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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
I should preface this by saying I've probably been watching too many aquascapers on YouTube (shout out to MD Fish Tanks who does some cool "ecosystem" style aquariums that borrow ideas from Walstad and look beautiful). Experimenting with a lot of things in this one, hopefully it doesn't end poorly. I'm optimistic.

This is gonna be a long one...if you don't want to read my rambling feel free to just scroll through the pictures (they're kind of a TLDR).

After experimenting with NPTs on a smallish scale for 2 years or so, I decided to try something bigger. I've had a 21 gallon acrylic tank sitting around in the basement from my earlier (mostly disastrous) non-Walstad fishkeeping days. The upfront cost to setup a tank this large plus my lack of experience made me hesitant to set it up. But after running my current NPT successfully for over a year I decided to jump in and try something larger. Also I've been watching too many aquascapers on YouTube and was getting jealous of all their pretty tanks. (One more tank won't hurt right?)

1. Build a stand
I am paranoid about my furniture spontaneously collapsing under heavy fish tanks, so I decided to build a cabinet from scratch that would support the weight. Did I go overboard? Can the stand probably support the weight of my car? Yes and yes. But I'm confident in its ability to hold my tank.

I followed this tutorial from King of DIY:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jN4Y9AYuwcQ&t=970s

With the help of my dad (who is experienced with woodworking and has a wealth of tools available for me to borrow), this is the final product:
Light Wood Rectangle Grass Wood stain

(Bonus points for spotting my "very scientific" method of soil mineralization in the background, i.e. soak and drain. And yes, I follow the NPT mantra of "any plant growth is good plant growth" for my yard as well as my tanks.)

2. Impatiently order plants before the stand is finished
The stand is still currently degassing from the stain/polyurethane. They were only like a week early, NBD. For this tank I used:
Epiphytes
  • Java Fern
  • Anubias Nana and Petite (from my existing tank)
Stem Plants
  • Bacopa Caroliniana
  • Hygrophila Pinnatifida
Rooted Plants
  • Red Tiger Lotus bulb
  • Echinodorus Miracle (medium sword plant w/ purple accents)
  • Echinodorus Amazonicus (btw did you know there is more than one type of sword plant known as an "Amazon Sword"? This is just one of them)
  • Echinodorus Gabrielii (medium sword plant that is very flat)
  • Cryptocoryne Undulatus (I hear it's very similar to Wendtii)
  • Cryptocoryne Parva
  • Dwarf Sagittaria Subulata
Floating Plants
  • Salvinia Minima (from my existing tank)
  • Dwarf Water Lettuce (from my existing tank)
Terrestrial Plants
  • Random pothos clipping laying around
Plants in their temporary holding cell:
Water Light Rectangle Grass Gas


3. Hardscape
Because I can't help making things difficult for myself, I wanted this tank to have a non-trivial hardscape. Further complicating things, I wanted the tank to slope up several inches in the back. I am intimately aware of the issues that can come with a deep substrate (my first NPT crashed because of it). So I took some precautions.

I've read from others on the forum that tiles can be placed underneath substrate to raise the height. I've also learned that rocks and driftwood should lay on the bottom of the tank. Armed with this knowledge I purchased a bunch of plain white tiles from Home Depot ($2.50 for 16 4"x4" tiles) and stacked these about an inch high in the back. I also placed them under the rocks I was using to scape. Result:
Wood Floor Flooring Road surface Asphalt


This is where all the YouTube videos really got to my head. I somehow decided it would be a good idea to have a "beach" in the front of the tank. White sand with no plants growing that is separate from the surrounding dirt/gravel. To keep the sand from mixing I cut up some corrugated plastic (like what yard signs are made out of) and framed the area. Keeping them from mixing in the long run is probably hopeless, but thought I'd give it a try.

I used some additional plastic to create some "retaining walls" so that the slope doesn't immediately all come to the front. Here's what it looked like as I started adding dirt (top down view):
World Font Art Wood Rectangle


4. Adding Substrate
For my substrate I used 0.5" - 1.5" of dirt, capped with the smallest layer of Flourite Black I could get away with, ~0.5".

The dirt is a potting + garden bed soil. It listed multiple types of manure in the ingredients list which is slightly concerning, but it's what I had laying around. Again, experimenting. It's probably going to be very hot/give off a lot of ammonia for a bit. Hopefully I can keep it from becoming anaerobic.

To prepare it I started with the soak/drain method, but noticed I was losing a ton of volume of dirt this way (and I didn't have much extra dirt to start with). Ended up combining the soaked/drained dirt with about twice as much sifted dirt. Used this $5 wire basket from Target to sift it, it has 1/4" by 1/8" holes and did the trick nicely.
Product Shade Mesh Bag Material property


The sand for the "beach" is Stoney River aquarium sand. I used less than a 5lb bag.

Here's the tank after the substrate was added. Sorry for all the clutter in the background. But at least one of the pieces of clutter is my Ecology of the Planted Aquarium book, lol.
Road surface Asphalt Wood Floor Flooring


5. PLANTING!!!!
My favorite step! Besides maybe adding critters.

Tall plants in the back, small plants in the front. The epiphytes are still just floating around, I'm not sure how to attach them to the rocks yet. But I'm thinking the Java Ferns will be attached towards the bottom of the rock cave in the grooves on either side, and Anubias will be attached to the small rock in front. I might swap the position of the Echinodorus Miracle and Echinodorus Gabrielii (pinkish sword on left and flatish sword on right). Since the Bacopa is in the back right corner and there's a lot of dirt there, it would be good to get some more root action back there. Plus the heights work out better.

The Tiger Lotus bulb is in the back to the left of the Bacopa. I expect it will take off in a few weeks and give me some vigorous roots in the deep substrate as well.

The idea with the "beach" is to separate the two carpet plants, Cryptocoryne Parva and Dwarf Sag, from mixing too much. In my experience Dwarf Sag just overruns any other carpet plant because of its vigorous growth. Hopefully this gives Parva a chance to get established.

The random Pothos cutting from my other tank was thrown in the back here to help absorb some of the extra initial nutrients.
Plant Rectangle Water Botany Pet supply


Still kinda a mess, but will clean up with a few water changes and some new growth. I'll attach the epiphytes next time I do a water change and I can superglue them.

Initial water parameters are 0.75ppm Ammonia, 4dGH, 4dKH. I added some Seachem alkaline buffer and two wonder shells to help with KH/GH.

(Interestingly, my initial GH is a lot higher than I normally see from my tap. Historically it's been closer to 0 or 1dGH. Either Portland is using the backup groundwater reservoirs right now (unlikely given the season) or something in the tank contributed to the higher GH reading. Perhaps dust from the rocks?)

Since the stand is still degassing, I'm not filling the tank all the way. Many of these plants have a slight arial advantage which can't hurt. It will stay like this for another week or so until it doesn't make me dizzy to be in the same room as the stand, then I'll move it and fill it all the way up. If parameters hold steady, my Rasbora Espei from my 6.5 gallon will be the first to move over (but not the last of this tank's inhabitants)!

Overall I'm very happy with how this has turned out so far! I'm really looking forward to seeing it grow in a bit and getting some colorful fish to add. More pics soon as the tank is cleaned up a bit and growth starts coming in!
 

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Wow, I don't envy you trying to lift that onto the new stand!
On a more serious note:
The dirt is a potting + garden bed soil. It listed multiple types of manure in the ingredients list which is slightly concerning, but it's what I had laying around. Again, experimenting. It's probably going to be very hot/give off a lot of ammonia for a bit.
I think you're spot on with using what's "been lying around" as a suitable choice. In another thread, @dwalstad made a bombshell contribution to my understanding of aquarium substrates. And, that is the fact that nitrification takes place inside bags of ordinary potting soil - even as they are sitting on the shelf . I really think using an old bag of soil has helped make the mineralization process a little easier (I'll bet your nitrates are off the chart, though.)

Just yesterday, I made it my business to stop by the local hardware store in order to pick up a bag of MG Cactus Plants and Citrus potting soil - just to have on hand and to start nitrifying on its own.
 

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Discussion Starter · #3 ·
Wow, I don't envy you trying to lift that onto the new stand!
Yeahhhhh that's gonna be a pain. Will drain it all the way, and between two of us I think we can manage it. My main concern is tipping over the rocks...

I really think using an old bag of soil has helped make the mineralization process a little easier (I'll bet your nitrates are off the chart, though.)
That's a good point, I didn't consider that. Maybe this soil has broken down a bit and so is not quite so hot now - it has been sitting open in the shed since last spring/summer. I should measure nitrates...I usually avoid nitrate and nitrite tests because the bottles have scary warnings and the process is more involved.
 

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Discussion Starter · #6 ·
A few days later and I’m still getting very high (1.0ppm) ammonia readings every day. When I go downstairs in the morning the tank water is tea colored from tannins/soil.

All pretty normal at this point, I expect it to take another week or so to level out. It’s just a very stark change from my 6.5g tank. For that one I did soak and rinse for all the dirt, and mixed the dirt with some flourite black. I had slightly high ammonia (0.5ppm) on the second or third day, and then it went away completely by the end of the first week.

So if you’re looking to speed up the process at the cost of an extra day or two of soil preparation, it seems definitely worth it. I’m not in a rush though, and I’m using this opportunity to keep the water levels low for emergent growth, but next time I might do more rinsing beforehand.
 

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A few days later and I’m still getting very high (1.0ppm) ammonia readings every day. When I go downstairs in the morning the tank water is tea colored from tannins/soil.

All pretty normal at this point, I expect it to take another week or so to level out. It’s just a very stark change from my 6.5g tank. For that one I did soak and rinse for all the dirt, and mixed the dirt with some flourite black. I had slightly high ammonia (0.5ppm) on the second or third day, and then it went away completely by the end of the first week.

So if you’re looking to speed up the process at the cost of an extra day or two of soil preparation, it seems definitely worth it. I’m not in a rush though, and I’m using this opportunity to keep the water levels low for emergent growth, but next time I might do more rinsing beforehand.
Have you moved the tank yet? I'm pretty sure adding more water will reduce your ammonia parameter somewhat. That happened with me. All in all, you're right on schedule, IMHO.
 

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Discussion Starter · #8 ·
Have you moved the tank yet? I'm pretty sure adding more water will reduce your ammonia parameter somewhat. That happened with me. All in all, you're right on schedule, IMHO.
Nope, not yet. The stand smells considerably better so I'll move it tonight or this weekend. And that's a good point, maybe I'll try filling it up more for a few days. Although I like giving the plants some emergent growth to boost their establishment.
 

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Ha…It seems like you’ve implemented all of the hacks I’ve read about in my many hours of scouring the interwebs for all the how to advice I could aquire. Thanks for taking the time to put it into a thread. I like the detail and will follow the results!
 

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Discussion Starter · #10 ·
Two Week Update
I first added water to the tank on the 12th, about two weeks ago. Here's the progress so far:
Plant Water Vertebrate Rectangle Botany


Some notes:
  • Ammonia is still high. I've been testing every day and doing 50% water changes every couple days, and still getting 0.5ppm ammonia every time. It could be less, the color seems to be between 0.25 and 0.5 markings on the API kit. As you can see in the picture, tannins are still coloring the tank pretty darkly. Guess with this volume of soil it takes a while to establish.
  • I added ramshorn and Malaysian trumpet snails (MTS) to the tank about a week ago. Of course, some bladder snails miraculously materialized as well, as they do. They are the only fauna so far, besides some micro-critters starting to appear.
  • Plants are pretty stagnant thus far. I can see a teensy bit of new growth on the carpet plants (even the crypts, which surprised me as they are slow growers), but still slow going. I'm hoping to see some shoots from the dwarf sag and new leaves from the swords in the next two weeks.
  • The Hygrophila Pinnatifida and the crypts have melted quite a bit. I expected it for the crypts and the Hygrophila is putting out new growth on top, so not too worried.
  • Floating plants are the exception - the mini water lettuce is growing really nicely! Salvinia is still trying to adapt - it seems to take time for it to calibrate whenever I add it to a new tank.
  • There are now two pothos cuttings in the tank. We got a beautiful golden/orange pothos as a gift for someone...so I had to sneak a cutting for myself :devilish:
  • There is a bit of algae on the anubias petite. This was there when it was introduced, but has grown somewhat. I turned the lights down a tad - now I play the game of adjusting light levels till I reach the optimal plant/algae growth. In my experience it seems like anubias is especially susceptible to algae, maybe because of its slow growth. Have others found this to be the case as well?
  • I added my old internal filter/pump to circulate the water a bit. When it's off, I notice a "pool" of murky water form at the bottom of the tank (especially noticeable because of the slope and the white sand). For now it seemed better to keep the water moving a bit, in hopes of keeping some flow through the top layers of soil and maybe helping the dirt stabilize faster (if that's even a thing?).

One question:
  • Is 0.25 - 0.5ppm ammonia too much to add shrimp? The snails are doing great so far (lots of egg clusters laid as well) and I think shrimp would help clean up extra plant matter. But maybe I should wait another week...
 

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It's tricky because I think your salvinia will help shield the tank from too much light once it gets going. I have no way of dimming my LED array but haven't had a huge algae prob due to the floater carpet, I think.
 

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Discussion Starter · #12 ·
It's tricky because I think your salvinia will help shield the tank from too much light once it gets going. I have no way of dimming my LED array but haven't had a huge algae prob due to the floater carpet, I think.
True, and floating plants seem to really want a lot of light. I tend to try to keep their numbers low enough that they don't block too much light to the submerged plants, but if I'm being lazy and don't want to scoop a bunch of floaters out I will just up the light level.

I definitely recommend adjustable lights, makes fine tuning a breeze. I think you can get a dimmer for an existing LED light if it's not natively supported.
 

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It's tricky because I think your salvinia will help shield the tank from too much light once it gets going. I have no way of dimming my LED array but haven't had a huge algae prob due to the floater carpet, I think.
Have you tried the tape trick? Put black electrical tape over some of the diodes, you can put paper on the portion of tape that's over the diodes so you don't get sticky residue on them. It's a low tech trick that works in a pinch.

Sent from my EC211001 using Tapatalk
 

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Why not reduce the water level as you did in the beginning? Those stem plants and the swordplant will thank you for the extra light. Fill the tank when everything settles down.

Also I keep many more floating plants than what you show in your photo. Instead of dimming the light, let the floating plants cover 70-80% of the surface.
 

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Discussion Starter · #16 ·
Why not reduce the water level as you did in the beginning? Those stem plants and the swordplant will thank you for the extra light. Fill the tank when everything settles down.

Also I keep many more floating plants than what you show in your photo. Instead of dimming the light, let the floating plants cover 70-80% of the surface.
I was hoping the larger water quantity would help dilute the ammonia faster. But yeah, I could reduce it. I’m somewhat worried it’s just prolonging the adjustment the plants go through when they’re submerged, but I guess it’s better to let them establish a bit first.

I am moving floating plants over from my smaller tank as they reproduce there. Added another handful of them today, I’d say the surface is ~50% covered now. Thanks for the tip though, I’ll keep adding them as I get more.
 

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Discussion Starter · #17 ·
Quick update:

Ammonia readings are at 0 now, but nitrite is through the roof. Even with a 90%+ water change it only brought it down from 2.0ppm to 0.5ppm, and it was back at 1.0ppm the next day. I believe it's from nitrite respiration in the soil. Any idea how long this phase lasts? Couple days/couple weeks?

Tannins are much much less prevalent now. Water is pretty much clear. Just a bit hazy from bacterial bloom. I removed the internal filter as I didn't feel like it was adding much benefit...although I go back and forth on it.

Got some red root floaters and Hydrocotyle Japan to add to the tank. Plants are not growing too much, but nothing is really melting either. Some new growth on basically all the plants, but no runners/etc from the sag. I'd say the surface is 75-80% covered w/ floaters at this point.

Lowered the water level as suggested. Hoping to add some fish this weekend, but will depend on nitrite coming down. It's interesting - I had no nitrite spike in either of my previous tanks. It must be to do with un-rinsed substrate. Despite many water changes and disturbances, the "beach" has remained pretty clear of debris. Happy with how it all looks so far!
Plant Rectangle Picture frame Wood Grass
 

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Discussion Starter · #19 ·
Your sag looks very green and healthy. I can only imagine it will be a week or less before you start seeing runners. Did you sort them by size like that on purpose? I like the look.
Thanks! I hope so, some runners would be a nice sign. Do you mean sorted front to back, or left and right? The carpet plants on the right are cryptocoryne parva.
 

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Looks good! Those stem plants look happy. I think reducing water level was a good move.

Nitrites will come down and source of problem probably is nitrates in the bagged soil. I am pleased to hear that you have alluded to nitrate respiration. Excellent! I addressed that in another thread just a moment ago.

Soil particles are negatively charged and they attract positive charged ions (Ca++, NH4++, K+, etc). And they repel negatively charged ions (anions) like nitrate (NO3-) and nitrite (NO2-). So your nitrite problem will disappear rather quickly as these anions diffuse out of the soil.
 
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