Best Substrate for Planted Tanks – Handpicked by us

Best Substrate For Planted Tanks

Deciding to start your first planted tank can sound like an extremely difficult task to undertake. There are thousands of plants to choose from. Not only do you have to think of the plants you want to keep but you also need to consider what is the best substrate for planted tanks.

Each plant you choose whether it be on land or in the water comes with a specific root system. Some are simple but others can be rather complex. The plant you choose is going to rely on the substrate you choose to get all the nutrients it requires.

Every plant, whether a land plant or an aquatic plant, comes with a specific kind of root system. Some plants have a simple root system, whereas others might have a complex system.

These days when you search for a substrate, be it online or at the pet store, you get thousands of options to choose from. We understand your difficulty and therefore here we are today with our top 5 planted tank substrate guide.

ImageSubstrateSuitable for?ContentCustomer Reviews
ADA Aqua Soil AmazoniaFish & Plants that prefer soft water. Great for Gravel Feeding Plants. 9 LiterCheck It Out!
Eco Complete Aquarium SubstrateEco Complete Planted Aquarium SubstrateGreat for busy tanks as it boosts the conversion of fish waste into beneficial bacteria20 lbsCheck It Out!
SeaChem FlouriteSeachem FlouriteGreat for fish that like hard water. 7kgCheck It Out!
Mr Aqua Aquarium Soil Substrate Mr Aqua Aquarium Soil Substrate Increases root development which helps your plants to grow and stay strong in your aquarium1 literCheck It Out!
Hermit Habitat Terranium SubstrateHermit Habitat Terrarium SubstratesGreat for Water Feeder Column plants. Not so good for root feeders2lbsCheck It Out!

ADA Aqua Soil Amazonia

ADA Aqua Soil Amazonia is perfect for someone who has various kinds of plants in their aquarium. This substrate comes with a lot of benefits for the fish in your tank too.

The best thing about this substrate is that it is made out of specially processed material which comes straight from the earth and is 100% organic and natural. The soil is nutrient dense and provides everything that your plants need in order to stay healthy.

Another unique thing about this substrate is that it helps in lowering down the pH balance which is very important for some plants in you may choose for your aquarium.

It will also be good for some fish too.

If you have an established tank you will need to cycle this type of substrate before you add it into your aquarium. You see when you first add this to your tank it will leak ammonia causing the levels to spike.

This can be deadly to the present fish or plants that you already have.

My advice is to set up a spare tank or a bucket with a filter and cycle the substrate before you add into your tank. Once ammonia levels have settled gently add your substrate to your established tank.

Do this very gently so that you do not stir up debris from the existing substrate. Doing this can also cause an ammonia spike.

Eco Complete Planted Aquarium Substrate

Eco-Complete Planted Aquarium Substrate comes in a twenty-pound bag and is one of the best substrates for a freshwater aquarium. With this substrate, there is no need to add any other chemical or any other substance to keep the fishes healthy and plants alright – it comes with all that your plants and fishes would need.

So you do not have to worry about cycling it before you add to an established tank.

EcoComplete substrate contains a high amount of potassium, sulfur, iron and many more important elements that will help in keeping the fish in your aquarium healthy. This product provides all the nourishment that your aquatic plants need.

This substrate comes with live heterotrophic bacteria which helps in the conversion of fish waste into natural food and nutrients for the plants in your aquarium. Therefore, we can say that there will be a completely natural biological balance in your tank if you use this substrate in your aquarium.

If you are looking for a substrate that will neutralize the pH levels then this might not be your best option. This substrate is a little alkaline so keep an eye on pH levels before you add fish.

Seachem Flourite

If you are looking for a long lasting substrate then this one is perfect for you.

SeaChem Flourite has been a firm favorite amongst fish keepers for a good while now. Not only will SeaChem Flourite provide nutrients your plants, it also enhances the beauty of your aquarium.

One of the best parts of using this product in your aquarium is that you will not have to replace it for a long time. This becomes a very porous clay gravel which is perfect for plants and their roots structures. This particular product is completely organic since it has never been chemically processed.

If you are looking for a substrate that will keep the water hard then this will do the trick. So if you keep a fish that prefers hard water like guppies then this one is perfect.

Now it is best to add this to a fishless aquarium as it may discolor the water a little bit. So give it a good clean and then add to your tank. Once it has settled you can add some fish to your aquarium.

Mr Aqua Aquarium Soil Substrate

Mr Aqua Aquarium Soil substrate comes with an impressive amount of nutrients that are very essential for all aquatic plants. It provides all the nutrients that your plant needs to grow and stay healthy for a longer period of time.

This substrate also helps in increasing root development which helps your plants to grow and stay strong in your aquarium. This particular substrate is very light and highly porous which helps in promoting the growth of healthy bacteria which is essential for the overall tank environment.

Another benefit of using this substrate is its ability to maintain and control the pH level of the tank. Unlike many another substrate, this particular product does not lower down the pH level drastically which also means that you do not need to treat your water that often.

This is one of the best substrates for planted shrimp tank.

There are many freshwater dwarf shrimps and other fishes that prefer soft and acidic water environment.

An Image of a cherry shrimp in a beautiful planted aquarium

So now let’s come to the disadvantages of using this substrate. A pack of this substrate contains only 1.8 LBS of the product which means that you will need another half package in order to cover the bottom of your aquarium perfectly. This obviously depends on the size of your tank.

The substrate also releases quite a bit of dust while you take it out of the package. So when you add this to your aquarium the water will go cloudy. It is normal for it to stay like this for a good few hours but it should settle on its own..

Hermit Habitat Terrarium Substrates

If you are looking for something that adds some color and shine to your planted aquarium, you need this substrate. Hermit Habitat Terranium substrate is blue in color which adds to the beauty of your aquarium. It is coated with acrylic, so no need to worry about your water turning blue like the substrate.

It also comes with a natural gravel which provides a great base layer for plants to grow and stay healthy. You can use this product whether you want to start a planted aquarium or normal fish tanks.

Now let’s speak about the cons, this particular substrate needs to be replaced every six months which means that you will need to replace twice a year. Also, we would like to mention the fact that it does not contain any nutrients that all planted tank plants would need in order to stay healthy and strong.

Rooted gravel feeding plants can still get nutrients from the water. It just isn’t the best for them.

However, if you are bored of the old school black substrate for a planted aquarium, you can always go for this one since it will add a pop of color to your aquarium. If you want to add color but still get the nutrients then choose another base layer of a substrate and then add this to the top.

You will have the best of both worlds.

Super Simple Way To Choose The Best Substrate For A Freshwater Aquarium

Now that you know what is available for your planted tank let me break down how you can decide which to choose.

Imagine you get a really nice car that takes diesel. If you ad low-quality diesel it won’t be as efficient. The same goes for plants. If you add the wrong substrate they won’t thrive the same.

Your substrate will not just cover the floor of your aquarium. It will become a host for all that good bacteria, it will become a habitat and it is going to add to the whole aesthetics of your tank.

The next thing to think about is the type of plant you are growing. There are two types that are normally found in an aquarium:

  • Water Column Feeders: These plants get their nutrients from the water and include most stem plants or floating plants. For example, Anubias and Java Fern are water Column Feeders.
  • Gravel/Root Feeders: Can you guess where these plants get their nutrients from? The soil or the substrate. An example of a gravel feeder would be a sword plant, cryptocoryne or dwarf baby tears.

Now a gravel feeder can get nutrients from the water but it won’t be as efficient. So if you have a substrate feeder it is best to choose a nutrient-dense soil like ADA Amazonia or Eco-Complete.

If you decide on a water feeder the substrate is not as important a gravel or sand based substrate will do just fine.

Whys Is Substrate Necessary For A Planted Tank?

Once you have decided on the type of plant you may be wondering why a substrate is important. Well for water feeders, the substrate will help hold them in place.

For a substrate feeder, your substrate will help provide nutrients to help them thrive. Your fish food and waste will turn into nutrients for your plants. The roots that bury into the substrate can absorb these to help your plant grow.

So basically the substrate provides nutrients and provides a home for the plant’s roots.

An image showing a beautiful aquascaped freshwater planted fish tank

What Substrates Are Available For Your Planted Tank

Shopping for the substrate can be a task on its own there are so many types to choose from. If you have researched the plants and fish you want to keep then you should have a rough idea of the type you need.

Here is a rundown of the most common and the best to get started with…

Aquarium Gravel

When you think of a fish tank most people automatically think about layering the base with gravel. It is normally the cheapest and low maintenance choice of substrate for a tank.

Aquarium gravel is not like the gravel you will see on the street. So don’t start foraging for stones. The gravel you find in a fish tank does not have sharp edges. If your fish are swimming around the bottom of the tank looking for food the last thing you want is for them to chomp on a sharp edge.

Fish tank gravel has smooth edges.

When it comes to aquascaping you really are spoilt for choice. Gravel comes in lots of different shapes and colors. From psychedelic pink to natural colors.

Aquarium Sand

This is probably the next choice for people when choosing a substrate. I really do think it gives a tank that more natural feel (which I love). It’s great for fish that like to bury and dig.

As for plants, it isn’t as great.

When it’s wet it becomes tough for plants to push their roots into. This will hinder the growth and health of your plants.

One thing to be careful with is when you have fish that like to kick up the sand. If it gets into your filter it could cause damage to it.

Coral Sand

This is a brilliant substrate choice but to be fair it looks a lot more like gravel than sand. It is made from calcium carbonate and will dissolve in water over time.

Not the best for plants in my opinion.

If you need a higher pH level in your tank this is a good go-to substrate. Like I said it is going to dissolve but this process will counterbalance acid build up. Which means a higher pH level.

Marble Chippings

If coral sand is too expensive for you then you might want to go for marble chippings. They are very similar in appearance.

The problem with this substrate is that it will not balance pH levels. It is calcium carbonate based but they are heavier and not as porous as coral sands.


Marbles are great for aesthetics but not for much else in my opinion. You see marbles are quite big and leave gaps. This can trap food that has not been eaten, eventually, this food will go off and inhibit the growth of beneficial bacteria.

They also aren’t great for plants to root too. If you have a plant that likes to root to wood or rocks then marbles would work. If not I would choose something else.

Marbles are great for breeding fish. Small fry normally become prey for larger mature fish. As marbles have large gaps the fry will normally fall between these. That is added protection from the predators.


Lastly, I need to mention soil. Yes, I mean the type you by at Home Depot. If you want a DIY planted aquarium then this can do the trick. Just remember to treat it first and check that it is safe for aquarium use.

This is the best substrate for plants as it provides the best environment for them to root in to. As it is normally made from organic materials it provides a great number of nutrients for your plants to tuck into.

Now sometimes it might start to float about so adding a cap layer may be necessary.

Image Of A Stunning Freshwater Planted Tank With Neon Tetras

How Much Substrate Does Your Planted Tank Actually Need

If the goal of your tank is just to satisfy fish then you just need to cover the aquarium floor. When you add plants that need to root into the substrate you need a deeper level of the substrate.

One thing to keep in mind is swim space. When you add more substrate you are subtracting swim space from your fish. Always make sure you have a big enough tank for your fish once you add the substrate and plants.

So how much do we need to add?

If you have plants that attach to rocks and wood then a thin layer will be sufficient.

The problem arises when you have plants that are heavy rooters. If there is not enough substrate the roots may become entangled and nutrient absorption will be affected.

For heavy rooters aim for around 6cm (2-3inches) from the base of your tank.

How To Setup Your Substrate For Your Aquarium Step By Step

So now that we have chosen our substrate and we have an idea of how much we need it is time to actually get it in our tank.

Now for gravel, it is pretty easy. You just need to clean with some tank water and then add a small layer.

When you choose ADA type substrates you have ammonia spikes to contend with. So you have to cycle ADA substrates.

When you first add it to your tank ammonia will leak from the substrate. It is not a great idea to add this to an established tank. If it’s a new tank you can simply add the substrate and then cycle your tank.

Wondering how to add this to an established tank then here is how you can set it up step by step…

Step One: Find a spare tank or a large bucket that can house all your substrate and a good amount of water. Now you will have to add a filter to help cycle the tank.

Step Two: After 24 hours have passed you need to do a large water change. I would aim to change about 95% of the water. Do this each day until the levels have stabilized. You can use some of the filter media from your established tank to help speed up the process.

Step Three: After about a week you want to do water changes every other day. Be sure to do water tests frequently so you can see when the ammonia levels have stabilized.

Step Four: Once the levels have stabilized you can add the ADA soil to your planted tank. Just make sure you monitor water parameters and look out for any abnormal ammonia readings.

When you add to the tank be gentle as you don’t want to stir up any debris and cause another ammonia spike.

Read More: Want to learn more about the Nitrogen Cycle and How To Cycle Your Fish Tank? Click Here!

So What Is The Best Substrate For Planted Tanks?

There you have it our top substrates for your planted freshwater aquarium.

Not only will these create the perfect environment for your plants and fish but they are relatively cheap also. Just remember before you dive in you should do your homework and think about the plants and fish you will keep.

If you have fish that like soft water you can go with a substrate that will help lower the pH levels. If your fish prefers hard water then choose a substrate with more minerals.

So now that you know about the unique characteristics of each of the substrates mentioned here, which substrate do you use in your planted tank?

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