Few things are as beautiful and calming as a planted aquarium. A well-kept tank full of fish and plants becomes a passion that can last a lifetime. Maintaining a tank with live plants can be challenging and fun.

One of those challenges is finding the best substrate for planted tanks, you need to understand the type of plants you want to keep, as they’ll dictate the type of substrate you’ll need, and that’s what this article hopes to help you with.

Understanding Different Substrates

First, let’s breakdown the popular choices:


As long as you choose course sand, it can be a great substrate for planted tanks. However, sand grades smaller than #3 can increase your risk of hydrogen sulfide forming during the nitrogen cycle.

If you want, you can add iron supplements to your aquarium to help control the hydrogen sulfide your plants can’t deal with.


If you’re plants are column feeders, gravel can work as long as it doesn’t produce a lot of waste. You could also use gravel as a top layer of a multi-substrate tank. If you’re thinking about adding gravel, you’ll need to consider which fish you will be keeping.

Some fish may eat small pebbles (goldfish), and some could injure themselves on sharp gravel (betta fish). So make sure you take this into account and choose accordingly.

Complete Substrates

Substrates like ADA aqua soil or CaribSea Eco-Complete contain nutrients which are great if you want to keep root feeders. Complete substrates are excellent for starting your nitrogen cycle because they tend to cause an ammonia spike. This does mean you should only add this substrate to new tank with no fish. Once you’ve cycled your tank and tested the pH levels, you can add fish.


By adding a base later of sand, middle layer of aquarium soil, and a top layer of gravel, you’ll mimic a natural aquatic environment. This type of layering can create a good base for your plants to root into, and offers a great environment for them to grow. And by layering the substrates, the gravel will help stop smaller particles from clouding the water in your tank.

Nature’s Ocean Aqua Terra Natural Tan Sand

Enhance your finned or scaly friends’ habitat with Aqua Terra Aquarium & Terrarium Sand. This premium-quality, all-natural substrate provides ample living space for beneficial microbes and anchoring for plants. In aquatic set-ups, it also aids the filtering process by increasing the surface area available for nitrifying bacteria to colonize. The non-toxic, 100% acrylic colorfast coating won’t foul your water or impact your water chemistry and is safe for reptiles.In addition to fresh or saltwater tanks, ponds and terrariums, this natural sand is also ideally suited for adding beauty to potted plants, vases and much more.

Zoo Med Laboratories Aquatic River Pebbles for Aquatic Turtle Habitats

Keep your shelled sidekick’s tank looking stylish with Zoo Med Aquatic River Turtle Tank Pebbles. This pebble substrate for turtle tanks is made using all-natural river rock. It is designed to help you create a natural-looking river bed in your buddy’s tank. This pebble substrate is crafted to be safe for all sizes of aquatic turtles. It comes pre-washed and is easy to clean so you can reuse it as needed. It’s claw-fect for red-eared sliders, map turtles, painted turtles, musk turtles, cooters and more but do not use this product for softshell turtles.

Aqueon Plant & Shrimp Aquarium Substrate

Promote the growth of freshwater plants in your tank with Aqueon Plant & Shrimp Aquarium Substrate. It is made from a clay-based material with a unique spherical shape that maintains its form over time and doesn’t breakdown into compressed soil. The shape of this substrate creates healthy root systems and allows for newly budding and mature plants to grow and flourish. Aqueon Plant & Shrimp Aquarium Substrate is ideal for use with freshwater shrimp, snails and tropical fish. The shape allows for newly budding and mature plants’ root systems to grow and flourish; and an excellent option for aquascaping freshwater aquariums.

Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum, for Fish Tanks

Collected from the mineral rich foothills of the famous Mont Aso Volcano in Japan. Fluval Stratum is the substrate for stimulating the growth of aquatic plants in freshwater aquariums. Plant roots easily penetrate and spread throughout the substrate, allowing plants to obtain a variety of key, readily available nutrients that will make them flourish. They will ensure a full complement of essential macro and micro nutrients. The substrate’s light, non-compacting, porous structure is also highly beneficial to nitrifying bacteria, which rapidly colonize the vast porous surface, providing optimal water quality for plants.

Seachem Flourite Black Clay Gravel Aquarium Substrate

Flourite Black is a specially fracted stable porous clay gravel for the natural planted aquarium. Its appearance is best suited to planted aquaria, but may be used in any freshwater aquarium environment. Flourite Black is most effective when used alone as an integral substrate bed, but it may be mixed with other gravels. Gravel modifiers such as laterite are not necessary. Flourite Black is not chemically coated or treated and will not alter the pH of the water. Flourite Black is good for the life of the aquarium and need not be replaced. Flourite Black is beneficial for the life of the aquarium and need not be replaced.

Landen Aqua Soil Substrate for Natural Planted Aquarium

Landen Aqua Soil is developed for cultivation of aquatics plants and is also suitable substrate for shrimps. It provides fundamental minerals and trace elements, which promote the health and growth of shrimps. It is made from specially processed natural material from the earth. Aqua soil helps lower the hardiness and pH level of water. It is ideal substrate for most aquatic plants and it provides healthy plant root system. Soil does not require rinsing and can be used directly in aquarium. Ideal natural planted aquarium substrate for most aquatic plants, provides healthy plant root system and for shrimps requiring softer water.

CaribSea Super Naturals Moonlight Freshwater Sand

Re-create the natural world of your finned friends with CaribSea Super Naturals Moonlight Freshwater Sand. This beautiful, natural uncoated river substrate offers a finer grade of natural sand, packed with living, water-purifying bacteria, state-of-the-art clarifier and a complete water conditioner. With Moonlight Sand all you need is tap water to get started, plus sand-size grains are friendlier to bottom dwellers. The freshwater sand is great for detoxifying metals, eliminating ammonia, neutralizing chlorine and chloramines, plus it provides a protective slime coat for stressed fish and reduces nitrates and nitrites.

Activ-Flora Lake Gems for Aquarium, 20-Pound

Grow healthier, more vibrant plant life in your freshwater aquarium with Activ-Flora Planted Aquarium Substrate. This Bio-Activ, nutrient-enriched gravel contains a wide variety of essential minerals to help your aquatic plants thrive and achieve optimum growth more quickly. It’s also rich in iron, and it contains no artificial dyes or additives. Thanks to its vast reserve of micronutrients that are slow-released over time, Activ-Flora substrate is indefinitely self-sustaining. As an added benefit, live heterotrophic bacteria provides instant cycling to help remove harmful nitrogenous waste immediately without altering your pH.