7 Best Foreground Plants for Your Next Planted Aquarium
For beginners, when building their first planted aquarium they will usually purchase any plant that catches their attention and then place it in the empty space. 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. Let’s start by describing the top 7 foreground plant categories that are approximately 3 inches (7.6cm) tall or less.
1. Cryptocoryne Plants
Cryptocoryne Parva (front left), versus Cryptocoryne Luta (front right).
We love the Cryptocoryne genus’ shorter plants. They are also known as “crypts”, and they don’t 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. You should bury the roots in the substrate, but not the crown, when you bring a new crypt home. You can feed it with enriched substrate or root tab fertilizer. Then resist the urge to move them. The crypt will eventually develop little roots and baby plantlets once they have established themselves. These can be attached to the mother plants or separated to be replanted in another tank area. 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 Trees
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. They do well if the roots are buried and the leaves kept aboveground, similar to crypt plants. They can quickly spread if you give them nutrient-rich substrate, root tabs, or runners with a small plantlet at their ends. Eventually, the “grass” will grow in a long chain.
Some stoloniferous grasses can grow quite tall like normal lawns. You may need to trim them or use a high-intensity light to keep it shorter. One of the smaller, grass-like plants includes dwarf hairgrass (Eleocharis acicularis), which looks almost like little tufts of green pine needles. Because they have very thin leaves it is better to plant them in small groups than individual blades around the tank. The micro sword (Lilaeopsis bristaniliensis) is slightly larger than the dwarf hairgrass, but should be planted in small clumps. Sometimes it can grow slower than other stoloniferous plant species. To stop this, use amano shrimps or other algae eaters. Finally, dwarf chain sword or pygmy chain sword (Helanthium tenellum) has even wider blades and therefore can fill in the substrate pretty quickly. It is more suitable as a foreground plant in medium-sized to large aquariums because it can get taller that other grass-like plants.
3. Epiphyte Plants
Ornamental dwarf shrimp with anubias nana petite
Rhizome or epiphyte plants are popular choices for beginners. They thrive in low light and don’t need 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. The rhizome should not be covered as the plant could die. Many people mount them to rocks and driftwood with super glue gel. It can be used as a background plant by pushing the roots and rhizome into the ground. Then, pull the plant up so that the whole rhizome rests on top of the substrate, with the roots still in place. 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 is repens
S. repens is a beautiful foreground plant that has a thick stem with long, bright green 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. To prevent stems from floating away, use tweezers (or your fingers) to insert the stems into the ground. 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. For easy propagation, clip the top half of the S. repens and replant it in the substrate.
5. Carpeting Plants
Dwarf baby tears (Hemianthus callitrichoides ‘Cuba’)
Ground cover can be done by most foreground plants. However, if you want to create a thick carpet where the substrate is hidden, we recommend carpeting plants that have many tiny leaves. These plants can grow dense mats and can hold a lot of soil. Dwarf baby tear (Hemianthus tweediei ‘Cuba) is a common choice for aquascapers. It has the smallest leaves of any fish in the aquarium hobby. But it needs high light and CO2 to shine. Monte carlo (Micranthemum. tweediei. ‘Monte Carlo”) has a similar appearance but the leaves are larger. Most people find it easier to grow. These carpeting plants have weak roots and are best planted in the substrate with rock wool 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 spread out to form a lush mound with small, green leaves.
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. It can be left in the ground as ground cover, or you can train it to grow over hardscape. To keep the stem from floating away when you first acquire it, make sure to sink the stem base as deep into the substrate. You can feed it fertilizers in both the water and the substrate. Once it is too tall, trim the tops off and replant them in ground for future growth. Hydrocotyle tripartita does best in medium to high lighting and provides excellent shelter for small fish and shrimp.
The rhizomes of mosses, like epiphyte plants, can be used to grow them in their own substrate. You can attach them to hardscape for the appearance of a overgrown forest. Or you can glue them onto small rocks to form little bushes at the front 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’ve chosen your favourite foreground plant, be sure to add some background plants and a mix of midgrounds. For inspiration, read our article on the best backgrounds plants for beginner aquariums.