A planted aquarium can be so much fun but there is a lot that goes into getting a planted tank to thrive properly. You’ve got your lights and your aquarium, probably a filter and whatever else you need. You set up that beautiful aquarium but what next?
You were just reading something about tank substrates. What is that even? Think of substrate almost like soil or plant food but specifically designed for a planted aquarium to provide your plants with essential nutrients so that they can grow and thrive.
It takes all of the things from lights to filters to CO2 dispensers and aquarium substrate to help your planted tank look its best so your plants will do more than just survive. They will look great and they will be healthy as well.
Substrate is a simple thing but something that people often don’t think about or possibly even know about when it comes to setting up a planted aquarium. And you can’t purchase just an substrate either for your planted tank. You need to make sure you choose the right option for the plants that you have.
We’ve put together a guide complete with aquarium substrate reviews that cover a variety of aquarium substrate for plants. This guide is meant to help you find the best substrate for aquarium plants based on your needs.
We Think You May Be Interested In: Best Planted Aquarium Substrate
Stick with us to learn plant substrate aquarium solutions and more!
Top Rated Aquarium Substrate Reviews
In this part of our guide, we will take you through a variety of aquarium plant substrate options so that you can look through and determine which one will meet your needs. We’ve made every effort to find multiple solutions for different fish tanks across the board.
We Think You’ll Like: Best Substrate for Planted TankLet’s get started!
1. Best Overall: CaribSea Eco Complete 20-Pounded Aquarium Substrate
This first option from CaribSea Eco Complete 20-Pounded Aquarium Substrate is the best overall plant aquarium substrate in our book. It’s a leader among aquarium substrates and you can get the 20 pound Eco Complete planted formula from the table of contents. This aquarium can be mixed with aquarium gravel but it is not a gravel product.
This clay based Caribsea Eco Complete planted substrate is best for a freshwater aquarium. It contains valuable pH level control for fish and plants and these substrates are made with some of the best quality soil. It is packed with both major and minor elements for your aquarium plants and can be good for even carpeting plants.
The CaribSea Eco Complete substrates help your plants to be healthy right from the roots. It is defined as being a mineralogically complete solution for planted tank substrates. The particle size is quite small, unlike gravel substrates on the market. In addition to the minerals, it is also biologically complete with helpful microorganisms for both fish and plants.
This blend will keep your planted tank in perfect health with a bi modal approach. You get a settled breakout of a fine layer for your plant roots and a coarser layers that provides oxygen and nutrients. These layers have different purposes and it seems to work quite well for plants and even fish.
- Designed to nourish from the roots up
- Provides biological and mineral nutrition
- Bi modal design is very unique
- Best overall planted aquarium substrate
- Perfect for planted tanks with freshwater plants
- This might cause pH level to rise considerably
Why We Like It
This is the best substrate in our books for freshwater plants. It provides nutrients in more ways than one and is uniquely composed to work even with gravel if needed. It’s a clay based bi modal tank substrate that is efficient in all of the right ways.
We Think You’ll Like: Understanding Aquarium Substrate
2. Budget Pick: Seachem Flourite Planted Tank Substrate
Next up, we have a budget friendly option brought to us by Seachem Flourite Planted Tank Substrate . This aquarium substrate is certainly no Ada Aqua Soil Amazonia but it’s still pretty nice and you can choose from gravels and even different colors in some of their varieties. We love that this is suitable for plants and fish and can even be used if you have water column feeders in the tank.
The Seachem Flourite best substrate is a planted tank substrate ideal for plants that need clay to survive. The substrates almost looks like gravel at first glance but it is really clay substrates. One of the most popular Seachem Flourite options is the Seachem Flourite black clay gravel. It’s a bit more expensive so make sure you check out the primary differences from Seachem Flourite black clay gravel to this particular fish tank substrate option.
The all natural porous clay goes a long way to balancing pH level needs and even lowers pH at times. A clay that lowers pH can sometimes be harder to find. If fish waste or fish food are concerns in your planted aquarium, look no further than this clay based solution.
This doesn’t come with water and the color variations can have different prices attached. You can add water and rinse in the bag quite easily. You can also supplement the clay gravel blend with root feeders in your planted aquarium or fish tank. The material is perfect for simplicity and versatility, even in the water.
- Designed to balance pH levels in aquariums
- Comparable to Ada Aqua Soil Amazonia but budget friendly
- Make you review the color and material as there are multiple options.
- Comes in a 15 4 pound bag at this price
- Works with column feeders in water as well
- There are several varieties and different material in them so make sure you pick the right choice for your planted aquariums water needs
- This is a definite red color, not quite like the color on the picture in the listing
Why We Like It
If you like the Ada Aqua Soil Amazonia but find it hard to get your hands on, this is the perfect solution for your water. It’s a gravel style that is clay based and red so it stands out. It provides hydrogen sulfide and essential nutrients for your fish tanks needs. You can even choose their other mixtures like the Seachem Flourite black that almost looks like sand.
3. Mr. Aqua N Mar 068 Fine Pet Habitat Water Plant Soil
If you’re looking for something that might be ideal for plants and pets, the plant and shrimp stratum of this best substrate might be a good option. The Mr. Aqua N Mar 068 Fine Pet Habitat Water Plant Soil is a premium soil. Mr. Aqua N Mar 068 is specifically a fine pet habitat water plant soil, although there is a coarse option also available from this brand of substrate for your planted tanks.
Aquatic plants and fish or pets can get beneficial nitrogen cycle nutrients without a water column using aquarium substrates just like this one. The Mr. Aqua aquarium soil substrates is well-made across the board and even uses organic substrates for your planted tanks as well. Your plants and animals will get all of the essential nutrients and enjoy balanced pH levels.
This is a long lasting aqua soil so the nutrients don’t just disappear in comparison to some comparable selections. Plant growth and nutrients blended with water chemistry are the optimal focuses of these aquarium substrates. They balance things like fish waste and fish food that might actually cause your water chemistry to get out of whack in a planted aquarium.
This fine soil is not like gravel but more comparabl to ada aqua soil Amazonia in design. It works well in water and will substantiate laterite within aquariums. It’s known for having root feeders so your aquariums and plants are healthy in the water from the root up.
- High quality solution for planted aquariums even with water
- Contains laterite and essential nutrients for aquariums with shrimp or fish in them
- Balances out pH levels and water chemistry needs
- Designed to prolong water exchange requirements
- This planted tank substrate might last up to 18 months
- There is little to no English on the packaging for these substrates
- Fish in planted tanks might cause the substrates to be lifted some at times
Why We Like It
The Mr. Aqua aquarium soil is perfect for aquatic plants and tanks that also contain shrimp or fish. It’s not just for plants alone but can give valuable nutrients to the other creatures within the aquariums as well. From plant growth to water balances, your fish tanks could never be better.
4. Fluval Plant and Shrimp Substrates for Fish Tanks
It stands to reason that not all aquariums are just aquatic plants. What about the fish or other items in there? Of course, you might have just plants but this option is ideal when fish are also present. The Fluval Plant and Shrimp Substrates for Fish Tanks for your planted tank will help with plant growth and so much more at the same time.
This gravel blend is really designed for both shrimp and plants. The gravel composites are collected from a volcanic mount in Japan, making this gravel a high quality composition ideal for shrimp and related plants.
This substrate is designed to enhance and encourage plant growth. Even though it’s gravel, the roots can penetrate and spread within so they gather up the much-needed nutrients that are being provided for them. The gravel also provides beneficial bacterial growth, which is another positive consideration.
No 15 4 bag here but you can choose from 3 different size options to meet your needs. If your tank uses a water column, have no fear, it is compatible with this gravel substrate mix. The gravel also supports neutral pH levels and won’t discolor your water, which is a major plus for this type of blend.
- Gravel substrate for plants and shrimp
- Works with water column feeders
- Ideal substrate for planted tanks with fish or shrimp in them
- Provides nutrients for more than just aquatic plants
- Neutralizes pH levels
- Can be challenging to prep and set up and get it to hold in place within your tank.
- If you don’t rinse it well, it can cause your water to be cloudy when moved
Why We Like It
There are times that a simple planted aquarium substrate just won’t do and those times usually involve fish. When it comes to nutrients your plants and your fish need your support and that is where these substrates can help out! With a gravel build, your water will be looking great in no time.
5. Glo Fish Aquarium Gravel, Fluorescent Colors
Here is a unique tank substrate that we found. This one is really neat because you can choose from awesome bright and fluorescent colors or a simple black substrate for planted tank. Glo Fish Aquarium Gravel, Fluorescent Colors can be used for just about anything and is not necessarily limited to just tank substrate.
You can use this simply for accents and looks or specifically as a substrate for your tank. The nice thing is that your planted tank will get nutrients and growth support from this substrate for planted tank setups.
This is a simple solution so if you’re just looking for a little something to spruce up your tank in both looks and nutrients, this is it. Every option comes in 5 pound bags. This may not be sufficient enough for all plants when it comes to tank substrate levels as it is primarily gravel.
If your aquarium has that fun glow appeal, this is the perfect solution! If you need more nutrients for your plants or fish, you can always add additional planted aquarium substrate to your tank and then use the rocks primarily for accent purposes. It primarily depends on your tank needs.
- Fun, fluorescent substrate for planted tank
- Great for plants and fish needs
- Suitable for planted aquarium substrate or just accent in your tank
- Available in a variety of colors
- Good for fish and plants
- May not provide enough nutrients on its own for plants as a substrate
Why We Like It
While this may not meet the need of just any tank, it’s a great option for the best visual appeal. You can easily pair this gravel with another substrate for additional nutrient support and pH balance but this is a pretty nice option if you just need something simple for your planted aquarium with fish.
6. Seachem Fluorite Black Clay Gravel
Next up, we have another popular Seachem Fluorite Black Clay Gravel product. This one is different than the planted aquarium substrate we shared earlier but it easily remains one of the best. This aquarium substrate is clay gravel that is specially designed to be porous and stable all in one setting. It will line your aquarium base and provide your planted aquarium with a more natural appearance overall.
This particular substrate solution is pretty versatile. You can use it for a natural aquarium with plants or you can use it in a freshwater aquarium as well. In addition, you won’t need added laterite because this substrate is functional for both clay and gravel so it doesn’t need to be modified in that manner. You can mix it with gravel but it’s not necessary either. In fact, this substrate works best when used on its own.
There are specific instruction to follow in order to get the best results and the best use from this aquarium substrate solution. You may experience some clouding in the beginning but it should not present an ongoing problem. There are even mechanical filtration steps you can follow to help with the cloudiness in the beginning.
Some substrate has to be used with specific filters but this particular tank substrate can be used with an under gravel filter for an aquarium and it won’t be negatively affected. The filter won’t cause softening or decomposition to take place, making it a quality tank substrate you can depend on.
- Substrate compatible with tank filters
- Does not need any other assistance to make your aquarium perfect
- No chemical coatings or additives in this substrate
- Clay and gravel substrate for versatility
- Can work for a natural aquarium or a planted tank
- May cause some initial cloudiness in the water
- Some plants seem to have trouble rooting into the gravel part of this substrate
Why We Like It
This aquarium substrate is simple and powerful. It’s stark and sturdy but also plain so you don’t have to worry about brilliant colors and mess if you don’t want to. It’s nice to have a tank substrate that can stand alone rather than needing 4 other additives combined in order to make it work properly for a tank. This substrate rocks, quite literally.
7. CaribSea Super Naturals Aquarium Sand Substrate
Before we wrap up the best tank substrate choices, we wanted to leave you with one more unique solution. This CaribSea Super Naturals Aquarium Sand Substrate is a sand substrate so it might not be suitable for every tank or aquarium but it certainly has plenty of opportunities that it could be the best substrate for a particular instance. This is the perfect natural solution for an aquarium substrate and is deal for a natural aquarium all the same.
You can use this substrate in a tank that has freshwater items as well as a tetra tank, fish tank, plant aquarium, and even an African orchid aquarium. It’s a specialty premium substrate that can be quite versatile and offers a natural appeal and solution.
The sand substrate even has a free bio magnet clarifier included with it. There is nothing artificial in the substrate, making it a safe and reliable tank or aquarium option. Much like there is nothing artificial, they also don’t add dyes, paints, or coatings to this substrate, which is another safety benefit for your tank.
This particular option is 20-pound crystal river sand substrate but you can also find Amazon rock, sunset gold, torpedo beach, Peace river, and Tahitian moon substrate specialty blends here as well. This brand is all about premium and unique substrate solutions for your aquarium, which lends to making them one of the best.
- Unique but premium substrate solution
- Versatile to a variety of aquarium needs
- Several unique options available
- Made in the USA
- Nothing artificial in any way in this substrate
- You will need to thoroughly rinse this sand to avoid cloudiness
- Sometimes has caused pH levels to rise
Why We Like It
Not every tank is going to be the same and we all have our own set of preferences as well. This is where a unique substrate such as this one can come in quite handy. It’s a sand substrate, giving you yet one more option to choose from that isn’t just simple gravel or clay.
Best Aquarium Substrate Buyer’s Guide
We’ve shared quite a few substrate options here for you and while each of these is certainly the best substrate in their own way, there are differences to each one. How can you tell which substrate you need for your fish or your plants?
The answer is, it depends. There are a lot of factors to keep in mind when it comes to picking out a substrate and we would be hard pressed to leave you without first providing you with some sort of guide that gives you some tips for making a decision.
This part of our guide is designed to provide you with basic information to give you pause. The goal is that you will be able to use these details to make a fully informed decision.
We Think You’ll Like: Aquarium Substrate: Quick Guide!
One thing that substrates are important for is to help your plants take root and grow so that they can soak up nutrients from the water and the air around them. Whether you need a substrate for your planted tank or you have a full fish aquaria with some plants in it, all of those living things within need valuable nutrients to both survive and thrive.
Those nutrients provide health for the organisms and animals alike. Without those nutrients, you would start noticing the loss of leaves or maybe the loss of color. The things inside may appear healthy for awhile but they will quickly lose their luster.
It might be a subtle change but what you should know is those items inside are not thriving and they could be living a much healthier and happier life.
We Think You May Be Interested In: Understanding Aquarium Substrate
What’s in Your Tank?
The type of substrate that you need could very well depend on what is in your tank. You might have animals or plants or you might have some combination of both. Be sure to choose an option that will be suitable for whatever contents you have. This might require some additional research on your side to truly understand what each item there needs.
The good news is that most substrates are pretty versatile so you won’t have to try to blend and mix them for different items within. You can find quite a few different styles of substrates, which you can clearly see even in the substrates we shared in our reviews. Here are some of what you may see.
- Various river rock substrates
- Various sand substrates
These are some of the most common substrates that you are likely to come across. If you have a theme just be sure to check to see what your specific contents will do best in overall. Every tank is different so different substrates can provide different benefits.
We Think You’ll Like: Best Rocks for Freshwater Aquarium
What Does Substrate Do?
Substrates are primarily designed to help your plants be able to root into something. You will notice that they are almost like a specialty soil but made for water. They might come in forms like rock, gravel, clay, sand, or even something else.
This simple material gives those live plants a place to sink their roots and really take hold so they can grow and thrive in the environment. In addition, they can develop and absorb nutrients better and possibly even share nutrients with the other contents inside thanks to the substrates.
Beyond these benefits, substrates can do a bit of work for the appearance of the aquarium as well. You might also see changes in the water chemistry factors as well as filtration changes as well. Pay attention to your levels and know your tank in case any adjustments may need to be made on other factors.
An Overview of Different Substrates
We shared some different substrate types earlier. Let’s go over some of them quickly with a breakdown of just what they are and why they are popular or may or may not work for you.
When it comes to sand, you will find both fine and coarse options. It might not even be labeled as a substrate but coarse sand makes a really great substrate option. This is especially true for planted tanks.
You will want to look at the grade of the sand. We typically recommend that you look for a #3 or higher as the smaller grades can actually be more harmful to plants than helpful. In this case, know your sand and know how it can affect your tank overall.
When you use sand, you may want to consider iron supplementation to go with it because this small change can help to better control the levels of hydrogen sulfide in the water so it doesn’t get too high and harm your plants.
The challenge with gravel is that it can sometimes produce quite a bit of waste. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t use it. You may need to consider pairing it with another layer of something for the best results but you know better than anyone what your tank needs.
Gravel is pretty common with column feeding plants but it can work for other things as well. On top of that, some fish don’t do well with gravel so it really depends overall on just what exactly you have and what you are trying to accomplish.
If you do decide to use gravel, consider adding another level of some other form of substrate underneath it. Again, this could depend on just what you have in your tank.
You may have noticed in our listings the mention of complete substrate. This is a blend of substrate that is designed to provide everything you need in one simple solution. Complete blends are a go-to for people who have plants that are considered root feeders. These plants typically require special blends to support their roots and grow and thrive properly.
The nice thing is that a complete blend can be pretty versatile. However, when you first add a complete blend, you need to be cautious. It is best if no live animals are in the tank until you have the chance to get all of your levels balanced appropriately.
Set your tank and let it cycle and rest. Then, test your pH and get it balanced properly so that the changes from the complete blend don’t harm your fish. These blends are known for causing the raising or lowering of pH when they are new and fresh.
Multi substrate is pretty similar to a complete blend as far as the way it works. These often have a blend of things like sand, soil, and maybe gravel. They may have clay or something else in them also. The point and purpose of this type of substrate is to give your tank a more natural aquatic appeal.
This is one of the best ways to mimic what those plants might really live in if they were in the wild. That includes fish and shrimp or other creatures too.
A multi substrate can be versatile and it can come in many different forms. The nice thing is that there are layers so it can be beneficial to several different types of plants and animals. This can certainly be an ideal solution.
It may take some initial work and effort to get these set up properly but the efforts are typically well worth it and will provide a profound environment for both plants and fish. You are less likely to battle cloudiness in your water using this type of substrate as well.
Can You Have an Aquarium Without Substrate?
Sure, you can forget the substrate if you want to but in the end, your plants will most likely suffer because of it. There are some plants that don’t need substrates. These plants are limited though – like the fern, Hornworts, or water lettuce. If you have any other types of plants, you probably want to consider using substrates.
It can be a pain to get it set up but even fish do better in an aquarium environment that has substrate in it. It’s not about the looks really, it’s about providing and creating an ideal environment for both plants and fish within your tank.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the Best Substrate for Freshwater Aquariums?
We recommend a complete blend for a freshwater aquarium. We like the CaribSea Eco Complete, which you can find out plenty more about in our best overall review above. It’s a well-rounded option that will provide essential nutrients for both plants and fish within your tank if you follow the steps to set it up correctly.
Is Gravel or Sand Better for an Aquarium?
It really depends on what you have in your tank. Both of these can provide benefits that are great but it depends on what you need. For example, coarse sand gives plants a really great place to root and won’t be likely to harm your environment if it is coarse enough.
Gravel sometimes can pose a problem for certain fish or rooting plants but it can be great for some fish or column feeding plants.
It’s all in understanding and knowing what you have in your tank. Gravel may be better for some tanks while sand may be better for others.
What is the Best Substrate for Corydoras?
For corydoras, you can use either smooth sand for a fine gravel. You want to be sure that you use something that won’t be sharp or coarse as those can hurt corydoras when they are skimming the ground for food. They use their whiskers to find food so a smooth substrate is the best option.
No matter what you have in your tank or what it is you are searching for, we hope you can find some direction and maybe even some great options for your needs here. We made every effort to provide a variety of options but also to provide some insightful information so you have choices and details before you get started.
We’d love to see your tanks when you get them set up!
Always set your tank and check out the levels before you put fish or any other creature inside the tank. Some substrates can alter pH balance or disturb the chemistry of the water and you may need to let it rest before you add your fish.
Did You Know?
Substrate is effective because it’s a natural solution. If you consider the natural elements those plants or animals would be living in without your tank, substrate gets you one step closer to that.
- Fluval Stratum is made of mineral rich volcanic soil
- Stimulates strong aquarium plant growth
- Aquarium Safe - 100% natural
- Promotes good bacteria growth because of its large surface area
- No laterite needed
- Perfect for planted aquariums