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How to use potted plants in your aquarium fish tank
Potted Plants in an Aquarium
Potted Plants in an Aquarium

Why add potted plants to your fish tank?

Live plants come with a lot of benefits for your aquarium: they eat ammonia, they look better than fake plastic plants, they inhibit algae growth, and they create a more natural environment for your fish. More benefits of live plants are discussed in this post about pothos in the aquarium. But not every aquarium has a good substrate or the right conditions for planting live plants.

In breeding or quarantine setups you might want to run a bare bottom (like the tank pictured above). If you keep boisterous cichlids that like to dig, no plant is safe in a regular substrate. Maybe you need to be able to move plants around between aquariums easily. An easy solution in these cases is putting potted plants in your fish tank.

Lotus in a Shallow Pot
Lotus in a Shallow Pot

What kind of pots are safe for aquarium use?

The first step in adding potted plants to your aquarium is choosing the right containers. You have a lot of options here. Standard terra cotta clay pots, that are not painted or glazed, are safe for use in an aquarium. You can also use plastic plant pots, or upcycle any plastic container that is the right shape and size for your goals. A (thouroughly washed) yogurt container or plastic tupperware can hold substrate as well as any pot.

Various Aquarium Safe Pots
Various Aquarium Safe Pots

When choosing a container, keep in mind that some plants are heavy root feeders and will need some space for their roots to grow, while others can be planted in a shallow substrate. For example, java fern does not need any substrate at all, so you can use a very shallow pot to hold it in place. Plants like jungle val and amazon swords will want a deeper pot with a good quality substrate.

What substrate to put in aquarium plant pots?

Any aquarium substrate that you would use in your fish tank can work for potted aquatic plants.  For root feeding plants, I recommend using some organic potting soil (sift and rinse it thoroughly first) capped with aquarium gravel.  This will supply the plants with nutrients for years, while keeping them contained.  This method works particularly well for valisneria, which will quickly take over a dirted tank if not contained.  

Another option is to use regular aquarium gravel and add a few root tabs to the substrate to supply nutrients.  Aquarium Co-op sells root tabs and other planted tank supplies.  You can find root tabs on Amazon as well.  These will need to be replaced every few months for the best results, but luckily theyre cheap.

Root Tabs for Aquarium Plants
Root Tabs for Aquarium Plants

Rinse the pot or container before adding substrate.  If it has large holes in the bottom, cover or plug them with some plastic (like a bottle cap) or mesh before the substrate goes in.  This will prevent dirt or gravel from spilling out the bottom of the pot when it is lifted.  A few small holes in the pot's bottom is actually ideal for a lot of plants, because their roots will be able to grow out through the bottom and pull more nutrients from the water column.  

Potted Crypt
Potted Crypt

Adding your potted plants to your aquarium

Potted Plants Being Rinsed
Potted Plants Being Rinsed

Once you've chosen a container and substrate and planted your plants, make sure you rinse the plant and the pot in some fresh water to remove any dust from the substrate before adding it to your aquarium. The greatest benefit of potted aquarium plants is you can re-arrange them easily, moving them around as often as you want. Dont hesitate to try a lot of different plants in a lot of different configurations!

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Many people know of pothos as a hardy houseplant, but its also popular among fishkeepers for use in sumps, overflows, hang on back filters, refugiums, and aquariums. Adding a pothos plant to your aquarium is a good way to reduce nitrates and give it a more natural look.

Buy Pothos on Amazon

Fish waste (ammonia) is transformed into nitrates by the bacteria in your filter. Nitrates are harmful to fish and need to be removed from the aquarium, typically through water changes. In nature, plants perform this function by absorbing nitrates. While a single pothos plant will not absorb enough waste for you to skip any water changes, it will help to reduce these excess nutrients.

Pothos Growing up PVC
Pothos vine Growing up PVC

How to add Pothos to Your Aquarium

You can find pothos (in the US) for sale at most local garden centers, any store that carries houseplants, or on Amazon. Once you've purchased a plant, you can either add the whole plant to your aquarium - after removing it from the soil - or take cuttings from it. One healthy mother plant can produce dozens of cuttings. I have been taking cuttings from the plant shown below for several years. The vines eventually grow back after being cut.

Pothos Plant
Pothos Plant

Pothos is also known as devil's ivy because it is so difficult to kill. The stem can be cut and inserted directly into water. After a few days, white roots will sprout from the stem and grow down into the water. This works even in a glass of tap water, but pothos plants grow much quicker in an aquarium where they have access to lots of nutrients.

Pothos does not require much light to grow, so you don't need to have a light shining directly on it unless you have it under a cabinet or in some other very dark location. The leaves will turn to face any nearby light sources as the plant gets established.

Pothos growing behind matten filter
Pothos growing behind matten filter

I secured the plant pictured above using a suction cup with a clip for airline tubing. This is a good way to hold the vine in place inside your aquarium. You can also insert a stem into a hang on back filter, an overflow or breeder box, or build your own DIY container to hold pothos plants.

Pothos roots in overflow box
Pothos roots in overflow box
Pothos roots in overflow box
Pothos roots in overflow box

More Info on Pothos in Aquariums

There are lots of examples on YouTube of how people are using Pothos in their aquariums. I recommend starting with the one below from Aquarium Co-op.

Odin Aquatics isn't affiliated with any YouTube channels

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.