Planted aquarium with blue quartz sand.

Aquarium Plants in Sand: Pros, Cons, Tips, and Species

Sand has many attractive qualities for the budding aquarist and aquascaper. It is affordable, doesn’t affect the water parameter, and looks natural, but it comes with several considerations.

Is it easy to maintain?

Can you plant aquatic plants in the sand?

Does it provide nutrients?

Sand is a great choice for many water plant species. It gives steady anchorage for their roots and ample possibilities for offshoots to grow. However, sand is an inert substrate that, on average, doesn’t retain biowaste as well as gravel. This results in relatively lower nutrient levels.

Such limitations can be overcome with coarser sand or root tablets. Larger sand grains allow for debris to seep through and build up to feed plants.

Indeed, most rooted plants will do well in sand. Some do better than others, though, so I selected five species that go well together and don’t require special care to thrive. They are a great starter pack for fish tanks with sand substrate:

  • Hygrophila Polysperma Rosanervig
  • Vallisneria 
  • Cryptocoryne
  • Amazon Sword plant
  • Dwarf Saggitaria

But what about fish?

Do they like sand?

Fish, on the whole, love sand, and some species outright prefer it over gravel.

Now, let’s break down the pros and cons sand introduces to the life of your plants and fish.

Pros of Sand Substrate

Sand is an excellent choice for many reasons:

  • Looks great
  • Comes in different colors and sizes
  • Extremely affordable
  • Plants thrive in it
  • Most fish love it
  • Provides natural filtration
  • Doesn’t affect water chemistry (generally)
  • Maintains its looks

Sand looks great!

White or yellow, black, or something exotic like my blue quartz, sand adds a strong natural feel to the tank. Also, it’s highly malleable and allows you to scape it in any way you like. That’s particularly true for coarser, heavier sand.

What’s more, sand is the cheapest substrate you can find. Most types sold in fish shops cost about $1.50 per pound, but you can easily obtain a 50-pound bag for $10 or so. Sand bought from the hardware store is dirtier so will require more extensive cleaning before putting it into the tank. Still, the low price makes it totally worth it.

Pool filter sand is a good option, too, as it is much cleaner than what is typically sold in hardware stores. Just make sure it’s without chemical additives, as they could kill your fish and plants.

Sand also provides a large surface for beneficial bacteria to create colonies and maintain water balance. Comparatively speaking, it is not as good a breeding ground as gravel. Sand is more compact and leaves fewer pockets for bacteria, but they still thrive there.

So do most fish. Species like loaches and corydoras should be kept in sand tanks. The former like to burrow in it, while the cory catfish sift it through their gills, rummaging for food. If you have no substrate or use gravel, their barbels will get damaged.

Lastly, as long as you clean your tank regularly, sand doesn’t change its color or texture. Gravel, especially if it is a fancier color, is likely to fade over time.

Cons of Sand Substrate

While excellent, sand does have certain drawbacks. They pale in comparison to its pros but are things to consider and know when choosing it as your main substrate:

  • It is inert
  • Dirt is very obvious
  • Can trap hydrogen sulfide 
  • Harder to vacuum
  • Can enter the filtration system

Sand is an inert substrate. It doesn’t change the water hardness or pH, which is great, but neither does it provide nutrients for the plants. This changes over time if you have fish. Their uneaten food and biowaste stick around and start to fertilize plants.

But because sand doesn’t absorb fish waste as well as gravel, it may need root tabs for plants to grow better, especially early on.

Now, if you use very fine, bright sand the fish waste will quickly become very obvious. I’m talking about a couple of days here. Coarser sand absorbs waste better and darker colors make it less obvious.

Coarser sand helps with cleaning and maintenance too. Fine, light sand will enter the siphon. It can easily enter your filters as well, clogging them and breaking them.

If you really like fine sand, add a pre-filter sponge to the filtration system. They are affordable and will save you lots of headaches.

To vacuum the tank well without sucking any sand, scrub algae first. Use a sponge and put your clean hand into the water. Your motions will stir the water column, lifting debris off the bottom of the tank.

Follow up quickly with the vacuum to siphon the waste directly from the water column, without touching and sucking the sand.

Sand can trap hydrogen sulfide, a poisonous gas that smells like rotten eggs. While vacuuming, a bubble or two might escape. But as long as you clean regularly, the build-up won’t be sufficient to harm your fish.

What Sand to Choose

One of the advantages of sand is its variety of sizes and colors.

Certainly, fine sand has its aesthetic appeal and place in tanks, but I’d recommend going for coarser varieties, especially with your first tank. Coarse sand has heavier grains, which allows for much easier maintenance. It can be vacuumed more easily, without sucking it with the siphon.

Additionally, it doesn’t enter the filtration system as easily as its lighter counterpart.

In terms of color, darker shades often underline the colors of the fish. Whiter varieties may make your aquatic pets look paler. The real issue with bright sand is that waste becomes very obvious very quickly. Fish poop usually is gray or black (there are exceptions) and sticks out on bright substrate.

It’s not necessarily something bad, as it helps tremendously with cleaning. It is nigh impossible to miss a spot, whereas darker sand might hide the dirt.

To summarize, I prefer coarser, darker sand, with an emphasis on coarser. Coarse bright sand will still absorb debris and biowaste considerably better than a finer variety.

5 Aquarium Plants that Thrive in Sand

I selected five plants that grow remarkably well in sand. They complement each other, making for a diverse and beautiful set for beginners.

The first two and the Amazon Sword plant are fast growers, so I recommend starting with them. Early on, while your fish tank is still building its equilibrium, fast-growing plants have two great advantages:

  1. Save money — Fast growers will create a lush environment much sooner than species like Anubias or cryptocorynes. I’ve included crypts on the list, but don’t make them your first plant unless you can buy several.
  2. Suppress algae —- Fast-growing water plants compete efficiently with algae. New tanks are susceptible to various types of algae. Fast growers are fast because they absorb nutrients aplenty, starving the algae out.

As you will see, I’ve included a couple of plants that can turn red, while cryptocoryne Wendii has a red variety. Combining various colors makes for a much livelier environment, but only if red fits the color of your sand.

1. Hygrophila Polysperma Rosanervig

Light: Moderate to high

pH: 5.0-8.0

Temperature: 14-30 C

Growth speed: Super quick

Placement: Back, center

Hygrophila Polysperma is one of the easiest plants to grow. It grows quickly, reaching up to 40cm, spreads quickly, and provides dense coverage for fish to hide. It outcompetes algae and adds a lot of vibrant green to the fish tank

The Rosanervig variety (“rose nerve”, literally) forms pinkish-red nerves on its leaves. It adds a nice diversity to the tank if the light is strong enough. Otherwise, the leaves remain with white lines. Still pretty but the red hue is quite awesome.

2. Vallisneria

Light: Moderate to high

pH: 6.5-7.5

Temperature: 22-28 C

Growth speed: Quick

Placement: Back, side

Vallisneria is one of the easiest beginner plants out there. Its long leaves provide contrast to the Hygrophila.

The Vallisneria grows quickly, creating lush forests. Actually, the main issue with all Vallisneria species is the need for regular trimming, as they grow long (or moderately long, in the case of the dwarf variety) leaves and reproduce quickly.

Vallisneria needs good amounts of light and can trump algae with ease.

3. Cryptocoryne

Light: Low to high

pH: 6.5-7.5

Temperature: 22-28 C

Growth speed: Moderate

Placement: Fron, middle

Cryptocoryne is among the most popular species in the hobby. There are several varieties of these sturdy plants that can be green, brown, or even red.

They are not the fastest growers but like sand a lot. Once established, they spread quickly through offshoots, creating a low-lying forest.

Corydoras sleeping under a small Cryptocoryne Wendtii leaf.

Corydoras love sleeping under the crypts.

4. Amazon Sword Plant

Light: Moderate to strong

pH: 6.5-7.5

Temperature: 24-28 C

Growth speed: Medium to quick

Placement: Back, center

Amazon Sword plants are spectacular additions to any aquarium. They can easily be the living centerpiece of an aquascape.

Easy to grow, big and impressive, make sure to bury its roots well into the sand. It is a heavy plant with large roots.

Sometimes new Amazon Swords melt, and their leaves turn brown and disintegrate. Just trim them with their stems and fret not. Given enough light, the plant will recover and reach its previous glory quickly.

5. Dwarf Saggitaria Japonica

Light: Moderate to high

pH: 5.5-7.5

Temperature: 21-28 C

Growth speed: Medium to quick

Placement: Front, center

Dwarf Saggitaria is an awesome carpeting plant that grows quickly and creates awesome midgrounds. Its elongated leaves grow 8-10cm and are delicate and gentle.

It likes sandy substrates, as long as it is anchored well. Dwrf Saggitaria takes a while to get established, but then it reproduces quickly through underground offshoots.

Given the right conditions, it may even produce flowers.

It is another plant on the list that might acquire a red hue if supplied with enough light and nutrients.

How to Plant Plants in Sand

Planting plants in the sand is quite easy, but let’s discuss the very basics first.

1. The Sand Thickness

As with most substrates, the thicker the sand, the better. As a minimum, aim for about three centimeters or an inch, but that’s really the bare minimum. Given how affordable are most types of sand, it’s better to double or even triple it. The thing is that a thicker substrate layer provides a larger surface for beneficial bacteria colonies that enhance the natural filtration.

Of course, there’s no need for the sand to be the same thickness throughout. Arrange it in the most aesthetically pleasing way. Just make sure that large plants like Amazon Swords, have a decent mound to anchor them well.

2. Tank Setup Order — Does Sand Need Root Tabs?

First things first — wash your sand very well. Even those sold in fish shops must go through a thorough rinsing if you want clear water.

When cycling your tank, you can add fish food to promote bacteria growth. It is unlikely to be sufficient to support many plants, but you can feed your fish twice a day during the first months. This will increase the amount of nutrients available for the plants.

Otherwise, use root tabs to promote quick and healthy growth among your plants. Just don’t overdo it because algae of all kinds also appreciate root tabs.

3. Planting and Plant Arrangement

In gravel, planting with hands is easy, but in the sand, it is better to use tweezers. With tweezers, you can insert the plants’ roots well inside the sand. Fingers tend to make too large holes from which plants can escape.

We don’t want that.

As a general rule of thumb, plant smaller plants like Blyxa Japonica or Dwarf Saggitaria in the front, then put a massive Amazon Sword in the center of the background, and surround it with Vallisneria and Hygrophila forests.

Does Sand Allow Plant Roots to Develop?

There is a popular myth that sand suppresses root development in plants. Theoretically, it might be possible, if you bury a plant deep under the sand and the sand is extremely densely packed.

In reality, plants’ roots and offshoots are strong enough to push through the sand.

I have had no issues with a large variety of plants. All of them have developed their roots without any trouble. My Dwarf Saggitaria successfully grew several offshoots in a brand-new setup after a couple of months. The crypts took a while longer, but within five months of planting, I had a small, dense cryptocoryne forest out of a single plant.

The more common issue with plants in the sand is uprooting. Certain fish or a strong water flow can pull a plant out of the sand much more easily than out of the gravel.

Is Sand Good for Aquarium Plants?

Sand is excellent for water plants. The majority of them rely on their leaves for nutrition and actual growth, but a sand substrate helps a lot along the way. It retains nutrients from fish waste and uneaten food.

On top of that, sand is the breeding ground for beneficial bacteria that help plants and water chemistry.

Fish also are quite happy with the sand, so everybody wins.


Is sand better than gravel for a planted aquarium?

Sand and gravel are excellent options for planted aquariums. Very fine sand might make it easy for fish to uproot plants and gravel retains more biowaste, but other than that they are very comparable. A more detailed breakdown of all the qualities of gravel can be found here.

Can I mix aqua soil with sand?

Yes, you can. Choose the special soil and the sand so that their colors fit together, even if you plan to bury the aqua soil deep under the sand. Helps with aesthetics.

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