Few things are as beautiful and calming as a planted aquarium. A well-kept tank full of fish and plants becomes a passion that can last a lifetime. Maintaining a tank with live plants can be challenging and fun.

One of those challenges is finding the best substrate for planted tanks, and that’s what this article hopes to help you with.

What follows is a review of five planted aquarium substrate available today. The list includes:

Substrate Name

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More Information

Flourite Black, 7 kg / 15.4 lbs

UP AQUA Sand for Aquatic Plants

ADA Aqua Soil Amazonia LIGHT (9 Liter) Normal Type

Eco Complete Planted Black Aquarium Substrate

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

Best Substrate

Why do you need substrate in a planted tank?

Before we begin to review the products below we will want to take a moment to discuss substrates in a bit more depth.

Most beginners in the hobby, as well as casual observers, see the substrate used in the bottom of an aquarium as a form of decoration. This assumption is partially true. An aquarium owner can become very creative with different types of substrates to create a tank that mimics nature or looks like a modern art canvas.

While the look of your aquarium is important, the fact is that the material you use on the bottom of your tank serves other purposes (especially when considering planted aquarium substrate).

The bottom of your aquarium will become a place that beneficial bacteria can colonize, turning waste products into nitrates that the plants can use for food.

Another consideration is that the substrate for planted tank will be used by plants to anchor their roots into. While some aquarium plants can absorb nutrients through the water column, most varieties of plants use their roots to feed.

Finally, the right substrate can store the minerals and nutrients that plants need to grow and stay healthy. 

What types of aquarium substrate are commonly used, and what are the differences between them?

The most commonly known substrate would be aquarium gravel. This gravel has smoother edges than regular gravel, to help prevent injury to fish. It comes in a multitude of colors and sizes.

Another common sight as a substrate in the bottom of tanks is aquarium sand. Sand is a great choice for fish that love to dig or bury their bodies under. The small particles can also play havoc on filters.

Coral sand is made from calcium carbonate, and it will dissolve over time in the water. This process raises the PH level of water in the tank and is a good choice for fish that prefer water that is more alkaline.

Marble chipping is another calcium carbonate substrate but is not as effective in raising the water’s PH level. And other times, fish keepers will use marbles as a substrate for breeder tanks. The gaps between the marbles allow eggs to fall between them, preventing them from being eaten by other fish in the aquarium.

The final material we will discuss here, and the best substrate for planted tank, is the soil-type substrate.

The soil contains many beneficial nutrients that plants can feed on. The soil is usually tightly packed, which gives a stable base for a plant’s roots to grow.

Almost all of the planted aquarium substrate that you see in successfully planted tanks will be of this variety.

How much aquarium substrate will I need for my tank?

While personal preference or the needs of the fish and plants in a tank can dictate the maximum amount of substrate you will want to use, you will need at least one inch of coverage on the bottom of the aquarium.

A simple formula that you can use is to plan for one pound of substrate per gallon of the tank. If you want a bed that is two inches deep, you will need two pounds of substrate per gallon.

The shape of the tank can alter this formula, as some aquariums are designed to be long or tall. The needs of a plant’s root structure will also determine the minimum depth that you will need. One final consideration of how much substrate you will need will be the type of aqua-scaping you plan to do with the tank bed.

What should I look for in a good substrate for a planted tank?

Besides the lighting set-up, the substrate is of the utmost importance to successfully grow healthy plants.

As mentioned earlier, plants gather nutrients from their root system. Therefore, a good substrate needs to be able to provide and store nutrients the plants will use. Most of your tanks nutrients need to be in the tank bed and not in the water column itself.

You will want to use a substrate that works best for the type of water used in the tank. Some available substrates work in all environments, while others work best only in freshwater tanks.

You must also take into consideration whether you will choose a complete or composite substrate for your tank.

Complete substrates are used alone while composite substrates also make use of layers of gravel on top of the soil, for example. The advantage of composite substrates is that the gravel will help keep the soil particles from entering the water column, clouding the tank.

No matter which substrate you decide upon, a proper set-up will produce a planted tank that is stunning in appearance, such as the example in this video.

Planted Tank Substrate Reviews

Flourite Black, 7 kg / 15.4 lbs

A stand-alone gravel That will not alter water PH.

Flourite Black is a clay gravel substrate that is designed to be used as a stand-alone substrate bed for planted tanks. The material has not been coated with chemicals or treated, so it will not alter the PH level of the aquarium water.

Even though Flourite Black is pre-washed, it should be rinsed to help remove dust before being placed in the tank.

The bag the product comes in has a mesh bottom that allows you to rinse the substrate directly in the bag itself.

Even after the gravel has been rinsed, dust may still be present in the water column for a few days as the tank settles.

The porous clay is sharper than other products in this review, but is stable and will not break down over time in the water. This stability may make tank maintenance easier for you as you will not have to replace the substrate due to disintegration.

This substrate is a gravel base, and may be too rough for plants such as dwarf hair grass that have very delicate roots.

Pros

  • Stand alone substrate.
  • Will not break down over time

Cons

  • Rough texture may be too rough for some plants roots.
  • Needs to be rinsed before use.

UP AQUA Sand for Aquatic Plants.

A pellet-shaped sand substrate mixed with nutrient-rich soil.

UP AQUA is a sand that is an organic mix of clay and actual soil. The soil component will buffer the water, helping to maintain a PH level between 6.5 - 7.0 that many types of plants should thrive in.

This material will not require rinsing before putting it into the tank.

Not only does UP AQUA Sand require no rinsing before use, another feature that may make your tank set up easier is that it does not cloud the water column. While all organic substrates of this type will break down into a silt-like dirt over time, the pellet design of this sand provides increased longevity that should make your planted tank maintenance easier.

While the pellet may increase longevity, it also makes this organic sand less effective in storing and releasing nutrients than products of a similar composition.

Another consideration for this substrate is that it does not leach ammonia into the water column as do other organic beds. The material is also lighter, making it easier to bury roots into while you are planting.

Pros

  • No rinsing needed before use.
  • Will not cause an ammonia spike.

Cons

  • Will break down over time, requiring replacement.
  • Less effective at releasing and storing nutrients as similar substrates.

ADA Aqua Soil Amazonia LIGHT (9 Liter) Normal Type.

A soil substrate designed for use with most aquatic plants.

ADA Amazonia LIGHT is a soil designed to supply nutrients for plants while reducing leaching in the water column and minimizing algae growth. The soil can lower the PH levels of aquarium water, providing a slightly acidic level that is ideal for plants.

The reduced leaching into the water column and minimal algae growth during tank set up makes this substrate potentially easier for beginners.

The acidic level produced by this bedding, along with the black soil full of nutrients, makes this product suitable for most plants that do not require a more specific water chemistry.

The small granules give this product an almost powder consistency, and the manufacturer recommends it be used in a composite fashion as a thin layer over the normal Amazonia soil.

The consistency of this product requires that it is added to another substrate in a composite fashion.

The Amazonia LIGHT soil will break down over time, turning into a silt that will need to be replaced in order to maintain a substrate that will continue to supply nutrients to plant roots.

Pros

  • Reduced leeching and minimal algae blooms make tank start-up easier.
  • Mixture of material offers a strong supply of nutrients.

Cons

  • Product must be used as a composite with another substrate for best results.
  • Substrate will break down, requiring replacement,

Eco Complete Planted Black Aquarium Substrate

A volcanic gravel that supplies nutrients to freshwater tanks.

Eco Complete is a coarse gravel comprised of a volcanic material that supplies 25-plus nutrients for freshwater plants. The substrate is free of nitrates and carbonate, which should make maintaining PH levels in your tank easier.

This product comes packed in an Amazonian “Black Water” solution that will aid in organic water conditioning.

The “Black Water” that this porous bedding comes in also includes heterotrophic bacteria that will aid in converting fish waste into food for your plants. The water and bacteria can help make cycling your new aquarium faster and safer.

The larger size of the course bedding makes it more difficult to clean than other gravels.

The larger size and rougher texture may prove more difficult to clean than other gravels and may be harder on delicate barbels of Cory’s.

Pros

  • Ready to use with no rinsing required.
  • Extra ingredients make cycling faster and safer.
  • check-circle
    Filled with many nutrients.

Cons

  • Harder to clean and maintain.
  • Rough texture may be hard on the delicate parts of some fish.
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    Larger size makes it harder for plants to initially root.
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    Freshwater only.

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

A nutrient-rich soil designed to prolong water exchange periods..

Mr. Aqua Plant Soil is a mixture of inert and organic compounds that provide a variety of nutrients for plant growth. This black soil is formulated to decrease the PH in your aquarium, keeping your tanks water levels between 6.0 - 6.5.

The PH level maintained with this substrate is specific enough range that it may not be suitable for some varieties of fish.

These PH levels may make the keeping of ornamental shrimp and fish that enjoy the softer water. This kiln fired bedding is made to last longer than other soils of a similar composition. The porous structure of Mr. Aqua Soil makes it easy for roots to penetrate.

The structure of the grains provides excellent filtering power that can assist you with maintaining clearer water in your tank.

Pros

  • Can last 12 -18 months before replacement.
  • Easy for plant roots to penetrate.

Cons

  • PH levels of 6.0 - 6.5 makes water very soft.
  • Can easily float into the water column.

Conclusion

As you can see from the small sample of products reviewed above, there are many different aquarium substrates available for planted tanks.

The inclusion of different fish species, water types and PH levels, as well as maintenance considerations, will all be factors in decided which bedding will be right for you.

Keeping in mind someone who may be new to the hobby of planted tanks, we feel the best substrate would be UP AQUA Sand for Aquatic Plants.

The nutrient-rich mix of clay and soil presents a natural look that will work well with any aqua-scaping. The buffing ability that maintains a PH level between 6.5 and 7.0 will give a new hobbyist a wider range of fish species to work with.

 Set up will be easier for a new aquarium, and the extra longevity of the material should make maintenance easier for you. Finally, the lack of ammonia spikes during set up will allow you to cycle the tank faster than some of the other products discussed here.

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