Best Substrate for Planted Tank Enthusiasts

This post includes reviews for the best substrate for a planted tank.

Choosing the right substrate for planted aquariums is a crucial decision that requires research and planning.

There are many different types of substrates on the market, but not all are appropriate for planted tank enthusiasts.

It is equally important to create an environment for both fish and plants to thrive since both will live in the tank.

Quick Guide: Best Planted Aquarium Substrate

Comparison Chart

Last update on 2022-06-22 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Best Substrate for Planted Tanks

Planted freshwater tanks pose a challenge because the ideal substrate for fish may not support your rooting plant’s growth. The key is to find the balance for the plants you want as well as the fish species you prefer.

Picking out the correct substrate for planted tanks makes a huge difference and will likely have a large impact on the outcome of your tank.

There are some safer, more neutral options that work decently well in most planted tanks.

Planted tanks require a substrate that will remain loose enough for plant roots to penetrate it.

The substrate should be chemically inert and free of sharp edges.

Fine gravel (1–2 mm) is preferred by some aquarists because coarser substrates allow debris to settle within the gaps between grains, which is particularly difficult to clean in a planted aquarium.

However, this does depend on the species you have in your aquarium. For example, if you have axolotls, this would be a bad choice.

Sloping the substrate so it is most shallow in front accommodates larger plants with correspondingly larger root systems in the back.

The substrate for plants should be at least 2 inches (3 cm) deep, with 3 inches being the ideal thickness. Often, a lower layer of richer substrate such as potting soil, peat, vermiculite, or certain types of clay is used as a source of iron and trace elements for plant roots.

What is Substrate for a Planted Tank

The substrate of an aquarium is the material used on the bottom of the tank.

It has to meet a lot of needs, which is the reason it is imperative to complete the necessary research to ensure you are getting the correct substrate to meet your aquarium needs.

It is typically going to consist of a mixture that will provide the nutrients necessary for plant growth, a material that will hold the plants at the bottom of the aquarium, and a material that is safe for the fish species you want in your tank.

Substrate affects filtration, water chemistry, and the well-being of inhabitants in the aquarium in various ways depending on whether the water is freshwater or saltwater.

What you use as your substrate relies heavily on what type of plant you plan to put in your tank. It is essential to select the correct kind or you may be disappointed in the results.

Plants will root in this substrate and use the nutrients in the substrate to grow and sustain themselves.

For this reason, an important factor to consider is how the plants will root down onto the bottom of the tank. Equally important is how they will get the necessary nutrients for flourishing plant growth.

Many plants are water column feeders, which means they will derive nutrients from the water, not from the substrate.

There are also other important considerations for healthy plants. A substrate material that does not impact the water conditions by changing the pH level and water hardness are essential for plants to survive and thrive.

Bare-Bottom vs Substrate

The difference between a bare-bottom tank and one with substrate is that the substrate is where most of the live plant roots will grow.

It also provides a natural habitat for fish and invertebrates to burrow in, above and below the surface. The bare-bottom tank leaves no opportunity for plants or anything else to grow other than what you place on top of it.

The advantage to having a tank without substrate comes down to overall maintenance.

Fish waste, uneaten food, and any other waste in the aquarium become embedded in the substrate as the water flow pushes debris straight into the filter.

Tanks with a lower flow of water are especially prone to this, creating a build-up of debris and waste that must be removed when the tank is cleaned.

On the other hand, a bare-bottom tank is much easier and quicker to clean. It can be as simple as a fast water change and the job is finished.

Purpose of a Bare-Bottom Tank

If you are a new fish keeper, you may wonder why someone would want a bare bottom tank. They are not extremely aesthetic, especially compared to an aquatic tank filled with plants.

The typical fish hobbyist that has a bare-bottom set-up is typically working to keep fish healthy during breeding.

With fewer places for debris to wedge, the aquarium can stay cleaner and is less likely to develop any bacteria in the water.

Bare-bottom tanks are also used when fish need to be quarantined from the other fish.

Because there is no substrate in the aquarium, it is easy to see any build-up occurring.

Why Do I Need Substrate

There are many reasons to add substrate to your aquarium setup.

Substrate creates a pleasant and calm environment for your fish.

If you select a fish species that like to burrow as one of your pets, substrate will give them a place to hide. It also provides enrichment for bottom-dwelling fish that roam on the bottom of the tank foraging for pieces of food.

Another benefit of adding substrate to your tank if you want a planted tank is to provide a way for your plants to absorb nutrients so they can grow and thrive.

Planted tank substrates have different requirements than a basic substrate that can be used in a tank without plants.

PRO TIP

Fish are easily stressed by tank reflections. Substrate helps reduce reflections creating a happier environment for your fish to thrive in.

How to Choose the Correct Substrate for Your Planted Tank

When the goal of the aquarist is to have a beautiful planted aquarium of root feeder plants, it is essential to select a substrate that promotes root growth which will equate to natural plant growth.

The best substrate for this is one that is full of nutrients, allowing plants to get what they need to survive.

If your goal is to have a beautiful planted tank, understanding how your plants get their nutrients and what nutrients they need is essential.

PRO TIP

There are aquatic plants that get the majority of their nutrients from the water. These are called water column feeders. Obviously, these plants do not rely on the substrate you use to thrive.

Understanding Different Substrates

There are too many types of substrate to list them all.

They come in different shapes, sizes, colors, textures, and more, for your planted aquarium. Most fall under three types:

  • gravel
  • sand
  • soil

We will cover these first.

Sand

Sand is a mixture of tiny granules of earthy materials such as rocks and shells.

These tiny particles make an excellent substrate for fish with soft bellies or bottom-feeding fish.

There is no chance fish will be cut or damaged with sand in comparison to some gravel, making it an all-around safe substrate for a tank.

Sand comes in a variety of sizes, colors, and textures to choose from. Common colors are beige or light brown, black, and white.

If you would like to create a more naturalistic aura in your aquarium, these colors are ideal.

Because the texture of and is super fine, it easily compacts together.

This tight compaction is a benefit for maintenance because the debris from the food and fish waste sits on top of the sand rather than sinking into it.

To clean the aquarium, hover a siphon over the waste, and in a matter of minutes, you are finished.

On the flip side, because the sand texture is fine, it is easy to suck it into the siphon with the debris.

Take a mental note of how much sand you have pulled out after cleaning, and keep some extra on-hand to add back in as necessary each time you clean or make a water change.

Another challenge that can occur with sand is that it is easily sucked into pumps and filters, potentially causing damage to the equipment.

One way to avoid this is to add water back into the tank slowly after a water change or cleaning. This will keep the sand from flying around in the tank.

In reference to the best substrate for planted tank options, sand is a possibility with the right kind of plants.

However, because it is extremely dense the roots have a difficult time growing and spreading out. Also, the same as gravel, it does not provide nutrients for the plants to grow and thrive.

Root tabs are an option and you will be most successful growing plants if you look for a larger grain of sand that is not as compact.

Gravel

If you’re looking for a quick and inexpensive way to outfit your aquarium with live plants, aquarium gravel may be a choice that would work for you.

It is one of the most common substrates, especially among first-time aquarists. It is inexpensive, easy to find, and comes in multiple styles and colors.

It also provides a natural look in the aquarium, if that is of interest.

Gravel is made up of stones that range from tiny pebbles, a bit larger river stones, and small rocks.

It is also possible to purchase a mixture of all the varieties together for an even more natural look in the tank.

If color is desired, gravel can offer this as well. There are multiple options of artificial gravels that are available in colors like green, pink, blue, etc.

A big advantage of using gravel as your substrate is that live aquatic plants can easily root down into it with the help of root tabs.

The pebbles and rocks help anchor the plants to hold them on the bottom of the tank.

However, it is important to note that if you desire a fully planted tank, gravel is not your best choice because it is lacking the required minerals necessary for plant growth.

It is possible to use another substrate that promotes plants to grow along with a layer of gravel.

It is also important to note that some fish species may eat small pebbles, causing illness or even death.

PRO TIP

It is important to examine the gravel closely prior to adding it to planted aquariums.

Some gravel types have jagged edges that are pointed and sharp. This can be extremely harmful to bottom-feeding fish.

As they swim against the sharp stones and search for food, their faces dig into the forage and rocks, cutting them.

Cuts such as these can be life-threatening because they turn into bacterial infections.

Round gravel is the safest for these fish species, and typically the best substrate for planted tank enthusiasts all around if this is your substrate choice.

Less Common Substrates

There are other types of substrate that are used less. The typical substrate is a mixture of several types.

Other types of substrate include:

  • Potting Soils
  • Minerals, Shells, and Corals
  • Laterite and Vermiculite
  • Peat
  • Leaves

Complete Substrate

Simply put, complete substrate is a perfect planted aquarium substrate that encourages healthy plant root growth.

As the name infers, it contains the minor and major trace elements required to nourish aquarium plants.

Substrates such as CaribSea Eco-Complete and ADA aqua soil are great examples of complete substrate. They contain the necessary nutrients for aquatic root feeder plants to thrive.

Complete substrates start the nitrogen cycle in your tank by creating an ammonia spike, making them an excellent choice.

Be sure to hold off on adding your fish until you have tested the pH levels and cycled the tank.

Multi-Substrate/Compound

When you layer different types of substrate, such as a bottom layer of sand, middle layer of aquarium soil, and top layer of gravel, you are creating multi-substrate.

This is common for the aquarist that desires a natural look to their aquatic environment.

This type of substrate is great for root feeder aquatic plants because they have a solid base to root.

Tips for Choosing a Plant Substrate for Your Tank

As you research the best substrate or mix of substrates for your setup, the following considerations should be used:

Complete vs Compound Aquarium Substrates

Complete Substrate: You don’t have to do any preparation or mixing. Add it to your tank and start planting immediately.

Compound Substrate: You must create a mixture before you can add it to your tank and start planting.

Examples of compound substrate are regular aquarium gravel, laterite, and vermiculite. This mixture tends to create cloudy water so layering it correctly is important.

Particle Size

There are pros and cons to every substrate.

Considerations:

  • Small particle substrates (sand) easily compact which can lead to a lack of oxygen in some areas of your tank.
  • Large particle substrates (rocks and gravel) allow fish food and waste to fall between them. Toxic build-up can occur if the tank is not cleaned regularly.

The particle size also plays an important role in the health of your fish.

Do you have fish that like to burrow and make nests out of your substrate?

Do you have any fish that like to scoop up the substrate in their mouth and fling it around?

Think about each of these things as you plan your aquatic environment and choose the best substrate.

Price and Amount Needed

The general guideline is you need a minimum of 3 inches.

It does not have to be perfectly level so feel free to create hills, slopes, mounds, etc., to appeal to the look you want.

Think of your substrate like a landscape for your planted aquarium.

This amount offers an aquarium that is pleasing to look at, and it is also a good depth to allow plants to root without floating away.

You cannot get too much substrate. However, keep in mind the more you add above the amount you need is more to clean out during tank cleaning.

Also, the thicker your substrate the less room you have for fun things in your tank.

Longevity and Maintenance Tips

You need to give your substrate some TLC for it to last for you.

The amount of maintenance it takes is fully dependent on what type of material you choose to use.

Some substrates don’t need to be replaced, only cleaned (typically vacuumed), such as rocks, gravel, pebbles, etc.

Other substrates have to be replaced. Plants will eventually pull all the nutrients out of the soil and need more to survive.

When this happens it is time to replace it. How long the nutrients last depend on the substrate you select.

Substrate for Planted Tanks: Top Reviews

The following five planted aquarium substrates are among the best on the market for fish and plants. Each one is equipped to support the required nutrients for a thriving planted aquarium.

Details of the substrates for planted tanks were obtained from the manufacturers and were accurate at the time of the reviews.

CaribSea Aquatics Eco-Complete

CaribSea Eco-Complete 20-Pound Planted Aquarium, Black
  • Complete substrate for freshwater planted aquariums
  • Contains major and minor trace elements to nourish aquarium plants
  • Substrate encourages healthy plant root growth

Last update on 2022-06-22 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

CaribSea Aquatics Eco-Complete is biologically and mineralogical complete, providing an excellent root base for your planted tank.

When you open the package, you will find it is presoaked and packaged in CaribSea’s own Liquid Amazon Black mixture.

Reasons to consider CaribSea Eco Complete:

  • It is free of paints, dyes, and chemical coatings
  • Natural substrate is ideal for most saltwater and freshwater setups
  • Contains essential live beneficial bacteria
  • Enhances the vibrant colors of planted tanks
  • Buffers pH with tannins
  • Contains large amounts of iron and other trace minerals

Up Aqua Sand for Aquatic Plants

UP AQUA Sand for Aquatic Plants
  • Ph value at 6.5
  • Does not require rinse before use
  • Not easy to break down
  • The Package Weight Of The Product Is 11.0 Pounds

Last update on 2022-06-22 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

This planted tank substrate is a special formula specifically for aquatic plants. It is designed to maintain the pH at 6.5 for optimal plant growth.

Reasons to consider Up Aqua Sand for Aquatic Plants:

  • Ph value at 6.5
  • Does not easily break down
  • Rinsing is not required before use

Mr. Aqua Aquarium Soil

Mr. Aqua N-MAR-066 1 L Fine Pet Habitat Water Plant Soil
  • Composed of organic and inert ingredients providing all essential elements
  • Long lasting fertilized plant substrate lasting up to 12-18 months
  • Prolongs water exchange periods
  • One bag Covers approximately 12" x 6" at 1" deep or 6" x 6" at 2" deep.
  • Black in Color

Last update on 2022-06-22 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Mr. Aqua Aquarium Soil is formulated specifically as a planted tank substrate. It is comprised of a proprietary blend of inert and organic substances that provide the necessary nutrients to stimulate planted tanks.

This substrate is black and lasts for 12 to 18 months. After this length of time passes, you will need to either add nutrients or replace the substrate.

Reasons to consider Mr. Aqua Aquarium Soil:

  • Loaded with organic and inert ingredients that supply all the necessary nutrients for plant growth
  • Long-lasting up to 18 months
  • Prolongs water exchange periods

Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum

Sale
Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum, For Fish Tanks, 8.8 lbs.,
  • Fluval Stratum is made of mineral rich volcanic soil
  • Stimulates strong aquarium plant growth
  • Promotes neutral to mildly acidic pH
  • Suitable for live plants or shrimp
  • 8.8 lb. bag

Last update on 2022-06-22 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum is another top choice for your planted tank substrate.

Made from mineral-rich volcanic soil that contains a large number of trace minerals, Fluval Stratum is well-equipped to encourage healthy plant growth. It is specially formulated for shrimp tanks.

Stratum consists of mostly larger-sized granules. Therefore, this nutrient-rich substrate is not the best for large plants because they have a difficult time staying put in this soil.

Reasons to consider Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum:

  • Stimulates strong plant growth for aquatic plants
  • Promotes neutral to mildly acidic pH
  • Safe for all planted tanks
  • Perfect for shrimp tanks

Seachem Flourite Black Clay Gravel

Seachem Flourite Black Clay Gravel - Stable Porous Natural Planted Aquarium Substrate 15.4 lbs
  • GRAVEL: Seachem Flourite Black is a specially fracted stable porous clay gravel for the natural planted aquarium. Its appearance is best suited to planted aquaria, but may be used in any freshwater...
  • AQUARIUM BED: Gravel modifiers such as laterite are not necessary when using Seachem Flourite Black as this product is most effective when used alone as an integral substrate bed, but it may be mixed...
  • SET-UP: When adding water to the aquarium, fill slowly to avoid disturbing Flourite Black substrate bed. Place a bowl in the aquarium and add water directly to the bowl, allowing water to overflow...
  • COMPATIBLE: Flourite Black substrates will work fine with an under gravel filter and will not soften or decompose to an unsuitable state within your tank.Flourite substrates will work fine with an UGF
  • SAFETY: Seachem Flourite Black is not chemically coated or treated, thus does not alter the pH of the water. Flourite Black is beneficial for the life of the aquarium and need not be replaced.

Last update on 2022-06-22 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Seachem Flourite Black Clay Gravel is an aquarium substrate that can be layered with other gravels. However, it is the most effective when used alone. It is a porous clay-based substrate.

Flourite Black is not chemically treated or coated; therefore, it maintains the water pH. It works best for a planted aquarium; however, it is safe for all types of aquarium options that are freshwater.

Reasons to consider Seachem Flourite:

  • Lasts the life of the aquarium (never needs replaced)
  • Does not contain any chemicals
  • Does not need gravel modifiers (such as laterite)
  • Does not alter water pH
  • Compatible with an under gravel filter

Recap Comparison Chart

Comparison Chart

Last update on 2022-06-22 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Final Words

The best substrate for planted tanks depends on your budget and the types of fish and plants you want to grow.

Gravel or sand is a choice for aquarists that want few plants, column plants, or only a few select types of plants that can grow with root tabs since this type of substrate lacks the necessary nutrients for growth.