Big update, no pictures though.
As long as I've had this tank running I have not been able to figure out WHY I've had such horrible issues with ammonia...until a few days ago. It finally clicked. "Holy shxt...I never washed the substrate!" Yeah. It was recycled from my defunct ten gallon, sat in ziploc baggies in my Saturn's (RIP) trunk for two months and I plunked it in, unwashed, expecting everything to be peachy. Normally I would have known better, but I suppose I was overly excited (and hasty) at the prospect of finally keeping ornamental shrimp that that key factor went out the window.
Anyway, I just finished a total tank breakdown and it's back together now. Complete with the old, and now huge, moss tree. It's got new inert white grave and some haggard decorative stones (will be replaced). I put in my old trooper of a betta, some SafeStart and have my fingers crossed for this thing to finally get going.
Also...any tips on preventing a determined kitty from drinking out of the tank? He loves water so the spray bottle does nothing. I use Worlds Best cat litter and worry that the residue from his paws will get in and break down causing excess nitrates. Plus I know it's not really good for him to drink tank water with ferts and all...