updated May 2020
Product Reviews and Buying Guide
What makes a good substrate? The details are covered here.
While there is a dazzling variety of commercial substrates in the market, the key distinction is between inert substrates (often confusingly marketed as 'soil') 'true' aquasoil- raw, organic soil that has been compressed into easy to handle granules.
For beginners (basically those not tackling demanding plants), inert substrates are generally cheaper and easier to handle. The lack of nutrition can be compensated by regular water column and root fertilisation. For those who seek to experiment with more demanding plants, there is no substitute for soil / aquasoil.
Above: a foreground of Cryptocoryne parva 'mini', red Eriocaulon quinquangulare, Centrolepis Drummondiana 'blood vomit' and pink Cryptocoryne 'flamingo' in the background. It is far easier to grow picky species in aquasoil.
BEST AQUASOIL PICKS
ADA AMAZONIAis popular among the expert crowd and since the 1990s, pioneered the use of rich, ammonia-infused substrate in planted tanks. It required very frequent water changes for the first couple of weeks and took 2 - 3 weeks to properly cycle. Many will claim it is the best aquasoil on the market, but can be difficult to handle at start. As of today (Q1 2020) we find that production quality can vary a bit and ammonia levels have dropped significantly.
TROPICA AQUARIUM SOIL / SOIL POWDER is a very established brand and we have found it to be consistently problem-free and easy to use. It is similar to ADA aquasoil, but less rich in ammonia.
FLUVAL STRATUM gives minimal leeching of ammonia, and is a very clean soil. It may be a little light when planting (i.e. harder to hold down carpets and delicate plants).
DENNERLE SCAPER'S SOIL is another established brand from Europe. Almost no leeching of ammonia, it is a very clean, uniform soil, with good weight to plant in (makes planting small plants & carpets is much easier).
MR AQUA AQUARIUM SOIL is very clean and smooth. Similar to Tropica, it is also less rich in ammonia compared to ADA Amazonia. It comes in very small bag sizes for smaller aquariums.
BEST INERT SUBSTRATES
TURFACE MVP is an inert baked clay substrate with good porosity. It is easy to plant in and manage.
EP MINERALS SAFE T SORB is similar to Turface MVP. It is an Inert baked clay product that has good CEC. In the first few weeks, it will cause KH levels to drop as it absorbs carbonates.
BLACK DIAMOND is a standard inert black substrate. Good weight which makes it easy to plant in.
SEACHEM FLOURITE has attractive color and form, if a little light (i.e. harder hold plants down).
Below is a summary of products I have used or have experienced to a degree that I'm fully comfortable to recommend. If you do buy the products through the Amazon links below, I do earn a small commission (at no extra cost to you) which helps in the running of this website. ~The 2Hr Aquarist