The effects of wastewater loading rate and planting with Schoenoplectus validus (soft-stem bulrush) on the accumulation of organic matter were investigated in four pairs of gravel-bed constructed wetlands. The planted and unplanted wetland pairs, each supplied with a different hydraulic loading of dairy farm wastewaters pre-treated in an anaerobic and aerobic lagoon, had received cumulative suspended solids loadings (∼ 82% volatile) of between ∼ 1.6 and 5.4 kg m−2 over a 22 month period. Vertical and horizontal gradients of organic matter accumulation were sampled by stratified coring, and the impact of solids accumulations on wastewater residence times investigated using bromide as a conservative tracer. Mean accumulations of organic matter in the unplanted wetlands ranged between 0.4 and 2.3 kg m−2, while those in the planted wetlands reached mean levels of nearly 4 kg m−2. Highest levels were recorded in influent zones (up to 9.5 kg m−2) and in the upper 100 mm of the substratum. The effective porosity of the highest loaded wetlands was markedly reduced compared to that in the lowest loaded wetlands, with mean retention times decreasing to around half of their theoretical values (corrected for evapotranspirational water losses). The planted wetlands retained higher apparent gravel porosity, despite greater accumulations of organic matter. High evapotranspiration rates during hot summer days, markedly extended retention times and increased tracer dispersion.