If you are confused as to what substrate is, it is the layer of stuff that sits at the bottom of your fish tank. Some people use sand, some use gravel, potting soil, peat, clay, and some use little smooth rocks, or even a combination of 2 or 3 of the above. One thing is for sure and it’s that every fish tank needs this stuff. A substrate is necessary because it helps to add beneficial bacteria to the water.
What Does Substrate Do?
Substrate can also help filter out unwanted bacteria, toxins, and contaminants. Substrate also keeps fish feces sitting at the bottom instead of floating freely around the fish tank. Different substrates have different qualities and various substrates can help to add various nutrients into the water. (Seachem Flourite is our top pick).
Moreover, if you have a planted aquarium, you need substrate in order for the plants to grow. After all the plant’s roots can’t grow on the glass and the need something to hold on to.
Here are our top 7 and we personally recommend: Seachem Flourite.
- ADA Aqua Soil Amazonia
- Seachem Flourite
- CaribSea Eco-Complete
- Mr. Aqua Soil Substrate
- Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum
- Hermit Habitat Substrates
- UP Aqua Sand
The 7 Best Substrates For Planted Aquariums
Here we have the 7 best substrates that you can use for your planted fish tank. Each of these items is a little bit different, but each one will serve its own specific purpose.
1. ADA Aqua Soil Amazonia
This aqua soil is a great choice for people who have planted aquariums with a ton of different plants in them. It’s not very expensive, it’s natural, and it definitely does the trick (you can see more info and pricing here).
This aqua soil comes with a variety of benefits for your fish tank. One of our favorite parts about this substrate is that it is made of specially processed material straight from the earth and it is completely natural.
This soil is very rich in nutrients and provides for an excellent base for aquatic plants to grow in. The granules are ideally sized and perfect for aquatic plants to set their roots in and grow into a healthy root system.
Another great thing about this substrate is that it helps lower the pH levels in water, something that is great for many aquatic plants. A lower pH level means that aquatic plants can more easily absorb nutrients to stay healthy with.
It’s also a great option to go with because it makes the water clear, adds a bottom layer, and won’t cause the water to become discolored. The next benefit that comes with this type of substrate is that it also serves to soften the water.
There are a few cons that come with this aqua soil. These cons have mainly to do with the fact that this type of substrate will lower pH levels and also cause the water to soften. This may be a good thing for plants, but different fish need different conditions and lower pH levels might not be right for your fish.
Another thing to note is that you should not vacuum your planted tank if you use this substrate. It may get sucked up by the hose. In terms of substrate, it is a little more expensive than some other options, but it is well worth the price.
Aqua Soil is a great option for planted aquariums with fish that thrive in softer water and lower pH levels. We like this one a lot in terms of its quality and the fact it’s completely organic too.
2. Seachem Flourite
This is a great substrate that will last a very long time, provide nutrients to your plants, and looks great in any aquarium too
There are a number of benefits that come with using Seachem Flourite as a substrate. One of those benefits is that it never needs to be replaced for as long as you have your planted fish tank. This is a very porous clay gravel ideal for plants and their root structures and has never been chemically treated so you know that it’s all organic.
Another great part about this kind of substrate is that it will not cause the water to soften and it also won’t alter the pH levels in the water, something that many other substrates do. This is one of the best substrates for planted aquariums because it is chalked full of essential nutrients to allow plant root systems to flourish.
There aren’t really many bad parts about the Seachem Flourite substrate. The only thing that we can think of is that the appearance is more suited towards planted aquariums rather than those that primarily have fish.
Another small negative aspect is that you need to clean it before putting it in the tank because it is quite dirty and will slightly discolor the water.
This is a great basic substrate for planted aquariums, plus it works decently for aquariums with fish too. It provides optimal nutrients for plants and allows root structures to grow big and strong.
3. CaribSea Eco-Complete
This is a fantastic option to go with because it looks cool, adds some great texture to your aquarium, and it has a ton of nutrients in it.
This substrate is made out of volcanic soil that is chalked full of nutrients. It contains iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium sulfur, and over 25 other nutrients, all of which are great for spurring on plant growth. It provides a great base for roots to grow in and it also creates a biological balance which makes cycling out water much easier.
Another great part about CaribSea Eco-Complete is that it is iron rich and doesn’t need you to add any extra laterite. Plus it also doesn’t contain any artificial chemicals, dies, or any other additives. The next benefit to be had from using this substrate is that it contains heterotrophic bacteria which help to naturally convert fish waste into organic matter that those same fish can eat.
Something else we really like about this substrate is that it doesn’t need to be rinsed first and it won’t discolor your water either.
Pretty much the only thing we have to say in terms of cons is that it smells a little bit and has a distinct odor when you first open the bag. The other thing is that it is not ideal for salt water tanks, only fresh water tanks.
This is a fantastic choice to go with because it provides for a great root system and has a ton of nutrients to feed your plants with.
4. Mr. Aqua Aquarium Soil Substrate
This is a really convenient substrate that provides nutrients for your plants, lowers pH, and is great for fish too.
One of the best parts of the Mr. Aqua Soil Substrate is that it provides a ton of nutrients for plants, plus it also promotes the growth of healthy bacteria. This is good for both your fish and the plants. This is a great bottom layer for plants to set their roots in.
Another benefit that comes with using this substrate is that it naturally lowers the pH levels in your aquarium, thus reducing the need for your to treat your water. This formula is fantastic because it is specially designed for fish, betta fish, dwarf shrimp, and of course aquarium plants too.
Really the only con when it comes to this substrate is that will make the water slightly cloudy for a few hours when you first add it in.
If you are looking for the best shrimp substrate for your planted aquarium that is rich in nutrients, this one definitely makes for a great option. It’s also a great option if you plan on having lots of fish in your planted aquarium.
5. Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum
If you have a planted aquarium that also has shrimp this is definitely a good option. It’s volcanic, rich in minerals, and it looks nice too.
We really like the fact that this substrate is made of natural, mineral rich organic volcanic soil. Volcanic soil contains many different nutrients, all of which are fantastic for spurring on healthy plant growth, both because of the nutrients and because roots systems have a good base to grow in.
Another great part about this substrate is that it is light, non-compacting, and porous. This makes it easy for nitrifying bacteria to grow, bacteria which help to keep the water quality at optimal levels. This stuff ideal for tropical fish, shrimp, and of course plants too, not to mention that it provides a good hiding place for young shrimp to grow up in.
The only thing wrong with this stuff is that the bag it comes in is not big enough. You may need to order 2 bags.
If you need a great substrate for your plants and your fish, this is the way to go. It is all natural and contains a ton of nutrients that are fantastic for plant growth.
6. Hermit Habitat Terrarium Substrates
This is a great basic type of substrate that will add some color and shine to your planted aquarium.
One of the biggest benefits of the Hermit habitat Terrarium Substrate is that it is blue, beautiful, adds nice color to your aquarium. It’s completely coated in acrylic that doesn’t leach into the water and won’t cause discoloration either.
We also really like the fact that it’s all natural gravel that provides for a great base for plants to grow their roots in. This stuff can be used for planted aquariums, normal fish tanks, and terrariums too.
This kind of substrate needs to be replaced every 6 months, which means you will have to keep buying it. There is also the fact that this stuff doesn’t contain any essential nutrients either.
This is a great option in terms of substrate if you need something that is cheap and looks great. It will serve well as a base, but won’t supply your plants with any nutrients. This is one of the best substrates for planted tank that is smaller and less work instensive.
7. UP Aqua Sand
Here is a nice sand substrate to consider, UP Aqua Sand, which is specially designed to support plant life in planted aquariums.
What’s nice about this stuff is that it feels kind of like a mix between sand and really small gravel pieces. This is ideal for many aquarium plants because it provides their roots with a good substrate to grow in.
It’s dense enough to keep roots in place, but also has enough space in between grains to allow the roots to spread out and properly absorb nutrients.
Do keep in mind that UP Aqua Sand has a pH value of 6.5, so it is beneficial if this is the ideal pH level for your tank. Moreover, another big benefit here is that this stuff does not need to be rinsed before use, which is not the case with most other sand based substrates.
This stuff also has some nutrients inside of it which should support plant life for quite some time.
- It will break down eventually, leaving a weird clay-like mass in the bottom of the tank.
- Some of the bags have been split open upon arrival.
When all is said and done, if you have a planted tank, UP Aqua Sand is a good way to go. It doesn’t break down fast, it has some nutrients for your plants, and it has a good consistency to support healthy root systems.
It’s one of the best planted tank substrates at the moment as far as we are concerned.
Benefits Of Using Substrate In Your Aquarium
Substrate may not seem like a totally necessary thing to have in your aquarium, but for the most part, that would be wrong. There are lots of different benefits that you get from using substrate in your aquarium, so let’s go over all of them right now.
- One of the most important benefits that you get from using substrate in your aquarium is that it helps plants grow. In fact, if you want plants in your aquarium, unless they are fake plants or floating plants, you will not be able to plant them unless you have substrate. Plants need substrate in order to develop a healthy root system to survive. Their roots cannot hold onto glass or acrylic, nor can they get nutrients for those substances. If you plan on having plants in the aquarium, good substrate is an absolute must have.
- Substrate helps to mimic the natural environment of the fish which you have in your aquarium. Fish like to be in their natural habitat, which obviously does not involve a glass tank, but you can help them out with some simple substrate. Whether you have a river fish, lake fish, marine fish, or coral fish, the never live in environments that have glass as substrate. This helps fish feel at home, it reduces stress, and it allows them to engage in their daily routines.
- Many fish like to dig in substrate, make tunnels, and forage for food in substrate. Without substrate you are robbing the fish of their natural activities.
- Substrates help to keep feces and fish waste from floating around. Yes, you do have to clean the substrate on occasion, but at least it stops those nasty things from floating around in the water and contaminating it. In other words, substrates act as natural filters to keep your fish happy and healthy.
Different Types Of Substrates
There are many different types of substrates out there, each of which have slightly different properties and are good for different purpose.
Let’s go ahead and talk about the different kinds of substrate which you could be using in your aquarium.
Sand is a very common substrate to use in aquariums, probably the most common of all besides gravel. Sand is a good option if you have fish or other critters which like to dig, forage for food, and bury themselves in sand.
Sand is naturally found in oceans, coral scenes, and river beds too. Just beware that small sand particles can clog filters if it is stirred up too much. Sand is also alright for growing plants.
Gravel is probably the most commonly used substrates in aquariums today. This stuff helps to mimic the natural environment of several naturally occurring habitats. It does ok in terms of growing plants.
Small gravel pieces still make a good substrate for aquatic plants that need to develop a good root system. This kind of gravel is much smoother than you would see on the street, which is because smoother gravel pieces will not injure your fish.
Coral sand is a really good option to go with if you have oceanic or coral dwelling fish. This is kind of like a mix between sand and gravel, as it is almost like really big sand pieces, but small gravel pieces.
This stuff tends to dissolve in the water over time, thus raising the pH level. If you have fish that prefer higher pH levels in the water, coral sand is an ideal way to go.
This final substrate is ok to use as well. These chippings closely resemble coral sand, but have more calcium carbonate present.
This is a good alternative to coral sand because it is not quite as expensive. It’s pretty porous so it works alright for plants, plus it helps filter out the water a little bit too.
Soil or soil-like substrate is a good option for planted tanks. This stuff is generally packed very tightly and best used for tanks with a high plant count.
It’s packed with various nutrients needed for plant growth. It’s tightly packed nature makes it ideal for plants that need strong root systems.
We are not talking about normal marbles here, but ones that are more like flat little spherical pancakes. These are best used for decorative purposes, but they are still pretty decent for plant growth.
That being said, they don’t have any nutrients and will not affect the water in any way.
How Much Substrate Should You Use For A Planted Aquarium?
By far, the best substrate that you can use for a planted aquarium is soil or a soil-like substrate. The reason for this is because tightly packed soil or soil-like substrates is the most stable an dense of all substrates, thus making it a good medium for plants to develop a strong root system in. Moreover, soil-like substrate also contains by far the most nutrients of all substrates, which plants need to grow big and healthy.
In terms of how much substrate you should use, the general rule of thumb is to have at least 1 inch of it. Now, there is not a specific maximum here, but any more than 2 or even 2.5 inches is not necessary in any way.
For smaller plants, 1 inch of substrate is more than enough to develop a good root system. Just to let you know, if you want a 1 inch substrate bed, you will need to use 1 pound of substrate for every gallon of water in your aquarium.
Commonly Asked Questions
How To Plant Aquarium Plants In Gravel?
Planting aquarium plants in gravel is not very difficult and it does not take much work. Now, what you need to know here is that some aquarium plants are a little more fragile than others, and how plant them in gravel really does depend on the plant itself.
Many aquarium plants simply require you to put the plant’s roots in the gravel and slightly cover them, but be sure not to pack down the gravel too much, as you might crush or damage the roots.
Plants that have fragile root systems may need to be tied down, without covering the roots with gravel, so the roots can grow into the gravel on their own.
How To Layer Substrate In A Tank Properly?
Ok, if you are just adding one type of substrate into your aquarium, then this does not really matter. All you need to know in this case is how much substrate you need and how deep in needs to be, and then put it in there.
If you are layering gravel over sand, you will want to add about an inch or an inch and a half of sand, and the slowly add the gravel on top of it. Be sure to do this slowly so you don’t end up making a huge mess.
Do You Need Substrate For Aquarium Plants?
When it comes to aquarium substrate for plants, not all plants require substrate. The best aquarium soil is going to depend on the plant itself. Some plants love sand, some, gravel, and some none at all.
There are many aquarium plants which can be tied down to rocks or driftwood, which don’t qualify as substrate. There are also many floating plants which float on top of the water and do not require attachment to anything at all.
Is Sand or Gravel Better For Planted Aquariums?
Once again, this all really depends on the specific plant itself. Some plants prefer sand as substrate, and some prefer gravel.
With that being said, gravel is generally easier to work with, as it clouds up the water less than sand, it’s easier to clean, and it provides a solid base for the root systems of plants.
How Often Should Substrate Be Replaced?
Generally speaking, if you have a good filtration unit and you are doing a good job at keeping the substrate clean, it should never need to be replaced.
How Can I Keep My Substrate Clean?
Keeping substrate clean is really not all that difficult. For one, ensure that you have a few bottom feeders and snails in your tank, as they will eat up leftover food, dead plants, and algae.
Next, doing regular water changes will also help prevent the buildup of debris on the substrate. Also, a strong filtration unit that sucks most debris out of the water is going to help.
You also want to be sure that you don’t overfeed your fish, so they don’t produce too much waste. An aquarium gravel vacuum is definitely going to come in handy too (we have covered our top 5 over at this article), so you can manually remove the debris.
When Can I Add Fish And Plants?
This all has to do with the nitrogen cycle. The nitrogen cycle allows various bacteria to build up in the water which help remove various contaminants.
In order for these bacteria to build up in the substrate, you want to wait for roughly 6 weeks to add fish, after inserting the substrate. You need to wait for at least 1 nitrogen cycle to be completed.
How Much Substrate Do I Need For My Tank?
As we mentioned above, the usual recommendation for the amount of substrate to add to a fish tank is roughly 2 inches. However, this does depend on the fish and plants you plan on putting in the aquarium.
How Deep Should Substrate Be In A Planted Aquarium?
When it comes to the depth of substrate for a planted aquarium, you are looking at somewhere around 3 inches.
The top layer of substrate should consist of roughly 2 inches of gravel or sand, with an additional 1 inch layer of nutrient rich substrate below that.
The best substrate for planted tank depends on what you have in your tank. It might take a bit of trial and error to find the right one (Aqua Soil Amazonia is our top pick), but any of the above options make for good starting points. Just keep in mind that the substrate you get should have nutrients, provide for a good base, and look good too.