Best Substrate for Planted Aquariums

The substrate in the aquarium world basically means the base of the aquarium tank. No, not the glass or the acrylic linings but the substance that you choose to put on the bottom end of your tank.

In this article, we will tell you why you might choose to have a substrate In your aquarium, we will dive in deep and discuss in details about the options available to you in the market, we will choose the best substrate according to us, here, at our panel and hopefully, by the end of the article, you yourself will be quite confident in choosing the best substrate for your aquarium.

Why Use A Substrate? Why Do I Need This Article For Choosing A Substrate?

I think it is common sense that if you choose to have plants in your aquarium, you will need something to anchor the plans in the tank. Yes, of course, there are some plant species that float on the surface of the water and their entire morphology is constructed in a way that doesn’t require them to be held in one place.

But, the majority of the plants that we have in our tanks have root systems that needs anchorage to the bottom. Substrates not just provide the plants something to hold upon but they are also the source of nutrition to the plants. Hence, the substrate becomes a requirement rather than a luxury for a planted tank.

Where we must be careful in choosing a substrate for the plants in the aquarium is that some plants are water feeders whereas some plants are column feeders. Water feeder plants like Java Fern take the nutrition from the water around them while they use the roots just for anchorage. So, if you choose the wrong substrate for such plants what happens is that the nutrient levels spike up and instead of the plant getting the benefit there will be a huge algal growth in your aquarium. On the other hand, If you have plants that are column feeders they use their roots for anchorage as well as taking up the nutrients from the substrate.

Most substrate typically stays rich in nutrients for about one to two years and after that period of time, you will be required to renew the soil with additional supplements such as root tabs so you can continue to rematerialize the substrate.

Best Substrate for Planted Aquariums

Carib Sea Eco Complete Planted Black Aquarium Substrate

The Carib Sea Eco Complete comes in a 20 lbs bag that is neatly packaged. But, the Eco Complete seems to divide opinions among the aquarium hobbyist, and quite frankly, we don’t see why!

For us, this is the best value for money and the best quality substrate available in the market in its class. It does not just look great sitting on the bottom of your tank adding a dark, edgy aesthetic to your tank but it is functionally and biologically accomplished substrate too. Let me explain why.

The first and the most superficial thing about it is that it just looks gorgeous. The black, dark ashy color gives this an edgy look and it certainly looks wonderful to the eye.

More deeply though, the Eco Complete basically is packaged lava rock. It has the same components as the volcanic soil from Hawaii or Costa Rica do. That means it is rich in basaltic volcanic soil that contains iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, sulphur and also 25 other elements that help nourish your aquatic plants.

The iron-rich substrate eliminates the need for laterite. It also contains no artificial dyes for coloring or paints or any kind of chemical coatings. Hence it is mineralogically and biologically complete.

Another beneficial aspect of it is that it is packaged with fertilizer. This is where one of the common confusions regarding Eco Complete seems to happen among users. Yes, the packet itself comes along with fertilizers along with the substrate but obviously, it will not last you forever. The fertilizer, in the beginning, helps you to kick start the plants in your aquarium. But with time the nutrient component that is pre-packaged is consumed and obviously you will have to re-inject those nutrients into the soil. Along with that, the packaging also contains live heterotrophic bacteria that help to rapidly convert the fish waste into natural food for your plants.

But perhaps the greatest thing about the Eco Complete is its porous nature. The particles of the substrate are spherical grains that are highly porous and this allows for a larger CEC value or Cation Exchange Capacity value. What it does is that it allows the additionally inserted nutrients in the form of root tabs, liquid fertilizers, or in any other form to be easily stored in the substrate for future use. This makes the Eco Complete one of the best substrate you can get for you root-feeding plans.

Another common misconception about this substrate is that it is a buffering substrate. It is not. It may be a benefit or a downside depending upon you but the fact is that the Carib Sea Eco Complete does not change the water parameters like pH, KH, or GH after the water inside your aquarium. It does not decrease the pH of your water. It is a neutral substrate.


  • It is pre packaged with fertilizer and heterotrophic bacteria. This means that in the beginning, the substrate alone will be enough for your plans to grow. But obviously you will need to inject liquid fertilizers are root tabs as the time passes on and the nutrients get sucked out of the substrate.
  • It also has many other ingredients including iron. This relieves you from the hassle of adding extra laterite.
  • It does not contain any artificial dyes or coloring and thus provides a natural environment for your fish as well as for your plants.
  • It is a neutral substrate which means it does not change the pH or for that matter any other water parameter of your tank.


  • For someone who’s not used to it, the Eco Complete does smell a bit bad in the beginning.

SeaChem Flourite Black Clay Gravel

The Sea Chem Flourite Black Clay Gravel comes in a packaging of 16 pounds it is manufactured by one of the most well-known names in the aquarium business, Seachem.

It is gravel. Specially fracked stable porous clay gravel. While it works wonderful for planted aquariums it can also be used for freshwater aquarium environments.

It is quite versatile and can be used by mixing with other gravels. And it already contains iron so gravel modifiers like laterite are not necessary.

One of the most burning questions with the substrate is whether it works properly with filters like under gravel filter or not. It does. It does not soften or decompose to an unsuitable state inside the tank with the under gravel filter.

It is not chemically treated or coated and contains no artificial colouring and thus it is safe for your fish. Hence, it also does not add any kind of colour to your water although you would need to clean your aquarium properly before adding this because if you don’t it is more likely to discolour the water.

It is also a neutral substrate and does not alter the pH of the water.


  • This is one of those substrates that last you for ages.
  • The gravel quality is porous and thus it allows the plans to properly suck up nutrients.
  • It is organic and does not contain any additional colors or chemicals.


  • Many users have reported that it is not good for plants that have delicate roots.
  • They are quite on the expensive side.
  • During the initial stages, this does produce a bit of color and clouding in your aquarium.

Fluval Plant And Shrimp Stratum

Fluval of course is a very well known name in the aquarium world and this substrate from them comes in various sizes of bags starting from a 4.4 pound bag to an 8.8 pound bag and the largest size comes at 17.6 pounds.

The company claims that it has been collected from the mineral-rich foothills of the famous Mount Aso volcano in Japan. Well, you do understand that not every bag contains soil that has been directly collected from the volcanic mountain in Japan but it does contain nutrients and minerals that are identical to the volcanic soil.

They contain essential micronutrients that ensure a full complement to essential macro and micronutrients for the necessary growth of the plants.

They have light non compacting, porous structures that are also highly beneficial to nitrifying bacteria as they can rapidly colonize the vast porous surface and provide optimum aquarium water quality for your freshwater plants.

Unlike the other products listed here, the Fluval Stratum supports a neutral to slightly acidic pH that is ideal for most plant species and species of tropical fish or shrimp that are mostly kept in planted aquariums.

This is a highly attractive substrate and it does not discolor water. On the contrary, it helps control organic discoloration that is usually present when natural driftwood aquarium decor is used. Another benefit of this is that it provides a refuge for aquarium shrimp allowing them to escape predation until they are large enough to emerge into their own size.


  • It has a high CEC value and thus allows for better settlement of nutrients helping the plants to absorb them and expand their roots.
  • It pushes the pH slightly towards the acidic side making it an ideal substrate for plants that thrive in acidic water as well as shrimps.
  • These water great with smaller tanks.


  • The first and foremost downside with the Fluval Substratum is that it is slightly expensive.
  • These are also quite lightweight gravel so that it becomes easy to mistakenly siphon them away while cleaning the substrate.

Ada Aqua Soil Amazonia 9 Litre Normal Type

It comes in a 16.56 pounds packaging.

The company says that it is made from the rare and sparse source of Japanese plant-based black soil which is derived from decomposed leaf mulch. The level of nutrients in this surely justifies the claim.

It is made up of granules that are of the size and density which is ideal for the fast development of healthy plant root systems as they are porous and allow for easy penetration. The granules have irregular shapes instead of a consistent one and that provides a natural look.

These are rich in organic elements and nutrients that not just provide daily growth for equity plans but also have a good influence on the physiological functions of fish and shrimp.

Unlike many of the substrates we have featured in our list this one here brings the pH to slightly acidic levels and also softens the water. These also contain high levels of natural humic acid that may sometimes cause initial water cloudiness. The substrate also contains a rich amount of ammonia and phosphate. The main issue with this is that it is very rich in nutrients and the newly planted tank suffers from very high nutrients in the establishment period. Hence it can be very tough to handle for a beginner aquarium keeper.

This also breaks down over time requiring replenishment every one to two years. This can be a major problem when it comes time to replace the soil if you aren’t careful as the substrate leeches out ammonia hence once again it is very difficult for new aquarium keepers to handle it.


  • It has a very rich composition of nutrients.
  • The reduced leaching and minimal algae blooms make it potentially easier for a start-up the tank.
  • Since this is slightly acidic it is more suitable for tropical fish, plants that prefer acidic pH and shrimps.


  • It is not suitable for all kinds of aquariums as it lowers the pH and softens the water.
  • The consistency of this product makes it a must that it should be added to another substrate in a composite fashion.
  • If you are a beginner aquarium keeper, this substrate will be very complex for you to handle.

Mr. Aqua N-Mar-066 1l Fine Pet

This substrate is the smallest packaged product in our list as it weighs merely at 2 lbs. One bag of Mr. Aqua approximately covers 12”×6” at 1” depth or 6”×6” at 2 inches depth.

It is black in color and adds an extra edge to the bottom of your tank.

This basically is a mixture of inert and organic compounds that provide a variety of nutrients for plant growth.

It is formulated to decrease the pH in your aquarium and keep it between 6.0 to 6.5. This specific range does not allow fish of some variety to be kept in.

Along with the pH being lowered this also softens the water and hence it is more suitable to keep ornamental shrimp and fish that enjoy such kinds of water parameters. The kiln-fired bidding is made to last longer than other soils of similar compositions. The porous structure also allows easy penetration of the roots of the plants.

Along with the porousness, the structure of this makes it an excellent choice for filtering power that can assist you with maintaining clearer water in your tank.


  • It will last up to one and a half years before it needs replacement.
  • The porousness of the soil particle makes it easier for the roots of the plants to penetrate.
  • If you are looking for a substrate to lower pH along with softening the water for very specific kinds of fish this is the one for you.


  • This also comes as a disadvantage as the specific pH level of 6.0 to 6.5 makes it unsuitable for fish of some varieties.
  • It is lightweight and hence it can easily float into the water column.


I think by now it is quite clear that there are many different types of aquarium substrates that are available for planted tanks. There will be many factors like the kind of fish you want to keep in your aquarium, water types, and pH levels, as well as maintenance considerations that will play a key role in choosing the bedding for your aquarium.

However for us personally we suggest that Eco-Complete Planted Black Aquarium substrate to be the best all-round substrate for your aquarium. it is a neutral substrate, provides with all the necessary nutrients that are required for a healthy planted aquarium, it is durable and does not change the pH of the water parameters of your tank making it almost ideal substrate for beginners as well as veteran hobbyists.

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