Top 9 Best Planted Aquarium Substrate: The Ultimate Guide

The substrate is an extremely important and sometimes overlooked parameter of every tank. For those that don’t know, the substrate is the surface or material at the bottom of your tank. Picking the right substrate is crucial because some fish prefer certain types of substrate. If you’re planning on having a planted aquarium, you also need a specific substrate for that as well. There are several different types of substrate for planted tanks. Some of the most popular substrate choices are Sand Substrate, Gravel Substrate, Gravel, Complete Substrates, and Multi-substrates. In order to pick the right substrate for your tank, you need to take into account the species in your tank, as well as any plants you plan on adding.

aquarium plant substrate
aquarium plant substrate
planted aquarium substrate
planted aquarium substrate

Do you need a special Substrate for planted tanks?

When picking a substrate for a planted tank, you need to look at each plant’s individual needs. Specifically, you should research how the plants you plan on adding to your tank gain their nutrients. Some plants are water column feeders, which means they their nutrients from the water around them. Other plants are root feeders, meaning they get their nutrients from the substrate they are rooted into. Because of how they feed, it doesn’t make sense to use a substrate with a lot of nutrients for a plant that feeds from the water column. However, you’ll want a substrate that is rich in nutrients for a plant that feeds through its roots.

What type of Substrate is best for Aquarium plants?

There is no overall best substrate for aquarium plants. Each plant and each tank has its own specific needs. You need to research the plants and species in your tank to determine the right substrate for you. You may need a nutrient-rich substrate such as one you can find in any aquarium store. Or you may even require a basic substrate that doesn’t contain any nutrients, such as gravel or sand. Be sure that the substrate you pick is safe for the species in your planted tank. Research will be your best friend when preparing an aquarium or tank for any fish species or plants.

substrate for planted tank
substrate for planted tank

Top 9 Best Aquarium Plant Substrates

Picking a substrate for your planted aquarium can sometimes be a tall task; you may even get overwhelmed by the options, but we’re here to help. In the following sections, we will cover the 9 best substrate choices for your aquarium plants. Each one will have a brief overview and its pros and cons. Hopefully, with this information, you’ll be able to make an informed choice and select the perfect substrate not only for the plants in your tank but for the fish species in there as well.

ADA Aqua Soil

ADA Aqua Soil is a great option for your tank if your plants are of the root-feeding variety. Rich in both organic acid and nutrients, ADA Aqua Soil promotes the growth of plants when used as a substrate. The dark color of the ADA Aqua Soils makes the colors of the plants and species in your tank pop more. ADA Aqua Soil is the perfect choice If you want to help the colors in your tank pop. It is also a great choice to help the plants in your tank grow.

You should consider the pros and cons before making any purchase, even aquarium substrate. Thankfully in the case of ADA Aqua Soil, the pros tend to outweigh the cons. The biggest pro of ADA Aqua Soil is its nutrients. Being rich in nutrients means that using ADA Aqua Soil in your tank will help promote the growth of the plants planted in it. Another pro of the ADA Aqua Soil isn’t as practical as being rich in nutrients but nearly as important to some people. ADA Aqua Soil has dark coloring; this dark coloring will help make the brighter colors of your fish and plants pop. The final thing worth mentioning is both a pro and a con. There are some notable examples of ADA Aqua Soil lowering the pH balance in tanks it is used in. Decreasing the pH balance of a tank can be considered both a pro and a con. It is a pro if you need the pH level of your tank to be lower, but a con if you don’t need the pH level to be lowered.

Pros and Cons of ADA Aqua Soil

Rich in NutrientsExpensive per bag.
Lowers the pH level of the tank. (Only a pro if you need the pH level reduced.)Lowers the pH level of the tank. (Only a con if you do not require the pH level in your decreased.)
Dark color causes brighter colors in the tank to pop 

Fluval Stratum

Fluval Stratum is an all-natural substrate that is collected from the nutrient-rich areas at the bottom of Mount Aso Volcano in Japan. Because of how it is collected and where it is collected from, Fluval Stratum is a great option as an alternative substrate in both planted tanks and those that feature shrimp.

Fluval Stratum is just individual small balls of volcanic soil. Because these balls of the volcanic soil are so light and loose, the roots of smaller plants should be able to penetrate into and through them, rooting themselves pretty easily. As with several other substrate types, Fluval Stratum is a darker color. Dark substrates are great because they contrast with brighter colors in your tank and make the brighter colors pop.

There are several pros and cons of Fluval Stratum that need to be considered before you decide to purchase it for your tank. One such pro is the looseness of the Fluval Stratum. It is just loose balls of volcanic soil; smaller roots have no trouble growing in and through them. The looseness of the balls of Fluval Stratum also makes it perfect for baby shrimp to hide in before they are fully grown. The baby shrimp can easily hide between the balls of volcanic soil. Unfortunately, the looseness of the Fluval Stratum can also be considered a con in some scenarios. Larger plants sometimes have a hard time grabbing onto the Fluval Stratum until their roots are fully formed and grown. The price point of Fluval Stratum can also be considered a con; it is more than other options for tank substrate. Because Fluval Stratum is gathered at the base of a volcano, it is nutrient-rich volcanic soil. Those nutrients found in the Fluval Stratum will help your plants grow. Despite the color of the Fluval Stratum, it will not discolor the water in your tank like some other substrate options will. There have been some cases of Fluval Stratum breaking down after a few years. If your Fluval Stratum begins to break down, it will need to be replaced.

Pros and Cons of Fluval Stratum

High in nutrients, which encourages plant growthPrice can be expensive in comparison.
Won’t discolor the water in the tank.May need to be replaced after a few years.
Loose enough that baby shrimp can hide in it.Loose enough that larger plants may not be able to get a grip.

Seachem Flourite

Seachem Flourite is a type of aquarium substrate that is made from all-natural porous clay. While Seachem Flourite is best suited for planted tanks, it can be traditionally used in any freshwater aquarium setting. Since it is all-natural, Seachem Flourite is not coated or treated with any additional fertilizers or artificial ingredients. You can combine your Seachem Flourite with other types of gravel, but it is recommended to use it alone. Gravel Modifiers are also not necessary. Seachem Flourite Black, as the name suggests, is black.

One of the biggest selling points of Seachem Flourite is that it does not degrade or dissolve in your tank, which means that you should never need to replace it. Because Seachem Flourite is inert and does not degrade in your tank, it will not affect water parameters such as pH level. This can be a huge benefit for some tanks that must stay within a very small pH range.

Pros and cons are important when choosing anything, and you shouldn’t overlook them when picking things for your tank or aquarium. One of the most talked about cons of Seachem Flourite is how dusty the product can be. Nearly every review of Seachem Flourite that can be found online mentions that it needs to be rinsed off several times before use. If you neglect to rinse Seachem Flourite before putting it into your tank, it will cloud and discolor the water. Speaking of color, the color of Seachem Flourite can be a selling point for some. It is a dark, almost black color that color can make brighter colors in your tank pop in contrast.

Another important thing to note that could be considered a pro and a con is that Seachem Flourite is all-natural. It does not contain any additional ingredients or fertilizer; this means that Seachem Flourite doesn’t really promote growth for the plants in your tank. An important con of Seachem Flourite is how dense it is. The denseness of Seachem Flourite can cause a problem with planting things into it; you may have trouble getting the roots deep into it.

Pros and Cons of Seachem Flourite

Dark coloring makes brighter colors pop.Dense gravel makes planting difficult.
Long Lasting and doesn’t need to be replaced.Dusty. Will discolor water if not rinsed properly.
Inert. Will not change pH balance in your tank. 

Caribsea Eco Complete

If you’re looking for a great substrate for your planted tank, but you don’t have that large of a budget, then look no further than Caribsea Eco Complete. A twenty-pound bag of Caribsea Eco Complete sells for just around $20. That price point makes Caribsea Eco Complete a great choice if you need a lot of substrate for a larger tank. But if you don’t need as much substrate, it might be more prudent for you to go with a smaller bag of another brand.

It is worth noting that there may be a quality control issue with certain bags of Caribsea Eco Complete. This is because there have been some noted examples of bags of Caribsea Eco Complete substrate raising the pH level of tanks once used. However, there are many examples of Caribsea Eco Complete raising the pH level of tanks; it may just be a few bad bags.

Some important features or pros of Caribsea Eco Complete are worth mentioning. Caribsea Eco Complete contains live bacteria that help convert fish waste into natural food for the plants in your tank. Caribsea Eco Complete claims to contain over 25 different minerals. These minerals are said to help promote healthy and luxuriant growth. Interestingly, Caribsea Eco Complete isn’t dry when you open the bag. The coarse, complete Caribsea Eco substrate comes packed in a liquid solution. This solution is a liquid amazon buffered black water, which helps keep the bacteria in the substrate alive. Because of the solution it is packed in, you have to rinse your Caribsea Eco Complete once you open the bag.

A common thread in many different substrates is their coloring, in this case, darker colors such as black. Many people prefer a dark substrate because the dark coloring contrasts well with other brighter colors in the tank. The contrast in colors will help the lighter colors pop more vividly. Caribsea Eco Complete is one of those substrates with a darker black coloring.

If you have a larger tank, and want a substrate that you don’t have to rinse, then you should consider Caribsea Eco Complete. It’s great value for your money and packed with nutrients. The nutrients packed into Caribsea Eco Complete help promote healthy and happy growth of the plants planted into it. Caribsea Eco Complete is also very popular and highly revered by consumers. There are over 4500 reviews of Caribsea Eco Complete on Amazon, where it has a 4.5 rating. 80% of the over 4500 reviews on Amazon are 5-star reviews.

Pros and Cons of Caribsea Eco Complete

Pre-Cycled. No rinsing required.Might need to be changed after a while.
Affordable for a large quantity.Sometimes may increase pH level.
Black color, which contrasts with brighter colors.The difference in bags may indicate a quality control issue.
Contains over 25 different nutrients. 

Tropica Aquarium Soil

Tropica Aquarium Soil is a somewhat popular brand overseas but can be a bit harder to find in the states. It is frequently out of stock on Amazon and other websites that sell substrate. However, when Tropica Aquarium Soil is in stock, it is sometimes a bit pricey, so much so that it may be prudent to purchase a different brand or type of substrate.

An interesting fact about Tropica Aquarium Soil that may make it more appealing to some people is that the grains are not uniform. The difference in the size of the grains helps give the illusion of a more realistic and natural substrate. These grains are also small, between 2 and 3 millimeters. That small size makes it easier to plant things. Tropica claims that their aquarium soil ensures proper growth and stimulates red colors. It is also a complete bottom layer, which means it can be used without any other substrate as a bottom layer. However, Tropica Aquarium Soil is active and has been known to lower the pH level of tanks it is used in. Lowering the pH level is both a good and bad thing. A good thing if you need to reduce the pH level in your tank. Unfortunately, it can be a bad thing if you have a very precise pH need in your tank.

Pros and Cons of Tropica Aquarium Soil

The varying grain sizes makes it look more naturalCan be hard to find.
Lasts longer than other substratesExpensive.
Reduces pH levelReduces pH level
Claims to ensure proper growth while stimulating the red colors of plants. 

Landen Aqua Soil

As with several other substrates that we’ve covered, Landen Aqua Soil is black in color. As such, this black color can and will make the brighter colors in your tank look more vibrant and alive. Landen states that their aqua soil is made by nature. What they mean is that it is made using natural materials directly from the earth. Natural materials make it ideal for aquatic plants and help them create a healthy root system.

According to several consumer reviews, Landen Aqua Soil seems to lower the pH level in the tank while also causing an ammonia spike. Because of the ammonia spike, adding fish immediately into the tank is not recommended. Lowering the pH balance of the tank is also a potential issue if you do not rectify it. It is important to note that Landen Aqua Soil is dust free out of the bag, which means that it does not require any rinsing before being placed into your tank.

Pros and Cons of Landen Aqua Soil

Black coloring – makes bright colors pop.Causes an ammonia spike
Lowers pHRaises pH
Dust free. No rinsing required.May not be suitable for tanks that contain fish.

Ultum Nature Systems Controsoil

Similar to some other substrates we’ve covered, Ultum Nature Systems Controsoil is made up of volcanic ash found in japan as well as all-natural, high-quality soil. One of their claims is that their Controsoil does not cause ammonia spikes. Ammonia spikes can be very dangerous to any fish in your tank and promote algae growth.

Ultum Nature Systems Controsoil claims that it does not require rinsing and that it does not cloud your tank. These two claims go hand in hand because several consumer reviews have stated that rinsing the Ultum Nature Systems Controsoil will cause it to cloud your tank. This cloudiness is likely caused by breaking up the small granules. While Ultum Nature Systems Controsoil has a very natural look, it is not as black as you would believe. Several consumers have reported that the Controsoil is actually a dark brown.

Pros and Cons of Ultum Nature Systems Controsoil

No rinsing required.If rinsed beforehand, it will cause cloudiness in the tank.
Looks natural.Not actually Black, but dark brown.
Promotes healthy plant growth. 

Mr. Aqua Aquarium Soil Substrate

Mr. Aqua Aquarium Soil Substrate is a great option as a substrate for a planted tank but is often overlooked. Many people will tend to purchase other brands of substrate that offer similar things as Mr. Aqua Aquarium Soil Substrate. This is likely because of the price point of this substrate. An eight-pound bag of Mr. Aqua Aquarium Soil Substrate can cost upwards of $50. If you have the money to spend on a substrate, Mr. Aqua Aquarium Soil Substrate is a great choice.

As with most brands and types of substrates, Mr. Aqua Aquarium Soil Substrate lowers the pH level in the tank. This can benefit some who need an easy way to get the pH level they require. Mr. Aqua Aquarium Soil Substrate is also very rich in nutrients, and those nutrients tend to have a lifespan of just around 18 months, so it doesn’t have to be changed very frequently. Another thing it has in common with other substrates is color. Mr. Aqua Aquarium Soil Substrate is dark in coloring, which makes brighter colors look more vivid in contrast.

Pros and Cons of Mr. Aqua Aquarium Soil Substrate

Rich in vitamins and nutrients.Loose can cause cloudiness if stirred up.
Long life span.Expensive.
Dark coloring,Lowers pH.
Lowers pH. 

DIY Aquarium Plant Substrate

Creating your own substrate for your planted tank can be an affordable and easy option. Some potential DIY Aquarium Plant Substrate choices are Potting soil, Topsoil, or even kitty litter. You can even use layers of different substrates, as was popularized by Diana Walstad. Each DIY Aquarium Plant Substrate option has its own pros and cons; you need to find the right one for your needs.

Pros and Cons of DIY Aquarium Plant Substrate

Easy to obtain. (Topsoil, Potting Soil, and Kitty Litter)Messy. (Topsoil, Potting Soil, and Kitty Litter)
Affordable (Topsoil, Potting Soil, and Kitty Litter)Affects Water Chemistry. (Topsoil and Potting Soil.
Different Sized granules make it easier for water to flow. (Topsoil)No Nutrients (Kitty Litter)

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