Owning an aquarium is a satisfying past-time. Just observing your fish is relaxing and improves your sense of well being. Once you have found your ideal tank, filters, pumps and fish species, the hunt is on for accessories that will enhance your fishes’ environment such as plants, which may be real or synthetic.
In this review, we look at the Best Aquarium Plant Substrates to help your live plants thrive in your home aquarium.
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TOP 10 AQUARIUM PLANT SUBSTRATES
Live aquatic plants are a great addition to your aquarium but require specific care and maintenance. If you master looking after a few, you may want to expand and explore an interesting aquascaped aquarium – the craft of cultivating and arranging beautiful aquatic environments.
Keeping live plants in your aquarium has a range of benefits that will make keeping your fish so much easier and more enjoyable.
Aquarium Plant Benefits Include:
- Improvement of water oxygenation – plants will use the carbon dioxide present in the water in photosynthesis and release oxygen.
- Improved sanitation – the plants readily absorb the nitrogenous waste produced by your fish and use it for growth.
- Prevention of algae growth – healthy plants will outstrip algae’s nutrient demands and suppress its growth.
- Provision of natural shelter and interest for your fish – helping to reduce stress and improve the well-being of your pets.
- Helps to reproduce an authentic ecosystem in your tank
- Creation of a more attractive tank
- Improvement of fish health – through nutrition, improved water quality and interest.
- Use as potential fish food (depending on your fish) that will replenish itself
Planting your aquarium with live plants means you can choose from a wide range of authentic plant species that are selected to thrive in an aquatic environment. You will need to pay attention to the fish species and type of water (saltwater or freshwater) you will be using in your tank. Hardy aquatic plants such as moneywort or java moss are great for beginners and you can move onto a more ambitious selection once you gain experience.
Aquarium Plant Substrates – A Necessary Building Block For Healthy Plants In Your Tank
If you are going to maintain living plants in your aquarium you will need to use and maintain an appropriate aquarium plant substrate. Aquarium plant substrates are the materials you use on the bottom of your tank.
It is specially formulated with minerals and nutrients to support root-feeding aquatic plants. They may be inert substrates like baked clay or granulated soil substrates known as aqua soils. They offer porosity but do not adequately provide the nutrition your plants will need to be sustained. This will have to be supplemented separately.
The substrate’s main benefit is the provision of a structure for your plant’s roots to latch on to. Your choice of aquarium substrate will also affect your tank’s water chemistry and filtration so you need to ensure that the best plant substrate for your specific set-up.
A Closer Look At The Aquatic Plant Substrates On The Market:
- Inert substrates include regular gravel, sand, and baked clay products which do not degrade in your tank or alter your water chemistry. They are straightforward to maintain and can be used cosmetically. However, they lack any nutrition for plants you may add to them. Select them for the grain size and material you prefer.
- Commercially processed substrates include mineral crystal products which offer a porous surface with some nutritional benefit. They are manufactured to degrade slowly if at all and cause little interference with water chemistry. They are a popular addition to tanks as they often come in bright and interesting colors.
- Granulated soil substrates are made from soil which has been hard-baked and crumbled into convenient granules that make handling and management in your tank easier. These are authentic organic matter and will gradually decompose, releasing nutrients to your plants and encouraging beneficial bacteria which will further optimize your tank’s conditions. As they degrade, the nutrient content of the soil substrate will diminish so addition fertilizer will also be needed to maintain the health of your aquatic plants.
Choose The Best Plant Substrate Products On The Market For Your Aquarium
We have looked at some of the best aquarium plant substrates on the market to provide you with this researched list of well-reviewed products.
Use each of the products individually or in combination for the creation of a winning aquatic environment which will promote the healthy growth of your plants and that your fish will love.
These products are readily available, easy to handle even for a novice and have consistently positive reviews. Read on for our list of the 10 best plant substrate products.
1) Mr Aqua Fine Pet Habitat Water Plant Soil
This is an excellent aquatic plant soil that boasts a combination of ingredients that delivers all the essential elements. The combination of both organic and inert substances in this 2mm grain size substrate means that the soil substrate can last up to 12-18 months.
Long-lasting all-purpose product.
It can be used with or without a layer of sand if you want some color to break up its black tone. It provides nutrition for a variety of plant types and has good coverage with one bag providing a one-inch layer in 12-inch by 6-inch tank.
Generally positive feedback but small quantities.
User reviews of this substrate online are generally positive with great feedback on ease of use and cleaning. As it is a soil product it is more expensive than the synthetic or inert aquatic plant substrates. For many users, the 1-liter bag is inadequate for proper planting or the depth desired, adding to costs. Some users have mentioned that this product makes the water cloudy when first used, but this is said to soon settle.
2) Landen Aqua Soil In Black
This is another black granulated soil substrate which is a superior choice for healthy growth and root establishment in your aquatic plants. It is formulated with minerals and trace elements that will be favorable for your plants and are shrimp friendly too.
Great value bag and improved water chemistry.
The 5L bag offers a suitably large amount for effective planting and this 3-5mm grain size soil can be used directly in your aquarium. It can work well with reverse osmosis water to stabilize pH and reduce water hardness.
What do users think?
Few reviews exist online, but those that are available are positive. Experienced aquarium owners have found Landen Aqua Soil an excellent substrate for aquascaping with rapid establishment of plants.
3) Seachem Flourite Black Clay Gravel
This porous clay gravel has been specially prepared for freshwater planted aquariums. Use it alone or with other substrate materials for a high-quality reliable product that does not deteriorate or alter water chemistry. It is so durable that it can remain in place for the life of your aquarium and has been specially developed to be easy to manage and add directly to your water. The 15.4lb bag is enough to adequately cover a ten-gallon tank.
Dusty substrate needs addressing
Users find the clay gravel useful, but opinion is divided on whether this product can be used directly without rinsing. Some users seem to find that it makes the water cloudy when added and have suggested a variety of ways of minimizing this, from filtering to drying out in the sun, to wetting the clay before adding.
4) Ultum Nature Controsoil
This is an expensive substrate formulated with volcanic ash from Mount Aso in Japan. This substrate is extremely porous which is ideal for letting plant roots latch on effectively. The product is beneficial for your water chemistry, with an intrinsic buffering effect and is suitable for raising shrimp as well as aquatic plants. The manufacturer also reports that this substrate will help to clarify and detoxify your water.
The product works best when added to your tank first with water added slowly after.
This substrate will also need to be replaced at intervals to maintain its water chemistry benefits.
A niche product which can be fragile to handle
Aquatic hobbyists favor the Controsoil which appears to have a noticeable effect on water quality. Users also note that it is gentle on a variety of fish and plant species though it is not recommended for goldfish. Others have found it light, fragile and dusty as is often the case with many substrates.
5) CaribSea Eco Substrate
CaribSea is a well-known aquarium and aquaculture brand with decades of expertise in formulating high-quality substrates, rich in organic matter and high in porosity for superb root growth. They claim to offer a product that has a ‘complete’ biological and mineral profile, which prioritizes growth and minimizes algae.
This product also comes with biologically active heterotrophic bacteria that work on fish waste to break it down and mobilize it for uptake by your plants. This is the type of benefit you want from your aquatic plant substrate and it is clear the owners go a long way to making your tank a great ecosystem.
User reviews are extremely polarized on the effects of this substrate ranging from rave reviews and thriving plants to dead plants and even fish! Shrimp users, in particular, are unhappy so use with caution if you own shrimp or are very particular about water chemistry.
6) Activ-Flora Floracor
This natural gravel is a solid option for getting your aquatic plants on a firm footing. The relatively large (up to 6mm diameter) red granules are rich in iron which helps to promote healthy growth and look attractive in your tank. It is recommended to rinse this product before use as dust can be generated but once the water settles, this product offers a slow release of micro-nutrients, along with heterotrophs which will aid in nitrogen cycling and keep the pH of your water stable.
A solid purchase
Purchasers generally positively rate this product, liking in particular, the color and the beneficial effect on their plants. The larger granules also are less easy to be displaced by fish and last the lifetime of your tank.
7) Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum
This is a reputable brand offering one of the best plant substrate products on the market. It is derived from volcanic soil and is therefore rich in the minerals that lead to strong plant growth. pH is neutral to slightly acidic, but it has no other effects on water chemistry and is safe enough for shrimp and particularly young shrimp that can bury in it like sand to escape predation.
The mineral-based substrate, sourced from Mount Aso in Japan is also beneficial for optimizing your water chemistry, but many have found it to be fragile and degrade quickly much as the Controsoil reviewed above. It is a technical product which may work well in combination with other substrate matter, but many find it too lightweight.
8) Seachem Onyx Sand
An in-between product that generates a fair amount of dust…
This product is a fracted porous substrate that works well with plants in both fresh and saltwater environments. It has no chemical or biological coatings but is reported to be beneficial for water chemistry.
It is bicarbonate rich and has a slight buffering effect, but some users have reported that it frankly raises the pH. It is recommended by the manufacturer to be used alone, but this ‘sand’ readily mixes with other substrates to make a preparation that is more optimally suited to your aquarium set up.
Users find this product very dusty, which is not helped by its flat matte grey color and granularity. Users and reviewers have even complained of the substrate kicking up dust if disturbed by their fish. Others have found it useful in establishing plants such as hairgrass.
9) Womdee Aquarium Plant Substrate
Premium, authentic soil-based product
This substrate is probably as close as you can get to authentic soil for the bottom of your tank. It is a specially fracted clay which has great porosity and is nutrient-rich. The generously sized granules do not break down and provide crystal clear water, with no need to rinse, from the first use. The clay granules are formulated from a special Japanese plant-based soil and are easy to handle with natural coloring. It is an expensive product and available only in 500g portions, but may work well mixed with other substrates if it is too expensive for you to use in isolation.
10) ADA Aqua Soil Amazonia II
A great all-rounder that gets plant growth going
These soil granules are also derived from a plant-based Japanese soil and are an all-rounder, benefiting most aquatic plants. It is nitrogen-rich and pH optimized and will work to stabilize your water chemistry and soften your water. The granules are sized ideally for good establishment of your plants and healthy root development. There is no need to rinse prior to use and you should enjoy crystal clear water immediately. This product is garnering some great online reviews, particularly for the quality of growth and the resilience of the granules.
This aquatic plant substrate review is by no means an exhaustive breakdown of the market but should provide you with an idea of what is available and what can be achieved with plant substrates. All of these plant substrates are readily available from Amazon and other retailers.
How To Work Out The Quantity Substrate You Need
Once you have procured your substrate of choice you will need to be able to readily calculate how much you need to adequately cover the bottom of your tank. This quick and easy calculation should not only help you do this but assist in calculating how much of a particular substrate you will need, thus gaining value when selecting your product:
The number of liters of substrate needed = Tank Length X Tank Width X Substrate height you desire / 60
Last-Minute Tips On Raising Healthy Plants In Your Aquatic Plant Substrate
In addition to your aquatic plant substrate you will need to address the following factors which all contribute to great plant growth:
- Lighting should be available to your plants for at least 12 hours daily.
- The temperature should be maintained at 75-88 degrees Fahrenheit (23.8 to 31 degrees Celsius).
- pH should hover around neutral – a range of 6.5-7.4 is best.
- CO2 levels need to be relatively high for your plants.
- Minimize surface water turbulence in your water to keep CO2 levels stable.
- At least a quarter of your water volume should be changed on alternate weeks.
- For optimal nutrition of your plants you will need an aquarium plant fertilizer that can be mixed with the substrate.
- When planting, bury the plant in the substrate of your choice up to the base of their stems. Trim roots and dead leaves before planting. Planting tweezers may help you bury the stems properly.
Our Pick – Best Aquarium Substrate For Plants 2020
We use and recommend Seachems Black clay gravel. This purpose gravel will not alter the pH level. It is not chemically coated and does not affect the water parameters.
We like the color and look of this substrate but most of all our plants love it. It’s a very popular substrate for many aquarists and is used in some of the best aquascaped aquariums and show-tanks around the world.
Seachem Flourite Black is a specially fracted stable porous clay gravel which is perfect for the natural planted aquarium.
Be careful when first adding water to your aquarium as it can be easily disturbed.
When adding water to the aquarium, fill slowly to avoid disturbing Flourite Black substrate bed. Place a bowl in the aquarium and add water directly to the bowl, allowing water to overflow softly on to the gravel bed. Initial cloudiness is normal, but to remove this, simply use mechanical filtration.
Conclusion: Best Aquarium Substrates For Live Plants
Enjoy your aquarium projects, keep your fish happy and if you have any recommendations on great aquarium plant substrates, feel free to reach out and let us know. Thanks for reading!
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I have been working in the tropical fish industry for over 30 years now and I’m still learning. Everyday is a school day in this hobby. In my spare time I play golf very badly!