How to Plant Aquarium Plants in Gravel (2022)

How to Plant Aquarium Plants in Gravel

Real plants can really liven up an aquarium and improve life for your fish. The thing is if you don’t have much of a green thumb, then planting and growing aquarium plants can feel intimidating. What is the right way to get your underwater garden going?

How to plant aquarium plants in gravel? The process of planting aquatic plants in a tank is easy. Empty out your tank. Add a layer of gravel substrata. Place the roots of your plants in the gravel. Add more gravel until the plants are covered up to their stems. Refill the water.

Knowing how to plant aquarium plants properly is just part of the process. You’ll also want to consider how to maintain their growth after that as well as which plants to use in the first place. We’ll get into all the details in the coming sections.

Why Use Live Plants?

While they are a little more work to install and upkeep, live plants provide a number of valuable benefits to your fish tank. Before we go into the nitty-gritty of planting in gravel, let’s go over why it’s even worth the effort.

  • Water Oxygenation – It may surprise you to learn that fish need to absorb oxygen from the water in order to breathe. Water can absorb oxygen either through surface agitation or photosynthesis. A few live plants will ensure a healthy environment for your fish.
  • Water Filtration – Plants use nitrates (fish poop) in order to grow. This means that they’re effective ways of removing waste products from the water and keeping your tank at healthy pH levels with little hands-on maintenance.
  • Aesthetic Appeal – Live plants just look better than their false counterparts. If you want to give your tank a clean, natural look, then there’s nothing better than real plants.
  • Shelter – Plants give your fish places in the tank where they can feel covered, safe, and relaxed. Live plants will also give places for fish to lay eggs and fry to develop safely.
  • Cover Structures – Your fish tank may have a number of pumps and hoses to keep the water aerated and filtered, use plants to cover these apparatuses, which tend to be pretty ugly.

While many of the benefits of plant life in an aquarium can be simulated with fake plants, filtration pumps, water agitators, and aerators—a collection of real plants ensures a natural and safe ecosystem for your fish.

How to plant aquarium plants

Once you’ve decided to put real plants in your aquarium, how do you go about doing it? The process on how to plant aquarium plants is relatively simple, but there are some pitfalls to watch out for. Here’s how to do it.

  1. Empty the tank completely
  2. Fill the bottom with a layer of gravel
  3. Add aquarium fertilizer
  4. Fill the tank halfway with water
  5. Add the plants, covering in gravel up to the stem
  6. Add in any other aquarium décor
  7. Fill the tank completely with water

How to Plant Aquarium Plants

Empty the Tank

Getting everything prepped for planting is going to require you to place a layer of gravel on the bottom of the tank. This means you’ll need to get everything out of the way, including all the water in there. This is a great chance to give your tank a good deep clean. Pour everything out, scrub it all down, and get everything all shiny and new.

If you’ve currently got fish in the tank, then you’ll need to bag them up before you empty out all the water. Set them somewhere out of the sun where they can rest without being disturbed while you finish the process.

Even If you’ve got another tank available, it’s generally inadvisable to move them from one to the other. The change in pH and other environmental factors can be a real shock to a fish. Simply let them rest in the water they came from. They’ll still need to adjust to the new water in the freshly cleaned tank, but at least you can avoid the double whammy of changing their environment twice in a row.

Add a Layer of Gravel

Next, you’ll need to put down a layer of substrate, or loose material that plants can grow in. Fine gravel is generally the best option for substrate material. You’ll want to lay down about 2 to 3 inches at the bottom of the tank. This will give enough depth that you can bury the plants securely and leave some room for their roots to expand as they grow into their new home.

Two or three inches of gravel may not sound like a lot, but as a general rule of thumb, you’ll need about 1½ pounds of gravel for each gallon of water that your tank holds. Plan accordingly, or you may find yourself making multiple trips back to the pet store for more and more gravel.

Add Aquarium Fertilizer

Fertilizer is crucial for plant development as it provides the essential nutrients for the plant to grow and remain healthy. You’ll likely only need to add fertilizer this one time. Eventually, your fish will provide fertilizer in the form of nitrogen-rich poop. Since you’re going to putting fresh water in the tank, you want your plants to have what they need right from the get-go. Follow the package instructions for application.

Fill the Tank Halfway with Water

You’re going to be using aquatic plants, so make sure to add water (about half the volume of your tank) before planting. Aquatic plants rely on the pressure of the water to help them support themselves. Underwater plants don’t have the same strong stems as their surface-dwelling counterparts. If you pull these plants from the water entirely, they’re likely to get damaged and may not grow properly.


Once you’ve got water in the tank, it’s time to plant. For most plants, you’ll want to bury them in the gravel. Make sure to cover any bulbs or tubers so that only the stem is sticking out of the substrate. Add gravel as necessary to ensure that all the plants are properly planted.

Another type of underwater plant requires anchoring. Anchoring involves tying the plant to some porous substance (a piece of driftwood works great) and allow the plant to work its roots into the anchor. Anchoring plants are less likely to be disturbed by shifting gravel, but the process of tying the plant to the log is a little more labor-intensive at the start.

Place Additional Decorations

If you had any additional decorations, now is the time to put them back in their places. With the new plants in the mix, you may want to move around the furniture a little bit. Grab any fish furniture, large rocks, logs, thermometers, etc. and get them back into the tank.

Fill the Tank Completely with Water

Now that you’ve got everything in its place, you can add the remaining water. Bring the aquarium up to its full capacity. Grab your fish from their baggies and gently reintroduce them to their remodeled home.

How to Keep Your Plants Alive

Once you’ve gone through the work of adding plants to your tank, you’ll want to be sure that you know how to keep them alive. Aquarium plants aren’t always the cheapest, and the last thing you want is to be pulling up dead husks every few weeks.

The good news is that aquatic plants generally require a lot less upkeep and maintenance than more traditional plants. You don’t have to worry about watering them for one thing! Follow these tips, and your thumbs will be turning green in no time.

Use the Right Type of Gravel

There are many different types of substrate that can be used for planting aquatic flora. The most ideal substrate is soil as this is nutrient-rich and allows the roots to easily spread. However, while soil may be ideal for the plant, it doesn’t work great in an aquarium. This is because the soil is so light and loose that it muddies the water. There’s no point in having an aquarium if you have to squint through the murk to see anything.

What you want is to find the best of both worlds. A fine-grain gravel will allow the roots to spread relatively easily but will stay in place at the bottom of the tank. You’re looking to get into something between 3mm to 8mm. Another way to split the difference is to mix some soil in with your gravel or to plant the root systems in small aquatic pots beneath the surface of the substrate.

Other alternatives to gravel include sand and clay. These may cause similar problems to soil and cloud the water in the tank. Some people mitigate those issues by putting a layer of gravel on top of a bottom layer of soil, sand, or clay.

Another thing to consider is the cleanliness of your gravel. You’ll want to make sure that the gravel you purchase comes directly from a package purchased at a pet store, this will ensure that it is sterile and free of contaminants or dangerous bacteria.

Grabbing gravel from the wild or even from a hardware store may mean that you’re bringing other elements into the mix, which can throw off the balance of the ecosystem you’re creating and harm your fish.

Give Your Plants Adequate Lighting

Your plants need 8 to 12 hours of simulated sunlight every day. This means that you’ll need a hood light for your aquarium. Avoid placing the aquarium in the sun as some species of plant are only accustomed to receiving sunlight filtered through much deeper waters. Your fish as well may not respond well to direct exposure to sunlight.

The amount of light you’ll need will depend on the size of your tank. Here’s a helpful chart.

Tank Size Lighting
10-gallon tank One 15-watt tube
20-gallon tank One 30-watt tube or two 15-watt tubes
30-gallon tank Two 20-watt tubes
40-gallon tank Two 30-watt tubes
50-gallon tank Two 40-watt tubes
85-gallon tank Three 40-watt tubes

Making sure that your plants have adequate light for the space they’re in will allow them to remain healthy and grow consistently.

Give Your Plants Adequate Lighting

Don’t Overcrowd the Tank

When planning and planting inside the fish tank, people tend to want to fill every corner of the tank with leaves and stalks. There are two important things to remember here. First, the plants will grow over time; you actually want to leave things a little on the sparse side to leave room for future growth. The second thing is that you’ll need to leave space for your fish to actually live in the tank.

If there’s no room for the fish, they won’t be able to move around easily, you’ll never be able to find them, and if it’s bad enough—they may turn belly up before long. There’s no point in having a fish tank if the fish are never visible or don’t stay alive.

A good way to let your tank look lush and vibrant but still leave room for everything is to plant around the edges of the container but leave the center mostly open. That way, you’ll see green everywhere you look, but there’s also a big space available for your fish to swim in and be seen.

Get Your Plants Plenty of CO2

All plants, above or below the water, use CO2 as a necessary nutrient. In your aquarium, your fish will produce a certain amount of CO2, but that won’t be enough for some plants. IF you want to see a boost in growth, apply regular CO2 treatments to the water.

Spot When They’re Doing Poorly

Most plants will give some indication that they aren’t doing so well before they actually shrivel and die. Knowing which warning signs to look out for can help you to recognize a problem and make an adjustment before you’re pulling a bunch of dead leaves out of your water filter. Here are some problems to watch out for.

  • Brown spots on leaves
  • Pale green to yellowish leaves
  • Plants cease to grow
  • Rotting bulbs
  • Algae in the aquarium

If you notice any of these signs in your aquarium, something is off. If you can figure out the issue and improve the environment for your plants, they may yet improve. If you’re having difficulty pinpointing what is causing the problem, try talking to a representative at your local pet store (or anywhere else nearby that sells aquatic plants).

Which Plants Should You Use?

Just like your fish, different plants have different care requirements and do different things for your tank. You’ll want to get an assemblage that looks good together and place them aesthetically, but there’s more to consider. Be sure to understand what your plants need before you purchase.

Different plants grow in different ways. There are three different categories of plants differentiated by where they are generally placed in the tank. These are

  • Foreground plants
  • Midground plants
  • Background plants

Foreground Plants

Foreground plants are short and generally go at the front of the tank, or along the bottom. These plants generally won’t obstruct your view into the tank. Foreground plants are also carpet plants because they grow out rather than up, eventually covering the available surface. Here’s a handful of great options for foreground plants.

Dwarf Baby Tears

Dwarf Baby Tears is a plant made of tiny, bright green leaves. This lush, vibrant plant grows quickly and can swiftly cover the floor of your tank in a dense green carpet.

For Dwarf Baby Tears to thrive, you’ll want a pH between 5.0–7.5. Tank temperature should be between 70–84°F. You’ll want a strong light source, about 2 watts per gallon, to ensure that the plant stays at the bottom of the tank instead of rising up to the top to chase the light. Be sure to trim this plant regularly as it will overgrow and suffocate itself if left untrimmed for too long.

Four Leaf Clover

Hoping for a little luck? The Four Leaf Clover or Clover Fern is known for spreading a four-leafed cluster across aquarium tanks. If properly trimmed and cared for, it will create a dense carpet with the leaves along its many stems and runners.

The Four Leaf Clover requires strong lighting but is otherwise pretty forgiving. It prefers a neutral pH but can grow in water with a pH as high as 7.5. You’ll want water temperatures between 68–84°F. The ideal water temperature is between 72–82°F.

Indian Red Sword

The Indian Red Sword will grow long stalks. These leafy stalks vary in color from a pale green to a deep red. The red appearance of this plant can be quite striking and can bring some added color to your tank.

Indian Red Sword should be planted directly into the substrate, but requires little maintenance after that, making it ideal for beginners. Lighting should be medium to high, while tank pH should range from 6.0–8.0.

Java Moss

Java Moss is extremely popular among freshwater aquarists because it is easy to plant, almost impossible to kill, and spreads quickly across many different types of surfaces. Because Java Moss is easy to trim, it’s a very popular plant for aquascaping, the cultivating of beautiful underwater gardens.

The ideal tank conditions for Java Moss are good current, a pH of 6.5–7.5, and temperatures between 74–82°F. Trimming is optional. You can allow it to grow wild or cut it down for maximum visual appeal. Watch out for algae growth as this is the main killer of Java Moss.

Java Moss

Midground Plants

Midground plants are the showstoppers inside your tank. These plants are meant to be seen. Generally placed along the sides or in the middle of the tank, they provide a focal point around which all the other elements play. You may want to decide on a midground plant or two before selecting anything else and working from there. Here are some stunning options.

Water Wisteria

The Water Wisteria produces elegant, lacy leaves. These leaves grow in different sizes and shapes, depending on the water temperature. The stems of the Water Wisteria can reach a height of up to 20 inches. This makes them the ideal height for a midground plant, but be sure to plant things underneath that can handle shade as the broad leaves of the Water Wisteria will block light beneath them.

Once planted, Water Wisteria requires little upkeep. Plant in water with a pH of 6.5–7.5 and a temperature of 74–82°F.

Java Fern

The Java Fern may look familiar. It’s a classic aquarium plant. Java Fern’s are popular largely due to their slow growth, meaning that maintenance is minimal, and trimming will be needed infrequently. Because of its popularity, Java Fern is available in several varieties, including narrow leaf, needle leaf, trident, and windelov.

Java Fern requires a tank with a water temperature of 62–82°F. Shoot for a pH level between 6.0–7.5. Naturally, Java Fern grows near moving water or waterfalls. Be sure to have a tank with good filters and powerheads to keep the water in your tank moving.

Amazon Sword

The Amazon Sword is perhaps the most popular aquatic plant available. It’s extremely hardy, growing well in almost any tank setup. It’s also gorgeous and will provide a beautiful underwater forest for your fish. The Amazon Sword has long, wide leaves that grow in a bushy structure from the base.

The Amazon Sword can tolerate a massive temperature range, but ideal growing conditions are in water 68–75°F. Water pH should be around 6.5–7.5. Amazon Swords rely on their root systems, so make sure the substrate is thick enough, at least 2.5 inches deep. These plants require minimal upkeep, and trimming is optional.

African Water Fern

The African Water Fern has long leafy stalks which can provide an excellent accent in the midground of a tank. Planting this fern can be a bit more involved than some of the other plants we’ve discussed. It has to be attached to a piece of driftwood or porous rock and cannot be simply planted in the substrate.

Plant African Water Ferns in tanks with a temperature between 74–84°F and a pH between 6.0–8.5. Maintenance for these plants is fairly simple, and they grow pretty slowly. They do require a relatively large amount of nutrients, so you may want to do regular fertilizer and CO2 injections.

Background Plants

Background plants are the tallest and fastest-growing plants. They go in the back of the tank and make a beautiful green backdrop for everything else going on in the aquarium.

Aponogeton Boivinianus

The Aponogeton Boivinianus is a fast-growing bulb plant, with tall leaves growing from a central bulb. The leaves are beautifully textured and add a certain shimmering to the back of the tank. These plants go through a die back period, meaning that they grow quickly for 7–8 months, then die back after flowering, only to begin growing again 1–2 months later.

Aponogeton bulbs prefer a temperature between 72–82°F and a water pH between 6.5–7.5. These plants also do well in lower light conditions.

Tall Hairgrass

Tall Hairgrass grows in in thin, vertical grass strands. It can grow up to 15 inches tall and makes a pleasant backdrop for your tank. Interestingly, some hobbyists trim the plant short to encourage it to grow horizontally and use it as a carpeting plant.

Tall Hairgrass grows in a wide temperature range, but prefers things on the cooler side, from 64–77°F. Water pH levels should be 5.5–7.5. If you’re using Tall Hairgrass as a background plant, it requires very little maintenance.

Anacharis Aquarium Plant

The Anacharis plant consists of a long stem covered in small green leaves along the entire length. In the summer, the plant will produce small white flowers, which float to just above the surface. In the right conditions, Anacharis grows extremely quickly. The plant will grow up towards the light and then may arch downwards, creating a full forest of arching stems.

Anacharis are extremely forgiving temperature-wise, able to survive water temperatures as low as 60°F and as high as 82°F. Ideally, you want something between 72–78°F. pH should be between 6.5–7.5. These plants won’t quit growing just because they run out of space, so regular trimming is a necessity.


Hornwort is a plant that has stems covered in dense, delicate needles—similar to a fir tree. The plant is also known as Coontail for its resemblance of the texture and shape of a raccoon’s tail. These plants have a very different look from many other aquatic plants and give the aquarium a unique look and feel.

Hornwort grows best in water that is 59–86°F. The pH balance should be about 6.0–7.5. The plant can grow to a height of 2 feet and will likely need regular trimming. Otherwise, the plant is hardy and easy to care for.