What’s The Best Substrate For Betta Fish?

Red and blue betta swimming in a planted aquarium

Here’s the sad truth:

Too many Betta owners overlook the importance substrate plays in the health of their fish.

Most just check the color and price. Or worse–don’t have substrate.

But, if you do a bit of research and choose right, you can really enhance to look and health of your aquarium.

In this article, I’m going to provide you with everything you need to make the best decision possible when it comes to choosing the best substrate for your lovely Betta.

Let’s get started.

What Substrate Do Betta Fish Have in the Wild?

In the wild, Betta fish inhabit shallow vegetated streams, marshes, and rice paddies in South Asia.

Wait, listen up. I want to make myself clear:

Although these waters are ‘shallow,’ they’re deeper and provide a more varied environment than most fish tanks.

So don’t keep them in tiny bowls!

Their natural substrate would consist of find muddy silt and layers of rotting vegetation. This environment provides them with plenty of shade, places to hide, and leaves to lounge on.

However, you don’t want to totally recreate their natural environment.

Here’s why:

If you recreate their natural substrate (muddy, rotting vegetation), it’s going to make water changes extremely difficult and messy.

You’ll cloud your tank every time, making it very difficult for you to ever see your Betta.

You’ll also need an extremely powerful filter to deal with the amount of ammonia the rotting plant will produce. In a nutshell, it’s unrealistic.

Here’s what you need to do:

Provide a substrate which is going to make your Betta happy. Sounds easy, right?

Well, actually, it is.

Your Betta needs plants (living or fake), to provide it with plenty of shade, hiding spots, and places to chill.

So, all you need to do is make sure your substrate can support real or fake plants.

Pro Tip: Only use natural or silk plants. Plastic ones may have sharp edges that will damage your Betta’s delicate fins.

How to Choose The Best Substrate For Your Betta

Look:

There’s no one-size fits all when it comes to choosing the best substrate for your Betta.

Really, it comes down to your tank, what’s inside, and what type of look you’re trying to achieve.

If you’re going to be using live plants, you need to know how they feed: are they water column or root feeders?

If your chosen plants obtain most their nutrients from the water column, you won’t need to invest in an expensive substrate packed full of nutrients.

On the flip side, if they’re root feeders you’ll want a substrate like Seachem Flourite to provide your plants with the nutrients they need to thrive.

What about fake silk plants?

Simple, you’ll just need a substrate which can support the silk plants. This could be gravel, sand, or marbles.

How Much Substrate Do You Need For a Betta Tank?

Again, it depends. The amount of substrate you use is the result of the size of your tank.

If you’re using a fish tank under 5 gallons, stop what you’re doing, read this article. Then go out and get your Betta a suitable fish tank.

Moving on.

If you’re going to be keeping live plants, you’re going to want about 2 inches of substrate. For silk plants, one inch will be enough.

If you’re an awesome person, and keep your Betta in a 50 gallon+ aquarium, I recommend you use 2 inches of substrate if you’re using silk plants.

The Usual Suspects: Gravel vs. Sand

The two main title contenders when it comes to the best substrate for your Betta fish. But, which one’s best?

Again, there’s no real straight answer here.

What I’m going to do, is discuss the pros and cons of both so you can make an informed decision about which is best for you.

Aquarium Gravel

Available in a variety of colors and sizes, you could potentially achieve most looks with this style.

But, what you need to remember when choosing gravel, is to avoid sharp edges so your Betta fish won’t damage its fins.

Pros of using aquarium gravel:

  • Doesn’t clump together, meaning water can pass through–reducing the chance of toxic pockets of Hydrogen Sulphide building up.
  • Easy to vacuum uneaten food without disturbing the substrate and clouding your tank.
  • Too heavy to get sucked into your filter.
  • Comes in a variety of colors.
  • Provides a surface for beneficial bacteria to establish.

Cons of using aquarium gravel:

  • Can sometimes have problems with anchoring plants down properly (not a huge issue).
  • Can be easier for live food to hide in.

Aquarium Sand

Again, aquarium sand comes in many different varieties–from course sand to black Tahitian Moon sand.

Lightly colored sand can create a nice sparkle and provide a smooth look to your aquarium.

Pros of using aquarium sand:

  • Tight sand particles make it a clean type of substrate.
  • Easy to clean because debris tend to sit on top of the sand instead of mixing in.
  • Visually appealing and many varieties available.
  • No sharp edges for your Betta to damage itself on.
  • Provides a surface for beneficial bacteria to establish.

Cons of using aquarium sand:

  • Difficult to use with undergravel filters.
  • Sand can easily compact. So it’s not ideal to have with live plants, because their roots will find it hard to penetrate.
  • You have to stir it regularly to ensure toxic pockets of Hydrogen Sulphide gas can’t build up.
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What Other Types Substrate Are There?

While sand and gravel are by far the most popular options hobbyist use, they’re not your only option.

Here are some other types of substrates you could try:

Marbles

Personally, I wouldn’t use them myself because they’re not suitable for larger tanks.

However, they do provide a huge variety of colors, so you’ll be able to pick one to complement your Betta.

Pros of using marbles:

  • Aesthetically pleasing.

Cons of using marbles:

  • Not suitable for larger tanks because they’re too large for vacuums to remove trapped debris.
  • Not very good at anchoring plants.
  • You’ll have to perform frequent and large water changes.
  • Don’t look natural.

No Substrate

Going for the ‘bare-bottom’ look is another option, but, again, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Pros of using no substrate:

  • You don’t have to clean the substrate.
  • No chance of uneaten food being lost and left to rot.

Cons of using no substrate:

  • No surface for beneficial bacteria to grow (this is very important).
  • Impossible to root plants.
  • Your Betta could become stressed by its own reflection.

So yeah–these are options, but honestly, I don’t recommend you using either of them.

Why?

Because neither of them are very good a promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria.

If your tank is unable to cycle, your Betta is going to be living in a toxic environment and that’s not okay.

Stone Aggregate

If you want a natural look, and don’t want sand or gravel, this is your best option. It’s made up of sand, stones, and pebbles sourced from the great outdoors.

Pros of using stone aggregate:

  • Provide a natural look.
  • A variety of shapes and sizes are available.
  • Can anchor plants into it.
  • Easy to siphon and clean.

Cons of using stone aggregate:

  • Need to be aware of sharp/rough edges.
  • Tend to be more expensive than gravel or sand.
  • Uneaten food could get lost in it.

Now, here’s what you don’t want to do if you choose this route.

Pop outside and pick up a bunch of different stones or rocks you find lying around.

You don’t want to do this because you have no idea what they may introduce into your tank or if they’ll affect the water chemistry.

Always buy treated stone aggregate so you know it’s safe.

How to Achieve the Ultimate Natural Substrate For Your Betta

If you want to use real plants and achieve the most natural look possible, do this:

Combine different types of substrate.

Add a base layer of sand, a middle layer of aquarium soil, and a top layer of gravel.

This is going to create a base for your plants to root properly and grow naturally, plenty of surface space for beneficial bacteria to grow, and a super realistic look.

And more.

By combining different types of substrates, you’re able to counteract may of the issues caused by using a single type of substrate.

Layering the sand on the bottom will dramatically reduces the chance of toxic pockets of Hydrogen Sulphide gas to build up.

A middle layer of aquarium soil will provide your plants with nutrients and aid the nitrogen cycle.

And your top layer of gravel then prevents the smaller sand and soil particles from clouding your tank, whilst acting as a surface for beneficial bacteria to grow.

It’s a win, win, win.

Final Thoughts

So, which is best? Well, like I mentioned above there’s no one-size fits all when talking about substrate for your Betta.

But, if you want the ultimate natural looks, I highly recommend combining sand, soil, and gravel. It looks awesome.

You’ll also get great results from using just sand or gravel.

What I don’t recommend, is having no substrate or using marbles if you really want to take care of your Betta.

The role substrate plays in the nitrogen cycle is very important for the growth of beneficial bacteria. Without it, your Betta is living in a toxic environment.

Christopher Adams

Hey there, my name is Christopher and I'm the creator and editor of this site. I've owned successful aquariums for the past 23 years. My mission is to educate, inform, and entertain on everything that's fish.

Last update on 2019-10-20 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

15 thoughts on “What’s The Best Substrate For Betta Fish?”

  1. Actually the limit to the size of a Betta Fish Tank or Bowl is 2 gallons,they may not be happy with the size,but some people have to take risks.A lot of people recommend 5 gallons,but its fine for people to keep Betta Fish under 5 gallons.I just wanted to point out that sentence since it may have offended people and its not actually true

  2. I’m a complete Betta newbie! I’m setting up my tank and I put sand on the bottom, with gravel on top. But how do I clean it? Sand and gravel seem to have different cleaning methods.

  3. I’m a beginner in wanting to care properly for a bettafish. I plan to purchase a male veiltail from petsmart (I would purchase one from a smalltime petshop, but alas the closest pet store is an hour away, and its petsmart :/) I am going to nab a 5 gallon aquafilter tank with a built in filter, and led light to mimic natural lighting. I’m also getting a thermometer, proper drops for the enviornment, a 30 watt heater, and bloodworms. I can hopefully find some good live plants, but I wanted to know if there are any specific type of live plants that could be potentially harmful to a veiltail? I’m goin to try the combo you suggested, but I’m worried about what specific plants to buy.

    • Hello Kaula, thank you for your comment. Okay, so generally, if you’re adding your standard aquarium plants like Java Fern, Amazon Sword, Anubias etc. you’ll be fine. When it comes to your Veiltail, you want to avoid all sharp objects and rough edges in your tank (commonly caused by fake not live plants), so stick to the classic aquarium plants and you’ll be fine.

      Wish you all the best of luck! And feel free to contact us if you have any more questions, I’ll always reply as soon as I can.

      Happy fish keeping.

  4. Do you use the products you list on here? Because I would like to know if the gravel listed can get the hydrogen sulfide pockets since it is described as having very tiny pebbles on Amazon.

    • Hello, Erin. Thank you for your comment, sorry for the late response, I have been on a break. Yes, I have used a number of these products over time. Yes, it is possible to have hydrogen sulfide pockets, however, with smaller pebbles, it’s less likely to happen. If you stay on top of water changes and siphon your gravel, your chances will be reduced further. But, in this hobby you’re creating your own microenvironment, which could be completely different from mine–even if we had all the same stuff!

  5. Probably a silly question but, I am just being introduced to planted tanks and such. My betta buddy is in a 10 gal, no filter, no heater, no artificial lighting – some live potted plants and he seems to be a happy, healthy fish. He is waiting on a transfer to his new 29 gal, and I am interested in setting up our first planted tank home. Will this be possible w out the filter, heater, and artificial lighting?

    • Hey Susie, thank you for your comment. Yes, it’s possible to run a tank using plants as filtration, there are many examples on youtube so I suggest you check them out. But, I’ll be honest, they’re not the easiest of things to run long-term so I wouldn’t personally recommend it to a beginner. And about the heater/lighting, if your room temperature keeps your tank water around 80F it should be fine but there are risks, and if your tank’s plants are still getting enough natural lighting to stay alive, it is possible. Overall, yes it’s possible, but in my opinion difficult to maintain.

  6. Hey, I’m looking into setting up a betta fish tank. This is my first time keeping a fish, so I’m trying to figure things out. I want to use sand as my substrate, but I was wondering how you would go about cleaning sand, and if you could use a siphon for a tank with sand as the substrate.

    • Hello, Haleigh, thank you for your comment. Yes, you can use a siphon with a sand substrate. You just need to do it at an angle 🙂

  7. Hi! I’m doing a planted ten gallon betta tank at the moment with just sand as a substrate (using root tabs) and I was wondering your thoughts on sea chem Flourite as a base, with rounded pebble gravel on top? I’d like to add many more plants and maybe even move him to a 20 gallon long. Currently I have a couple Anubias species, some java fern, amazon sword, and floating anacharis/Elodea.
    I’d like to add some micro swords and bacopa, would that be okay for him?
    Thanks so much!

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