Wild Bettas live in shallow drainage ditches, marshes, rice paddies, and slow-moving bodies of water in Southeast Asia. The natural substrate for wild Betta fish in those places is layers of decaying and live vegetation over mud and siltin shallow water.
What is the Natural Environment for Betta Fish?
The natural habitat of Betta fish is river drainage basins and marshes. They are filled with plants, leaves, and branches. The water is slightly murky, but mostly clear.
Wild Bettas have territories of three square feet (one square meter), which is surprisingly large for such small fish.
Although wild Bettas have been found to live out the dry season in mud puddles, this does not mean they should live their whole lives in tiny tanks like “Betta bowls.” It would be similar to making you live your whole life in a closet.
How to Make a Natural Environment in a Betta Fish Tank?
Set up a tank just like any other tank. Only, you’ll be placing in plants, driftwood, rocks, botanicals like almond leaves, and perhaps mariposa pods for the bottom. Make sure you leave enough room for the Betta to swim about. It can be tempting to just cram the tank with all sorts of stuff.
It’s best to have a natural wild Betta tank set up and running for at least a month before adding any fish. This gives time to do water checks, make sure all the gear is running, and gives time for beneficial bacteria to grow.
Plants in Betta Tanks
Hardy and attractive plants for Betta fish include Java ferns and Java moss, both native to Asia and relatively inexpensive. Other good plants for aquariums include Anubius nana, hornwort, anacharis, Marimo moss balls, water sprites, and Amazon sword plants.
A special note about pennywort: Although it’s a native to Brazil, it is still incredibly beautiful and edible for people (not Bettas). Bettas, also known as Siamese fighting fish like having overhead cover. Just make sure that the pennywort does not completely cover the top of the water surface.
Artificial plants look good in wild Betta tanks, but make sure they have soft leaves and edges. Bettas can hurt themselves or tear fins easily on any sharp edges.
Can You Put Gravel in a Betta Fish Tank?
Unpainted, round gravel is excellent for Betta aquariums. It not only looks natural, it is natural. Smaller gravel pieces also make better places for beneficial bacteria to grow. The paint from painted gravel can chip off and be dangerous for fish. Bettas will stick anything into their mouths, including paint chips.
If you want a tank that mimics a wild Betta environment, you need plenty of plants. Gravel is better for live plants. It creates a good environment for their roots to grow. It’s also heavy enough to keep plants from floating.
Gravel for Betta tanks takes longer to clean, since dirt and poop fall through the spaces between the pieces. Be sure to leave some of the gravel dirty each time you do a partial water change, so it’s sure to leave some beneficial bacteria in the tank.
Note on Bottom Filters
If you are using a bottom filter, better known as under gravel filters, then you can only use gravel as a substrate. Sand for Betta tanks or soil will constantly clog up the filters.
How Deep Should Gravel Be Per Gallon?
Gravel should be at least three inches deep. If you were only keeping fish, then two inches would do. However, plants need an additional inch to help hold onto their roots and provide enough room for nutrients to take hold.
This comes out to somewhere between one and two pounds of gravel per gallon. The amount will vary depending on just how deep and long your tank is. It’s good to buy some gravel, see how deep it is, and then add more if necessary.
Can You Put Sand in a Betta Fish Tank?
You can put freshwater sand in a Betta tank, especially if the Betta is sharing a home with a bottom-feeder. Bottom-feeders do better in tanks with a sand substrate. Sand holds onto beneficial bacteria well.
Some fish keepers prefer sand because fish waste, uneaten food, and other dirt sit on the top and can be easily siphoned up. Other fish keepers do not like seeing the poop and dirt all of the time.
Sand does cloud up the water column when it’s first put in. If you need to dig around to rearrange the plants, driftwood or other botanicals, clouds will puff up again.
Sand is not strong enough to hold onto any plants with roots. If you do choose to use sand, you’ll need to place plants with roots into very small plant pots in order to keep them down.
Another major problem with sand is that, since it is so fine, it gets easily sucked up by filters. Eventually, filters will clog to the point of making them useless. Sand can also clog pumps.
How Deep Should Sand Be Per Gallon?
Two inches is deep enough for a freshwater aquarium. This is roughly a pound of sand per gallon.
Can Betta Fish Have Rocks?
Rocks for Bettas are fine, in a regular or natural tank, as long as they are smooth. Rocks with sharp edges can hurt the fish. Remember, when fish are scared, they dart about and smash into anything in their way.
Soil in Betta Tanks
If you want to mimic the natural substrate of Betta fish in the wild, then you need to use soil. Only use soil that is commercially available and made specifically for fish tanks.
Never use soil dug up from outside. It could be full of contaminants that will kill the fish and any live plants.
Soil is ideal for keeping live plants healthy. It is also great for any shrimp that you want to add to a wild Betta tank, although sometimes Bettas will eat the shrimp.
Soil changes the water quality more than sand or gravel. It can cause ammonia spikes and can lower the pH to make soft water. Fortunately, Bettas like soft water. Test the water regularly for ammonia.
Soil is also much more expensive than gravel or sand.
How Deep Should Soil Be?
Aquatic soil needs to be at least one and a half inches deep all over the bottom of the tank. This is thick enough to provide enough nutrients for live plants.
So, What is the Best Substrate for Betta Fish? How Does It Compare to Natural Substrate in the Wild?
If you want a substrate for Betta tanks that’s easy to care for and helps the live plants in your tank, then natural gravel is the way to go. If you are using an under gravel filter, then it’s the only way to go.
The substrate that’s closest to what wild Bettas encounter in their natural habitats is commercially available aquatic soil. However, this is more expensive than gravel or sand. It also requires more work to keep the water healthy, since soil greatly changes the ammonia and pH levels.
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About the author
Hi, I am Rena.
I grew up in a house surrounded by fish tanks.
I have spent my life caring for and writing about fish.
I have studied journalism and worked for online and print magazines.
You can find the articles I wrote here