How to Plant Aquarium Plants in Sand? - What Plants to Grow

How to Plant Aquarium Plants in Sand (Step-by-Step Guide)

Many people ask can I grow plants in the sand? The straightforward answer is YES! And the next question is how to plant aquarium plants in sand. Here, I’ll answer the question in a step-by-step way.

Anchoring plants in the sand are a bit crafty compared to other substrates. Although, several aquarium plants grow pretty well in sand. However, you have to ensure proper nutrition for them as sands don’t contain any plant nutrients.

A most common way is to use aquarium root tabs as fertilizer. Another alternative is to use a layer of nutrient-rich soil under the sand. 

This article will also recommend plants suitable for sand substrates and the top three aquarium sand you can buy to make a sand bottom planted aquarium. 

Pros and Cons of Sand Substrates

Advantages

There are several benefits of utilizing sand as substrates, including but not limited to:
 
  • Provide better surface area than gravel for bacteria colonization.
  • Although it’s subjective, a sand bottom aquarium is much more attractive than any other substrates. 
  • When plants are well developed, having sand at the bottom creates a wild jungle feel.
  • Aquarium sand works great for many aquatic pets, especially those who like to burrow, i.e., Kuhli loaches, Eels, Stingrays.  
  • Foods and wastes don’t get sucked in the crevices like gravel or pebbles, it just sits on top of the sand making it easier to clean. 

Disadvantages

 
  • Sand contains no nutrients, so regular additional fertilizer dosing is necessary for plants to grow.
  • If sand is allowed to sit for an extended period, they become compact and create difficulties for plants to spread their roots.
  • Had it’s not appropriately settled, sand can get sucked in aquarium equipment like filters and pumps and potentially damage them. 
  • Some hate cleaning the sand only because they end sucking it up using a vacuum cleaner. But, you have to clean the sand substrates thoroughly once or twice a year, and that’s a painstaking job. Check my detailed article on how to clean aquarium sand

How to Plant Aquarium Plants in Sand? (Step-By-Step Guideline)

How to plant aquarium plants in the sand? You need to find a way to anchor the plants by using soil, a bottle cap, or any other way. Before that ensure you have adequately fertilized the sand so that plants can get the nutrients they need to grow. Follow the step-by-step guide below to get that right. 

Step-1: Make the sand safe for fish

Rinse the sand in tap water! You may lose some sand by washing, but I’ll suggest doing that for fish safety and preventing cloudiness. 

Most sand contains dust, so thorough cleaning is advisable. Also, wetting the sand will give more control to scape the desired shape in your aquarium.

Step-2: Place the sand

Place sand two or three inches thick from the glass bottom since plants need enough space to expand their roots. You can cover the bottom entirely with sand. 

However, another way is to place soil underneath the sand where you want to grow your plant.

Step-3: Fill the tank

Now, it’s time to fill water into the tank, but avoid stirring the sand. You can use an air-filled polythene bag on top of the sand layer; after that, slowly add water. 

Use any method, whatever you prefer, but try to disturb the sand as little as possible.

Step-4: Fertilize the sand for plants

Plants require micro and macronutrients to thrive, including nitrogen, potassium, magnesium, and many more. However, sand is inert and doesn’t have any. 

Therefore, you need to prepare the sand before planting to possess the necessary nutrients for plants. Plants usually can take nutrients both from substrate and water column.

To begin with, push some root tabs 4-6 inches apart across the sand. Root tabs are a slow-release fertilizer; they will melt gradually. Check my detailed article on how to use root tabs effectively.

You can also add liquid fertilizer if your plants can take nutrients from their leaves. A regular fertilizer dosing is recommended for using sand as a substrate. Check planted tank fertilizer guide for optimum growth. 

Step-5: Anchor the plant

The major challenge of planting in the sand is anchoring. Had it not been properly anchored, it may float or fall. To prevent that, I’ll suggest using a plastic cap. 

Slit the cap using a safety knife and make way for the roots through the slit. Now bury the cap under the substrates and leave your plants to grow. You can see the video instructions above for a better understanding. 

Tips: Sand usually doesn’t have any holding property like soil. Plants need to remain in place for spreading their roots. Therefore, plant in a way, so it becomes steady, doesn’t fall or float.

What Plants Grow in Sand? (09 Best Aquarium Plants for Sand Substrate)

Now, what plants grow in sand? Yes, indeed, many aquarium plants do well in the sandy substrate. Here, I’ve selected 09 plants that grow well in sand. 

But, remember, for plants to grow, they need room for growth, adequate nutrients, and water.  When you strike the exact balance of these three things, you’ll get success growing plants in any substrate, including sand. 

Amazon Sword

Ideal Parameters for Amazon Sword Care

Amazon sword is one of the fast-growing hardy plant species that can flourish in almost any substrate under suitable conditions. They are easy to care for, and they depend heavily on their roots for nutrients but can take through leaves as well.

Root tabs or ion-rich liquid fertilizer will help them to grow well. They demand moderate lighting (3 watts/ gallon) for best growth, but co2 dosing is not mandatory.

Amazon Sword grows tall with their broad leaves and the best place to keep them in your aquarium background. Coarse grain sand as a substrate is recommended for them. 

They can tolerate a wide range of temperatures, so you can have them both in cold water or tropical aquariums.

Anubias

Ideal Parameters for Anubias aquarium plant Care

Anubias is another versatile plant and can be grown in almost all conditions. They are adaptable and highly tolerant but very slow-growing plants.

In the beginning, Anubias will completely feed using their leaves until the root is well developed. When roots are sufficiently grown, only then they will show relatively faster growth.

While planting Anubias, don’t bury their roots because rhizomes need to be slightly above the substrate. Instead, tie or attach them to a piece of wood or stone, and push that against the sand keeping roots visible.

They are low to moderate light demanding plants and require iron-rich fertilizer dosing for best growth; however, no need for CO2.

Java Fern

Ideal Parameters for Java Fern aquarium plant Care

Java fern is another prevalent slow-growing aquarium plant. They are easy to care for, hardy, and perfect for beginners.

Like Anubias, they are mostly water column feeders, and you need to plant them similarly. Although they grow slowly, they can grow tall, so it’s better to keep them in the middle or back end of your aquarium.

They grow well under low to moderate lighting, but their leaves may turn brown or transparent if exposed to intense light.

Java fern doesn’t have true roots, so provide sufficient liquid fertilizer for optimal growth.

Anacharis

Anacharis is a lovely aquarium plant that also grows in sand. You can anchor the plant by either burying roots in the sand, floating around the tank, or attaching it around a rock, driftwood, etc.

They will all be bunched up under the right circumstances. Anacharis is one of the easiest plants to own, and it’s a beautiful green plant, having a long stem and leaves covering the entire length.

Root tabs or liquid fertilizer need to be used depending on how you planted them. They are a little demanding in terms of lighting, requiring moderate to high light. They won’t survive under low light.

Anacharis can grow long; always keep in check by trimming. You can cut the stem and plant the cutting back in the sand; it will continue to grow.

Cryptocoryne

Ideal Parameters for Cryptocoryne aquarium plant Care

Cryptocoryne is vastly used in aquascaping because of its different sizes, shape, and color variation. They are very easy to care for, slow-growing aquarium plants, and grow in various tank conditions, even in the absence of regular maintenance.

They can grow well in low light conditions but can also tolerate high lighting. Because of their different size variations, you can keep them anywhere in your aquarium, forefront, mid, or background.

Cryptocoryne plants do well in the sand substrates, but regular dosing of root tabs is recommended for their best growth.

Jungle Vallisneria

As the name suggests, Jungle Vallisneria is perfect for creating a jungle-like appearance in your aquarium. They have long leaves, and under the proper condition, they grow super fast.

They demand low to moderate lighting and are one of the best plants for oxygenating the aquarium. Since they grow tall; therefore, the best place to keep them is in the background.

Jungle Vallisneria is a hardy species but needs a bit of care. You can plant them in sand or gravel substrates, and provide root tabs for optimum growth, although they can grow without fertilizer.

Java Moss

Ideal Parameters for Java Moss aquarium plant Care

Java moss is mainly used as a carpeting plant in the aquarium. They are very hardy species and grow in almost all water conditions and substrates.

They grow on the substrates, free-floating and spreading their rhizoids slowly, and will get a grip with the sand, rock, or driftwood in their way over time.

Java moss is undemanding and grows well under low light. They suck nutrients from the leaves since they have no true roots, so you need to provide liquid fertilizer for best growth.

A gentle current is needed in the aquarium so that moss doesn’t move. Keep in mind, growing java moss to create a carpeting effect takes patience.

Tiger Lotus

Ideal Parameters for Tiger Lotus aquarium plant Care


Tiger Lotus is the ideal plant for you if you like to add some red tint to your aquarium. They are beautiful and relatively simple to maintain and bring stunning visual appeal with their broad variegated lily-pad-like leaves.

You can plant in the sand substrate, but make sure that shoots or leaves are above the ground. They can grow really tall and wide; for that reason, plant them in the tank’s mid or background.

They are bulb plants and can grow really fast in a nutrient-rich environment. When they start to do well, they can easily take over the aquarium. Bringing the leaves’ redness, you should provide medium to high light and iron-rich fertilizer.

Hornwort

Ideal Parameters for Hornwort aquarium plant Care

The last plant on my list is Hornwort; they are fast growers and good at removing excess nitrates from the water column

This is a great beginner plant and does well in wide ranges of water parameters. Hornwort takes nutrients mostly from their leaves, not so dependent on their roots; therefore, it is an ideal species for sand substrates. 

Hornwort can grow both in planted or floated conditions. Whatever way you keep them, provide fertilizer in liquid form. 

They require low to moderate lighting, and as they can grow fast and tall better to plant them in the background. 

The three Best Aquarium Sand for plants

CaribSea Super Naturals Aquarium Sand

aribsea Super Natural Aquarium Sand offers six different colors: Sunset gold, Torpedo beach, Tahitian Moon, etc. It allows you to bring a natural look.

This sand substrate is extremely safe for your fish and doesn’t interfere with the water’s pH. No extra chemical or dye was used during the preparation. 

Moreover, the fine grit of this aquarium sand helps to prevent detritus buildup, requiring less time in maintenance.

You can grow any of the plants listed above with this aquarium sand. However, before using it, wash it properly to remove any unwanted dirt. Otherwise, the aquarium may turn cloudy. 

One 20-pound bag is sufficient to cover a typical 10-gallon tank.

Pros

  • Safe for aquarium use
  • Variety of colors available
  • No dye or paint used
  • pH neutral sand
  • Prevent detritus buildup

Cons

  • Need to wash it rigorously before use
  • Compactness may increase over time

Seachem Flourite Black Sand Substrate

I wonder, would you like black sand? If you do, try Seachem Black Sand. This is made of specially crafted clay gravel for planted aquariums. However, you can use it in freshwater aquariums as well.

You can use Seachem Flourite sand solely or combinedly with other substrates. No coating or chemical treatment has been done, and it doesn’t alter the pH. 

In addition, you don’t have to replace the sand because it doesn’t break down, guaranteed for the entire life of the aquarium.

The color is not black, rather a dark grey. You need 03 bags of Seachem Flourite sand for 2 inches thickness in a standard 10-gallon tank and 5 packs for 3 inches bedding. 

You may lose some material during rinsing because sometimes it becomes dusty during transportation.

Pros

  • This substrate is for lifetime use
  • Safe for Aquarium use
  • Inert doesn’t interfere with tank chemistry

Cons

  • Washing may lose you some material
  • Quite costly

River White Aquatic Sand

If you prefer nice natural white sand, you probably would like Stoney River White Aquatic Sand. The grain size of this Sand is uniform in texture and coarse enough to prevent air pockets from forming. 

Like other sand on the list, it is also very safe for aquarium use and won’t have an issue with pH.

The sand is relatively dust-free, but you should obviously wash it thoroughly before putting it in the aquarium. Some sand may float even after washing because it’s very lightweight.

Pros

  • Don’t suck in the vacuum
  • Chances of air pocket formation are meager
  • Lovely white color sand

Cons

  • Lightweight in nature
  • Coarse grain

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What if I use play sand in my aquarium?

Yes, you can definitely use play sand in your aquarium. However, you have to prepare that to make sure it’s safe for aquarium use. After removing any visible debris and impurities, wash several times thoroughly. Then, boil it in a pan with some water for at least 20 minutes. If any microorganism present, it will be removed during the process. After that, when it’s cooled, you can use them in the aquarium.

How long does it take for aquarium sand to settle?

It takes a few days to settle; you can’t do much to make it faster. What you can do is don’t create any agitation on the water surface. Don’t run the filter and don’t add anything, fish, plants, etc., until it is well settled.

How to clean fine sand in an aquarium?

Waste can build up over the sand; a regular cleaning (weekly or bi-weekly) by vacuuming is recommended. Moreover, a thorough yearly cleaning is mandatory to prevent dead zone formation in your aquarium substrate layer.

Wrapping Up

I hope you now have a better understanding of how to plant aquarium plants in sand. Moreover, what plants to grow, how to anchor them in sand substrates, and what sand you can buy to fulfill your dream of creating a sand bottom aquarium.

Sand as a substrate is a bit tricky to maintain. The main challenges are detritus, and air pockets build up. Over time, when sand gets more compact, oxygen-depleting areas called ‘dead zone’ may form, leading to destroy beneficial bacteria. Therefore, regular cleaning and periodic stirring of the sand are necessary.

I want to hear your experience of sand as substrates and the challenges you faced while planting or maintaining sand aquariums.

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