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For a planted tank, an ideal substrate system should be inert, exhibit micro/macro porosity, and contain all macro/secondary/micronutrients. Since all these features are not currently available in any one substrate system, we go for the next best thing: inert, porous, and high in iron. Inert because we don't want it to interfere with the water chemistry. Porous (CEC) because it promotes healthy root growth as well as provide a reducing environment in which certain nutrients are made available to plants. High in Fe because it is one of the nutrients that is beneficial to be present in both the water column and substrate.

Aside from the above utilitarian attributes, there are other factors to consider like color, how easily it cloud the water column, cost, etc. Eco-Complete has been so well praised because it accomplishes many of these criteria, but is quite cost prohibitive. It does not mean that if you don't have Eco-Complete or any of these commercial substrates, then you can't have a well running tank. Speaking as someone who live in the United States, we have so many choices available nowadays for all sorts of price ranges that IMHO, no tank should be grown in plain gravel or sand...unless you have some odd affinity to them. :mrgreen:

Keep in mind that the substrate is one of the more permanent features in many of our tanks so an initial well-chosen subtrate system will save you a lot of heaches later on down the road. Speaking from experience, changing/modifying the substrate system is a HUGE hassle.
 
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