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When you think of a regular old aquarium or fish tank that someone would keep in their home, what comes to mind?

Some small fish, maybe a fake branch or two, and that classic, colorful gravel covering the whole bottom of the tank.

While this is fine and good for most people, you can upgrade things quite a bit by switching to dirt or soil as a base!

There are numerous benefits to switching to a soil-based aquarium, including but not limited to:

  • Additional plant growth and general bacteria development, leading to a thriving ecosystem!
  • A more natural aesthetic, leading to a more impressive display that could garner the admiration of your friends and family
  • Healthier and happier fish!

Let’s take a deeper dive into some of the advantages of using soil in your aquarium, along with some tips on how to get started!

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Different Substrate Types For Different Habitats

The substrate, or the surface on which organisms live and grow, is one of the most important, if not the most important, elements of a healthy aquarium ecosystem.

There are a variety of different soils you can use to form your aquarium base, such as:

Inert Substrates

Inert Substrates are soils that won’t react with the water in any particular way with the water or change its composition. Some bacteria will grow on this substrate, which can help clean up waste and improve circulation, but it may not be the best for plant growth, as nutrients aren’t plentiful.

Coral Based Substrates

Substrates based on crushed coral can be very beneficial to those looking to raise fish that thrive in high-alkaline waters. These soils are generally high in calcium carbonate, which can impact the hardness and ph level of the water.

Soil and Nutrient Based Substrates

Consisting of primarily or even entirely organic material as well as nutrient additives, these substrates promote plant growth and are necessary when cultivating an underwater garden or “lawn.”

Common organic materials added to these substrates are clay, carbon, volcanic ash, and other naturally occurring minerals.

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There are many different varieties of soil substrates with different compositions, so finding the right one for your needs is very important! Take your time, do your research, and you’ll have a thriving underwater ecosystem in no time!

Creating Your Own Soil Based Substrate

While it’s easy enough to go to the store and peruse the options they have for sale, it’s possible to make your own aquarium soil at home!

It may require a bit more maintenance over time than the store-bought variety, but it saves you some money and can be a fun project!

Here are some quick steps for DIY fans among us:

  • Find a spot outside and dig up some soil!
  • Sift the soil thoroughly, removing any twigs, stones, bugs, or other debris that may be present.
  • Pop the soil in the oven and bake it for 20 minutes at 200 degrees Fahrenheit. This will eliminate any other organisms that may cause trouble later on.
  • Put it in the aquarium tank, and you’re good to go! Adding some sand or gravel may help to avoid a muddy mess, but it’s up to you to test things out.

Some Notes On Soil Properties

There are quite a few things to keep in mind regarding aquarium soil and proper maintenance.

Here are some notes to consider:

  • Aquarium soil generally has a finite span of time where it provides benefits! While most soil is suitable for a few years after planting, ph lowering and water softening effects become less potent, and nutrients may deteriorate. It’s essential to utilize fertilizers to ensure that your aquarium plants stay happy and healthy for as long as possible!
  • Ensure that your soil layer is deep enough that plants can take root! It’s a lot of work to drain a tank, re-lay soil, and re-plant all of your plants, so make sure you get it right the first time! Different plants will require different depths depending on their size, so be sure to do the proper research beforehand.
  • When adding new plants to an already established aquarium, make sure that they’re compatible (both aesthetically and biologically) with the soil you’ve chosen! Different ph’s and hardness levels can be a deciding factor in whether a new plant thrives or not.
  • If you purchase a soil that doesn’t seem to be the correct color, don’t fret! It will change color and generally become darker when wet, just as dirt on the ground outside does, and this will likely fix your problem.

Shrimp and Soil

Nutrient-rich aquarium soil is a popular substrate for those interested in raising Crystal Shrimp and other shrimp species.

There are a variety of soil types explicitly made for this purpose, and they often come in the form of very compact, nutrient-rich balls.

These types of substrates are generally much more expensive than others, and they need to be replaced more frequently (every 1-2 years as opposed to 3+ years), so keep that in mind if you’re interested in this type of aquarium! You get what you pay for, as having a tank full of shrimp is one of the coolest and most unique pets around!

Sand and Soil Combo

While soil may do the trick when it comes to giving plants an excellent environment to grow, you may want to spice things up and incorporate sand into areas where it would look best!

Decorating your aquarium is one of the most fun parts of the whole process, and having a variety of colors and textures at your disposal can bring out the designer in you!

Creating a little beachy area at the edges of your aquarium allows for a variety of decorations to be placed away from the more densely planted, soil-based sections of the tank, and it can help to make the tank a generally brighter environment.

If you have fish that love to burrow or mess around at the bottom of the tank, you’ll inevitably encounter mixed sand and soil areas. While this isn’t necessarily the end of the world, it can make things look messy, and the positive effects of the soil could be impacted.

Luckily, there’s a pretty easy solution in the form of natural barriers!

Simply adding some rocks to separate sand and soil can eliminate any worries you might have, and more decorative barriers can be purchased for those with a specific vision in mind.

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Be sure to have fun when decorating!

With a bit of planning, you’ll design a beautiful home for your plants and fish where they can live in harmony. Just be sure everything is compatible with one another so that you don’t have to do it all over again!

Wrapping Up

If you’re planning on getting serious about planted aquariums or even just raising some shrimp, it’s essential to do proper research on what soil-based substrates will fit your needs.

Soil quality, makeup, nutrients, and color are just a few of the properties you should be keeping in mind when considering what to plant.

Once you’ve decided that this is the right move for you, check out our beginner’s guide on how to set up a dirted tank properly.

Have fun!

Tips For Using Dirt In Freshwater Aquarium