An ideal aquarium should be established in a way so that you are placing a small piece of an underwater world beside you. It would be best to make a living home for your aquatic friends that resemble their natural habitat conditions.
Aquarium substrate plays a vital role in bringing natural flavors in aquariums for making it an ideal living place for aquatic plants and animals. Most importantly, it works as a surface for beneficial bacteria to grow.
Here I’ll talk about aquarium substrates’ details and provide reviews for some of them available in the market. My writing’s primary intention is to help you comfortably find the best substrates for planted tanks and use them in your aquarium.
Why Should You Use Aquarium Substrates
Beginners who will start a new fish tank should use the aquarium substrate to cover the tank bottom because it is beneficial and somewhat essential. Now let’s have a look at the reasons why substrates are useful to have in your aquariums.
Natural Water Filtration:
Aquarium substrates provide a natural home for beneficial bacteria that plays a vital role in establishing the nitrogen cycle. Without an ideal gravel/sand bed, beneficial bacteria cannot colonize and grow enough to keep the internal environment healthy for living species.
Once you establish a complete nitrogen cycle, it benefits biological filtration, eliminating fish wastes, food leftovers, and plant debris. A fish tank with bare bottom suffers from excessive ammonia buildup and requires more frequent cleaning.
Ground For Live Plants:
If you want to have live plants in your aquarium, then a suitable substrate is a must! A perfect substrate for plants is the one that can root the plants well and ensure their proper nutrition. Among suitable substrates for planted tanks, the common types are laterite and vermiculite. They can store the right and adequate nutrients for aquatic plants.
To make the substrate perfect for plants, you have to choose suitable substrate materials that can combine gravel and sands.
The depth of the bottom layer for planted tanks is another vital consideration. Many plants have roots that go deep, so the amount of substrate in your aquarium will depend on what type of plants you will have.
Create An Ideal Home For Fish:
The substrate can create a pleasing home environment for your aquatic friends. Some fishes are bottom feeders who love to scavenge. Some of them prefer to burrow for hiding, and a substrate creates all those opportunities.
Moreover, the substrate provides a safe place for hiding fish eggs; otherwise, they can be food for hungry fish. Overall a sandy bottom layer can please your fishes by giving them an impression of a natural pool.
Enhancing The Aesthetic Pleasure:
The visible impact of having substrates is it will decorate your aquarium and enhance the glamour. Both artificial and living plants that decorate aquariums require a substrate for rooting.
In a tank of naked bottom, wastes are easily visible. The substrate hides undesirable materials and shows off only what you wish to see – fish and decors. The substrate with a combination of plants, rocks, driftwood, and other artificial decorations helps create a visual landscape that can please the eyes.
Types of Substrate
I will discuss on main types of substrate that aquarists commonly use. Each of them has its pros and cons. You have to be picky to get your best match.
Gravel is the top choice and most common aquarium substrate type. Gravels with different sizes, shapes, and colors are available in the market.
Aquarium owners usually choose standard gravels for their aquariums as the substrate because it is relatively easy to clean and requires less cleaning.
Gravel as a substrate is useable for all aquariums and suitable for all kinds of aquatic species. You can use gravel substrate for freshwater, saltwater, and even in planted aquariums. Gravels are not easy to break down or soften, thus easy to handle.
Gravel can beautify your aquarium perfectly, adding natural flavors.
The second popular choice for aquarium substrate is sand. If you keep bottom-dweller fish like Kuhli loach, it is better to use sand as a substrate. These species enjoy burrowing the sand layer, and a sand substrate would be the perfect playground for them.
Sand is much finer than sand and is made of tiny particles of rocks and other earthly materials. As sand grains form a compact bottom layer, the debris and wastes stay on the sand layer’s top. So, cleaning a sand substrate is not so challenging as people might think.
However, a sand bottom alone is not suitable for growing live plants. Still, there are several kinds of plants like aquarium mosses and ferns that you can grow in sand. Check our articles on aquarium planting. It covers everything on how to plant aquarium plants on different substrates like sand, gravel, etc.
Sometimes people use a combination of gravel and sand, keeping stone at the upper layer. Cleaning the sand substrate is a little tricky task. However, we don’t discourage beginners from having sand as an aquarium substrate; only they have to maintain it.
Aquarium soils are particular clay-type sands suitable for planted aquariums. Manufacturers label many substrates for planted aquariums (usually laterite or vermiculite) for growing live plants. Those are nothing but particular types of sand and clay mixtures.
Soils are active substrates as they alter the water chemistry, mainly lowers the water pH. Some aquarium soils can initially release ammonia after adding them to the water, so you have to be careful about this when using this substrate type.
Unlike other substrate types, the soil might not be aesthetically pleasing as it comes in a limited variety. Soil’s primary purpose is to provide nutrients for live plants.
Larger river rocks are also useable as substrates, and they are commonly known as pebbles. It is the largest-sized substrate for aquarium use. Not only the river rocks, quartz, glass, or even colored plastics can also fall into this category.
The pebbles are smooth and large. If you have egg-scattering fishes and wish to see little fellows coming out of the eggs, you must provide suitable chinks where eggs stay hidden, and large rocks can create such spaces. For small Betta fish tanks, people use pebbles as they give convenience for maintenance.
But on the other hand, fish wastes and food leftovers can be accumulated within gaps and create a toxic environment. So if you use large pebbles as the aquarium substrate, it may require frequent cleaning. Not suitable for use in planted aquariums.
Sometimes people use crushed coral as the substrate. It can raise the pH and is beneficial for improving the buffering capacity of water.
Some cichlids prefer alkaline water, and if you keep fishes like them, the crushed coral substrate will be an excellent choice. The other benefit of using crushed coral is that it looks beautiful and can enhance an aquarium’s overall prettiness.
Check our articles on aquarium planting. It covers everything on how to plant aquarium plants on different substrates like sand, gravel, etc.
Pick the Best Substrate for Planted Tanks from Our List
1. Seachem Flourite Black Clay Gravel
Flourite Black is a very popular unique porous clay gravel for planted aquariums. It is a perfect substrate for plant growth, and we kept this product at the top of our list of the best substrate for planted tanks.
The manufacturer recommends using it alone as an integral substrate bed to get the best result. Still, you can use it to mix with other gravels also.
There is no harmful chemical present with this substrate that can alter the water quality. This clay gravel is perfect for aquarium life.
Though pre-washed, as it is a natural product, it can become dusty during shipment. So the suppliers suggest rinsing before you put it in the aquarium. During water filling, you may find cloudy water.
So place a bowl inside the aquarium and pour water on it instead of flowing directly on the substrate bed. In this way, water will slowly overflow the container to avoid disturbing the substrate bed. Initial cloudiness is usual.
- It is suitable for planted aquariums.
- No chemical coating present to alter water pH.
- It does not soften or decompose to an unsuitable state.
- No Gravel modifiers such as laterite are necessary.
- A few users complained that it created foamy residue on the aquarium glass and a murky cloud all along the aquarium floor.
2. Caribsea Super Naturals Aquarium Sand
This product is prevalent in aquarium sand with an excellent amazon review rating. We picked this substrate in the second of our list based on the customer’s feedback.
Plants can grow ideal in this sand and create a small piece of the natural underwater world in your aquarium. They use no additional dyes or harmful chemicals that can affect the pH of aquarium water.
The grain size is perfect to resist any waste accumulation within the substrate bed, thus ensures easy cleaning. The sand is soft and ideal for bottom-dwellers to provide them a good playground.
- This sand is perfect for versatile use and suitable for live plants.
- No additional dyes or chemicals used.
- It is pH neutral, so safe for all aquariums.
- It can resist waste and food accumulation, thus straightforward to clean.
- It requires thorough rinsing before use.
- Few users complained that the sand was discolored over time.
3. UP AQUA Sand for Aquatic Plants
This product achieved a good reputation as a planted tank substrate. Like most other substrates, this UP AQUA sand does not require rinsing before putting it in the aquarium.
The manufacturer formulated this sand, especially for aquatic plant growth. It maintains pH at 6.5, which is ideal for this purpose.
Most of the users provided feedback that their aquatic plants thrived using this sand as the substrate. With no hesitation, we considered this product in our list of the best substrate for planted tanks.
- It does not breakdown easily.
- It can maintain a pH value of 6.5, which is perfect for plant growth.
- It can decorate the aquarium nicely.
- Few users complained that this product increased the water’s hardness.
4. Seachem Aquarium Substrate Flourite Red
Seachem Aquarium Substrate is a well-known popular aquarium substrate with good quality. This specific product is red and specially designed for plant growth. Aquatic plants can root this substrate entirely and get their proper nutrition.
It is better to use this product alone as an integral substrate bed, but this is not a hard and fast requirement; you can mix it with gravel if it is suitable. No harmful chemical or dye is present with it that can hamper water quality.
The best part we like about this product is, it does not require replacement, which means you can use it throughout the entire aquarium life!
- Gravel modifier such as laterite is necessary for it.
- It comes with no harmful chemicals to alter the pH of the water.
- Life long useable, and no replacement required.
- The red substrate is aesthetically appealing.
- Requires proper rinsing before use to prevent the watercolor from turning red.
5. Carib Sea Eco-Complete Planted Black Aquarium Substrate
Eco-Complete planted aquarium substrate can outperform the competitors and a prevalent one. This unique substrate contains iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, sulfur, and over 25 other essential elements for aquatic plant nutrition. This soil is comparable with the fertile basaltic volcanic soil of Hawaii, Bali, and Costa Rica, famous for luxuriant plant growth.
Mineralogically and biologically, this substrate is perfect for the growth of your desired aquatic plants and not for nuisance algae. They don’t use any chemicals and dyes, which can hamper the water quality.
Highly porous spherical grains are the suitable home of beneficial bacteria and promote their growth to establish a healthy biological cycle in aquariums.
For a new fresh aquarium, you can directly put this substrate in your tank, fill water slowly, and then start filters and pumps. Please don’t put all the substrate at a time; mix it step by step for a week.
- It is a complete substrate with all necessary criteria for planted aquariums.
- This substrate provides mineral-enriched volcanic soil.
- Spherical grain promotes the colony of beneficial bacteria and ensures maximum diffusion.
- No artificial dyes or chemicals present to alter water quality.
- No requirement for adding laterite.
- We have noticed a few complaints about this substrate can raise water pH to a harmful range.
6. Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum
Volcanic soils can provide an ideal condition for plant growth as they contain many useful minerals for plants. Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum is collecting soils from mineral-rich foothills of the Mount Aso Volcano in Japan. So natural ingredients that can promote plant growth are entirely present in this substrate.
Aquatic plants root easily and spread healthily throughout this substrate, which supplies all nutrients necessary for plants to flourish. This substrate ensures a full complement of essential macro and micronutrients for the growth of plants.
The substrate’s non-compacting porous structure can make an ideal home for beneficial bacteria, thus establishing a healthy biological cycle in your tank, providing optimal water quality.
This substrate will not cause any discoloration of water; instead, it helps control organic discoloration from natural driftwood aquarium décors.
- This product is made of mineral-rich volcanic soil.
- Promote water pH in a suitable range for plant growth and fish.
- The porous structure promotes the growth of nitrifying bacteria.
- It does not contain any harmful additives or dyes.
- A few users complained about the grain breakdown when it comes to contact with water.
7. Nature’s Ocean Active-Flora Planted Substrate Flora-CORE, Black
This product is new in the market and so far so good in reputation. Active-Flora planted substrate is entirely natural and does not contain any harmful chemicals and dyes to alter the water quality. It helps to maintain the pH in an ideal condition for fish and plants.
Spherical grains are good for diffusion and promote beneficial bacteria. This substrate contains bio-active nutrients for faster plant growth. The users who used this product as an aquarium substrate found satisfactory results.
The manufacturer claims ActivFlora gravels are naturally abundant in trace elements to provide an agile, nutrient-rich environment in which aquarium plants thrive.
- 100% natural and does not contain any artificial dyes.
- Spherical grains can promote a healthier environment in the aquarium.
- This product is rich in iron and eliminates the need for laterite.
- It does not alter water quality and pH.
- This product is not verified yet by a sufficient number of users.
8. Active-Flora Floracor for Aquarium
This one is another product from Active-Flora. This substrate is colorful gravels, suitable for a planted aquarium. Additionally, they use non-toxic bright pigments and don’t use any artificial dyes or additives. So there is no chance for an alteration of the water quality and pH.
Spherical grains can promote maximum diffusion. This substrate contains bio-active nutrients for faster plant growth. The users who used this product as an aquarium substrate found satisfactory results.
Like all other brand products, the manufacturer claims ActivFlora Floracor is naturally abundant in trace elements. This provides an immediate nutrient-rich environment in which aquarium plants will thrive and achieve optimum health and growth.
- Provide non-toxic colored pigments to create a colorful environment.
- This soil does not contain any artificial dyes or additives.
- It does not alter water quality and pH.
- Provide bio-active nutrients for plant growth.
- A few users complained this substrate caused water discoloration.
9. ADA Aqua Soil Amazonia Light Powder Type
Amazonia Light substrate is beginner-friendly; if you are a first-timer and planning to start a planted aquarium, this product will be suitable for you. Is it the best substrate for planted tanks to begin?
They use Japanese plant-based black soil as ingredients that promote a favorable condition for most common aquatic plants. This substrate keeps the aquarium water mildly acidic, and this condition is suitable for most aquatic plants and tropical fish. (But if you keep species like Cichlid, an acidic condition is not ideal for them, they prefer alkaline water.)
This product does not contain any harmful dyes, and with its earth color, it can create a natural-looking aquascape. This product is useable in nano aquariums because it has a smaller grain size allowing a grander scale.
- This product is ideal and easy to handle for beginners.
- For finer grain size, this substrate is ideal for nano aquariums.
- It contains rich organic ingredients and nitrogen levels that can establish a healthy aquarium environment.
- This product is not verified yet by a sufficient number of users.
10. Tropica Plant Care Freshwater Planted Aquarium Soil Powder
The Tropica Planted Aquarium Soil contains natural volcanic granulate material of Japan. If you use this soil as your aquarium substrate, it is sufficient to make a complete bottom layer, and nothing additional is required.
This substrate will ensure a healthy environment for aquatic species, ensuring the active growth of the plants. It can boost the red plant shades to simulate red color.
While using this aquarium soil, you should keep in mind; it can reduce the pH of the aquarium water. As per manufacturer recommendation, change 25-50 percent of the water minimum twice a week for the first month.
- It provides a complete bottom layer eliminating the requirement of the additional substrate material.
- It contains Japanese natural volcanic granulate material, in which aquatic plants can flourish.
- It can decorate an aquarium nicely, simulating the red plant shed.
- It is a bit pricy.
- It can lower the pH and water change requires for the first month of setting up.
Maintenance of Aquarium Substrate
The primary maintenance of the aquarium substrate is to clean it regularly. Eventually, this substrate cleaning is the most crucial part of your aquarium cleaning. Cleaning the aquarium substrate is a little tricky but not that tough. All you need is to follow a step by step right procedure.
Turn Off And Unplug All Power Tools
Don’t forget to switch off and unplug all electric devices before handling water, and it is for your safety reason. You might also need to remove electrical appliances like a heater, filter, etc., from your aquarium to ease your cleaning job.
Siphon out the water from your fish tank. If you have a small or nano tank, you can remove water manually or use a vacuum absorber (siphon) for a large tank. This step is required to get rid of debris settled on the substrate layer. Never remove all the water; at least keep 50% in the tank. If you remove all, you will lose existing beneficial bacteria, hampering the nitrogen cycle.
Clean Gravel, Sand, Or Whatever You Use
Use a gravel vacuum to clean the substrate. Stir up the gravel and suck up the debris for better cleaning. If you use sand rather than stone, you will want to know how to clean aquarium sand. The cleaning process is more or less the same for all substrates!
Add New Water To Your Fish Tank
Now add water to the tank. Vital parameters to keep in mind when replacing the water maintain the water’s pH & temperature (additionally, salinity for saltwater tanks). The water test kit will help you analyze parameters. Then, based on the test result, take the necessary actions to keep things steady.
I hope this article will be helpful to you. It is not easy to find a perfect substrate for your aquarium, especially when looking for the best substrate for planted tanks. All the products I included in my list got good customer feedback. And some of those products I use personally. Hopefully, your searching process will be more comfortable with this list.
Choose a substrate that you think will help flourish the kind of plants you prefer to keep, which suits your aesthetic preference. You can let me know if you have any queries or suggestions for me.