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Ultimate Guide: Best Freshwater Planted Aquarium Substrate

If you’re planning on setting up a planted aquarium, think of substrate as having a similar significance as soil has for potted plants.

For plants to thrive in an aquatic environment, the substrate must meet certain characteristics that an untrained aquarist may not be aware of.

And because planted aquarium set-up is already difficult as it is, stressing about choosing the right substrate can add to the difficulty.

But don’t worry, this ultimate guide to the best freshwater planted aquarium substrate will help you make the right decision for your planted tank.

To give you a comprehensive understanding of the various substrates, I’ll discuss the most common types of aquarium substrates, highlighting the pros and cons of the best brands on the market.

Ready to learn about planted aquarium substrates? Here we go…

Planted Aquarium Substrate Types

Before you can choose a brand of planted aquarium substrate, you’ll first need to learn about the various types of aquarium substrates and which aren’t as suitable for planted aquariums.

Gravel

This oft-recommended substrate for beginner fish tanks does not rank high when it comes to suitability for a planted aquarium.

Even so, gravel is the most common type of aquarium substrate because it’s cheap, it’s easy to maintain, and it looks good in any tank.

Because of these characteristics, it’s commonly recommended for beginner aquarists who are still learning the ropes of tank maintenance.

That said, gravel can be used in planted tanks if its size is between 1 mm and 3 mm. Anything bigger than this should not be used in planted aquariums.

Among the disadvantages of using gravel in a planted tank:

  • It doesn’t provide plants with the nutrients they need;
  • It’s difficult to plant in and causes issues to plants later on;
  • Only small-sized gravel can be used;
  • It doesn’t promote plant growth;
  • It cannot buffer chemicals in the tank.

If you’re still going to use gravel – although I strongly advise you against it – get ready to invest in additional fertilization and managing plant issues later on.

You may need to pay more upfront for a good substrate, but you may invest just as much in managing a gravel substrate.

Sand

Another popular choice for aquarium substrates, sand isn’t the best choice when it comes to planted aquariums.

Just like gravel, sand simply doesn’t pack enough nutrients to promote healthy plant growth.

Plus, there are some incompatibilities between plants and sand:

  • When sand compacts over time it tends to strangle the root of plants, cutting off their ability to absorb nutrients;
  • Fine grain sands promote the formation of anaerobic pockets;
  • Sand is easily stirred up and it can cause clogging issues in pumps and filters;
  • Sand is more difficult to clean and maintain.

For all its downsides, sand has some upsides as well. For example, it’s great at offering a realistic and natural look for your aquarium. It’s highly available and relatively cheap.

However, these aspects aren’t enough for me to recommend it as a suitable planted aquarium substrate.

Fluorite

Fluorite is an inert aquarium substrate that does not provide plants with healthy nutrients, however, it’s great at absorbing nutrients from water.

Because it’s one of the dustier substrates, it has a tendency to cloud your tank. To prevent this from happening, make sure you rinse it thoroughly before adding it to the tank.

Fluorite is one of those substrates that play well with other substrates, so you can mix it with gravel, sand or dirt.

If you’re going to use fluorite for your aquarium substrate, it doesn’t hurt to add a few root tabs to promote quick plant growth.

All-In-One Substrates

None of the substrates discussed so far have enough nutrient content to jumpstart plant growth and save you from having to use plant fertilizers in your tank.

All-in-one tank substrates, however, come pre-packed with nutrients, which makes it so much simple to grow plants.

These types of substrates do have some issues too like ammonia spikes when first introduced in the tank, which means you shouldn’t add fish to the tank, and opt or a fishless cycle.

Plus, you’ll need to replace or add additional nutrients to the substrate every 12 to 18 months as nutrients become depleted.

Now that you know a few things about the different tank substrates, let’s see which the best substrates for a planted aquarium.

Best Substrate for Planted Aquariums

I’ve chosen to discuss about 5 substrate brands that work well with planted aquariums. In choosing them, I looked at their ability to promote healthy plant growth as well as pricing and rating.

So, here there are:

1.  Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum

Produced by a trusted brand, this Plant and Shrimp Stratum is one of my favorites. I’ve used it many times and was always happy with the results.

Key Features:

  • Suitable for plants and shrimp;
  • Contains mineral-rich volcanic soil;
  • Naturally stabilizes pH levels within the tank;
  • Promotes healthy plant growth;
  • Affordable.

If you need a substrate for a shrimp tank that can also work just as well for plants, the Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum can be your number one choice.

Why choose this product?

Here are the reasons why I recommend this product for anyone who wants a great substrate for their planted tank that also houses shrimps:

  • High in minerals: This mineral-rich volcanic soil promotes healthy plant development, while also offering nutrients necessary for shrimp health. The large granules can be used by baby shrimp to take cover.
  • Lowers water pH: If your tap water has a higher pH, this product will naturally lower it, promoting healthier plant growth.
  • Kickstarts plant growth: The Plant and Shrimp Stratum by Fluval ensures good plant development, healthy colors, and healthy growth.
  • Natural appearance: If you want your tank to look its best, you won’t go wrong with this substrate. Its granules confer a truly natural look to your tank.

What are its downsides?

Even though this stratum ranks high among my preferences, it has some shortcomings, namely:

  • Too light: Despite the larger granules, this substrate remains too light for certain plants, which means they will struggle with staying rooted in the substrate.
  • Clouds tank for a few days: Due to its lightness, it may take a few days for it to settle down, so don’t worry if your tank is cloudy on the first few days after adding the substrate.

Besides these two aspects, this stratum from Fluval remains a top of the line product for planted aquariums.

If you’re planning on adding larger plants that may uproot easily, I recommend mixing in some sand and gravel to help the roots of larger plants stay put.

2.  ADA Aqua Soil Amazonia

When it comes to high-quality all-in-one substrates, the ADA Aqua Soil is certainly a product that’s worth trying. It’s the priciest substrate on my list, but it’s also quite complex.

Key Features:

  • 100% natural substrate made from rare Japanese plant-based black soil;
  • Rich in nutrients, it encourages healthy plant growth and it has a positive influence on the physiological functions of shrimp and fish;
  • Stabilizes pH levels and water hardness to levels suitable for most aquatic plants.

This substrate is derived from decomposed leaf mulch in contrast with off-brand products that are made from volcanic ash-based black soil.

Since it’s derived from natural materials and it packs a ton of nutrients, I recommend it to anyone looking for a healthy and reliable planted aquarium substrate.

Why choose this product?

Despite being more expensive than my other recommendations, the ADA Aqua Soil is a worthwhile purchase for the following reasons:

  • Nutrient-rich substrate: As opposed to the substrates, the Aqua Soil is an active substrate that packs a punch through is many absorbed nutrients that are a must-have for spectacular plant growth.
  • Naturally lowers pH levels: The ADA Aqua Soil a beneficial pH buffering effect, helping you to maintain stable pH levels.
  • Boosts plant growth: You can expect explosive plant growth with this substrate, so if you want a strong growth, ADA Aqua Soil is the way to go.

What are its downsides?

On the downside, there are two aspects you should be aware of:

  • Ammonia spike: Same as with the other all-in-one brand that I described, the ADA also causes ammonia levels to rise when you introduce it to the tank. Therefore, give it time to cycle and don’t add any fish to the tank.
  • Stirs up easily: Once the substrate settles, it’s best if you let it be. Redecorating the tank or moving plants can stir up the substrate quite easily. If you’re willing to spend a little extra on your aquarium substrate, you can enjoy explosive plant growth without having to add extra fertilizers.

This product is a worthwhile purchase for anyone looking for nothing but the best in terms of aquarium soil.

3.  SeaChem Flourite Black

Another reliable brand that sells aquarium substrates is SeaChem. Their Flourite Black substrate is a premium product that reasonably priced.

This substrate is a porous clay gravel that contains nutrients for plant root structure development and you can use it in an aquarium long-term, without ever having to replace it.

Key features:

  • It has a porous structure and contains clay gravel that’s suitable for any tank, planted or not;
  • Provides a natural, sleek look;
  • It can be used long-term.

You can use this product on its own or you can mix it with other substrates such as gravel or sand.

With flourite, you don’t have to worry about substrate replacement as it will last for the entire duration of your tank’s life.

Why choose this product?

The SeaChem Flourite Black has the following benefits for any aquarium:

  • It never needs replacement: This aquarium substrate is a long-term investment for your tank. Unlike other substrates that need replacing every few years, this aquarium substrate will last for the entire life of your tank.
  • It looks good: Besides offering great contrast against the green foliage in your tank, it also sports a natural look that’s hard to beat by other substrates.
  • Good for plant growth: It’s a substrate that facilitates plant growth and it can be used with SeaChem Root Tabs for even more impressive results.

What are its downsides?

Despite being a show-stopper substrate, there are a few downsides to this substrate:

  • Lacks natural nutrients: Unfortunately, flourite in not naturally rich in nutrients, so you’ll need to add some SeaChem Root Tabs for maintaining optimal nutrient levels.
  • Clouds the tank: Thoroughly wash the substrate before adding it to your tank, unless you want to end up with a cloudy aquarium that can take a while to clear up. Rinse as many times as necessary.
  • Rough for some fish species: You know how the bellies of some bottom dwelling fish can get injured by rough substrate? Well, bad news – flourite is too rough for loaches and Corys.

Despite these shortcomings, SeaChem’s Flourite Black substrate is a favorite among many aquarists thanks to its durability and amazing look.

If you’re going to choose it for your planted aquarium, make sure you rinse it well, add root tabs to it and avoid adding bottom dwellers with sensitive bellies.

4.  Mr. Aqua Aquarium Soil

The Mr. Aqua Aquarium Soil is another pricey addition to my list, but it’s a worthwhile substrate that may not be as common as the other ones discussed in this guide.

This substrate is a combination of organic and inert substances that together offer plants all they need to develop healthy roots and foliage.

Key features:

  • Blend of organic and inert elements;
  • Pre-fertilized substrate that lasts for 12-18 months;
  • Reduces water exchange frequency;
  • Black color that contrasts well with green foliage.

The Mr. Aqua Aquarium Soil is a long-lasting substrate that needs additional fertilizer supplementation only after 12-18 months.

Until then, your plans can enjoy undisturbed growth thanks to the proprietary blend of ingredients featured by this product.

Why choose this product?

  • Nutrient-rich soil: Just like ADA Aqua Soil, the Mr. Aqua Aquarium substrate comes pre-packed with nutrients, so you don’t have to worry about adding extra nutrients to the tank for up to 18 months.
  • Lowers pH: Naturally brings down pH levels to optimal.
  • Good consistency: The 0.5 cm in diameter pieces have a smooth texture and don’t break down as easily as other substrates.
  • Up to 18 months lifetime: The product can be used for up to 18 months without additional fertilizers. After this period, fertilizers will be needed to boost performance.

What are its downsides?

If you’re going to choose this substrate for your planted freshwater aquarium, here’s what you should know:

  • Takes a few days to settle: Because it stirs up easily, make sure you handle it carefully. When placing it in the tank, place the soil first, cover it with a plastic wrap and only then add the water. It may take a few days to settle.

Because it contains a lot of nutrients, it has a long service life and looks good in a tank, and has little to no downsides, I recommend it as a good choice for planted aquariums.

5.  CaribSea Eco Complete

Often recommended as an alternative to AquaSoil, the CaribSea Eco Complete is a complete substrate for any planted aquarium that contains trace elements for plant nourishment.

It is one of the most popular substrates and comes at an affordable price. However, it’s inert like many other substrates. Even so, it has a great nutrient absorbing capacity.

Key features:

  • Good Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC), which means it can absorb and hold nutrients quite easily;
  • Contains iron and other trace elements for good plant development;
  • It doesn’t cause significant cloudiness in the tank;
  • Promotes healthy plant root development.

Let’s see what the pros and cons of this type of substrate are:

Why choose this product?

The Eco Complete can be a safe choice for a planted aquarium, based on the following considerations:

  • Good nutrient absorption: The fact that this CaribSea has a good CEC is good news for your plants. It means that nutrients from the water will be easily absorbed and delivered to your plants.
  • Contains trace elements: The substrate contains iron and 25 other trace elements, which promote a healthy environment for the plants.
  • No need for thorough washing: Most substrates need to be washed and rinsed thoroughly to avoid cloudiness in the tank. SeaChem can be placed in the tank without rinsing as it will only minimally cloud the tank.
  • Natural look: The substrate looks great in a planted tank conferring it a natural and clean look.

What are its downsides?

There’s a single downside to this substrate, namely:

  • Inert substrate: Despite having some trace elements that contribute to a healthy tank, the substrate is not packed with nutrients, which means you’ll be required to add root tabs to kick-start plant growth.

For root tabs, I recommend SeaChem Flourish Root Tabs.

Overall, this product ranks high among my preferences for tank substrate and it is a popular choice for many aquarists due to its affordable price and easy maintenance.

If you’re going to opt for this particular substrate, make sure to factor in the cost of root tabs as well.

This concludes my guide to freshwater aquarium substrates. Now that you know the features, pros and cons of each brand, you can make an informed choice based on you needs.

Next, I’ll discuss some commonly asked questions about substrates, specifically substrate quantity, replacement frequency, and maintenance.

Substrate FAQs

For even more information about aquarium substrates, read the following FAQ:

How much substrate should I put in my tank?

Generally, a tank should have about 2 or 3 inches of substrate, which means about 1.5 to 2 pounds of substrate per gallon.

These are general guidelines and the exact numbers will depend on the exact parameters of your tank. For an exact measuring, I recommend using a substrate calculator.

How often do I need to replace the substrate?

You don’t really need to replace your substrate unless something goes terribly wrong in your tank and you want to jump ship and start everything over.

That said, the substrate will lose its nutrients over time, which is bad news for your plants. All substrates have a recommended service life, beyond which supplementation with fertilizers is needed.

Therefore, instead of replacing the substrate every time it runs out of nutrients, you can add root tabs and liquid fertilizers to replenish it.

Do I need to clean the substrate?

Cleaning the substrate is part of a regular tank maintenance.

That said, having a natural “tank cleaning crew” such as algae-eating shrimp and snails or bottom dweller fish that like to scavenge in the bottom of the tank for uneaten food is a good way to keep things clean.

You can, of course, gently scoop out any debris or dirt on the surface of the substrate, but it’s not recommended to disturb it too much.

Perform regular water changes, clean the surface, and add some snails and shrimps that enjoy feeding on leftover food and algae.

In Conclusion…

A beautiful planted aquarium can be achieved with any of the options I presented in this guide.

Choose ADA AquaSoil if you need a heavily planted tank as it will offer explosive plant growth. If you’re looking for a substrate with good CEC and a natural look, I recommend the Eco Complete.

On the other hand, if you’re building a show-stopper tank and you need something out of the ordinary, go with the SeaChem Flourite option, which is also a long-lasting solution.

Depending on what type of planted aquarium you’re going after, you can find a great option for any planted tank.

Make sure you follow my advice on supplementing inert substrates with fertilizes and washing certain substrates before adding them to your tank.

I hope this guide to the best tank substrates for freshwater aquariums has provided you with valuable information and you can choose which substrate is most suited for your tank.

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