Choosing the right substrate for your tank is extremely important, especially if you plan on having a planted aquarium or even a jarrarium.
The substrate will not only offer the means for your plants to establish their roots, but will also offer them the required nutrients for solid growth, some of which might be impossible to get through fish waste alone.
Finally, choosing the right substrate for your aquarium will make the entire setup to look much better, so it’s a win-win situation no matter what.
If you’re wondering which is the best plant substrate for your aquarium, check out the list below (if you’re in a hurry) or scroll down for the extra details.
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| Landen Aquarium Soil||Premium Choice – Editor’s Choice|
– high nutrition
– no rinsing needed
– porous material
– will not hurt bottom-feeders
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| Eco Complete Planted Substrate||Best budget substrate|
– contains beneficial bacteria (so do not rinse!)
– porous material
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| Midnight Pearl Aquarium Gravel||Great looking (less nutrition)|
– less nutrition
– natural looking gravel
– best for placing above a layer of substrate
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| Seachem Fluorite Red||Highly nutritious clay|
– extremely nutritious
– red/brown color, small size
– requires lots of rinsing
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| Fluval Stratum||Best for shrimp tanks / jarrariums|
– porous, volcanic soil
– ideal for shrimp (works with all plants/fish)
– good nutrition for plants
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If you want to read my complete analysis of the recommended substrate above, read on.
But to be honest, I would say from the beginning that you should make your choice based on which substrate looks better to you – except for the gravel, they all offer amazing nutrition and are perfect for your plants.
Landen Aquarium Soil – Premium Choice
I have to start by saying that my top choice is NOT cheap. But you pay for a really high quality substrate that will keep your plants happy and well fed.
Created from a natural, porous material, the Landen Aquarium Soil comes with a big advantage for setting up: it doesn’t require rinsing – you can simply put it in the tank and add water.
You can definitely give it a rinse or two if you want to make sure that no dust particles will get your water cloudy, but even if you use it straight out of the bag, you won’t have (many) problems with cloudy water.
The size of the pebbles is also perfect – not too small to be sucked into your hose when changing water, but not too large either. It won’t harm bottom-feeders or any fish that might touch it as it doesn’t have sharp edges.
It is said to be extremely nutritious for the plants. I’m not sure how to check it but to look at plant growth and I can say that they do grow really nicely when using this substrate. They also establish solid roots, so no reasons to complain.
Its porous texture is also favorable for the growth of beneficial bacteria in your aquarium, and it will not increase the hardness of the water as it is clay-based.
Two 10lbs bags should be enough for a 20-gallon (~75 liters) tank, but if you don’t really want a substrate that’s really thick, you can spread it even thinner.
Eco Complete Planted Substrate – Best Budget
We go from really expensive to a budget choice. But don’t let the low price fool you – this is still really high quality plant substrate for aquariums and it comes with added bonuses.
It not only looks very similar to the recommended one above (maybe slightly smaller in size), but it also offers solid nutrition and comes with added live bacteria that make cycling an aquarium a breeze.
It won’t do any harm if you are using it in an established aquarium, but the living microorganisms it contains will help speed up the cycling process of new aquariums.
Therefore, you should NOT rinse it before use as this would remove the microorganisms and clean away the additional water treatment substances it features.
As for the plants themselves, this substrate is really good – great for your plants to establish solid roots, while also being highly nutritious with trace elements and minerals.
It is also porous – made from volcanic grains – so the established beneficial bacteria colonies will have the perfect conditions too.
All in all, a great choice despite the lower price and especially suitable for starting new tanks.
Just like with the previous substrate, you can use one bag for a 10-gallon (38 liters) tank.
Midnight Pearl Aquarium Gravel – Great looking Gravel
This gravel does not offer the same in terms of nutritional value for your plants, but it looks absolutely amazing.
And you can still use it exclusively as your only substrate – plants will establish roots and even though they might grow a bit slower at the beginning, it won’t be a long term problem.
Alternately, you can place this beautiful, natural looking grave on top of any of the recommended substrate in this article. It really complements many fish types!
This gravel comes all the way from New Zealand, it’s kiln dried and triple washed – so you can safely place it directly in your fish tank without rinsing.
The stones are smaller than what I’m used with when it comes to store-brought gravel, but they also look much better and are still not small enough to be sucked in when syphoning. All in all, really good choice!
One bag weighs 11 lbs (smaller and larger options available) and it should be enough for a 10-gallon aquarium.
Seachem Fluorite Red – Highly nutritious clay
This is an extremely nutritious clay-based substrate for your aquarium. It looks really well and has a lighter – brownish color that might make it a better choice for some aquariums, depending on the livestock and plants you plan to use.
The biggest con – at least when compared with other substrate recommended today – is the fact that it requires a lot of rinsing. And I mean A LOT!
Don’t put it directly into the tank and even after rinsing, pour the water with care (maybe use a bowl inside an aquarium and let it fill up with water). Otherwise, you will get very cloudy water that will need a lot of time and/or water changes to clear out.
But despite this slight inconvenience, the substrate is really good, highly nutritious and perfect for any type of plant or fish tank.
Use one bag per 10 gallons and you’ll get a really thick substrate.
Fluval Stratum – Best substrate for shrimps
This is the best choice for planted aquariums with shrimp, as it keeps the water hardness levels to values shrimp prefer. (Of course, PH can still increase a lot depending on what other things you put in your tank).
Very similar in shape with the other recommendations, this is highly nutritious and porous, coming from Japan’s volcanic soil.
Great if you want an alternative or prefer the brown color.
Even though the recommended bag is smaller than those above, one bag would still be enough for a 10 gallon tank.
Do planted tanks need a special substrate?
Using a special substrate for planted tanks helps in the early stages by offering solid nutrition to your plants. They help them establish a solid root system and also encourage faster growth, offering the required nutrients.
Most plants would still survive and eventually do well even with the special substrate, especially as your aquarium becomes more established, fish produce waste which is then turned into nutrients for plants by the beneficial bacteria in the water.
But this takes some time and you might need additional water treatment if you don’t have this special substrate to offer all the trace elements and nutrients that plants need. So although not a must, having a special plant substrate makes everything a lot easier.
In the case of building a jarrarium, for example, you can get your own substrate from a nearby pond – although going for the store-brought examples above is still a wiser idea in most cases. Learn more about choosing the right substrate for a jarrarium here.
How to choose the best substrate for your planted tank?
Even low maintenance plants need some sort of a substrate for their roots. For this, any type of substrate would do – including the less nutritious options like gravel or sand (the latter is really high maintenance though!)
But if you want extra nutrition for your plants, you do have to choose a special substrate like those recommended above. Look for clay/volcanic materials that have nutrients and trace minerals: this is what your plants need for solid growth.
Can you mix gravel and plant substrate?
Yes, you can, but it’s best to use the gravel on top of the plant substrate. Not only that it usually looks a bit better, but it helps when it comes to cleaning the water and doing the regular tank maintenance.
Plant substrate is usually lighter than gravel (or sand) and breaks down a bit easier. Since it’s lighter, it’s also easier to syphon it when cleaning the water. So all in all, adding the heavier gravel on top might be a good idea.
But you don’t have to do this. Plant substrate alone works well in most cases (in most of my aquariums I only have plant substrate and nothing on top) but if you want to mix and match for an improved look – you can definitely do it.
Do you really need a substrate in your tank?
There are some people who prefer a bare bottom aquarium and that is perfectly fine. The most important rule is that the aquarium should look exactly as you like it, not like what others.
However, if you want rooted plants, you do need a substrate in your tank. You can make it work with potted plants or rootless plants… but it would be really difficult to get a good looking aquarium this way.
Another alternative would be opting for artificial plants which would not need a substrate, but most of these still need to be fixed on something and inserting them in substrate would be the easiest choice.
To answer the question, you don’t really need to add a plant substrate in your fish tank, but substrate does help a lot, from offering your plants the means to establish roots to feeding them better and offering more space for beneficial bacteria.
In conclusion, choosing any of the recommended plant substrates for your aquarium will help you grow healthy, solid plants.
I added the gravel as an additional option even though it doesn’t come with all the added nutrition offered by the other types of substrate. But I was extremely successful with choosing gravel as substrate, so you should have absolutely no problem either.