Best Substrates For Planted Tanks & What To Look For

Plants need a substrate, the bottom layer material in a tank where they can take hold and thrive. In addition to being a habitat for the bacteria biofilm and microorganisms, which are food for detritus feeders, this structure also provides a protective environment for these organisms. Furthermore, the substrate acts as a catch point for the microscopic particulate materials that the bacteria biofilm binds together. Organic waste is further decomposed into usable nutrients in the substrate.

When it comes to maintaining a flourishing planted aquarium, nothing beats a quality substrate. It will be difficult to cultivate healthy, flourishing plants if the substrate is inadequate. However, you can’t just go out and buy a suitable substrate for your planted tank and hope for the best. In order to determine what kind of substrate you’ll need, it’s important to know what kinds of plants and other inhabitants you plan to keep.

Some best plants for betta fish
Some best plants for betta fish

In this article, we are going to detail how to choose the best substrate for your planted tanks and other occupants that you want to keep. We’ll also cover how to choose the best substrate for your planted tanks.

How to Choose the Best Substrate for a Planted Tank

The substrate you go with for your aquarium will have a major effect on the environment for your fish and plants. When deciding on a substrate, it’s crucial to keep certain criteria in mind. When deciding on a substrate for your planted aquarium, keep these factors in mind.

Appearance

The majority of aquarium owners care about the visual appeal of their tanks. In fact, that’s why we carefully select each species of fish and plant for our aquariums. Substrates that are fine and sand-like tend to look excellent because they are quite unobtrusive. Safety

Think about whether or not the substrate in your aquarium could harm your tropical fish. Fish will consume anything they find in their aquarium, including the substrate if they are bottom dwellers. However, if you’re planning on using only plants in your aquascape, it’s a good option.

Length of Time

Certain substrates degrade rapidly and must be replaced frequently, while others might survive for a very long time before they give out. Clay-based Flourite and gravel are both long-lasting choices.

Nutrients

Some substrates already have nutrients incorporated into them. The choice is yours if you want to use potting soil or another nutrient-rich substrate. Spreading gravel on top will aid in maintaining a neat appearance. Getting things looking their best may initially require little more than a net and a water change.

PH

As an added downside, some substrates might change the pH of your aquarium water. Basically, this isn’t a big problem at all. A healthy ecosystem for both plants and fish requires a pH that is just right, and this can be achieved by adjusting the water’s alkalinity.

Quick and Simple Cleanup

The easiest substrates to clean of fish waste are those with larger gravel particles, whereas those with finer sand-like particles or natural sand will be more difficult. However, for tanks housing plants solely, this is not a major concern, but they will still require periodic cleaning.

image of aquarium tank with a variety of aquatic plants inside.

What Is The Best Substrate For A Planted Discus Tank

A planted aquarium may be the best choice for discus due to its ability to mimic natural habitats and provide the best conditions for discus breeding and care. The water quality, temperature, and presence of ammonia and nitrite can kill discus. To get the best results from a planted discus tank, you need to carefully choose the substrate you use.

Some of our favorites are listed here.

Pool Filter Sand

Pool Filter Sand is our top pick. With a light substrate, your Discus is less likely to pepper or shift colors to blend in with its surroundings. Sand from a pool filter can be used to cultivate aquatic plants after being treated with root tabs and then cleaned.

Pea Gravel

In terms of pH, pea gravel is ideal for use with Discus because of how well it complements the acidic gravel. This inexpensive gravel, which is sometimes offered by the cubic foot, provides any Discus tank with a natural appearance at a low price. Plant roots should be able to take hold of the gravel because of its size, but they will need supplemental nutrients.

CaribSea Eco-Complete

This gravel has a natural appearance because it hasn’t been treated with any dyes, paints, or coatings, but it’s widely regarded as one of the greatest substrates. Iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sulfur are just some of the minerals found in Eco-complete. Be sure to keep an eye on your water’s chemistry if you’re using eco-complete for the first time with Discus.

 CaribSea Super Naturals

Because of its neutral pH, CaribSea’s Super Naturals will not cause an increase in carbonate hardness. Discus and other bottom-dwelling fish will thrive on its soft, digestible grains. This sand is mobile and can be vacuumed up by the pump during water changes. This can be used in place of pool sand if it is unavailable.

Pool Filter Sand Combined with Eco-Complete

Our go-to recommendation for a planted Discus tank is a combination of Pool Filter sand and Eco-Complete, which may get pricey. The best of both worlds is achieved by placing a layer of eco-complete at the bottom of the tank, then adding pool filter sand to the front of the tank and sloping it towards the back of the tank. Your plants can safely put down roots in the eco-complete gravel beneath the sand without worrying about the chemistry changing.

Best Substrate For Planted Tank

A planted aquarium may be the best choice for discus due to its ability to mimic natural habitats and provide the best conditions for discus breeding and care. The following substrates are made especially for planted aquariums.

Inert Gravel

The regular inert gravel can be utilized as an excellent substrate if it is used in the right way. To keep more demanding plants alive and well when beginning from scratch, intensive fertilizing is required. It’s also important that the gravel is fine enough so plant roots can penetrate it.

Sand

It is recommended that this substrate be utilized with caution. It has a lot going for it, but there are also some drawbacks. It can become compacted, making it tough for roots to penetrate. In the event that the sand becomes compacted, water flow is impeded, and anaerobic bacteria might thrive in isolated areas. When this occurs, bubbles of poisonous gas are released. The use of sand is discouraged unless it is layered over another substrate or the grains are very large.

Eco-Complete

As a result of its high quality, this substrate is frequently used in home and public aquariums. You don’t need to rinse it, and it contains all the minerals and nutrients that your plants need to thrive. Gravel-like in appearance, the particle sizes are just suitable for promoting healthy root development. Bottom-feeding fish will be safe from harm due to the rounded gravel.

Soil

Using normal potting soil can be difficult, but if done right, it can be an excellent substrate. It’s great for plant growth and requires almost no care or fertilizer. But if you don’t use this substrate appropriately, a lot of bad things can happen.

What Is The Best Substrate For A Planted Betta Tank?

Bettas are found in the shallow water of rice fields and puddles across the tropical regions of Asia. In their natural environment, the substrate is a combination of rotting plant matter and murky silt. However, getting a substrate like that is difficult and not recommended because it might cause a real mess in your tank.

The substrate can be chosen from a wide variety of high-quality alternatives. Here are a few good choices to think about.

Seachem Flourite Black Clay Gravel

This is one of the greatest gravels for your planted aquarium. Black in hue (as one might expect), Seachem’s flourite black clay gravel is an excellent substrate for freshwater aquariums with plants. It works well alone or in combination with other gravels.

Fluval Plants and Shrimp Stratum

The volcanic and mineral components of the Fluval strata make it an excellent medium for plant growth. Since it is permeable, plant roots have no trouble penetrating the layer below. Soil from Japan’s Mount Aso serves as the basis for this substrate, which also includes a number of components that make it a particularly healthy choice.

Oliver Knott AQUAEARTH Power Plant Growth

You won’t find a higher-quality substrate than this one. Because it includes all the necessary nutrients, this substrate promotes rapid development. Ashes and gravel from Japanese volcanoes were used to create this soil, which along with a proprietary blend of clays and minerals, makes an ideal substrate for your aquarium’s plant life.

Dennerle Scaper’s Soil

This substrate is ideal for freshwater aquariums housing tropical fish, who prefer slightly acidic water. You can trust the integrity of this substrate because it is created entirely of natural resources. It has everything the plants in your tank need to thrive, as well as any other organisms that may be there.

CaribSea Peace River Gravel for Aquarium

Although “river gravel” is in the name, this particular gravel is really quite suitable for freshwater aquariums, including those housing betta fish. The substrate is quite similar to what would be found in the betta fish’s native home, recreating the conditions of a river ecology. This substrate will provide an environment that is familiar and comfortable for your fish. It lacks artificial colors and other chemicals, so it has a more natural feel.

Best Substrate For Planted Shrimp Tank

You know that there are both shrimp tanks and planted tanks available. It appears that there is a strict classification system that all aquariums must follow. But now, with our extensive and constantly evolving product knowledge, you may have both simultaneously.

Can you have a shrimp tank that is both visually appealing and well-planted? We must decide between an inert and an active substrate for the aquarium.

Active Substrates

The pH of the tank water can be lowered by using active substrates. For shrimp species that need a low pH level in the tank, we need an active substrate. In order to gradually reduce the pH of the water, active substrates are designed with specific materials and construction techniques. Since their primary function is to prevent pH fluctuations in water, they are often referred to as buffering substrates. 

These shrimp are typically caridina species like crystal shrimp, tiger shrimp, etc. Some common examples of active substrates are as follows:

  • Brightwell Rio Escuro-M 
  • Brightwell Rio Cafe-F 
  • Fluval Shrimp Stratum etc.

Inert Substrate

Substrates that are not reactive will not alter the water’s pH or other properties. Substrates that are inert don’t degrade at all, or do so very slowly. They’re the best substrate option for a planted aquarium because of how simple they are to care for. All of them need further fertilization because they lack large amounts of nutrients (despite the ones that claim to do so on their packaging).

Shrimp in the genus Neocaridina, including the cherry shrimp, snowball shrimp, etc., enjoy this particular substrate. Some examples of inert substrates are provided below.

  • Pool filter sand
  • Seachem Flourite
  • Eco Complete Planted Aquarium Substrate

Best Sand Substrate For Planted Tank

In recent years, sand has overtaken gravel as the most sought-after substrate. When packed properly, aquarium sand does not need to be replaced very often, making it an ideal medium for living plants. When compared to planting in gravel or soil, this means less frequent plant disturbance. However, some plants, like water lettuce, can’t grow in sand and may require root tabs.

Let’s check out some of the top options for planted tank substrate!

Flourite Black Sand

Flourite Black Sand is a gorgeous addition to any tank because of the sleek and tidy appearance it provides. The fact that the substrate doesn’t decompose over time means you never have to replenish it, making this product great for living plants, even rooted ones. Your plants’ roots will be able to stretch out freely in the Flourite Black Sand, which is essentially an improved form of gravel.

Caribsea Super Naturals

Exotic in appearance, Caribsea’s Super Naturals requires less maintenance thanks to the soft and fine grains that it contains. In addition, the sand has a natural hue (untreated with paints and dyes), so it will look like the terrain your aquarium inhabitants might find in places like the Rio Negro, the rivers of Sri Lanka, or a tropical island. Since sand is inert and relatively pH-neutral, it won’t change the chemistry in your aquarium.

Caribbean Cichlid Mix

CaribSea’s Cichlid Mix is a great product since it accurately represents the conditions found in Africa’s natural Cichlid habitats. The fantastic color contrast makes this substrate an excellent choice for your tank, especially if you like the look of the desert. However, if you’re just starting off with an aquarium, this product may be hit or miss.

Stoney River Aquatic Sand

The white, fine-grained sand has a protective layer that is safe for fish and plants but does not alter the tank’s pH or chemistry. If you’re planning on setting up a saltwater aquarium, this sand could serve as an initial “booster” by making the tank’s sand bed more diverse and welcoming to fish and plants right away.

Pool Sand or Black Diamond Blasting Sand

Using one of these two kinds of sand as a foundation can have several advantages. Most importantly, they are much less expensive than the things we’ve already covered. It’s cheap, yet it looks just as good as the expensive branded aquarium sands.

Best Inert Substrate For Planted Tank

Inert substrates like gravel, clay, and sand provide no additional nutrients for aquarium plants. They also have no effect on the pH or hardness of the water in a tank. Inert means not having any chemical activity. The best part about inert substrates is how simple they are to work with. Substrates that don’t encourage growth make replanting and rescaping much simpler. 

When settling on an inert substrate, it’s important to take into account and examine the following five factors:

  • Grain Size
  • Material
  • Weight
  • Aesthetics
  • CEC Value

Some of the best inert substrate options for planted tanks are as follows.

  1. Seachem Flourite is available in a variety of appealing colors and patterns. Weighty and simple to plant in.
  1. CaribSea Eco-Complete porosity is high. It is a bit too light, making it a challenge to plant in. Despite its name, it does not actually provide significant nutrients for plants.
  1. ADA la plata sand is more expensive than regular sand because of the variety of natural grains it contains; however, this premium price has nothing to do with the sand’s nutritional value.
  1. Pool filter sand is inexpensive and looks natural, making it a good choice for many planted tanks.
  1. Turface and Safe T Sorb are baked clay products that are good at letting water through.
  1. Black diamond blasting sand is shiny and a little sharp. The dramatic contrast provided by the dark base is particularly noticeable when placed with the colorful plant life.

Best Cheap Substrate For Planted Tank

When designing your aquarium, the substrate you choose will have the greatest impact. Your fish and water supply are affected, either immediately or in the long run. Here are some of the most affordable recommended substrates for planted aquariums that have received positive feedback from purchasers and are well worth your money.

Fluval’s Plant and Shrimp Stratum

It is often used because of its reliability and popularity in planted aquariums. Comparable to other low-priced substrates for planted aquariums, the grains of the Fluval are small and easily broken. Because of this, plant roots are able to sprout rapidly and connect with the soil quickly to draw nutrients up from below.

Spectrastone Shallow Creek Regular

And there’s no doubt that this is a fantastic product as well. It maintains a healthy environment in your aquarium without affecting the PH level, unlike a number of other substrates that include rocks that can be harmful to the ecosystem there. Still, it has vastly improved in this sense. Gravel’s components are light enough to transport easily.

CaribSea Natural Moonlight Aquarium Sand

Substrate for planted tanks that is both affordable and made in the USA. Its versatility as a product that can be used in both saltwater and freshwater is its greatest strength. For the most part, white sand is the most visually appealing option. It is neither alkaline nor acidic, so the PH value is neutral, which is a good sign.

Seachem Flourite, Onyx, and Sand Substrate

For planted aquariums, Onyx sand is a superior product because it has been specially fortified. In any case, this product is suitable for use in any aquarium. In addition, we don’t need a crushed rock modifier because this product is blended with other crushed rocks. That’s why it serves us best when we recognize it as our primary substrate.

Estes’ Gravel Black Marine Sand

It serves as a low-priced substrate for aquatic ecosystems. In terms of particle size, the grains are far larger than coffee beans, yet this is acceptable. When the sand is split in the desired pattern, its weight is great for keeping plant roots and storing them in place.

CaribSea Super Naturals Crystal River Sand

The substrate is great for a planted tank and is rather inexpensive. Particles might be very small or very large. During routine tank maintenance, some particles cannot be removed safely because of their huge size and solid nature.

FAQ

Is Sand Or Gravel Better For A Planted Aquarium?

Gravel is better for plants to grow in because it is less dense and makes it easier for roots to grow. However, with the help of root tabs and sufficient liquid fertilizer, even sand substrate can support plant growth. You could also use gravel as the bottom layer and sand as the top layer. As a result, roots would have an easier time penetrating the sand and establishing themselves.

Do You Need A Special Substrate For Aquarium Plants?

To grow plants in an aquarium, you may use practically any substrate material, but it’s important to avoid the extremes of size. Plants struggle in very fine sand because the particles are so tiny and tend to clump together, making it harder for the roots to break through and spread.

Recap

Substrate selection for a planted tank can be challenging for a beginner. It is due to the wide variety of factors to think about and information to digest. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide what’s best for you. Considering the unique needs of your aquarium’s plants and marine life, as well as your own aesthetic preferences, is essential. Find out everything you need to know to make an informed purchase decision, and then give it a shot!