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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Hello everyone, I’m looking for a substrate for a no Co2 low/med light 20g planted tank that would go well with my water parameters and plants.
Plants- (These are just considerations, only a few I know I’m going to get)

Foreground- DHG, Christmas moss, anubias nana petite, pearlweed, Monticarlo

Mid ground- Christmas moss, crypt wendetti, Java fern, Anubias nana, anubias coffeefolia, crypt lutea, pearlweed, anubias nana petite

Background- Anubias nana, bacopa caralinnianna rotalla roundafollia, Dwarf aquarium lilly, Crypt Balansae, pearlweed, Tiger lotus

Water Parameters-
GH-1-2 (Will add minerals. Probably around 6gh)
KH-2-3
(Sorry for the spelling)
1030724
 

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You could use any kind of sand, fine gravel or clay-based substrate you want. For real. All of those plants will do well in the most basic sand you can get. You'll probably be able to get away with using root tabs.

What aesthetic are you going for? Black/darker substrate? More natural browns and tans? What will your hardscape be? Those preferences will help narrow down recommendations.

For black/dark substrates:
  • Standard black sand from Petco/Petsmart/Walmart
  • Flourite Black Sand
  • Dennerle's fine gravel
  • Crushed lava rock/lava cinders
  • A lot of people use blasting grit but I'm not a fan because it's a coal by-product

More natural look:
  • Pool filter sand
  • Darker play sands - Quikrete, Sakrete, et al - some are natural and look great, some not so much but they're all cheap and worth consideration
  • Caribsea Peace River - it's large sand/fine gravel
  • Flourite Sand - the dark brown kind. Could also consider just regular Flourite but it's closer to regular gravel in size.
  • Saf-t-sorb/Turface/Calcined clay

Only potential problems I see aren't substrate-related at all. Monte Carlo may not work well, depending upon your setup, so just be prepared to replace it with something less demanding. Without great lighting and CO2, it tends to get really leggy. And Dwarf Hair Grass - while it will live, it may not thrive in a low light, no CO2 environment. Meaning it won't carpet very well unless you have a ton of it.

How do you plan to use Monte Carlo? As a bushy plant? If so, it may work. But there are several other less demanding plants (like Hydrocotyle tripartita) you could replace it with if you find it's not ideal.

Moss, Anubias and ferns won't be planted in substrate, so you never really have to worry about them on that front. Crypts do really well in sand. So do the other plants you've listed.
 

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Discussion Starter · #3 ·
Yeah, I really don’t know what kind of substrate but I’ll probably go for a darker substrate. I’m debating between the type of stone to use (Ethier Oko dragon stone or seiryu stone) Any Suggestions? I also don’t want to really use root tabs because I am trying to go for a carpet, and I would use a LOT of root tabs and it would add to the maintenance.
Update- I’m also planning to do a DIY Co2 setup and I’m also going to get a brighter light. (90PAR at 12”) So technically it’s no longer a low tech setup but rather a mid tech. I’m planning on using Monticarlo to hang on the rocks and wood. I think it will be Allright with the DIY Co2 and brighter light, as well as the DHG. I will be prepared to replace those plants if they don’t work out. I wont be using a dwarf aquarium Lilly but instead a tiger lotus. I will be using the epiphytes on the wood and rocks. I’m probably not using sand, but it is a possibility.
 

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Ohko won't mess with water parameters but Seiryu looks cool and mountain-y. Really tough call. So I guess whatever looks the best when the time comes? Both look great in tanks.

Probably wouldn't use too many root tabs. One per every square foot or so usually works for me. I almost always use them when I don't have an active or fancy plant substrate in a tank but have demanding or carpeting plants. If you ever decide you want to try root tabs, you can make your own easily - dry ferts, red clay, mix it all up and then roll it out into small pieces or little balls. Way more cost effective than buying something in the store. $20 would get you enough clay and ferts to last a long time.

Something smaller than regular gravel is going to be best for carpeting plants and scale in a 20gal. Anything larger than Caribsea Peace River and your hair grass could look wonky in a tank like that. But regular red, dark or black Flourite - the regular size - could work well. It's small enough particles that plants can carpet okay in it. It's also cheap for a tank that size and easy to plant in. Worth consideration.
 

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Discussion Starter · #5 ·
I think seiryu stone would be good to raise the kh a bit. I might use eco complete for the crypts and other root feeding plants in conjunction with root tabs. I’ll look into those DIY root tabs. I might use a mixture of substrates now that I think about it. Sand near the right/front for the carpeting plants. Eco Complete or some other substrate for the other side of the tank separated by seiryu stone for the heavy root feeders.
 

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Eco complete is not ideal for carpeting. IMO at works well to break up inert gravel or stones to give roots a place to take hold but by itself is way too light to effectively plant in.
 

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Discussion Starter · #8 · (Edited)
What about the CEC value in eco complete? I thought that it could take nutrients from the water column and give it to the plants. I know that it is inert. I totally could be wrong on that but that’s just what I have heard about it.

PinkPloop- I will most likely be using sand for the carpet.
 

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What about the cdc value in eco complete? I thought that it could take nutrients from the water column and give it to the plants. I totally could be wrong on that but that’s just what I have heard about it.

PinkPloop- I will most likely be using sand for the carpet.
Eco complete is inert. It adds no fertilization to the tank nor does it buffer.
 

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The CEC of lava rock isn't that great. Doesn't have properties that allow it to absorb much. If you're going for a look, then by all means use it. If you want CEC, then use some Safe-T-Sorb beneath/behind it. That'll have much better CEC.

You could do something like I did in one of my H. rubra tanks with crushed coral and lava rock. Here's a peek:



See how I created sort of a pillow? The guts are crushed coral but the top and sides are lava rock.









Got the look of lava rock (though, I wish it were smaller grain for better scale) and the effect of crushed coral for my brackish water shrimp.

If you're dosing ferts or using root tabs, I wouldn't worry too much about CEC. Just use whatever substrate you like best that fits your budget.

Edit: To be clear, I'm not saying you should use crushed coral. Just suggesting this method of hiding one substrate beneath another may work well in your case.
 

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Discussion Starter · #11 ·
Okay, I probably won’t use crushed coral because I don’t want my water to be too hard for the fish and plants but thanks anyway. I’ll probably end up getting some sand or finer grained soil for the carpet and then something like aqua soil or controlosoil near the back. Thanks for all the tips, I’ve learned a lot since I joined the forum.

Also, I am considering fluval stratum because the other stuff is just so expensive. Do you think this would be okay or should I go with something else?
 

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Also, I am considering fluval stratum because the other stuff is just so expensive. Do you think this would be okay or should I go with something else?
Stratum is kinda hard to plant in. In my experience it's light and doesn't have enough weight to keep carpets and finer rooted plants down when doing water changes/ tank maintenance. Also my experience, maybe not others, is that it breaks down into a more silty mulm than other active substrates I've used and is a bit harder to change out because of this. It does a decent job of being an active substrate, though and I think plenty of people have had good luck with it.
 

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Do you know any other freshwater hobbyists in your area? If so, a good way to jump start a tank using an inert substrate is to collect as much mulm from the substrate and filter as you can when they do a water change and filter cleaning. Grab a 10 pack of Flourish Tabs, crunch them up really well, put the mulm down on the glass, put the substrate down and plant.

If you feel up for going with the multiple material method like Plinkploop, doing a 50/50 mix of Turface/Safe-T-Sorb/Shultz Aquatic Plant Soil (they're all calcined clay) with your inert substrate and put that over the mulm/tab mix then cap with an inch or so of your substrate. The CEC and other physical properties of the calcined clay will do a couple things:

1. Increase CEC in the root zone
2. Decrease bulk density in the root zone to help avoid compaction, allowing the roots to more easily penetrate the material which increases oxygen through the root zone (roots are constantly exuding O2 as they require an aerobic zone to grow in), and overall nutrient uptake.
3. Give fine roots a good place to grow onto, increasing nutrient uptake and overall health of the root zone.

Hope this helps,
Phil
 

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Okay, I probably won’t use crushed coral because I don’t want my water to be too hard for the fish and plants but thanks anyway. I’ll probably end up getting some sand or finer grained soil for the carpet and then something like aqua soil or controlosoil near the back. Thanks for all the tips, I’ve learned a lot since I joined the forum.
As I said in the post, I'm not suggesting you use crushed coral. But the method I illustrated. If you want a certain look but ideally want to use a different substrate where people can't see it, that's a potential method to use - to pocket or pillow. It's a good way to use something that's less attractive like Safe-t-Sorb while having the appearance of having used something else entirely like black lava rock.

Using Safe-t-Sorb and sand would also work in the same general way. Just create that inch or two barrier in the front and on the sides of sand. Then add the Safe-t-Sorb in the middle. Cover it with sand. The sand in the middle will sink and mix with the Safe-t-Sorb over time but it won't be as noticeable because you've used that barrier or pocket/pillow method to conceal it. Just like I did with crushed coral.

Also, I am considering fluval stratum because the other stuff is just so expensive. Do you think this would be okay or should I go with something else?
If you ever decide you want to use an active/enriched substrate like that, Fluval's product really isn't less expensive than the others. It's still going to be $40-$50 for a standard 20 gallon - even more for a 20 gallon long. For that same price, you'd get a large 9L bag of ADA product or a similar size bag from other manufacturers. When compared to almost anything else, Fluval's product is a waste of time and money. Even if it means you have to save up $20-$30 more in order to be able to get something better than Fluval Stratum, it will be well worth it.
 

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Discussion Starter · #15 ·
Stratum is kinda hard to plant in. In my experience it's light and doesn't have enough weight to keep carpets and finer rooted plants down when doing water changes/ tank maintenance. Also my experience, maybe not others, is that it breaks down into a more silty mulm than other active substrates I've used and is a bit harder to change out because of this. It does a decent job of being an active substrate, though and I think plenty of people have had good luck with it.
Okay, I did read a couple of reviews saying the same thing so I appreciate you saying that. I’m taking stratum off the list.

Do you know any other freshwater hobbyists in your area? If so, a good way to jump start a tank using an inert substrate is to collect as much mulm from the substrate and filter as you can when they do a water change and filter cleaning. Grab a 10 pack of Flourish Tabs, crunch them up really well, put the mulm down on the glass, put the substrate down and plant.

If you feel up for going with the multiple material method like Plinkploop, doing a 50/50 mix of Turface/Safe-T-Sorb/Shultz Aquatic Plant Soil (they're all calcined clay) with your inert substrate and put that over the mulm/tab mix then cap with an inch or so of your substrate. The CEC and other physical properties of the calcined clay will do a couple things:

1. Increase CEC in the root zone
2. Decrease bulk density in the root zone to help avoid compaction, allowing the roots to more easily penetrate the material which increases oxygen through the root zone (roots are constantly exuding O2 as they require an aerobic zone to grow in), and overall nutrient uptake.
3. Give fine roots a good place to grow onto, increasing nutrient uptake and overall health of the root zone.

Hope this helps,
Phil
I’m not really in too much of a rush to jump start it and I would really be fine waiting a couple of months before I add any fish. But I will definitely look more into the substrate mix. I also didn’t know about calcined clay substrates and it sounds like it’s good for the plants, Thanks!

As I said in the post, I'm not suggesting you use crushed coral. But the method I illustrated. If you want a certain look but ideally want to use a different substrate where people can't see it, that's a potential method to use - to pocket or pillow. It's a good way to use something that's less attractive like Safe-t-Sorb while having the appearance of having used something else entirely like black lava rock.

Using Safe-t-Sorb and sand would also work in the same general way. Just create that inch or two barrier in the front and on the sides of sand. Then add the Safe-t-Sorb in the middle. Cover it with sand. The sand in the middle will sink and mix with the Safe-t-Sorb over time but it won't be as noticeable because you've used that barrier or pocket/pillow method to conceal it. Just like I did with crushed coral.



If you ever decide you want to use an active/enriched substrate like that, Fluval's product really isn't less expensive than the others. It's still going to be $40-$50 for a standard 20 gallon - even more for a 20 gallon long. For that same price, you'd get a large 9L bag of ADA product or a similar size bag from other manufacturers. When compared to almost anything else, Fluval's product is a waste of time and money. Even if it means you have to save up $20-$30 more in order to be able to get something better than Fluval Stratum, it will be well worth it.
Okay, It definitely makes sense to use something else where people can’t see it.
I won’t be going with the Stratum now that you say that, thanks for the help!
 

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Not sure what your purchasing timeline is but I just posted a thread in the Lounge (link here) you may want to check out. Some good deals on Flourite products. Even an okay-ish price on Eco-Complete, though keep in mind what you've already learned about it.

I try to post about these things when I see members planning purchases and this is one of the rare sales on some of these products.
 

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Discussion Starter · #17 ·
Wow, that’s really nice. Great deals on there. I won’t be ordering now but thanks for the heads up because I was just planning ordering everything on Amazon.
 

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Discussion Starter · #18 ·
I’m probably going with aqua soil based on the research I’ve done. I have heard this stuff lasts around a year or two. Is this because of it physically breaking down into mush or it just loosing its nutrients? If it just loses its nutrients after a year I could just use root tabs. I want to keep this tank up for probably 2 years so I just want to make sure aqua soil would work.
Also, I drew out the scape I would probably use (Sorry it looks messy) but I realized it only uses 3 root feeding plants, DHG, Water sprite, and crypt wendetti. I would prefer to just use aqua soil in the foreground section and near the crypts and water sprite to save money. But I feel like if I do that it would look kinda weird having clumps of different substrate for the water sprite and crypt. Not sure how to hide this. I’m trying to go for a nice looking scape but also not to drain my wallet on aqua soil. Any ideas?
1031216
 

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Most aqua soils lose the majority of their original nutritive benefits after six months to a year, so you'll need to start adding nutrients at some point. Even though the substrate may have lost its nutritive value, the physical and chemical properties of it are still highly useful. They're the best material for fine/microscopic root hairs to grow on and are generally have a lower bulk density than other materials, which results in a healthier root zone. The electrical charge (CEC, AEC) is very useful for trapping nutrients in the rooting area as well. Nutrient tabs are excellent for this and I'd recommend using them from the start. Crumbling up tabs such as Flourish Tabs, and laying it down as a base layer on the glass will help enrich the substrate and promote faster establishment and growth in the beginning.

As far as breaking down, this is definitely a thing, and the rate depends on the brand/material. This is generally only a significant issue when uprooting plants though; even the fine particles "mush", are good for root systems. I've used Amazonia, Brightwell's Volcanit, and Seachem's Aquasolum for years in tanks without them causing problems with plants. That being said, you'll want to do a heavy vacuum every six months or so to clear out the dust to keep it from making a mess of the tank when uprooting a lot of plants or doing a wholesale rescape.

Regards,
Phil
 

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Discussion Starter · #20 ·
Most aqua soils lose the majority of their original nutritive benefits after six months to a year, so you'll need to start adding nutrients at some point. Even though the substrate may have lost its nutritive value, the physical and chemical properties of it are still highly useful. They're the best material for fine/microscopic root hairs to grow on and are generally have a lower bulk density than other materials, which results in a healthier root zone. The electrical charge (CEC, AEC) is very useful for trapping nutrients in the rooting area as well. Nutrient tabs are excellent for this and I'd recommend using them from the start. Crumbling up tabs such as Flourish Tabs, and laying it down as a base layer on the glass will help enrich the substrate and promote faster establishment and growth in the beginning.

As far as breaking down, this is definitely a thing, and the rate depends on the brand/material. This is generally only a significant issue when uprooting plants though; even the fine particles "mush", are good for root systems. I've used Amazonia, Brightwell's Volcanit, and Seachem's Aquasolum for years in tanks without them causing problems with plants. That being said, you'll want to do a heavy vacuum every six months or so to clear out the dust to keep it from making a mess of the tank when uprooting a lot of plants or doing a wholesale rescape.

Regards,
Phil
Okay, thanks for that info, it really helps. I will be going with the ver2 aqua soil if I do get it.
 
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