Can You Plant Aquarium Plants in Gravel?

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Every aquarium owner knows 2 fundamental things about the aquarium business: gravel is nice and live plants are necessary. Regarding the former, there’s little debate on the subject.

Gravel always adds a distinct aesthetic feature to any aquatic environment, unlike plain soil or sand, which tend to deliver a more natural feel.

Live plants are also quite impactful in any aquatic setting due to their biological role in the ecosystem.

Plants oxygenate the water, dissolve ammonia, and prevent algae growth by using dead matter as food sources (fish waste, uneaten fish food, organic residues, etc.)

Now the question comes – can you mix the 2 together? Can you get the gravel’s aesthetic look and the plants’ environmental impact in the same aquarium? Let’s have a look!

Can Aquarium Plants Grow in Gravel?

Yes, aquarium plants can grow in gravel, but there’s a catch. There are actually several catches (read challenges), as we will see.

These include:

Stability

Gravel contains larger particles and isn’t as compact as soil. The latter is naturally the best substrate for live plants, but you’re going for gravel, so plain soil isn’t an option.

This can lead to some stability issues since plants require a more compact substrate to anchor their roots. 

This will lead to some logistic problems since you now have the task of anchoring your plants into the substrate.

So, a bit of brainstorming is necessary to get the job done. Here are some options in this sense:

  • Weight-based anchoring – The concept is simple. You get a few rocks or heavier aquatic decorations and form a seatbelt of sorts around the plant’s lower region. The purpose is to prevent the plant from floating up. Be careful not to use excessive weights to prevent crushing the plant or compacting its roots too severely. This can strangle the life out of the plant fast.
  • Tying the plant – First, you insert the plant’s roots into the gravel, cover them carefully, and then tie the plant to the surrounding elements. These may be rocks, driftwood, or even other larger, stronger, and already rooted plants nearby. The support should keep the plant stable and rooted until its roots have grown powerful enough to no longer require external support.
  • Special pots – Terracotta pots are pretty popular in this sense. The concept is simple. The specially-designed pots have holes designed to allow the plants’ roots from popping out and digging themselves into the substrate. These pots are useful for keeping the plants anchored in a less compact substrate like gravel or when housing substrate-digging fish that may unearth them.

Gravel Particle Size

Gravel comes in a variety of shapes, colors, and sizes. Out of all these features, the latter is of special importance because its impact is more than aesthetic-only.

If the gravel particles are too large, your plants won’t have a thick-enough substrate to support their rooting system.

In that case, the plant may become unearthed and float away without a proper stabilization system. And this isn’t the worst part since you can work your way around that. The worst part is the lack of adequate nutrition.

The large gravel rocks are inadequate for holding the nutrients necessary for your plants to survive.

So, you should always choose your gravel carefully, depending on your plants’ type, size, and substrate requirements.

The Type of Plants

Unfortunately, not all plants will adapt to a gravel-based substrate. Some require soil, others float, while others demand finer gravel for improved root anchoring.  Anubias ranks among the latter.

On the other hand, Java fern may need additional anchoring support even with its roots buried. So, always consider the plant type for your gravel-based aquarium.

To close this chapter out, avoid chunky gravel with large rocks. While these are aesthetically pleasing and easy to clean, that’s the extent of their benefits. They provide no anchoring support and no nutrient retention.

So, your rooted plants won’t survive in such a substrate.

Do Aquarium Plants Need Soil?

Yes, aquarium plants require soil to survive. More importantly, different plants require different types of soil, depending on each plant’s nutritional needs.

So, does this mean that soil is basically irreplaceable and what does this mean for our gravel talk? Well, the soil is replaceable, but its nutritional features are not. In short, as we’ve already discussed, you can avoid soil, but you can’t avoid its role.

When using gravel, you need to ensure your plants get all the nutrients they need since gravel won’t carry any relevant nutrients. So, a form of fertilizer is necessary to keep the plants healthy and growing.

How Fast Do Aquarium Plants Grow in Gravel?

Each plant’s growth rate depends on the plant’s mother species, the available nutrients, and the light conditions. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about soil or gravel.

What matters are nutrients, access to sunlight for photosynthesis purposes, and the plant’s inborn growth rate under ideal conditions.

For a general picture, aquarium plants get anchored within 2 weeks after planting them, give or take.

This is under ideal conditions, provided that the plants don’t lose grip and are stable and they don’t become unearthed for whatever reason (fish, strong water currents, improper handling during tank cleaning, etc.)

After that’s complete, the plant will begin to grow 2 months following that. That’s how long it takes the plant to adapt to its new environment and resume its normal biological processes.

Take note, that these intervals may differ depending on the plant you’re using, environmental factors, and aquarium setup.

Aquarium Plants That You Can Grow in Gravel

There are a variety of aquarium plants that can thrive in gravel, given some specific requirements.

Here are some popular aquarium plants fit for a gravel setup:

  • Amazon sword – This leafy plant can grow up to 16 inches, is easy to care for, and doesn’t require CO2 supplementation. A 2.5-inch gravel substrate should suffice since these plants don’t dig their roots too deep. Consider using root tablets every 2-3 months to provide adequate nutrition.
  • Cryptocoryne Wendtii – This is a popular one due to its lush and vivid appearance. This plant can grow up to 6 inches and reach intense shades of green. A 3-inch substrate is necessary since this plant forms extensive root systems. So, don’t have too many substrate-digging fish nearby to prevent damaging the plant.
  • Java fern – Java fern is among the most popular choices for planted aquariums. This plant is easy to maintain, grows at a steady pace, and will do great with shallow gravel substrates. This species is ideal for heavily planted aquariums since it can grow up to 13 inches or longer and can spread fast.
  • Red tiger lotus – The tiger lotus fits larger tanks since it can grow in excess of 20 inches. Its massive brown and red leaves will take up a lot of space. This plant grows fast, and it grows large and requires a lot of nutrients for that. Root tabs are necessary to fertilize the grave adequately and provide the plant with its vital sustenance. Occasional trimming is necessary due to its accelerated growth rate.

Plenty of other plants are available for gravel-only environments, including anubias, Vallisneria, waterweeds, bucephalandra, etc.

Make sure you choose the right plant for your aquarium setup for the best result.

How to Fertilize Aquarium Plants in Gravel?

Aquarium plants are quite adaptable and hardy for the most part. They will thrive even in adverse conditions, provided the environment ensures optimal nutrition.

When it comes to feeding your plants, consider the following options:

  • Mixing the gravel with fertilizer – This is a good option since it allows you to prepare the gravel beforehand. You can find a variety of solid aquatic plant fertilizers that you can mix with the gravel before adding the plants. Give it around 24 hours before doing so to allow the fertilizer to release its components more effectively.
  • Liquid fertilizer – This is a great option because it works for all aquarium plants. Rooted ones may need additional supplementation, though, since they rely on their rooting system to synthesize their nutrients.
  • Root tabs – Root tabs come in various forms and with different nutritional prints, depending on your requirements. It’s important to discover the right product for your setup and the plants available.
  • Fertilizer capsules – These are readily available, cheap, and work great for rooted plants. One of the main disadvantages, though, is that these capsules turn the water murky when not placed properly. The idea is to bury them deeper into the substrate so that they don’t have contact with the open body of water. I recommend using the fertilized capsules for 3-inch or deeper substrates.
  • Lignite – Lignite is another popular option for aquarium plant nutrition. This element gradually releases its nutrients into the tank water, providing a steady flow of nutrients. The main problem with lignite is that it contains a lot of methane, which can kill your fish. So, you should always treat the material thoroughly before adding it to the environment. When properly treated, lignite will not only nourish the plants and enrich the tank water but will also remove dangerous chemicals and restore the water’s chemical balance.
  • Using a soil mix – This is a natural way of providing aquatic plants with adequate nutrition. Many aquarists use a mix of soil and gravel to get the best of both worlds. The resulting substrate will fulfill the plants’ nutritional requirements and deliver the necessary candy-eye effects.

These methods should prove useful in keeping your tank plants growing, colorful, and healthy in the long run.

Conclusion

The bottom line is simple and can be best summarized via a handful of bullet points:

  • Figure out the type of plant that fits your aquatic setup the best
  • Consider the gravel’s particle size to ensure optimal rooting and nutrient retention
  • Consider the gravel’s depth, depending on the plants’ rooting system
  • Offer optimal fertilization to keep your plants in peak condition
  • Provide your plants with daily access to sunlight to support proper photosynthesis
  • Consider CO2 supplementation in case your plants need it

Other than that, trim plants regularly and clean the tank to prevent algae deposits, and your plants will thrive long-term.

avatar I’m Fabian, aquarium fish breeder and founder of this website. I’ve been keeping fish, since I was a kid. On this blog, I share a lot of information about the aquarium hobby and various fish species that I like. Please leave a comment if you have any question.

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