When beginners build their first planted aquarium, they usually buy any plant catches their eye and plunk it down wherever there’s an empty space in the tank. However, if you want to take your planted tank to the next level, consider incorporating some tried-and-true design techniques. A good rule of thumb is to plan out the aquarium in layers from front to back, such that the shortest plants are in the foreground and the tallest plants are in the background. This bleacher-style arrangement ensures that all your beautiful plants are visible from the front. To help you get started, let’s talk about our top 7 categories of foreground plants that stay roughly 3 inches (7.6 cm) or less in height.
1. Cryptocoryne Plants
Cryptocoryne parva (front left) versus Cryptocoryne lutea (front right)
The shorter plants in the Cryptocoryne genus (or “crypts” for short) are some of our favorite foreground plants because they grow slowly and do not require constant pruning. C. parva and C. lucens are two species that don’t get very tall and do well in low light conditions. As a rosette plant, all of the leaves grow out of the crown or base of the plant. When you bring a new crypt home, bury the roots in the substrate but do not cover the crown. Feed it plenty of nutrients by using enriched substrate or root tab fertilizer, and then resist the urge to move them at all. Once they become well-established, the crypt may start developing baby plantlets on the side that have their own little roots. You can leave them attached to the mother plant or gently separate them to replant in another area of the tank. While smaller crypts do not tend to experience melting leaves as much as larger crypts, you can read up on crypt melting if it becomes a problem.
2. Grass-Like Plants
Harlequin rasboras swimming over a lawn of dwarf hairgrass
If you’re looking to recreate a nice, green “lawn” in your aquarium, consider stoloniferous plants with narrow, grass-like leaves. Usually, one pot comes with several, individual plants, so carefully separate them and plant them separately in the substrate to give them space to grow. Like crypt plants, they do best if you bury the roots and leave the foliage aboveground. If you provide nutrient-rich substrate or root tabs, they can spread rapidly by producing horizontal stolons or runners with a little plantlet at the end, eventually forming a long chain of “grass.”
Like normal lawns, some stoloniferous species can grow rather tall, so you may need to trim them with scissors or use a medium to high light to keep the lawn denser and shorter. One of the smaller, grass-like plants includes dwarf hairgrass (Eleocharis acicularis), which looks almost like little tufts of green pine needles. Because of their very thin leaves, plant them around the tank in small clumps rather than as individual blades. Micro sword (Lilaeopsis brasiliensis) has slightly wider leaves than dwarf hairgrass but should also be planted in a grid of small clumps. It sometimes has the reputation of growing more slowly than other stoloniferous plants, so use amano shrimp or other algae eaters to help curb any algae growth. Finally, dwarf chain sword or pygmy chain sword (Helanthium tenellum) has even wider blades and therefore can fill in the substrate pretty quickly. It has the potential to get taller than the other grass-like species and may be more appropriate as a foreground plant for medium to large aquariums.
3. Epiphyte Plants
Ornamental dwarf shrimp with anubias nana petite
Epiphyte plants or rhizome plants are often recommended to beginners because they do well under low light and do not require substrate to grow. Smaller species in this category include the very popular anubias nana petite and the rarer bucephalandra “green wavy”. They have a thick, horizontal stem called a rhizome with leaves that grow upwards toward the light and roots that extend downwards toward the ground. This rhizome must not be covered or else the plant may die, so many people like to mount them to rocks or driftwood using super glue gel. To use it as a foreground plant, push the rhizome and roots completely into the ground, and then slightly pull the plant upwards so the entire rhizome is sitting on top of the substrate with the roots still buried. If your fish keep uprooting it, try gluing the roots to a small rock and then push the rock into the substrate to keep it anchored.
4. Staurogyne repens
S. repens is a lovely foreground plant with a thick stem and bright green, oblong leaves. It does tend to get a bit thin and leggy in low light, so give it medium to high light to keep it shorter and more compact. If you purchase the plant in a pot, remove the individual stems from the rock wool and then plant them separately in the substrate. Like most stem plants, you want to use tweezers or your fingers to plunge the stems firmly into the ground so they won’t float away. Dose an all-in-one liquid fertilizer to feed the plant from the water column, and provide enriched substrate or root tabs to feed nutrients from the ground. Whenever the S. repens gets too tall, just clip off the top half and replant it into the substrate for easy propagation.
5. Carpeting Plants
Dwarf baby tears (Hemianthus callitrichoides ‘Cuba’)
Most foreground plants can be used as ground cover, but to get a very thick “carpet” where the substrate can’t be seen, we recommend using carpeting plants with lots of tiny leaves that can form a dense, low-growing mat. Dwarf baby tears (Hemianthus callitrichoides ‘Cuba’) is often used by aquascapers because it has some of the smallest leaves found in the aquarium hobby, but it does tend to require high light and pressurized CO2 to look its best. Monte carlo (Micranthemum tweediei ‘Monte Carlo’) has a similar appearance, but its leaves are a bit bigger and most people find it slightly easier to grow. Because these carpeting plants have very short and weak roots, we recommend planting them in the substrate with the rock wool still attached. You can either plant the entire plug in one spot or cut the rock wool into 0.5-inch (1 cm) squares and insert the clumps in a grid-like pattern. The plants will eventually grow into a lush mound of little, green leaves spreading across the substrate.
6. Hydrocotyle tripartite ‘Japan’
Hydrocotyle tripartite ‘Japan’
This unique aquarium plant grows like a creeping vine with shamrock-shaped leaves, which is perfect for recreating a picturesque field of clovers in your aquarium. You can either let it grow in the foreground as ground cover or train the delicate vines to grow over hardscape. When you first get this stem plant, plunge the base of the stem as deeply into the substrate as possible to keep it from floating away. Feed it both fertilizers in the water and in the substrate, and once it becomes too tall, you can trim the tops and replant them in the ground for propagation. Hydrocotyle tripartita does best in medium to high lighting and provides excellent shelter for small fish and shrimp.
Mosses are similar to epiphyte plants because they too have rhizomes that do not need to be planted in the substrate. Many people attach them to hardscape to create the look of an overgrown forest, but you can easily glue them to small rocks to form little bushes in the foreground of the aquarium. To create a mossy carpet, tie them to rectangles of stainless steel or plastic craft mesh using fishing line and place them on the ground. If the moss starts growing unruly in appearance, just give it a small haircut and use a fish net or aquarium siphon to remove the trimmings.
Once you have settled on your favorite foreground plants, make sure to even out the aquarium with an appropriate mix of midground and background plants. Read our article on the best background plants for beginner aquariums to get inspired.