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El Natural Diana Walstad's low-maintenance, soil-based 'El Natural' method for keeping plants and fish.

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Old 05-15-2006, 11:36 AM   #1 (permalink)
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Default What is "el Natural?" A Step by Step?

This is a new realm of knowledge for me. I think I get the basic premise but would like a more complete idea of what "el Natural" is exactly, and what types of

Substrate;
Light;
Waterchanges;
Filter;
Ferts;
Methods;and
anything else

one uses or may not use when creating an all natural planted aquarium setup. So far from my limited reading time, it all looks very interesting. Anyone with a concise definition and description?

-John N.
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Old 05-15-2006, 11:58 AM   #2 (permalink)
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John N.,

Diana Walstad is the originator of this idea and wrote the book, "The Ecology of the Planted Aquarium" so she's the expert, but I'll give you a concise preview:

1-1.5" of unfertilized (generic works best) potting soil
1-1.5" of gravel on top

Use at least 1.5Watts/gal of lighting PLUS some natural sunlight from a window.

Allow some plants to grow emergent or have floating plants like duckweed, salvinia, water lettuce. This keeps algae in check by giving some plants exposure to air (and thus CO2).

No fertilizers, CO2 or other additives are needed. The soil provides a myriad of beneficial bacteria, nutrients, minerals that keep the substrate from producing toxic gas like H2S etc. The plants get all nutrition from the soil and generous feeding of the fish. CO2 is provided by decomposition in the soil.

Others can probably give a better explanation, but this is a start for you. I can attest to the success of this method. I have the tank I've always wanted (lush jungle!) with no expensive products or heavy maintenance, and best of all---no algae problems. I'll attach a photo of it taken in its jungle incarnation.

EDIT: I see I left out two issues you asked about. Water changes are rarely needed. Every few months maybe. I've read of some doing only 2 a year! Filters are not neccessary since the plants filter the ammonia and nitrite out of the water, but you can use them for water movement and mechanical filtration---if you want. I think Diana suggests powerheads only for larger tanks. I have no filter in my little one gallon, and I use the Hagen mini submersable in my 10g for water circulation.
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Old 05-15-2006, 02:31 PM   #3 (permalink)
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Javalee, can you give us some examples of generic potting soil? There's so many out there but which one works in a planted tank and what brand are suitable. Thanks
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Old 05-15-2006, 05:07 PM   #4 (permalink)
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Here's a summary of the basics I put together on it. I've read her book three times now and every time I see something new. It's definitely worth a read or two or three. She reviews quite a bit of literature on the processes happening in a natural planted tank. Also see the Hex thread here for a photo documentary of setting up a Walstad-type natural planted tank.
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Old 05-16-2006, 07:41 AM   #5 (permalink)
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Betty,

I can't thank you enough for putting together your comprehensive website about my methods, link to article about aquatic plant preference for ammonia nitrogen, tank photos etc. Well done!

Diana
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Old 05-16-2006, 08:09 AM   #6 (permalink)
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By "Generic Potting Soil", I think "Simple Potting Soil" could be used as well. Some commerical potting soils will change during their production year, as different products become seasonably available.

A Simple potting soil would have a moderate amount of composted organic matter (humus, leaf mould, etc) with some not-yet broken down material (peat, some tiny bark pieces, etc) and some inorganic material (sand, clay, tiny stones).

Its easier to mention what is NOT recommended. Because these ingredients add cost for the manufacturer, generally they're found in "name brand" potting soils.

Fertilizer - Miracle-Gro brand includes a slow-release fertilizer in their potting soil, intended to feed container plants, window boxes and such for the summer (about 3 months). This amount of nutrients will wreak havoc on your tank parameters, and probably result in an algae mess.

Perlite - while not a bad thing for houseplant soil, this stuff "lightens" heavy soils, especially those that tend to be high in clay. It provides porosity and helps to allow container plants' roots access to air from the small spaces between particles (very important for terrestrials). For the aquarium keeper, this stuff floats, and is a royal pain in the @$$, as the little white bits will float up for months and cling to anything in the water surface.

Vermiculite - also generally a good ingredient in houseplant soil, this is a mineral that has been expanded by exposing it to great heat. While it also "lightens" soils to some extent, it also provides a lot of surface area for water to cling to, and helps absorb and retain water, while not staying thoroughly WET. It evens out the wet/dry cycle. For the aquarium keeper, this isn't as annoying a floating component as perlite, and may help against compaction. (*aside - I've actually added some vermiculite to a soil underlayer as an experiment, with very good results to date).

Wetting Agents. These are surfactants. I've personally had a very bad experience with these when trying to pot up some very rare terrestrial plant cuttings. My bad experience was with Martha Stewart's potting soil from KMart. Shredded sphagnum peat has an annoying habit of being difficult to wet once it gets very dry. It actually repels water to some extent. A wetting agent, or surfactant, gets the water to make contact with the other materials, and increases absorbability. But, it also increases the moisture retaining time. For me, this kept the precious cuttings too wet for too long, and caused rot. I'm not positive what the effect would be in an aquarium, but my sense is that it would not be good for the creature or plants. Plants have a very thin natural cuticle to protect them, and I'd guess this would not "play nicely" with that. Who knows what the long term effects on fish would be.


~~~~~~~~~

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Old 05-16-2006, 08:35 AM   #7 (permalink)
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*sorry had to break this up into two parts - it was doing something odd where it repeats the same line over and over*

anyhow.....

Take a look at some of the cheaper soils. Those tend to NOT have wetting agents, fertilizers or other questionable amendments. I've used "Hyponex" and "Jolly Gardener" but found the contents of both brands to vary widely depending on where the bag was purchased, and at what time of year. Try a small bag of a few different types. Anything you don't use in the aquarium would probably be fine for houseplants.

Here is a VERY general assessment technique: Moisten it, play with it. When moderately moist (like a wrung out sponge), a small handful should have a bit of give when you squeeze it in your fist. Now open your hand flat. Does it crumble apart? That indicates its high in sand. Does it stay compressed, like a hard lump? High in clay. Does it look shiny or slick, or very muddy? That indicates a lot of organics.

Ideally, it will fluff back out a little bit (like when baking a cake - touch the top to see if its done - it should sping back when lightly touched) as you've released the compression. It should generally keep its shape, perhaps fracturing in one or two places. If you push on it, it should then break apart rather easily.

Now smell it. It should not smell moldy or astringent or bitter. It should smell pleasantly earthy, and the smell should not be noticable unless you have your nose right up to it.

Now you can start a bottle test (be sure to have a control of just water) to see if there are any wild pH swings! *Grin*
-Jane
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Old 05-16-2006, 08:46 AM   #8 (permalink)
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What a great webpage, Betty! Yes, nicely done!

-Jane
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Old 05-16-2006, 01:16 PM   #9 (permalink)
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Jane,

Why might you think that miracle grow would cause algae, yet adding KNO3/KH2PO4/Traces to very high levels would not in a non carbon enriched tank?

What might that suggest about NH4 and NO3? Is it really excess nutrients?

How many types of NO3 transportors are there and how many NH4 transportors are there in plants?

Do a google search.

There are many types of NO3 uptake transporters and they each respond to different levels of substrate nutrient concentrations.
A plant can adapt well to many variables, they adapt and this also fits the observation/s.

NH4 can be added to verify this.

Soil that has been soaked well prior, boiled etc, is well oxidized. This removes most of the liable NH4. Slow decomposition of organic N into NH4 slowly releases NH4 at non algae spore germiniating levels.
Embedding NH4 into clay at low levels also does a similar thing but without bacteria, rather, the root hairs penetrate the clay.

Regards,
Tom Barr
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Old 05-16-2006, 01:52 PM   #10 (permalink)
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Wow, Tom Barr and Diana Walstad on one forum. I'm honoured!

Thanks,
Chris
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