How to Set Up a Freshwater Aquarium In Your Home (and Keep The Plants Healthy!)


The best freshwater aquariums are truly living works of art. Exotic fish, lush plants and the refreshing motif of water add a natural aesthetic and sense of serenity to any home.  

But setting up such an aquarium takes a bit of research.

Live plants require more maintenance than fake ones, and even if you consider your fish to be mere decorations, they are still your pets and need looking after.

If you’re considering setting up your first aquarium, it’s important you’re equipped with the right information to succeed in what should be a fun and creative project!

Start off on the right foot with the following steps:

1)   Select a place to put your tank

Before you even think about getting an aquarium, you need to know you have the space available in your home. Depending on the size you desire, an aquarium needs to be placed on a surface that can withstand sufficient weight. Remember it’s a thickset glass structure full of water, gravel, filter systems and other heavy stuff!

You also want the tank to be in place where people are unlikely to accidentally wobble it or knock it over. Busy areas like narrow hallways or kitchens are less suitable for hosting an aquarium.

Avoid putting the tank in direct sunlight.

2)   Layer the bottom of the tank

The layers at the bottom of your tank are the foundations for your aquatic life to not only survive, but thrive. You can start with an initial layer of peat, but this is only optional.

Essential to the mix is a premium quality substrate that’s rich in minerals. You should know what plants you’re going to have before purchasing this, as the type of substrate you use will depend on this detail. Different plants require different nutrients.

Finally, add a layer of fine gravel or sand on top of the bottom layers.

3)   Get planting!

Now it’s time to set up your mini ecosystem. Start by filling your tank with water only about a quarter full. This makes it easier to get in there and root your plants.

The water should be about 21 – 27 degrees Celsius. Water that is too hot or too cold can kill your plants. You might also want to adjust the pH level to between 6.5 and 7.5, as this range is ideal for both fish and plants. An aquarium water test kit is a wise investment.

You’ll need to set your plants quite firmly in the substrate to ensure they’re secure – the roots should be covered but not the crown.  

Also, be mindful of the positioning of your plants. Your aquarium is like a work of art. Taller plants work better in the background, while shorter plants will work nicely to round out the sides and foreground.  

Don’t forget to look online for design inspiration if you’re feeling stuck!

4)   Install your systems

After filling up the tank with the rest of the water, install any systems you’ve selected for your tank. A filter, heater and Co2 system is a popular combo among serious aquarium enthusiasts. This is also a good time to add light fixtures.

Standard fluorescent lamps can inhibit healthy plant growth, so many people like to buy special plant lamps instead. If your plants require more light, one option is to install two strip lights across the hood of the tank as well.

It’s a good idea to talk to an aquatic furniture specialist or pet shop manager for more information. They can help you identify the systems to install for your particular kind of aquarium.

5)   Cycle the tank for at least a month

Ready to drop in Nemo? Not so fast!

The tank needs time to develop all of the good bacteria that will help your aquarium life flourish. If you forget this step and introduce your fish too early, the ammonia and nitrate levels could potentially cause harm.

Some people like to add onion or bumblebee snails to keep any algae growth down during this time. After about two to three weeks, the plants will have established a healthy nitrogen cycle. Waiting an extra one or two weeks is an extra safety measure it’s advisable to take.

On the day you add your fish, test the water again. If the ammonia level reads zero, you can have full peace of mind that your fish are ready to be introduced to their new home.

6)   Add your finishing touches.

Over time, you may wish to add extra embellishments to your aquarium. Rocks, driftwood, more plants and fish playgrounds are options you can explore down the track.

But if your plants and fish are happy and healthy, that often makes for a beautiful enough aquarium without the need for bells and whistles.

Remember – you don’t want to stuff your aquarium too full, as the fish will need enough room to swim and explore.

*Once you’ve set up your aquarium, you’ll need to ensure the ongoing maintenance of its environment. As aquatic plants grow, they’ll need nutritious supplements and fertilisers on a regular basis. The manufacturer of your fish tank will be a suitable resource for you on this topic.

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