Choosing the right aquarium substrate for your planted tank




October 05, 2023

Choosing your aquarium substrate

Selecting the appropriate aquarium base can be pivotal in setting up a planted tank. The substrate not only contributes to the aesthetic appeal of your tank but also plays a crucial role in maintaining healthy water parameters and promoting plant growth.

In this blog post, we’ll explore various substrates such as gravel, sand and soil to assess their benefits and drawbacks in terms of water parameters, fish waste management and plant growth. We will explore their advantages and disadvantages as well as discuss how they impact your water column and fish waste management. We will also touch upon substrate maintenance for good cleaning practices.

Table Of Contents:

Benefits of using substrate in your aquarium

A bare-bottom tank is easy to clean and thus less chance of algae throwing a wild party in your tank. But let’s be honest: a bare-bottom tanks as appealing as a fish wearing a tuxedo. And let’s not forget about those beneficial bacteria colonies – they need a place to call home, too.

So why SHOULD you use a substrate in your aquarium? Well, there’s several important advantages and benefits:

  • Natural look: Gravel or sand can give your aquarium that “just stepped into nature” vibe.
  • Habitat creation: Some species love to burrow or dig, and substrate provides the perfect playground for them.
  • Filtration support: Substrate acts as a cozy home for beneficial bacteria, helping keep your tank’s water clean and clear.
  • Anchoring plants: For the green thumbs out there, substrates provide a solid foundation for your aquatic plants to root and thrive.

Are there any disadvantages to adding substrate? Well, yes. Substrate can be a bit of a dirt magnet, so regular “vacuuming” is a must, especially in tanks with a high fish load. But that’s pretty much it

The most used aquarium substrate: gravel

Gravel is the ultimate no-brainer substrate. It’s an uncomplicated, affordable choice that’s readily available and simple to manipulate. This makes it a go-to choice for both newbies and seasoned aquarists. Gravel comes in a variety of shapes and hues, allowing you to craft an aquarium that perfectly reflects your style.

The advantages of using gravel in your aquarium

One of gravel’s superpowers is its ability to keep your plants in place. The particles give roots room to grow while keeping them secure against fish shenanigans. Just make sure to cover each root system with 1-2 inches of gravel for maximum stability. Unlike other substrates that mess with your water chemistry, gravel plays it cool. It won’t change your pH levels or add any unwanted substances to your tank. However, keep it mind that it won’t add any nutrients either. If you’re into high-maintenance plants, you might need to give them a little extra love with root tabs.


  • Easy to plant
  • Does not add any substnaces
  • Easy to maintain

The disadvantages of using gravel in your aquarium

Gravel may be awesome, but it’s not without its quirks. Those little gaps between the pieces can become hideouts for food and waste, creating a bacteria party you don’t want to attend. Keep your water quality in check by vacuuming regularly during maintenance sessions.

Despite this tiny hiccup, gravel is still excellent as a planted aquarium substrate. It’s easy, affordable, and lets you unleash your creativity. So go ahead, dive into the world of planted aquariums with gravel as your trusty sidekick.


  • Needs regular “vacuuming
  • Does not contain nutrients
Gravel aquarium substrate
This tank uses gravel as a substrate

Is sand a good choice for substrate?

When considering a substrate for your aquarium, sand is often an option due to its distinctive characteristics. Though it may not be the best choice for every aquarium setup, sand can still have its advantages.

The advantages of sand in your aquarium

Sand’s smoothness makes it a popular choice among aquarists who house delicate species like Corydoras catfish. These creatures appreciate the fine grains as they sift through them in search of food. Also, in general, planting rooted plants firmly in sandy substrates is quite easy making it a good substrate for planted tanks too. Additionally, sand provides a natural-looking base that mimics many aquatic environments. This makes it an excellent choice for nature style aquascaping. Below is an example of an aquascape that makes great use of sand to mimic nature.


  • Great for Corydoras and other sand dwelling fish
  • Looks very natural
  • Easy to plant

The disadvantages of sand in your aquarium

Cleaning sandy substrates can be more challenging than other types because debris tends to sit on top rather than sinking into the crevices like with gravel or soil. This means you’ll need to vacuum regularly and carefully so as not to disturb the layer too much. Furthermore, over time, compacted areas may form, leading to anaerobic pockets that could potentially harm plant roots and beneficial bacteria colonies. Sand substrates can also negatively affect your aquarium filter and pumps. If not properly secured within the tank, small particles can get sucked up into filter intakes, causing damage over time. It can also clog filters, reducing their efficiency and necessitating frequent maintenance.

Just like gravel, sand does not contain any nutrients.This can be a disadvantages if you plan to keep a planted tank.


  • Can be a challenge to keep clean
  • Can impact filters
  • Does not contain nutrients
Sand aquarium substrate
An aquascape with sand and stones

Soil – A nutrient-rich option for planted tanks

When it comes to creating a lush, thriving planted aquarium, many hobbyists turn to soil as their substrate of choice. Soil offers a nutrient-rich environment that is optimal for plant growth, unlike gravel and sand.

The advantages of aquasoils

Soil is like a buffet for your aquatic plants, packed with essential minerals and organic matter. It’s like a plant paradise, where they can feast on all the nutrients they need right at their roots. Most aquasoils also promote growth of beneficial bacteria. These little helpers break down waste into plant-friendly forms, creating a natural recycling system in your tank. It’s like having a compost party underwater.

Certain soils can lower pH levels and soften water, creating the ideal water for most types of aquatic plants. They are excellent for planting because of the granule size they possess while also improving oxygenation of the substrate.


  • Quality soils are very nutrient rich, making it ideal for plant growth
  • Promotes growth of beneficial bacteria
  • Lowers pH, GH and KH and improves oxygenation
  • Better root formation
  • Easy planting

Choosing the right aquarium substrate for your planted tank | PlantedBox

The disadvantages of aquasoils

Soil may be a nutrient powerhouse, but it’s not invincible. Over time, those nutrients can get gobbled up by hungry plants, leaving the soil feeling a bit depleted. That’s when you need to step in with some root tabs or liquid fertilizers. And as previously mentioned, aquasoils have the tendency to decrease the pH, GH, and KH levels of your water. This characteristic may not be ideal for certain plants and fish species.


  • Can be depleted thus requiring extra fertilization
  • Not suited for fish and shrimp that require neutral or alkaline water
  • More expensive
Aquasoil aquarium substrate
This aquascapes uses a lot of aquasoil

Substrate maintenance: how to clean your substrate

Maintaining the health of your aquarium substrates is crucial for a thriving aquatic environment. Whether you have chosen gravel, sand, aquasoil or other types of substrate for your planted aquariums, it’s essential to keep them clean and free from accumulated waste. Fish waste and leftover food can settle into the crevices of your substrate over time. This debris not only mars the aesthetic appeal but also poses a threat to tank’s beneficial bacteria watch which plays an important role in maintaining crystal clear aquarium water.

No matter which substrate solution you choose, don’t neglect the regular maintenance required to keep your aquarium running efficiently. Make sure to gently vacuum and rake (if using sand) on a weekly basis to prevent particle buildup.


When it comes to setting up your fish tank, selecting the right aquarium substrate is crucial. The type of substrate you choose will not only enhance the visual appeal of your tank but also play a significant role in maintaining its health and stability.

If you plan on creating a planted tank, opting for a nutrient-rich substrate like aquasoil can be advantageous. These substrates provide biological filtration and help keep your aquarium water clear while supplying essential nutrients that promote optimal water chemistry for your aquatic plants. On the other hand, if you’re aiming to create a habitat for fish, gravel or sand may be more suitable as they are cost-effective, easy to clean, and do not impact water parameters.

Ultimately, the choice depends on the kind of ecosystem you wish to establish in your aquarium and how much maintenance work you are willing to invest regularly. Do you have any questions or tips? Let me know in the comments below!

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