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Having a play with a dirted tank


25 Jul 2010
I have a Fluval spec sitting in the garage and plan to have a play with a dirted tank once the kitchen decorating in finished. I’m just going to use what I have lying around already - some potting soil and sand to cap, some previously used hardscape and whatever trimmings or plants I have spare from my main tank. I also have spare filter media in this tank I plan to move over

I am expecting the soil will leach a lot of ammonia - should I buy a test kit to monitor the levels? Don’t normally use test kits, but I’m a bit worried the ammonia leach will get high enough to kill off the bacteria in the media and possibly the plants.

If it works well, I will keep it running and get a betta for it 😊
Test kit sounds like a good idea. I am thinking of doing something similar myself, but am tempted to spend a fiver and get some pond compost. I think others on the forum have done similar so I hope they offer up some tips for you. I look forward to seeing this develop.

Good luck
Nice to see some more interest in dirted tanks. In general my soil tanks have cycled fairly rapidly, that is to the point ammonia ceases to be a problem after around a week or so. But I often plant heavily from the outset.
This might be helpful.

A word of warning - don't use play sand. I've done this several times with potting soil (John Innes No1 - the least amount of enriched ferts in the soil) and it always ended with cyanobacteria which consumed everything, and was impossible to kill off. The exact same process but swapping sand for a cap that can breathe and act as a nutrient buffer will save you a whole heap of headaches. I use JBL Manado and my current tank is over 3 years old with deep substrate at the rear - zero issues.
So do you think I’m safe to use my already cycled media if I plant very heavily? I’ve heard stories of media being trashed and plants dying as initial ammonia levels get so high. I was assuming I’d need to monitor levels and do frequent water changes until more stable. Tank is only 19L
That might be a thing, I can't profess to having all the answers. But IME mature media covers a multitude of sins. Having both mature media and heavy planting along with good tank husbandry should definitely reduce the risk markedly. So I don't think you need worry unduly.
@_Maq PL7 4HR
Please, help a stranger. What is "play sand"? A sand for kids building tunnels etc.?
Yes, it's sold for childern to "play" with, make sand castles etc, Sold by Tesco, Argos, and a few other stores in the uk.
I've used it in the past as a substrate on its own, with no soil / dirt.
I always wondered about that too but was afraid to ask :lol: .... If I had to take a stab at it I would think it's the sort of sifted sand they use in kids sandboxes.
It is, and it's very fine. Essentially used as a capping substrate it will seal off the sediment below. So very little, if any, oxidized microzone and transference of nutrients or gas exchange.
Exactly and nicely put references regarding gas exchange - I could pull a plant out when using play sand and lots of trapped bubbles would rise up. Not very good.
It's sand for kids to play in and deemed suitable for aquatic life since kids eat it 😂 compared to building/sharp sand or the stuff you'd typically mix to make an aggregate for building work.
It's very important IMO that you plant heavily from the outset. Perhaps you might fill it up with cheap floaters, they thrive in really high ammonia levels so you're safe. Then, once you're sure thigs have stabilized a bit, you move in with somewhat more sensitive species.
At 19L, I'd simply negate the pitfalls by dark starting for a few weeks and pull out 10L of water every couple of days until the biological stability improves. It's probably 5 mins work per day if that. If you've another tank, lob a load of fast growing stems on the surface for another week or two. Then plant.
Exactly and nicely put references regarding gas exchange - I could pull a plant out when using play sand and lots of trapped bubbles would rise up.
I think the important feature of "play sand" is that it contains clays. Clay swells in water, fills all vacant spaces, and keeps the grains glued.
Still, I wouldn't hurry to deem such a substrate bad. In nature, soft sand and clays with organic matter form most sediments, and plants grow there happily. I think it's the combination of soil rich in nutrients and organic stuff PLUS a cap of such a sand which makes up for an unnatural and explosive sediment.
I admit honestly that I don't like using "soils" for substrate in any incarnation.
Playsand is lime free. Any lime free sand will do. Riversand etc. The aim is zero leaching so a deep sand bed is required. 3+ inches. Top soil with some clay beats potting soil.
morning folks,
Back in Jan, I set up a small 'dirted tank'. Its 21 litres. I used dirt from the garden (a molehill actually) mixed with builders sharp sand. the dirt was bagged and formed the base. On top of that I used some left over scaper soil and capped with silica sand and decorative gravel. This was heavily planted and left to its own devices. There is no heater or filter. After testing, 2 weeks ago I added some snails, amanos and red cherry shrimp. All of which are thriving. I have never seen a positive test for ammonia.
I'm not sure my tank qualifies as a true dirted aquarium, but this experience has been very positive, much easier in fact than my first 'conventional' nano aquarium! IMO a test kit is a good idea and do not worry too much about ammonia.
Below is how the tank looks today.