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 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.
AquaScaping World Magazine - El Natural Vs Tom Barr's Low Tech
Tom Barr's Non-CO2 method
Ecology of the Planted Aquarium: A Practical Manual and Scientific Treatise for the Home Aquarist, by Diana Walstad