Do Aquarium Plants Need Soil? (5 Plants That Don’t Need it)

Live aquatic plants can elevate the appearance of your aquarium from zero to a hundred real quick. However, maintaining and planting them into the tank can be a hassle. Good-quality plants will not just alleviate complications but support a healthy underwater ecosystem in the tank.

From maintaining CO2 levels to providing quiet hiding spots, aquarium plants do more than you’d anticipate. However, the most common issue with aquarium plants is not knowing how to plant them in the tank.

Should you tie them to the substrate, should you use soil, or should it free float? The choices are diverse. Whether aquarium plants need soil or can they grow without soil depends on the plant’s species.

Some live aquatic plants rely solely on the substrate, while some need the soil for anchorage. Whatever the factors are, this article will explore more about that in detail, whatever the elements are.

Do You Need Soil for Aquarium Plants? Is It Beneficial?

Let us clarify one thing first.

Not every aquarium plant needs soil for growth. The primary factor that determines the plant’s needs is the root system.

If the roots can absorb the nutrients from the substrate, they won’t need soil as a buffer. However, if the roots aren’t sufficient, you might need soil and fertilizer to support their growth underwater.

The root feeders are the ones that need a balance of substrate and soil to propagate. Since you can’t directly anchor the plants to the substrate, you’d need soil to keep them in place.

Some of the common types of root feeders are:

Bulbs – these are bulbous plants that solely rely on soil for growth. They divide and grow into new bulbs underwater.

Ground cover plants – plants like Vallisneria are typical examples of this type. They cover the bottom of the tank and propagate very quickly.

Node propagators – the last variant on the list are the node propagators, which grow from the branches. When a branch grows too long, they break to form new plants from them.

The main reason why soil substrate is essential is due to nutrition. The plants quickly absorb the dissolved food to support the growth and health of the aquatic plants.

Are There Any Disadvantages of Soil-Based Substrate?

Along with the benefits of soil-based substrates come a few complications. However, they aren’t too bad and can be managed with the proper measures.

Some of the potent disadvantages include:

1. Changes the Water Chemistry

Active substrates often contain a range of nutrients in them. So, don’t be surprised if they drastically change the water’s chemistry without your knowledge.

A sudden change in the water’s chemistry, especially with the pH and nutrients, can negatively affect the fish. So, be vigilant of the type of soil substrate you are adding.

2. Cloudy and Muddy Appearance

It isn’t even a question that adding soil to the water will make the aquarium water look murky. This is because the bigger and drier chunks will absorb the water and disintegrate. This can lead to muddy water if you don’t indulge in water changes.

3. Nutrients need to be Replenished

Although not necessarily a disadvantage, it is a common issue with soil substrates. They come with a limited amount of nutrients that last for a year or two. After that, you will have to sprinkle in fertilizers or change the entire substrate for nutrients.

4. Highly Priced

The last issue is with the pricing. Soil substrates are costly, mainly because they come with nutrients preloaded. So, you’d have to pay a lot more than sand or gravel substrates for the aquarium.

How To Plant Aquarium Plants in Soil?

Planting your aquatic plants into the soil substrate is an easy process. We’d recommend that you do this initially when setting up the aquarium instead of doing it later.

You have to separate and branch out your plant’s roots and hold them with a tweezer. You can then integrate them into the soil substrate one after the other.

Ensure that you don’t submerge or suffocate the roots too much into the substrate. Leave some room for aeration and propagation too.

Also, you don’t have to bury half of the plant to hold it in place. You have to secure the roots inside the soil, and you are good to go.

Best Soil Substrate for Aquarium Plants

The availability of soil substrate for aquarium plants is very easy. You don’t have to worry about finding the right brands for your aquarium.

After much research, we have sorted out the top 3 soil substrates you can consider buying.

1. Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum

Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum

If you are new to fish keeping, we’d recommend starting with Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum. This one is versatile, easy to handle, and affordable too.

The highlight of this soil substrate is its composition. It is mineral-rich volcanic soil. So, the substrate is a lot more nourishing, not just for plant growth.

If you are worried about sudden water chemistry changes, this substrate takes care of that. The composition balances the pH levels and prevents issues with growth. Not just for aquatic plants, it is ideal for shrimp too.

– – –

2. S.T. International Aqua Soil

S.T. International Aqua Soil

Ideally formulated for aquatic gardens, S.T. International Aqua Soil is another popular soil substrate in the market. The unique formulation supports nutrient balance for plants, fish, crabs, and shrimp.

The compact texture of the soil prevents easy disintegration, which makes the water muddy. Also, the professional-grade formulation maintains a pH between 6.7 to 7.0.

– – –

3. CaribSea Eco-Complete 20-Pound Planted Aquarium

CaribSea Eco-Complete 20-Pound Planted Aquarium

Priced under $30, the soil substrate from CaribSea is a popular choice too. This is an ideal pack for beginners, especially ones who don’t have any previous experience with live plants.

The soil comprises volcanic soil substrate and is enriched with all the micro and macronutrients. It has a blend of calcium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, etc.

The high CEC value of this substrate holds its integrity and prevents the risks of disintegration. So, you get high-quality substrate from a reliable brand at an affordable price.

– – –

How Much Aquarium Soil Do You Need?

The optimal level of aquarium soil depends on multiple factors. For example, it depends on the size of the aquarium, the depth of the roots of the aquatic plants, and the depth of the soil you want in the bottom.

There’s a straightforward formula to calculate the aquarium soil you’d need. It suggests:

Amount of aquarium soil = length x width x depth / 1000 of the tank

Adding soil substrates to the tank is superior to gravel or sand. This is because of the steady nutrient supply. You won’t have to worry about adding extra nutrients with fertilizers when you add soil.

Also, the soil should be in a slanted position. This allows quicker and better absorption of the nutrients into the roots.

If you have a fresh water tank, the depth of the substrate is generally between 2-5 cm. That is standard and allows for the quicker anchorage of the roots into the soil.

Also, when adding soil to the aquarium, focus on adding aquarium soil only. Don’t make the mistake of adding random soil from the garden.

Can Aquarium Plants Grow Without Soil?

Most aquarium plants can grow without soil. However, remember that the plants need nutrient supply for growth.

So, if they aren’t getting it from the soil, you’d have to add it externally with fertilizers. So, this is the biggest issue that arises.

Instead of soil substrate, gravel and sand make the next best choice. However, aquatic plants that grow well in aquariums without soil are rhizome plants, root feeders, stem plants, etc.

You’d have to manage the placement when tying them to the root. Don’t bury the roots into the substrate because that will damage the plants thoroughly.

Aquarium Plants That Do Not Need Soil

While we are on the topic, let us talk about some of the best aquarium plants that aren’t dependent on soil growth.

1. Java Fern

Java Fern

Ferns are hands down one of the most versatile aquatic plants. They grow amazingly in gravel or sand substrates. But, unfortunately, you have to tie them securely to driftwood and let the rest take its course.

They propagate very quickly, so you might have to nip and trim the excess if they cover the aquarium.

2. Java Moss

Java Moss

Java mosses are hard to tame, especially when they have all the correct water parameters. More than plants, they grow like weeds. So, you might have to control their growth before they turn for the worse.

Not just for oxygen, mosses also serve as good hiding spots for the fish and shrimps in the tank.

3. Amazon Frogbit

Amazon Frogbit

As weird as the plant’s name is, Amazon frogbit is a unique one. It is a floating plant that lies around the surface of the tank.

They are good hiding spots for small fish species in community tanks. So, adding one or two can elevate the décor of your fish tank.

4. Hornwort


One of the most common aquatic plants, hornworts, has a unique needle-like appearance. They can live as floating plants or submerged into the gravel substrate.

However, they propagate quickly and need CO2 levels, which you’d have to supply from the exterior.

5. Elodea


Last on the list is Elodea. They are node propagators that grow from the stem. They are fast growers, but they also absorb a lot of nutrients from the tank. So, ensure you check the nutrient balance if you add them to your aquarium.

Wrapping Up

Growing aquatic plants in soil-substrate is quite encouraged. However, not every aquarist follows through. If you were confused about the importance and need of soil for aquarium plants, we hope this answers all your queries. Just ensure optimal research about the type of plant you are adding to the aquarium. We hope this article answers all your questions in detail.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.