Yes, they can! Wait let me explain…
I was wondering to myself if I could do an all white sand tank. I didn’t want to put layers of substrate, that would just make a mess later on. I needed to see if there were any nutrients in the sand by itself.
I find online that there is almost a heated debate on the type of substrate that is optimal for growing plants in the aquarium. One side seems definitely logical in that a good substrate needs to provide nutrients to the plants.
The other side is definitely valid too. They claim that sand will be sufficient to grow plants as long as we add nutrients. The sand is only there to keep the plants rooted.
Now, what do they mean by that? The logic is that over time the nutrients in the soil become depleted. This requires you to supplement the nutrients by putting fertilizer root tabs into the soil. If the soil no longer has nutrients then it is no different than sand. You will have to supplement in either case.
There are other benefits to doing a sand only substrate. Sand allows for easier maintaining and moving of plants as it will not cloud up the water when disturbed. You are able to rearrange your aquascape when you need to. You can move the overcrowded plants to a different area of the tank for instance.
Sand can also be good for some fish types. Certain fish spend most of their time at the bottom looking for food. Specific fish will even burrow into it. In their natural habitat, these type of fish is used to uniform and a non-jagged substrate. Sand lends to the comfort of the fish compared to other, more rough soils.
- SO WILL SAND WORK FOR AQUARIUM PLANTS OR NOT?
- DO PLANTS DO AS WELL IN SAND AS THEY DO IN SUBSTRATE?
- TYPES OF SAND SUBSTRATE
- Three types that I would recommend are:
- WHAT PLANTS SHOULD GROW WELL IN SAND?
- Some of the more commons plants to see in a sand only tank would be:
- OTHER TIPS FOR AQUATIC PLANTS IN SAND
SO WILL SAND WORK FOR AQUARIUM PLANTS OR NOT?
Sand for the aquarium would be considered inert. This means that it doesn’t have the required nutrients for plants. As stated above that doesn’t mean it cannot be used for a planted tank. The nutrient-rich substrate that most people use in their aquariums will also become inert over time just like sand is. Both of these methods would require supplemental fertilizer support to sustain the plants.
Key nutrients can be added to the soil in the form of a root tablet. These root tabs can be purchased or you can just make them yourself. You can get some Osmocote Plus from your local retailers or online. Put it in some empty capsules that you can get online. Then you just push those into the substrate as far as you can with your finger.
The Osmocote will slowly dissolve over time. You will need to keep repeating this process in order to keep the plants fed. The Osmocote will last several months before needing to be replenished.
The other place that plants get their nutrients from would be the water column. There are going to be trace minerals that can be found in the tap water. For the rest of the nutrients, we must give the plants fertilization through liquid dosing.
The method and amount for dosing would depend entirely on the type you are using. Some methods are simple and some require constant monitoring.
One of the most common methods for fertilizing is the Estimated Index (EI). This shows what nutrients to use and when to cycle the tank, so you can get ready for the next round of fertilizers.
In short, if you have good lighting, liquid ferts, and root tabs, then you can grow the aquarium plants in any substrate.
This can be seen with experiments that NASA has done. Growing plants on the International Space Station is done without soil or sand. Traditional substrates would weigh too much and cost a considerable amount to send to space. Provide the nutritious environment and light, the plants will thrive. Now I must state that is a simplification, I am sure growing plants in space is no small feet.
DO PLANTS DO AS WELL IN SAND AS THEY DO IN SUBSTRATE?
The answer to this question is yes, but with a caveat. When talking about starting an aquatic plant, the nutrient-rich substrate will most likely produce better results. This is only because it has all of the nutrients a plant needs to get started easily.
That doesn’t mean that you cannot add the nutrients to the sand and get similar results. The nutrient-rich substrate just gives the plant a better head start.
So even though I am writing this article about growing aquarium plants in sand, that doesn’t mean a full nutrient substrate isn’t viable. Most of my tanks are done with a three-part mix that I put together, no sand involved.
There could always be some heavy root feeder plant that would do better in a complete substrate but I feel that could be easily fixed by just adding more nutrients yourself.
TYPES OF SAND SUBSTRATE
There are several different types of sand that are most commonly used in the freshwater aquarium hobby. They all have their own style and things you should be concerned about.
Three types that I would recommend are:
- Estes Marine Sand – Has the best grain uniformity and would be the option I would choose.
- Black Diamond Blasting Sand – You can also use sand that is specially made for sandblasting such as Black Diamond Blasting Sand.
- Swimming Pool Filter Sand – Filter sand for swimming pool filters can be used and gives a uniform coloring.
When selecting sand for your tank, take care to make sure it has good reviews. This will give you an indicator as to how people’s’ experiences were with the sand in their aquarium.
Things to be concerned with are the uniformity of the sand grains. Will it trap gases? How clean it is, although sand is the cleanest option for substrates some can cloud the water. Color can also be a concern when planning your aquascape.
While there are many viable options, and the blasting sand being one of them, I think I would have to pick the Estes Marine Sand Stoney River Version. You can get it here on Amazon. Estes goes by several different names if you are out looking for it yourself.
This sand has the best grain size and uniformity to allow for proper oxygenation of the whole substrate. This sizing also allows for detritus to stay on top and be eaten by your cleaning crew. While this product does have marine in the name, I do not believe it is straight from the ocean. I do not recommend you go and collect beach sand, this will have all kinds of bugs and will be very high in salinity. If you want good experience straight from the start. Go with the Stone River Estes Marine Sand, I have used this many times and I love it.
WHAT PLANTS SHOULD GROW WELL IN SAND?
As stated before since we are adding the nutrients, you can technically grow any aquarium plant in sand. That doesn’t mean that some plants wouldn’t be better for this environment than others.
Some of the more commons plants to see in a sand only tank would be:
- Amazonian Sword – These are hardy plants, and also considered to be heavy root feeders. This one is very common to see growing in sand tanks.
- Cryptocoryne – Crypts are a mid-ground plant that is known to be beginner friendly. Crypts are one of my personal favorites. Known to melt and come back.
- Vallisneria – Long streaming blades of green. This easy plant can take over your tank! Can be found a cool corkscrew variety.
- Dwarf Hairgrass– Grass with small roots. Works well in sand, keep it trimmed. This grass is often confused with other similar looking plants.
- Potamogeton Gayi – Being relatively new and its fun frilly blades got this one on the list. This is a non-demanding grass plant. Pretty rusty-hues on the tips with proper lighting.
- Aponogeton – A flowering plant that features unique wavy leaves. It can be found in a bulb or rooted form.
- Staurogyne Repens – This is a foreground plant that has recently seen popularity in the aquarium hobby. It doesn’t quite carpet but close enough and fills in the aquariums bed.
- Wisteria – This is a common non-aquatic plant. Wisteria is known to grow like crazy, you will need to make sure to keep this trimmed.
- Hygrophila – A beautiful broad-leafed plant. This can be propagated from the steam above a segment break and then plant into the substrate. Two more will grow from there.
- Anacharis – A stemmy plant, can be somewhat fragile, but really likes sand. Nice bushy leaves all along the stem.
- Hornwort – Similar in appearance to Anacharis above. This can be planted in the sand but will not show visible roots.
With all of the discussion of plants that can grow in sand, we have ignored the plants that do not need any soil. There are plants that will only grow floating or fixed to a piece of wood or rock.
Plants such as the Anubias Nana can attach its roots to wood. Do not try to plant it in the substrate though. If you put its ‘rhizome’ into the soil then it will rot.
Java Fern works in a similar way as the Anubias. Attach this to a piece of driftwood with either string or superglue. It will shoot off runners and become really dense in no time.
The Dwarf Lily will be grown from a bulb. This bulb works best when resting on the surface of the substrate. If it is embedded then it will decay and die. Once the sprouted roots reach the sand, you can rip the bulb away and start over again somewhere else.
Other plants that are in the no substrate category are Duckweed, Bolbitis, Java Moss, and Marimo moss balls.
OTHER TIPS FOR AQUATIC PLANTS IN SAND
When working with sand you will notice that wants to level out more so than other thicker substrates. I think this is because of the uniformity of the sand. One technique to help with this is to make barriers.
You can use thin acrylic sheets to create barriers between different substrate heights. You can cut the sheets to different lengths and sizes. Now prop the acrylic up to support a mound of substrate, similar to how you would plant trees to prevent erosion.
Doing these barriers can help with the sand leveling out and becoming one height. Rocks can also work for this as well but not always as good as the acrylic.
You want to make sure that you are cleaning the substrate well. When you are using sand you have the luxury of being able to vacuum the whole substrate. Often with other substrates, you will make more of a mess than it is worth to try and clean it.
Also since sand is cleaner, this allows you more freedom to rearrange the plants afterward. For instance when I plant a corner of the tank too densely. I can then move some of the plants to another area. Or maybe I have some plants that are being overshadowed by larger plants above them, I can move the underperforming plants into more light.
When starting the tank, make sure you are putting down fertilizer to get the tank started. The plants will need this right from the start to get going. This is also common practice with full nutrient substrates.
Think about using an under substrate heater to promote circulation with the sand. This is a really unique option and not very common. I have used an under substrate in several of my tanks and the plants love it. This type of heater provides a very even coverage for heating. That even heating causes flow beneath the substrate and preventing stagnation.
Check out this video from KGTropicals on YouTube, they provide a good demonstration on how to clean your aquarium sand tank. They make it look so easy, just like it should be. It is obvious that they love sand in the aquarium as much as I do.
I hope in my writing I have proven that sand can be viable in the planted aquarium. I am not trying to sway you one way or the other. Personally, I have had both types of tanks and both will produce a nice planted aquascape.
I hope that there is enough proof of the fact that Amazon Swords do so well in a sand aquarium. Swords are primarily root feeders. If they can be happy in the sand then that means many other plants can be too.
Caution should be expressed when picking the sand for your aquarium. Only use sand that is made for the aquatic scene or has a proven track record in the aquatic community. If you get sand from other sources it is possible there are biological contaminants or even chemical byproducts.
Your planted sand aquarium is easy to start and maintain. If reading this gets you motivated then go ahead and get going!