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freshwater shrimp

Planted Shrimp Tank: What is the Best Substrate?

 Written by: Gracie Mandel

There are shrimp tanks, and there are planted tanks, right? It seems that most aquariums must adhere to one category or the other. However, with the vast and ever-improving products and knowledge, it is possible to have both in one. 

That said, there are different schools of thought when it comes to this. Can you really have an aesthetically-pleasing, heavily-planted aquascape, and still keep your shrimp’s health a priority? Let’s explore this idea.

This article will cover the different varieties of aquatic substrates and the pros and cons of each one in relation to shrimp (Neocardina vs. Caridina).

Neocaridina Shrimp Substrate

neocardina shrimp
Fire Red Cherry Shrimp

Many shrimp-breeders staunchly believe that Neocardina Davidi shrimp (cherry shrimp, blue dream, orange sunkist, yellow goldenback, green jade, red/orange rilli, etc.) must be kept on an “inert” substrate. Inert substrates are the most common and well-known varieties. They do not change or alter the chemistry of your water, which is important as Neocaridina thrive best in a pH of 7.0-8.0, GH of: 4-8, and KH (carbonate hardness) of 3-15. Some examples of these are sand, common aquarium gravel, baked clay substrates, or even crushed lava rock


  • They are inexpensive and easy to obtain.
  • They will not fluctuate the parameters of the water (pH, GH, KH) allowing the aquarist to adjust the water chemistry to their liking.
  • They are stable and will not break-down over time, allowing for easy cleaning/vacuuming.
  • They can be elegant and decorative. There are many shades that can enhance the coloring of your shrimp.
  • They do not promote the initial ammonia spikes that are common with many non-inert plant substrates.


  • Lacks many key nutrients that many aquatic plants need to flourish or survive.
  • Some types, such as fine sand, can become compact and prove difficult to anchor plants in and allow them to spread.
  • Inconsistent granule sizes, which can affect planting, and aesthetic building of slopes and hills.
  • Appearance may vary by type. Lighter colors may change and darken over time and rough gravel may not be pleasing to the eye.


Caridina Shrimp Substrate

blue bolt shrimp
Blue Bolt Shrimp

Caridina Cantonensis Shrimp (Crystal Red Bee, King Kong, Black Pinto, Blue Bolt, etc.) are undoubtedly almost, if not as popular as Neocaridina Shrimp in the hobby. However, their needs are more specific, and their water parameters must be kept more precise (pH: ~6.0-6.9, GH: 3-5, KH: 0-2). To achieve these parameters, it is often recommended to use RO-filtered water, remineralized to these numbers. As they require softer, more acidic water, active soil substrates that buffer the water are often chosen. Some examples are: UNS Controsoil, Tropica Aquarium Soil, Aquario Neo Shrimp Soil, SL-Aqua Nature Soil, and many more.


  • Rich in trace minerals and nutrients that aquatic plants need.
  • Contain humic substances that buffer water below a pH of 7, as well as slightly acidifying it, which is the preferable range for Caridina shrimp species.
  • The size and softness of the substrate granules allow for easier planting and rooting.
  • Easier to build hills and landscape designs, as you can layer and mold the soil to your desired height.
  • Some brands include already-activated bacteria, and the porous nature of the granules are very efficient at housing beneficial bacteria long-term.


  • Most brands will have added amounts of ammonia, which then leach into the water. This means initial frequent water changes must be done, and livestock cannot be added for a longer period of time.
  • The longevity of available nutrients and buffering capacity is limited to about two years, so it will have to be replaced.
  • RO-filtered water must be used, as hard tap water will strip the substrate of it’s buffering capabilities.
  • Certain hardscape, such as calcareous rocks, harden the water which can also deplete the soil more quickly.
  • Using already-soft water along with these substrates can lower the pH to dangerously-low levels.

green jade shrimp
Green Jade Shrimp


So, Which Substrate it Best for Shrimp Tanks?

The good news is that both types of shrimp can be successfully kept using any of the above-mentioned substrates! What matters most when it comes to our dwarf-shrimp friends is stability. Shrimp don’t like sudden changes, even though they can be very adaptable. Consistency is the most important factor, so stop chasing the perfect parameters! When using either an active soil substrate or an inert substrate, if you are able to keep the water close to the desired parameters, pretty much anything is possible!


Neocaridina are known to be the most hardy of the freshwater dwarf shrimp. They have also been bred in all sorts of parameters and set-ups, and have been proven to adapt well due to their long history of breeding in captivity. If possible, it is always recommended to purchase shrimp that have been bred in water parameters that are similar to yours (this will make adapting easier on them and you). To make sure they have what they need in terms of minerals in your water, you will just need to make sure that the water you use, and use for water changes, is remineralized. This will keep things stable, and provide your shrimp with the necessary trace elements


Because Caridina shrimp are notoriously more sensitive than Neocaridina shrimp, the easier route would honestly be to stick to an active/buffering soil because of its pH-lowering capabilities. However, that is not to say it is impossible to keep Caridina shrimp in a tank with inert substrate. The main measure of importance that you must take is keeping the pH low, but stable. You can achieve this in a few ways. If your pH is too high, you can lower it with the addition of tannins (such as driftwood, various botanicals/extracts, or leaves). Some aquarists add a layer of peat underneath the substrate, as it is an effective way to lower pH. You can also use a pH/KH buffer (as they are directly related). Although this is not the easiest maintenance, it can be done.


It is understandable that you may still be wary of using a buffering soil. However, if you still desire a lushly-planted aquascape, you may need to add a few things to your water column and/or substrate if it is inert. I have had personal experience with this exact scenario recently. 

aquascaping soil

In setting up my new shrimp tank in a beautiful UNS 60L, I have used a substrate mix of inert black sand and gravel, but with a large variety of dense, lush, colorful plants

aquatic plants

The way I have achieved this is by adding nutrients to my soil. I added SL-Aqua Milione, which improves the substrate conditions to strengthen plant roots, while providing them extra nutrients. It also contains beneficial bacteria, which is advantageous to both the substrate and general tank-health (with the added benefit of increasing “digestion efficiency, immunity, shell color and shrimplet growth”). Additionally, I have added slow-release root tabs (such as Aquario Neo Plant Tabs) under the substrate, for heavy root-feeding stem plants. These tabs supply even more essential nutrients to your plants, and if buried far down enough, will not leach into your water column. While the tank is cycling, I have added DIY CO2, utilizing the Aquario Neo DIY CO2 Kit, to really establish my plants early on, and spark their growth. You may also add liquid fertilizers to the water column (double-check to make sure they are safe for shrimp). These products have turned my regular inert substrate into a perfect planted tank environment!

Hopefully, this article has shed some light about the different types of substrates available to use in a planted shrimp tank. I believe the main takeaway is that as long as you keep things consistent, you can choose any substrate and be able to have a beautifully planted tank with the addition of vibrant, healthy shrimp.


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Christy S - October 28, 2021

So glad I accidentally stumbled upon this page! I’ve been devouring shrimp information for a new tank I am starting and it’s really given me the ability to take a step back and make sure I’m not just starting with “planted tank”, but really taking everything into consideration from the glass on up!

Ed Carlson - February 22, 2021

Such great information, with application throughout our hobby. Not just for shrimp tanks! Thank you!

paulette - January 28, 2021

love this article!

Vanessa - January 28, 2021

Good read! Easy to understand – helpful for a newbie like me ;)

Janelle - January 28, 2021

I don’t know who this Gracie is, but I do know she really knows her SHRIMP! I’m so glad this article touched on the Neocaridina Shrimp. Will be getting lava rocks for my tank!

Brittany - January 28, 2021

Such great insight! So glad I’m stumbled upon this article. It was extremely helpful!

Zach - January 28, 2021

this is exactly the info I needed! I’ve been trying to learn more about this but there’s so much confusing info out there. This will be perfect for my new tank

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