Best Substrate for Planted Tank – 7 Reviews, Guide, FAQs & More

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It’s not hard to agree with us when we say that buying substrate for your planted tank can be just as if not more confusing than buying your fish. 

This is why we played around with all the popular substrates available in the market in order to compile this list for you. 

In today’s post, we’ll be going through what makes a great substrate and how you can go about buying the perfect one for your planted tank.

Top Pick

If you’re looking for a neutralized substrate that is easy to handle, this product is for you. It's not only beautiful but also affordable.

Runner Up

This substrate is made from volcanic soil and is rich in nutrients. You can get these for fast growth in your young aquatic plants.

Also Great

If you have aquatic plants and fish pets that like slightly acidic water, this product is ideal for you. It lowers the pH and is suitable for shrimp too.

We subjected our aquatic plants and pets to all sorts of different substrates in their aquatic homes and in the end, we were able to choose these three as the products that gave us the best results. 

Now, let’s get into the reviews for the top 7 substrates for planted tanks.

Best Substrate for Planted Tank - Top 7 Reviews

1. Best All-Around Substrate for Planted Tank - Spectrastone Shallow Creek Regular for Freshwater Aquariums Review

Spectrastone Shallow Creek Regular is pebble gravel which means it is a lot smaller than the traditional gravel that is sold for freshwater aquariums. 

This works in its favor because it discourages detritus buildup between it and we were pleased to see in our testing that no dirt or waste was being built up within the substrate as time went by and all waste products seemed to be swept up by our filter. 

These pebbles don’t affect the pH at all and are covered in a non-toxic coating which makes them the perfect choice for your fish that live in neutral conditions.

Features of Spectrastone Shallow Creek Regular for Freshwater Aquariums – Best Substrate for Planted Tank

  1. One bag sufficient for a tank up to 10 gallons
  2. Non-toxic coating to prevent color deterioration
  3. 5-pound bag
  4. Pebble size between 2 and 4 mm
  5. For use in freshwater aquariums
  • Inexpensive
  • Smaller in size to discourage detritus build-up
  • Does not cloud the water
  • Well-packaged
  • Natural-looking tan color to make fish feel at home
  • Not suitable for saltwater tanks

If you’re looking for the perfect substrate that not only provides nutrients to your plants but also helps keep your aquarium clean, you’ve found it. Its neutralised material coupled with its non-toxic coating make it extremely easy to use.

2. Best Substrate for Planted Tank with Trace Elements - CaribSea Eco Complete Planted Black Aquarium Substrate Review

CaribSea Eco Complete Planted Black Aquarium Substrate is made from volcanic soil and is rich in all kinds of minerals, nutrients and trace elements that can help nurture your aquatic plants. 

Before adding this substrate, we were having bad luck with most of the substrates we were testing as all of them clouded our fish tank and made the water murky. We were very pleasantly surprised to see that this substrate did not affect our tank water’s appearance at all and it remained crystal clear. 

Features of CaribSea Eco Complete Planted Black Aquarium Substrate

  1. One bag sufficient for a tank of up to 25 gallons
  2. 20-pound bag
  3. Rich in major and minor trace elements such as magnesium, potassium, iron, etc
  4. Suitable for freshwater aquariums
  5. Contains beneficial bacteria that help recycle fish waste
  • No artificial dyes, chemicals or pigments included
  • Great for cycling a new aquarium
  • Does not cloud the water
  • Discourages algae breakout
  • Don’t need to be washed before adding to fish tank
  • Expensive

This is a great choice if you want to increase the growth rate of your aquatic plants and provide them with all the nutrients they need and then some. Its mineral-rich formula makes it great for plants and fish alike.

3. Best Acidic Substrate for Planted Tank - Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum Review

If you’ve bought small, soft aquatic plants for your aquarium, you might want to invest in Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum. This substrate is made from rich volcanic soil and the small soil grains are so light that they easily allow the roots of plants to penetrate them and anchor themselves into the substrate. 

We noticed that the plants that we grew using this substrate bloomed at a much faster rate than its competitors. 

It slightly lowers the pH of the water in the tank and so, is perfect for fish that like living in slightly acidic conditions.

Features of Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum

  1. Comes in 4.4, 8.8 and 17.6-pound bags
  2. Suitable for plants and shrimp
  3. Promotes neutral to slightly acidic water conditions
  4. Pebble size between 1 – 4 mm
  5. Porous structure
  • Does not discolor tank water
  • Harbors beneficial nitrifying bacteria
  • Stimulates fast plant growth
  • Provides new-borns with refuge
  • Lightweight
  • Expensive 
  • Not suitable for fish who live in alkaline conditions

If you have pet shrimps in a planted tank and are looking for the perfect substrate, you’ve just found it. The porous structure of this substrate helps the growth of beneficial bacteria and discourages waste buildup.

4. Best Neutralized Substrate for Planted Tank - Seachem Flourite Black Clay Gravel Review

Seachem Flourite Black Clay Gravel is a substrate that boasts that it is a product that you will never have to replace. We’ve been using it for quite a few months and it has shown zero signs of even the slightest deterioration so, we’re inclined to believe this claim.

Unlike most of its competitors who have a natural brown color, Seachem Flourite Gravel is black and this adds a great aesthetic to your aquarium that really makes it stand out. 

The gravel is also specifically-designed to not give off any acid or ammonia when it comes into contact with water to keep the pH neutral.

Features of Seachem Flourite Black Clay Gravel

  1. 15-pound bag
  2. Neutralised substrate
  3. Porous texture
  4. One bag sufficient for a 20 gallon fish tank
  5. Suitable for freshwater environments
  • Does not cloud the water
  • Does not alter the pH of the water
  • Does not require gravel modifiers such as laterite
  • Does not contain artificial dyes or chemicals
  • Does not need to be washed
  • Expensive
  • Some fish may be uncomfortable with its unnatural color

If you’re looking for a nutritious substrate with an aesthetic edge to it, this is the product for you. It’s striking black color is something to behold and its neutral formula helps keep the pH of your tank water in check.

5. Best Detritus-Resistant Substrate for Planted Tank - CaribSea Peace River Gravel for Aquarium Review

CaribSea Peace River Gravel is a substrate that aims to mimic the appearance and texture of gravel found at the bottom surface of rivers as closely as possible.

It is a neutralized substrate and the individual pieces of gravel are extremely small in size relative to its competitors. This allows it to discourage any buildup of detritus, dirt or waste products between it. All of the waste is brought up to the surface where it can be siphoned off by your aquarium’s filtration system.

It recreates and provides the exact same backdrop to your fish that they would have in their natural environment. 

Features of CaribSea Peace River Gravel for Aquarium

  1. Comes in a 21-pound bag
  2. Extremely small pebbles
  3. Neutral substrate
  4. Works for freshwater aquariums
  5. Mimics river gravel
  • No artificial paints or dyes used
  • Natural-looking appearance for your fish
  • Does not alter tank water pH
  • Discourages detritus build-up
  • Small grain size allows aquatic plants to easily anchor themselves
  • Expensive 
  • May cloud the fish tank for a day or two

If you’re annoyed with having to clean and remove waste products and detritus that gets lodged between large gravel, this is the product you’re looking for. The small grain size doesn’t let detritus get stuck and it is eventually scooped up by your filter.

6. Best Organic Substrate for Planted Tank - ADA Aqua Soil Amazonia Review

ADA Aqua Soil Amazonia is an organic soil that is made from Japanese black soil. It is a great natural option to provide your aquatic plants with all the essential nutrients they need in order to thrive. 

This substrate worked great for us both in terms of nutrition as well as aesthetics. Our plants grew at a fast rate and the naturally tan look of the substrate made our aquarium stand out and become the focal point of the room. 

The soil leaks ammonia slowly which is utilized by your aquarium plants in order to grow and survive.

Features of ADA Aqua Soil Amazonia

  1. Made from leaf mulch
  2. 17-pound bag
  3. Suitable for freshwater aquariums
  4. Creates neutral to slightly acidic environment
  5. Rich in organic elements and nutrients
  • Does not cloud the water
  • Great for acidic fish
  • Focus on stimulating plant growth
  • Allows easy anchoring of plant roots
  • Does not need to be rinsed
  • Expensive

This product is perfect if you’re conscious about using all-natural products for the sustenance of your aquatic plants. It’s developed using leaf mulch which can work as the ideal fertilizer as well as providing a natural environment to your fish.

7. Best Penetrable Substrate for Planted Tank - Mr. Aqua N-MAR-066 1 L Fine Pet Habitat Water Plant Soil Review

If you’re having trouble with high pH levels in your tank, this is a great natural option that you might want to invest in. It helps bring the pH down for fish that prefer soft water. 

It’s a formula that’s specifically designed for Bettas and Dwarf Shrimp but we had other fish in our community tank and all of them were quite happy with this substrate in their home. 

The substrate has a porous texture which enables plant roots to tightly secure themselves around the substrate and anchor themselves within it.

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

  1. Grain size is 2 mm 
  2. One bag sufficient for tanks up to 2 gallons
  3. Black in color
  4. Organic ingredients
  5. Creates slightly acidic environment
  • Does not need to be rinsed
  • No artificial chemicals or dyes
  • Prolongs periods between water exchange
  • Discourages waste build-up
  • Acts as a fertilizer for aquatic plants
  • Expensive
  • May cloud the water for a few hours after being added

This is a substrate that your aquatic plants will immediately latch onto and won’t let go. It’s organic formula makes it ideal for plant growth and your fish, especially Bettas, will love it as a hiding place or just as soil to dig and play with.

best substrate for planted tank

 

Buyers’ Guide

 

What is a substrate? 

Substrate is just a fancy term for the material that you use to line the bottom of your fish tank. It can be just fine sand or pebbles. The main purpose of substrates is to provide material that you can plant your aquatic plants into and to provide shy fish with a refuge in which they can bury themselves in. 

How do I choose the right substrate for my planted tank? 

Substrates affect the life cycle inside your aquarium in a huge way so it’s very important that you choose one that won’t have adverse effects on the life inside your fish tank. Some factors to look out for when buying substrate are: 

  • Nutrients 

You have to think of your planted tank like it’s an underwater garden. Obviously, your aquatic plants will require nutrients in order to grow so it’s very important that the substrate you get is high in essential nutrients that will help your plants thrive.

  • Reactivity with Water 

Some substrates are called inert substrates. They are designed to be neutral and to not affect the conditions of the water at all. These are perfect if you have fish and plants that prefer neutral conditions. 

Other substrates are known as active substrates and they alter water chemistry inside your fish tank. For example, a lot of active substrates tend to lower the pH of the water slightly. This is preferred by fish-keepers who have fish that live in slightly acidic conditions. 

Be sure to do your research and find out what kind of conditions your fish and aquatic plants prefer to live in and then get a substrate accordingly. 

  • Color of the Substrate 

This is usually a personal preference thing. You can get any color of substrate that will help your fish stand out. 

However, there is something to be said about how a natural-looking substrate can help your fish feel at home and make it happy. 

As a rule of thumb, if you have light-colored fish, you may want to invest in substrate that is dark-colored and vice versa.

How does a substrate benefit aquatic life? 

There are several benefits of having a substrate in your aquarium and it is absolutely essential that you have it as it fulfills many different purposes. Some of these purposes are: 

  • Provides a Natural Habitat for your Fish 

Fish are creatures that can get stressed easily. If you provide them with an environment that is familiar to them, they tend to relax and be happier. Substrates can help you achieve this and prevent stress-related diseases in fish. 

Furthermore, there are many types of fish that are shy. Substrates can help them hide and seek refuge as many fish like to bury themselves in the soil as a way of recreation. 

Also, many fish like to lay their eggs and then hide them in the substrates. This helps prevent them from being eaten by adult fish.

  • Biological Filtration 

Biological filtration refers to the neutralization of dangerous toxins within your fish tank by beneficial nitrifying bacteria that are usually encouraged to grow inside your aquarium. 

Some substrates come with these bacteria inside them which helps the cycling process in your aquarium. Even the ones that don’t come with the bacteria at least provide a place where these beneficial bacteria can naturally grow.

  • For the Anchoring of Aquatic Plants 

Obviously, if you’re going to have underwater plants, you’re going to need a place to root and anchor them. Substrates provide a natural way for you to plant your plants. The roots quickly wrap around the gravel and they provide nutrients that help your plants grow.

What are the different types of planted tank substrates? 

The main types of planted tank substrates are: 

  • Sand

This is by far the most popular choice among both beginners and advanced fish-keepers. The fine grain is easy to clean and set up.

You can easily set up plant roots inside it that will easily grip the substrate.

  • Gravel 

Gravel is the second most popular type of substrate after sand. It is larger than sand and usually comes in the form of small pebbles. 

The pebbles have smooth edges that cause no harm to the fish. 

Gravel really allows you to have a lot of options in terms of substrate for your aquarium as they come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and colors.

Can I still siphon when I have substrate that is porous? 

Porous substrate usually harbors a lot of beneficial nitrifying bacteria. This bacteria helps neutralize and remove a lot of dangerous toxins inside your fish tank. If you perform siphoning, you may run a risk of sucking up all these beneficial bacteria so we recommend you to not do it.

How do I determine what diameter of substrate is best for my planted tank?

This usually depends on the type of plants you want to keep. If you have plants with soft, small roots that require strong anchoring, we prefer getting smaller-sized substrate. 

Substrates with larger grains leave more gaps while smaller ones leave little to no space.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

 

How do I know how much substrate I need for my planted tank? 

As a general rule of thumb, you want a layer of substrate that is at least 2 inches deep in your aquarium. For larger tanks, it is recommended to have at least 1 pound of substrate per gallon. 

Should I clean my substrate before adding it to my aquarium? If so, how should I do it? 

Some substrates come pre-washed while others require cleaning. 

Even the ones that are pre-washed may develop dust while in transit so we do recommend that you at least rinse the substrate before adding it to your aquarium. 

You can do this by adding your substrate to a clean bucket and then adding dechlorinated water on top. Rinse the substrate and strain the water. Repeat this step until the strained water comes out clear. Your substrate is now ready-to-go.

I want to replace my old substrate with a new one, how do I do it? 

A lot of people are worried when buying substrate that if they have a change of heart, they’ll have to disassemble their entire aquarium if they want to change the substrate again. This is not true at all. You can remove the old substrate completely by siphoning it. Just be sure to remove your fish and place them into a separate tank or temporary environment before you go about doing so. If you do this while your fish are inside the fish tank, it will shock and stress them out. 

How do I ensure my substrate stays clean? 

By constantly monitoring it. Usually, all the dirt, waste products and detritus that gets deposited in between the substrate is siphoned and cleaned up by your aquarium’s filter. If the filter misses some of the waste material that gets lodged between the substrate, you can remove it by using a gravel cleaner. 

Is it a good idea to use different grain sizes of substrates? 

Not only is this a good idea, this is usually the norm among more advanced fish-keepers. 

If you’re a beginner fish-keeper, you may want to stick to just one type of substrate such as sand or gravel. However, more advanced fish-keepers like to experiment with the different sizes of substrates and mix and match until they get the perfect mixture that gives them the best results. 

For example, Laterite is usually layered at the bottom of the tank as it attracts nutrients and stores them there until they can be used by aquatic plants. In the middle, you can have soil, gravel or sand that forms the “main meat” of your gravel mixture. It is the material that holds the whole structure of aquatic plants inside it. On top of the layer, you could have something that’s more decorative and pleasing to look at such as marbles. 

I added colored gravel and it has raised the pH levels of my tank water. Why is this? 

Colored Gravel is usually made from materials such as dolomite and magnesium. They tend to increase the pH levels of tank water by leaking these materials into it. This is usually a desirable quality among fish-keepers that have fish that prefer living in slightly acidic conditions. If you have fish and plants that don’t require acidic conditions, you might want to recondition your water and change your substrate.

Final Verdict

It’s of the utmost importance that you get the right substrate for your aquarium as they affect several different aspects when it comes to the life inside your planted tank. 

After months of testing, we’ve decided to go with Spectrastone Shallow Creek Regular for Freshwater Aquariums as our pick for the best substrate for planted tanks. Its natural color helps fish feel at home and its small size discourages any waste buildup and keeps your tank squeaky clean. 

This brings us to the end of our post for the best substrates for planted tanks. 

Let us know what substrate you’re using for your aquarium.

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