Due to the growth of the planted aquarium hobby, a lot of new substrate products are being introduced one after another. With the many choices of substrates available out on the market that focuses on the growth of aquarium plants, how do you decide which one is right for you? Given the option to choose what substrate you want to use, some enthusiasts avoid new products and rather stick with what has worked for them, where as some others prefer to experiment with new products. Having the option, carefully choosing the right planted aquarium substrate is an important decision and will have an effect on the growth and quality of your plants as well as your water. I will only highlight some of the most commonly used substrates that have been used by many planted aquarium enthusiasts.
Before taking a look at what kind of options there are available, I would like to point out a few key important things to keep in mind such as budget, type of plants, grain size, and availability.
- Budget – The price of planted aquarium substrates is important to keep in mind, especially if you are doing a large aquarium as this can get really pricey. Although there may be cheaper alternatives, sometimes it’s better to pay the extra cost and purchase a substrate that is specifically designed for plant growth. When working with a larger aquarium, say a 100g+, the price can be a major factor, so prior to purchasing your substrate or planted aquarium, make sure that you’re able to set a budget mainly for your substrate.
- Types of Plants – There are some plants that require a nutrient base substrate, for example, plants like Cryptocorynes and swords have large root structures which intake nutrients from the soil. Whereas, plants like Anubias and ferns are able to grow without the need of a nutrient based substrate and rather uptake nutrients from the water column. So it’s important to consider what types of plants you decide to have.
- Grain Size – The grain size of your planted aquarium substrate is important. If the grain size is too small, it will cause compactness and decreasing the water flow between the substrate particles which can cause the root system of plants to grow improperly. However, if the grain size is too big, the root system might not be able to attach itself with the substrate. It is best to choose a substrate that is between 3-5mm and most planted aquarium substrates today are about that size.
- Availability – It would be ideal to know how readily available your choice of substrate is. Substrates like CaribSea Eco-Complete and Seachem Flourite are very common and can be purchased at most local pet stores. However, plant substrates like ADA Aqua Soil or other soil-based type substrates are usually only available for purchase online.
Types of Planted Aquarium Substrates Available
ADA Aqua Soil Amazonia – It is said that this is the best-planted aquarium substrate out on the market. The soil-based substrate comes from a well-known Japanese aquarium company known as Aqua Design Amano (ADA). Aqua soil is a rich nutrient-based substrate and provides an abundance amount of nutrients for aquarium plants from the get-go. The substrate is also designed to lower both pH and general hardness of your water. Aqua soil is quite soft and can gradually crumble into dust particles over a period of time. Aqua soil does leach ammonia and therefore a water change is necessary for the first 2-3 weeks. Although you can speed up this process by using Seachem Prime, at least one full water change is recommended. A 9L bag of ADA Aqua Soil costs $28 and can be purchased online at either Aquarium Design Group Shop or Aqua Forest Aquarium.
Azoo Plant Grower Bed – The Azoo Plant Grower Bed is another soil-based nutrient rich substrate like ADA Aqua Soil. I have read that it is made in the same factory where ADA Aqua Soil is made. What makes this substrate different from aqua soil is that it does not leach any ammonia into the water. However, it does cause some protein film to appear near the surface of the water which can easily be removed using a protein skimmer. The plant grower bed also lowers pH and general hardness of your water. The composition of the plant grower bed is also similar to ADA Aqua Soil and can crumble into fine dust and particles over a period of time. This substrate comes in 12lb bags in either dark or natural color for $27 and is sold exclusively in the United States at Green Leaf Aquariums.
CaribSea Eco-Complete – This was the first planted aquarium substrate I ever used when I first jumped into the hobby. Eco-Complete is a nutrient-ready planted aquarium substrate straight from the bag. It contains a good amount of beneficial bacteria, nutrients, and minerals to enhance the growth of your aquarium plants. This substrate is quite different from the soil-based substrate listed above as the composition and grain size ranges from 1-6mm. Unlike the soil-based substrates above, eco-complete does not crumble as easily and can maintain its shape for quite some time. However, the dust-like particles of this substrate can easily be sucked up into your canister filter which may cause a problem. Eco-Complete comes in 20lb bags for $20 and is readily available at most of the chain pet stores like Petco or Petsmart.
Seachem Flourite – Flourite is probably one of first aquarium substrates designed specifically for the planted aquarium and growing plants. The composition of fluorite is porous clay based and contains a high amount of iron. The sharp edges of fluorite may have a negative effect on some bottom feeder fish like Plecostemus and Corydoras. Unlike the substrates listed above, Flourite does not contain as much nutrients or minerals needed for the growth of aquarium plants so it is likely that you’ll need to fertilize more often if using this substrate. Another problem with this substrate is that it requires extensive rinsing prior to using otherwise you will end up with a very cloudy aquarium. Flourite is also readily available at Petco or Petsmart and comes in 7kg bags for $20 as well.
The four planted aquarium substrates listed above is just a few of the substrates available on the market. There are certainly other substrates that can be used for the planted aquarium, but the ones listed above have been put to the test and people seem to have great results using them. If you find that you can not afford any of the substrates listed above, you are not out of luck. A cheaper alternative would to simply use regular inert pea gravel and regular potting soil. The combination of using potting soil as your base layer and capping it over with pea gravel will provide a good amount of nutrients and minerals for your aquarium plants. If going with this method, I recommend that you fill the aquarium slowly to prevent any cloudiness caused from the soil.
I also want to point out and recommend that you have about 2” of substrate in the front to about 4” in the back of the aquarium. This should provide enough depth for most plants and their root system to grow and utilize the nutrients from the substrate. Please also remember to carefully research your specific plants and fish so that you have a better understanding of their environment and what substrate is best to use for your fish and plants.
I hope you have found this article helpful and gave you a basic guide of choosing a substrate for the planted aquarium. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask and I will answer the best way that I can.