Best Substrate for Planted Tanks (Reviewed 2021)

Updated on January 30, 2021 by

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What are aquarium substrates and how beneficial are they?

It is often said that a planted aquarium is a reflection of its substrate. Hence, a good substrate will give you a flourishing planted aquarium, while a bad choice at that will impede your planted tank.

A substrate is the bottom layer or surface upon which organisms (plants, microorganisms or animals) live.

They are the base that supports the aquatic plant root and facilitates the plant’s growth. They are also used to give the aquatic animals the comfort of their natural home feel, and encourage the proper growth and metabolism of good microorganisms.

A healthy planted tank is greatly dependent on the choice of substrate. Therefore this issue must be approached with care which stems from adequate knowledge to ascertain the type of substrate that is best suited for your planted tank.

As a good soil is important to terrestrial plants, so is a substrate to an aquatic plant. As different terrestrial plants may require different types of soil, so also, different aquatic plants may require different types of substrates to thrive and flourish.

It is quite important to note that while a particular substrate might be a great choice for a plant, it could be less effective for another.

Therefore, if more than one type of plant is intended for the tank, then a substrate should be chosen that will suit the different plants and allow them all to thrive individually, else one might flourish while the other perishes.

Also, due to varying shapes, sizes and colors, substrates can add some decoration effects to the aquarium space.

What types of aquarium substrates are there?

Owing to the fraction size or grade of the substrate, they can be divided into 3 types namely: Coarse, Medium Coarse and Fine Substrates.

Moreover, it is one thing to know the type of substrate in which a planted aquarium can thrive, and another thing for the planted aquarium to thrive healthily.

As a soil would require certain nutrients for the plants to grow healthily, so also a substrate should possess certain beneficial characteristics for the aquatic plants.

Few characteristics to be considered when choosing the best aquarium substrate include the following:

Buffering Capacity

Buffering capacity is the degree at which a substrate can relate with water chemistry especially the pH.

Certain substrates might tend to shift the pH level of the water to either the right or left, while some will not affect the pH level. 

Therefore, when choosing the ideal substrate, the pH level needed for the plants to thrive should first be ascertained, then complementing substrate that will not affect the desired pH should then be selected.

Porosity

Porosity is quite important when selecting a substrate. This determines the ability and amount of micro particles (food, microorganisms, etc) which the substrate can permit and hold. 

The choice of a substrate should be porous enough to allow good and beneficial microorganisms to dwell and thrive.

Cation Exchange Capacity

Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC) is the ability of the substrate to absorb and release cations (positively charged ions).

These charged particles are essential for the growth of the aquarium plant. Therefore choosing a substrate would take into account the Cation Exchange Capacity of the substrate.

A substrate with excellent Cation Exchange Capacity will also easily absorb free floating nutrients that are also essential for the plant growth, which can then be easily taken up by the roots of the plants.

Cost

The cost could also be one of the most important aspects when choosing the best substrate for planted tanks, because no matter how good the substrate could be, if you cannot cope with the cost of running and maintaining the substrate, then you might have to go for a considerably good one that suits your budget.

Some substrates can be quite pricey while a few others might be considerably cheap or sometimes even free.

This article covers reviews of different, affordable and easily accessible aquarium substrates to suit your choice depending on the setup.

Best aquarium substrates in 2020 compared

ImageProductFeaturesCheck Price
Best for Red Plants
Tropica New Substrate
Tropica New Substrate

For: Freshwater
Quantity: 6 Kg
Neutral: for KH & pH

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Best for Shrimp
Fluval Stratum
Fluval Stratum

For: Freshwater
Quantity: 2-8 Kg bags
Promotes: Neutral – mildly acidic pH
Made of: Mineral rich volcanic soil

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Best Gravel
Seachem Flourite Black Clay Gravel
Seachem Flourite Black Clay Gravel

For: Freshwater
Quantity: 7 Kg
Promotes: neutral pH
Made of: Porous clay gravel

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Best red gravel
Flourite Red
Flourite Red

For: Freshwater
Quantity: 7 Kg
Color: Red

Promotes: neutral pH
Made of: Porous clay gravel

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Best Dark Gravel
Flourite Dark
Flourite Dark

For: Freshwater
Quantity: 7 Kg
Color: Dark brown

Promotes: neutral pH
Made of: Porous clay gravel

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Best Porous Gravel
Flourite
Flourite

For: Freshwater
Quantity: 7 Kg
Color: Brown
Promotes: neutral pH
Made of: Porous clay gravel

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Fine Gravel
Onyx Sand
Onyx Sand

For: Fresh & Saltwater
Quantity: 7 Kg
Color: Dark gray
Promotes: Raises pH by 0.1 – 0.5
Made of: Carbonate rich sand

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Best For Plants
CaribSea Eco-Complete
CaribSea Eco-Complete

For: Freshwater
Quantity: 9 Kg
Color: Black
Promotes: Raises pH

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Resilient Substrate
UP AQUA Sand
UP AQUA Sand

For: Freshwater
Quantity: 5 Kg
Color: Black
pH: Maintains 6.5 – 7 value

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1. Tropica New Substrate – Best Aquarium Substrate for Red Plants

Our Top Pick
Tropica New Substrate - Best Aquarium Substrate for Red Plants

Tropica New Substrate

The first review on our list is the Tropica Plant Care Freshwater Planted Aquarium Soil. 

This is a Japanese natural substrate granulate obtained from volcanic matters. It is a complete substrate that can be used with or without any other bottom layer. It can be used as a top or front layer to enhance a smoother substrate line.

Being also porous enough, it efficiently allows the absorption and uptake of nutrients by the aquatic plants. The soil ensures proper plant growth and helps to enhance the red coloration of brightly colored plants.

It is a great substrate that affects the chemistry of the water by reducing the overall pH levels. Therefore it is suitable for aquatic plants and fish that thrive in an acidic medium.

Weekly water changes are highly recommended, replacing about 25-50% of the total water during the first 4 weeks.

PROs
  • Comes in a 3 liters bag
  • Stimulates red plants coloration
  • It’s a complete bottom soil
  • It stimulates adequate plant growth
  • It is suitable for pH plants that thrive in an acidic medium
CONs
  • May contain ammonia when first introduced and would require frequent water changes

2. Fluval Stratum – Best Aquarium Substrate for Plants and Shrimp

Best for Shrimp
Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum - Best Aquarium Substrate for Plants and Shrimp

Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum

Made of mineral-rich volcanic soil, this is an ideal freshwater substrate to facilitate adequate growth of the aquatic plants.

The Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum is fortified with essential macro and micro nutrients that are necessary for adequate plant nourishment. 

This substrate is quite loose and porous which easily allows the roots of the aquatic plant to penetrate and absorb infused minerals and nutrients that are essential for proper and flamboyant plant growth. The porous nature is also beneficial to the nitrifying bacteria that utilize the large porosity to infuse the required nitrifying elements to the plants.

This substrate helps to maintain a slightly acidic to neutral pH level which is suitable for most aquatic plants and fish species of tropical descent.

The soil does not discolor water and also helps to control organic water discoloration especially when natural water decorations such as driftwood are added to the tank.

This substrate is also available in multiple bag sizes from 4 pounds to 17 pounds.

PROs
  • Available in varying bag sizes
  • It is suitable for maintaining a neutral and mildly acidic pH level
  • It is essential for most live plants and shrimps
  • Helps to maintain and control organic water discoloration
CONs
  • Stirs easily and takes a while to settle down

3. Seachem Flourite Black Clay – Best Aquarium Gravel Substrate

Stable Porous Natural
Seachem Flourite Black Clay Gravel - Best Aquarium Gravel Substrate

Seachem Flourite Black Clay Gravel

Seachem Flourite Black is also another brand of the Seachem product aimed at providing another choice of substrate color to their clients.

As with every other Seachem products, the Seachem Flourite Black is also an all-natural and specially fracted stable porous clay gravel that is suitable for the natural planted aquarium.

The coloration makes it suitable for a planted aquarium; however, it can also be used for any aquarium tank. This substrate is compatible with an under gravel filter without decomposing to an unpleasant state.

Moreover, gravel modifiers such as the laterite are not necessary, and this substrate is most effectively used as a standalone integral substrate bed. However, it can also be combined with other gravel substrates.

PROs
  • Quite easy to apply and use
  • Compatible with a bottom filter
  • A great choice for a new tank
  • Gravel modifiers are not necessarily needed
CONs
  • Might be dusty and would require adequate rinsing before use

4. Seachem Flourite Red – Best Red Aquarium Gravel Substrate

Beautiful Red Substrate
Flourite Red

Flourite Red

This is a Seachem substrate product which provides you with another choice of red coloration preference to suit your need for a preferential substrate color. 

Just like every other Seachem product, the Seachem Flourite Red is also an all-natural and specially fracted stable porous clay gravel that is suitable for the natural planted aquarium.

Its color makes it more suitable for planted aquariums to suit your beautifully colored plant ornaments. However, they can be used in any aquarium environment whether planted or not.

Although this substrate comes in a different color, it is, however, not chemically treated and as such will not affect or alter chemistry by changing the pH level of the water. It is an aquarium substrate that does not break, it remains effective throughout the aquarium life and will have no need for replacement throughout its service period.

Seachem Flourite Red is also most effective when it is used as a standalone integral substrate bed without the need for gravel modifiers such as the laterites.

PROs
  • Specially fracted with ideal porosity
  • Comes in various sizes
  • Bright red coloration to suit different color preferences
  • Can be used as a standalone substrate
CONs
  • Requires rinsing before use

5. Seachem Flourite Dark – Best Aquarium Substrate That Doesn’t Break

Sturdy Aquarium Substrate
Flourite Dark - Best Aquarium Substrate That Doesn't Break

Flourite Dark

Seachem Flourite Dark Substrate is also an all-natural and specially fracted stable porous clay gravel that is suitable for the natural planted aquarium.

It can be used in any freshwater aquarium environment, but the appearance makes it more suitable for highly planted tanks. This substrate is most effective when it is used as a standalone integral substrate bed. However, it can be combined with other gravels.

Laterites are not necessarily needed unless you wish to add it, just for the sake of preference.

This substrate remains effective throughout the aquarium life without demanding any need for replacement, and it’s not chemically coated which makes it unable to affect the water chemistry by altering the pH levels. Therefore it can be used in any aquarium regardless of needed pH levels.

PROs
  • Remains active throughout the aquarium life
  • Will not affect the water chemistry
  • Best suited for planted tanks
  • Specially fracted with ideal porosity
CONs
  • Requires rinsing before use

6. Seachem Flourite – Best Porous Aquarium Substrate with Plant Nutrients

Packed with Nutrients
Seachem Flourite - Best Porous Aquarium Substrate with Plant Nutrients

Seachem Flourite

Seachem Flourite is an all-natural and specially fracted stable porous clay gravel that is suitable for planted aquariums.

This aquarium substrate is fortified with lots of essential nutrients that are beneficial for the blossom growth of the aquatic plants. Their porosity is ideal for plants and their root structures which allow them to easily absorb plant nutrients.

The Seachem Flourite is not chemically treated which impedes it from altering the water chemistry especially from altering the pH level of the water. Howbeit, this product may need to be rinsed before use; else it may discolor the aquarium tank.

Also it is a substrate that’s hard and may affect the roots and stems of some delicate plants while they are being introduced.

The Flourite gravel substrate for aquariums can cloud the tank when they are first introduced and may take some time to settle down. This substrate is pricey and might not suit a low budget plan.

PROs
  • Fortified with lots of essential nutrients
  • Does not affect water chemistry
  • Ideal porosity to promote plant roots
  • All-natural aquarium substrate
CONs
  • Not suitable for plants with delicate roots and stems
  • A bit expensive

7. Seachem Onyx Sand – Fine Aquarium Gravel Substrate

Great for Marine Environments
Onyx Sand - Fine Aquarium Gravel Substrate

Onyx Sand

Seachem Onyx sand is a fine gravel type of substrate that is stably porous for most marine and freshwater environments, including natural planted and reef aquariums.

The aquarium substrate is abundantly carbonate-rich, substances that are essentially beneficial to plants that utilize bicarbonate.

Although it is suitable for planted aquarium tanks, it can be good for any aquarium setup. This substrate is most suitable as a standalone integral bed. However, they can also be mixed with other similar sized gravels. Moreover, it does not necessarily need gravel modifiers such as laetrites.

Not chemically treated so as to avoid altering the water chemistry, but can slightly affect the pH value within the 0.1-0.5 value range. However, this depends on the characteristics of the source water.

PROs
  • Will not affect water chemistry
  • Effective as a standalone integral substrate bed
  • Ideal porosity for planted aquariums
  • Suitable for freshwater and marine environments
CONs
  • May discolor the water and take a while to settle, especially after water changes

8. Carib Sea Black – Best Overall Aquarium Substrate for Planted Tanks

Complete Aquarium Substrate
CaribSea Eco-Complete - Best Overall Aquarium Substrate for Planted Tanks

CaribSea Eco-Complete

Carib Sea Eco-Complete black Aquarium Substrate is a great substrate with an enhanced formula to encourage great root development for your aquatic plants. 

This substrate is considered to be biologically complete and adequate mineralogical qualities to control nuisance algae growth and exuberant plant growth.

This substrate is rich in over 25 essential minerals and elements including Calcium, Magnesium, Iron, Potassium, Sulfur, etc. which come from basaltic volcanic rocks. These minerals and elements are essential in facilitating nourished plant growth.

With this complete aquarium substrate pack you will have no need to introduce gravel modifiers such as laterite. This substrate is highly porous which allows for easy diffusion and absorption of plant nutrients by the plants.

It also contains heterotrophic bacteria that optimally convert fish and aquatic wastes to useful plant nutrients. However, this substrate is quite pricey and not suitable for a low budget.

PROs
  • It is void of artificial dyes, paints, or chemical coatings
  • It is highly porous
  • It establishes a natural biological balance
  • It contains a complete plant mineral including major and minor trace elements
CONs
  • It is a bit pricey

9. UP AQUA Sand – Highly Resistant Aquarium Substrate

Won’t Break Easily
UP AQUA Sand for Aquatic Plants - Highly Resistant Aquarium Substrate

UP AQUA Sand for Aquatic Plants

This is a great choice for tanks required to maintain an acidic medium. This is the perfect aquarium substrate with a pH value of 6.5 that also helps maintain the pH level of the water within this range.

This substrate is not easily broken by simple chemical reactions and biological activity.

Applying this substrate is quite easy as it does not require any rinsing before use.

However, this substrate has been reported to alter the water chemistry specifically by excessively reducing the hardness of the water which could be detrimental to the aquatic organisms at large. There have been reports that some bags also split open during shipment.

PROs
  • It does not require rinse before use
  • It is suitable for acidic tanks that need a pH value of 6.5
  • It does not easily break down
CONs
  • Bags may burst during shipment
  • It increases water hardness

To conclude

Substrates remain the bedrock of every planted aquarium. They are useful to everything that is housed in the tank right from the water of the aquatic organisms including plants, fish, and microorganisms.

The aquarium substrates help to maintain the chemistry of the water too. They also help to give the aquatic animals their natural home feel and to also facilitate adequate plant growth.

A good aquarium substrate can also ensure that the aquarium species live in an environment that would not impede on their health and would allow your aquarium inhabitants to live a longer and healthier life.

From our reviews, the Carib Sea Eco Complete Black is our top pick as an aquarium substrate.

It’s made from complete natural materials and contains the full nutrients needed for a proper and blossom plant growth.

The substrate also helps to buffer the pH of the water while maintaining and controlling the required water chemistry. Even though this product could be pricey, this is just not a match to the enormous benefit it offers.