Best Aquarium Substrate for Plants – 5 Reviews, Guide, FAQs & More

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You’ll agree with us when we say that with all the different varieties out there, finding the most suitable aquarium substrate for plants can be quite intimidating. 

That’s why we decided to experiment with all the popular aquarium substrates we could get our hands on in order to find out which ones are most appropriate for aquarium plants. 

In our post today, we’ll discuss what plants need from an aquarium substrate and how you can judge different aquarium substrates to find the best one for you.

Top Pick

This eco-friendly substrate contains all kinds of nutrients and trace elements that amplify the rate at which your aquarium plants will grow. It’s easy to spread as well.

Runner Up

Its mildly acidic properties make it perfect for plants and shrimp and you’ll find that your plants will have much stronger root growth with this product underneath them.

Also Great

Containing organic and inert materials, this product is non-reactive with water and prolongs the time between water exchange periods making it very easy to maintain.

We’ve concluded these three to be the best ones that stood out from the crowd. 

Now, let’s get into the reviews for the top 5 best aquarium substrate for plants.

Best Aquarium Substrate for Plants - Best 5 Reviews

1. All-Around Best Aquarium Substrate for Plants - Carib Sea Eco Complete Planted Black Aquarium Substrate Review

This product is the complete package since it comes in a huge 20-pound bag and the substrate itself contains all kinds of organic and natural nutrients which can help your plants grow at a rapid rate. 

Firstly, it contains trace elements and nutrients which will encourage your plant’s roots to grow. That combined with its soft and porous texture ensures that your plant’s roots will be able to grow far and wide inside this substrate. 

Secondly, the heterotrophic bacteria that this substrate contains is another unique feature since this bacteria utilizes fish waste that falls into the substrate and converts it into plant fertilizer that can be used up by your aquarium plants. 

Features of Carib Sea Eco Complete Planted Black Aquarium Substrate – Best Aquarium Substrate for Plants

  1. 20-pound bag
  2. Black in color
  3. Rich in major and minor trace elements
  4. Encourages healthy root growth
  5. Contains beneficial heterotrophic bacteria
  • Long-lasting
  • Easy to use
  • Non-reactive with water
  • Nutrient-rich for aquarium plants
  • Great value for money
  • Not appropriate for saltwater aquariums

If you’re looking for a reliable and fast-acting substrate for your plants, this is the product for you. It’s rich in nutrients and does wonders for your plants by recycling fish waste.

2. Best Mildly Acidic Aquarium Substrate for Plants - Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum Review

Fluval is a very reputable brand in the fishkeeping community and this is one of the several products that proves why. 

The texture of this substrate is extraordinary since not only is it very easy to rinse and spread across your aquarium floor but it also gives way very easily when you create a gap inside it to plant your plants. The porous texture of this substrate allows water to seep into it and pass through where it can be absorbed and utilized by your aquarium plants. 

Features of Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum

  1. Comes in three sizes: 4.4 pounds, 8.8 pounds and 17.6 pounds
  2. Volcanic soil that’s rich in minerals
  3. Appropriate for shrimp and planted tanks
  4. Neutral to mildly acidic pH
  5. Encourages strong plant growth
  • Porous texture allows for great oxygenation
  • Provides consistent slightly acidic conditions
  • Incredibly effective 
  • Does not cloud up the water
  • Easy to rinse
  • Relatively expensive
  • Only for use in freshwater aquariums

If you have shrimp in your tank alongside aquarium plants, this is the product you’re looking for. It’s made for slightly acidic conditions and is great for accelerating biological filtration in your planted tank.

3. Best Nitrifying Aquarium Substrate for Plants - Mr. Aqua N-MAR-066 1 L Fine Pet Habitat Water Plant Soil Review

This product had us worried when we first set up our aquarium with it because our water immediately became cloudy. We soon realized that this was because this substrate encouraged rapid nitrifying bacteria growth and the cloudiness was due to that particular bacteria boom. The cloudiness soon went away and we were left with aquarium water that was rich in beneficial bacteria that would aid in biological filtration. 

The striking jet-black color of this aquarium substrate is quite fascinating since it provides a great back-drop for light-colored fish and really makes their colors pop. 

Features of Mr. Aqua N-MAR-066 1 L Fine Pet Habitat Water Plant Soil

  1. 2-pound bag
  2. Fertilized substrate for effective plant growth
  3. One bag covers a tank of about 6 inches by 6 inches with a 2-inch layer
  4. Black in color
  5. pH of 6.6 to 6.8 
  • Provides breeding ground for nitrifying bacteria
  • Long-lasting
  • Easy to maintain
  • Attractive appearance
  • Purifies water that has been stained due to driftwood
  • Tends to make the water cloudy at the beginning 

If you want effective biological filtration inside your planted tank, this product is ideal for you. It looks incredible and goes a long time before it needs to be changed.

4. Best Natural Aquarium Substrate for Plants - ADA Aqua Soil Amazonia Review

This is a soil that many people on our team had been hearing about and we were quite excited to test it out due to its claim that it’s made from completely natural and organic materials. 

The fact that it’s entirely natural owes to the fact that it makes your aquarium cloudy when you first put it in. Not to worry though, this cloudiness soon goes away and you’re left with an organic substrate that is highly effective at growing plants as well as growing nitrifying bacteria. 

The powdery texture is great for fish as well as it does no harm in the slightest and provides bottom-dwellers such as Kuhli Loaches with a non-abrasive surface to hide themselves in. 

Features of ADA Aqua Soil Amazonia

  1. 16.5-pound bag
  2. Powdery consistency
  3. Helps lower pH levels in your tank
  4. Made from decomposed leaf mulch
  5. Great focus on plant root growth
  • Easy to handle
  • Completely organic
  • Allows good circulation of water and oxygen through it 
  • Easily vacuumable
  • Safe for shrimp and smaller fish
  • Relatively expensive 
  • Not suitable for beginners

If you’re tired of synthetic and artificial aquarium substrates then this is the product for you. It’s very easy to maintain and is produced from all-natural ingredients.

5. Best Pre-Cleaned Aquarium Substrate for Plants - UP AQUA Sand Review

A very tedious task that many aquarists loathe is having to rinse and clean their aquarium substrate before adding it to their aquarium. It’s a task that cannot be skipped as many aquarium substrates don’t come washed. This substrate product, however, is not one of them. 

It does not require rinsing before use and you can add it straight to your aquarium out of the bag. The substrate has a fine texture with granules of slightly different sizes which gives it a very natural look. The nutrients do a great job of growing your aquarium plants and you’ll notice that your plants grow to be incredibly green and vibrant with this substrate. 

Features of UP AQUA Sand

  1. 11-pound bag
  2. pH level at about 6.5
  3. Formulated especially for aquatic plants
  4. One bag is appropriate for up to a 20-gallon tank
  5. Rich in nutrients
  • Does not need to be washed
  • Great longevity
  • Lightweight and allows good circulation
  • Does not disintegrate into water
  • Keeps aquarium water slightly acidic/soft
  • Overwhelming amount of customers have complained about their delivery taking too long

If you hate the idea of washing your aquarium substrate before adding it to your tank, then this product is ideal for you. It’s incredibly easy to spread inside your aquarium and provides a comfortable environment for your plants to grow.

best aquarium substrate for plants

Buyers’ Guide

What is the purpose of aquarium substrate in a planted tank? 

Aquarium substrate for a planted tank serves all the normal functions that a regular aquarium substrate serves, i.e., providing a hiding place for fish, making them feel at home, bringing a balance to the water chemistry of the aquarium, etc. but in addition to that, most aquarium substrate that’s made specifically for planted tanks usually contains nutrients and trace elements that are needed by plants for growth. 

This usually means that the aquarium substrate meant for plants is more expensive due to them containing all these extra nutrients. 

Aquarium substrate for plants also usually has smaller individual grains since that makes easier for fishkeepers to plant their aquarium plants into it firmly. 

What should I look for when buying an aquarium substrate for plants?

There are a number of things you should think about before you actually go out and buy aquarium substrate. Some aspects to keep in mind when buying aquarium substrate for plants are: 

  • What Type of Plants you have

We strongly recommend that you decide on what plants you’re going to have inside your aquarium before you actually go out and buy a substrate for them. This is because different plants have different needs in terms of nutrients so if you already know what plants you have, you can research ahead of time and get an aquarium substrate that is rich in all the correct nutrients needed by your specific aquarium plants to grow. 

Secondly, there do exist some plants known as water-column feeders who don’t get their nutrients from the aquarium substrate. If you have plants like these, you don’t need to get an aquarium substrate that is high in nutrients. So, if you have plants that are column-feeders, make sure you’re not spending extra money to get nutrient-rich substrate that you don’t need. 

  • Reactivity with Water

Whether you need an active or an inert substrate entirely depends on what you have inside your aquarium. For example, if you have aquarium plants whose leaves are known to decay or wilt regularly, you may want to invest in an aquarium substrate that reacts with water to raise the pH of it. This is because decaying leaves tend to lower water pH so a substrate that raises the pH would balance things out. Similarly, if you’re looking for slightly acidic conditions in your aquarium, you might want to get aquarium substrate that isn’t pH neutral but is in fact, a little on the acidic side. 

How do I ensure my substrate is clean before adding it to my planted tank?

The best way to ensure this is by washing it.

Please note that you should never rinse your aquarium substrate with tap water. All the washing that you’re going to do should be done from water that comes directly from your aquarium or by water that has been effectively dechlorinated and treated with an aquarium water conditioning agent. Regular tap water contains chlorine which is toxic to fish and it kills beneficial nitrifying bacteria inside your aquarium.

You can wash your substrate by placing it in a clean bucket and rinsing it with your aquarium water repeatedly until the water runs clear. Once you’re satisfied with the cleanliness of your aquarium substrate, you can start adding it to your tank.

How do I securely plant my aquarium plants into my aquarium substrate?

There are a number of things you can do to ensure your plants are securely placed inside your aquarium gravel. 

The first thing to note is that you should always put larger aquarium plants at the back of your tank with the smaller plants in front. 

Use your fingers to create a gap within the aquarium substrate, place your plant into this gap and then cover the sides with the substrate that you’ve displaced. The aquarium substrate will help hold the aquarium plant in place. 

How do I maintain my aquarium substrate?

By far, the best way to maintain your aquarium substrate is by investing in an aquarium vacuum cleaner. It helps keep your aquarium substrate clean and free from all kinds of waste, detritus and leftover food. We recommend that you clean your aquarium substrate every time you perform your regular weekly water change. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What type of substrate is most appropriate for aquarium plants?

The most popular and most appropriate aquarium substrate for plants is soil-like substrate. This is because of two reasons: 

Firstly, a soil-like texture makes it very simple and easy to place aquarium plants into the aquarium substrate securely. Not only do they hold the plants firmly in place, but they also provide ample room for the aquarium plant’s roots to grow and spread within it.

Secondly, a soil-like substrate is the perfect medium to pack it with nutrients and trace elements that are very necessary for effective aquarium plant growth.  

Can I make my own aquarium soil substrate? How? 

Yes. You can make your own aquarium soil substrate by adding 1 part clay to 10 parts soil and then pouring water into it until a cake-like batter is formed. Keep mixing until you’re satisfied with the consistency, if it’s too thick, add more water, if it’s too thin, add more soil. Once it’s homogenous, add potassium and some aquarium fertilizer to it and mix well. Once this is mixed, add it to the bottom of your aquarium. 

Can I use normal soil in my planted aquarium? 

You can but we would not recommend this as regular soil that you find in your garden or backyard may not be suitable for aquarium plants or for the marine life inside your aquarium. Not to mention, it could also be infested with pests such as snails, etc. Regular soil that’s not specifically meant for aquariums can also react with water in unforeseen ways such as raising or dropping the pH levels by a drastic amount or turning the water extremely cloudy. 

Can aquarium plants grow in gravel? 

Yes. You can definitely grow aquarium plants that are water-column feeders in gravel. It might be a little risky but if you tie them down securely inside your aquarium gravel, you can easily have healthy aquarium plants. 

What type of soil do aquarium plants need? 

As we’ve discussed earlier, regular soil won’t do. Most aquarium plants require soil that is rich in nutrients and trace elements such as potassium, magnesium, etc. 

Can I leave my aquarium plants floating in my planted tank? 

Again, this depends on what type of aquarium plants you have. Some plants have no problem thriving while floating freely in a planted tank but other plants who are root feeders need to be securely rooted in place in order to grow. So, if you want floating plants in your aquarium, be sure to get the appropriate species. 

My plants keep dislodging from my aquarium substrate. What can I do to fix this? 

There are a number of ways through which you can secure your aquarium plant further to your substrate. Some of these ways are: 

  • Place some heavier rocks around your plant’s base. 
  • Tie your aquarium plant securely to something heavy such as a large rock or a piece of driftwood. 
  • Keep the plant inside its pot. 
  • Make use of plant anchors to keep the aquarium plant in place. These are soft, malleable strips made of lead which you can use to hold the plant down.
  • Utilize nylon mesh. This is great for mosses and carpet plants as it holds them down and gives them something to attach themselves to. 

Can my aquarium plants become dislodged while I’m using a gravel cleaner to clean my aquarium substrate

Most gravel cleaners are designed in a way so that they don’t disturb any of the aquatic life inside your planted tank; This includes both fish as well as aquarium plants. There’s a very small chance that your aquarium plant gets dislodged merely due to the suction of a gravel cleaner. However, an aquarium plant can definitely get dislodged if you accidentally hit it too hard while sifting the gravel cleaner through your water.

My fish bury themselves in the substrate and damage my plants while doing so. What can I do to prevent this? 

A good idea is to utilize some of the ways we described above to securely attach them to your substrate such as utilizing heavier rocks, driftwood, nylon mesh, plant anchors, etc. 

The important thing to note is that if you are using external weighted accessories such as these and if you have fish that like digging in the substrate, make sure those accessories don’t have any pointed or jagged edges. Fish can fatally get hurt due to objects like that protruding through the aquarium substrate. 

Can aquarium substrate contain parasites that may be harmful to my fish and plants?

High-quality aquarium substrate for plants that comes from reputable brands is always tested for pests and diseases before it is shipped out to customers. You can rest assured that your aquarium substrate won’t contain any parasites that might harm your aquatic life. 

Final Verdict

Indeed, shopping for aquarium substrate for plants can be quite difficult but with a little research and some observant shopping, you can definitely scope out a product that would be perfect for your aquarium plants. 

In the end, we had to go with the Carib Sea Eco Complete Planted Black Aquarium Substrate as the best aquarium substrate for plants. It boosts plant growth exponentially and it looks fantastic as well. 

This concludes our post for the best aquarium substrate for plants. 

Let us know what aquarium substrate you’ve been using for your plants.

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