Best Substrate for Planted Tanks: Top 10 Reviewed

Substrate

Every aquarium keeper knows that substrate is literally the base for keeping any aquarium successfully. Substrates simply refer to the materials you place at the bottom of your tank in which you grow your aquatic plants.

Knowing that to have an aquarium goes beyond fish and water, you need to be aware of substrates, what they do, and the best ones for your tank if your aquarium would be a success. They generally serve as the support system for the plants and are as vital as soil to land plants.

The kind of substrates used will determine the kind of aquatic plants that would thrive in your aquarium (because some plants are known to get their nutrients from the substrates themselves), and which in turn would affect the complete healthiness of the tank.

Not only this, the substrates would definitely affect the water chemistry in some way, either by increasing or reducing the pH of the water and must, therefore, be chosen carefully.

Interestingly, there are different kinds of substrates that can be used, some cheaper and easily found, while some are more expensive. Also, substrates can be arranged in layers at the bottom of your tank, depending on what you’re trying to achieve.

Different kinds of substrates that can be used in an aquarium

Basically, the kinds of substrates used in aquatic plants differ, based on preferences and needs. Some of the substrates used include;

  • Sand; which is the fine smooth kind, similar to what is found at the beach and is purchased and ready-packaged with nutrients.
  • Gravel; which is a very common substrate choice and is ideal for fish tanks as well as planted tanks
  • Pebbles; which is quite bigger than gravel and looks really good, but isn’t as ideal as gravel for planted tanks.
  • Aquatic soil; which is a specialized kind of soil that is prepared specifically for aquarium plants.
  • Multi-substrate; which is a combined layer of sand, aquatic soil, and gravel on top, to create a more extensive platform for the growth of aquatic plants.
  • Complete substrates; which is already prepared with a mixture of all that is needed and bought to be introduced into the tank. It can be fine and smooth or in the form of small granules.

Some aquatic plants need sand, while some prefer gravel to thrive. Some don’t really require the substrates at all. Thus, you must consider the kind of plants, as well as the kind of fish you’ll be having before making a choice on the right substrate type for you.

Fortunately, you don’t need to hunt the environment for the best substrates. That would be ridiculous, as well as harmful. Rather, you can check with aquarium stores or order for your substrates for several products available.

Also, knowing how to place the substrates appropriately is very important. Many aquarists, especially beginners, don’t properly understand how deep the substrates in a planted tank should be.

Best Substrate for Planted Tanks

As said above, getting your substrates requires careful selection, which cannot be done by randomly using any garden materials, sand or gravel. These would put in some unhealthy chemical components and compromise the health of your aquatic plants.

So your best bet would be to buy store-packaged substrates, which have been made available by different brands and suited to perfectly meet several aquarium needs.

Here, we have compiled a list of packaged substrates that are available for order at Amazon. These are great choices and you can check them out for the ones that would serve you best.

1. Carib Sea Eco-Complete Planted Black Aquarium Substrate

This is a product that is suited to help your aquatic plants grow. It is said to have been developed by expert aquarists who are committed to bringing out the very best quality.

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This planted aquarium substrate is rich in iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, sulfur, plus more than 25 other vital elements that would provide nourishment for your planted tank. Seeing as it comes in that natural black color, it comes without any artificial dyes, paints, or chemical coatings.

It is completely biologically and mineralogically suited to help your aquatic plants grow beautifully, without you bothering with algae growth. In fact, the Eco-Complete planted aquarium sulfate is prepared with the required major and minor trace elements that work perfectly for freshwater planted aquarium.

This is equally a product that influences your water chemistry by establishing a natural biological balance that helps the cycling process to move faster.

You can use this substrate by simply adding it to an empty tank first, then adding water, plants and other things such as filters and pumps. However, if you’re adding the substrate to an already existing tank, mix the Eco-Complete substrate in a few pounds per day over a span of one week or more.

2. Mr Aqua N-MAR-067 8 L Course Pet Habitat Water Plant Soil

One other planted tank substrate product that is quite commendable is Mr Aqua’s Water Plant Soil. This product is composed of specific proprietary blends of organic and inert ingredients which provides the essential elements as well as stable and ideal rooting media.

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This product equally serves the purpose of softening the water through its buffering capacities, which buffers the pH from 6.6 to 6.8 depending on the water parameters. This aquatic soil is a lasting fertilized plant substrate which lasts up to 12 to 18 months.

Also, if your tank water is contaminated by driftwood, this substrate product helps to purify it. You would be saved the trouble of having to replace your tank water every so often, seeing that it is made of light and porous granular structure that gets easily penetrated by plant roots.

One bag of this product contains 36” by 12” at 1” deep or 20” by 11” at 2” deep, and it is black in colour which gives the aquarium a natural look, alongside its benefits.

3. Seachem Flourite Black Clay Gravel

This aquarium substrate is a specially fracted, stable porous clay gravel that is very suitable for the natural planted aquarium. In fact, it is perfect for planted aquariums, but can also be used in other aquarium types as well. Although you may mix it with other gravels if you so wish, it is actually already prepared to swerve the purpose.

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It is in essence more effective when used alone as an integral substrate bed. Fluorite Black requires no gravel modifiers such as laterite. It is equally not chemically coated or treated with any such chemicals, and would have no effect on the pH of the water.

To use the Flourite Black aquarium substrate, you might be required to rinse it slightly before introducing it into your aquarium. This is due to the fact that it might get dusty in transit and would need to be rid of any residual dust.

This natural product should be first added to the tank, before water is slowly added so as not to upset the substrate bed. It is recommended that you place a bowl in the aquarium and pour water into it, then allow it to overflow gently onto the substrate bed. It might look cloudy at first, and this is actually normal. It settles down and is made ready for your planted tank.

4. Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum

Okay, if you’re looking for an ideal substrate with some bit of exotic appeal, you might want to try this out. The Fluval Stratum is a special substrate collected from the mineral rich foothills of the famous Mont Aso Volcano in Japan. It is great for stimulating the growth of aquatic plants in your freshwater aquarium, which is what every planted tank owner really wants.

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Being made of loose material, the plant roots easily penetrate and can spread around the substrate and thereby allow your plants to enjoy a variety of vital and accessible nutrients that would help them thrive. It looks nice and attractive, and will have no adverse effect on your water.

When you use this substrate product, you enjoy the full complements of macro and micro nutrients. As a result of the light and porous structure, there is a beneficial effect on nitrifying bacteria, which can quickly take over the vast porous surface and provide the best quality water for your aquatic plants.

The inherent properties in Fluval Stratum substrate helps to support a neutral to slightly acidic p, which is the ideal environment for most plant species, as well as tropical fish species.

If you also have or want to keep small shrimps or other small creatures that need protection from bigger predators, then this substrate provides a good ideal hiding space for them. Another benefit is that it controls the organic discoloration that comes from driftwood, and is highly suitable for your planted tanks.

5. Aqua Design Amano

This product is perfectly designed to have an aquascape that looks like the fertile soil of the South American Amazon rainforest. Knowing that a high pH level of the substrate makes it difficult for your aquatic plants to soak up nutrients, this product is designed to decrease the alkalinity of the water and reduce the water hardness. With a lower pH level, the aquatic plants can consume nutrients and grow comfortably.

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This is what is provided in Aqua Soil Series, which is an ideal substrate for planted tanks. The granules of the Aqua Soil substrate maintains the shape and density for a long time underwater which secures good circulation of water and oxygen throughout the substrate.

In fact, the most difficult plants to grow in an aquarium can easily grow when you use the Aqua Soil substrate. Also, if your freshwater fishes prefer soft water to thrive, then this is the ideal solution.

Unlike many similar products that are made from volcanic ash-based black soil, this product is a rare and carefully selected product from Japanese plant-based black soil, which is rich in organic elements and nutrients that provides the ideal conditions for your aquatic plants.

The physical size and density of the substrate material is ideal for fast development of healthy plant root system and also gives that naturally irregular look.

Furthermore, this product contains a high level of natural humic acid that could cause some initial water cloudiness depending on your water chemistry. After this goes away, you have yourself a ready environment for your planted tank to flourish.

6. Hermit Habitat Terrarium Sand

This substrate is essentially a coloured sand prepared ideally for aquatic plants to grow and thrive. It is especially recommended for terrariums, aquariums, hermit crabs, ponds, gardens, potted plants, vases, etc. it serves to  provide a healthy source of calcium for hermit crabs, as well as other water creatures that love burrowing into the sand habitat.

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To use this product, simply add 1 to 3 inches deep of the Pro-Calcium Hermit Sand into the tank and create an undulating effect. You, however, have to scoop away the debris weekly and replace the sand every 4 to 6 months to prevent it from getting toxic.

It contains a 100% digestible calcium carbonate and is free from phosphate and silica. It has a natural odor neutralizer and contains non-toxic colored pigments that give your aquarium that unique and colorful environment which is ideal for your planted tanks.

7. U.P AQUA Sand for Aquatic Plants

Here is another suitable product that is very suitable for aquatic plants. It helps to maintain the pH at 6.5 for optimal plant growth. It is made of light natural material and does not easily break down and turn the water into a cloudy mess.

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One pack of the U.P Aqua Sand is enough to serve a ten gallon tank comfortably. Although it doesn’t look very much like sand, sand loving fishes like loaches do well in it.

8. Carib Sea Eco-Complete Planted Aquarium

Starting a new planted tank has been made easy with Carib Sea planted aquarium substrate.

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It comes in a variety of finer grade natural gravels and sand which is packed with the necessary bacteria to help purify your water and a prepared water conditioner also. It is really quite easy to use and can be put into a tap water tank.

9. Active-Flora Floracor for Aquarium

This is an amazing substrate which is a Bio-Activ NUTRIENT- ENRICHED gravel suited to help your planted aquarium flourish. It is designed and packed with abundant trace elements that instantly provide an environment rich in nutrients for the overall benefit of your aquatic plants.

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One more advantage of this product is the fact that it is completely natural and contains no artificial additives or dyes. This helps you to avoid the harmful chemical residue that might change the composition of your water and affect the plants.

Unlike many other products, Activ-Flora substrate does not change the pH level of the water and is rich in iron, and thus require no additional laterite. The non-toxic colored pigments help to create a unique and colorful environment, giving your planted tank all it needs to be perfect.

10. Mr Aqua N-MAR-006

Mr Aqua’s water plant soil is a soil substrate that is prepared specially using a specific proprietary blend of organic and inert ingredients which provides all essential elements as well as a stable or ideal rooting media.

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This product has the capacity to soften the water and reduce the alkaline properties. It is a long-lasting and fertilized plant substrate that can be easily penetrated by plant roots.

When put into the water, it might look cloudy at first but soon settles after some time. The texture is quite soft and fine, and should thus not be disturbed too much or too often so that it would not dissolve quickly and mix with the water. It can be used by itself without being mixed with another kind of substrate and works amazingly in making different kinds of aquatic plants grow.

How Deep Should Substrate be in a planted aquarium?

The first basic thing to note is that the substrate should be packed more towards the back of the tank, and then less towards the front. It can also be placed in several mounds or slopes with more packed towards the back of the tank and less towards the front side.

Towards the back, you can have about 3 to 4 inches deep of substrates, while towards the front you can have about 2 to 3 inches deep. You must ensure that you have at least 2inches deep, and it must have a higher slope from front to back. The depth of the substrates determines the environment which would make plants thrive.

The deeply-rooted plants need the amount of substrates at the back-side of the tank to grow, while the smaller plants would do fine in the shallower part. It is necessary you don’t put too shallow or too deep substrates as this could adversely affect the tank plants.

It is thus advisable to calculate the amount of substrate your tank can take, as some very tall tanks can have more inches of substrates, unlike regular or small-sized tanks.

Do you need substrates for aquatic plants?

Just as regular land plants need soil, you definitely also need substrates for aquatic plants. Apart from the fact that, obviously, they serve to help the plants stand upright and provide a root base for the plants, substrates also provide the nutrients and help to control the rate of algae growth in the tank. So yes, most aquatic plants need substrates to grow.

Why do you need substrates for your aquatic plants?

To house bacteria:

The chemical component that would help your fishes remain healthy can also be determined from the substrates, in which the nitrogen cycle gets balanced to house the needed bacteria.

Also, without any substrates in the tank, the bottom of the tank will be left bare and waste would build up more quickly. This would, in turn, require you to change the water more often and might lead to some water imbalance.

For aesthetic appeal:

One other reason you need substrates is because of the aesthetic appeal. Why many people only know one thing about substrates- and this is that it looks good. It creates that natural-looking environment that everyone wants to achieve in their aquarium. Fishes need it to literally feel at home, as a glass-bottom tank wouldn’t do that.

For natural filtration

Substrates are used to provide some sort of natural filtration. There would be a massive build-up of ammonia and other harmful waste matter in the water without the presence of substrates.

Without the substrates, it might be difficult or even impossible to curb the excessive growth of nitrites and ammonia, even if you change the water more frequently.

To hide fish small fish from predators

In addition, you need substrates to provide a hiding place for your fish, especially for newly-laid eggs that need to be kept away from big hungry fishes.

However, when the eggs are hatched and put in a separate ‘nursery’ tank, it would be unnecessary to have substrates, since such tanks require absolute cleanliness. So while it is quite necessary to have substrates in your tank, it is even more important to know the best choice of substrates to opt for.

Furthermore, in keeping a planted tank, you need to provide every requirement needed to make the plants thrive. So the question of having substrates or not should not really be the case if you want the best environment for your planted tank. Although people refer to do away with substrates altogether and keep a glass-bottom tank instead.

Having no substrates or wrong substrates would restrict the organisms you can keep, as some fish would not thrive in such an environment. For a planted tank, however, you just absolutely need substrates, particularly for most type of aquatic plants.

Is sand or gravel better for a planted aquarium?

This question is as old as the fishkeeping tradition itself. After the excitement of having an aquarium, serious questions such as this are known to come up. So, the two most common substrate materials known to aquarium owners are sand and gravel.

They are mostly used in planted aquariums and are even sometimes both used together. Some aquarists even advocate for one inch of sand and one inch of gravel for the best results. Sand and gravel are both good, but they both have their advantages and disadvantages.

Essentially, the choice of sand or gravel largely depends on the kinds of plants you want to grow in your tank. It also depends on the size, shape, and depth of your tank, and what amount of material you can put in it.

While choosing, you also need to consider what kind of aquascaping arrangement you intend to have. You should also carry out research on the plants you want to grow and know their individual requirements before opting for either sand or gravel.

However, it is highly advisable to use gravel for a freshwater aquarium, since it is possible for water to pass through it easily. It is also too large to get sucked into the water filter.

The right size of gravel is preferable, and when buying from a store you should take note to not take too large or too small granules of gravel.

They come in a variety of colors and have several nutritional benefits. In any case, for your planted tanks, it is best to go for the store-packaged, pre-fertilized substrates.

Moreover, it is actually not a fact to say you cannot keep an aquarium without substrates, because in fact you can! Yes, some people prefer to do away with substrates altogether and keep a glass-bottom tank instead.

Despite the many benefits of substrates as shown here, some actually keep a tank successfully without using substrates. This would, however, limit the kind of fish you can keep, as some fish would not thrive in such an environment. Thus, for the meticulous aquarist, you just absolutely need substrates.

Can you plant live aquarium plants in gravel?

Many beginners often wonder about how exactly live plants get to grow in gravel. Well, if you are keeping a fish-only tank, you don’t really have to bother about using substrates rich in nutrients.

But in a planted aquarium, substrate without nutrients would obviously not help your aquarium plants to grow well. It is, however, possible to plant aquarium plants in gravel if you are devoted to fertilizing them consistently.

Besides, there are certain species of aquatic flora that that would grow in gravel. However using huge chunks of aquarium gravel is not ideal, as it is not stable enough and the plant roots get easily removed.

The kind of gravel that can be used comfortably to plant aquarium plants must be a fine loose kind that can be easily purchased in aquarium stores.

In addition, the live aquarium plants should be hardy ones with root structures that are flexible enough to grow in such conditions. You should also anchor the plants such that they don’t drift away when the gravel gets disturbed or moved.

Some types of plants that grow easily in gravel include java ferns, Anubis, java moss and amazon swords. You also need to understand the right kind of aquatic plants that would thrive in the frontal part, middle part, and background part of the tank.

There are a good number of gravel substrates that are great for live aquarium plants and they can be easily purchased in ready-to-use packs. It would also be advisable to research on how to grow live aquarium plants, so you gain all the vital information and tips to make them thrive.

Do I need soil to grow aquarium plants?

Although it largely depends on the kind of aquarium plants you intend to keep, you might need soil to grow some aquarium plants. As already explained, there are different substrates and soil is just one of them.

So while some good nutrients can be derived from using soil, you can actually get them by using other substrates. The soil needs to be enriched with vital nutrients and free from a toxic matter in order to be suitable for growing aquatic plants.

Many seasoned aquarists believe that soil is more appropriate and more effective for aquatic plant growth. This is because, unlike sand and gravel, the soil is packed full of nutrients which fosters plant growth.

There are equally different store-purchased soil from different brands that are suited to creating the perfect aquatic environment for both the aquatic plants and animals.

There is also the existence of a soil calculator which helps you to find out how much soil you need for your individual aquarium. This would help you know the right amount and layer of soil thickness in your tank.

This does not, however, mean that soil is a must for growing aquarium plants. It is quite good and helps to make some specific plants flourish. So if you have access to the best kind of soil that is suitable for your specific plants.

Conclusion

Finally, seeing all these important details about the best substrate for planted aquariums, and also looking through the recommended products, you would need to be sure about what exactly you want your planted tank to look like before embarking on using any of them.

This is because it is not quite easy to have a complete overhaul of your planted tank if you discover you are not getting the right results.

So, considering all the factors that would influence your choice of substrate, you would need to understand the details and intricacies involved in setting up your substrate appropriately.

Some of such factors include; the type of plants you want to grow, the fishes and the other organisms that would live in the tank, the size, shape, and depth of your aquarium, the kind of aesthetic appeal you want to derive, and your expertise on aquarium keeping. Thus the details given here would be very helpful in helping you make the best choice for your planted aquarium.

Saurabh Kumar

I am a passionate Fish Keeper, with years of Experience in the Hobby & this is my site. You will find some really useful tips and Information that I learned the Hard way.

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