Best Substrate For Planted Tanks 2020 – Buyers Guide & Reviews

1. Carib Sea 2. Seachem 3. Fluval
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All sorts of plants, be it land-based or water-based, function through a root system. While some of these root systems are simple, some are quite complex.

But despite their level of complexity, the primary function of the root system is to absorb nutrients from the environment and feed it to the plant. While the process of nutrient intake and the preceding photosynthesis for land-based plants are known by all, any idea how does the same operate for the aquatic plants?

This is where substrate comes in, making it important for you to understand the ins and outs of the best substrate for planted tank available in the market.

A substrate in the aquarium is important equipment both for plant growth and bacteria production. The choice of your substrate in the aqua space will determine the health of your plant life, and if you are a hobbyist, this is a crucial reason for you to look into the best substrate for planted tank.

While natural aquatic plants are provided with sand, soil, and gravel protecting them against shoreline runoff or rain, aquarium plants grow in an enclosed aqua space. The only source of nutrients they have is the substrate.

Thus the substrate has a direct effect on the plant’s color, size, and growth.

So, if you are planning to have your aquarium blooming with plants, you have to know all about the substrate. You have to select a substrate which is considered the best. To aid your decision-making process, we have got you a list of the best possible options available in the market. Additionally, we have provided a list of crucial features which will make your substrate buying process a lot easier. Hope this helps you!

Types Of Substrate In A Planted Tank

As known, a tank with a substrate is any day better than a tank without it. Ideally, a substrate layer acts as a medium on which bacteria colonize. These micros are essential as they help in the breakdown of the organic matter in the tank which promotes the growth and development of the livestock in the tank.

Thus, it becomes crucial to get your hands on one of the best substrates for planted tanks if you wish to see the lush green effect in your home.

There are various types of substrates that you can opt for. A few of the most popular ones include:

1. Common Aquarium Gravel

This variety is perhaps the most commonly used substrates. You can either go for a coarse variety or fine variety gravel as your ideal substrate choice. This type of substrate is very safe and does not affect the pH balance of the water in any way. However, this substrate requires regular maintenance and vacuuming.

2. Sand

If combined with the benefits of a good filtration system, sand can be a very clean substrate. The best part of the sand-based substrate is the small, compactly packed particles which do not allow unused particles to penetrate. So, cleaning it regularly is not required. The sand substrate provides a very natural habitat for the plants in the tank and is ideal for species which require a bottom hold.

3. Argonite

This one is a calcium carbonate mineral. A substrate made from this material can hold a large quantity of calcium carbonate for a very long period. This reservoir of the mineral is slowly but steadily released in the water to provide a buffer and to hold up the ideal pH balance of the water. Using aragonite can help you to maintain a buffer level of 8.2 pH in the water.

4. Crushed Coral

This substrate was a long-time favorite before aragonite got popular. It shares the same properties of the aragonite substrate. Crushed Coral substrate pushes the pH level to a 7.6 level.

The commercial variety of this substrate is often mixed with aragonite or other similar minerals such as calcite and dolomite.

Their composition makes them ideal to be used in reef aquariums, brackish water, and African cichlids.

5. Laterite

This is weathered clay derived from tropical and subtropical areas. Substrates made from this material are porous and contains a very high level of iron-oxide. Due to the presence of this mineral, it has a high cation exchange rate.

Laterite does not release any form of mineral or nutrients in the soil. Laterite that is used for tanks is baked for sterilization.

6. Vermiculate

These substrates are made from a mixture of aluminum, magnesium, and iron. After the mining process is completed, vermiculite is run through a heating process to eliminate any form of air pockets. This results in an increase in the volume by almost 15-20 times than the original size.

Since this substrate has a high cation rate, it becomes easy for the plants to absorb the nutrients. The substrate also releases valuable nutrients such as potassium and magnesium slowly back in the water which aids the growth graph of the plants.

Factors To Consider Before Buying the Best Substrate For Planted Tank

For buying the best substrate for planted tank, there are a few factors that you should look into:

1. Substrate Material

To understand the best substrate for a planted aquarium and how they affect the plants, it’s important to have a working knowledge of the substrate material. Though there are a lot of varieties, it all boils down to a handful of proven ones.

These are:

  • Sand

This is a fine grain rock material which adds no nutrients value to the plants.

  • Baked-Clay Products

As the name suggests, these are derived from clay. However, they are not 100 percent clay.

  • Gravel

These are similar to sand in composition, but they are composed of much larger grains (above 2.0mm). The size of the grains has different pros and cons which varies from one aquarium to another.

Aquasoil: This is a version of baked regular soil which forms granules. These work great for most substrates. However, their aesthetics become tricky. The grain size of this substrate allows easy maintenance and are ideal for feeding nutrients to plants.

2. Nutritional Value

While selecting the best aquarium substrate, always bear in mind that plants need both micro and macronutrients to survive. In that light, there are two primary categories that you can look into:

A. Depleting Substrate

These have higher nutritional value and thus, directly affect the plant growth in the aquarium. However, this variety comes with a limited amount of organic matter. Thus they have to be replenished regularly. They also decompose gradually.

Depleting Substrate includes aquasoils and regular soils.

B. Inert Substrate

Inert substrate combines gravel, sand and other baked clay products. These do not provide any nutritional value to the plants.

Then why would you want them in your planted aquarium? There are many reasons to choose these. Some of which include:

  • pH and KH buffering.
  • Visual Touch
  • An ideal weight which makes way for easier planting and stable plant stem hold.
  • Controlled pore space.
  • Effective substrate oxygenation.
  • Better water-flow around the plant roots.

3. Weight Consideration

All the best planted tank substrate that are available in the market have the edge of weight. This is important since the weight of your substrate helps in the management of the plant life in the aqua space.

Naturally, if the substrate is light, it will get shifted easily by your plants.

Such a situation affects the visual appeal of your aquarium and the particles present in the tank could clog or even damage the filter.

Additionally, planting on a light substrate becomes very difficult.

Though aquatic plants do like to float around, it becomes a bit of a challenge if you are planning to install tender species in your tank.

Heavier substrates thus become the most sought-after choice. Not only do they make planting easier, but, replanting your tank when required will not be that tedious as well.

4. Cation Exchange Capacity Value (CEC)

Positivity charged ions are called Cations. Aquatic plants make use of the energy from these to grow. Thus while looking into your options for buying the best substrate for freshwater aquarium, select one with higher CEC.

A substrate with high CEC can attract and withhold valuable nutrients and eventually provide them to the plants.

However, a higher amount of CFC in the substrate is not equivalent to more plant food. The substrate still needs to be provided with additional fertilizers.

Aquasoil substrate with a high amount of organic matter has a large quantity of CEC.

A clay-based substrate, on the other hand, does not have a very large quantity of CEC. However, if you still wish to buy a clay-based substrate, adding additional fertilizers is imperative.

Calcined Montmorillonite Clay, however, has a high amount of CEC, but that too is quite less than the CEC available in the aqua soils.

5. Grain Size

If you are planning to opt for finer grains when selecting the best substrate for aquarium plants, then know for sure that it may result in lower oxygen reaching the plant roots. Finer grains also obstruct the exchange of gases between the substrate and the water columns.

If the gasses stay trapped for a long time, they can eventually kill the plants in the tank.

However, large grain substrate, too, has its issue. One of the major concerns is that large grains hinder the growth of small roots from spreading.

They also create pockets which hide the decomposing waste that can disturb the biofilter.

Ideally, substrate grains of around 2 mm is universally functional for all aquariums. When combined with a good weight, such a substrate can be cleaned easily. They hold down and are not stirred easily.

To avoid the accumulation of anaerobic waste, select grains that are no more than 3 inches of the recommended size.

6. Altering Water Parameters

This is a factor which requires great consideration while buying the best aquarium substrate for plants. If you are thinking of using aqua soil containing organic material such as peat, then it is more likely to reduce the pH level of the water.

This is something that you MUST consider while you are hunting for the best soil for planted aquarium.

Fluctuation in the pH level is very disturbing for aquatic plants. The acidity content of the water moves on a logarithmic scale. In simpler words, the lesser the level of pH in the water, the more acidic it is.

Aqua soil can also cause depletion in the KH or carbonate hardness. KH is crucial because it acts as a buffer against the acidity level in the water.

Though there are a lot of options available to you, most of the aqua soil sold in the market will try to maintain the pH level of the water at a 6.5 to 7 pH range. This is the most comfortable range for aquatic plants.

But the question is, why that very specific range?

Aquasoil such as ADA Amazonia is designed to leach out ammonium in the water. This acts as a good source of nitrogen for the aquatic plants. Plus, they prefer this source over N-uptake.

If the water decreases to an acidity level under 7 pH, then a big chunk of ammonia converts into ammonium. This is an overwhelming level for the plants. That is why decomposing substrates are used to alter the situation.

7. Visuals 

This is naturally a very important factor while choosing the best substrate for a planted tank. After all, people have planted tanks in the first place for its visual appeal. There are some depleting substrates which have a better visual than others. The same applies to the inert substrates.

As seen in most cases, inert substrates, such as those made of sand and gravel look good in a planted tank. One can also try the Black Diamond Blasting Sand, it is black-ish which has a hint of glitter to it. Pool sand is yet another good option. Its mellow yellow tone complements the green in the tank setup.

8. Porosity Level

A porous substrate provides a greater surface area for bacteria to develop. A tank with a porous substrate can help in the development of a larger colony of nitrifying bacteria. Thus, they are more beneficial and capable of accommodating a larger number of plants.

9. Possible Setup Combinations

While planning for the setup of your planted tank, there are quite a few options to look into:

An Inert Substrate with Fertilizer: As mentioned before, inert substrates do not add any nutritional value to the plants. Thus it’s essential to provide required nutrients to the root tabs or use a form of liquid fertilizer to blast the water columns.

Inert substrates are gorgeous and very easy to clean. The best part is that they do not deplete over time and thus, do not require frequent changing. So if you are planning to opt for this, it is important to ensure that your inert substrate has good porosity, does not have very fine grains, and has a decent gravity to hold down the plants.

10. Naturally Occurring or Garden Soil

If you are installing a planted tank for the first time, then this option is good to avoid. Natural dirt and garden soil are indeed equally very good for the plant life in your tank, but the maintenance can make you cry!

The biggest problem is that garden soil gets stirred up quite easily, Under such circumstances, you might have a muddy tank at all times.

Since garden soil is naturally rich in nutrients, it is sure to deplete over time and affect the acidity level of the water. It is advisable to stay away from compost-enriched clay. Select a soil which has peat in it.

P.S: Every soil (especially topsoil) differs from one another. Thus, if you want to get the same effect, you should get yours supplied from one place.

Commercial Depleting Substrate:

Nutrient-rich substrates, such as aqua soil will allow you to grow beautiful vegetation in your tank. These sorts of substrates modify the pH level in the water and provide essential nutrients to the plants daily.

The only problem with this sort of substrate is that they are a little pricey since they follow a certain type of technology in the production process. Substrates like aqua soil are composed of baking matter which is developed into decent-sized granules. They are assigned a particular height and weight. Additionally, they are given the right amount of micro and macronutrients which makes them easily manageable and adds amazingly to the plant growth.

Inert Substrate Laced With Commercial Depleting Substrate:

This is one of the best substrates for planted tank available in the market. Commercial aqua soil has a huge list of advantages. One of the crucial ones is that it provides all that is necessary for the plants to grow. Plus, the maintenance is a cakewalk!

These benefits, when combined with the merits of a beautiful porous inter substrate, can give one a lush green, amazing planted tank! If you are using this combination, it is advisable to opt for 2 parts of aqua soil coupled with one part of an inert substrate.

11. Choice Of Plants

If you have conducted your research, then you are aware that your choice of plants plays a major role in setting up the entire ecosystem of your tank. In addition to a nice substrate, you will require optimal lighting conditions to grow these plants properly in your tank.

In that light, the choice of your light is crucial!

With all that said, here are a few final things that you have to consider while choosing the best substrate for planted tank.

Plants with Far-Reaching Roots Will Require Coarse Surface:

The best results can be achieved by mixing commercial aqua soil or dirt with peat gravel. The dept of the substrate, however, should be appropriate. ( Maximum can be 3.5 inches)

Plants that Do Not Require A Lot of Nutrients:

For this case, an inert substrate can be used coupled with a dose of fertilizers. However, it must be noted that growing easy plants should not be mistaken as a nearly-empty tank. It is possible to have lush green vegetation growing in your tank powered with the inert substrate; as long as you pick up the right plant varieties.

Plants With Tender Roots Don’t Do Well With Coarser Substrate:

If you are planning to grow some variety like the Dwarf Hairgrass, then you require a 1.5 to 2 mm sand cap. These types of plants use a special root system called the runners which gets intertwined in the underground system.

Medium Demanding Plants Do Well With Commercial Depleting Substrate:

If your plants require an extra kick of nutrients, the aqua soil is the best option for you. The same can be achieved with inert substrates as well. However, in that case, you have to opt for root dabs coupled with an extra dose of liquid fertilizers as well.

Top 15 Best Substrate For Planted Tanks 2020

1. Carib Sea Eco-Completelanted Black Aquarium Substrate

Carib Sea Best Substrate For Planted TankThis substrate is ideal for freshwater aquatic plants. It contains both major and minor trace elements which help to nourish aquatic plants.

The secret of this product lies in its rich basaltic volcanic soil. The product is prepared by combining calcium, potassium, iron, sulfur and over 25 other elements. Owing to all these naturally occurring minerals, the substrate is capable of enriching the plant roots.

The product is free from artificial dyes, or chemical coating.

However, in many cases, the gravel has caused some serious damage to the plant life in the tank. A few of the users find the product unsatisfactory since it has raised the pH level of the water and has thus killed a lot of plants.

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2. Seachem Flourish Tab Growth Supplement- Aquatic Plant Stimulant 10 CT

Seachem Flourish Tab Growth Supplement- Aquatic Plant Stimulant 10 ctThese are ideal for the growth treatment of the plants. The tabs contain trace elements of vitamins and amino acids which adds the right amount of nutrients to the root of the plants.

The tabs contain manganese, magnesium, calcium, iron, potassium, B12, chlorine, biotin and much more, making it a must-buy product.

The tablets have to be inserted in the gravel and eventually it provides the right amount of fertilization to the roots. Ideally, one tablet must be inserted in the gravel for every 10-15 cm radius. Make sure that the distribution of the tablet is equal across the gravel bed.

Slowly, the nutrients reach the plant roots owing to the enzymatic action of the tabs on the root.

For better results, the tab should be used once every three to four days. The best part of the product is that it does not alter the pH balance of the water. However, if it is used in unbuffered water, it may turn slightly acidic

Though the product has a world of benefit, in some cases, it has changed the color of the water and has tainted the aquarium glass owing to its high ammonia level.

But all in all a good product to purchase.

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3. Fluval Plant Shrimp Stratum

Fluval Plant Shrimp StratumThe product is rich in volcanic soil from Mount Aso in Japan. It also helps in the growth of strong plant roots. The key takeaway of the product is that it maintains a neutral-to-mild acidic pH. Plus the product is suitable for both plants and shrimps.

The substrate is very easy for the plant roots to penetrate. Owing to this, the plants can receive a lot of essential elements from the substance. The substrate is porous, lightweight, non-compacting, and ideal to develop a colony of nitrifying bacteria.

However, since the substrate is light, it almost floats which makes it difficult to put the plants in the aquarium. In a few cases, the substance has absorbed the GH right out of the water, which has led to the formation of brown stringy algae.

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4. Flourite

FlouriteIt is the ideal naturally occurring porous clay for a planted aquarium. The best part of the product is that it raises right in the bag and thus, is less messy.

Though the product is best used alone as an integral substrate bed, it can be used by combining with other gravels. However, gravel modifiers are not necessary for using this product.

Since the gravel is not chemically coated or treated in any way, they do not hamper the pH balance of the water. Also, one does not have to replace the product once it’s installed.

But again there are cons to this product and many users have reported that the product turned their water dirty and murky. Plus, in a few stray cases, the gravel has been the reason for plant death.

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5. Seachem Flourite Black Clay Gravel

Seachem Flourite Black Clay GravelThis is a specially crafted, stable gravel which is porous. The product is ideal for a planted aquarium and can also be used in a freshwater aquarium too.

You don’t have to use gravel modifiers such as laterite. To get the best results, the product should be used alone as an integral substrate bed. However, it can be used with other gravels too.

Caution must be taken while adding water to the tank which holds this gravel. Too much motion can stir up this gravel bed. The best way to add water is by placing a bowl in the tank and adding the water directly to the bowl. Once the bowl overflows, the water will reach the gravel bed softly and not cause any stirring. The tank might seem cloudy initially, so there is nothing to fret about.

The product is quite compatible with an under-gravel filter. Plus, it does not degrade or decompose to an unsuitable state within the tank.

Flourite Black is a very safe product as it does not have any added chemicals. Thus, it does not affect the pH level of the water in any way.

Though the reviews have been over-the-top for this product, it has been reported by a few users that the product is not ideal for freshwater tanks. The carbonate hardness of KH balance becomes difficult to stabilize.

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6. Spectrastone Shallow Creek Regular For Freshwater Aquarium

Spectrastone Shallow Creek Regular For Freshwater AquariumThe best part of the product is that it does not affect the pH level of the water and is safe to use in a freshwater tank.

The color and texture of the gravel is very nice and is well suited for a planted tank. However, it is important to wash the gravel thoroughly before placing them in the tank to avoid cloudy water consistency.

The only complaint about the product is about is the kits’ quantity. A few users have felt that the bag size could have been increased given the cost.

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7. Mr. Aqua N MAR-006 1 L Pet Habitat Water Plant Soil

Mr. Aqua N MAR-006 1 L Pet Habitat Water Plant SoilThis product is made by combining the goodness of organic blends and inert ingredients which provides all the crucial elements to the plants. Additionally, bit comes with a very strong rooting formula. The soil provides a buffering capacity which helps to soften water.

The product establishes a buffer of 6.6 to 6.8 pH. However, the range depends on the water parameters.

The soil is the substrate is quite long-lasting and can be used from 12 to 18 months without issue. The product is ideal for purifying driftwood water. It is possible to extend the water exchange period with the help of this product.

However, the product has met some criticism. Some users find the product overpriced and a few more complain that after a few weeks while cleaning, the product made the water cloudy which can be harmful to any livestock.

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8. Carib Sea ACS00222 African Sahara Sand For Aquarium

Carib Sea ACS00222 African Sahara Sand For AquariumThe takeaway of the product is that it can be used to create any natural African cichlid environment. The product naturally buffers the water in the aquarium and the grain size of the product is ideal to reduce the formation of any debris.

The mix of the sand is ideal as it resists any downward drift of the pH in crowded setups.

However, some users have reported that the sand has gravel mixed with it which becomes difficult to deal with. In a few stay cases, the product has caused some serious damage to the livestock on the tank.

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9. Imagitarium Black Aquarium Sand

Imagitarium Black Aquarium SandBlack is always a very popular color and this product brings that “black- magic” to your aquarium! In addition to looking amazing, this particular substrate helps stimulate a positive natural environment for aquatic species.

The substrate also promotes the development of bacteria, which aids the waste breakdown system. This thereby decreases the amount of unhealthy debris in the water. However, before placing it in the tanks, it’s advisable to rinse the product beforehand.

Though the product has been rated quite highly by a few users, a handful of them were not satisfied with it. In a few cases, the product floated on the water, disturbing the visual aesthetics of the tank. A few cases of spiked pH balance has also been reported.

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10. Activ-Flora Floracor for Aquarium, 16-Pound, Red

Activ-Flora Floracor for Aquarium, 16-Pound, RedThis is a cent percent natural product devoid of any dyes or additives.

The product does impact the pH level of the water and the natural spherical grains in the water helps in maximum diffusion.

Since the product is iron-rich, there is no need for added laterite. Plus the non-toxic color pigments present in the product creates a unique and colorful marine environment in the tank.

All in all, the product has been appreciated by most users.

However, residue from the product caused a bit of trouble to some users.

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11. ADA Aqua Soil Amazonia Powder Type

ADA Aqua Soil Amazonia Powder TypeThis is a very new product which is composed of a very rare source of Japanese, plant-based black soil, known as leaf mulch. Unlike imitation products, this one is made using authentic volcanic ash based soil. It is needless to say that the product is nutrient-rich and adds to the growth of the tanked plants.

The product is ideal for bringing down the pH level of the water to an ideal balance. The product has very fine granules which makes it just perfect for the nano aquariums as it allows a greater scale to be achieved within the tank setup.

This product can be used in combination with the normal type of substrate. A layer of the powder can either be placed over the normal type of the substrate or under it. The powder can also be used for carpeting plants.

The product is ideal for carpeting plants and grasses as it allows the smaller roots to penetrate the substrate and form anchors more effectively. This promotes better plant growth and impedes the substrate from rising.

Coming to the reviews, it all about the goodness of the product with zero percent of the negative review!

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12. Worldwide Imports AWW88420 Bio-ACountive Live Cichlid Gravel, 20-Pound

Worldwide Imports AWW88420 Bio-ACountive Live Cichlid Gravel, 20-PoundThis product contains live bacteria that helps in quick stabilization of the tank, and aids to restore organic balance.

Through the water might appear cloudy for a few days after installing the product, it clears out and adds to the growth and development of the livestock in the tank.

Additionally, the pH level stays very well maintained with the use of this product and gravel are very bright and colorful.

So, all in all, the product is surely a win-win.

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13. Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum

Fluval Plant and Shrimp StratumThis is yet another substrate which works great for a freshwater aquarium.

The product helps control the organic discoloration and also is ideal for the newborn shrimps.

The substrate has mineral-rich volcanic soil which does not discolor the water in the tank and helps promote plant growth.

The product provides nitrifying bacteria to the plants and keeps the pH balance from mild to acidic.

The product is also excellent for holding down the plant roots.

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14. Mr. Aqua N-MAR-067 8 L Course Pet Habitat Water Plant Soil

Mr. Aqua N-MAR-067 8 L Course Pet Habitat Water Plant SoilThis substrate combines the goodness of organic and inert ingredients which provides essential elements to the plants.

The nutrient-rich substrate can last up to 12-18 months without reshaping, and also helps in prolonging the water exchange period.

The product, however, spikes up the level of nitrate in the tank as reported by a few users.

So, it might become an issue if you have fish in the tank. However, it is just ideal for planted tanks.

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15. Tropica Plant Care Freshwater Planted Aquarium Soil 3

Tropica Plant Care Freshwater Planted Aquarium Soil 3This one is a complete bottom layer in itself, which means that you do not have to use any other bottom layer along with this product.

Derived from volcanic Japanese soil, this product is ideal for a planted aquarium.

The grain size of the product ranges between 2-3 mm which makes the planting process pretty easy and smooth.

The aquarium soil helps in plant growth and stimulates a red color.

However, it is an expensive product.

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A planted aquarium is not only about the aesthetics of the home, but it also contributes to the positive mental health of the house dwellers. But for your planted aquarium to look fresh and green, you need to get one of the best substrates for your planted tank from what has been discussed above.

Best Substrate For Planted Tanks: What’s Your Pick?

Naturally, your choice of the substrate will vary as per your budget, plant variety, space, and a few other supporting factors. The benefits, factors and ultimately, the various product reviews provided through this article will help you make an informed choice.

So put on your thinking cap, pick up your shopping bag and go hunting for the best substrate for planted tanks which will not only bring happiness to you, but to all viewers who chance upon your piece of art. All the best!

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