Dirted Tank Setup

Dirted Tank Setup

  • Author Mike
  • Creation date
After hearing so much about using potting soil in a planted aquarium, I decided to give it a try.

So first things first.....research! I spent countless hours reading about Diana Walstad and her NPT tanks (Natural Planted Tank). In her book, Ecology of the Planted Aquarium, Diana Walstad works off the primise that the best aquarium setup should be an ecosystem where "plants and fish balance each other's needs". Plants are the filter and fish produce the fertilizer. These types of tanks do best with low to moderate lighting as CO2 is not supplemented; but is instead created through fish respiration and soil bacteria. These tanks are said to be low maintenance with minimal water changes.

Another tank setup I researched was a low maintenance tank by Tom Barr who proposes a low maintenance tank simply needs a balance of ferts with low light. He does not use soil as he feels it is too messy. However, in articles written by Mr Barr, he stated that it is the presence of ammonia, not an overabundance of phosphates, iron or nitrates that lead to algae. In a low tech tank Tom has determined that algae is not present in the absence of ammonia. Quite an interesting concept, but one for a different day!

After watching various videos, I decided on the following materials:

Miracle Grow Organic Potting Soil
Small Pea Gravel, black

Everything I read stated to stuff the tank with many plants for the best results. So, I ordered plants as well as planned on pulling some plants out of my current tanks. The plant list includes:

Micro Sword mats
Crypt petchii
Corkscrew Vals
Dwarf Sag
Windelov Fern
Crypt Wendtii bronze

Plans made, items purchased, I set out to put this tank together.

First step, add the dirt, about 1.5 inches; moved around until I found a landscape I liked. As the tank is a bowfront, corner shape, I decided on a delta fan. Capped with about 1.5 inches of pea gravel. And slowly, carefully added water. At first the tank appeared to be nothing short of a mess!

I skimmed off floating debris, drained and filled again. Repeated this process until the water appeared somewhat clear.

Drained again and moved tank to its permanent location. Added a couple inches of water and began to place the plants into the tank until I liked what I saw. I am still on the hunt for a piece of driftwood that will fit into the tank and that I can tie anubias and African Water Ferns to (plants in my other tanks).

After this experience, I have a few pointers for anyone interested in starting a dirted tank.

1. Soak dirt prior to adding to tank. Wring out water when transferring wet dirt to tank to minimize dust.
2. Add substrate cap after dirt has been shaped to your liking.
3. Pack substrate to help it settle into place.
4. Using a bowl or plate, slowly add enough water to have a couple of inches above the substrate. Make sure dirt/substrate is secure and not being disturbed by water being added. Add plants.
5. Finish filling tank. After skimming floating debris, empty and fill again. Repeat as many times as necessary to have clear water.
6. Do not add inhabitants immediately to allow the dirt time to cycle.
7. Once parameters have stabilized, slowly add inhabitants.
8. Purposely understock tank until the balance between plants (the filters) and fish (the fertilizer and CO2 generators) are found.

Tom Barr's Non-CO2 method
Ecology of the Planted Aquarium: A Practical Manual and Scientific Treatise for the Home Aquarist, by Diana Walstad
First release
Last update
4.75 star(s) 8 ratings

Latest reviews

Easy and simple to read!
  • aoiumi
  • 4.00 star(s)
Good information! One thing you mentioned that I'd like to stress is letting the tank cycle - and be prepared for it to go horribly wrong if it's your first time. Mine is an algae disaster because I underestimated how many plants were 'a lot'.
Great information that I've been needing.
Amazing article actually helped me with mine.
That was a great article.I have had a drited tank which reuned effectively for more than 2 years. great alternative of using aquarium soil.
I have question about this, do you cap with dirt or gravel
  • teko116
  • 5.00 star(s)
I want to create one of these tanks once I have enough time! wonderful article!
very helpful thanks

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