With planted aquariums becoming so popular, you’ll agree with us when we say that finding a specific substrate that works well for them can be quite daunting.
This prompted us to gather and test out all the popular substrates we could find in order to bring you this detailed set of reviews.
In today’s post, we’ll be discussing all the ins-and-outs of substrates for planted aquariums as well as how you can find a substrate that’s best suited for you.
We can conclusively state after months of rigorous testing that these three are the best substrates we had the pleasure of testing, by far.
Now, let’s take a deeper look into the top 5 best substrates for planted aquariums.
Best Substrates for Planted Aquariums - Best 5 Reviews
1. Overall Best Substrate for Planted Aquarium - Seachem Flourite Black Clay Gravel Review
This substrate product is a dream-come-true for all aquarists that are looking to run a planted aquarium. It has a texture that’s very easy to work with and this substrate is known to last much longer than most of its competitors on this list.
It’s clay-based gravel that is rich in iron and many other nutrients that your aquarium plants in order to grow quickly and efficiently.
Its black color is also an added benefit as it adds a certain level of flair and aesthetic appeal to your aquarium and really elevates it to the next level in terms of looks.
Features of Seachem Flourite Black Clay Gravel – Best Substrate for Planted Aquarium
- 15.4-pound bag
- Not chemically coated or treated with preservatives
- Jet-black color
- Compatible with under-gravel filters
- Great for freshwater planted aquariums
- Does not affect water chemistry
- Rich in iron and other nutrients
- Tremendous value for money
- Easy to spread and handle
- Has a tendency to cloud up the aquarium initially
- Difficult to plant plants with delicate roots
If you’re looking for a reliable substrate that not only functions great but also looks great, then this is the product for you. It’s very easy to use and it’s easy on the pocket as well.
2. Best Mineral-Rich Substrate for Planted Aquarium - Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum Review
This substrate offers a product that slowly shifts the pH of your aquarium slightly below the neutral point of 7 towards slightly acidic conditions (6 – 6.5). As a beginner aquarist, you may think of this as a bad thing but in reality, most freshwater fish thrive in slightly acidic conditions and as for plants, these conditions help plants gather nutrients much more efficiently.
You really have nothing to worry about in terms of growth with this substrate. While it’s specifically made for fish fry and shrimp, it’s still rich in minerals that can be utilized by aquarium plants.
Features of Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum
- Comes in three different sizes: 4.4 pounds, 8.8 pounds and 17.6 pounds
- Dark brownish color
- Porous texture
- Made from volcanic soil
- Mildly acidic
- Acidic properties make it easier for plants to absorb nutrients
- Easy to spread and use
- Highly nutritious for plants
- Texture is great for root development
- Works great in tanks of many different sizes
- Has a tendency to break down over time
- Relatively expensive
If you have root feeder aquarium plants that are still small and growing, this substrate is ideal for you. It will increase their growth rate exponentially and also, it’s very easy to work with.
3. Best Affordable Substrate for Planted Aquarium - Carib Sea Eco Complete Planted Black Aquarium Substrate Review
Buying substrate for a large aquarium can get quite pricey and oftentimes, the substrate is packed into small 2 or 3-pound bags which you have to buy a dozen or dozens of. This is where this product comes in as it offers a huge 20-pound bag for a very modest price.
Not only that, it’s a substrate that’s jam-packed with beneficial nutrients as well as heterotrophic bacteria. Heterotrophic bacteria are beneficial bacteria that feed on fish waste that gets deposited into the substrate. They broke down this fish waste and convert it into natural food that is then sucked by the roots of your aquarium plants.
Features of Carib Sea Eco Complete Planted Black Aquarium Substrate
- 20-pound bag
- Rich in nutrients
- Suitable for freshwater environments
- Contains heterotrophic bacteria
- Bacteria convert fish waste into plant food
- Easy to spread
- Highly affordable
- Doesn’t cloud the water
- Has a bad odor initiall
If you’re looking for substrate for a large planted aquarium, you’ve just found it. This product comes in a large bag and you’ll find that it takes a long time before it needs to be replaced.
4. Best Neutral Substrate for Planted Aquarium - Spectrastone Shallow Creek Regular Review
As we mention later in this article, soil substrate is usually the way to go for most planted aquariums but if you’re an aquarist that still wants to stick the old school and wants to have aquarium gravel, then this product is certainly a great option.
Note that this aquarium gravel does not contain any nutrients so you should only use this substrate if you have aquarium plants that are water column feeders i.e., they obtain their nutrients from the water.
The gravel itself looks great with slightly varying sizes. All of their edges are carefully smoothed so your fish don’t hurt themselves and also so your delicate plants’ roots don’t get damaged.
Features of Spectrastone Shallow Creek Regular
- 5-pound bag
- These should be well written
- Not plagiarized
- With no errors
- And very clearly explained
- Does not cloud the water
- Does not contain any toxic substances
- Does not alter pH
- Natural, rustic appearance
- Quite a small bag; may be inconvenient if you have a larger aquarium
- Not rich in nutrients
If you don’t want to be worried about the substrate affecting your planted aquarium’s pH, this is the product for you. It’s completely non-reactive and has a non-toxic coating.
5. Best Detritus-Resistant Substrate for Planted Aquarium - Carib Sea ACS00832 Peace River Gravel Review
This product is one that’s made to last. It goes for very long periods without needing to be cleaned and it also goes for a long period before it needs to be replaced.
Its color and texture mimic natural conditions very well which is extremely calming for your fish. It will help deter them from harming your aquarium plants with any violent movements or any forms of aggression that may occur due to stress or other factors.
Of course, you also don’t have to worry about monitoring pH conditions with this gravel either since it does not affect it in the slightest.
Features of Carib Sea ACS00832 Peace River Gravel
- 20-pound bag
- Brown in color
- Does not contain artificial paints or dyes
- Grain size and shape designed to discourage detritus buildup
- Easily malleable
- Does not react with water
- Does not make the water murky
- Great value for money
- You may have a lot of substrate leftover if you have a smaller aquarium
If you’re frustrated with having to constantly clean your aquarium substrate then this is the product you’re looking for. It’s a joy to handle and you’ll find it’s very budget-friendly too.
What is aquarium substrate?
When one refers to aquarium substrate, they are referring to the substance found at the bottom of the aquarium.
They come in many shapes and forms such as gravel, sand, marble, soil, etc. They can often be made from different types of materials such as ceramic, wood, sand, etc.
Many aquarists consider not having any substrate in their aquarium at all but in all honesty, aquarium substrate can serve a lot of functions inside your aquarium. They give your fish a sense of familiarity and also something to play with, they also help with water chemistry by keeping most of the water conditions stable. Not to mention, they also look quite nice and help elevate the aesthetic appeal of your aquarium.
How do I choose the best substrate for my planted aquarium?
There are a number of factors you can look towards that can help you decide which specific substrate would be most suitable for your planted aquarium. Some of these factors are:
How do your Plant’s Obtain Nutrients
This is a key factor in determining what type of substrate you’re going to get. If you’re planning on setting up a planted aquarium, you have to decide on what type of aquarium plants you’re going to have inside it first and then decide what substrate you’re going to get later.
This is important because there are two main categories of aquarium plants: root feeders and water column feeders. Root feeders get their nutrients from the soil whereas water column feeders get their nutrients from the water.
So, if you only have water column feeders inside your aquarium, you’re going to want to avoid aquarium substrate that is rich in nutrients as your plants really aren’t going to be getting any value out of it and you would be spending extra money for something that’s useless. On the other hand, if you do have root feeders, you’re going to have to seek out these soil substrates that are rich in nutrients as they help increase the growth of your root feeders by a lot.
While the texture of the aquarium substrate is important to consider in any case but in the case of a planted aquarium, it’s especially important since the substrate is the material that your plant is going to be securely placed into. So, you have to ensure that the texture of your aquarium substrate is able to handle that. Make sure you get a substrate that can securely lock your aquarium plants into place.
What are some advantages of aquarium substrate for aquatic plants?
There are two most obvious advantages to having aquarium substrate inside a planted aquarium. The first one is that the substrate is pretty much the only thing that firmly locks an aquarium plant in place and doesn’t let it drift freely around your aquarium. Your substrate is a platform for your aquarium plants to grow and extend their roots into.
The second advantage is that the substrate is the main source from where your aquarium plants get their nutrients. Be sure to get an aquarium substrate that is rich in trace elements and nutrients that plants need such as potassium, magnesium, etc. and watch your aquarium plants thrive.
What are the different types of aquarium substrates?
There are mainly two major categories of aquarium substrates: aquarium gravel and aquarium sand.
Aquarium gravel refers to relatively large, polished pieces that are smoothed out so they can’t hurt fish if they play with it.
Aquarium sand is an umbrella term that has many different types of aquarium substrates underneath it such as coral sand, marble chippings, marbles, and soil-like substrate.
Out of all of these types, soil-like substrate is by far the most common type of substrate that is utilized in planted aquariums. It can be fine like sand or in the form of tiny particles but the important part of it is that this texture allows them to pack a lot of nutrients into it which are beneficial for your plants. This specific texture also works great for holding plants in place while also allowing sufficient circulation of water throughout it.
How deep should my aquarium substrate be in my planted aquarium?
For a standard-sized household planted aquarium (10 – 60 gallons), a standard substrate layer of about 2 inches is usually sufficient. You can have more than that and go up to 3 or 4 inches but you have to be wary of the fact that the deeper your substrate is, the harder it is to clean.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Can I utilize topsoil in my planted aquarium?
You can definitely utilize topsoil inside your planted aquarium and in fact, many veteran aquarists actually prefer to do this rather than buying ready-made packaged soil substrate. However, the important thing to note is that you ensure this topsoil is free from all kinds of parasites and pests.
How can I judge how much substrate I will need for my planted aquarium?
As we mentioned above, you need at least a 2-inch deep layer of substrate for a planted aquarium. Now, depending on the dimensions of your fish tank, the amount of substrate you’ll need to achieve that depth can vary by a lot. There are tons of gravel calculators available online that you can use in order to find out how much substrate you’ll need.
How soon after adding my aquarium substrate can I add my fish and aquarium plants?
It’s going to take a while. If you’re just setting up your aquarium and have added the substrate, we recommend that you add the treated water as well and also set up all other equipment such as the filter, heater, etc. After that, you need to turn your equipment on and let it run for a few weeks before you add any living being to your aquarium. This is because, in your aquarium’s current state, there’s going to be a lot of ammonia present inside your aquarium. This ammonia can be extremely toxic to your fish so you need to give time for beneficial nitrifying bacteria to be born inside your tank that help eliminate ammonia. You can tell when the tank is ready for fish and aquarium plants when the ammonia levels inside it become zero.
How do I safely add substrate to my planted aquarium?
You should rinse the substrate in a clean bucket with aquarium water before adding it to a tank. If you haven’t yet set up your tank yet then you should rinse it with water that’s been dechlorinated and treated with a water-conditioning agent. Rinse the substrate until the water runs off clear. Next, add it to your aquarium and arrange it however you like and then add water on top of it.
Can I use a combination of substrates in my planted aquarium?
You can definitely use a combination of substrates and mix and match to suit your specific functional and aesthetic needs. One thing to keep in mind is that you monitor all the changes in pH that the different substrates may cause inside your aquarium and address these changes accordingly.
What should I do if I want to change the substrate in my planted aquarium?
The important thing to note is that you should replace the substrate all at once and never do it in sections. Many people think that removing fish during substrate changes is beneficial but in reality, removing them can be more stressful than not removing them during a substrate change.
Firstly, a day before you do your substrate change, vacuum the old gravel with a gravel cleaner to get rid of all the gunk, waste and debris between it.
Use a plastic container or something similar to scoop the old gravel out. Keep doing this repeatedly and keep checking to see if any waste or leftover debris settles down to the aquarium floor. If it does, you can just vacuum it up using your gravel cleaner.
Once you have the old gravel out, you can start adding the new gravel. The trick is to add it in sections and not at once. You can start by adding 25% of it first and then letting it settle and then adding more and so on.
Do I have to wash my substrate before adding it to my aquarium? How?
It depends on the manufacturer. Some come pre-rinsed while others don’t. You can wash your gravel by placing it in a clean bucket and rinsing it with aquarium-safe water repeatedly until the water runs clear.
What can I do about dirt, debris, and leftover food getting stuck in my substrate?
You have two options: you can either invest in a gravel cleaner or you can dislodge the substrate gently using your hand so the dirt and debris particles get swept up by your filter.
How do I effectively use a gravel cleaner?
The trick to using a gravel cleaner effectively is to keep it moving. Never keep it in one place for too long as you will end up sucking in a plant root or the aquarium substrate itself.
How do I securely plant my aquarium plants in my substrate?
It’s as simple as you would expect it to be: Simply make a gap between the aquarium substrate, place your plant into and cover the gap with the aquarium substrate you displaced. Keep an eye on your aquarium plant for the next few hours to make sure it doesn’t get dislodged.
Substrates can definitely be tricky to buy especially if you have aquarium plants to worry about in addition to fish.
In the end, we had to go with the Seachem Flourite Black Clay Gravel. Its striking jet-black color looks fantastic and it promotes plant growth very well.
This brings us to the end of our post for the best substrates for planted aquariums.
Let us know in the comments what substrate you’re using for your planted aquarium.