Setting up my 1st el Natural cube 8G (30L) - El Natural - Aquatic Plant Central

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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 07-21-2020, 10:56 AM   #1 (permalink)
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Default Setting up my 1st el Natural cube 8G (30L)

Hi, everyone!

I am happy to join this forum and very excited that soon I will also start my own Walstad’s method aquarium!
Beautiful tanks from all over the World posted here, “Ecology of the planted aquarium” by D. Walstad, after all, many videos on YouTube (especially Foo the Flowerhorn’s), assures me, that everything gonna be all right.
But some beginner’s questions appear here and there, despite the fact I am not totally new to the hobby and had set up 70L tank for my parents and it is 5 years old already. It is simple low-tech tank with slow-growth plant such as microsoriums, anubias and some stem plants.


But I decided to set up NPT with the soil according to D.Walstad method.

1. First of all I had choosen a place where I can afford to place the tank. As I don’t have too much free space the decision was made in favor of northern windowsill. I studied the Sun behavior during the day at the place and find out, that the tank will be receiving direct sunlight only during sunrise and early morning at maximum for 2-3 hours in July (from 5:30 am till 8:00 am approx.). In winter it will hardly be more than 30 minutes of direct sunlight.
And here are the first questions: Is northern window good decision for placing the tank? How should I manage my LED-light daylength – should I sum sunlight and LED-light times or I simply put LEDs to regimen 5 on, 4 off, 5 on with the start at 8 am?

2. Then I choose the tank I can surely place to the surface of windowsill. It will be 30L cube 30*30cm and with 35cm depth. No more to say here.

3. Third thing is light. And here starts my headache! So much options now available. I will definitely buy LED-light. But which one? I would simply go for 35-40 lumens per liter (as recommended in numerous articles about LED in aquariums) if there wasn’t sunlight. Plus, I think non-direct light during the day will also inflict the tank more or less. Thus, it’s very tough questions for me. I have few options and want to know your thoughts on which one will better fit my set up?
- Ptero Ray Mini 25 (850 lm/ 6500K)
- AquaLighter Slim (1010lm/ 5000-6500K)
- Chihiros C251 (1150 lm/ 8000K)
- Chihiros A2 301 (1400 lm)
- Ptero Ray (1700lm/6500K)
I am struggling with the choice for more than a month…
I understand, that it’s hard to answer the questions without clarity about the plants that will be planted to the tank, so here they are!

4. Plants selected for start:
Bacopa monnieri
Limnophila aromatica
Ammania sp. «Bonsai»
Limnophila aquatica "Ambulia"
Ludwigia Ovalis
Rotala macrandra "Green"

Staurogyne repens
Eriocaulon sp Vietnam

Cryptocoryne wendtii «Tropica»
Cryptocoryne parva

Echinodorus ozelot mini
Echinodorus parviflorus tropica

I hope there are enough rooted plants to prevent too anaerobic substrate.

5. Our local brands of potting soil seems always have some chemical fertilizers and as for me the numbers are too high for aquarium. And as I live 200 meters from the forest I decided to dig some topsoil there.
Have some photos of the process and want to share them with you.

You can see the place I gathered the topsoil and the sooil itself

My buddy watching me

After I had removed roots and large debris, the soil is light and airy with a lot of sand in it, I am also sure it has some organics to decompose. Maybe I should add some clay to it or any source of Ca to slowly rise the water hardness? What do you think?

6. Some words about water. My tap water is: Ph8.5, Gh 9, Kh 3.

So, this is it by now. As soon as I will pick up the light, I will slowly start my journey to the NPT world. Greetings from Ukraine to everyone who had read this long post and I am sorry for my English. I’ve tried my best! Thank you!
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Old 07-23-2020, 07:40 AM   #2 (permalink)
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Default Re: Setting up my 1st el Natural cube 8G (30L)

Welcome to APC! I really enjoyed your description of your search for good soil, because I have done that several times. The last time was when I was living in a rented house, and I "explored" the big back yard, the planted beds, the soil around the bushes and trees, etc. I ended up getting scoops of dirt from several places and mixing them to get enough for my tank. It worked very well for me! And, I didn't have a bug bugging me as I did my exploring.
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Old 07-23-2020, 07:50 PM   #3 (permalink)
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Default Re: Setting up my 1st el Natural cube 8G (30L)

It looks so beautiful where you live! What a great excuse to go for a walk in the woods. Your English is great!
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Old 07-23-2020, 09:32 PM   #4 (permalink)
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Default Re: Setting up my 1st el Natural cube 8G (30L)

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Originally Posted by hoppycalif View Post
I ended up getting scoops of dirt from several places and mixing them to get enough for my tank. It worked very well for me!
Your positive experience inspires me even more and make me more optimistic about this topsoil! This weekend I'll go fishing, so maybe I'll mix the dirt I have with some clay or another kind of soil (I think about dirt from mole hole) if I will find it.

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Originally Posted by hoppycalif View Post
And, I didn't have a bug bugging me as I did my exploring.
That bug is pretty big, you know, and make scratchy noise if you disturb it!

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Originally Posted by Karen in San Jose View Post
It looks so beautiful where you live! What a great excuse to go for a walk in the woods.
Ashamed to say, but this is the first time I walked this forest for last 3 years. With this everyday routine and hurry we can easily forget about beauty of the nature around us. We forget sometimes to enjoy these little things.

And! At last I think I have found the lighting solution! None of that four lighters - it's another one from our local brand. It has next characteristics:
24 white diodes 6500K, 6 red diodes (620-620nm),3 blue (455-470nm), 3 cyan (520-525nm)
It gives 1450 lm, CRI>90, and with build in dimmer so I can lower intensity If I will need it.

The question is, how long should I leave the lights on given that direct sunlight will occasionally fall on the aquarium?
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Old 08-02-2020, 02:47 AM   #5 (permalink)
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So. A little update on my preparations. I had collected more soil from another place. It is more clay like. I think I will mix two kinds of soils I have for now. All items I need to start the tank are ordered, so I will set up the tank next weekend. So excited!

I have done a bottle test for the dirt. The results are confusing. The methodology for the test was taken from "will this soil work" thread. After 30 sec from the start ~50% was land on the bottom of the bottle. It's sand I guess. Then after 2 minutes I didn't see too much difference. Maybe 5% more. After two hours the soil level was higher than when it was dry (100%) by ~25%. There are also some organic particles floating. So I don't know if I should be happy with the soil I have?
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Old 08-02-2020, 06:07 AM   #6 (permalink)
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Default Re: Setting up my 1st el Natural cube 8G (30L)

That’s good that the soil expanded. Some clay will expand in water as well as dry organics. This soil will have high CEC, ability to absorb nutrients for plants.
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Old 08-02-2020, 08:14 AM   #7 (permalink)
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Default Re: Setting up my 1st el Natural cube 8G (30L)

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Originally Posted by LeTort View Post
So. A little update on my preparations. I had collected more soil from another place. It is more clay like. I think I will mix two kinds of soils I have for now. All items I need to start the tank are ordered, so I will set up the tank next weekend. So excited!

I have done a bottle test for the dirt. The results are confusing. The methodology for the test was taken from "will this soil work" thread. After 30 sec from the start ~50% was land on the bottom of the bottle. It's sand I guess. Then after 2 minutes I didn't see too much difference. Maybe 5% more. After two hours the soil level was higher than when it was dry (100%) by ~25%. There are also some organic particles floating. So I don't know if I should be happy with the soil I have?
It sounds like you just shook up the soil with water and then waited for things to settle out. That's the wrong way to do it. Some particles will never settle. This method doesn't work in bottles any more than it does in setting up the tank. The irony here is that the smaller the particles, the more surface area and potentially better substrate for plants. Bits of floating organic matter will generate CO2 for plants.

Description (below) is in my book, p. 138.

You put a 1" (2.5 cm) layer of dry soil into a bottle and cover it with 1/2" (~1 cm) of gravel or sand. Then, you CAREFULLY add water so that it does not disturb the soil layer. I cover the gravel layer with a piece of Al foil so that the gravel layer is not disturbed. Sometimes it helps to use a kitchen funnel to aim the water flow to where it will create the least disturbance.

A "bottle test" mimics what you do in setting up a tank with soil, so you should be very glad you did the bottle test before setting up your tank!!

Here's pictures of bottle test I used for recent experiment with different soil coverings. The water should be fairly clear. Some soils have no clay and are crystal clear in bottle test. Others have clay and you might have to do a couple water change to get out cloudiness. I let the bottle sit overnight. Usually, the water becomes more clear over time. If it becomes more cloudy, then you've got a problem soil (e.g., saline soil) that is best to avoid.

Sometimes the soil particles will "swell up" like yours did. A low density soil is not bad, but you might want to soak the soil in water beforehand and compress it to squeeze out trapped air pockets. You could put wet soil into a bucket and put a plate plus brick over soil surface. That way, when you put the "squeezed" soil into the tank, it will be less likely to float and your plants will hold down better.
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Old 08-02-2020, 09:33 PM   #8 (permalink)
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Default Re: Setting up my 1st el Natural cube 8G (30L)

Hello! And thank you, Diana, for your reply!

Yes, I did the 'bottle' test in the way you discribed. I found this method here on APC (https://www.aquaticplantcentral.com/...tml#post639268), and I thought it is correct, because I cant find any criticism of it. In other side Michael said he did in similar way.

Well, at least now I know the composition of the soil I am going to use in my tank and can see it is a good option.

Yeah, that would be a disaster if I would set up the tank just the way I did the 'bottle' test But of course I was going to set up the tank like you discribed in your book.
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Old 08-03-2020, 02:50 PM   #9 (permalink)
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Default Re: Setting up my 1st el Natural cube 8G (30L)

I hope you are not referring to this post by Diana K. in the linked thread. Looks like I didn't catch it in time to add my criticism. She writes:

"Shake. If the soil soaks up all the water add more. Shake some more. And some more. About the time your arm falls off set the jar down."

Misguided advice and certainly not mine. In my bottle tests and tank setups, there is no such shaking. Please understand that the soil you buy in a bag or dig up will change over time once it is in the tank. Soil bacteria bind clay particles and organic matter that would ordinarily cloud the water. The bacteria form sticky polysaccharide biofilms that hold the soil particles together (my book, pp. 69-71). Farmers call this "crumb structure," a desirable quality for growing crops.

Bottom Line: You add the soil to your tank respectfully. No shaking. You cover it with gravel to keep it from clouding the water. Over time, the soil bacteria spin their biofilms to glue the soil particles together. Then, even when you disturb the soil underlayer, there will very little cloudiness.
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Old 08-03-2020, 09:26 PM   #10 (permalink)
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Default Re: Setting up my 1st el Natural cube 8G (30L)

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Originally Posted by dwalstad View Post
Misguided advice and certainly not mine. In my bottle tests and tank setups, there is no such shaking. Please understand that the soil you buy in a bag or dig up will change over time once it is in the tank. Soil bacteria bind clay particles and organic matter that would ordinarily cloud the water. The bacteria form sticky polysaccharide biofilms that hold the soil particles together (my book, pp. 69-71). Farmers call this "crumb structure," a desirable quality for growing crops.

Bottom Line: You add the soil to your tank respectfully. No shaking. You cover it with gravel to keep it from clouding the water. Over time, the soil bacteria spin their biofilms to glue the soil particles together. Then, even when you disturb the soil underlayer, there will very little cloudiness.
My problem was that I misunderstood the essence of the bottle test. I assumed that it was carried out to determine the quality of the composition of the soil or something like that (and therefore it requires such strange and unnatural actions as shaking the substrate), and not a simulation of setting up a tank. Now I understand that I was mistaken about this. Today my gravel will be delivered and I will try to redo the bottle test.

Also, I started to reread the substrate section of the book last night, and I see that I missed some points about changes in the submerged substrate over time.
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