Can You Plant Aquarium Plants in Sand?
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Aquarium plants will mostly adapt to all environmental conditions within certain parameters. For instance, Java fern can withstand temperatures between 55 and 85 F, and many other plants will display this level of adaptability.
However, if plants are malleable and flexible in some areas, they are less so in others. One of these includes the substrate.
Rooted tank plans require a nutritious substrate since they extract their nutrients via their root system.
This brings us to today’s topic, which is planting plants in sand. Can you do it, knowing that plants do best in soil and soil mixes?
Is sand a good choice for all tank plants, and if not, which plants do better in sand?
Let’s dive into all these questions, one by one!
Is Sand Good for Aquarium Plants?
Sand isn’t exactly good for aquarium plants due to several reasons:
- Too compact – Sand consists of tiny particles which will get compacted very easily. This is because they are too small and will close in all the space between each other. Wet sand will get extremely compacted, pressing against the plant’s roots and hindering root growth. This will have severe consequences for your plant since it prevents adequate nutrient absorption.
- Not enough nutrients – Sand is naturally poor in nutrients, so plants will pretty much starve. You will need to use plant fertilizers to make sure that your plants are getting adequate nutrition.
- Ammonia pockets – Ammonia or anaerobic pockets are common occurrences in sand-based tanks. The principle is simple. Because the sand is so compact, it will naturally develop inside pockets of water since the water has no way of escaping. Those pockets will harness bad bacteria producing tons of ammonia over time. Plant roots will sometimes pierce those pockets and subject themselves to ammonia poisoning because of it. In some cases, the plant will even pop the pockets if the substrate isn’t deep enough, releasing the ammonia into the aquarium.
- Easy to dig for fish – Substrate diggers find it easier to dig into the sand than soil or other types of substrates. That’s because sand has finer particles, making it easier to move around. The problem is that this makes it easier for the fish to reach the plants’ roots, destabilizing their anchors and sometimes unearthing them in the process.
So, I would advise avoiding sand if possible. If not, it’s worth noting that there are ways to get around it.
Some plants can fair pretty well in sandy substrates, provided you make some extra efforts along the way. So, let’s talk about those.
Can Aquatic Plants Grow in Sand?
Yes, aquatic plants can grow in sand, but it depends on the plant species, anchoring job, nutrient content, etc.
Not all plants will be able to grow in sand, which is clearly unfortunate due to the sand’s esthetic value. A sandy substrate looks great in any aquatic setup, but so are underwater plants.
Finding a compromise between the 2 isn’t easy. Let’s see if it can be done!
How to Plant Plants in Sand?
This is naturally the first issue to address since sand offers quite a challenge in this sense. While sand is quite compact and will provide great anchoring for plants on its own, the situation is different at first.
That’s because the plants haven’t yet developed powerful anchoring roots, so you need to assist with that.
Here are some options to consider:
- Floating plants-only – This is probably an unexpected entry but should be an obvious one. Most aquarists use floating plants for sand-based aquariums like duckweed, hornwort, java moss, water wisteria, amazon frogbit, and many others. These will circumvent the sand problem altogether while providing you with the benefits of both sand and live plants at the same time. A great life hack to consider.
- Weight-based anchoring – Rocks and pebbles are pretty effective at anchoring aquarium plants and providing them with the support they need. They are also great deterrents against substrate-digging fish that will avoid them for obvious reasons. This will protect the plant’s roots during this vulnerable accommodation phase. You only need to sink the plant several inches into the substrate and surround it with rocks or heavier pebbles to keep it in place. Avoid really heavy objects that can strangle the plants or those with pointy or sharp edges, not to slash the stem.
- Use the environment – If you have plenty of driftwood and rocks, providing a variety of nooks and crannies, use those. Secure the plant’s stem between the crannies, which will serve as long-term anchoring points. Just ensure that the plant’s stem won’t get strangled as it grows thickly over time. That can happen if the crevice holding the stem is too tight.
- Weight-based plant bunches – The concept is simple. You get a bunch of plants, tie the stems together, and attach a lead or ceramic weight to keep them down. You then plant your plants in the substrate. Just make sure you only use 2-3 plant stems in the process. Using more may lead to excessive nutrient competition, and some plants will die because of it.
- Terracotta pots – This is a viable and popular option for aquariums housing aggressive substrate diggers. Cichlids and some species of catfish come to mind. Terracotta pots are pretty smart in design. They have small holes at the bottom, allowing the plants’ roots to pop out and dig into the surrounding substrate. The pot itself will provide natural weight and protection against overly active substrate diggers.
- Potted plants – Potted plants are kept in a substance called rock wool. This is a wooly material (hence the name) with no nutritional qualities. It only serves as anchoring for potted plants and keeps the fertilizer trapped around the plant’s roots. You should remove the rock wool before immersing the plant into the tank. You won’t succeed in removing all of it since you will have some pieces clinging onto the roots. These will serve to create traction between the roots and the sandy substrate. Hence, you’ve got your anchoring points.
- Tying the plant – This is a no-brainer. You simply tie the plant’s stem to surrounding aquatic decorations like rocks or driftwood. These will become natural anchors for your plants until the plant grows powerful-enough roots to no longer require outside stabilization.
As an important point, make sure that the sand substrate is at least 2.5-3 inches in depth.
This is necessary to provide the plants with sufficient substrate to remain stable and well-anchored, no matter how much they grow.
What Type of Sand to Use for Aquarium Plants?
There are a variety of sands available for planted aquariums, and, with so many options, identifying the right one can get confusing.
Here are some overall qualities to look for in the right sand:
- Non-toxic – It goes without saying, but you would be surprised how many novice aquarists go for toxic products. Sand comes in a wild variety of colors, and the dye used in the coloring process isn’t always safe. Only use sand options designed specifically for aquarium use. Go for acrylic-based coatings since these won’t alter the water’s chemistry.
- Anti-algae coating – Sand is all silica, and silica is great if you’re looking to grow brown algae. If not, you better go for coated sand types that will prevent algae bloom.
- PH neutral – Not all sands are created equal. Some will alter the water’s chemistry and influence the pH, and you don’t want that. Only purchase pH-neutral sands to keep the environment chemically stable.
- The sand particle size – This is an important point. Sand particles that are extremely tiny will promote the formation of anaerobic pockets, and we’ve discussed the phenomenon’s deadly impact. If the particles are too large, your bottom feeders may choke on them. These may also clog the filters if they’re getting sucked in, and they will. So, you should consider the particle size depending on your situation and needs.
Fortunately, there are plenty of sand options to go about, varying in terms of pH attributes, coloring, particle size, and other useful parameters.
Unfortunately, all types of sand have similar issues, including nutrient deficiencies and predisposition towards forming anaerobic pockets. We’ll discuss these shortly.
What Aquarium Plants do Good in Sand?
As we’ve already discussed, some aquarium plants do better in sand than others.
Let’s look at the most reliable species in this sense:
- Amazon sword – This is probably the best plant you can have for a sandy substrate. Granted, amazon sword will take a while to get anchored and rooted in full, but the wait is well worth it. This plant possesses long and green leaves, is easy to care for, and can cope with a variety of lighting and temperature conditions. Just make keep an eye on aggressive bottom diggers since these can easily unearth the plant.
- Anubias – Anubias is another great option, although it requires a slightly different approach than amazon sword. For one, Anubias’ rhizome needs to remain above substrate level. If you bury it, it will rot. Then, you must keep the plant near logs, driftwood, or rocks, since it likes growing, supported by various decorations around its environment. Anubias doesn’t require CO2 injections, but it does require iron supplementation for optimal development.
- Java moss – This is the best option if you’re looking to circumvent the substrate burying problem altogether. Java moss has no roots. Instead, it uses rhizoids to latch onto various elements present in its environment. These may include the substrate, driftwood, rocks, and any aquatic decoration it can find. Liquid fertilizer is necessary for this one since java moss feeds via its leaves, given that it misses a root system.
- Hornwort – Hornwort is exceptionally effective at combating nitrates and keeping the environment clean and healthy. One of its main features is flexibility. This plant can grow anchored in the substrate or floating and latching onto different materials. It’s a more-than-welcomed feature, depending on your tank’s layout and needs.
- Java fern – Java fern needs no introduction. Just as with anubias, java fern prefers latching onto different environmental materials and needs to keep its rhizome above substrate level. Java fern requires liquid fertilization since it doesn’t have a legitimate root system. It will extract its nutrients from the water column instead.
All these plants make up for a decent sample of the total amount of sand-friendly plants. Other notable names include anacharis, cryptocoryne species, Vallisneria, etc.
Make sure that your plant of choice can adapt to a sandy environment easily and that it fits your aquatic setup.
There’s no reason in using amazon sword in tanks with large or overly-active substrate diggers, for instance, since they don’t match well.
How to Feed Aquarium Plants Planted in Sand?
One word – root tabs. These are packs of plant fertilizer that dissolve slowly into the substrate and release a constant flux of nutrients.
Root tabs are essential for sand-buried plants because the sand holds no nutritional value.
Make sure you choose the right fertilizer, depending on your plant’s type and nutritional needs.
When talking about floating plants, you need to use liquid fertilizers instead. These will imbue the water with all the necessary nutrients that the plants need to thrive and remain healthy and colorful in the long run.
Liquid fertilizers aren’t good for rooted plants because they don’t get absorbed into the substrate. And rooted plants cannot absorb nutrients via their leaves as floating plants do.
One word about liquid fertilizer – it promotes algae growth. So, adding too much may spell different problems compared to when adding too little. Balance is the key.
Sand vs. Gravel – Which is Better for Plants?
We should begin by saying that neither are reliable options for aquarium plants. Both sand and gravel perform poorly in terms of nutritional content (which is to say they have none) and anchoring capabilities.
That being said, you can use plants with both sand and gravel, given some preparation beforehand.
But which is better overall? Let’s check their pros and cons:
- Chemically inert, so it won’t affect the water’s chemistry
- Great-looking, creating a natural and esthetic aquatic setup, especially since it comes in a variety of colors
- It can hold plants reasonably well, provided some anchoring support beforehand
- It can provide adequate fertilization via root tabs
- Sand is easier to clean thanks to its more compact nature
- It’s extremely compact, making it difficult for plants to grow their roots properly
- It can house anaerobic pockets, which can pollute the tank with ammonia
- It can easily get sucked into the filter and damage the system over time
- Some sand types tend to float a lot more, causing the water to get murky
- Great-looking, with a lot of aquascaping potential
- Prevents the formation of anaerobic pockets due to the larger particles allowing a better water flow
- Doesn’t get pulled into the filtration system since it’s heavier
- It’s less than ideal for plants due to the larger particle size
- It provides poor anchoring capabilities
- It has no nutritional value, and root tabs don’t work due to the fertilizer seeping into the water
- It allows fish waste, food residues, and dirt to sink in between the particles and decay out of view
Based on this comparison, I would recommend sand over gravel, although neither is great for live plants. However, if these are your only options, you now know where to stand.
Sand is great for aquariums, thanks to its aesthetic potential. But, as you can see, it doesn’t perform too well in planted aquariums.
If you’ve decided on sand and nothing can change your mind, at least switch to floating plants.
This will eliminate all of the problems related to substrate anchoring and root tabs.
Although, you will need to monitor the environment for algae bloom which is often related to the use of liquid fertilizers.