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By thicken up, you mean that you want more leaves, not longer leaves?

My vals spread runners like crazy. I've found that if I cut off the runners, the plants put out more leaves instead of putting their energy into new baby plants.

Keep in mind that you're not cutting "stems" when you trim a val. You're just cutting leaves. The plant has a rosette which grows leaves rather than a stem.

Regarding covering your substrate, if you like vals, you might want to try a chain sword species. They have a similar grasslike appeal and will carpet your tank with CO2 and good lighting.
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