Dark Red Tiger Lotus

Do I Need Plants in My Tank? Pros and Cons of Live Plants

Fish tanks without any plants exist outside of fish shops too. There are gorgeous minimalistic setups, full of healthy, happy fish.

It is definitely a style of aquascaping I’d like to explore, only that I keep on postponing it.

The thing is that I like gardening and I like plants. They add so much to our water ecosystems that it is hard to imagine having a tank without live plants. But this tells you more about my limited imagination than anything else.

Do you actually need to have plants for a healthy tank?

You can have a perfectly balanced aquarium without any live plants whatsoever. But aquatic plants provide plenty of benefits for the water chemistry and the fish, even if they make regular maintenance slightly harder. They require sporadic care and adequate tank conditions to grow.

The real question is whether it is better to have plants in your tank.

Of that, I have no doubt.

Let’s talk facts and break down all the pros and cons plants bring.

The Benefits of Live Plants

Submersible live plants help with the following:

  • Ammonia removal
  • Nitrates removal
  • Algae control
  • Oxygen generation
  • Food
  • Hiding places
  • Aesthetics
  • Water filtration

1. Plants Remove Ammonia and Nitrate, Provide Water Filtration

Plants absorb ammonia and waste products to feed themselves. They suck harmful substances out of the water column and the substrate. Compared to terrestrial plants, water species rely much more on their leaves for nutrients. That helps them absorb ammonia directly from the water column.

But there is a whole class of aquatic plants called root feeders, which develop extensive root systems in the substrate. While they use heavily their leaves as well, the roots also absorb nutrients (and harmful substances) at all times.

Red Cryptocoryne Wendtii roots.
Even a medium-sized red Cryptocoryne Wendtii can have a massive root system.

Ammonia is one of the most dangerous substances in the hobby, so any means to reduce it are welcome.

Live plants serve as home to beneficial bacteria that further improve the water balance.

2. Algae Control

Algae are extremely likely to appear at one point or another, especially in new tanks. Newly set-up aquariums need a few months to reach maturity. During this time, water imbalances are a common occurrence.

Such imbalances usually result in algae. Live plants and algae feed on the same nutrients. Adding plants to the tank provides natural competition for the algae. Fast-growing plants like Vallisneria or Saggittaria can reduce or outright wipe out the budding algae population.

This strategy is particularly effective in conjunction with algae eaters like Amano shrimp and plecos.

3. Live Plants Generate Oxygen

Just like their terrestrial counterparts, underwater plants convert CO2 into oxygen. While photosynthesizing (when the light is on), aquatic plants absorb carbon dioxide and emit oxygen.

In the darkness of the night, however, plants become proper O2 vampires. Their feeding cycle reverses and they breathe the oxygen out of the water, emitting CO2. As long as you have a constant oxygen supply from a submersible filter or an air stone, there is no need to worry.

Fish tanks absorb oxygen through the water surface at all times.

4. Plants Are a Food Source

Not all fish munch on plants but some do and so do some snails. While plants cannot replace regular feeding, they provide a natural, available supplement for many species.

5. Plants Provide Hiding Spots for Fish

Even the most outgoing fish like a place to hide. If you observe species like Cherry Barbs or even the ever-active danios, they are all front and center while awake.

However, when the lights are out and they are sleeping, even such avid swimmers seek a place to chill and lay low.

Of course, decoration — driftwood or a cave made of stones — could serve as hiding places, but many species are naturally inclined to seek shelter around vegetation.

6. Aesthetics

Beauty is subjective. I’ve seen interesting aquariums without any greenery. Such a minimalistic, clean style of aquascaping definitely commands attention and instills a strong sense of beauty.

But a well-planted aquarium that sees regular trimming and maintenance is a sight to behold.

Plants simply add ta well-rounded feeling and dynamic that cannot be created otherwise. Their growth and expansion slowly but surely change the way your aquarium looks. Simply put, live plants freshen things up.

I’ve focused exclusively on plants that live underwater, but there are many plants that grow their leaves above the surface. Some of them are extremely beautiful and can enhance the aesthetic appeal of the entire room in a more direct and impactful manner.

The Cons of Live Plants

As awesome as live plants are, they do add a layer of complexity to the hobby. Here are the main drawbacks they present:

  • Make it harder to clean the tank
  • They require maintenance
  • Need research
  • Make it harder to rearrange the tank

1. Live Plants Make It Harder to Clean Your Tank

Most fish shops I know keep the majority of their fish tanks without substrate and without plants. The main reason is that a bare tank is much easier to clean.

A tank without plants also is easier to clean as you can vacuum the substrate freely, without fear. When the vegetation is dense, the siphon cannot really go everywhere. It can also uproot plants like Vallisneria or Blyxa Japonica. Their long leaves can easily tangle with the siphon if not careful.

Additionally, you must remove dead or loose leaves, as they can harm the water chemistry.

2. Plants Need Trimming and Care

Just like any living thing, aquarium plants need care. They grow and spread or suffer and wilt. If they grow, you must trim them from time to time or replant them wherever you like them to be, as they expand.

Should the plants suffer, then you must dig out the reason for their demise. Which brings us to the next point

3. Plants Need Research

Knowing what plants need to thrive takes requires a certain amount of know-how and experience. No need to acquire encyclopedic knowledge, but you should cover the basics. Otherwise, you’ll probably end up having dying plants.

4. It Is Harder to Rearrange a Planted Tank

Moving plants around frequently is not a good idea. They need some time to settle and establish themselves. This, and the fact that you’d simply have more things to work with, add a layer of complexity, should you decide to rearrange your fish tank completely.

Again, that’s not a massive obstacle, but it is something to consider and have in mind.

Among the four cons of live plants, the first one is the only real issue. The rest are nuisances that don’t really make your life as a fishkeeper that much harder. 

Besides, the difficulties with vacuuming plants present are offset to a degree by the fact that they absorb a lot of the waste, reducing the need for vacuuming.

What Do I Need to Have Live Plants?

Plants need light, substrate (not all of them), and time to grow and thrive. They benefit from nutrients like fish biowaste or fertilizers.

1. Light

Probably the most important factor for any plant is the amount and quality of light. Aquarium lighting is a complex topic, but having a dedicated lamp is practically a must. It allows you to enjoy your fish tank fully, and it also helps plants grow.

When selecting plants for your tank, make sure that they have similar light requirements. Pairing up plants that need intense light with species that thrive in relative darkness is possible, but it requires careful planning and knowledge.

2. Substrate

While there are floating plants and species like Anubias that are happy attached to a piece of driftwood or stone, most aquarium plants require substrate. It can be special aqua soil, gravel, sand, or maybe even topsoil.

I’ve discussed the benefits of each in detail and gravel usually makes the most sense for starting fishkeepers. It can be mixed with aqua soil or other fertilizer to help plants thrive.

3. Time

All plants need time to establish themselves and adjust to a new environment. Even fast-growers, like the Amazon Sword plant, need time to get comfy after planting.

Most species need at least two weeks to start growing properly and develop healthy new leaves.

So, Do You Need Live Plants?

While not absolutely necessary, live plants add so much to any aquatic ecosystem that it makes little sense to omit them.

They improve water quality, provide shelter for the other tank inhabitants, look great, and starve algae out.

What’s more, there are species that grow outside the tank, becoming a stunning addition to your home in their own right.

The positives live plants bring are incomparably more than the few cons they pose.

If you are wondering whether to plant your tank, just go for it. You won’t regret it.

Similar Posts


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *