Top 5 Substrates For Planted Aquariums.

Top 5 Substrates For Planted Aquariums.

Let’s talk about the top substrates that you can find right now.

The first thing I should mention is that the substrate is absolutely crucial. It plays an essential role in the eco-system of your planted aquarium. The substrate is the source of nutrients for the plants. On top of that, it makes your shrimp and fish safe. Another point, which I could add is that it helps to keep water parameters and many over things. You can read more about “Top 5 Pros and Cons of having Plants in Shrimp Aquarium” right here.

Also, before you decide what substrate to buy, you must understand the type of plants you would like to have because they can also require special types of the substrate as well. For example, when it comes to nutrition, there two types of plants:
1. water column feeders
2. root feeders

Water column feeders get most of their nutrients from the water. Root feeders obtain their nutrients from the substrate. So, if you decided to have water column feeders there is no reason to spend a lot of money in a nutrient-rich substrate.

The checklists below outline the basic requirements for choosing the top 5 substrates, like the quality, the pricing, and how easy it is to use.

1.     ADA Amazonia aqua soil  

Aqua soil substrateUnconditional Leader.
It is just too good. Your plants will love it. Even the fact that it costs more than the rest competitors (and will cause an ammonia spike) will not outweigh the benefits for the plants.

Price: $53
Weight: 18 lbs
Price per lb: $2,9 lb
Nutrient-loaded Yes
Leeches NH3 Yes
Lowers pH Yes
CEC value High
Colors Black, brown
Types Large, medium, small
  • It is loaded with tons of nutrients which will give you outstanding growth and quality of plants.
  • Amazonia is very popular especially for the DSM (dry start method).
  • Granules have the perfect size for plants.
  • Great option if you keep many different types of plants in your tank.
  • Lowers pH and softens water (good if you need it for some reasons).
  • It usually exhausts its nutrients within 1,5 years. So, you do not have to rely on liquid dosing during this period of time.
  • 19 pounds is suitable for a 10 to 15-gallon aquarium.
  • It is really flimsy. It may take you a year or two, but eventually, it will break down. When it happens you have to change the whole system. It takes time, money and efforts. Some people claim that the pellets in ADA Amazonia soil seem to dissolve after a few weeks in use which means in case of reuse is a “no-go”.
  • Another downside of Amazonia aqua soil is that it also makes a mess in your tank during setup or when you are moving plants around.
  • ADA Amazonia leaches ammonia (a lot!) but if you do some preparation, you can avoid this problem. In some situations (like DSM start method) it can even play in your favor, you want that kind of ammonia in the substrate itself because it helps to start the cycle. Anyway, unless you know what you are doing, it is not good for beginners.
  • Lowers pH and softens water (bad if you do not need it for some reasons).
  • The main problem is the price. It is quite expensive for substrates and if you have a big tank it will hit your pocket.

ADA Amazonia aqua soil – link to check the current price on Amazon.

2.     Carib Sea Eco-Complete  

Eco-complete substrate

It is cheap and beginner-friendly. Eco-complete contains lots of microelements. Its granules will support optimal oxygen uptake for roots. Eco-complete will help you to boost plants growth. There is no need to rinse it or use additional conditioners before you start.


Price: $26
Weight: 20 lbs
Price per lb: $1,3 lb
Nutrient-loaded Yes
Leeches NH3 No
Lowers pH No
CEC value High
Colors Black, red
Types Medium
  • It is easy to work with, especially if you are a beginner. No mess. You do not have to rinse it, just put it in your tank and your work is done.
  • Eco-Complete is not traditional gravel, it is volcanic-rock based substrate (Flourite (or similar) gravels would maybe be a better comparison), but Eco-Complete does not break down the way these products do, and so does not require removal. Flourite and other clay or clay-like substrates will break down over time and need to be replaced. Eco-Complete will not, which is probably why it is in such high favor amongst many at the moment.
  • Also, it has a very high CEC value so it’s great for storing those nutrients for those root feeding plants.
  • Eco-Complete contains trace elements (microelements) like calcium, potassium, sulfur, and more than 25 other nutrients.
  • Includes live Heterotrophic bacteria, which will help you with the process of organic matter decomposition. 
  • Eco-Complete has a lot of iron, so you do not have to add extra laterite.
  • There are no artificial substances.
  • Finally, it is really easy to find and it has a great price point for a substrate.
  • It can be a little bit too sharp for all your bottom-dwellers.
  • You can use Eco-Complete in freshwater tanks only.
  • It is inert and has no macronutrients.
  • The smell is awful when you open the bag for the first time but it is not a big deal actually.

Carib Sea Eco-Complete – link to check the current price on Amazon.

3.     Mr. Aqua Aquarium Soil 

Mr Aqua soil substrate

This substrate could have been in second place. It is very rich with nutrients and will help you to stabilize the eco-system in the aquarium. Unfortunately, it has all the drawbacks of Amazonia aqua soil. In addition, there is no variety of colors and the bags are small.

Price: $45
Weight: 16 lbs
Price per lb: $2,8 lb
Nutrient-loaded Yes
Leeches NH3 Yes
Lowers pH Yes
CEC value High
Colors Black
Types Medium, small

Important: do not wash it before use.

  • Full of nutrients, it is composed of organic and inert ingredients.
  • Long-lasting up to 12-18 months.
  • It decreases the pH in the tank and lowers water hardness. The soil is treated to have your pH level at 6.0-6.8. It keeps water parameters very stable and optimal.
  • It has a porous structure and wonderful filtering ability to decolorize tannis. Granules are smooth, round, small-sized pieces (<0.5cm diameter).
  • Aqua Aquarium Soil can absorb elements from the water to prolongs water exchange periods.
  • It may take about 30-60 minutes before the water will start to clear, once it is added to the tank.
  • The bags are fairly small. One bag can cover approximately 12″ x 6″ at 1″ deep or 6″ x 6″ at 2″ deep.
  • There is only one color.
  • If you need water with high pH, Mr. Aqua Aquarium Soil will not be a good option.
  • It leaches ammonia and it may take a couple of weeks before it stabilizes.
  • The final con is the price. It is quite expensive.

Mr. Aqua Aquarium Soil – link to check the current price on Amazon.

4.     Seachem Fluorite   

Flourite substrate

The manufacturer of this substrate declares that it is not chemically coated or treated in any way. Fluorite will not change the pH of your water. It is relatively cheap. If you are new to this hoppy Fluorite is a great choice. You can mix it with other substrates.

Price: $30
Weight: 15,4 lbs
Price per lb: $1,9 lb
Nutrient-loaded No
Leeches NH3 No
Lowers pH No
CEC value Low
Colors Black, brown, light (sandy colors)
Types Medium, small
  • It is very available, you can find it almost in any local fish shop or pet store
  • It has many choices when it comes to colors as well as the type of substrate.
  • Flourite is basically a clay which is inert and can last for a long period of time. It means that you do not have to change it often.
  • The clay grains are porous, and ideal for plants and their root structures.
  • It provides lots of iron and other micronutrients to the plant roots. This substrate is not chemically treated, and will not change water parameters in your aquarium.
  • The CEC value of this substrate is not phenomenal and, of course, there are better substrates out there on the market. Nevertheless, the point is that its action speaks louder than words. It is always nice to get something more than you expected.
  • The biggest flaw here is that Fluorite is very messy, regardless of how well you rinse, it is still very dusty. If you decide to choose this product to be prepared to rinse the stuff really well. You can also put another thick layer of inert substrate on top.
  • Also, this type of substrate is not really nutrient-loaded. So, if you choose Fluorite, you will also have to consider a carbon supply, fertilizing regimen and the list can be long here: flourish potassium, flourish nitrogen, flourish phosphorus, flourish micro.
  • The black sand type of substrate is known to be sharp and it is not really good for bottom dwellers.
  • It is not the best choice for plants with delicate roots. It is also quite compressed, so it may be difficult to place your plants without injuring their stems.

Seachem Fluorite – link to check the current price on Amazon.

5.     Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum 

Fluval substrate

I could start off by saying that Fluval is a well-known brand in the aquatic community. This substrate was designed specifically for the shrimp breeders. Collected from the mineral-rich foothills of Mount Aso Volcano in Japan, it will boost the plants’ growth.

Price: $43
Weight: 17,6 lbs
Price per lb: $2,44 lb
Nutrient-loaded No
Leeches NH3 May
Lowers pH Yes
CEC value High
Colors Black
Types Medium
Recommended depth: 3-4 cm (1.18 – 1.57 in)
  • It has enough micronutrients. Volcanic soil type of substrate has a very good CEC value. All of it will help your plants to grow fast.
  • If you also have shrimps in your tank, then you have made the right choice. This product was specifically designed for that purpose. The size of the grains lets the baby shrimp hide inside the substrate until they are big enough to come out.
  • With this substrate, your water will have from neutral to only mildly acidic pH levels.
  • Another benefit is the structure of the grains, it is porous.
  • The first problem is its weight. It is just too light so your plants may have some difficulties to anchor.
  • Another problem is that it clouds the tank more than other substrates. Sure, it is a temporary problem and it will go away in some time.
  • Also, the granules of Fluval break down very easily.
  • Baby shrimps can quickly outgrow the “shelter”.
  • The main issue is the price. It is rather expensive.
  • Warning: Some hobbyists had problems with leaching ammonia. Although Fluval does not have this information on their site, their Customer Support also agreed that the Fluval Stratum can leach ammonia from a few days to possibly a month. 

Fluval Plant – link to check the current price on Amazon.

How Much Substrate Do I Need For My Aquarium?

The rule of thumb – to get a 1” bed, you will need to use 1 lb of substrate per gallon of your aquarium size. For example, to make a 1” bed in a 10 gallons tank, you will need from 10 to 20 lbs of substrate. If you need a 2” bed, in this case, use 2 lb per gallon, and etc.

OK, But What is The Best Substrate for My Shrimp Aquarium?

The answer is – it depends on … many factors. If you are an absolute beginner, in that case, you can start with Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum. This substrate does not leech NH3 and you will not have to worry about ammonia spikes. In case, you have some experience, and you know how to deal with ammonia, well, any soil substrate (like ADA Amazonia aqua soil or Mr. Aqua Aquarium Soil) will give you outstanding results.


It is really difficult to pick the best one out of many, especially when they can be designed for different purposes (some people need hard water, some do not; some people need substrate for root feeders, somebody has water column feeders; somebody has shrimps in the tank other people do not and so on and on). It means that, before you decide to use any substrate in your aquarium, you have to know everything about your aquarium environment.

Related article:

How to Change the Substrate in the Tank

4 thoughts on “Top 5 Substrates For Planted Aquariums.

  1. This is a really great write up and I appreciated it very much. Based on the recommendations here, I purchased Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum, intending to use it in 3 tanks: a new 5 gallon and in established 10 and 29 gallon tanks. I started first with the 10 gallon tank. Water parameters before adding Stratum were 0 ammonia, 0 nitrites, 10 nitrates using a sponge filter designed for 20 gallon tank, cycled and running for a year. Within a day of adding the Stratum, tank is at 1.0 ppm ammonia. The number did not budge over the next couple days. Someone in my shrimp breeders group said “oh yeah – Fluval leached ammonia for a month for me.” Yikes. So I added the rest of the bag to a bucket, hoping to get a head start on the leaching process. I can’t have ammonia spikes in my established tanks!

    10 days later, I’m changing the water in the buckets every day or two, and measuring ammonia. It consistently reads 1.0-2.0 ppm from the buckets. My 10 gallon tank is still reading 1-2 ppm ammonia as well, even with 25-50% water changes when it hits 2.0ppm. I’m not sure what happened to knock that established filter out, because it was running fine before.
    Today I had to move my fish out of the 10 gallon into a hospital tank because they were showing stress even with Prime added. I’m glad I decided to test it out in 1 tank first, as I think at 2.0 my shrimp tank would be wiped out. This has been quite the adventure. I’m not sure what triggered the ammonia spike, and I’m also not sure why it is not going down. For whatever reason, my filter doesn’t seem able to keep up with it, or it triggered some sort of mini-cycle. I’ve reached out to Fluval customer support but have not heard back.
    I was looking for a good shrimp and plant substrate, something inert or that would help bring ph down, as my water out of the tap is already 7.4. Was hoping not to have to use distilled water as I am now (RO is in the plans, but we don’t have the space right at the moment).

    1. Hi AJ,

      I am sorry to hear that but you have missed one thing – replacing your substrate entirely may/will put you through a mini-cycle as the bacterial levels build up again!
      This is super important to keep in mind all the time.
      Beneficial bacteria is not only in your filter, but it also resides on the substrate, plants, decorations, etc.
      You cannot simply remove a huge part of them and expect to have the same result.
      Unfortunately, there are many examples when people crashed the cycle in their tanks by doing big changes.

      Best regards,

  2. I found your article very informative, but I have a question. My husband made me a trough for an outside koi pond. I got vallisernia plants for it. Can I use pea gravel for my strate? Koi are “dirty” and I monitor the pH. I know this is not an aquarium, but I wonder if the same principles apply. Thank you for your attention.

    1. Hi Stephanie Hughes,
      Yes, you can grow Vallisneria even in gravel. However, I see two main problems here. First, your plants will still require nutrients to grow. Second, large Koi will trt to eat even such resilient plants as Vallisneria. Nonetheless, under optimal conditions, Val can grow really fast, so it may not be a problem.
      Best regards,

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