Can You Grow Aquarium Plants in Gravel
By Jecinta Muturi @aquariawise
Updated July 15th 2022.
Can aquarium plants grow in gravel?
This is a question that often comes up in fish keeping forums.
Also, many hobbyists want to know how to plant in a gravel substrate, the best plant for a gravel substrate, what is the best gravel for aquarium plants, and whether aquarium plants can grow on rocks.
For this reason, I did a little digging to establish how to grow aquarium plants in gravel and made this article.
In here I’ve shared everything I learned.
But first, the short answer to the question is Yes, you can grow aquarium plants in gravel, both in new and established tanks. All you need is fish safe pond rocks, rubber bands, and your plants.
Gravel is best when you want to grow rooted aquarium plants since they provide the much-needed anchor for the roots to hold to. Three to eight-millimeter pebble-sized gravel substrate will not damage fragile roots and allow adequate root spread for most aquatic plants hence recommended.
To plant, attach your plant to the fish safe-rock using a rubber band slightly above the roots. This will weigh down the plant once you place it in the fish tank and also keep the roots steady under the gravel.
Still, it’s imperative to note that only some aquarium plants do well in gravel, others do better while floating, and some like java moss make good candidates for aquarium walls, carpets, and trees when attached to other decorations.
How to Grow Live Aquarium Plants in Gravel
When planting live aquarium plants in gravel, first establish the kind of gravel that’s ideal.
Usually, most aquatic plants grow best in small gravel as opposed to large-chunky aquarium rocks. Thus it’s best if you stick to a gravel grain size of 0.1 to 0.2 inches (3 to 5 millimeters) or use a coarse sand substrate that’s between 0.12 and 2.0 inches in size.
From experience, aquarium plants can grow fairly well in gravel such this Seachem clay gravel , albeit it might buffer the ph up.
To further help the plants thrive, avoid shifting your substrate as this will uproot or tip the plants. The goal should be to make sure your plants remain stable, especially when newly planted to help roots development and spread.
Moreover, when cleaning the gravel, use a siphon kitto vacuum, and at no point should you get the substate from the tank.
To plant a new aquarium with a gravel substrate.
Begin by layering your gravel no higher than 2 to 3 inches above the aquarium floor. Add fertilizer to the gravel then fill your tank about halfway with water before adding in the selected plants.
Next, place the plants in gravel making sure you handle the roots and bulbs gently then cover them above the root level to ensure proper growth.
After that, you can then place any accessories such as rocks or caves for extra beauty.
When planting in an already established fish tank, all you need to do is to make sure that your plant is attached to something like a fish-safe (as explained above) rock to weight it down. Still, a small amount of substrate cover around the plant roots is recommended for extra support.
Your live aquarium plants will do best when they receive between 8 and 12 hours of simulated sunlight per day and dosed with fertilizer regularly.
Below is an easy to follow step-by-step process to follow, if you are looking to plant aquarium plants in a tank with a gravel substrate.
- Choose and source the best aquatic gravel from your local pet store. Ideally, you want a medium-sized-gravel that will allow the most root spread but is sturdy enough to hold all your plants in place. Seachem clay gravel comes in three to five-millimeter pebbles and is my go-to option.
- Once you have the gravel in hand, start by layering it no higher than 2 to 3 inches above the empty aquarium floor.
- Add fertilizer to the gravel, then fill your tank about halfway with water before adding in the selected plants.
- Since not all aquarium plants do well in gravel substrates, you may want to select your plant from the option available before moving on to the next step (please see the best aquarium plants for gravel under the sub-topic after this one).
- Add fertilizer to the gravel and fill your tank about halfway with clean, aquarium-fit water before adding the selected plants.
- Place your plants in the gravel carefully, taking care not to damage the roots and bulbs, then cover them slightly but sturdy above the root level to ensure proper growth. Now, while I prefer planting my plants by hand, you can use tweezers to put your seedlings in place and a spatula-like item to place gravel around them.
- You can then place fish-safe rock and driftwood in your tank and attach any wobbly plants on these accessories for extra support.
- Place your fish tank in a place with access to between 8 and 10 hours of sunlight each day to help the plants develop before filling it and adding fish to that aquarium.
- You can use nutri-supplemets, such as Seachem flourish to help your plants develop faster as well.
Best Aquarium Plants for Gravel Substrate
Choosing the live plants to place in your aquarium is one of the more crucial parts of the planting process. Some plants do well when planted in a substrate (gravel or sand), while others do better when left floating.
Some of the best plants to use for your gravel-based tank included (the list is discussed in details below):
- Dwarf Hairgrass
- Amazon sword
- Java Fern
- Anacharis (Water weeds)
- Dwarf Sagittaria
- Madagascar Lace (Aponogeton)
- Red Tiger Lotus
- Java Moss
- Bacopa Caroliniana
- Marimo Moss Ball
This plant creates a field across the bottom of your tank with a grass-like appearance, hence can be used to create a carpet that covers the bottom of the tank in a luscious green coat.
The grass coat will provide shelter for bottom-dwelling fish while oxygenating the tank and cleaning the water. Moreover, it’s an easy and fast-growing species that’ll create the said effect in a small amount of time without causing much trouble even for new aquarists.
It is also a small plant that will grow even in a 10-gallon aquarium. However, hairgrass plant needs plenty of light and won’t photosynthesis in shaded areas, so make sure your tank is well lit.
Dwarf hairgrass prefers a soft substrate like sand or fine gravel with grains that won’t damage fragile roots.
As a carpet plant, I recommend using it to cover the bottom of your tank fully then trim it back at the front shorter than the back.
This aquatic plant originates from the diverse Amazon river basin. The species mostly planted in aquariums is Echinodorus amazonicus, though there are other types too.
With a bladelike appearance and impressive endurance, Amazon sword is beautiful, easy to care for, and will create a forest-like effect in your tank.
It’s great for beginners and experienced aquarists.
When planting Amazon sword plant, you’ll want to use a chunky substrate of around 2.5 inches thick because the plant has a powerful rootstock that needs a solid base to thrive.
More so, place your plant in the center of your tank to provide enough space for it to grow and reach it’s maximum height.
Amazon sword is recommended when you need a shelter for mid and top dwelling fish that are skittish or shy.
Anubias is a genus of aquatic and semi-aquatic plants characterized by broad, thick, dark leaves that come in different forms.
For aquarium use, the most common species include anubias nana, anubias barteri, anubias barteri var nana, anubias heterophylla, and anubius afzelii.
These plants are quite hardy and will survive most mistakes that beginners might make. Also, the plant is short hence can be grown in an aquarium anywhere from 10 gallons in size.
When growing anubias, your substrate should be fine and soft to make it easy for roots to grow and take in nutrients from the environment.
Fine grained gravel is recommended since it also allows roots to anchor, though sand is the softest and least likely to damage them.
Named after the island of Java, this plant is native to Malaysia, Thailand, Northern India and parts of China. The delicate-looking fern adds a beautiful look to aquariums and is widely used due to its slow growth, unique shape, and ease of reproduction and care.
It will grow in an aquarium that is at least 10 gallons, based with gravel or aquasoil or tied onto a piece of wood, rock, or other decors. Java fern can even grow while floating.
One thing to note though is that even when buried in a substrate, a Java fern plant might still need to be supported on something else. Plus this plant can only be fully buried for a short time because if the rhizome rots, it will die.
The rhizome is a long green thing just before the roots.
Vallisneria is a tall rosette-type plant that resembles seagrass. It’s easily propagated hence one of the earliest, and still quite popular, in the aquarium hobby.
In an aquarium, Vallisneria is generally easy to grow so long as you don’t try to keep it soft or acidic water. Also, since its a tall plant, place it at the back or around the sides of your fish tank.
Vallisneria roots should be placed under the substrate while the crown, where the leaves grow out, should be just above the gravel level.
To start your Vallisneria, plug it into the substrate then pull it just enough so that only the roots are underground.
Please note that Vallisneria grows quite fast with each bud sending out runners of its own, which then means a single plant can easily take over an entire tank. Hence, an important part of growing Vallisneria is controlling it.
Anacharis is native to Southeast Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina, but now grows prolifically throughout North and South America.
It’s a popular plant that’s widely available in fish stores. The plant’s dark green leaves provide aquariums with a lush appearance for visual purposes, while serving as a food source, water purifier, and shelter for shy fish.
To grow anacharis, place each individual stem into aquarium gravel or a nutrient-rich substrate that’s about 2 inches deep and 1 or more inches apart.
Planting anacharis too shallow will result in floating stems while planting them too close will limit room for growth.
Bucephalandra is a slow-growing aquatic plant native to Borneo, Indonesia. The plant is available in many different types, each with its own leaf shape, size, and color, and will grow on rocks, driftwood, and even on a substrate like gravel, as long as the rhizome is not buried.
To plant Buce in your aquarium, you need a large-grained substrate, if not rocks, because the plant is a natural rheophyte meaning it uses it’s strong root system to anchor on surfaces.
The more porous the rocks or gravel you use, the better hence lava rock is recommended.
When attaching your Bucephalandra, make sure the plant does not fall off before the roots can take hold. You’ll want to use a rubber band, super glue or fishing wire to secure the plant on your large-grained gravel or fish-safe aquarium rocks.
Please note that Buce is not an ideal plant for aquariums with sand or fine-grained gravel substrate.
The dwarf Sagittaria (Sagittaria subutala) is a widely available, hardy aquatic plant that is perfect for both beginner and experienced aquarists.
The plant is native to both Columbia and the United States, though there are concerns that the species from Southern USA is different from that found in the East.
Growing Dwarf Sagittaria is relatively easy, and it is one of the few aquarium plants that can tolerate high ph and hard water conditions.
Plant your Dwarf Sagittaria in a nutrient-rich substrate like sand or regularly fertilize your water column if you have a gravel substrate, which is slightly challenging to add supplements on.
Moreover, this plant is sensitive to low levels of iron which is mostly indicated by yellowing of the leaves hence in such instances, consider adding comprehensive plant supplements for freshwater aquariums like seachem flourish.
This is one of the hardiest aquarium plants that thrive under low light conditions and in both soft and hard water conditions. It is also excellent for both soft and hard water conditions and quite useful for aquascaping because of its many different colors.
A crucial thing to know about crypts is that it does not appreciate unstable conditions. Planting and re-planting the plant will lead to dying leaves and slow growth.
Placement in the foreground or background will depend on which kind of crypts you have. Some will stay relatively small and will look better in the foreground or middle, while some become quite tall and are great for the back.
To start Cryptocoryne, you can easily place the plant in sand or gravel substrate. However, like most aquarium plants crypts do best with an enriched substrate.
Madagascar Lace (Aponogeton)
Madagascar lace plant is a highly prized plant in the hobby with broad, long leaves and a delicate appearance. The plant is long-lived, resilient, and does pretty well in gravel and sand substrates.
Aponogeton (Madagascar lace plant) roots are sturdy and hold on to gravel pretty well. The plant is also tough and will withstand even the most aggressive fish in your aquarium (despite its delicate appearance).
However, note that this plant is a heavy-root-feeder that will require you to supplement your fish tank with fertilizer and C02.
Madagascar lace plant roots can reach 10 to 15 inches, needing a substrate (gravel, sand) that is relatively deep (about 2 to 3 inches in depth). Your tank should also be sizable to accomodate the weidth and height of your Aponogeton.
Moreover, since madagascar lace plants need moderate to high light and nutrients, the plants are best grown in high-tech tanks.
Red Tiger Lotus
Red tiger lotus is a perfect choice when you need a colorful and large aquarium plant.
With its triangular leaves and a deep red coloration, this plant is remarkable both in daylight and under an aquarium bulb’s light.
Aquarium Lilly (Red tiger lotus) will grow in aquarium gravel and spread pretty well. But like Aponogeton, the plant is a heavy substrate feeder with roots that require up to 2 to 3 inches of gravel layer and nutrient supplementation.
This plant is also pretty versatile you can alternate it between pots and gravel substrate. Both ways, they will grow and add pizzaz to your fish tank.
When grown in pots, red tiger lotus can form the center piece of your aquarium or use it to embellish other decor pieces in the fish tank, such as rocks and driftwood.
Bacopa Carolianiana is a plant that is relatively easy to grow and reaches 10 inches if left untrimmed. It can thrive in a gravel substrate and under low light better than most aquarium plants.
Bacopa forms beautiful landscapes in any fish tank but does best in taller tanks because it grows fast. The plant is a perfect choice if you want to create hiding spots for your finnies, create territories or hide equipment.
You may not know this, but Bacopa Caroliniana can also grow in brackish water tanks, sandy substrates or floating, and may even produce flowers in the best of conditions.
Please note Bacopa Caroliniana may be referred to by any of these other names: blue water hyssop, giant red bacopa, lemon bacopa.
Java moss is arguably the most popular aquarium plant, perhaps best known for its versatility. This plant will grow on almost all surfaces in your fish tank, including rocks, driftwood, water surface, and decorations.
Java moss will also grow on gravel or sand substrates, in pots, or floating on the aquarium surface. For this reason, you can use this plant to create snazzy aquascapes, territories for your finnies, and hiding spots for your critters, inverts, and fry.
Java moss also makes perfect mats for breeding fish. The plant will keep the eggs in place until they hatch and create a refuge for fish babies before they become free swimming.
Now, you may want to keep in mind that java moss does not have roots, so when growing it on gravel, you will want to sprinkle the substrate on the plantlets to keep them in place.
Keep the substrate on your moss until they form a sturdy, and start creeping rocks, driftwood, and decor inside the tank for better support. You can also choose to leave them floating if you like a mix of lush mats and a green cover at the top.
What is The Best Gravel for Aquarium Plants
Different aquatic plants that grow in aquariums have differing roots systems, some are simple and fragile, while others are hardy and quite complicated.
Therefore, its at best a long shot to establish a single gravel substrate that is better than all others. Besides, normal gravel is inert and provides no nutrients whatsoever to your plants.
Also, most water column feeders like Anubias and Java fern are not too picky about gravel type, but plants that love to feed off the substrate like sword plants, Vallisneria, Cryptocoryne, dwarf baby tears, and all high-end carpeting plants can be quite picky, so you may need to put more thought into the substrate you use.
That said, fine-grain, pea sized substrates like seachem black clay gravel will support the growth of more plants than other gravel types, hence are preferred to large, chunky, borderline fish-safe rock, gravel, unless you plan on growing plants like Bucephalandra which have strong root systems.
If your wish is to grow substrate feeders, you may also want to consider using a nutrient-rich substrate like Flourite black sand, which is rich in organic elements and nutrients and create conditions ideal for the growth of aquatic plants better than gravel.
Even so, most premium aqua soils cause water cloudiness and might not be safe for some freshwater fish and inverts. For this reason, they are recommended for advanced hobbyists seeking to make fully planted aquariums. For beginners, lighter aqua soil or gravel substrates that are easier to handle are recommended.
Light substrates are also recommended when growing plants that prefer feeding on the water column. Because using premium nutrient-rich gravel when growing Java fern, anubias, floating plants, and stem plants like rotala indica will result in an expensive substrate that will do little for such plants.
If you want, you can use basic aquarium gravel such as this one, which could be blue, pink, natural or whatever color, to grow your water column feeders, and use seachem root tabs if you need to mineralize your substrate.
For more information on planted aquarium substrates, see this article.
Do Aquarium Plants Root in Gravel
Gravel is an ideal substrate for your aquarium, and most plants will root and spread if the pebble size is appropriate. You do not want the pieces to be too small or too big.
The depth of your gravel layer is perhaps another thing you’ll want to consider since heavy root feeders, such as Aponogeton, anchors better in a deep substrate.
Even so, stem feeders and some floating plants may not root in gravel as readily, so you may want to consider anchoring them on something like driftwood and rocks.
Moreover, to encourage your plants to form roots faster, you may want to fertilize your substrate or water and place some gravel around it. For your heavy root feeders, you may also want to inject C02 into your tank and provide enough quality lighting.
Can Aquarium Plants Grow in Rocks
Although some people may see this is a bizzare question, it is another common question I come across regarding planted aquariums.
The fact is that some aquarium plants can be developed on rocks. Mostly, these are rheophyte- ish plants like Buce which use their strong root systems to anchor on rocks, driftwood and other decorations.
Some like crystalwort when floating will grow in a shapeless, globular, and slightly pressed down hence the common method of getting them to grow properly is to put them on rocks or wood, as well as along a fishing wire.
Other common aquarium plants that grow on rocks include Java fern, Java moss, magenta water hedge, and dwarf hairgrass.