Setting Up A Planted Tank (Beginner’s Guide)

By: Billy | December 12, 2022 | Planted Tanks

Wondering how to set up a planted tank?

It can be an intimidating process! I remember feeling lost when first getting started.

In this post, I’ll cover the steps for setting up a low-tech planted aquarium.

beginner low tech planted tank

Let’s start by figuring out your…

Tank size

I wish someone had told me to get the biggest tank I could fit/afford. The reason is that it’s much easier to control the water parameters in a larger tank. You’ll also have more fish stocking options.

I went with Marineland’s 5-Gallon Portrait, and I had a lot of algae issues. While the all-in-one kit was nice since I didn’t have to buy individual parts, I replaced it about 1 year later.

Not to mention the replaceable filter cartridges they sell you are a gimmick. Constantly replacing your filter is one of the worst things you can do because you’re replacing all the beneficial bacteria. If you’re confused about what I’m talking about – check this beginner’s mistakes article (number 8).

So, what tank size should you get?

It’ll depend on how much space you have and your budget, but I’d recommend starting with a 20-gallon. If you absolutely need to go smaller, then go for a 10-gallon.

Starting with a 5-gallon isn’t a good idea for a beginner because of how hard it is to control the water parameters. Not impossible, but definitely requires more effort (water changes/tank maintenance).


Pick your tank size first, then your fish.

It’s important to start by picking your tank size because some fish need more space.

I made the mistake of getting 6 neon tetra for my 5-gallon, and as a result, they acted aggressively towards each other. They’re a schooling fish that need more room to feel comfortable.

Here are some beginner-friendly fish…

There are many others, but that should get you started on your research journey.


If you pick a tropical fish, then you’ll need a heater. You could get a cheap one from Amazon (which is what I first did).

But, I wouldn’t recommend it because you have a higher chance of it making crappy out and frying your fish.

I bought Aquarium Coop’s heater, and it’s solid for the price. The only thing I don’t like about it is how it displays the temperature in bright red. So if you want no distractions in your tank, you might not want that one. I ended up putting black tape over it, and it’s fine.


There are three filter types.

You’ll get the best and most efficient filtering with a canister filter. However, they’re more complicated and the most expensive option.

So, since it’s a beginner tank, I’d recommend either an intake or HOB filter.

If you’re planning on adding shrimp, I’d recommend an intake sponge filter. I’ve had some shrimp get sucked up into my HOB filter before.


The biggest mistake I made was going to my local pet chain store and randomly picking plants.

The easiest plant you can start with is Anubias. I’ve also had success with Java Fern without much effort.

Other beginner-friendly plants…


I own two Fluval lights and like them.

I love that I can connect to it via Bluetooth and set it on/off automatically.

Yes, they’re a little pricier, but it saves me a lot of headaches. If you’re going for beginner aquarium plants, you could get away with a cheap one from Amazon.

The reason why I’d recommend something like a Fluval Planted light is that you don’t have to worry about turning it on and off.

Doesn’t sound like that big of a deal, right? Sure, but I build my aquariums to require the least amount of my time. And when I had a manual light, I missed some days, which wasn’t good for the growth of my plants.


As I mentioned earlier, I have live plants in all of my fish tanks, and you’ll want to get a nutrient-rich substrate for them to flourish.

There are people out there that use planting soil; however, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Sure, it can work, but it’s so nutrient-rich that it can be tough to control algae. I’ve used Fluval Stratum substrate for all of my tanks and no issues.

Setup Scenarios

Below are some beginner-friendly setups to give you ideas. I’d highly recommend going for a 20-gallon when first starting. It’ll be much easier to control the water parameters than a 5-gallon. If you can’t afford it, check Facebook marketplace or eBay for second-hand parts.

If you don’t have the space for a 20-gallon, you can get away with a 10 or 5 when starting. But it will be trickier to keep algae under control.


I've been building freshwater aquariums with my dad since a young age. A few years ago, I shifted my focus to low-tech planted tanks. My goal is to share my experience to help make yours easier.