Cheapest Substrate for HEAVILY Planted Tanks? - The Planted Tank Forum
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post #1 of 28 (permalink) Old 03-24-2014, 06:03 AM Thread Starter
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I'm setting up a tank and I want it to look super natural, kinda jungle-style, kinda dutch style.

I was attracted to some reddish/brownish substrate (Red Sea actually) but it would cost me $70 for the bare minimum for my 34 gallon cube tank. I like finer substrates, but I really want something that resembles mud or what you'd find in the amazon.

I'd prefer to not spend over $40 on substrate total... I think paying $100 for stuff like this is ridiculous. I've seen people use like miracle grow or whatever, then cover it in an aquarium substrate. Is that an easy method?

Any tips/ideas? I want an actual aquarium substrate, not turf or sand that won't help plants or will look strange.

Kinda this color I suppose...


Last edited by Darkblade48; 03-24-2014 at 02:11 PM. Reason: Please use the edit function for back to back posts to keep threads cleaner
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post #2 of 28 (permalink) Old 03-24-2014, 06:33 AM
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Dirt is cheapest. You're looking at $25 bucks a bag for the good planted substrate and you need SEVERAL bags unless you're going with a small tank. I dirted my 80 for like $40.

Getting those colors has more to do with proper lights and nutrients than the substrate they're in.


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post #3 of 28 (permalink) Old 03-24-2014, 01:50 PM
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i think he ment color of the substrate, not the plants
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post #4 of 28 (permalink) Old 03-24-2014, 02:08 PM
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Cheap is my friend -

You can use
Organic Miracle grow Potting soil - 3-4.00 a small bag
Black Diamond Blasting sand - 8.00 50 pound bag - No CEC
Safe-T Sorb/Special Kitty, Kitty Litter, Turface - Has high CEC but no nutrients which you can help along with Jobe's Plant Spikes for like .99 cents a pack. It will absorb the nutrients from them and your fish as time goes on and store if for when the plants use it
Pool Filter Sand - no cec, light colored but good used as a thin cap on top of soil

Really it's personal preference which of these you go with as far as cost they all come out to about the same no matter which you use. I love my dirted tank, they grow plants well.


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post #5 of 28 (permalink) Old 03-24-2014, 04:28 PM
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I've been having great results with Safe T Sorb and Miracle Grow Organic Potting Mix. You can get a 40 lb bag of Safe T Sorb for around 5 bucks, and the potting mix isn't much more than that. I like the look of the Safe T Sorb, looks very natural to me, just make sure you rinse it well before if you take that route.
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post #6 of 28 (permalink) Old 03-24-2014, 05:37 PM
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Or just plain old top soil. It's what I used in a few tanks. No cap.

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post #7 of 28 (permalink) Old 03-24-2014, 09:27 PM
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This may not be a thought you want to hear but if you know what you want, I would say just go for it. I have not even been convinced that a high quality substrate is a must. I have had great luck in low tech with just epoxy coated gravel. Dirt is a good way on the cheap.

What I am convinced about is how much harder it is to redo something once you have mixed up a substrate. Once you add dirt, it's impossible to change things without a total redo. Depending on the substrate, it may be really hard to rinse out the dirt, even if you were restarting from scratch.

I do dirt tanks a lot but I don't use substrate like that. I wouldn't use Aquasoil, for example, as a cap because I have a feeling it would go anerobic, and be very challenging to rinse.

If you were going for a different look, I would have a different opinion but I think it may be challenging to do what you want without spending the money and not layering substrate.


Now, you could go with some coarse gravel under and even though it won't do anything for plants, it won't hurt anything either. The problem is, aqurium stuff isn't all that cheap. I think I calculated it out at one point and the difference between Petco gravel and Aquasoil is pretty minimal in price. You could easily get something for landscaping but it may be challenging to find something that doesn't effect water chemistry. Maybe some pea gravel would be worth testing out, it seems similar to some aquarium substrate and would be a lot cheaper from a landscape yard.

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post #8 of 28 (permalink) Old 03-24-2014, 10:01 PM
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Isn't it the case of pay now or pay more later? Especially if you want a tank like in that picture.

With my luck, if I use soil it will contain asbestos, uranium, and maybe even Jimmy Hoffa.

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post #9 of 28 (permalink) Old 03-24-2014, 10:29 PM Thread Starter
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Yeah, I'd lean toward organic potting soil with some aquarium substrate on top, but as talontsiawd said, once it gets mixed up, I'm screwed. I'm the kind of person who would definitely mess it up eventually.

I may just suck it up and pay $70 for the substrate I like. I honestly don't care about the nutrients or whatever -- I know they're nice and stuff, but I used to use plain aquarium gravel when I was younger and had awesome plant results. My best tank currently has playground sand in it and the plants are out of control -- I can barely see my fish through all the madagascar lace.

So I guess I'll pay what I don't want to pay for something I like.

Here's what I'm thinking about...

http://www.marinedepot.com/Red_Sea_F...PCPG-4-vi.html
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post #10 of 28 (permalink) Old 03-24-2014, 10:36 PM Thread Starter
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I think the red sea stuff is too bright for the look I want, though... Any suggestions?

Anyone know what the substrate is in the picture I put in the main post?
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post #11 of 28 (permalink) Old 03-24-2014, 10:41 PM
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FWIW, I have used safe-t-sorb for years and haven't really noticed anything negative about it. It is $6 for 40lbs and 1 bag is enough for 3" in a 75g tank. Its a SOB to rinse and clean. I would say that it is as cheap as you can get.

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post #12 of 28 (permalink) Old 03-24-2014, 11:11 PM
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I recently got some Safe-T-Sorb, and have been playing around with it.

I like the color, it's a reddish/brownish, with a bit of variation amongst the grains (and even within some).

And it's really cheap. People have had pretty good results using it.
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post #13 of 28 (permalink) Old 03-24-2014, 11:21 PM
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Hi GuppyGuppyGuppyGuppyGuppy,

Safe-T-Sorb #7941; cleaning it the first time can be a pain. Here is a thread on the 75 gallon I am in the process of setting up - see post #7.

10 gallon low tech no CO2


20 gallon low tech no CO2


75 gallon just set up

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75 Gallon, 2X55W AH Supply CF 8800K, 1X 59W Fluval Plant (3.0); 45 Gallon Tall, 1X 46W Fluval Plant (3.0); 30 Gallon Long; Fluval F&P 2.0; 20 Gallon, 1X26W AH Supply LED; all with CO2 & (Calcined) Montmorillonite Clay
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post #14 of 28 (permalink) Old 03-24-2014, 11:57 PM
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Safe T Zorb:
Roy's second picture is more of a true color (on my monitor)

I have used the Flora base. It is not quite as bright as it shows on the package, but it is not subtle, either. Not dark like the picture you added.

That picture MIGHT be an older Turface or related product. Not sure though. Turface and related materials that I know about are no longer available in that deep brown.

I use Safe T Zorb without pre-rinsing. Sure it is a bit hazy.
Here is how I do it:
1) dampen the material in the bag. DO NOT breathe the dry dust.
2) Dump it in the tank.
3) Partially fill the tank, deliberately making all the mess you can.
4) Drain tank, making sure siphon is all the way down under the substrate. (Pull the substrate out of a corner and keep it away while draining)
repeat 3 and 4 total of 3 times. Last draining will still be a bit foggy, but not too bad at all. (The first draining was so messy I could not see into the tank)
5) Put a bag or plate over the substrate and fill gently so water seeps over the edges. (I used the empty STS bag in the big tank)

Water was almost clear the first day. I had to look to see it wasn't quite clear the second day, and very clear the third day.
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post #15 of 28 (permalink) Old 03-25-2014, 12:37 AM
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I tried that Red Sea stuff about 3 years ago and it started turning to mud in 24 hours and I had to pull it all out. I still have a new 1/2 bag of it. Liked the color of it though: a bit bolder then AS Africana.

No idea if it was a bad batch or my water or what.

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