barracks racking systems. These local stores will typically have a better selection of healthy fish. The big box chains see bettas as a gateway product that allows them to sell you a bowl, chemicals, food, gravel, and decorations. As long as people are buying bettas in cups, and cheap tiny plastic bowls, they will keep selling them.