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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

hardscaped 90 gallon
hardscaped 90 gallon

hardscaped 90 gallon
hardscaped 90 gallon

This 90 gallon aquarium has been in the works for a couple months now between other fish room projects. I posted about the sump I built for it last week as well as how I drilled the overflow. I finally have the background, substrate and hardscape in place and I'm getting ready to add fish.

The 3d background in this aquarium is from YourFishStuff. Its a thick silicone material that is coated in crushed rock, so it has a realistic texture and real depth to it. I cut it to fit around my overflow box, and it is held in place by the substrate and a couple of clips at the top of the tank. I'm really impressed with this background and very glad I went for it instead of painting the back of the aquarium black like I usually would. YourFishStuff sells these in a variety of standard tank sizes and the price is very competitive, especially for the quality of the product.

Hardscape in place

The sand substrate is Caribsea Super Naturals Sunset Gold. I got both the substrate and the spider wood on amazon. My first choice is always to support local aquarium stores but none in my area carried this particular sand or large pieces of spider wood.

marked down aquarium plants

I scored some nice big anubias and an El Nino Fern at a 75% discount. I covered how I find cheap aquarium plants in a little more detail in this post. I used super glue gel to attach the anubias to a piece of spider wood. Eventually I plan to have this tank heavily planted, so I'll add more plants over time.

Spider wood with anubias
Spider wood with anubias

The rock I used is 40 lbs of landscaping river rock that I got at Home Depot for $12. Its a little more colorful than I had envisioned but once it grows some algae and the tank is densely planted it should look more natural.

river rock
river rock

I'll post further updates on this aquarium when it's fully planted and stocked with fish. If you want to see more of my fish room on a regular basis follow me on Instagram.