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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Good afternoon everyone
I live in Louisiana and I lost power at my home on Monday morning for just over 24 hours due to the rain,sleet,snow etc. As a result I lost all my fish there was nothing I could do I had to leave and get a hotel room because I have no generator. I knew when I left all my fish and snails would be dead when I returned. When I got home Tuesday afternoon all were dead and the water temp was 42 degrees. The handful of live plants I have seem to be okay at the moment no melting or anything yet. My tank is currently back up and running just without any fish so I plan to save my water when I get ready so it don't have to wait on water to go through it's cycle. I haven't decided on what new fish I want to go with but I'm really leaning towards German Blue Rams and adding snails,otto's and cory's for my clean up crew as I had before. All of my fish were thriving and happy as could be what a bummer to lose them all. I had a pair of beautiful angel fish and a clown pleco that had beautiful markings for almost 4 years. All that being said I would like to start over with a dirted tank to have beautiful thriving plants.I've been doing my research and I came across a thread on here just a few minute's ago about ''dirted tanks for dummies''. It said at the end of the thread for same day results just go ahead and use eco complete or ada aqua soil. Does this mean no dirt and use only eco complete or ada aqua soil or use dirt and cap with eco complete or ada aqua soil? I will be going with eco complete ada is too high on the price for me. Oh and my tank is a 40 gallon breeder,filters are a fluval 70 and a fluval 20 both with foam bio filters,fuval heater,fluval 2.0 led light bar and 2 pretty large air stone with fluval 2.0 air pump. I have good water circulation should I add a circulation fan. I'm pretty new to live plants only a couple months in but all seem to be doing pretty well. Not sure how much water circulation is need for live plants?
Thanks in advance for any help,tips and advice 馃槑.
 

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My preference is potting soil capped with gravel. My daughter prefers potting soil topped with sand.
When I setup out planted 180g I used potting soil mixed with garden loam, red clay, ADA Amazonia, crushed red volcanic rock and Azomite. Then I let a layer of Amazonia, Amazonia powder and black sand fall into the crevices between the gravel.

I am a big dirt bottom with some kind of a cap fan. Plenty of members here have been very sucessful with just gravel, just sand, just Amazonia, just eco complete, etc. I believe that soil based substrates generally require less fertiizer dosing. Others will disagree with this belief.

What is classically called a dirt bottom tank is usually potting soil or mineralized potting soil capped with something like sand, gravel, eco complete or other to keep the dirt from constantly getting stirred up aand muddying up the water every time a fish swims near the bottom. The capping substance is there to keep the dirt in place at the bottom of the tank so a heavier substance is usually preferred for the capping substance.
 

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Every substrate type has its advantages and disadvantages. Dirted tanks are cheap, provide a great substrate for plant roots, and a good amount of nutrients for the plants for a while. However, most people use an organic potting mix as their soil layer and it adds ton of organics into the water column as it breaks down, which can cause serious algae issues and it is messy every time you disrupt the cap to add or remove a plants. There's also the issue of what to do with it long term - the Walstad method folks rely on mulm and infrequent water changes, other people add root tabs or move to liquid fertilizer, and other people don't worry about this because they know they are going to get bored and completely redo the tank in a year or two anyway.

I've got two dirted tanks, but my next tank is going to be aquasoil for sure. I went with dirt before because I already had the materials and at the time I was trying to do a more Walstad type tank, but my plans have shifted as I've gotten more experience.

One thing I would stress for a low tech, dirted tank is to not be fancy with your plant selection. Find plants that are the easiest to grow and try as many different species as you can because some will work better for you than others. I've found that the makeup of the tank will change with time too - some plants start growing fast and are very important to your tank in the early days, but others take time to get established and really shine long term. Also because you want to keep rams you might look into what plants do the best at those higher temperatures. I can't help you there, but it's something to consider.
 

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Discussion Starter · #4 ·
So with what y鈥檃ll suggested it doesn鈥檛 sound like dirted will be the way to go due to it seems like it loses it鈥檚 mineral and growing content pretty quickly. Can I use just eco complete as the substrate? I know I鈥檒l have to use roots tabs or liquid ferts in the long run anyway but I don鈥檛 see the point in taking the time and effort to dirt the bottom if it looses it benefits anyway. I鈥檓 already use liquid ferts I couldn鈥檛 get roots tabs to stay in the substrate without mashing them all to hell. I currently only have a few plants. Java fern which is growing like crazy and producing babies,water fern and some sort of lily I think I forgot the name.
 

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So with what y鈥檃ll suggested it doesn鈥檛 sound like dirted will be the way to go due to it seems like it loses it鈥檚 mineral and growing content pretty quickly. Can I use just eco complete as the substrate? I know I鈥檒l have to use roots tabs or liquid ferts in the long run anyway but I don鈥檛 see the point in taking the time and effort to dirt the bottom if it looses it benefits anyway. I鈥檓 already use liquid ferts I couldn鈥檛 get roots tabs to stay in the substrate without mashing them all to hell. I currently only have a few plants. Java fern which is growing like crazy and producing babies,water fern and some sort of lily I think I forgot the name.
I have Eco-complete currently in my main tank. It is basically sharp black volcanic gravel with no nutritive value whatsoever at any point in its life. You definitely need tabs in the substrate and/or water column ferts (depending which plants you chose), because there is nothing in there to feed your plants besides maybe a little trace iron. Flourish tabs stay down easily, the capsule style like Nilcog or Aquarium coop you have to poke a pin hole then squeeze flat if you want them to stay down.

But yes, its easy in the sense it does not release ammonia or change PH or composition over time like the soils may.

I also want to try a dirted funny enough, but going to start small with the 5G to see how big a hassle it really is and make my mistakes on a smaller scale.

In terms of saving your water so you dont have to cycle, dont bother. Your bacteria that Are the cycle are all over your decorations, gravel, glass, plants, filtration material.. not so much free floating in the water. Youd be better off to just keep some of the same decor and filter pads to seed new surfaces.You wont be able to avoid cycling entirely :(
 

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Discussion Starter · #6 ·
Thank you for your help. I plan to keep all my dragon stone and add some more too,plants,decorations,wood,sand and all my sponge filters and bio media. Thanks for the tip about the water. I went on YouTube and checked out Father fish I seen a lot of people refer to him. He has some very educational videos on dirted substrate. He鈥檚 very knowledgeable but he doesn鈥檛 give actual measurements on any of the ingredients he adds to the substrate. He just pours everything in and says 鈥渁bout that much鈥. He knows how much to add from experience us common people don鈥檛.
 

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I presently have a dirted 29g with eco cap that has been running for about 3-4 years. Yes, I use root tabs and liquid fertilizer. One thing I found about the eco is that there are issues with stem plants wanting to stay planted. Sometimes it just takes patience. Another alternative is to us Saf-T-Sorb, I bought mine at Tractor Supply. It is much cheaper than eco, I like the look better, and I have less issues with planting.
 

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So with what y鈥檃ll suggested it doesn鈥檛 sound like dirted will be the way to go due to it seems like it loses it鈥檚 mineral and growing content pretty quickly.
I disagree! Our dirt bottom (Miracle grow organic topped with gravel) 35g grew very healthy for 5 years, no ferts, no CO2. The only reason we took it down was to replace it with a 180g dirt bottom tank. Most of the reports of dirt bottom tanks exhausting themselves that I have seen are usually from people that have never had a dirt bottom tank for any period of time. We transplanted big lush beautiful plants from our 5 year old 35g to our new 180g. If there was any issue with our 5 year old 35g tank it is what it was VERY overgrown!

I will not argue that dirt bottom tanks take more care when moving plants and usually require a bit of clean up of pulled up soil after rearranging plants. For the most part out plants stay put. When we do move a plant we just suck off the pulled up soil with a gravel vac and then all is pretty again. If you move plants around on a daily or weekly basis I can see how this would get old. For an occasional transplant it is really no big deal IMHO.
 

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Discussion Starter · #9 ·
Did you add any other ingredients such as bone meal,ironite,epsom salt etc to your dirt? I鈥檝e been watching video after video saying you need at add all this extra stuff to make you plants grow. It鈥檚 like a shopping cart full of stuff from the garden center...
 

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FWIW I would never chose an inert substrate over an active one. It's totally possible to have a beautiful tank with an inert substrate, but I don't personally want one.

In one of my tanks I added a small amount of clay-rich soil from my yard and my notes say I added a tiny amount of agricultural lime for some reason. I honestly forgot about the lime and don't remember what my reasoning was - I assume I was thinking it would add Ca, Mg, and carbonates over time? It's possible that my plants are uptaking more of those minerals, but it doesn't seem to be affecting the pH, GH, or KH of my water column. Maybe I didn't add enough. I have seen some recommendations on different soil additives and overall I don't think they are necessary. Some might be beneficial, but I'm unconvinced about a lot of them. Like, espom salt is going to dissolve the second it gets wet! All those nutrients are going in the water column immediately. I've seen rock phosphate recommended and have the opposite concern - is the P going to become plant available at a high enough rate to be useful? But I know that the container mix works as-is.

If I were starting another dirt tank, I would definitely consider using more mineral-based soil and less organic material. Most natural soils (i.e. what you find outside) are less than 5% organic material and might be less volatile in the short and long term. There is less information about going this route and mineral soils vary a lot from place to place though, so I'd need to do a lot more research myself. Using Miracle Gro has been road tested by so many people though, so even if it's not ideal, it's super helpful to know what to expect.

@Oughtsix, what's your tap water like? I initially tried to go this route, but my water is too soft to forgo fertilization.
 

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In our 5 year old 35g dirt tank we used 2 ingredients for the substrate. A few inches of Miracle Grow Organic potting soil and a couple inches of gravel on top of the MGOPS to keep it in place. That is it! ...and it worked VERY well for us!

In our 180g tank we went all kinds of crazy with the soil mix:
How I did bottom returns in my dirt bottom planted 180g...

From our experience with the 35g I know this level of soil complexity is not needed... but it was kind of fun playing mad scientist!

The one ingredient that I believe is needed in MUCH higher doses in a dirt bottom tank than an inert media bottom tank is PATIENTS! Our 180g cycled for 5 weeks with nothing but plants in it before we added fish and that was using dirt from the 35g as a starter for the bacterial colonies in the dirt.

The Nitrifying bacteria always get all the press when discussing tank cycling. The fact is that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of different bacterial species growing in the dirt of a dirt bottom tank. "I believe" that the bacterial biodiversity in a dirt bottom tank is orders of magnitude greater than in an inert media bottom tank. These dirt bottom bacterial colonies take a long time to settle, propagate and balance out. My recollection of our 35g is that it took a good 6 months to settle down and reach an equilibrium... much longer than it took for just the Nitrifying bacteria to colonize and digest the ammonia down to nitrates. We put fish in the 35g at about 1 month (Guppies) but the tank was noticeably evolving for at least 6 months. I recall around the 1 month mark there being a big algae battle in the 35g.

One big change we made when setting up our 180g was that we did not sterilize ANYTHING! Dirt, rocks, branches went directly from our yard into the tank, no boiling or other sterilization. One lesson we learned with the 35g was to embrace the bacterial biodiversity instead of fear it. We added bits of soil samples from all over; the local river, a few different mountain lakes, the forest, a local pond, our back yard, my sister's back yards, my mom's back yard, etc. I am sure we also introduced fungi and a plethora of other microbes which I feel to be a good thing rather than something to be avoided like we tried to do with out 35g. So far we are VERY pleased with the results and the 180g seems to be coming to a balance MUCH faster than when we setup the 35g.

In the 180g I knew there was going to be an algae battle and there was. First the Diatoms came and deposited a layer of brown on everything. Then the green powder algae formed, then the green hair algae started taking over. Knowing this battle was coming we purposely held off adding fish to the 180g. A quick One, Two punch knocked the algae out very fast. Metracide: My experience with overdosing Metricide 28 (Fluorish...
Ramshorn snails: Snails for algae control, yeah or nay?
We have about 40 fish, mostly small tetras and guppies, but a couple of Angels and Pearl Gouramis too. Our biggest issue is the ramshorn snails we added are doing such a good job of keeping the tank spotless we are apprehensive about adding bottom dwellers because of the lack of algae and other food.

FWIW I would never chose an inert substrate over an active one. It's totally possible to have a beautiful tank with an inert substrate, but I don't personally want one.
I whole hearted agree on BOTH accounts!

In one of my tanks I added a small amount of clay-rich soil from my yard and my notes say I added a tiny amount of agricultural lime for some reason. I honestly forgot about the lime and don't remember what my reasoning was - I assume I was thinking it would add Ca, Mg, and carbonates over time? It's possible that my plants are uptaking more of those minerals, but it doesn't seem to be affecting the pH, GH, or KH of my water column. Maybe I didn't add enough. I have seen some recommendations on different soil additives and overall I don't think they are necessary. Some might be beneficial, but I'm unconvinced about a lot of them. Like, espom salt is going to dissolve the second it gets wet! All those nutrients are going in the water column immediately. I've seen rock phosphate recommended and have the opposite concern - is the P going to become plant available at a high enough rate to be useful? But I know that the container mix works as-is.

If I were starting another dirt tank, I would definitely consider using more mineral-based soil and less organic material. Most natural soils (i.e. what you find outside) are less than 5% organic material and might be less volatile in the short and long term. There is less information about going this route and mineral soils vary a lot from place to place though, so I'd need to do a lot more research myself. Using Miracle Gro has been road tested by so many people though, so even if it's not ideal, it's super helpful to know what to expect.

@Oughtsix, what's your tap water like? I initially tried to go this route, but my water is too soft to forgo fertilization.
The lime was from the ingredients of the mineralized soil thread. ;) I also added a sprinkling of lime to the bottom of our 180g... but I know I did not do so in out 35g.

We have good tasting well water. I have never tested it for hardness or worried about it. There was nothing noteworthy about the well report when we moved here 18 years ago. I recall reading a great thread somewhere many years ago about letting the tank, fish and plants adapt to your local water rather than constantly trying to change the water parameters to suit the fish and plants in the spirit that stable parameters are much healthier than water parameters that are constantly changing due to trying to tweak them to specific levels. I took this to heart and do straight from the well water changes on all 4 of our tanks. I am sorry I can't be more helpful in analyzing what well water characteristics are conducive to plant growth.

A very interesting phenomena I have observed in our 180g is that our plants start pearling like crazy after a big water change. I tested our well water with an API test kit and found no readable traces of Nitrates, Nitrites or Ammonia which I thought might promote the pearling. The Ph is around 7.4. We get calcium buildup on our water fixtures but not nearly as bad as other well water I know about (We soak our shower heads and faucet aerators in CLR every few years). Our 180g is configured to automatically dump and refill about 30g of water every morning at the same time the lights come on. How I did bottom returns in my dirt bottom planted 180g... We immediately see the plants start pearling after the water change. I did a search on this and found other reports of this same phenomena and some purposed explanations but no concrete explanations.

We chose VERY easy plants: Amazon sword, Guppy Grass, Red Ludwiga, moneywort, hornwort, S Repens, dwarf anubis and dwarf hairgrass. We do not have any demanding or difficult plants.

If we find it necessary as the tank matures to start dosing Macro, Micro and/or CO2 we are ready and have all the equipment to do so! We are going to hold off on doing until it is needed though. We found in our 35g that dosing of any kind was never needed (I dosed Seachem Excel, Flourish and Iron the first few months of the 35g tank but stopped when the bottles emptied). That certainly does not guarantee that dosing will never be needed in our 180g! I would certainly NEVER try to tell anyone that dirt bottoms replace the need for dosing AND APPOLOGIZE if I suggested this above!

The substrate in our 180g contains (in approx. this order of layers):
Sprinkling of lime
Sprinkling of potash
Sparagum peat moss
Aragonite sand
Finley crushed red lava rock (from driveway)
A fine layer of recycled dirt from the 35g to introduce soil bacteria cultures
A good layer of horticultural charcoal for buffering
Miracle grow organic potting soil
Loamy volcanic soil (from back yard)
Red clay
Azomite for trace elements
5mm river gravel
Amazonia sprinkled heavily on top of the gravel and allowed to settle into the gravel
Amazonia powder sprinkled heavily on top of the Amazonia and allowed to settle into the gravel
Black sand heavily sprinkled on top of the Amazonia powder and allowed to intersperse with the lower layers for a pleasing random color pattern.

The substrate in our 5 year old 35g planted tank:

2" - 3" of Miracle grow Organic potting soil
1" - 2" of medium gravel
 
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