Aquatic plants have been in existence for hundreds of millions of years. They are different from land plants for a few reasons, including the extensiveness of their root systems and how they intake nutrients from their environment. Because of their adaptations for living partially or fully submerged in water, aquatic plants have become a point of interest for aquarium fanatics. Unless, of course, they seem to wither and die nearly every time they are added to the tank. There could be several culprits in the aquarium to cause their demise, but one of the main miscreants to consider is the substrate, which is most often gravel.
This frequently presents the question…
Can aquarium plants grow in gravel?
The answer is, yes. Plants can grow in gravel; however, only certain species and if it’s done correctly.
If you’re someone who wants to know how to grow or maintain aquarium plants in gravel, this article will help you to understand how to make it happen. We’ll explore the benefits and anatomy of aquatic plants, care and maintenance, and the easiest plants to keep so that you can be on your way to becoming an aquarium plant guru.
Growing Aquarium Plants in Gravel
Like any living thing, plants require specific living conditions, and the kind of substrate where you embed the roots is one of them. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have your favorite hot pink or electric blue gravel, you’ll just need to know a few things before plunging your plant into your chosen substrate.
Benefits and Anatomy of Live Plants in Fish Tanks
The benefits of having live plants in your aquarium can outweigh the negatives if you’re prepared to take a little extra care. Some of these benefits include:
- Simulates the natural environment
- Removes toxins in the water
- Creates oxygen when needed
- Adds a natural, ornamental appearance
- Provides cover for fish fry and eggs
Most of these benefits are due in large part to the anatomical structure and function of aquatic plants, which are split into three main areas:
The root system anchors the aquatic plants into the substrate or, in some cases, driftwood. They are also smaller, lighter, and more feathery because they don’t need to hold the plant upright or take in nutrients like land plants. The root system is what you’ll pay the most attention to when it comes to the substrate.
The stem is used for support and transport and is more flexible to allow the plant to move with the water’s flow. They usually are thinner than land plants because rigid stalks aren’t necessary for support. Instead, they are equipped with air-filled cells and use the surrounding water as reinforcements.
The leaves of aquatic plants evolved to access air and collect sunlight for photosynthesis. The passing through and collection of water and nutrients are much easier for aquatic plants because they are thinner and less waxy. After the addition of new plants to a tank, the leaves most often die, but fresh leaves will sprout if the environment is healthy enough. Remove the dead leaves before they decompose.
Planting Aquatic Plants in Your Aquarium
Just like land plants, aquarium plants need optimum levels of substrate, lighting, water quality, and nutrients to stay healthy and alive. The substrate, including gravel, is a critical place to start.
What is Substrate
Substrate is anything that is loose and covers the floor of your aquarium. Some popular reasons for the use of aquarium substrate are because it looks more natural, amplifies the beauty of your fish, and helps to cultivate essential bacteria.
Substrate not only provides the plants’ nutrients but also helps to anchor them.
Word to the wise aquarist: always get your substrate from a pet shop or online; never from the wild. In reality, you are mimicking a natural habitat and condensing it into a glass box, however small or large. Using substrates from nature can be extremely harmful to your tank because they contain chemicals or bacteria that nature has its specialized way of cycling through.
Types of Substrate
There is as much of a variety of substrates as there are guppies in a pet shop aquarium. Some of the most commonly used substrates in fish tanks are pebbles, sand, soil, and gravel. A bare bottom tank is what aquarists call an aquarium with no substrate. This is not ideal for plants since they need something for anchoring themselves and obtaining beneficial bacteria.
The most recommended substrate for plants is soil, but it’s essential to purchase the substrate soil found in pet stores. This is because garden soil will muddy the water, which defeats the purpose of having an aesthetically pleasing aquarium. Substrate soil is uniquely formulated to not only resist mixing with water but adding nutrients to your aquatic plants.
Using Gravel for Your Aquarium Plants
So, this brings us back to the question, Can aquarium plants grow in gravel? And the answer is still yes, but it’s best if the gravel size is between 3-8 mm thick, because larger gravel will block root growth and smaller gravel could damage the fragile roots.
It’s also highly recommended by plant enthusiasts to either mix substrate soil in with your gravel or to plant the root systems of your new botanical friends into small aquatic pots. Keeping aquarium plants in pots will allow you to be more creative with your choice of gravel size and shape.
One thing to remember when choosing to mix substrate soil with gravel is the cleaning process. Soil needs to be replaced every once in a while to replenish the nutrients, so when you’re using the vacuum to clean the gravel, it will also pick up the soil. Using pots for your aquatic plants allows you to bypass the extra step of soil cleaning. You’ll need to be mindful of replacing the soil in the pots on occasion.
Lighting, Water Quality, and Nutrients
Aquatic plants can suffer from the same nutrient deficiencies that land plants experience, and it becomes evident if the leaves turn yellow to brown or are unnaturally pale. If you are confident that your gravel mix is top-notch, then consider the lighting, water quality, and adding liquid plant supplements to the mix.
- Aquarium Lighting: Fluorescent and LED aquarium lighting are the two most common effective choices. The light should only be on for about 8-10 hours per day, or you’ll experience algal growth and nutrient deficiencies.
- Water quality: Certain gravel tends to increase the pH in the tank, which isn’t suitable for most aquarium plants. Use a buffer to adjust the pH. Carbon dioxide is also essential for all plants, and although fish release a small amount, you’ll need to do more water changes or use CO2 additives to boost production.
- Nutritional supplements: Waste products from your fish is not enough to feed your aquarium plants, as many people would like to believe. Adding nutritional supplements, or fertilizers is highly recommended to ensure your plant isn’t starving. Liquid fertilizers are the most common, easy to use, and usually only require weekly dosing.
Types of Plants
Before plunging any plant into your aquarium, you’ll need to be honest with yourself and consider whether you’re a beginner, intermediate, or advanced. Using beginner plants has plenty of benefits, and they also work for incredibly busy people.
Beginner plants are easy to maintain and grow well in low-lit aquariums and require less than a half-hour of care per week. You’ll still need to supply CO2 and nutritional supplements. Some of the most common “easy” plants are:
- Amazon Swords (Echinodoras),
- Java Ferns (Microsorum pteropus),
- Anubias (Anubias heterophylla),
- Elodea (Egeria densa)
- Pond Weed (Egeria densa is also known as Elodea)
Live plants can add impressive energy to an aquarium. You can most often tell when plants live in a tank because of the graceful sway caused by the subtle movement of the water filter. But strangely enough, they also give the unexplainable impression that the tank seems more… alive.
Moreover, scientific studies have shown that fish have a clear preference for live plants over their artificial imitations.
In short, we’ve learned that you can grow aquarium plants in gravel, but you’ll need to make proper adjustments to ensure that everything is up to par. A few essentials to remember are:
- Be sure the gravel is between 3-8mm.
- The gravel needs to be mixed with substrate soil, especially if the gravel is on the larger side.
- Using pots is an ideal way to contain the soil and to add more variability in creating an aesthetically pleasing aquarium.
- Remove any dead leaves before they begin to decompose.
- Use treatments to enhance water quality, such as carbon dioxide and nutritional supplements.
- Lighting should only be for about 8-10 hours per day, and the most effective are LED and fluorescent lighting.
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