Choosing which fish to add to your tank can be a mess in the best of times. Not all fish get along with each other, or their required water conditions are incompatible. Plants are no different: not all fish are appropriate for a planted aquarium. No matter how much you may want to spice up your New World cichlid tank with some live plants you are unlikely to be successful. Some fish have water requirements that will not allow common aquarium plants to grow; and, some fish will eat or destroy your plants.
As a result, more often than not the fish are chosen to accompany the plants rather than the reverse. The aquarium focus is on the aquascaping and fish are added to give color and movement to the scape. That is certainly not a requirement, though! Whether you focus on plants or fish, you will have to be careful about which fish you introduce.
Fish to Avoid
In general, both African and New World cichlids are poor choices for your planted tank. Both families have a tendency to dig through the substrate, which will uproot your plants, ultimately killing them. Some industrious species will rearrange the plants in your tank - including fake plants and other decorations- to suit their internal decorating scheme. Both families also like to eat vegetation and will chew on your plants until you have nothing left but stumps. African cichlids require high pH and a much higher salinity than most plants will tolerate.
Similar to cichlids, most “monster” species will uproot or eat your plants. Truly monstrous fish like arowanas knock the plants around accidentally with their powerful swimming. Even the ordinarily innocuous plecostomus family has some big species that demolish plants as they swim around.
In fact, most families have a few species that are not plant friendly. Although most tetras are wonderful fish for planted tanks, Buenos Aires tetras and the tetra cousin silver dollars will gobble up plants. As mentioned, some plecos get impressively large, and some prefer plants instead of algae. Hopefully this article can provide some broad guidelines, but be sure to double check if you’re not sure the species you’re looking at is suitable for your tank.
Avoid anything in the carp family - most commonly, goldfish and koi. Carp are hungry herbivores that will eat any vegetation in your tank, except perhaps java fernsor anubias species - although even that is not a guarantee. Koi and goldfish,like the other fish listed above, are beautiful fish and do well in their own environments. Unfortunately, in the home aquarium that environment can’t sustain plants.
Fish to Pick
As previously noted, most tetra species and their relatives in the Characidae family are fantastic additions to a planted tank. The ever popular neon and cardinal tetras can be found in planted aquariums made by the best professional aquascaping competitors like the late Takashi Amano. Rummy nose tetras, red/blue Columbian tetras, serpae tetras...the list is far too long to list here. If you need a school to fill your tank, tetras are likely going to be your first choice.
Despite the name, most “freshwater” puffers are actually brackish; but, there are a few true freshwater puffers. Asellus puffers and pea puffers don’t need salt and won’t harm your plants. Be warned: they are aggressive towards other fish and tend to bite.
Gouramis come in a variety of color morphs and sizes, and the commonly available species do well in planted tanks. They can be aggressive towards each other, so take care not to overpopulate your tank. The notable exception is the osphronemus or giant gourami. “Giant” is not an idle nickname: they get exceptionally large and they will absolutely devour any and all plants they can get a hold of.
Not all cichlids will terrorize your plants. Freshwater angelfish are actually cichlids and they are beautiful, serene fish that do very well in planted aquariums. The same is true of discus fish, although they can be one of the most challenging and sensitive freshwater fish to keep. Dwarf cichlids like ram and kribensis cichlids are easy to keep, if a touch territorial, and can be quite colorful.
If you’re looking for an unusual critter you might be considering invertebrates like snails, shrimps, and crayfish. Inverts are hit and miss: Mexican dwarf crayfish won’t bother your plants, but most species eat anything organic, including your plants. Neocaridina shrimp have become very popular, for good reason. They’re plant safe and very colorful. Mystery snails and freshwater nerite snails do well, but require higher alkalinity than plants generally appreciate in order to build and repair their shells.
Java ferns and anubias species are sometimes tough enough to stand up to nibbling as long as your fish aren’t too aggressive. Since they both prefer to be rooted on driftwood or porous rock, they can’t be uprooted, either. They are fairly tolerant of the high pH and salinity of the African lake system, too, and vallisneria species can be found in Lake Malawi. Assuming your fish don’t eat or uproot them, they are the most likely to survive cichlid tanks.
Plants are their own living things with their own compatibility and care requirements. You must choose which fish you include in your planted tank carefully. While it may seem like a lot of work, it’s worth it to ensure that your aquarium will be successful. Your plants will flourish and you’ll have a beautiful tank to be proud of.