Having a substrate like gravel isn’t a necessity for a betta aquarium, but it will make a good anchor for artificial plants and ornaments. It is a necessity for some live plants (if you wish to keep them). Substrates will make your aquarium look more natural and most people find it to be aesthetically pleasing. It’s also a great place for beneficial bacteria to live, although it won’t have a significant impact on the level of waste breakdown if not present.
Bacteria can live throughout the gravel on the bottom of the aquarium and can help with the breakdown of ammonia. The amount of ammonia the gravel bacteria breaks down is minimal compared to the amount of ammonia the filter breaks down. Having a filter and not having gravel will not be detrimental to the breakdown of ammonias, but having gravel but no filter will.
Some substrates do make maintenance easier than others, which we’ll talk about below.
What’s the Best Substrate for a Betta?
It depends on what kind of aquarium and set-up you’re trying to achieve. Here’s the best options available on the market:
Epoxy Coated Aquarium Gravel
This is the most common aquarium gravel. This is an artificial, man-made gravel. It comes in a variety of colours and sizes and is fairly inexpensive. It’s easy to siphon and clean but it can be difficult to sterilise if not clean. Some people sterilise their used aquarium gravel by boiling it in hot water (as this kills bacteria). If you were to do that with this gravel — as it is coated with an epoxy — chances are it could melt and lose its colour.
This is natural gravel stone or rock, usually sourced from a quarry or natural source. Pebbles, gravel and river stones can be purchased at most aquatics stores and come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors. It can be more expensive than epoxy gravel but it does give a nice natural look to your betta aquarium. It’s easy to syphon and clean.
Sand can really make your aquarium stand out and give it an impressive natural look, but it should only be used in a cycled aquarium that doesn’t undergo 100% water changes. Waste settles on top and can be cleaned by floating a siphon a half inch or so above the sand bed. It can be slightly more difficult to syphon compared to gravel. Plants can grow well in sand and if you wish to keep any bottom dwelling inhabitants with your betta, it can make a great home for them.
Some substrate is made purely for optimal plant growth, such as Seachem’s ‘Flourite’. Sometimes planting substrate can be mixed with sand or gravel to give it a more natural look. Planting substrate tends to be rich in iron, allowing fussy plants to grow healthy. Eco-Complete Planted Aquarium Substrate is perfect for plants. Planting substrate also tends to be a dark colour, so it really brings out any bright colours in your aquarium and can make a green bed of plants really stand out.
For some reason, glass marbles or ornamental substrate has proven popular with some betta keepers. They can make an aquarium look quite artistic. They work well in smaller aquariums and are easy to siphon, remove and clean, but it gives your aquarium anything but a natural look. It won’t allow you to plant rooting plants in your aquarium either if you’re just using big thick marbles as substrate. Furthermore, they don’t make a comfortable home for bottom dwelling fish like plecos and loaches, so take this into consideration if you are considering them as tankmates for your betta.