9 Popular Types Of Aquarium Substrate For Plants

Types of aquarium substrate for plants

Types of aquarium substrate for plants are many and come in different forms, no matter what type you choose, it will be important to make sure that your plants are happy. As far as types of aquarium substrate go, there are many options available to you, including clay pebbles, crushed coral and gravel, sand, rocks, and more.

Substrate plays an important role in any aquarium, from the very beginning to the very end. Whether you’re starting out or have a well-established tank, there are many options for substrate, each with its own pros and cons for both your fish and your plants.

Aquarium plants add an appealing aesthetic appeal to your tank, but these plants have different needs than most other houseplants and require special care in order to stay healthy. For this reason, many plant keepers choose to place their aquarium plants on substrates that are specifically designed to support the growth of aquatic plants.

This list of the top 9 most popular types of aquarium substrate will help you figure out which one is best suited to you and your home aquarium plants.

What is a substrate in aquarium?

A substrate in aquarium are materials that are used on the bottom of the tank to grow plants. Additionally, it contributes to the aquarium’s aesthetic appeal, as well as affecting the water chemistry and filtration, it also plays an important role in promoting the well-being of the aquarium’s inhabitants.

There are various substrates for aquariums, depending on the type of water in the aquarium; freshwater aquariums require different substrates from saltwater aquariums.

Why do aquariums have a substrate?

Aquariums are typically set up with a substrate or base layer that is used to make the environment more hospitable for plants. Some substrates can also be added for aesthetic purposes, such as gravel and pebbles.

Here are 5 popular reasons why aquariums have substrate:

  • Looks good – Let’s be real. In general, substrates are used to enhance the look of aquariums.
  • Needed by plants – The roots of plants need a place to grow. A tank without substrate will have plants floating at the top.
  • It is natural – Is there a glass bottom habitat for fish in the wild? Unfortunately, no. Your fish will be able to live in a more natural environment by using a substrate.
  • It houses bacteria – The nitrogen cycle depends on bacteria. Can you recall those beneficial bacteria? Some live in the substrate of your aquarium, while others live in your filter. A brand-new aquarium can cycle faster using a substrate from an existing tank.
  • Enhances the appearance of your fish – The substrate will make your fish look more vibrant. A light-colored substrate makes it easier to see dark fish, and a dark-colored substrate makes it easier to see light-colored fish.

Types of aquarium substrate

Aquarium substrate is an important part of any tank, because it provides the foundation and roots for plants to grow. There are many different types of aquarium substrate available on the market today.

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The type you choose will depend on whether or not you want plants in your aquarium, as well as how much maintenance you want to do.

Below are 9 common types of aquarium substrates for plants.


Types of aquarium substrate for plants

A gravel resembles a small pea-sized pebble. The size of gravel varies between 2 and 5mm, but it does not have the downsides of pebbles. You can use gravel for nearly any substrate design, just as pebbles are available in a variety of materials.

Food and poop cannot fall as far because there are fewer gaps around each pebble. Gravel vacs make it easy to remove any food that lands on gravel. It is most common to use gravel as a substrate in freshwater aquariums. It is important that gravel does not have sharp edges in order to prevent damage to fish.

The material may come in a variety of colors, be natural or dyed, and be sealed with a polymer to prevent it from altering water chemistry. Chemically inert gravel is sold for aquarium use. In most cases, quartz or other minerals without lime make up this type of material.

The Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC) of a substrate is also important to take into account when choosing the substrate for growing aquatic plants. If the gravel is rough or sharp, bottom-dwelling fish cannot sift or dig through it. When the CEC is high, nutrient ions can be absorbed efficiently.

Therefore, nutrients will be available for the roots of plants in the substrate. There is no indication of how much nutrients are in the substrate.


There are a lot of aquarium substrates to choose from, but pebbles are the most commonly used type. A pebble can be as small as 6mm or as large as 64mm.

There are several different materials available for pebbles, including river rock, glass, quartz, and colored plastic that glows in the dark. There is no doubt that a pebble would have been made from that material if it did not impact water quality.

Pebbles don’t make a good aquarium substrate in my opinion. Each pebble leaves a large gap when layered.

The gaps themselves are not a problem. However, uneaten food and feces will accumulate over time in the gaps between these spaces.

As well as looking ugly, pebble aquarium substrates provide a feast for bacteria that produce nitrites, which are dangerous for fish. Furthermore, they have large gaps that prevent plants from rooting. When starting out, I recommend sticking with gravel instead of pebbles to create a rocky substrate.


Types of aquarium substrate for plants

This is the most popular type of aquarium substrate because it’s inexpensive, easy to clean, and can provide plenty of nutrients. When using sand as a substrate, make sure you are also using activated carbon in your filter to help remove any toxins that come from decaying organic matter in the water.

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Do you know what it’s like to walk on a beach? It is no different from the sand used in aquarium substrates. Besides its variety of grain sizes, sand is also available in a variety of colors.

Because most aquarium fish naturally live in environments with sand, silt, and mud, which sand can accurately replicate, sand is considered the most natural substrate.

Furthermore, sand does not have gaps between the grains, making it impossible for uneaten food and poop to become stuck between them. It is therefore one of the easiest substrates to maintain.

It is often recommended that sand is used with species that bury themselves in the fine substrate, such as the stingrays of the family Potamotrygonidae. It is also possible to keep these species on coarser substrates. Live plants can be given an extra boost by mixing clay with sand.


Do you have any experience mixing soil and water?

The water becomes muddy.

Water that is muddy has two problems:

  1. It’s impossible to see anything in your aquarium, including the fish.
  2. Fish can become stressed by muddy water.

A substrate for an aquarium is quite different from soil used as garden soil. A substrate soil purchased from a fish store contains nutrients to ensure your plants grow well without mixing with water.

A planted tank uses soil specifically. Your tank should have a different aquarium substrate if you do not intend to grow live plants. Furthermore, gravel, sand, and pebbles come in different shades of brown if you’re only using soil because of its color.

Tip: Many of these aquarium substrate materials can be found in your gardens, such as soil and pebbles. Aquarium substrates should only be purchased from stores unless you know what you are doing. Your aquarium is safe with these products because they have been tested and treated.

How about the stuff in your garden? Well, that potentially introduces dust, bacteria, chemicals, and other nasties which can kill your fish. In this case, it is better to stick with store-bought substrates.


Types of aquarium substrate for plants

It is common to use peat, or decomposed plant matter, in systems mimicking the Amazon River basin, which has soft water or blackwater. Additionally to its soft texture, peat is reported to have a number of beneficial effects in freshwater aquariums, including the ability to support demersal (bottom-dwelling) species such as Corydoras catfish.

As an ion exchanger, it softens the water. Plants and fish benefit from its content of substances that promote reproductive health. Algae can even be prevented from growing and microorganisms can be killed. Because tannins leach from peat, the water often appears yellow or brown.

Minerals, Shells, and Corals

Crushed limestone, shell grit, crushed marble, coral sand, oolitic aragonite, or crushed coral skeletons are possible substrates. This substrate is most often used with hard-water species, such as saltwater fish, African rift lake cichlids, and invertebrates, because its primary component, calcium carbonate, increases hardness and pH.

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Strontium and calcium are also ideal for some invertebrates, such as stony corals and mollusks. Many freshwater aquarium fish that inhabit rivers are not suited for aquariums with substrates containing calcium carbonate as these species are adapted to softer water.

Leaf substrate

Leaf substrates are used in aquariums as a substitute for traditional substrates. It is possible to combine the leaf or leaves with other substrates or use them exclusively.

Aquatic life thrives in environments that mimic the natural environment of aquatic creatures and create a pH-balanced, stress-free environment. Due to the release of beneficial tannin, a reddish hue is imparted to the water column, which certain aquatic life prefers.

Blackwater aquarium biotopes often use them. It is important to take care when handling leaf matter, as some leaves may be poisonous or may harm aquatic life.


Types of aquarium substrate for plants

Suitable for hard water setups, it has a stylish black color and is quite durable for planting plants. Because of its hardness, it has limited fertilizer (mainly Calcium and Magnesium) and limits the types of plants you can grow. Onyx substrates from Seachem are the most widely known.


Types of aquarium substrate for plants

Usually used by bonsai growers, Akadama (meaning red ball) is used as an aquarium substrate as well, as it retains nutrients and water (implying a very good CEC). Water circulates more easily through this material because of its porosity, which lowers pH levels and KH levels.

Depending on the area of the aquarium, different substrates might be used. A corner of the aquarium can be filled with peat, while a different section can be filled with gravel to allow the plants to grow firmly rooted

Water-changing substrates

I have only mentioned inert substrates up to this point. Basically, this means that water quality and chemistry will not be affected by the materials.

You are going to have a bad time if you accidentally add a substrate to your aquarium that changes the water. Silicates introduced into water as a result of the use of play sand, for instance, can cause brown algae outbreaks.

When used properly, certain aquarium substrates provide a great deal of ease when it comes to maintaining your aquarium.

Materials that can be used as aquarium substrates include:

Aragonite – It prevents pH swings by buffering water.

Peat – Softens water.

Vermiculate – Releases magnesium and potassium, which are good nutrients for plants.

Which is the right substrate in aquarium?

It is important that the aquarium substrate you choose in your tank complements everything else you put in it.

The soil you use in a planted tank, for example, is very important for your plants’ roots. Fish that reside below the surface of the water should also have a smooth, rounded substrate. They may be injured by a sharp substrate.

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Taking the advantage of what each substrate offers can be achieved by layering multiple substrates.

A light-colored bottom can be achieved by layering sand over the soil, while the soil remains able to provide nutrients to plants.

There is no one “best aquarium substrate” due to these variables. What works for my tank may not work for yours.

Consider what you plan to stock your tank with before you go out and buy any substrate. The right substrate will be determined by this.

The aquarium substrate you choose at the beginning is crucial. Substrate changes are difficult and time-consuming after you have set up your aquarium and stocked it with fish.

What color substrate should you choose?

Any color of the rainbow can be used as an aquarium substrate. It is not uncommon for people to make their substrates exactly like that. As old as the internet, there is a debate about what color substrate is the best. It is said that color has no effect on fish, while others recommend emulating the fish’s natural habitat.

Personal preference ultimately determines what works for you. You can choose a bright pink substrate if you want.

A well-maintained tank and good water quality ensure that fish are adaptable.
In other words, color doesn’t seem to be a problem. There is much more importance to choosing the right substrate.

Natural aquarium substrates, however, are my preferred choice. This is because unusual-colored substrates can distract you – it’s easier to focus on your fish if there is no bright-colored substrate to distract you.

The colors of brightly colored fish really pop on black or brown substrates! Additionally, I consider natural aquariums to be more appealing in general.

Maintaining your aquarium substrate

Taking care of your aquarium substrate is no different from taking care of everything else in your aquarium.

It is entirely dependent on the material you choose how much maintenance your aquarium substrate will require.

In order to remove dust and dirt from some substrates, such as river rock, it is necessary to wash them before they are used.

Dead plant matter, uneaten food, and fish waste need to be regularly vacuumed from other substrates, such as gravel.
It is also necessary to replace substrates. Nutrients in the soil are eventually depleted by plants.

This requires the removal of old soil and its replacement with new soil.
Before adding substrate to your aquarium, familiarize yourself with its maintenance requirements.