Substrate in your Planted or Reef Aquarium

What is Substrate? If I have Gravel in my Aquarium, do I need a special Substrate?

Substrate is everything that rests at the bottom of your aquarium, whether it is gravel, sand, marbles, or anything else you may put down there.

What is “Clown Puke”?

Clown puke is the bright multi-colored coated gravel that many people use to coat their tanks. Using clown puke is completely optional; while some people find it tacky, others absolutely adore it. Personally, we at MyAquarium aren’t too fond of this particular substrate because it just looks tacky.

Do I need some special Type of Substrate to grow Plants in my Aquarium?

There is no special substrate required to grow plants in an aquarium. Putting in regular uncoated inert gravel between 1-3 mm in size in your aquarium will work perfectly. At MyAquarium, we recommend that those who are starting out use only a thin layer of ground peat moss, which comes in compresses bales at hardware and garden stores, as a base layer. Keep in mind that you should still be able to see the glass of the aquarium. One ounce of laterite per gallon of water is definitely a good idea, and you will be able to get some mulm, which is the stuff you vacuum out of the travel, from an established tank. You can put some of that underneath the gravel in your tank and your plants will grow to be very strong and healthy-looking. Be cautious when it comes to using certain gravel and sands, as some of them contain minerals that can have a negative impact on the water chemistry of your aquarium.

Can I not fertilize my Plants if I use a fancy Substrate?

While it is true that certain specialty substrates contain high levels of minerals, they do not have enough macronutrients. Even if you have a special substrate in your aquarium, you will still have to feed your plants regularly.

What is the best Substrate?

The best substrate is whatever fits within your budget and looks good to you. I personally use SeachemFluorite, which is a combination of Fluorite and fine gravel, CaribSea Eco-Complete, Seachem Onyx Sand, and regular gravel in all of my planted tanks. This setup works well for me. ADA Aqua Soil is one of the newer substrates and it is gaining in popularity. There are a number of other substrates that others like to use, including Profile, Turface, and Soilmaster Select. I highly recommended that you do not use dirt, potting soil, or kitty litter at all if this is your first planted tank. While some people have had success using these substrates, most people’s planted tanks don’t do well with them.

How much Substrate do I need?

Most people with planted tanks use 2-4” of substrate. Click here if you want to know how many bags you should use for more common types of substrates.

Can I use Sand?

Whether or not you should use sand as a substrate will depend on a number of factors, including which type of sand you want to use. There are some people who use reef or marine sand because they like the white color, but it can lead to two big problems. One problem is that these types of sand can have a negative impact on water chemistry in the tank. The other problem is that white sand may look good, but not so much once fish and plants are introduced to the tank. The white sand then begins to show everything that lands on it from the fish and no longer looks quite so nice. If you are trying to decide whether or not to use a certain substrate, try pouring a bit of muriatic acid over it. If the material starts to bubble, smoke, or fizz, do not use it.

Do I need a Substrate Heater?

No, you do not. This is the last piece of equipment that you should purchase for your tank, and only if you have a lot of extra money to spend. A lot of people end up regretting putting a substrate heater in their tank because of how plant roots tend to get tangled in them. If you want to save some money and avoid future headaches, don’t get one of these heaters.


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