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5 DIY Aquarium Substrate Ideas You Can Create Today! (With Pictures)

Lindsey Stanton Profile Picture

By Lindsey Stanton

aquarist preparing substrate in aquarium

There are dozens of types of aquarium substrates available on the market and knowing which one to choose can be pretty confusing. Once you settle on a substrate, you may have to be prepared to shell out a pretty penny to get your aquarium substrate at an appropriate depth for your tank’s needs.

That’s where DIY aquarium substrate comes in! Some aquarium substrates can even be made from things you already have, like topsoil, saving you money. It also ensures you end up with a substrate you like that fulfills your needs.

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Purpose of Substrate

Why even put substrate in your aquarium? Substrate is a great addition to aquariums for a number of reasons. The first being that substrate supports the growth of plants in your aquarium. Many aquatic plants need their roots in soil of some kind, and substrate allows your plants to root and thrive.

pumping-out-water-to-clean-up-the-substrate-in-his-aquarium_Ladanifer_shutterstock
Image Credit: Ladanifer, Shutterstock

Aquarium substrate can be a great place for the colonization of beneficial bacteria as well. Most substrates have a high surface area, which increases the real estate beneficial bacteria need to successfully colonize and reproduce.

The simplest benefit of adding a substrate to your aquarium is the environmental enrichment it can bring to your aquarium livestock. Some fish enjoy burrowing in substrate while others enjoy scavenging in and around substrate for snacks. Small invertebrates, like dwarf shrimp, feel safer with substrate and plants, which improves their health and reproduction. Whether your fish likes to pick up mouthfuls of substrate to spit back out or just likes to feel the sand between their toes, so to speak, substrate will improve the quality of your tank.

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The 5 DIY Aquarium Substrate Ideas

1. DIY Aquarium Soil #1

DIY Aquarium Soil - Option 1
  • Step One: Put your topsoil into a bucket and soak it with clean water until the water pools on top of the soil. Allow it to sit for a couple of days, drain, then do this again. After that, rinse the soil well. This will help remove fertilizers in the topsoil that you don’t necessarily want getting into your tank.
  • Step Two: Lay the topsoil out in a thin layer on a clean tarp or blanket and allow it to dry completely. This may take multiple days.
  • Step Three: Once thoroughly dry, pour the soil through a sieve or strainer to remove debris. You may need to break large pieces of soil apart by hand.
  • Step Four: Combine the topsoil with potter’s clay at a ratio of 10:1. Add in water, preferably warm, and begin to combine the topsoil with the clay. Mix well and continue to mix until a thick batter-like texture has formed.
  • Step Five: Add the mud mixture into your tank. It’s ok if there is some standing water in the tank after adding the aquarium soil.
  • Step Six: Cap the soil with gravel or sand. This will keep your tank from being a muddy mess every time you clean or plant anything. Now you’re ready to get your tank planted and set up!

2. DIY Aquarium Soil

dragon-stone-arrangement-on-soil-substrate_BLUR-LIFE-1975_shutterstock
Image Credit: BLUR LIFE 1975, Shutterstock
DIY Aquarium Soil - Option 2
  • Step One: Collect fresh garden soil. You can use bagged garden soil or dig up your own. If you go the route of digging up your own garden soil, you need to be certain that the area has been free of pesticides and other dangerous chemicals for upwards of a year. If you purchase soil, your safest bet will be to choose organic or “chemical-free” soil. You can also use compost for this soil, but it should be fully composted and contain no chunks of rotting food or animal waste.
  • Step Two: If you want to, you can rinse the soil at this point and then allow it to dry well.
  • Step Three: Using a sieve or strainer, sift the soil, pull out pieces of debris, and break up chunks of soil.
  • Step Four: Spread the dry soil out in a thin layer on a baking tray or in a casserole dish. Bake the soil at 200˚F for 20–30 minutes to kill microorganisms, like bacteria, pests, and even seeds that may sprout once submerged.
  • Step Five: Once cooled, you can add the soil to your empty tank and cap with sand or gravel, then finish setting things up.

3. DIY Aquarium Substrate with Kitty Litter

DIY Aquarium Substrate with Kitty Litter
  • Step One: Some people have had great success with using clay cat litter as an aquarium substrate. This should only be done with plain clay litter. Scented litter should not be used and litter made from any other substance, like walnut shells or sawdust, should not be used.
  • Step Two: Put the kitty litter into a bucket or bowl and rinse well with clean water. Your goal is to remove as much of the clay dust as possible, so you may need to rinse multiple times or break the litter up into batches to ensure it’s thoroughly rinsed.
  • Step Three: Once rinsed well, put the kitty litter into your empty tank and cap with sand or gravel, then set the rest of your tank up.

4. DIY Aquarium Substrate: The Gravel Cheat

Gold fish swim near botom near gravel_dba87_shutterstock
Credit: dba87, Shutterstock
  • This isn’t totally a DIY, but you don’t have to buy aquarium gravel to use in your aquarium! Gravel or pebbles from your local garden center will work great and will likely save you money, especially if you have a large tank.
  • Rinse the rocks well multiple times to remove any silt, dust, or chemicals that may have gotten onto them.
  • Use this gravel as a cap over a different type of substrate or use it on its own.

5. DIY Aquarium Substrate: Sand Options

aquarium castle
Image credit: Oleksandr Khalimonov, Shutterstock
  • Like gravel, you have options for a sand substrate in your aquarium other than the stuff at your local pet store. You can go to your local home improvement store and pick up plain blasting sand or undyed play sand.
  • Rinse well to remove any dust, silt, or dangerous chemicals. This can be accomplished by putting the sand into a bucket, rinsing well, then gently and slowly pouring the water out until it runs clear. It’s ok if you don’t get all the water out of the bucket, this is just going into your aquarium anyway!
  • Sand can be used on its own as a substrate or as a cap over many other types of substrates.

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Things to Avoid

  • Peat: Peat actually can make a great addition to aquariums, but only if you are trying to drop the pH. Peat will make your aquarium acidic, so if this isn’t your goal then avoid peat for your tank.
  • Dyes: Dyes, like those used on colored play sand, can come off over time. This can discolor your tank water and even other items within the tank. Some dyes are dangerous for aquatic plants and animals.
  • Scents: Scents are commonly found in cat litter and can be found in some children’s play sand as well. These chemicals can leach into your aquarium water and potential injure or kill your aquatic pets.
  • Pesticides: If you’re purchasing soil or gravel from a garden center and you notice it’s being stored downhill from the pesticides, it might be a good idea to skip that store for now! Pesticides can get into the water and roll downhill, getting onto anything it comes in contact with.
  • Fungicides: Similar to pesticides, fungicides can easily get onto other products, leading to death or injury of plants or animals in your aquarium.
  • Cleaning chemicals: Many cleaning chemicals are not aquarium safe, which is why the recommendations for substrates usually call for rinsing but not for cleaning. Even gentle dish soap can be dangerous for the health of your aquarium, so cleaning chemicals should be avoided unless they are listed as aquarium safe.

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Final Thoughts

The easiest way to go about an aquarium substrate is to purchase the aquarium-marketed versions from pet and fish stores. However, these often carry the price markup of specialty products and you may be able to save money and end up with a healthier aquarium by doing some DIY aquarium substrates. If you are unsure of the safety of a product, though, don’t use it! There are lots of safe options available to you that won’t risk the health of your aquarium.

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Featured Image Credit: rodimov, Shutterstock

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