Best* Substrates for Planted Aquariums 

The best substrate for a planted aquarium with fish will encourage both plant life and fish to thrive. Read on to learn why substrate is important and which substrates are fan favorites of Petco pet fish parents.


Pet parent faves

Choosing the appropriate substrate for your fish aquarium can often depend on the needs of your fish and plants—and your personal preference. Here are some of the best substrates for planted aquariums based on their popularity among Petco pet parents that can get you started making your decision.

Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum


Plant and Shrimp Stratum

For the aquarist wanting a mineral-rich aquarium soil substrate to support the growth of plants and shrimp in their freshwater aquarium, Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum can be an excellent choice. This substrate has a porous structure to encourage the growth of beneficial nitrifying bacteria and can be easy for roots to penetrate and spread through while obtaining key nutrients. This substrate will not discolor water and helps support a neutral to slightly acidic pH, which is ideal for most plants and shrimp kept in a home aquarium. This substrate can be a little dusty, so it is recommended that you provide a light rinsing to help remove the dust and loose particulates before adding it to your aquarium. Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum aquarium soil substrate can be used on its own or mixed with other substrates. The Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum is also available in  4.4-lb. and 17.6-lbs bag sizes—making it an economical choice for small to very large aquariums.

  • Available in 4.4-lb. and 17.6-lb. bags
  • Collected from mineral-rich foothills of Mount Aso Volcano in Japan
  • Allows for rapid colonization of beneficial nitrifying bacteria 
  • Encourages plant root growth and spreading
  • For use in freshwater aquariums

CaribiSea Eco-Complete Black Planted Aquarium Substrate


Eco-Complete Black Planted Aquarium Substrate

The CaribSea Eco-Complete Black Planted Aquarium Substrate is an excellent natural and clean substrate made for most freshwater and saltwater setups. It includes no dyes, paints or coatings. This natural-looking substrate contains essential live bacteria and essential minerals like magnesium, potassium and iron. These nutrients are beneficial to live plants, root growth and the overall health of your aquatic habitat. Eco-Complete is a carbonate- and nitrate-free substrate requiring no rinsing prior to adding it to your aquarium. This substrate also will not alter the hardness or pH level within the aquarium. This porous, dark aquarium soil substrate can enhance the look of live plants in the aquarium but still maintain a natural appearance.

  • Available in 20-lb. bags
  • Typically stays cleaner than standard gravel
  • Contains essential live bacteria for your plants
  • Enhances the colors of your aquarium plants
  • For use in most freshwater and saltwater habitats

Aqueon Plant and Shrimp Aquarium Substrate


Plant and Shrimp Aquarium Substrate

This substrate’s unique clay-based, spherical shape gives room to both new and mature plant root systems—making it a great option for aquarium soil substrate. This also makes a good substrate choice for freshwater shrimp, tropical fish and snails. The substrate will not break down over time, so you don’t need to worry about messes or compaction in the future. Available in a standard 5-lb. bag, this can make a great option—even for a smaller aquascaped habitat.

  • Available in standard 5-lb. bags
  • Made from clay-based material
  • Spherical shape won’t break down into compressed soil
  • Accommodates root systems of new and mature plants
  • Ideal for freshwater aquariums

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Learn More About Substrates for Planted Aquariums

The type and size of substrate you choose can impact the health of your fish and the time you spend cleaning your aquarium. It’s also a decision that can depend on what kind of plants and fish you have in your habitat, as well as whether you have a saltwater or freshwater aquarium. Sand can look great and be more appropriate for certain fish species but can also be harder to clean. Gravel can be easier to clean and help some plant root systems stay in place but might crush the roots of some plants. Choosing the best substrate for a planted aquarium typically involves some research into the preferences of your fish and plants.

The ideal depth of substrate for most live plants is at least 2 to 3 inches. This gives plant roots a stable base so roots can burrow. However, it can depend on the types of plants you’re maintaining. Be sure to investigate the proper amount of substrate your particular variety of aquatic flora requires.

Yes, many plants will thrive in gravel substrate—especially species with robust root systems. Just make sure you are getting fish-safe stones. Stick with gravel that is designed for aquariums.

Yes, but blending substrates may not always be ideal. It’s recommended to use a substrate with the same grain size in a single habitat. If you decide to layer aquarium soil substrate with gravel, be sure to put the soil on the bottom with gravel rocks on top. It’s not recommended that you mix the two materials to create one composite layer.

Some of the best substrates for planted freshwater aquariums may never need to be replaced at all. These materials are made to last the test of time—which is to say they don’t break down quickly. If you need to replace the substrate in your habitat, it will likely be every few years. Changing your substrate too often could interfere with the balance of beneficial bacteria in the water and harm your live fish and plants.

*Based on sales data.