10 Best Planted Aquarium Substrate Choices: A Complete Expert’s Review Guide

Here’s the truth…

A planted tank is only as good as its substrate. 

In the exact way that good soil is rich in nutrients, aquarium substrate must also have certain characteristics in order for aquatic plants to thrive.

Setting up a planted aquarium is tough enough, the last thing you need to stress about is the substrate.

In this guide, we dive into the different types of substrates for planted tanks. In addition, we give you a few of our choices for the best planted aquarium substrate on the market.

best planted tank substrate

What Factors Should I Consider When Looking for A Planted Aquarium Substrate?

Here are a few factors that you should keeping in mind when choosing a substrate for your planted tank:

Porosity

Surface area is a big deal in aquariums. We want a planted aquarium substrate that’s porous because it provides space for beneficial organisms to make a home in. While people often think the filtration unit is where all of the good bacteria live, your aquarium substrate can hold as much, if not more bacteria, if it’s nice and porous!

CEC

You’ll see this acronym bandied about a lot in this comprehensive guide. CEC stands for Cation Exchange Capacity. While it’s a bit of jargon it’s not hard to understand: essentially, the CEC is how well a medium can grab onto and release positively charged ions. Many charged ions are essential plant nutrients, so binding them directly to the soil allows plant roots to uptake them easily. Substrates with a good CEC will also absorb free floating nutrients, such as when you add liquid fertilizers.

Buffering Capacity

This is a measure of how a substrate will interact with the water chemistry, specifically the pH. Buffering capacity can be either good or bad, depending on your needs. Some planted aquarium substrates will tend to make the water more acidic in pH. If your fish and plants prefer this environment then that’s perfect. Others will bring the pH around neutral and others will shift it towards alkaline. And many are entirely inert and won’t affect the pH at all.

Aesthetic

Do you like dark substrates or light? Gravel or sand? Clay or soil? A mixture of the above? Aesthetics is entirely subjective and you’ll have to decide which substrate looks the best to you and has all of the benefits you need for your planted aquarium!

Cost

Last and most obvious: how much does it cost? Scientifically formulated substrates can cost tens of dollars per kilo while simple kitty litter or top soil goes for pennies per kilo or even free.


10 Best Planted Aquarium Substrate Choices

Here are a few of our choices for the best planted aquarium substrate on the market:

1. ADA Aqua Soil

ADA Aqua Soil Amazonia 9 Liter Normal Type
  • Completely new substrate made from rare and sparse source of Japanese plant-based black soil derived from decomposed leaf mulch. (unlike imitation products that are made from volcanic ash-based black soil).
  • Rich in organic elements and nutrients that creates conditions ideal for healthy growth of aquatic plants and has a good influence on the physiological functions of fish and shrimp.
  • Helps to bring the pH level and hardness of the water down to an ideal level for most of the aquatic plants.

ADA AquaSoil is a revolutionary substrate specially processed from 100% natural materials. 

It is packed full on nutrients right out of the bag, making it the perfect all-in-one solution for any planted tank owner. This feature alone sets it apart from anything else available.

In addition, ADA AquaSoil features a ton of amazing characteristics that we will dive into a little deeper now:

Pros

  • Tons of absorbed nutrients (active substrate): Nutrients are the #1 most important aspect for spectacular plant growth. Without nutrients, growth will be lackluster at best. Lots on substrates on the market are inert (meaning they contain no nutrients), but not AquaSoil. This substrate comes pre-packed with tons of absorbed nutrients to provide the best plant growth possible.
  • Buffers pH: Monitoring and adjusting pH is a necessary but annoying part of keeping a planted tank. Luckily, ADA AquaSoil naturally lowers the pH of your water to optimal levels. This takes a lot of headaches and monitoring out of the equation and helps keep your tank stable.
  • Explosive plant growth: There’s no doubt about it, using AquaSoil in your tank leads to explosive plant growth. If things have stalled out, AquaSoil may just be that boost that you need to get everything growing strong again.

Cons

  • Needs time to cycle: The flip side of having tons of nutrients is also having a lot of ammonia. When you introduce ADA AquaSoil to your tank, you will most likely have a large ammonia spike. Make sure you give it time to cycle before you introduce any fish.
  • Stirs up easily: If you’re a person that likely to move plants and rescape often, you may have some problems with AquaSoil. You’re better off leaving it alone once you get it set.

ADA AquaSoil Amazonia may not be the cheapest planted tank substrate out there, but it is definitely worth a try. If you are looking for great plant growth without the need for additional aquarium fertilizers, this is the perfect choice. Just be prepared to spend a little more.


2. CaribSea Eco Complete

CaribSea Eco-Complete 20-Pound Planted Aquarium, Black
  • Complete substrate for freshwater planted aquariums
  • Contains major and minor trace elements to nourish aquarium plants
  • Substrate encourages healthy plant root growth

CaribSea Eco-Complete is by far the most popular planted tank substrate and comes in at a very close second to AquaSoil.

It comes pre-soaked as well, packaged in CaribSea’s own Liquid Amazon Black Water mixture, which contains tannins that will buffer your pH towards acidity (and stain the water yellowish).

Eco-Complete is so complete it even includes the beneficial heterotrophic bacteria the aquarium cycling process normally takes weeks to grow!

Eco-Complete also has great CEC and will easily absorb nutrients from the water. It is significantly cheaper than AquaSoil, but make sure you add the cost of root tabs when considering which planted tank substrate to buy.

In addition, Eco Complete is high in iron and contains over 25 trace elements to promote a healthy planted tank. Overall, it is a great, safe choice for any planted aquarium owner.

Pros

  • Great CEC (Cation Exchange Capacity): CEC is the ability for a substrate to absorb positively charged nutrient ions. In other words, substrate with good CEC will absorb and hold nutrient well, which them becomes available for your plants.
  • High in iron and other trace elements: Iron is one of the most important elements when it comes to plant health/growth. Eco Complete is high in iron and other trace elements to promote an overall healthier tank.
  • Doesn’t require extensive washing before being used: A lot of planted tank substrates require a ton of washings unless you want a black, cloudy mess in your planted aquarium. There is really not a need to rinse Eco Complete before placing it in your tank; you shouldn’t notice anything more than a slightly cloudy tank for a day or two.
  • Natural and clean look: Based only on appearance, Eco Complete is definitely my favorite. Something about it just gives the tank a natural, realistic look while maintaining a clean appearance.

Cons

  • Inert (doesn’t contain many nutrients right out of the bag): If you decide to go with Eco Complete, I would recommend getting some root tabs if you want to start out on the right foot. I recommend Seachem Flourish Root Tabs.

There’s no doubt that Eco Complete is one of the best planted aquarium substrates on the market. Honestly, it’s not really fair to rank it below ADA AquaSoil; it’s really just all about what you’re looking for in a substrate.

Eco Complete doesn’t contain the natural nutrients, but is a way more affordable options that absorbs nutrients better than anything else out there.


3. SeaChem Fluorite Black

Sale
Seachem Flourite Black Clay Gravel - Stable Porous Natural Planted Aquarium Substrate 15.4 lbs
  • GRAVEL: Seachem Flourite Black is a specially fracted stable porous clay gravel for the natural planted aquarium. Its appearance is best suited to planted aquaria, but may be used in any freshwater aquarium environment.
  • AQUARIUM BED: Gravel modifiers such as laterite are not necessary when using Seachem Flourite Black as this product is most effective when used alone as an integral substrate bed, but it may be mixed with other gravels.
  • SET-UP: When adding water to the aquarium, fill slowly to avoid disturbing Flourite Black substrate bed. Place a bowl in the aquarium and add water directly to the bowl, allowing water to overflow softly on to the gravel bed. Initial cloudiness is normal, but to remove this simply use mechanical filtration

Seachem Flourite Black is a porous clay gravel that provides a sleek look unlike any other planted aquarium substrate.

It is effective when used both by itself or when mixed with other substrates, such as sand or gravel.

Flourite is known for its long-lasting attributes and is good for the entire life of your tank; no more worrying about replacing your substrate!

Pros

  • Never breaks down/needs replacement: While some other substrates need to be replaced every few years, Seachem Flourite is good for the entire life of your tank. It will never break down, even under long term use.
  • Natural appearance: Flourite Black provides a sleek, natural appearance that in hard to find in other planted aquarium substrates. Great contrast against green plants.
  • Facilitates great plant growth: Once settled in, Flourite Black facilitates amazing plants growth, especially when used in conjunction with Seachem Root Tabs.

Cons

  • No natural nutrients: As with a few other choices on our list, I highly suggest that you pick up some Seachem Root Tabs for use with this Flourite. Since Flourite doesn’t contain any nutrients, root tabs will make all the difference in terms of growth.
  • Too rough for bottom dwellers such as loaches and Corys: Sad news…if you love Corys, Seachem Flourite probably isn’t the best choice. I have found that some of the pieces are sharp and will injure bottom dwelling fish.
  • Wash, wash, wash: Be careful when adding this to your tank. When you think it is rinsed enough, rinse it again a few more times. Add water very slowly or you will end up with a clouded mess.

Overall, Seachem Flourite Black is a great option for those who are looking for something a little different. The black gravel-size pebbles provide an amazingly sleek look, especially against bright green plants. This substrate is definitely a show stopper.


4. Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum

Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum, 4.4-Pound
  • Mineral rich volcanic soil
  • Stimulates strong plant growth
  • Promotes neutral to mildly acidic pH

Plant and Shrimp Stratum is another great choice for your planted tank substrate. Fluval is a trusted brand in the hobby, so it’s not surprise that this substrate is top of the line.

Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum is made from mineral rich volcanic soil that contains tons on trace elements to encourage healthy growth. In addition, its unique mix natually lowers the pH on your tank to optimal levels. Stratum is made up of mostly larger sized granules (similar to ADA AquaSoil), but it tends to be extremely light. If you have large plants, they may have a hard time rooting/staying put in this soil.

Pros

  • Amazing for shrimp tanks: If you’re looking for a substrate for a shrimp tank, look no further. This substrate contains tons on minerals than encourage shrimp health and the large granules provide a great place for baby shrimp to take cover.
  • Naturally lowers pH: If the pH of your tap water is naturally high, Stratum may be a great choice. It naturally lowers the pH to encourage healthier plants.
  • Great plant growth: A lot of planted tank owners noted great growth and colors once switching to this substrate. If you can get your plants to stay put, they really tend to thrive.
  • Nice appearance: Fluval Stratum looks a bit like the #1 choice on our list, ADA AquaSoil. It has nice sized granules and appears very natural in a planted tank.

Cons

  • Too light for some plants: I have noticed that Stratum is a little too light for some plants. They tend to uproot easily, which can be quite a pain. You may want to mix this substrate with some gravel or sand to weigh it down a bit.
  • Clouds tank for a few days: Because this substrate is so light, it usually takes a few days to settle down. Within a few days, though, your water should be back to normal.

5. Mr. Aqua Aquarium Soil

Mr. Aqua N-MAR-067 8 L Course Pet Habitat Water Plant Soil
  • Composed of organic and inert ingredients providing all essential elements
  • Long lasting fertilized plant substrate lasting up to 12-18 months
  • Prolongs water exchange periods

Mr. Aqua Aquarium Soil is the least common substrate for planted aquariums on our list, but definitely shouldn’t be overlooked.

It contains a proprietary blend of organic and inert substances that provide all the necessary elements for healthy plant growth.

As a porous substance, this soil has several benefits. The micropores provide additional filtration capacity and allow free-floating organics, nutrients, and other substances to collect within the grains.

Beneficial bacteria and other organisms then colonize the pores and help your aquarium ecosystem function even more effectiely.

Mr. Aqua is effective for 12 to 18 months and should be supplemented with additional nutrients after that time period. The black coloration of this planted aquarium substrate is extremely sleek and contrasts great with bright green plants.

Pros

  • Packed full of nutrients: Mr. Aqua (along with ADA AquaSoil) is one of the only substrates that comes pre-packed with nutrients. you won’t have to worry about adding additional nutrients for 12-18 months.
  • Buffers pH: Like any good substrate, this soil naturally brings down pH to optimal levels of around 6.5-6.8; very close to neutral and great for the majority of fish and plants.
  • Nice consistency and texture: Mr. Aqua Soil is made up of smooth, round pieces around 0.5cm in diameter. It doesn’t break down easily, do you won’t have to worry about it turning into dust like flourite does.
  • Long lifetime value: Like we said before, 12-18 months of performance is a great overall lifetime for this product.
  • Dark Color: Dark substrates will really make your fish colors pop. Not only due to contrast but because fish can intentionally wash their colors out to better blend in with light colored substrates.

Cons

  • Stirs up fairly easy: You’re going to want to be extremely careful when adding this to your tank. It is recommended to put the soil in first, cover it with a plastic film, and then proceed to add water. This helps reduce the amount of commotion in the substrate. Don’t be surprised if it takes a few days for your tank to settle in. Another method is to use it as a substrate additive or adding an inert substrate like sand on top to hold it down.
  • Pricey for the Coverage Amount: Mr. Aqua Aquarium Soil is one of the best substrates on the market to start your plants off in. But you’re spending many times more compared to traditional substrates. This 8L bag will provide enough coverage for a 20-30 gallon aquarium (approximately 36″ x 12″ at 1″ deep or 20″ x 11″ at 2″ deep) Mr. Aqua also makes a smaller 1L bag for nano-tank coverage but by the time you buy 3 of these you’ve already spent more than the 8L bag.
  • Binds Phosphorus: Mr. Aqua Aquarium Soil has the tendency to soak up Phosphorus, a critical plant nutrient. However, plants deficient in Phosphorus will take it up quickly, making the binding action of this clay soil less problematic.

6. Latralite

Laterite is a substrate similar to Flourite in terms of its ability to absorb and retain nutrients. While sometimes called clay, Laterite is truly a weathered (decayed) soil.

Traditional wisdom holds that Laterite is purely an additive but it also makes a fine substrate by itself.

Laterite tends to be more expensive than Flourite but has nearly 10 times the iron content, an essential plant nutrient for chlorophyll production and enzymatic regulation.

Pros

  • Extremely high iron content: Iron is critical to plant health and having it already in the substrate makes it easier for plants to uptake
  • Flexible: Works well as an additive or as a base substrate. Laterite comes in granular or powdered form, whichever works best for your intended usage.
  • Neutral: Laterite doesn’t buffer pH but it neither raises nor lowers it, making it useful for tanks with a decidedly alkaline or acid water chemistry.
  • Long lasting: Like Flourite, Laterite never truly runs out. Nutrients like iron may decline, and require supplemental boosting but its CEC means it will continue to replenish itself through fertilization for the lifetime of your aquarium! 

Cons

  • Cloudy Water: Laterite tends to cloud the water for prolonged periods before eventually settling out. It may take several water changes to help the process along.
  • No Nutrients: While Laterite has a substantial iron content and can bind to various nutrients, it has little in the way of other inorganics substances and no innate organic content whatsoever.

7. Natural Kitty Litter

A surprising choice for the budget conscious shopper that wants the benefits of absorbent substrates like Laterite and Flourite without the cost.

Special Kitty has been lab analyzed by Planted Aquarium Magazine and it actually has 10 to 20 times the CEC of either Laterite or Flourite!

This makes quite a bit of sense when you consider the point of kitty litter is to absorb waste efficiently and control odors well before they hit your nose.

A very important point: I’m recommending specifically unscented, non-clumping NATURAL Kitty Litter.

Nearly all brands on the market have added scents, odor control chemicals, and clumping agents to improve the litter’s functioning. You don’t want any of that chemistry in your water or it will definitely cause problems.

This old fashioned brand of kitty litter is 100% clay and works perfectly as a substrate for planted aquariums.

Pros

  • Easy to Obtain: Natural Kitty Litter is one of the cheapest substrate options on this list and easy to find. Just remember: unscented, non-clumping! And read the bag to ensure there’s no added chemicals.
  • Very High CEC: The Cation Exchange Capacity is higher than even specialty substances like Flourite and Laterite. This allows the substrate to bind and hold onto nutrients over time for slow release to plant roots.

Cons

  • Messy: Kitty Litter will usually take a lot of rinsing to come clean due to the dust content. Even then you may have cloudy water for awhile until the fine particles can settle or be filtered out. Kitty Litter sometimes decays over a period of months to years into a clay bed instead of hard pellets. While it’s entirely harmless it may not suit your aesthetic needs. But this depends on time, the water chemistry and specific source clay.
  • Little Nutrients: While it has trace amounts of iron, potassium, and other inorganics, Kitty Litter doesn’t have enough to avoid fertilization and has no organic nutrients at all.

8. Potting Soil

Potting Soil is an increasingly popular planted aquarium substrate because it’s easy to obtain, inexpensive, and creates a beautiful “natural” substrate look.

Make sure above all else that you stick with organic blends with no additives. Additional fertilizers, water retainers, and more are useless at best and potentially harmful at worst, causing extreme nutrient spikes that can foster algae growth. 

Most Potting Soil is peat-based, which means it will buffer your pH towards acidity.

Many of the most common aquarium plants and fish thrive in these conditions; South American and Southeast Asian natives like Java Moss and Amazon Sword Plants, for example.

The tannins from the peat will also color your water light yellow to tea colored, depending on how much soil you use and how often you change the water.

While it does lessen over time it never truly goes away, so hopefully you enjoy the jungle river look!

Because potting soil is so loose it’s important to cover it with another substrate layer, like sand, gravel, or an All-in-One substrate. Otherwise the slightest disturbance will cause it to fill the water column with debris, which can cause damage to filtration units.

Pros

  • Easy to Find: Potting Soil can be found in any home and garden store and for little money. Just make sure it’s organic and doesn’t have added fertilizers, weed killer, or pesticides.
  • Buffers pH: Potting Soil uses peat as a main ingredient. Peat will color the water slightly and ensure it retains an acidic chemistry.

Cons

  • Messy: Potting Soil contains bark, perlite, and other ingredients that reduce the weight of the soil. While adding a layer of gravel above the Potting Soil will help hold it all down, moving a plant or digging about will bring debris to the surface.
  • Affects Water Chemistry: If you’re not looking for an acidic pH, you definitely shouldn’t use Potting Soil.
  • Not the tidiest look: When mixed with gravel it looks okay but it doesn’t look nearly as nice as some of the artificial options. It also tends to turn the water slightly yellow/brown due to the tannins in peat.

9. Top Soil

Believe it or not, standard Top Soil is an excellent substrate for planted aquariums! Top Soil contains more inorganic matter compared to Potting Soil but makes for a great base layer or even main substrate. 

The main concern with Top Soil is quality control: different brands will contain different materials.

You may find yourself sifting out bark and other undesirable particles. Depending on the brand and composition, you should either pre-rinse the topsoil or simply add it first and then cover it with a layer of sand, All-in-One substrate, or something else.

Another advantage of Top Soil is the varying grain sizes most mixtures have. This reduces the chances of compaction forming anoxic layers and provides the perfect medium for plant roots to thrive in.

Topsoil works even better if used as a base ingredient in a Mineralized Top Soil recipe!

While the steps vary, a typical Mineralized Top Soil will contain added pottery clay (5-10% of the total volume) which not only increases the CEC but adds weight to the subtrate, potash for potassium, and dolomite for calcium and magnesium.

When properly mixed and added to a new aquarium, you have one of the most natural and potent planted aquarium substrates possible!

Pros

  • Easily Obtained: Whether you go with garden store topsoil or source it from your own backyard, you won’t have much trouble save ensuring it’s fertilizer and pesticide-free.
  • Mixed Grain Sizes: Mixed grain sizes are best for good water flow and plant root health
  • Great Additive: Top Soil is the main ingredient for Mineralized Top Soil. While it takes far more work to set up compared to the other options here it combines the best of all worlds: great CEC, looks good(ish), comes pre-loaded with nutrients and can absorb and retain more later on.

Cons

  • Messy: Mineralized or standard Top Soil tends to cause cloudiness when disturbed. It can also take quite a bit of effort to set up without having a muddy aquarium.
  • Natural Appearance: Soil substrates can be fairly unattractive when exposed. If you prefer the tidy look of Black Diamond Blasting Sand or Mr. Aqua Aquarium Soil, Top Soil may be too “natural” for your taste. On the plus side, your plant growth will be so rampant you eventually won’t be able to see the substrate!
  • Not Inert: As a mixture of organic materials and various minerals whose composition will be mostly unknown, Top Soil will definitely impact water chemistry. Worst of all, it can be somewhat unpredictable. You may have an ammonia spike if your Top Soil has tons of organic matter. The soil will have bacteria of its own but your cycling beneficial bacteria has yet to be established. So careful cycling and monitoring of the water chemistry is crucial unless you know the details of your Top Soil’s makeup.

10. Black Diamond Blasting Sand

Black Diamond Blasting Sand is a controversial yet popular substrate for planted aquariums. There is a lot of concern over the abrasiveness; this sand is normally used for sandblasting paint and brick, after all! Surely, it’s too rough for delicate fish and plants?

It turns out that isn’t the case at all. It’s been tested be hundreds of aquarists and it’s no more coarse than regular sand. What makes it better for sandblasting is that Black Diamond is especially hard not that its sharper in any way.

As an abrasive, it comes in several grades. I prefer the fine grade 20/40 Grit as a planted aquarium substrate. 20/40 Grit is the best balance of good plant anchorage while being loose enough for fish to stir with ease. But any grade is well suited for the job, depending on your personal aesthetic tastes.

Pros

  • Extremely Inexpensive: Black Diamond Blasting Sand can be found for as little as $15 for a 50 lb bag; enough for a 20-30 gallon tank.
  • Different Grades: Blasting Sand comes in various grades from extra-fine to coarse. You can even mix the grades if that suits the look you’re going for!
  • Inert: Like all pure sand, it won’t affect water chemistry in any way. Your pH will remain unaffected (though you won’t have a buffering effect, either).

Cons

  • Sterile: Black Diamond Blasting Sand has no nutrients whatsoever and no capacity to hold and retain nutrients.
  • Nonporous: While sand has more surface area than gravel it doesn’t have nearly as much living space for beneficial bacteria as the All-in-One and clay-based subtrates do.

types of planted aquarium substrate

Popular Types fo Substrate for Planted Tanks

There are tons of different types of aquarium substrates out there, some of which are not suitable for planted tanks.  Here are a few types of aquarium substrates as well as how they fair with planted tanks:

Gravel

Gravel is the easiest and most common type of aquarium substrate. It’s the traditional substrate of choice and very attractive if chosen carefully.

If you’re just starting up a tank, this is most likely what the people at the local fish store tried to sell you.

Gravel has its strengths and can be used from beginner planted tanks, but it’s not necessarily recommended. Here’s why:

  • Gravel is hard to plant in because it’s sterile and often the grains are too large to hold fine rooted plants. It provides poor anchorage.
  • Requires a ton of additional fertilization
  • Only gravel between 1mm and 3mm can be used for planted tanks; larger sizes are not suitable
  • Does not help buffer chemical elements in your tank
  • Does not encourage fast plant growth
  • Heavy and not particularly cheap

In the end, gravel is an option that I would strongly not recommend. While it is possible to start off a planted tank using gravel as a substrate, you will run into problems later on. A good substrate might be a little more expensive, but it’s worth it is the long run.

If you love gravel, another option is to mix it with another substrate. A gravel layer over Potting Soil or mixed with an All-in-One or Fluorite has far more biological capacity compared to pure gravel!

Sand

Sand is a tempting choice because it provides a natural, realistic look in any tank. Much like gravel, though, sand does not contain enough nutrients to provide optimal plant growth.

In addition, there are a few problems you might run into when using sand:

  • Sand often compacts really tight over time, which restricts and “strangles” plant roots. This reduces the amount of nutrients your plants can absorb and stunts growth
  • Anaerobic pockets tend to form easily in sand, especially finer grain versions such as play sand because water doesn’t flow nearly as freely through sand as through other mediums. This is mostly a concern in substrates 3 inches deep or more.
  • Stirs up easily, causing clogs in filters and pumps

That said, sand is available nearly everywhere at a pretty cheap price. If you want a truly nice planted tank, though, I have to give the same recommendation as I did with gravel and go with a real substrate instead.

The anoxic conditions sand can create is real but overhyped by aquarists. It takes some pretty unique conditions for a bubble of poison to fester under the sand.

You need to have a substrate layer of pure sand 3″ or more in depth, for starters, which means little water flow is occurring below. 

Organic material has to then penetrate the sand, which is normally not easy to do, but things like dead and decaying plant roots can do so.

Once this occurs, the pocket of rotting material can release poisonous hydrogen sulfide in a slow stream, which can have disastrous effects.

Shallow sand beds, sand mixed with other substrates, and using fish and invertebrates that love to dig into the sand like Corydoras and Kuhli Loaches will help keep your sand well mixed and aerated.

Clay Substrates

Flourite, Laterite, and Kitty Litter are similar to the other planted aquarium substrates in that they doesn’t contain any natural nutrients (it is inert).

That said, they have a high CEC (Cation Exchange Capacity), meaning they absorbs nutrients from the water very well.

Think of these substrates as an empty sponge; they have the potential to absorb a lot but doesn’t come pre-loaded.

  • They don’t “run out” of nutrients like All-in-One or soil substrates do over time. Each one of these planted aquarium substrates can be recharged with root tabs and will passively absorb even free-floating fertilizers.
  • Attractive appearance; it looks almost identical to traditional gravel substrates but is far more beneficial to plants and fish alike.
  • Tend to be messy and dusty, especially kitty litter. Rinsing before adding to the aquarium will reduce the settling period but even several rinses may not remove all of the dust.

Depending on the type of plants you plant to keep, it may be best to use a few root tabs when setting up you tank. This will start you off on the right foot and jumpstart some quick plant growth.

One of the more interesting features of clay substrates is that they work very well when mixed with other types of substrate.

I like to mix up my flourite with a little gravel, dirt, and sand to create a more natural substrate. The grains of flourite are then ready to absorb and slow release nutrients over time and provide space for beneficial bacteria to take hold.

When using these substrates make sure you rinse them very well before placing it in your tank. It tends to be extremely dusty and will cloud up you tank like nothing else.

All-in-On Substrates

When we say “all-in-one” substrates, were talking about substrate such as ADA AquaSoil and Mr. Aqua Soil. These planted tank substrates are pre-packed with nutrients, which helps jumpstart plant growth and takes to duty of adding nutrients off of the tank owner.

While substrates with pre-packed nutrients are great for growth, you also need to look out for a few things. Ammonia spikes are common when first introducing the soils, so make sure you don’t have any fish present when you’re just setting up the tank. In addition, these soils need to be replaced or supplemented with additional nutrients at the 12-18 month period.

  • All-in-One substrates are attractive, with the look and tidy appearance of sand and gravel, nutrient content of soil, beneficial bacteria sometimes pre-loaded, and the CEC of clay substrates. They are by far the best substrate if you really want the best of all worlds.
  • They are also the most expensive option but give great results.

All-in-One are often beautiful on their own but can work even better when mixed with other substrates from this list. That way your plants reap the benefits of both the nutrient carrying capacity of the All-in-One, acidic buffering capacities of substrates like Potting Soil, or increasing the variety of grain sizes for better root health.

Soil Substrates

Soil substrates may be the most controversial choice (besides kitty litter) for a planted aquarium substrate despite it being the most obvious. It’s exactly what Mother Nature intended for plants and the benefits are massive, especially when used together with any of the other substrates. Soil substrates basically have a little of everything and can patch in the weaknesses of the other substrates. 

  • Soil substrates tend to be very messy. They also take a bit of research to find precisely the right blend or single substrate to suit your needs. It’s more of a science experiment, which may be a plus for you. But many aquarists will prefer simply knowing that what’s in the bag will ensure incredible plant growth, like any of the other options listed above.
  • Inexpensive and easily obtained, but again, a messy science experiment.
  • Possibly the best substrate of all when done properly. Soil substrates are endlessly customizable and can be mixed with any of the above substrates to provide CEC, organic matter, and fine inorganic grains as needed.

Really, when mixing substrates, the idea is to create a soil substrate. So why not skip the expense and go straight to Top or Potting Soil?

Well, several reasons. If your plants or fish have specific requirements that can’t be met by Soil then you may be better off using a substrate that buffers the pH to where you need it to be, like Fluval Plant and Shrimp or Carib Sea Eco Complete. If aesthetics are a big deal, such as needing a patch of bare substrate for a foreground point of interest, Soil may not be the best choice. And sourcing your own Top Soil can be dangerous, with pollution, fertilizers, and other hazards potentially placing your planted aquarium at risk.


Planted Tank Substrate FAQ’s

In case we didn’t answer all your questions able planted aquarium substrates, here are a few other common questions:

How much substrate do I need?

A healthy planted aquarium should generally have 2-3″ of substrate. So…how much substrate do you need to buy to achieve this depth?

The very rough estimate is around 1.5 to 2 pounds per gallon. Like I said, this is just a rough estimate. In reality, it all depends on the footprint of your tank.

Refer to this substrate calculator for a much more accurate measure.

Does substrate ever need to be changed?

Just like soil, aquarium substrate can eventually be sucked dry of nutrients – no nutrients means no plant growth.

So it is necessary to replace the substrate once this happens? The short answer is no.

Instead of ripping apart your tank (yikes!), a much easer option is simply dosing with a mix of liquid fertilizers and root tabs. Root tabs (fertilizer tabs dug into the substrate) are great because they actually help replenish the natural nutrients in your substrate.

Seachem Flourish Tabs Growth Supplement - Aquatic Plant Stimulant 40 ct
SeaChem Root Tabs are the perfect solution to substrate that has been sucked dry. Simply place under the substrate at the base of your plants and watch the explosive growth.

Do I need to clean/vacuum the substrate?

Once a tank is established and planted, there is really no need to disturb the substrate. A lot of what you would “clean” with a vacuum is actually beneficial to the plants.

In short – never vacuum your planted tank substrate. 

You can, of course, slightly disturb the surface with a net and scoop out any large debris. In addition, a lot of planted aquarium owners like to keep Malaysian Trumpet Snail. They tend to dig in the substrate in search of food, which helps keep it aerated and clean.


Final Thoughts

planted aquarium
(source)

As you can see, there are tons of different substrate choices out there. Choosing the “best planted tank substrate” option really depends on what features you’re looking for.

If you are looking for a substrate that offers explosive plant growth, ADA AquaSoil is a great choice. It is packed with tons of nutrients right from the bag and contains everything necessary for healthy plants.

If you want a substrate that absorbs nutrients well and has a nice natural look, Eco Complete is a trustworthy, popular choice. In addition, Seachem Flourite is great for planted tank owners who are looking for something long-lasting and sleek.

Overall, you really can’t go wrong with any of the choices on our list. All offer their own unique benefits, but every option can be transformed into a beautiful planted aquarium quickly and easily.

 

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