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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Hi everyone,
I’ve been lurking here for a while, enjoying the posts in a lot of the forums, not just here in El Natural. I’ve finally decided to convert my 29g gravel substrate tank to a dirted tank. I have EPA and have been reading it, although most of the scientific stuff goes right over my head. I understand the concepts and how everything in the tank interacts with each other, but chemistry/physical science was never in my wheelhouse in school. My tank has been established for about 10 years and I successfully grow plants in the gravel substrate, I’m guessing mostly due to the 10+ years of gunk that sits just below the surface. 😊 I do dose with liquid fertilizers and root tabs but have never achieved the lush growth that I want. I have a cannister filter and a couple power heads that keep the water moving and it’s heated to 77°F. Currently it’s injected with CO2 with a probe and monitor set to keep pH at 7.0. Lighting is a Fluval Fresh&Plant LED controlled by wifi. My current fish load is one Blue Gourami, 11 cardinal tetras, five Trumpet snails and two Ottos. I was about to give up on this tank because of an algae problem that I could never get rid of. I recently did a redo on the plants and removed the ones with the worst algae. I figured that this would be a good point to convert to a dirted tank. In anticipation of this change I’ve also ordered some Crypt Lucens, Bacopa Caroliniana, Scarlet Temple, Dwarf Chain Sword, Moneywort, Ammannia Gracilis, Staurogyne Repens and Dwarf Sagittaria. These will join Anubias Nana (tied to small piece of driftwood), Water Sprite, Water Lettuce, Amazon Sword, Hornwort and Crypt Wendtti already in the tank. Basically I’ll be throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall to see what sticks.

The organic soil I’ve chosen is Miracle-Gro Raised Bed Soil. According to the label it’s made up of peat, processed forest products and/or compost, poultry litter, alfalfa meal, bone meal, kelp meal and earthworm castings. Total nitrogen is 0.09%
• 0.008% ammoniacal nitrogen
• 0.028% other water soluble nitrogen
• 0.054% water insoluble nitrogen (from poultry litter, alfalfa meal and kelp meal)
Available phosphate is 0.08%
Soluble potash is 0.09%
Calcium is 0.02%
I don’t have the time or space to mineralize this soil and this was the least fertilized that I could find.

I’m going to mix the soil with plain cat litter (non-clumping, nothing added) and cap it with CaribSea Super Naturals Peace River gravel. It measures 1.0-2.0mm and looks pretty nice.
Before I make the switch I decided to do a little testing to see what all these ingredients do to my tap water. Currently I have a glass with just water; a glass with water, soil and gravel; a glass with water, soil, litter and gravel; and a glass with water, soil, litter and pinch of crushed oyster shell. For the last two I mixed the soil/litter at 50/50. Soil and gravel layers are both 1 inch deep. I want to see what happens to my pH, KH and GH in each combination of ingredients. I’m still waiting for my test kit to arrive so I’ll post those results later. Once I have my “recipe” sorted out it’s off to the races! My plan is to use my canister filter (for the bacteria) and some of the old gravel in a mesh bag to jumpstart the bacteria growth and help with cycling. I also plan to increase my fish load as it seems these tanks do better with more fish contributing nutrients, yes?

I have some questions regarding the initial setup…
When measuring the soil depth, do you measure “dry” or after some water has been added and it has settled a little?
Do you add the plants before or after adding the gravel cap? It seems to me that with stem plants they should go in before the cap and the swords should go in after so as not to bury the crown, yes?
Is there any benefit to using the old tank water?
Is there any benefit to continue the CO2 injection until plants start showing growth?
Any red flags that you more experienced members see in my choice of soil mix or plan in general?

Thanks in advance for any help! I’m excited to see how this goes!
Scott
 

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Welcome to APC! You have really done your homework, and setting up the ingredient test is a great idea. Your questions:

When measuring the soil depth, do you measure "dry" or after some water has been added and it has settled a little?
Usually there usually is not enough difference to matter, especially if you stick with the recommended 1" and 1".

Do you add the plants before or after adding the gravel cap? It seems to me that with stem plants they should go in before the cap and the swords should go in after so as not to bury the crown, yes?
I always start with soil and gravel in place before I plant. I also like to have the tank at least half full of water to support the plants. Using forceps, grab the roots or base of stem and insert through the gravel into the soil. If the plant seems too deep, gently pull it upward. Truly, planting too deep is rarely a problem except with epiphytes like Anubias that do not want their rhizomes covered.

Is there any benefit to using the old tank water?
No.

Is there any benefit to continue the CO2 injection until plants start showing growth?
In a Walstad tank you will have abundant natural CO2 from the start, tapering off as the soil stabilizes. This is especially true with a highly organic soil such as Miracle Grow. Don't use the CO2.

Any red flags that you more experienced members see in my choice of soil mix or plan in general?
Your plan sounds great. Please post the results of your jar tests. And remember, not all species of plants will grow in all tanks. You are starting with a good variety, but some will fail to thrive. This is normal--take those out and stick with the strong growers.
 

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Discussion Starter · #3 ·
Thanks Michael, I appreciate your response. I'll post my jar results later tonight after my test kit arrives. I'm excited to move forward with this and see where it goes!
 

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Discussion Starter · #4 ·
Here are the results of my jar tests:
Plain tap water - pH 6.74 4*dKH 2*dGH
Tap water + soil + gravel - pH 6.69 3*dKH 2*dGH
Tap water + soil + litter + gravel - pH 6.62 3*dKH 2*dGH
Tap water + soil + litter + oyster shell + gravel - pH 6.62 3*dKH 3*dGH
I used Sera test kits for the hardness and my pH monitor and probe for pH.

pH was measured one day after setting up the samples, and hardness was measured today so two days after setting up the samples. I did test the pH in the last sample today and it had risen to 6.69 so that tells me the soil is releasing CO2 into the water.

I’m not completely sure how to interpret the test results but looks to me like my water is on the soft side and I should opt for the mix with the oyster shell even though it didn’t change things that much. I only added a pinch for the test so when I set up my tank I’ll make sure and add plenty. Should I be aiming for a GH of 6-8?
 

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Thanks! Your results are probably within the normal margin of error for your test kit and pH meter (unless it is a really good one!). In other words, you have soft, slightly acidic water and none of the different conditions has made significant difference in the short term.

Rising levels of CO2 cause pH to go down, not up. So the oyster shell in the last jar may have actually had a small effect. But oyster shell works slowly over a period of weeks or months, so it is too early to tell much. Given the chemistry of your tap water, it is still a good idea to use oyster shell.

It is difficult to change water chemistry much over time. Your tap water is fine, just add some oyster shell and work with whatever chemistry results.

One last suggestion, do a soak and drain cycle on your soil before you put it in the tank. This will remove any annoying floaters and reduce the excess fertility a little.

Good luck!
 

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Discussion Starter · #6 ·
Thanks again Michael...I really appreciate your input! I'm hoping to make the transition this weekend so I'll try to document along the way and post the results.
 

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Discussion Starter · #7 ·
Yesterday I made the switch. Netting the fish took longer than I thought it would! [smilie=l:
Once I got them all out, they went into a bucket with the tank water, a mesh bag with some original gravel and the filter running. I also put the hornwort and water lettuce in there to give them some cover while I tore down the tank. All the other plants went into another bucket and then the fun began!

Here's the tank all cleaned out and ready for dirt.
[URL=https://app.photobucket.com/u/maico996/a/6ffe0afb-5c08-44db-b079-ac0c6db7a20f/p/115d7d39-01ff-4af6-9776-05a3866127e0]
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First layer of soil mixed with cat litter. I did one scoop of soil and about a 1/2 - 3/4 scoop of litter until the mix was one inch deep.


Next I added some crushed oyster shell. Not sure how much, just enough to cover the layer.


CaribSea gravel added to a depth of one inch.


Plants are in, ready for water.


Adding water was the slowest part of the setup. I used a 4-cup measuring cup and slowly poured it directly onto the driftwood so it wouldn't disturb the gravel. Once I got it about 2/3 full I switched to a siphon which sped things up considerably. Filling the tank took me about an hour. I added the gravel sock and put the filter back in place and started it up to help jumpstart the bacteria. I'll turn it off once things start growing. I also added three capfuls of Seachem Stability. Put the fish back in and everything seems fine. All in all, the whole process took me about five hours.


As of this morning my water isn't cloudy and I have no floaters from the top soil. I did not wet or rinse the soil first, just mixed it with litter and put it in the tank. I'll post more photos once things start to fill in. :D
 

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Discussion Starter · #9 ·
I removed the gravel sock this morning. Tonight I think I'll remove one of the media baskets from the filter, and probably the other one tomorrow night. I'll just be using the filter for water flow at that point.
 

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Looks like a very promising start! Soil/gravel layer not too thick, a little calcium source, good plants, etc.

You should see plant growth within the first week.

Minor point... It looks like the stems of your Bacopa caroliniana are all bunched together. If they are, I would separate the stems a bit to give them more room to spread out.
 

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Discussion Starter · #11 ·
Looks like a very promising start! Soil/gravel layer not too thick, a little calcium source, good plants, etc.

You should see plant growth within the first week.

Minor point... It looks like the stems of your Bacopa caroliniana are all bunched together. If they are, I would separate the stems a bit to give them more room to spread out.
Thanks for the response Diana! I'll separate those as you suggest. Your book has been a great resource even though some of it reads like a foreign language to me. ;) Looking forward to watching everything fill in over the next few weeks.
 

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Discussion Starter · #12 · (Edited)
Yesterday I removed both filter baskets from my canister filter, so now it’s a glorified water pump. :)
Things are looking good so far. I added more water lettuce and the Amazon Sword is really starting to take off. I’ll post more pictures soon.
 

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Discussion Starter · #13 ·
It's been a week since my conversion to el natural and I'm having a little bit of green water. Nothing out of control yet but I did get some more water lettuce. It all congregates at one end of the tank...should I try to adjust the flow to get it circulating around more? Is a water change necessary at this point or should I just let the plants do their thing for a while longer and see if it goes away?

Also have this very thin film on the water surface...should I be concerned about this? When I feed the fish it kind of breaks up into smaller "pieces".

 

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Tank is still young and soil is releasing a lot of DOC (dissolved organic carbon).

For this new tank, temporary tank cleaning is called for. Later on, when tank is established, you can relax.

I would remove the surface biofilm and do a water change.
 

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Discussion Starter · #15 ·
Tank is still young and soil is releasing a lot of DOC (dissolved organic carbon).

For this new tank, temporary tank cleaning is called for. Later on, when tank is established, you can relax.

I would remove the surface biofilm and do a water change.
Thanks again for your response. After the water change would you suggest installing the filter baskets back into the filter with only the mechanical media for now until things settle down in a few weeks?
 

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I don't think the baskets will make much difference in your situation. If the particles causing the cloudiness are algae or bacteria (1-10 micron in size), the typical mechanical filter isn't going to filter them out. If it's clay particles from the soil, the added filtration might be helpful. You could try it and see....
 

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Discussion Starter · #17 ·
It's been about two weeks since I converted to el natural. I've done a couple water changes and the GWA is starting to decrease. I am getting some hair algae but it's not too bad at the moment. Most plants are doing really well but I can see a couple that are struggling a little. Not gonna worry about it at this point and let the tank take its course. I removed the canister filter completely and have two power heads providing some water flow. The biofilm seems to have disappeared too. I've also added some Rummynose Tetras. They're doing great and are a lot of fun to watch. I also added three Amano Shrimp but I'm pretty sure the Gourami ate them. I may have to find a new home for that one as I'd really like to have some shrimp in my tank.
 

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They better hide or the gourami will eat them. When I had congo tetras, I didn't see the amanos. My tank is full of small fish now and the amanos are out all the time.
 
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