Blue sand planted aquarium at night.

When to Add Live Plants: Before or After Cycling the Aquarium?

Plants contribute massively to any self-sustainable ecosystem. That’s true for terrestrial and aquatic species alike.

When it comes to the aquarium hobby, plastic plants certainly are an option. They are not without merits, but live plants add so much more. Their value stretches far beyond aesthetics. They are dynamic, actively contributing members of any aquatic biodome.

But when to add live plants to your tank?

Is it safe to start with them from day 1, with freshly poured water?

Or should you wait until the cycling is completed?

You can add live plants to your tank right away. It doesn’t need to be cycled. In fact, plants help tremendously with the nitrogen cycle. You can add root plants the moment you have substrate. Floaters don’t even need that, but all plants require proper lighting to thrive.

I can’t stress enough how beneficial live plants are to any fish tank or a living environment, in general. But let’s focus on when to add them and what live plants require to establish themselves and thrive.

I break down in detail:

  • How to add plants to a starting or an established tank
  • Common issues with newly added plants
  • How plants help the nitrogen cycle
  • How they filter fish waste (which is largely the same thing)
  • Their most pronounced benefits

Let’s plant dive right in!

Plants In a New Aquarium: Starting Requirements

You can add plants to a new tank the moment you place it on its designated spot.

Truth be told, plants can last without water much longer than fish or shrimp, so you can put them in the tank even before you add water. What you will need, though, is substrate. It can be sand, gravel, pebbles, aqua soil, or an original mixture.

Some experienced hobbyists prefer to arrange new plants “in the dry”, before adding any or very little water to the tank. But most people reach such advanced techniques, don’t start there.

To start with, besides sturdy, good for beginners plants, you will need the following:

  • Light
  • Substrate
  • Heater (potentially)

Additional items include fertilizers and aquascaping kits (tweezers in particular). They help with growth and planting but aren’t essential. In a populated tank with an inert substrate, plants will get a decent amount of nutrients from fish waste and uneaten food. And you can easily plant them with bare, clean hands.

Naturally, should you start with an enriched substrate like aqua soil, no additional fertilizer will be necessary for a long time.

Rinse Thoroughly New Live Plants Before Introducing Them to the Aquarium

Plants, just like any living thing, can carry diseases and pests. Full-blown quarantine protocols dictate keeping any new plant in a separate tank for at least a month, to ensure it is safe.

Now, starting hobbyists often don’t have quarantine tanks and are also eager to put the new greenery into the tank.

At the very least, you must rinse every single plant thoroughly under cold running water. Look under their leaves and along the stalks for pest snails and snail eggs. They are the most common hitchhikers and can infest your tank in no time.

Several snail species fall under this category. Malaysian trumpet and ramshorn snails are the most common variations, with bladder snails crawling around the top of the charts too. While these snails have their utilities, their populations tend to explode. Some fishkeepers are happy with them, others don’t like having that many crawlers in their tanks.

How to Plant Live Plants in a New Tank

The steps to starting a successful water shrubbery in a brand-new tank are fairly straightforward. I outline the approach that works best for beginners, but the water level is a variable you can play with.

So, here it goes:

  1. Layer the substrate — After you’ve washed it thoroughly, layer the substrate in the empty tank. You can make it thicker toward the back, where larger plants typically go. Giants like the Amazon Sword plant have powerful roots and require at least a couple of inches of substrate to feel good. Take your time to consider which plant goes where while layering the substrate.
  2. Place decorations — Arrange all the hardware you have before planting. Position large stones, driftwood, shells, and whatever else you fancy. Take a good look, let it rest for a couple of hours, check again, and settle on the final arrangement.
  3. Plant — Fill up the tank halfway through with water. This way you can see clearly how the new plants will look once the tank is filled, but the water will be low enough to allow you to plant them freely. Pick the spots you’d like to cover in greenery and introduce the first living things in your aquarium. If you’ve got tweezers, grab the stem just above the roots and bury it nicely under the substrate. Otherwise, make an adequate hole in the desired location, push it down, and bury it. 

How to Add Plants to an Established Aquarium

Before introducing plants to an established tank, make sure to quarantine them.

It is best to add the plants after you’ve cleaned thoroughly the tank. When it comes to vacuuming the substrate, plants act as a porous hardscape that shouldn’t be moved. Debris enters among their stalks and leaves can obstruct the siphon’s water intake.

That’s why you should take advantage and clean your tank well before introducing immovable live objects. Of course, you can add the plants during this thorough maintenance session. It is easier to plant when the water is low.

Other than that, the act of planting is exactly the same as outlined in step 3 in the previous section of the article.

The main challenge can appear once the tank is planted.

How Hard Is It to Clean a Planted Aquarium?

Cleaning a planted tank is harder than siphoning one with a static hardscape (which, in turn, is harder to clean than a bare aquarium), but the difference is not that massive.

Plants stand in the way but placing the siphon close to their roots for a good few seconds extracts most waste. After that, with a clean hand, use quick wavy motions close to plant clusters. The idea is to dislodge larger debris and other stuck waste. When it floats up, suck it out.

Floating or rotting leaves should also be removed regularly. Their decay, just like any rot, releases ammonia that lowers the water quality.

But that’s exactly where plants earn their keep. They are key contributors to balanced water chemistry. In many aquaria, live plants grow well without additional fertilizers because fish waste and uneaten food supply them with enough nutrients.

Living plants actively consume dead matter and purify the water. They also provide a home to the beneficial bacteria that, essentially, cycle the tank to become the invisible life glue of your ecosystem.

Plants have numerous benefits that vastly outweigh the initial difficulty a hobbyist may have to figure out the best way to clean their planted aquarium.

Melting Water Plants: A Common Occurrence

Newly planted water plants often exhibit scary and odd behavior. You get them fresh and vibrant from the store, plant them in a thick, quality substrate, provide them with adequate lighting and temperature, and then their pretty leaves… Start to lose color and become translucent.

Over the next 48-72 hours, the plants transform into a watery fog. As their leaves melt away, a sinking trepidation settles in your gut.

It definitely isn’t a pleasant experience, but melting leaves usually means that the plants you just bought have developed emersed. A substantial part has been kept underwater, but the leaves have grown in the air. So, when you plant them completely underwater, the leaves can’t handle it.

The water — and the plant itself — kills the useless leaves off. The powerful root system quickly will produce new leaves.

Considerations, Tips, and Tricks When Planting

Planting a tank is very rewarding, but it can be a bit frustrating. Every now and again, a plant doesn’t want to stay put. That happens the most with sand substrate. The water current or a more active fish might uproot a newly planted greenery fairly easily.

Here’s how to avoid it.

  1. In case you are using very fine sand as substrate, tie the plant roots to a pebble. Use an elastic hairband, wrap it around the roots and the pebble, and then bury the stone. It will act as an anchor and the plant won’t be uprooted easily.
  2. Attach plants to the hardscape. Various beautiful species do great without substrate.
  3. Don’t move plants around (too much). Plants take time to establish themselves and to feel comfortable in a new location. On average, they need two weeks to get accustomed to their new home. In the meantime, they may experience some wilting and might not grow at their maximum rate.


Adding live plants to your tank can be done on day 1. They help with the nitrogen cycle and improve water quality manifold. On top of that, plants reduce algae growth and spread because they compete for the same nutrients.

All you need is adequate lighting and substrate. Many species can live in broad temperature ranges, but a heater may also be necessary.

Fish love plants and they look great. They add a dynamic, changing element to the aquarium while improving the quality and resilience of your ecosystem in invisible ways.

What’s not to like?

If you still wonder when to add live plants, I’d say:

Close the browser and go get some plants. They are awesome.


Do plants restrict water flow?

Just like any element of the aquarium, plants can affect water flow. Placing them right in front of an immersed filter is not the best idea as it will affect water circulation and filtration too much. On top of that, a strong water current can uproot small plants.

Can the heater burn plants?

Water heaters can damage plant matter. While plants can be used to great effect to hide the heater from plain few, creating a more naturally looking environment, do not stick their leaves onto the heater. When you add live plants, always leave a centimeter or two between them and the heater to avoid any issues.

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