Live aquarium plants are an important part of any fish tank. They help to clean the water and provide a natural ecosystem for the fish to live in and are great hiding places for baby fish who don’t want to get eaten. There are many different types of aquarium plants, but some beginners might not know that there are plants that need very specific substrates and plants that don’t need any substrate at all! Here’s what you need to know about live aquarium plants that don’t need substrate to grow plus a few of my favorite tools.

What’s a substrate?

A substrate is simply the stuff at the bottom of the aquarium. It’s typically gravel or sand, but many aquarists use glass beads, pond stones, or nothing at all.

What’s a non-substrate plant?

Non-substrate plants are simply aquarium plants that don’t need substrate to grow. These grow directly in the water without any support. They’re popular among beginner aquarium owners because they’re relatively easy to care for and they look great in the tank!

What Types of Aquarium Plants Don’t Need Substrate?

Aquarium plants that don’t need substrate to grow include some of the most popular and well-known varieties, such as java fern, anubias, and corydalis. They can grow directly from the water’s surface without needing any type of soil or substrate.

In fact, many of these guys benefit from being removed from their traditional potting soils and placed in pure water instead. This allows them to photosynthesize more actively and create a denser root system that can better withstand fluctuations in water level.

A few of my favorite aquarium plants that don’t need substrate to grow

A few aquatic flora I love that can just get tossed right into the tank include:

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Amazon Frogbit (credit: FloridaAquascaping)
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Parrot Feather (Credit: FloridaAquascaping) Note: I drove mine into the sand because it grows SO fast I didn’t want it overwhelming the tank

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Red Root Floaters (Credit: Blue House Aquariums)
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Guppy Grass (Credit: Aquafex Garden)
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Variety Pack (credit: Florida Aquascaping)

The Main Thing I’ve Used to Help Aquarium Plants Without Substrate Grow in My Aquariums

So, besides your typical aquatic plants, I also have wandering jew, pothos, and even monstera clippings thriving in the back of my tanks! There’s one thing I’ve found that gives them the perfect space to thrive.

Shower caddies!

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Here’s why I love this so much:

1. It has two suction cups so I can tilt it slightly because…

2. It gives my fish places to hang out and hide. The smaller ones go in and out of the squares easily but the bigger guys can’t fit. Tilting them allows the fish to not get trapped, especially if the water levels are lower due to evaporation.

3. It has slots at the bottom so the roots can grow down.

live aquarium plants that don't need substrate to grow
Caddy in the back of my 29 gallon

FYI – These shower caddies tend to go in and out of stock often. If they’re not available, check for similar plastic ones. Don’t use metal since they can rust or have non-aquarium-friendly coatings that make your fish sick.

How to get non-aquatic plants to grow in aquariums without substrate

There are many types of plants that will grow well in an aquarium without using any type of substrate. Why? It’s the water! 

Fish tank water is full of nutrients thanks to fish poop and cycling. This means that plants growing in an aquarium without substrate can soak up a lot of these nutrients and grow rapidly.

I’ve found the best thing to do is just test to see which types of clippings will thrive. To be fair, I haven’t had any plants die just yet but I take clippings of strong, healthy plants and typically cut at a node and then dunk them into the tank. Don’t add any rooting hormone or anything like that since you don’t want to introduce that into your fish’s ecosystem. 

How Do You Keep Your Aquarium Plants Healthy When There’s No Substrate?

One of the most common questions I see (and wondered about when I was starting) is how do we keep our fish tank plants healthy when there’s no substrate. The answer, surprisingly, is not that difficult!

Many of the same principles that apply to keeping aquarium plants healthy in general apply to keeping non-substrate plants healthy. For example, make sure your water is clean and free of toxins. Feed them regularly with a balanced diet of aquatic plant food or fertilizer. I really like SeaChem’s Flourish and dump a capful twice a week into my tanks. 

Also, make sure you’re using the right type of aquarium lights. Ideally, you should look for a full spectrum aquarium light that has a built-in timer. This will help you regulate the light levels in your tank so that your plants get the right amount of light and aren’t over-or under-fed. Also, stick with LED lights since they won’t heat the temperature of the water as much as incandescent lights do.

Final thoughts

Aquatic plants can be a great addition to any fish tank. They help to keep the water clean and provide a natural ecosystem for the fish to live in. Make sure you choose the right type of plant for your tank and keep it healthy by following the same guidelines for keeping any other type of plant: make sure it gets enough light, nutrients, and care.