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Suggest best plant substrate or gravel

Kathryn JL

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I am planning to start a freshwater aquarium with plants. What is the best substrate or gravel to use on the bottom of the tank for optimal plant, fish and overall aquarium well-bring?
Thanks for the input.
 

seangee

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Most use play sand. Many in the UK use Argos play sand and those in the US get theirs from Lowes. Its inert and safe although may require rinsing to remove the dust. Its also dirt cheap (sorry couldn't resist). Avoid white sand though as most fish prefer darker sand, and look better against it.
 

Byron

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Kathryn, welcome to TFF. :hi:

Aquatic plants will grow well in almost any substrate, so it is primarily the fish we need to be concerned with when deciding on a substrate. Inert sand like play sand (mentioned in post #2) is in my view the best substrate. It is completely safe for all fish (substrate-feeding and living fish are the primary concern as they can be negatively impacted by inappropriate substrate material), it looks natural, it is very inexpensive, and plants root very well in it. The latter is not surprising, since the substrate in all water courses supporting substrate-rooted plants is one composed of sand, mud, or a combination.

The grain size if one uses gravel (some aquascapes that are authentic replicating streams in Central America or parts of South Asia can use gravel) does matter, as the larger the grains the less well substrate-rooted plants will grow, plus there is the problem of organics getting down and the gravel not providing as good a bacteria bed as finer grained gravel or sand does.

A dark sand is also better; white should never be used as it does impact fish because it is completely unnatural. I happen to use a dark grey mix play sand; the buff tone mix is available in some areas and also works well.
 

Kookyxogirl

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Hello, I have been using eco complete & also Fluval shrimp substrate, both seem to be doing well with a planted tank & fish.
I haven’t tried sand yet but have seen many shrimp keepers use it . I am not an expert but have experienced with many substrates & gravel through the years. Good luck!
 

Byron

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Eco Complete having been mentioned, I would point out that it is not a good substrate for substrate-level fish such as cories and loaches. It also is questionable with respect to plant nutrition, according to tests. A few years ago I used Flourite (which is basically the same thing) and after two years it came out because of the fish issues and no noticeable improvement in plant growth. Many of these products promise this or that but they are very expensive and rarely worth it. I wasted $180 for the Flourite (a 70 gallon tank) compared to $14 for the play sand I replaced it with. And the plants are still thriving, and the cories are very happy.
 

Lilyann

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An active substrate, such as ADA aquasoil or Controsoil, for example, is fine for fish that can take a lower pH and KH.
However, you must properly "age" the tank prior to adding fish.
It takes a commitment.
When I start a tank with aquasoil ( which is bar none the best substrate to use for healthy plant growth) I do not add fish for 6 weeks to ensure no ammonia leeching into water column that would be detrimental to health of fish. Ive been doing this for years ( with very sensitive fish) without any ill effects. You must just be diligent in properly aging aquarium before adding fish and selecting soft-water fish.

As far as ecocomplete- I second that it is a poor choice for corydoras species and other fish that spend time on bottom.
I primarily use it for its CEC value- not as a source of nutrients for plants. Whether it is "too expensive" to use in aquaria for a direct application is a value judgement. For some applications I find its cost is worth the amount I pay for it.
 

Lilyann

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Avoid white sand though as most fish prefer darker sand, and look better against it.
In 30 years of fish-keeping I have never seen this.
Fish have a preference for substrate color?

Ill tell that to my wild discus and wild eartheaters who are on white ( now slightly tan) sand.
This color is all wrong for you- lol!
 

Lilyann

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@Lilyann you're singing my song. Hold off on adding the fish for as long as possible. I discovered this by accident and have been doing it like that ever since.
Yes, barring the fish can handle lower KH and pH around 6.5 ish-- aquaspoil is entirely safe for fish. A big HOWEVER is that you must wait for leaching to stop. \
Shrimp are some of the most sensitive creatures we can put in our aquariums. Of my 4 shrimp aquariums, only 1 has inert soil- the other 3 all have aquasoil. The one tank that doesnt have active soil is because it has wild neocaridina and caridina babaulti which prefer a neutral to slightly alkaline ph which i can achieve on inert soil.

Again, shrimp are very sensitive to any leeching of ammonia- I wait-- as a rule-- for 2 months before I add shrimp. You must be patient and responsible to whatever creature you have in your aquarium. I may not pay attention to the color of my substrate- I think they could really care less to be honest- but I do do "due diligence" when it comes to my livestock.
 

Jan Cavalieri

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I've used nothing but the overpriced Seachem Florite. I got the original black clay and rinsed and rinsed to get the dust off. It's softer than gravel but harder than sand. Then I got their "dark" color which turned out to be a horrible ugly and unnatural looking beige/brown gravel. First chance I have the time I will re-do the tank and replace it with black - MUCH better color for fish to show their colors as well as a softer substrate. (sorry to you white sand fans - I'm sure there are white sands in parts of the world but in a tank I'm guessing it just would look dirty all the time)

Finally I bought Seachems black sand - which I put in 1/2 of one aquarium and I have mixed feelings about it - none of the fish I bought it for are using it any more than they are the clay gravel - when I rinsed it in an ultra fine strainer I lost a TON of it that seemed to just be powder. So I think my next substrate will be black play sand. How well does it rinse? Is there a lot of "sludge" going down the drain or are the sand particles all big enough to not fall through a fine mesh strainer?

I have had a hard time getting plants to root solidly in the clay but haven't put plants in sand yet I'm sure it will be an improvement. I seem to purchase more and more pleco's and loaches and cory's and the sand should benefit all of them. I see my dear Dojo loaches trying to dig a hole in the ugly brown gravel and they are unsuccessful. I don't want my fish injured.

But another problem I noticed with sand is when I clean the tanks - it just gets sucked up so easily - I end up losing more and more substrate - there must be a technique to clean sand of excess food and poop without sucking up so much sand - but again, the play sand may be bigger grained than the horrible Seachems sand. I hope so.
 
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Kathryn JL

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Very informative replies, thanks so much for the information! I appreciate the diverse perspectives.
 
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Kathryn JL

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I should also ask: is there such thing as dark or black play sand?? In Canada, not certain where to find such a thing, especially this time of year. ?
 

Byron

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In 30 years of fish-keeping I have never seen this.
Fish have a preference for substrate color?

Ill tell that to my wild discus and wild eartheaters who are on white ( now slightly tan) sand.
This color is all wrong for you- lol!
It is white substrate that is the problem. This does affect many fish because they do not expect bright but dark substrates. It becomes even worse under the tank lighting which is usually far brighter than what the fish experience in nature as they tend to come from forest watercourses that are often well shaded.

The dark substrate is why fish are darker on the dorsal side and much lighter on the underside. Over their habitat substrates their darker dorsal blends in more with the substrate so they are less likely to be preyed upon, while from underneath the lighter underside is more difficult to see against the surface, and predation is less likely.

Some fish will also pale in colouration depending upon the substrate. This is why the ichthyologists and biologists always refer to "dark substrate." However, one can go too far that way too with some species. Ian Fuller was commenting on black being unsuitable for Corydoras and noting their change of colour because of it, and that such things are stressful.

I have had proof of thee effect of the substrate on the colouration of some of my fish when moving them from a darker to a lighter substrate (though never white or black) or the reverse.

If you have ever observed fish in their habitat, or seen videos of the same, it is amazing how species like Corydoras duplicareus for example are absolutely invisible over the sand which is the same colour as their body colouration, and their black dorsal stripe matches the branches littering their habitat substrate. When they move it becomes obvious they are there, but nature has provided fish with some well-thought out defenses and we should take note and provide similar if we want healthy fish.
 

Byron

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I should also ask: is there such thing as dark or black play sand?? In Canada, not certain where to find such a thing, especially this time of year. ?
Home Depot, Lowe's both carry Quikrete Play Sand. Depending where you live in Canada, you may find the dark grey mix (it is here in Vancouver area) or the buff tone (looks more like ocean beach sand). I do prefer the dark grey but either is fine. I contacted Quikrete some time back and they were very helpful detailing how they refine this sand so it is the safest sand you can get.
 
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