Fertilizing Aquarium Plants

Discus fish in planted tank

Next to a suitable substrate, light, CO2 and pH are far more important than any fertilizer.

Light is needed for plants to produce energy by photosynthesis while CO2 helps plants utilize the minerals required.

Plants will not be able to utilize nutrients, minerals, or light at low CO2 levels.

Low light and CO2 levels can not be compensated for by adding fertilizers, as the added nutrients will not be utilized by the plants.

Using light and Co2, the plant creates carbohydrates and oxygen (photosynthesis) while the pH level determines the solubility of the nutrients. A pH above 7.3 will cause most plants to lose their ability to utilize many essential nutrients. Next to that, most minerals precipitate out of solution and can no longer be absorbed by the plants. The pH should therefore be kept at 6.5 – 7.0 for optimum plant growth.

Before adding any fertilizer the CO2, light, and pH levels have to be checked and adjusted accordingly.

As a general rule, the lighter the green of the leaves, the greater the rate of oxygenation, the faster the growth rate, and the higher the requirement for nutrients.

The composition of nutrients is conveniently divided into macro and micro nutrients. Macro nutrients are needed in larger quantities while micro nutrients are sufficient in smaller quantities.

Macro nutrients are calcium, sulfates, phosphates, potassium, chloride, sodium, nitrogen and magnesium. These nutrients are provided by fish and fish food in ample supply. Macro nutrients do not need to be added frequently, if at all, as they will be mostly replenished through water changes.

Essential micro nutrients such as iron, manganese, zinc, boron, copper, cobalt, and molybdenum on the other hand have to be added frequently. The main function of these nutrients is the promotion of growth hormones, photosynthesis, cell development, plant metabolism, and nitrogen assimilation.

The assumption that plants take on most nutrients through their leaves is incorrect. Leafs absorb CO2 and release oxygen. Essential nutrients such as iron, phosphates and nitrogen are readily absorbed by the roots under anoxic conditions found in the substrate.

Plant fertilizers are available as liquid or substrate fertilizers. Both should only contain the micro nutrients. Liquid fertilizers have to be dosed more frequently; substrate fertilizers will last longer. Since there are no obvious differences in efficiency, it is up to the aquarists’ preference which to use.

Next to the micro nutrients, fertilizers contain chelating agents. Chelation is an organic molecule which binds metal ions thus protecting them from early precipitation. The preferred type is abbreviated DTPA because of its stability up to a pH level of 7.5

Unfortunately some fertilizers contain the chelating agent EDTA, which is much cheaper. However chelate EDTA is only stable at a pH up to 6.0 and therefore mostly useless in aquariums.

Another important yet often overlooked aspect in using fertilizers is water conditioners. Many conditioners eliminate heavy metals and since many micro nutrients are metals, plants can be deprived of essential nutrients despite the frequent addition.

Fertilizers can be made at home or bought commercially. The home version is known as 'poor man's dupla drops' (PMDD)* relying on the following ingredients

  1. 2 Teaspoons potassium sulfate
  2. 1 Teaspoon potassium nitrate
  3. 2.5 Tablespoon hydrated magnesium sulfate
  4. 1 Tablespoon chelated trace elements mix

The trace element mix should preferably contain DTPA chelated Fe (7%) B (1.3%) Mn (2%) Mo (0.06% Zn (0.4%) Cu (0.1%)**

Mixed with 1.5 cups of distilled water, the mixture can be stored in the refrigerator.

The required dosage varies depending on plant quantity, growth levels and aquarium size. The correct amount has to be determined by trial and error i.e. starting with a few drops per 10 Gallon while monitoring the iron and nitrate concentration. Iron should be around 0.1 ppm; lower levels also indicate the depletion of the other trace elements. Nitrates should be kept around 5 ppm. Nutrient deficiencies are described in detail in our plant health guide.

Adding fertilizers to promote aquatic plant growth should only be considered in medium to heavily planted aquariums. A few plants should do fine without.

* Ingredients can be obtained at chemical supply stores, trace element mixes are often available in aquatic stores.

** Fe (Iron) B (Boron) Mn (Manganese) Mo (Molybdenum) Zn (Zinc) Cu (Copper)

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I have found it impossible to maintain any level of Nitrate, or Phosphate due to (presumably) Heterotrophic bacteria consuming it out of the water and causing a bacterial bloom.

Plants show signs of deficiency, but the more Nitrate / Phosphate I add, the greater the bacterial colonies that consume it grow. (water will cloud, biofilm will form on surface, and Nitrate / Phosphate will test 0)

Should I install a UV sterilizer, or will this eventually work itself out?


The heterotrophic bacteria do not absorb nitrates. The bacteria (cycle) break down waste and turn it into nitrates. Adding nitrates do not involve the bacteria at all. Phosphates is a different topic altogether and the bacteria do not play a role there either. Please check that you have a suitable substrate for the plants as many nutrients are taken up by the roots. Light would be another factor to check on. If you hit the search button above type in “Aquarium plant health guide” this will give you a list of deficiencies and their signs, just to make sure it… Read more »


I am new to planted aquariums and their care requirements. I am at the moment cycling a 10 gallon tank. I’m using reverse osmosis water that I purchase from my local grocer. I also have “Planted” by Finnex LED lights on a timer for 12 hours to provide light during the day. I will install my Fluval CO2 system when I put the plants and my betta and 3 tetras in. My questions are: 1) Is that too much time for lighting? 2) Do I need to “seed” the aquarium after I add the fish in? OR Can I use… Read more »


A 12 hour photo period is not too long. Seeding your aquarium with the sponge from your old filter will work well, the aquarium will still cycle, but in less time. On another note, RO water is extremely pure. It is used for reef setups for that very reason. It works for reef because the salt mix contains all the salt and minerals needed. RO water has a low pH and you will need to counter the loss of carbonate. If you want to add a CO2 reactor keep in mind that CO2 lowers the pH even further. The keyword… Read more »


“Macro nutrients do not need to be added frequently, if at all, as they will be mostly replenished through water changes.’ This line is esentially wrong. It depends on the tap water you have. I have hard tap water and according to my utilitiy ‘s water quality report there are not enough macro nutrients (NPK)in my water to keep plants alaive. Most Tap water doesn’t have nitrates and most have insufficient phosphates or potasium to keep a plant allive. The same can be said for micro nutrients.water utilities are boligated to provid water that is safe to drink. They are… Read more »

The respective nutrients are unique to the setup and environment not just the water source. Your comments might be more targeted towards a home water garden. The fish in the aquarium certainly provide a good number of nutrients. On the other hand, additions like chlorine will cause quite a number of fatalities in fish and the bacteria cultures. CO2, light, and substrate is the focus, because without those plants cannot utilize nutrients. Most commercial fertilizers will cover the basic needs.

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