The Best Substrates for a Planted Tank: A Comprehensive Review

Substrate is the term used to describe the material used to line the bottom of an aquarium. Gravel, sand, crushed coral, and other materials can all be used to construct it. Most of the time, the plants and animals in an aquarium are taken into account when choosing the substrate. Occasionally, the substrate is selected for its visual appeal. Beneficial bacteria can grow on certain materials, which can help maintain the water quality in the tank and, by extension, the health and well-being of the animals in the aquarium.

This article will help you choose the best substrate for a planted tank by explaining the above- mentioned characteristics of common types.

What is Substrate?

A substrate is the material that lines the base of the aquarium and serves as a growing medium for plants and a base for other ornaments. Gravel, sand, soil, and even coconut coir are all suitable materials for use as substrates. They can improve water quality, provide nutrients for plants, and make the tank look more natural for fish and other aquatic life.

Different Substrates: What You Need to Know

There is a wide variety of substrates that are suitable for use in a planted tank; the substrate that is most suitable for you will be determined by the specific requirements of your tank as well as the aesthetics that you favor. The following are some of the more common choices:

SubstrateProsCons
Aquarium gravelCheap, widely availableMay not provide enough nutrients
SandGood for plants that prefer fine substrateDifficult to clean, maintain
SoilCan promote healthy plant growthCan cloud water, break down over time
Coconut coirOrganic, holds moisture wellInconsistent quality, high initial cost
Aquatic plant soilFormulated for use in planted tanksMore expensive than other options

Factors to Consider when Choosing a Substrate for a Planted Tank

There are a few major factors to think about when choosing the best substrate for your planted tank:

  • Research the requirements of the plant species you intend to keep in your tank, as some plants have very specific substrate preferences. For example, Dwarf Hairgrass, a carpeting plant, needs a fine-grained substrate, while Amazon Sword, a taller plant, needs a substrate deep enough to support its root system.
  • How big your tank is will determine how much substrate you’ll need and what kind of substrate will work best. Substrate depths of 3–4 inches are recommended for most tanks; deeper layers may be necessary for tanks housing taller plants.
  • Certain species of fish and other inhabitants, such as shrimp, have very specific substrate needs, such as a sandy substrate because of their burrowing needs and the dangers of a fine-grained substrate.
  • In the end, the best substrate for your planted tank will be the one that you like the most and that you think will work best with your current setup.

Keep in mind that it’s usually not a good idea to use more than one kind of substrate in a given tank, as doing so can cause growth disparities and make it more challenging to keep the water’s chemistry stable and the plants healthy.

Substrates designed for planted tanks, such as laterite or a mixture of clay and peat, are universally recommended. They are ideal for the growth of plant roots due to the abundance of nutrients they contain.

I’m an aquarist who researched the best substrate to help you find the best substrate for your planted tank.

And I found that CaribSea Eco-Complete 20-Pound Planted Aquarium, Black is the best overall.

Let’s get started.

Seachem Flourite

Best substrate for planted tank

Seachem Flourite Black Clay Gravel

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Detailed Overview of Product

The natural planted aquarium gravel Seachem Flourite Black is a specially fracted stable porous clay gravel. While its aesthetic is most at home in planted aquariums, it can be used in any type of freshwater tank.

Although it can be combined with other gravels, Seachem Flourite Black performs best when used alone as an integral substrate bed.

Seachem Flourite Black does not change water pH because it is uncoated. Flourite Black prolongs aquarium life.

PRICE: $1.00/LBS
LOWERS PH: NO
TYPES: MEDIUM, FINE
LEECHES NH3: NO
NUTRIENT LOADED:NO
CEC VALUE: LOW

Pros

Natural-looking appearance

Promotes plant growth by retaining more water and nutrients

Durable and long-lasting

Low-maintenance

Cons

Not budget friendly

Cloudy water

One of the dustiest substances

Summary: Seachem Flourite Black Clay Gravel can be used in planted aquariums and supports a wide range of freshwater fish and plants. The following fish do particularly well in aquariums with this substrate: Neon tetras, Guppies, Platies, Mollies, Swordtails…Plants include: Java Fern, Anubias. Cryptocoryne. Echinodorus, Microsorum, Ludwigia…

CaribSea Eco-Complete

Best substrate for planted tank

CaribSea-Eco-Complete:

CaribSea Eco-Complete

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Detailed Overview of Product

Planted aquariums use CaribSea Eco-Complete. Crushed coral substrate creates a natural environment for fish and plants.

Its quality and value are praised. Its dark color enhances fish and plants, and its focus on iron, calcium, potassium, and magnesium helps plants grow.

Its high CEC content means it can take nutrients from the tank water and slowly over time release them. Also, It won’t change color your water and has no additives or dyes.

PRICE: $1.2/LBS
LOWERS PH: NO
TYPES: MEDIUM
LEECHES NH3: NO
NUTRIENT LOADED:NO
CEC VALUE: HIGH

Pros

Contain heterotrophic bacteria that clean the tank.

Full of nutrients.

Easy to use

Low-maintenance

Cons

Somewhat costly

Sharp substrate edges can harm bottom trawlers.

It is not nutrient-loaded

Summary: For planted tanks, the CaribSea Eco-Complete Planted Aquarium Substrate is a good choice. It contains beneficial bacteria and provides plant nutrients, but its sharp edges can hurt shrimp.

ADA Aquasoil Amazonia

Best substrate for planted tank

ADA Aquasoil Amazonia

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Detailed Overview of Product

A marine substrate, ADA Aquasoil Amazonia is made by baking sand granules and is used in both home and commercial aquariums. There are a number of benefits to using it, but there are also some drawbacks that should be considered.

The main benefits of ADA Aquasoil Amazonia are its high levels of humic acid and nutrients, its ability to make the water less hard and lower the pH so that most aquatic plants can easily absorb nutrients, its uniform shape, its low price, and the fact that it doesn’t contain allergens or other harmful substances. Furthermore, it is also known for its perfect conditions for breeding shrimp, providing quick growth of aquatic plants, and having a finer grain size, which is ideal for nano aquariums.

However, there are some disadvantages to using ADA Aquasoil Amazonia. It does leech a significant amount of ammonia, making it necessary to do water changes during the first few weeks of cycling. Additionally, some replicas of the product don’t work as intended and could kill off plants and animals.

PRICE: $2/LBS
LOWERS PH: YES
TYPES: LARGE, MEDIUM, FINE
LEECHES NH3: YES
NUTRIENT LOADED:YES
CEC VALUE: HIGH

Pros

High humic acid and nutrient content

Lower the hardness of the water & the pH value

Finer grain size which is ideal for nano aquariums.

Cons

Costly

Require water changes in the first few weeks.

Sometimes low PH and softening water are bad.

To sum up, ADA Aquasoil Amazonia has many uses and benefits, but before using it in an aquarium, it’s important to understand the risks involved.

Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum

Best substrate for planted tank

Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum

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Detailed Overview of Product

Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum helps freshwater aquarium plants grow. Its light, non-compacting, porous structure makes it ideal for shrimp and planted aquariums. Volcanic ash contains many plant-growing nutrients, making this substrate beneficial. Its dark color makes small shrimp stand out in the tank, and its light, non-compacting, and porous structure is ideal for nitrifying bacteria. Plant roots can easily penetrate its delicate structure and spread throughout the substrate, gathering the nutrients they need to thrive.

Most plant species like a pH that is either neutral or slightly acidic, which is supported by the way this substrate is made.

Furthermore, the substrate must not be washed before placing it in the aquarium, otherwise, the soil may disintegrate which can lead to dreadful water turbidity.

PRICE: $2/LBS
LOWERS PH: YES
TYPES: MEDIUM,
LEECHES NH3: NO
NUTRIENT LOADED: NO
CEC VALUE: HIGH

Pros

Mineral-rich

Lower and stabilize the pH of the water

Dark substrates make shrimp and plants stand out

Cons

It’s light, so some plants have trouble anchoring to the substrate.

Expensive

Summary: Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum is one of the best ways to grow both plants and shrimp at the same time. It has a lot of good nutrients and is a great place for shrimp to hide when they are young. But, it should be used in conjunction with other hideouts such as Java moss to ensure that the shrimp have adequate protection even as they grow.

Activ-Flora Lake Gems for Aquarium

Best substrate for planted tank

Activ-Flora Lake Gems for Aquarium

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Detailed Overview of Product

Activ-Flora Lake Gems for Aquariums is iron-rich, nutrient-enriched gravel that helps aquatic plants grow without laterite. It does not change aquarium water chemistry, making it ideal for freshwater aquariums.

No artificial dyes or additives make Activ-Flora Lake Gems for Aquariums great. Its beautiful stone and color mix gives your tank a natural look. Its smooth gravel and bacteria aid cycling.

There are also some downsides to using this substrate. For one, it has a thicker consistency, so it can be difficult to keep it looking clean as dead plant mulm looks terrible on it. Furthermore, it has an unpleasant smell, and some people experience a bit of cloudy water after adding it to their tank. Finally, it is very coarse with really uneven pebble sizes and some users have reported difficulty getting plants to grow in it.

PRICE: $1.25/LBS
LOWERS PH: NO
TYPES: MEDIUM, LARGE
LEECHES NH3: NO
NUTRIENT LOADED: NO
CEC VALUE: HIGH

Pros

Nutrient-rich

Make aquariums look natural.

Support healthy nitrification

Their sizes offer aquarium design options.

Cons

Costly

Not fit well into smaller gravel beds

Unsuitable for some aquarium creatures that prefer to high pH values

Conclusion

Most planted aquariums should use CaribSea Eco-Complete Planted Aquarium Substrate, which is easy to use and has a good macronutrient balance. The Fluval Plant Stratum

FAQs

Best substrate for low tech planted tank

For simple planted tanks, the Walstad method is your best bet. To do this, you’ll need to use top soil or potting mix on top of gravel. None of the usual growing essentials—fertilizer, CO2, low/medium light, and perhaps some sunlight—are called for by this method. It requires little in the way of upkeep, so it’s often preferred.

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Jim Coffey

Jim Coffey is an authoritative blogger specializing in Aquatic Life, Fish Diseases and Parasites, and Aquarium Setup. His insights and expertise offer valuable guidance to both novice and experienced aquarium enthusiasts.
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