Best Aquarium Substrate for a Planted Tank (Buyer’s Guide)

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 three planted aquarium substrates available today. The list includes my favorite for my finned warriors, the Activ-Flora Planted Aquarium Substrate.

Product Details
1. Activ-Flora Planted Aquarium Substrate

Premium Quality

  • 100% Natural
  • Nutrient Enriched
  • Self-Sustainable
  • Slow-Released
Click here for best price
2. Nature's Ocean Bio-Activ Aquarium Sand

Instant Cycling

  • Live Aragonite
  • Real Ocean Sand
  • Saltwater only
Click here for best price
3. Eco-Complete Planted Aquarium Substrate

Volcanic Soil

  • Bi-Modal Grading
  • Dual-Biotic Formula
  • W/ Conditioner
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Planted Tank Substrate Reviews

1. Activ-Flora Planted Aquarium Substrate

Activ-Flora is a 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.

This substrate is self-sustaining, thanks to the slow release of micronutrients over time. Activ-Flora also helps to keep your aquatic plants grow quicker and healthier as it contains all the necessary ingredients needed for their optimal health.

Pros

  • Stand-alone substrate
  • Contains a wide variety of minerals

Cons

  • May make the water cloudy for a few days until it settles

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2. Nature’s Ocean Bio-Activ Live Aragonite Saltwater Aquarium Sand

The Nature’s Ocean Aquarium Sand is 100% natural. It contains good marine bacteria that act quickly to stabilize your fish tank so there’s no waiting for your finned friends right after you’ve set it up.

It maintains the proper pH while also providing inorganic elements essential to achieving clean water quality.

Although some claimed that it somewhat has some bigger pieces, they loved the fact that it was still wet when it arrived, making sure that it keeps the microorganisms alive.

Pros

  • Collected in its natural environment
  • Provides proper organic balance

Cons

  • Suitable for saltwater aquariums only
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3. CaribSea Eco-Complete Planted Aquarium Substrate

Eco-Complete is 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.

Pros

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

Cons

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

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The Need For Substrate In A Planted Tank

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 the planted tank will be used by plants to anchor their roots. While some aquarium live 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.

Types Of Aquarium Substrates Commonly Used & What Their Differences

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. 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 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.

How Much Aquarium Substrate Is Needed

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.

Factors To Look For In A Good Substrate For A Planted Tank

Besides the lighting setup, 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 tank’s 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.

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 deciding 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 Activ-Flora Planted Aquarium Substrate.

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 setup will allow you to cycle the tank faster than some of the other products discussed here.

Last Updated: October 18, 2021

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