The Soil Substrate or Dirted Planted Tank - A How to Guide

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Hey Troi,
Fantastic post thanks for sharing :) and congrats on the PFK publish!!

Just have a little/big question for you :p
Here's the situation - I stripped my Trigon 190 as I moved the discus over into a new bare tank, so I've cleaned it out etc etc and want to make it a planted community :)
The concern - I have kept the filter running in my nano tank (almost blew all the hairgrass out with the spraybar too :bored: ) so will be able to put that straight back in once it's running, however, there may also be a pair of rams going in there that i'd have to get sooner - I've been told they'll be ok to stay in the nano for a while - but how long would putting soil in render the trigon unlivable for with a mature filter and rams? Or more to the point, how long would the rams be ok in the nano for if the soil will take a while to settle?

In any case I hope to try this in some tank at some point! :D

Cheers!
 

Tim Harrison

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Hi, thanks. It usually takes around a week or so for soil nitrification and denitrification to complete. So with the cycled filter I should think that 2 weeks will be plenty before adding fish. However, it's one of the only times I'd recommend using ammonia, nitrite and nitrate test kits just to make sure.
 

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Hey thanks for the response - more silly questions for you, some sillier than others maybe!

I'm wondering, in the photo where you're placing the soil, whats in those net bag things? Is it just to keep the mound at the back stable?

Also - do you think soil and unipack sand with some pebbles would be ok for bristlenose plecs?

Finally, where on earth can I get this aquatic soil or peat moss!

I'm sure there are some more silly questions in there...thats all for now ;]

Cheers!
 

Tim Harrison

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The filter media bags are full of inert silica gravel, I used them to raise the level of the substrate so the soil layer on top can be kept to around 4cm thick. If the soil layer is too deep it can lack oxygen and sometimes lead to poor water quality.
I've never kept Bristlenose plecs, but I understand that they can be messy, so I should image you'd be better off with gravel which might be a little easier to maintain. Perhaps that would be a question better asked in the fish bit of the forum.
With regards aquatic compost you can pick it up at almost any garden centre; I use Westland.
It's all in the Tutorial and a wealth of additional info can also be found in the following journals: Tom's Bucket O' Mud - new vid page 28 | UK Aquatic Plant Society and Alistair's A 'little' box of chocolates, licorice n all sorts short video | UK Aquatic Plant Society
 

leemonk

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Hi Troi,

From the list of plants on the opening thread would you suggest that any are particularly loving of soft water? or does it really make little difference.

Regards
 

Tim Harrison

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Hi Lee I guess all plants have ideal conditions that they prefer, some more fussier than others...what makes these plants "easy" is that they ain't too fussy...
 

brycie1978

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I'm looking at doing a Soil re scape on my tank with the DSM, but seem to be seeing a lot online trying this with hairgrass & other carpeting plants. The plants do okay until the tank is filled & then the whole carpet just dies.

I also read it somewhere that you shouldn't use Co2 in a newly soiled tank, is this true.

As I'm looking to go lower tech with the soil method & do away with the co2. Is it just something the other guy's are doing wrong with there's or should Co2 be added when the tank is flooded & gradually done away with?.
 

Tim Harrison

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Try this courtesy of Tom Barr... Hybrid methods, fusing dry start+ excel with non CO2 - Aquarium Plants. Choosing the right plants - those that do well in low-energy soil substrate tanks from the beginning - will greatly enhance your chance of success, especially carpet plants. Try Lilaeopsis spp, Cryptocoryne willisii, or Sagittaria subulata (dwarf sag), for starters.

As for not using CO2 in a newly set up soil substrate tank...why ever not? I have and it worked fine. I'd be interested to know the rationale behind this statement though.
 

brycie1978

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Cheer's Troi

I've still got all the Co2 stuff there so I'll probably just get another bottle & run it for the 1st few week's after it's been flooded & just turn it down a little every day & keep my fingers crossed lol.

I'm sure there was something on another soil thread on here saying that some "sphagnum moss peat" in the filter system would give sufficient Co2, do you think that would be suitable. The only carpet plant would probably be Sagittaria subulata & possibly some moss.
 

Tim Harrison

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No worries, glad to be of help. Filtering water through moss peat is highly unlikely to provide enough carbon on its own, it's just one source of many that may give an edge when trying to grow healthy plants the low-energy way. It's all in the tutorial.
 

brycie1978

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Just realised it was your tutorial I seen it in about the "sphagnum moss peat" lol.

Thank's again for your help.
 

allan angus

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great tutorial very informitive . i have got some real grip on the subject from this and the informed comments made by the responders thanks for shareing.
 

Tim Harrison

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Reading recent threads about mineralized top soil (MTS) I was thinking of updating the tutorial with a simple introduction, just as a reference; let me know what you think...

Mineralised Top Soil
An alternative to allowing soil to mineralise in situ is the use of MTS (mineralised top soil) or mineralised potting compost. MTS is thought to bind more bioavailable nutrients, and give your plants a better start whilst preventing the excessive release of organic nutrients. Excessive organic nutrient release combined with too much light, can lead to algal outbreaks. Further, MTS is often considered less prone to disturbance during scaping and subsequent maintenance. The internet provides a wealth of information on how to mineralise soil, but the methodology after Aaron Talbot is perhaps the most widely used. It simply involves a process of repeated soaking, rinsing and drying, typically four cycles long. Eventually, the soil is sifted to remove large particles and achieve a fine grained well sorted substrate.

Finally, powdered clay can be added. Its flocculating properties help bind the soil particles and its high CEC and iron content benefit plant growth. Powdered or pelleted Dolomite can also be added as a source of the nutrients magnesium and calcium, and if necessary to buffer pH, and similarly potash can be added as a source of potassium. However, mineralising soil is a lot of messy work, and on balance I prefer to do it in situ, mainly because it's far less labour intensive but also because of the synergistic benefits already discussed further above. Not least of these is the evolution of CO2 as the organic matter in the soil decomposes, and as also previously mentioned, it’s a convenient way to cycle a tank.
 
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Tim Harrison

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Something else that seems to come up frequently is low energy lawns. So I thought it might be an idea to write an introduction and add it as an addendum to the Tutorial.

Low-energy lawns and DSM
One of the biggest bugbears of the low-energy way is the length of time it can take to establish a lawn of foreground plants. However, it is possible to give your plants a head start by using the DSM (dry start method). The internet is a valuable source of information on the DSM with a variety of methodologies achieving a similar goal. But for most it simply involves growing plants in a wet substrate for 2-6 weeks before the aquarium is flooded. This allows plants to use the aerial advantage to become firmly established. In addition, whilst plant roots are growing in they oxygenate the rhizosphere which accelerates the bacterial driven processes of cycling and mineralisation.

The DSM has the added advantage of being algae free (no water), and of being less labour intensive. For instance, there are no water changes and nutrient dosing isn’t necessary, although fertiliser can be added to the substrate to help establish a lawn quicker. Foliar feeding with a dilute nutrient solution can also help, but if the solution is too concentrated it may burn plant leaves. But when all said and done, the key to a successful dry start is very high humidity, so all that’s really required is regular misting and a tank cover; clingfilm usually suffices. This ensures the plants leaves don’t dry out and provides ideal conditions for growth.

The methodology is usually as follows...

1. Add water to a level just below the surface of the substrate; do not waterlog the top of the substrate.
2. Keep the tank sealed, but let fresh air in for 5 minutes every day to replace the old stagnant air, this may help prevent mould.
3. Respray and mist the plants, and reseal.
4. Repeat daily for between 2 - 6 weeks during which time your lawn should become established, and then flood.

Nevertheless, the DSM is not without its downside. Looking at a tank devoid of water for several weeks can stretch delayed gratification to its limits. The humid conditions also favour mould growth, which can becoming a problem. Also, many plants don’t necessarily make the transition from emergent to immersed growth very well, particularly in a low-energy system. Therefore, it may help to achieve better results by choosing easy care, low maintenance plants such as Lilaeopsis brasiliensis, L. novae-zelandiae and Cryptocoryne willisii. Other plants such as Marsilea hirsuta, M. crenata, Staurogyne repens, and Micranthemum 'Monte Carlo', may not be as low maintenance but might still be worth a go. Plants nursery raised in their emergent growth form will be better suited to the DSM.

Low-energy lawns, bioavailable carbon or CO2 and DSM
Another way to establish a lawn in a shorter period of time is to simply go high-energy for a while and use bioavailable carbon or CO2 in conjunction with an appropriate high-energy nutrient dosing and water changing regime. Once the lawn has been satisfactorily established both carbon and fertiliser can gradually be tapered to zero over a period of 2 – 4 weeks. This gives the plants time to adapt to low energy life; after which the rest of the aquarium can be planted. The method is even more effective if it's combined with the DSM, a la the Barr Report - Hybrid methods, fusing dry start + Excel with non CO2, which uses carbon for the first 2 – 3 weeks after flooding https://barrreport.com/threads/hybrid-methods-fusing-dry-start-excel-with-non-co2.4231/.
 

faizal

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Hey Troi,..Is there anyway one can get away by using the regular miracle grow potting mix (i.e. the non organic variety)....i mean suppose i put the garden tidy over the soil , peat and grit mix and then cap about 1.5 -2 cm of inert gravel over this....would the perlite in the miracle grow potting mix still cause issues for my fishes and shrimps? I cant get the organic choice variety in my place
 

Tim Harrison

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Hey faizal hope all is good with you and yours. I've never used it myself but I'd soak it first and give it an occasional stir and remove anything that floats with a sieve. Other than that sounds like a good plan.
 

faizal

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Thank you so much Troi:) We are fine. Its just that i went through a phase where i wasnt doing much with my tank....:) but now i 've got bitten by the bug again:).Looking forward to set up another little tank
 

Ghosty

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Hello there troi (funnily enough my names troy)
im new to planted aquariums and the forum,

IV kept aquariums for a year or so, started with fish slowly added plants now want to go dirt

I was looking in local fish store and garden ceneter, I was wondering if using Jbl Aqua basics under neath west lands aquatic compost would be beneficial,Aqua basics is a mix of peat and clay, and I'm also abit confused as to water change frequency, It will be a new tank I'm setting up no fish but will add a small scrolling species and assassin snails (5) so how often would water changes be, I'm happy to do one maybe two a week but would rather one a month if possible

Cheers for any help
 
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Tim Harrison

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Hi, my advice would be to keep it stupidly simple...and cheap, al la my tutorial.
Just use a propriety aquatic compost capped with whatever you like aesthetically.
As for water changes, check out the relevant section in the tutorial, it'll be good place to start.
But 50% once a week is recommended to start with.
However, once plant biomass dominates and the tank becomes biologically stable - and you gain experience - you will be able to gauge what is best for the individual conditions in your tank, which could be as little as 50% every 3-6 months.
 
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