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Frustrated and seeking advice/support for Walstad tank.

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Hello all, I am new here, but I have been lurking this forum since I began the idea of starting my first tank which I decided would be a Walstad tank. I'll start off with the specs of the tank, and then I'll get to my complaints, questions, and finally the drastic measures I am on the verge of doing, which is why I'm here seeking advice hoping that maybe I am over reacting.

My tank is a 75 gal aqueon with a 20g high sump filled with a medium sponge, fine sponge, and an floss, that goes into a chamber with ceramic media, I have a pump that can exchange the total water 4-5 times an hr, but I also have a ball valve I use to keep current flow down when the water doesnt need to be filtered as much (like after a water change). The soil composition is followed by Father Fish's soil recipe about 1", topped with fine sand (caribsea), crushed coral (caribsea), and lastly more black sand that is not as fine as the other sand, I put a layer of black sand on top because my sunfish would not stay colorful with a bright colored topping. This brings the top layer to about 2" or so. Father Fish never gives a consistent soil recipe, so I followed as closely as I could to one of his recipe videos, which roughly breaks down to this-

1 part - peat moss
1 part - miracle grow organic potting soil
1 part - black kow, manure compost.

I also added in to the mixture recommended by FF-

Ironite
Osmocote
All purpose fertilizer
Bone Meal
Blood Meal
Oyster Flour
Green Sand
Garden Lime

And maybe a couple other things I can't remember.

My plants consist of these - Water Sprite, Anubias, Java Fern, Temple, Crypto's, Dwarf Hair and others I forget the name of. I have tried to keep this tank heavily planted as recommended.

*Just finished cycling the tank, fish in cycle, never lost a fish but did use Prime to get through the cycle.

Now on to my problems I've been having over the past month, and I know that some of these are normal in a Walstad tank, but I feel as if mine do not seem to be getting better and only getting worse. First, the dirt layer smells like absolute SH!T. Yes that's right, I'm not exaggerating at all, it smells like sceptic water from my sceptic tank. Anything that touches that layer smells like sewer, even my fingers when I am planting my plants and some of the plants that I've pulled up the roots smell the same way, also the bottom of my rocks turned black and smell like sewer. Next is the gas bubbles, its been a month and I do expect there to be gas bubbles, BUT at least 100 bubbles or more a DAY?? Sometimes I hit my fist on my tank stand and I will probably get 100 bubbles come up and it absolutely stinks up my whole house (my wife has been very patient with me, I have terrible guilt for stinking up the house). Next is my plants, I have had ZERO success with any plants surviving, I have some that are dying slower than others, but for the most part I have lost or am losing every plant I put in there. Yes, some of the plants I planted were not suited to be planted and I realized that and removed them, but I did my research and have put plants in there that should be suited to be planted, and have had them basically turn to mush and lose every leaf. I read that plants dying back when newly planted is normal, but dying so much that everything above the top layer turns to mush just doesn't seem like "dying back". Some of the plants just fall apart and I am left searching for the roots in the sand.

Now on to what I assume I have done wrong and my plans to fix it... unless someone can talk me out of it!

First, I assume that I added too much cow manure, and in the future I will never add it again. Second, I wanted to use sand out of a local pond, but It was all clay in the ponds. So that put me in a bind, and me not knowing white sand was something I should avoid, I bought fine sand and (unknowingly) crushed coral thinking the mixture would be good enough. I assume that this fine sand and crushed coral could be causing gas exchange and PH problems between the soil and water column? And lastly, I assume that my current plants may be beyond saving IF I decide to remove all soil and sand and start over with the substrate.

Now, IF I go the route of removing all substrate and starting over, I am looking for advice and the easiest route to obtain a lushly planted aquarium, preferably without having to add chemicals to feed the plants. I have thought about just adding straight Organic Miracle Grow Potting Soil and nothing else, and capping it with the same black sand I am using now. But am also open to the idea of anything else that will last years and help to cut down on maintenance.

Also, please explain to me if I should be planting the plants IN the dirt, or in the sand cap allowing the roots to grow down in to the dirt. Also, which plants do you guys suggest growing in this type of substrate (I am going for a natural North American style tank look with native Sunfish).

On a positive note, besides these problems the tank has done fine, and my fish are happy and VERY hungry. The sunfish beg like dogs in the feeding corner for what seems like all day, and soon after eating the are back for more, which makes it hard for me to wait at times seeing as how we are already forming a bond. I will post some pictures so you guys can see my tank and some of the fish. I currently have 1 of each, Western Dollar sunfish, Eastern Dollar, Warmouth, Bluegill. And will soon be getting 4 florida flagfish, and 1 blue spotted florida sunfish

Thank you for reading, sorry for the long post but I am desperate for help and finding answers about my problems seems to be a rare thing. I really do think I have done a few things wrong and just need to hear if I need to start over with the substrate or just wait it out.

These pics are a couple weeks old, and the majority or these plants are either mostly dead and I've removed the leaves, or are gone completely. The ones that are dying slower than the others are starting to turn an off color, some less than others.

Plant Pet supply Rectangle Organism Water

Water Plant Fish supply Fin Underwater

Water Vertebrate Plant Underwater Organism

Plant Terrestrial plant Aquatic plant Grass Grass family
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Omg I missed my blue gill!! Welcome to the downside of walstad/ ntp and layered substrates.

You're gonna hate this but I'm honestly gonna say take your substrate and junk it. If you're gas bubbled up and smelling like a septic tank pulling black roots out you've got something really bad going on in there.

I played around with a lot of layered substrates and the best I've found is sifted organic garden soil, a sprinkling of worm castings, a thin (1/4 inch) layer of laterite mixed with gravel or crushed lava rock capped with fine gravel/ coarse sand. This is solely from my own experience.
 

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Discussion Starter · #3 ·
Thank you for replying @Plinkploop

I'm not gonna hate trashing my substrate at all, in fact I welcome it at this point. I was planning on keeping it simple with my second try and just using sifted miracle grow organic potting soil and thats it. Do you have any problems with lots of stinky gas bubbles doing what you suggested? And how thick of a sand cap do you suggest using? I was thinking of doing a cap equal to the depth of the soil.
 

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Thank you for replying @Plinkploop

I'm not gonna hate trashing my substrate at all, in fact I welcome it at this point. I was planning on keeping it simple with my second try and just using sifted miracle grow organic potting soil and thats it. Do you have any problems with lots of stinky gas bubbles doing what you suggested? And how thick of a sand cap do you suggest using? I was thinking of doing a cap equal to the depth of the soil.
I, personally, use about an inch and a half sifted garden soil (my personal "compost" mixture, but I don't suggest using compost to people because of high possibility of bad results) capped with an inch and a half to 2 inches of sand. My suggestions for others, however, is a half inch to an inch of sifted soil with an inch to an inch and a half cap.

I have come acrossed some gas and anaerobic issues using thick layered substrates and have had to trash and restart many times... But when it comes together you have a virtually no maintenance tank and it is so rewarding lol.... And addictive!!! Good luck, glad to help if I can!!

*Edit- measurements for soil are given for dampened soil not dry
 

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I don't know who father fish is but I would stop listening to him pretty much immediately, that soil recipe is a nightmare. Blood meal and cow manure are both very high in organic content. Bacterial activity will be so high that your soil will go anaerobic very easily. This is why the roots are turning black, bacteria used up all the oxygen in the substrate and the roots suffocated.

Mineralized topsoil is popular because it gets rid of most of the nitrogen content before the soil goes in your tank. For long-term ease of use, I'd say a THIN layer of mineralized topsoil with a coarse sand or fine gravel cap is a great way to go. Aquasoil is even easier.

I use Osmocote+ as a substrate additive. If you're going low-tech you might only need to do it once a year or so.
 

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Hey man. Sorry to hear about that disaster. I’ve run both high tech and low tech setups in the past, and personally.. i love the walstad setup more than doing PAR calculations and dosing regimens. Just my 2c lol. So.. on to your problems.

First off.. father fish has mislead you greatly. Instead of just telling you what to do, I’ll tell you why (in an nutshell), so it’ll make the process easier hopefully.
In the soil for substrate category, organic matter and widespread anaerobic conditions are your enemies. Anaerobic decomposition will occur and release things like methane and hydrogen sulfide which is responsible for the gas bubbles and foul smell. Additionally, plants cannot uptake nutrients from organic matter. That matter first needs to be broken down into an inorganic form. This will happen.. eventually, and has begun to happen,, which is why again.. there are gas bubbles and foul smells. The extent of the h sulfide formation and maybe methane etc, could be killing ur roots. So.. as is, the substrate is far too rich in organic content , with a hefty cap on it which promotes anaerobic conditions and is leading to this problem.

Solution

1. potting soil or regular garden soil (that has been sifted). Look for a potting soil (if you prefer that) that has no chemical ferts. Miracle grow organic choice potting soil is a popular.. and one of the best choices. The bag lists the ingredients and gives you the nutrient breakdown. The way i like to use this is to mix it with very small lava rock (like small gravel size) and put my first layer about 1” thick. The lava rock is porous amd helps (at least i Hope so) restrict the anaerobic pockets, which by the way are necessary for organic breakdown and nutrient release. You just don’t want the entire bottom to be anaerobic. Small pockets are good. I cover it with 1-1.5” (usually 1” does the trick) of seachem black flourite sand. This should give you a nicely balanced substrate. The flourite sand is clayey too, so things like nutrients stick to it.

Option number 2 is MINERALIZED soil. The process of mineralization is basically breaking down the organic Matter into inorganic components before using it in the aquarium. This lets you thicken the soil layer and overall it mostly eliminates any gasses and odors. Also, the nutrients are available for the plants right away. You can look up how to do it and why, if you want more detail. Basically did up a bunch of regular dirt and spread it out on a tarp, or a couple of flat garbage bags. Wet it with the hose every morning. Throughout the day, the air and moisture will allot aerobic decomposition to take place and break down all the organic matter. Wet it again in the evening if it is dried out. The object is to keep it moist all the time. Moisture plus air and warmth grows the necessary bacteria. Do this for about 1-2weeks..then sift it after it has dried and you will find that the lumpy dirt has turned into a very fine, powder like, ash. This is what you want. You can put that in the aquarium 1-2” thick amd it will work amazing. It’ll keep the plants fed for a 2-3 years,, due to the low light setup and slow growing plants.. ofc it depends on how many plants you have but based on the pics, it’ll keep em fed for a looong time. No added ferts to the soil or water are necessary, and doing so will cause more harm than good. The fishwaste and fish food will provide any other nutrients for the water column feeders. You will likely need more plants.. the goal should be about 4-5 times what you have now. However in time they will grow and get bigger. Here are a few easy plants that can help you out..

Frogbit - turn the lights up just a bit, as these mini floaters will block some out. They float on the top and are exclusively water column feeders. A very good thing in a tank with fish. Super easy to care for.

Amazon Sword/Swords. - Amazing low light plant. Huge bang for your buck. They are huge root feeders and grow very impressively, with large broad leaves they will fill out some areas of your tank very well.

Hornwort - can be planted or left to float around. Low light. Extremely Fast growing. Super easy to care for.

Vallisenaria (pretty sure i spelled it wrong) - rooted. Root feeders. Low -medium light. Fast growing. Gets nice and tall and looks great at the back of the aquarium. The leaves tend to grow to the surface and sort of float over.

tiger lotus (green/red) - low light. Rooted but only put the bulb about 2/3 of the way into the substrate, leaving the top of the bulb exposed or it will rot.

mosses on rocks or branches- water column feeders. Slow growing. Helps take up nutrients

With that knowledge.. here’s ur substrate problems
Depth- anaerobic
Shells-carbonate/pH
Manure- organic (MASSIVELY SO)

Ironite
Osmocote
All purpose fertilizer
Bone Meal
Blood Meal
Oyster Flour
Green Sand
Garden Lime —>> i haven’t even heard of some of these things. “A” for effort though. It sounds like there’s a lot of soil amending here and providing excess nutrients, and imbalances. There might be too much for the plants and you might be “burning” the roots. If any of it gets out it’ll most certainly throw the water chemistry off.

I think you’ve got your plants mostly figured out. I forget what all you have but plants like Java fern and anubias need to be tied to a rock or branch (not buried in the substrate). Cryptocorynes are root feeders and should be planted in the substrate. They 90% of the time will “melt” and the leaves will dissolve. That’s just what they do in response to environmental stressors like being uprooted and replanted etc. When planted in an appropriate substrate, they will grow new leaves within a couple of weeks.

i hope this has helped somewhat.. it can be frustrating trying to start something like this and having either too little or too much info. Don’t get discouraged.. but you will have to scrap your current substrate. You can put the plants to float around in the aquarium in the mean time. It’s safer for them there than in the current substrate.

reach out to me with a pm if you have any other questions that you are having a difficult time with or for info that you can find. I’ll help as best as i can.
 

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Discussion Starter · #7 ·
Thank you for the response @gjcarew @nfranclau6

I have began the preparations to remove my current substrate. I plan to move my fish to a temporary tank with a seeded sponge filter. Then I will remove everything and bleach the bottom of the tank, will this be ok? I want to bleach it because I know it will smell of sewage. I'll be doing the first method you suggested @nfranclau6 and sifting the soil before adding it to the tank. Not adding anything to it. Then I'll be capping it with the black sand from petco that I've been using which i consider to be a medium sized sand, definetly not as fine as the white sand I bought.

I have bought a bag of miracle gro organic mix and put it on a tarp outside to dry out a little, well lo and behold it rained so bad that it rained under my porch and got the soil wet again, no big deal cause its gonna get wet anyways I guess.

I will be buying new plants and planting them at a later time cause I have to order them online. Hope this will solve my issues I'm having, I believe it will. And in the future I will take the time to mineralize some soil before I get ready to change my substrate again, hopefully when this soil runs out of nutrients.

Thanks for the help everyone.
 

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I have began the preparations to remove my current substrate. I plan to move my fish to a temporary tank with a seeded sponge filter. Then I will remove everything and bleach the bottom of the tank, will this be ok? I want to bleach it because I know it will smell of sewage....
Just make sure to wash out the tank with a dechlorinator after bleaching it, but that should be fine.
 

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Thank you for the response @gjcarew @nfranclau6

I have began the preparations to remove my current substrate. I plan to move my fish to a temporary tank with a seeded sponge filter. Then I will remove everything and bleach the bottom of the tank, will this be ok? I want to bleach it because I know it will smell of sewage. I'll be doing the first method you suggested @nfranclau6 and sifting the soil before adding it to the tank. Not adding anything to it. Then I'll be capping it with the black sand from petco that I've been using which i consider to be a medium sized sand, definetly not as fine as the white sand I bought.

I have bought a bag of miracle gro organic mix and put it on a tarp outside to dry out a little, well lo and behold it rained so bad that it rained under my porch and got the soil wet again, no big deal cause its gonna get wet anyways I guess.

I will be buying new plants and planting them at a later time cause I have to order them online. Hope this will solve my issues I'm having, I believe it will. And in the future I will take the time to mineralize some soil before I get ready to change my substrate again, hopefully when this soil runs out of nutrients.

Thanks for the help everyone.
Sounds like you’re in the right track again. The wet tarp/soil is just fine .. even better perhaps. Anyway as you add the gravel/sand cap etc.. give everything a good rinse first..or your tank will be all clouded up with rock dust.
For cleaning.. just some water and perhaps a little salt for abrasion should work well. I don’t think you have and infestations of parasites or bacteria etc. that being said, the bleach will totally work. Just set it out in the sun to dry for a day. The U.V rays destroy bleach .. they energize the elections so that the bleach wants to bind anything lol. Or use a water conditioner in the aquarium if ur not sure
 

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Discussion Starter · #10 ·
@gjcarew @nfranclau6

Well the wife and I just got done with the whole process, I would have rather wait another day or so but we have heavy rains forecast the next 2 days and I'm honestly tired of my house smelling like a huge fart!

The removal of the rotten substrate went well, it was very smelly, but did not smell like sceptic as I thought it would, just very... rotten? I did as I said I would and I went heavy on the prime to help with any extra dechlorination. I have my fish in a separate container for now until I feel safe putting them back in the tank. Hopefully it will cycle fast due to my established 20g sump. Going to be ordering new plants maybe tomorrow.

I did notice that some of my plants were growing new roots, but only just on top of the dirt in the sand, not in the dirt itself. Some of the roots in the dirt were not rotten, but not in great health like the new roots in the sand were. So perhaps they would eventually have made it, but I could no longer deal with a stinky tank.

The wife and I are very relieved at no longer smelling any rotten odors, thank goodness! There have been some bubbles come up but that was just bubbles stuck in the muddy soil I couldnt get up.

Could you guys please tell me the proper way to plant the new plants I get? I have been planting the plants down into the dirt layer, not the sand that is correct? I will be buying your recommendations @nfranclau6

Again, I GREATLY appreciate the help you guys have given me. Ya'll dont know how much it means to me lol. I will post some pictures when I get everything back in the tank, and may even start a tank journal.
 

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Just seeing this thread for the first time. I am going to throw my advice in there but I warn you in advance that I am very anti-dirt substrate so if you are bound and determined to keep the dirt then you may want to ignore most of what I have to say.

First off father fish is very very old school. I've seen a few of his videos but honestly didn't like them because I feel as if he has pretty much ignored most of the stuff people have figured out over the last 20 years. Also his tanks are not exactly glorious gardens of eden sooo /shrug.

One thing you critically did not do was put in enough inert substrate. Father fish does deep sand beds of 5 to 6 inches over the dirt. It looks like you have 1 to 1.5 inches of inert substrate over dirt? This is nowhere near enough for your high nutrient load dirt mixture. The reason your tank smelled was that your dirt was leeching heavily into your water column. Over the next few months if left alone you would have gotten algae and bacteria blooms constantly.

When Diana Walstad first published her book in 1999 the aquarium world was a very different place. Fertilizers were harder to get and more costly then what is available today. Also keeping sensitive plants happy and healthy was harder as there were fewer resources available explaining to people what they needed to do. So the idea of using dirt was very appealing. Diana Walstad's whole thing is not that dirted tanks are necessarily the best way to keep plants but simply that it's the cheapest way. And despite all of my distaste for dirt, she is right. It is definitely cheaper, especially for larger tanks like your 75 gallon. If you use dirt you will save about.... 50 dollars a year on your planted tank.................

You will however have a LOT more problems with algae, problems with consistent plant growth, and significantly more difficulty rescaping to the point where casual rescaping is actively discouraged. Your maintenance level is about the same whether it's dirt or not.

I've run a few different tanks with dirt and at this point have thoroughly sworn it off.

So what can you do as an alterantive?

You have a couple of options. You can go straight inert substrate of your choice (I really like pool filter sand but other people prefer fine gravel). Or you can put down a layer of aquasoil and then cover that with an inert substrate. Or you can use straight aquasoil. The more aquasoil you use the more expensive.

Regardless of whether you use inert, aquasoil, or even dirt, you will need to use something for fertilizer. Yes even dirt tanks need fertilizer after a time. If you don't you can expect your plants to slow growth, and eventually stall. This might be 6 months in or a year in, but eventually they all stall. Now you might say, but wait, I've seen tanks that are older then that without fertilizer?? My question to you use is how do those tanks look? Do they look lush and healthy or do they look like they are filled with struggling straggly plants exhibiting signs of slow growth? All the older tanks I have seen where people are using only dirt and nothing else and are 2+ years old look pretty bad. Maybe someone else has figured out the magic formula to make plants grow forever without other inputs but I haven't seen it yet.

So fertilizer, what options do you have? Well there are many options. But one of the easiest and most recommended is is Nicolg Thrive. If this is a low tech tank going with ThriveC is a nice option as it includes a carbon supplement. Adding thrive once a week with a water change is all you need to do.

Now you might be asking yourself, wait why can't I use dirt? In nature no one comes along and adds Thrive to the water to make plants grow.

This is true, BUT nature has something we simply cannot replicate in our homes, and that is massive continuous water changes. Go look at a stream sometime and do the math on how much water is flowing by. Even a small stream a couple inches deep is hundreds of gallons an hour. If its deep enough to be up to your waste then its 10s of thousands of gallons an hour. And that's not circulation, that's a water change........ Sooo yeah, we can't do that in our home systems. This means that anything in our water is going to sit there and stew until we do our next water change. This is completely different then what exists in nature. Additionally most natural streams are filled with algae to a point where we would be repulsed if it was in our homes. And finally, most of the plants we grow completely submerged in our tanks are only occasionally submerged in nature. Most grow on the shore near water and only get submerged when the water source floods. Keeping them submerged and thriving year round requires different rules then what is used in nature.

Sooooo lets say you read this far but are still like 'no way do I want to use any chemicals, what are my options'?

Well you do have options but they are a LOT more limited. Basically you need to stick to plants that are essentially the aquarium equivalent of crabgrass. Things so insanely tenatious they can live in just about any environment. These are things like guppy grass, pearl weed, and hornwort. Frankly they are incredibly insidious plants and will take over any space they are left in with little to no additives on your part. But you don't get to have a very manicured look with them and they can get out of hand pretty easily.

Also since you are talking about sunfish I would definitely not use layered substrate as those guys like to dig when they get into the mating season. Soooo yeah dirt is always going to be a problem with them, just go inert or aquasoil with them, or if you layer inert over aquasoil to save money, be prepared for it to be liberally mixed together.

Just my thoughts.
 

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Just seeing this thread for the first time. I am going to throw my advice in there but I warn you in advance that I am very anti-dirt substrate so if you are bound and determined to keep the dirt then you may want to ignore most of what I have to say.

First off father fish is very very old school. I've seen a few of his videos but honestly didn't like them because I feel as if he has pretty much ignored most of the stuff people have figured out over the last 20 years. Also his tanks are not exactly glorious gardens of eden sooo /shrug.

One thing you critically did not do was put in enough inert substrate. Father fish does deep sand beds of 5 to 6 inches over the dirt. It looks like you have 1 to 1.5 inches of inert substrate over dirt? This is nowhere near enough for your high nutrient load dirt mixture. The reason your tank smelled was that your dirt was leeching heavily into your water column. Over the next few months if left alone you would have gotten algae and bacteria blooms constantly.

When Diana Walstad first published her book in 1999 the aquarium world was a very different place. Fertilizers were harder to get and more costly then what is available today. Also keeping sensitive plants happy and healthy was harder as there were fewer resources available explaining to people what they needed to do. So the idea of using dirt was very appealing. Diana Walstad's whole thing is not that dirted tanks are necessarily the best way to keep plants but simply that it's the cheapest way. And despite all of my distaste for dirt, she is right. It is definitely cheaper, especially for larger tanks like your 75 gallon. If you use dirt you will save about.... 50 dollars a year on your planted tank.................

You will however have a LOT more problems with algae, problems with consistent plant growth, and significantly more difficulty rescaping to the point where casual rescaping is actively discouraged. Your maintenance level is about the same whether it's dirt or not.

I've run a few different tanks with dirt and at this point have thoroughly sworn it off.

So what can you do as an alterantive?

You have a couple of options. You can go straight inert substrate of your choice (I really like pool filter sand but other people prefer fine gravel). Or you can put down a layer of aquasoil and then cover that with an inert substrate. Or you can use straight aquasoil. The more aquasoil you use the more expensive.

Regardless of whether you use inert, aquasoil, or even dirt, you will need to use something for fertilizer. Yes even dirt tanks need fertilizer after a time. If you don't you can expect your plants to slow growth, and eventually stall. This might be 6 months in or a year in, but eventually they all stall. Now you might say, but wait, I've seen tanks that are older then that without fertilizer?? My question to you use is how do those tanks look? Do they look lush and healthy or do they look like they are filled with struggling straggly plants exhibiting signs of slow growth? All the older tanks I have seen where people are using only dirt and nothing else and are 2+ years old look pretty bad. Maybe someone else has figured out the magic formula to make plants grow forever without other inputs but I haven't seen it yet.

So fertilizer, what options do you have? Well there are many options. But one of the easiest and most recommended is is Nicolg Thrive. If this is a low tech tank going with ThriveC is a nice option as it includes a carbon supplement. Adding thrive once a week with a water change is all you need to do.

Now you might be asking yourself, wait why can't I use dirt? In nature no one comes along and adds Thrive to the water to make plants grow.

This is true, BUT nature has something we simply cannot replicate in our homes, and that is massive continuous water changes. Go look at a stream sometime and do the math on how much water is flowing by. Even a small stream a couple inches deep is hundreds of gallons an hour. If its deep enough to be up to your waste then its 10s of thousands of gallons an hour. And that's not circulation, that's a water change........ Sooo yeah, we can't do that in our home systems. This means that anything in our water is going to sit there and stew until we do our next water change. This is completely different then what exists in nature. Additionally most natural streams are filled with algae to a point where we would be repulsed if it was in our homes. And finally, most of the plants we grow completely submerged in our tanks are only occasionally submerged in nature. Most grow on the shore near water and only get submerged when the water source floods. Keeping them submerged and thriving year round requires different rules then what is used in nature.

Sooooo lets say you read this far but are still like 'no way do I want to use any chemicals, what are my options'?

Well you do have options but they are a LOT more limited. Basically you need to stick to plants that are essentially the aquarium equivalent of crabgrass. Things so insanely tenatious they can live in just about any environment. These are things like guppy grass, pearl weed, and hornwort. Frankly they are incredibly insidious plants and will take over any space they are left in with little to no additives on your part. But you don't get to have a very manicured look with them and they can get out of hand pretty easily.

Also since you are talking about sunfish I would definitely not use layered substrate as those guys like to dig when they get into the mating season. Soooo yeah dirt is always going to be a problem with them, just go inert or aquasoil with them, or if you layer inert over aquasoil to save money, be prepared for it to be liberally mixed together.

Just my thoughts.
I honestly second this opinion on dirted tanks when there's so many good aquasoils today, although I understand it can be expensive. But I would say DEFINITELY for a brand new beginner to the hobby I would not recommend dirt or regular plant soil at all as it can cause tons of ammonia spikes it is not capped right or have fish that love to dig in the substrate. Sorry to hear about your situation OP hope you're able to bounce back and this doesn't discourage from continuing in the hobby!
 

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Discussion Starter · #14 ·
Thank you @minorhero @Titostanks

I had already removed the old substrate and put new dirt and sand cap back in before yoir reaponses, but I appreciate the knowledge and will refer to it in the future after this (hopefully) successful attempt at using dirt.

So far all is well, nothing like my last attempt. I have zero foul odors, or hardly any odors at all. I have had zero bubbles after the first day of putting in the new substrate. Its been great! I still dont have any plants yet, but they are on their way in the mail. My fish dont seem to mind because they are constantly staring at me in the front or begging for more food in the feeding corner.

My tank was instantly cycled because of my 20g sump and it also helped to remove the high levels of nitrates I was fighting due to the constant ammonia leaking out of the old dirt. I have not had any ammonia spike with this new soil and everything is working out nicely, nothing but a positive experience has come from removing the old substrate and I couldnt be happier with the decision to remove it! If this attempt doesn't work out, I will surely be looking at using aquasoil for my next attempt.
 

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I think you'll do fine. Dirt tank set up is a lot of work. When things go wrong they go really wrong, it takes a lot longer to find balance, you have more "opportunities" to mess things up accidentally. When it does finally come together it's a truly great feeling!! I'd say take readings just after planting and try not to disturb the soil when you plant. Good luck!!
 

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I know im really late to the discussion but the true benefit to father fish is that his deep dirt substrate approach is that he has some tanks that he has never had to change the substrate in the 10 years hes had them going... imagine an ecosystem that recycles itself entirely thanks to fish and plant detritus that is generally unavoidable anyway. Im going to give it a shot here in the next few weeks. Ill let u know how it goes. I we'll take a page out of your playbook though, and be judicious with the manure. I'm sure it's overuse was contributing to the anoxic hydrogen sulfide problem you were having. I wish this thread weren't so old so I could have joined the conversation earlier.
 

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I don't know who father fish is but I would stop listening to him pretty much immediately, that soil recipe is a nightmare. Blood meal and cow manure are both very high in organic content. Bacterial activity will be so high that your soil will go anaerobic very easily. This is why the roots are turning black, bacteria used up all the oxygen in the substrate and the roots suffocated.
Father Fish's method is to deliberately create an anaerobic layer in the substrate and rely on anaerobic bacteria to decompose organic matter.

This is also the reason why he insists on having 2 inches of sand to completely seal off nutrition in the substrate and making sure nutrition doesn't leak to the water

What I can't quite figure out is how fish poops and other organic matters make it through that 2 inches of sand...
 

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I know im really late to the discussion but the true benefit to father fish is that his deep dirt substrate approach is that he has some tanks that he has never had to change the substrate in the 10 years hes had them going... imagine an ecosystem that recycles itself entirely thanks to fish and plant detritus that is generally unavoidable anyway.
Pure gravel or sand also never need to be replaced, I don't see how adding in a bunch of manure at startup helps process waste later on. That fish waste, and the bacteria and other organisms that process it, will show up regardless of whether there is manure in the substrate or not.

Im going to give it a shot here in the next few weeks. Ill let u know how it goes. I we'll take a page out of your playbook though, and be judicious with the manure. I'm sure it's overuse was contributing to the anoxic hydrogen sulfide problem you were having. I wish this thread weren't so old so I could have joined the conversation earlier.
If you start a tank journal it can help others see the process. I look forward to seeing what you come up with!

Father Fish's method is to deliberately create an anaerobic layer in the substrate and rely on anaerobic bacteria to decompose organic matter.

This is also the reason why he insists on having 2 inches of sand to completely seal off nutrition in the substrate and making sure nutrition doesn't leak to the water

What I can't quite figure out is how fish poops and other organic matters make it through that 2 inches of sand...
Doesn't make much sense to me. It seems you would eventually always run in to hydrogen sufide buildup. No matter how deep the cap is, it would just be waiting for some disturbance, then you get a huge offgas that could hurt the tank inhabitants.
 

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I used this method on my recent high tech tank, which contains manure, potting soil, diatomaceous earth, limestone, iron oxide, osmocote, large clay cubes (which actually stink worse than manure) topped off with a thick thick layer of sand.

The trick is to have the sand layer deep enough to let plant roots establish in the top layer where it is aerobic. Sand needs to be at least two or three times the thickness of the soil layer. The more the better.

The anaerobic layer underneath does create hydrogen sulphide but the sand slows its progress enough for it to oxidate when it reaches the aerobic layer and become harmless. On the odd occasion where it does escape (which only happened once when I yanked some crypts out) it did not harm my fish at all. OP also observed that his fish were happy despite everything in his tank. With regular water changes it is really not an issue.

Sand does trap waste because the water pressure makes it less dense and it acts a bit like very slow acting quicksand, sucking in matter, especially if it gets disturbed by the fish (which does happen). Stuff that gets mixed in with the sand will degrade and create nutrients for plants later on. I have discus which I feed beefheart daily who are messy eaters but the sand layer remains pristine.

The reason for the anaerobic layer is to have a different set of bacteria which denitrifies the water and host critters for fish to feed on. Bottom feeders like some loaches, corys etc love and are always rooting through it.

It is also actually good for plants because roots can fixate oxygen in an anaerobic environment whilst accessing nutrients, which is why many species have deep roots. My java ferns, crypts, repens and other stem plants all love it.

My tank has been running for a year and a half now and my water parameters, plant growth, fish health are rock solid stable even with the massive amounts of CO2 I put in. No swings, crashes or algae blooms with a seemingly infinite amount of nutrients available. I still add mgso4, k2so4 and kh2po4 because I want huge growth and heavy plant action but it could easily do without it.

I think the trick is just to give it time. Deep beds are a living environment and designed to last for decades.

Sent from my LM-V405 using Tapatalk
 
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