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Discussion Starter · #1 · (Edited)
So I've been lurking on this site for a while, gleaning from the experiences and advice of others as much as possible. But now it is time to actually join the fray. It's been years since my last aquarium due to lack of time/space/money, and I'm very ready to get back to a hobby I dearly love.

I've always focused pretty much entirely on the fish and have used hardscapes and plastic plants to create comfortable habitats for the fish. I've always wanted to have a go at a naturally planted tank, having been lured in by the tranquil beauty of iwagumi. However, I was turned off by the cost and space requirements of C02 systems and constant fert dosing. Enter "El Natural!"

I've recently purchased a 45g pre-drilled glass cube tank (24"x24"x18"), and I've decided to attempt a South American black water stream biotope in a soil based setup.

The Plan
Tank: 45g cube (24" x 24" x 18")
Filter: 20g high as a DIY sump with mechanical and bio filtration powered by Tunze Silence 1073.020
Substrate: MGOCPM mixed 50/50 (or so) with Safe-T-Sorb and capped with STS
Hardscape: Two lovely pieces of driftwood
Flora: Pygmy chain swords for foreground cover, star grass for mid-ground, Amazon Swords for focal points, something floaty like frogbit maybe, and not sure yet for background
Fauna: Cardinal Tetras, Three-lined Corydoras, Otocinclus, Blue Rams
Lighting: Current USA Satellite LED+ (or two if needed)
Heater: ViaAqua 200watt Titanium (in the sump)

The Params
I'm on Smoky Mountain well water, but it's not as crazy as I would have thought. No chlorine to worry about and should have good nutrients though.
PH: 7.6
kH: 8º
gH: 8º

Where I am
I've plumbed my tank to my sump. I've affixed all the dividers in my sump tank. I've purchased everything I need except my sump pump, lighting, plants, and critters. I've sifted my soil through a 1/4" sieve and let it off-gas in the dry for a couple of weeks. Not sure what other soil prep I need to do yet.

I expect the soil and driftwood (and probably the STS) to bring my hardness and PH down to a more black water type environment. I think they'll probably give me the tannin staining that I need as well.

So now, I'm trying to decide what else to do with my soil before I put it in the tank. I've seen everything on the forums from straight from bag to tank, to turning it into a messy gloppy soup first. I've seen results from others ranging from "perfect" to "inconvenient but livable" to "completely disastrous" using just about every suggested method. I'm leaning towards just mixing it with the clay and putting it in the tank with no pre-soaking.

I'm also not sure how heavily I want to plant it since the biotope I'm going for isn't typically "jungle-like." I am afraid if I don't plant it heavily though that the tank could easily become too toxic for the fish. I'm not in any hurry to get the fish in there right away; although, I'd like to get some Otos in there pretty quickly to help keep algae blooms to a minimum.

If anybody sees any major holes in my plans or pitfalls in my future please feel free to let me know. I'll admit I haven't yet read Diane's book, but I plan to as soon as I have time. I'll try to get some "process" photos on here as soon as I can.
 

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Welcome back to the hobby, and welcome to APC! Your plan sound good! It's funny because I am going to try my first El Natural tank hear shortly too. For planting you could add lots of fast growing plants untell things stabilize, then when the water is good you can start replacing those plants with the plants you want. It could be a little messy that way, with up rooting the plants and everything, but it might work. You could wait to see if somebody else has a better idea though. I will be watching for updates!
 

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Discussion Starter · #3 ·
Strict biotope vs close enough?

Thanks Shrimplett. I'll keep an eye out for your tank as well.

The challenge for me has been deciding just how true to the biotope vs aesthetically pleasing to myself do I want to be. For example I'm not completely sure microgeophagus ramirezi would strictly speaking be in the same biotope as paracheirodon axelrodi, but I'd really like to have both. Also I've read some people who have said that neither of those two species should have very many plants (if any) in their biotope while others say that they've observed them in the wild in areas that have various Echinodorus species, star grass, vals, and even cabomba (or something similar). The problem seems to be that the rivers, lakes and streams to which these species are native are so vast that it would be impossible for one person to observe all the various combinations of conditions they might be found in.

I'm sure most people would say I'm over-thinking all this, but hopefully the world of aquaria is full of other fish geeks who understand why the challenge of scientific accuracy in a biotope can be just as appealing as the aesthetic beauty. If you are one of those people, please feel free to chime in with fish, plant or substrate advice.
 

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It is great to see someone putting so much thought into a biotope--few people do. If you aren't already familiar with his work, look up George Farmer on the internet. He has created the most accurate AND aesthetically pleasing biotopes I've seen.
 

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Discussion Starter · #5 ·
Thanks for stopping by my thread Michael. I was hoping you might have some wisdom to impart regarding my soil prep. You're the reason I've made some of the decisions I already have (thanks for turning me on to STS by the way). Besides the sifting and airing out of my mgocpm, what else would you recommend I do with it before I mix it with sts and put it in my tank? Also, do you think it would make sense to mix some play sand or similar with sts for the cap to make it more accurate for the biotope, or would that make it more likely to trap gas bubbles under the cap?

Finally, does anybody have any recommendations of plants that would do well in the soft, acidic, low-light environment that the rams and cardinals would enjoy?
 

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Moonshine, I recommend mineralizing the MGOC, or if you can't do that, soak and drain it several times. In your biotope, the tannins that bother most people actually will be appropriate.

Try the sand-STS mix in a jar or small tank first. I suspect that the sand, being heavier, will migrate downward over time, leaving only STS on the top. So the mix might not give the change in appearance that you want. As long as the depth of the soil layer and cap are reasonable, you won't have problems with gases trapped under the cap.

Something else you might think about is using leaf litter over the substrate. It would be accurate for your biotope, and give a very natural appearance. The best article I've read about this is on Seriously Fish: http://www.seriouslyfish.com/all-the-leaves-are-brown/
 

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Discussion Starter · #8 · (Edited)
Thanks Bruce, I've spent a lot of time on that site over the past couple of months.

Moonshine, I recommend mineralizing the MGOC, or if you can't do that, soak and drain it several times. In your biotope, the tannins that bother most people actually will be appropriate.
I though MGOC didn't need to be mineralized (at least not with the full AaronT method). I certainly can't leave it spread out to dry outside of my house thanks to all the feral cats that live around me. Just a side note: the bag of MGOC I got seems to have a LOT of what appears to be only slightly composted pine bark. Is that normal? I've sifted out all the big chunks of it, but there's a lot still in there.

Something else you might think about is using leaf litter over the substrate. It would be accurate for your biotope, and give a very natural appearance. The best article I've read about this is on Seriously Fish: http://www.seriouslyfish.com/all-the-leaves-are-brown/
This exactly epitomizes why I'm so confused about what to do. If I just go with leaf litter and no plants like a lot of people say would be "accurate for [my] biotope" then there's really no reason to use the MGOC or STS is there? Some "experts" make it sound like I might as well just use play sand and cover it with leaves and forget about plants all together, while others, like Rhett Butler at mongobay.com, seem to indicate that Echinodorus, vallisneria, and Cabomba are common in the habitats of all the fish I'd like to keep. Like I said before, I'm pretty sure I'm over thinking all this :rolleyes:

Since rams are from the Orinoco and Cardinals are from the Rio *****, I guess I could just forget about the whole biotope idea and just do what I want. I'm just not sure any of the plants I want would survive the soft acidic environment.

So maybe I should just do the easy thing and do sand and dead leaves and figure out some dwarf cichlid that would fit in a true Rio ***** biotope instead of the rams.

I'm so confused :confused: Is it possible that a Orinoco/Rio ***** biotope just won't work with El Natural? Maybe I'm just not up to the challenge of a strict biotope...nah I love the challenge of trying to figure out how to balance all these factors almost as much as I enjoy the aquarium itself. LOL
 

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Although it is a lengthy read, the sticky "suitable soils for the Walstad" method will answer most of your questions about MGOC. In short, MGOC is very rich, and really needs to be soaked and drained or mineralzed. And yes, it is full of chunks of wood that will float and drive you crazy unless you get them out. Expect to lose 30% of the volume of MGOC that you start with.

Your first decision is to use plants or not in your biotope. If no plants, then just do an inert substrate like sand, with or without leaf litter. If you want plants, then the Walstad method will work well for a biotope. Just choose a cap that is appropriate, and use leaf litter on top of it if that is appropriate to the habitat you are imitating.
 

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Discussion Starter · #10 ·
First and foremost my original goal for this build was to have a beautifully planted tank; so I've decided not to worry so much about trying to create a perfectly accurate biotope. It will be an upper Orinoco themed NPT. I'll have (once the tank is stable) cardinal tetras, either blue or Bolivian rams (suggestions?), three-lined corydoras, and otocinclus in a tank planted with Italian vals in the back, maybe cobomba coming up from the middle of the driftwood, some stargrass around the front of the driftwood, a front lawn of pygmy chain sword, and some Brazilian pennywort floating on top. From what I've read, all of those plants should do well in a soft, acidic environment with warmer water and low to medium lighting (except maybe the cabomba). A few of them should be fast growing enough to help stabilize the tank and keep algae outbreaks to a minimum.
 

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The vallisneria prefers harder and more basic water. But it is a very vigorous plant and may adapt to soft, acidic water.
 

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Discussion Starter · #12 ·
Can you recommend anything tall, reedy, and fast growing that might be happier in my tank? I just picked vallisneria because mongobay.com lists it in nearly all of the South American biotope descriptions. I assume that is due to its relative similarity to the reedy plants that grow submersed and emersed along the banks of even some of the most plant inhospitable rivers of the Orinoco and Rio ***** regions.
 

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I personally like German blue rams better than Bolivian rams. I just think they are prettier. I know people say the Germans are pretty sensitive, but I have not had this experance at all. My rams are so hardy it's hard for me to believe all the horror story's on them. The trick is to find a LFS that does not get there rams from Asia. I have never had Bolivan rams so I can't say much on them. I hear they are hardier then the Germans and I think the may get bigger, but I don't know much else.
 

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Discussion Starter · #14 ·
I think I have to agree with you shrimplett. I was at the lfs yesterday and got to see some Bolivian rams in person for the first time. They pretty much look exactly like blue rams just without all the interesting coloration. So while I will likely have to wait and cycle my tank a little longer before adding the more delicate blue rams, I think it's worth it. Plus I like the challenge of keeping fish that are considered difficult.
 

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Discussion Starter · #15 ·
I'm getting a little frustrated in my quest for soil, but I have finally completely the first soak and drain cycle of my mgocpm. As a result of the ridiculous amount of wood chips and tree bark, I've lost about 60-70% of my first 32lb bag--which is part of the reason for my frustration. I also managed to find a satisfactory method of washing my STS by building a 30" x 30" frame and covering it with window screen, then gently rinsing it. So I now have the outside border of my substrate in place.

I'm still hoping someone can steer me in the right direction regarding whether my driftwood should sit right on the bottom with the substrate poured in around it, or if it should sit more or less on top of the substrate to prevent the formation of anaerobic conditions. Or a third option I hadn't previously considered would be on top of the soil with the cap poured in around it.
 

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I'm still hoping someone can steer me in the right direction regarding whether my driftwood should sit right on the bottom with the substrate poured in around it, or if it should sit more or less on top of the substrate to prevent the formation of anaerobic conditions.
I hope you don't mind me answering your question.
Putting heavy objects on top of the substrate or soil can result in compacting it, thus stopping oxygen from reaching those areas and subsequently creating anaerobic conditions. So best is to place the hardscape first, then build the substrate around it.
 

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Discussion Starter · #17 ·
I hope you don't mind me answering your question.
Putting heavy objects on top of the substrate or soil can result in compacting it, thus stopping oxygen from reaching those areas and subsequently creating anaerobic conditions. So best is to place the hardscape first, then build the substrate around it.
Awesome! I thought I'd read that somewhere, but I could never find it again. Thank you so much for your help.
 

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This is kinda random, but i read somewhere that for a planted tank, its important to have little hardscape taking up substrate space for your plants to grow... How much hardscape could i get away with?
 
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