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I’ve heard a range of differing opinions on dirted tanks. Some say they’re plant crack, and some say basic rot tabs do the exact same thing with the same results. What are your guys’ thoughts on them? Have you had success? Failure? Longevity? Brands? And would it be good for a beginner who just wants to provide the best for their plants?

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Dirted tanks are plant crack, that’s definitely true, however I highly recommend doing 2 things:

1. Use organic worm castings instead of soil. It’s finer, has less raw organic matter, and has a higher iron content. Worm castings also have the benefit of being less “hot” (lower ammonia content) so you have less risk of ammonia spikes. It takes a bit longer to really make a difference in some plants, but the results are just as impressive as regular soil. 

2. Use a barrier between the soil and your cap. plastic craft mesh works, but I actually recommend using egg crate to contain it. It’s cheap and you can cut it to size really easily with a pair or wire clippers. If you want a thicker soil layer, you can simply stack two layers and it’s still pretty cheap. You can see an example of my use of egg crate with nutrient-rich soil here on my blog. I used a special soil mixture with red clay, but I’m still experimenting with it, so I can’t recommend it until I know for sure that it works well. 

Pretty much everyone who has ever done a dirted tank has said that it does wonders for plants, but always complains about 2 things: ammonia spikes and the mess when the dirt gets disturbed. In my experience, the worm castings and barrier nearly eliminate those problems. I’ve had great success with it so far, and it should last about as long as an aquasoil would. You can always amend it with root tabs to extend the life of it, but if you use a coarser sand or gravel to cap it, detritus from fish waste will most likely make its way down there and act as fertilizer. 

If you’re nervous about it, you can always try it out in a small tank before you take it on to a larger scale, but I will tell you, after having a dirted pond and a few dirted tanks, I’ll never go back to anything else. 

 

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1 hour ago, Patrick_G said:

If you’re a beginner as in it’s your first planted aquarium you might want to consider a commercial aquasoil. They’re designed to provide a nutrient layer without the mess associated with dirt. The down side is the cost. Aquasoil is crazy expensive, but for a small tanks it wouldn’t be to bad. 

Damn...unfortunately I have a medium-small sized 20g and I don’t have the ~$30 to fill the tank up with in aqua soil since they all seem to cost around that much.

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2 hours ago, Nirvanaquatics said:

Dirted tanks are plant crack, that’s definitely true, however I highly recommend doing 2 things:

1. Use organic worm castings instead of soil. It’s finer, has less raw organic matter, and has a higher iron content. Worm castings also have the benefit of being less “hot” (lower ammonia content) so you have less risk of ammonia spikes. It takes a bit longer to really make a difference in some plants, but the results are just as impressive as regular soil. 

2. Use a barrier between the soil and your cap. plastic craft mesh works, but I actually recommend using egg crate to contain it. It’s cheap and you can cut it to size really easily with a pair or wire clippers. If you want a thicker soil layer, you can simply stack two layers and it’s still pretty cheap. You can see an example of my use of egg crate with nutrient-rich soil here on my blog. I used a special soil mixture with red clay, but I’m still experimenting with it, so I can’t recommend it until I know for sure that it works well. 

Pretty much everyone who has ever done a dirted tank has said that it does wonders for plants, but always complains about 2 things: ammonia spikes and the mess when the dirt gets disturbed. In my experience, the worm castings and barrier nearly eliminate those problems. I’ve had great success with it so far, and it should last about as long as an aquasoil would. You can always amend it with root tabs to extend the life of it, but if you use a coarser sand or gravel to cap it, detritus from fish waste will most likely make its way down there and act as fertilizer. 

If you’re nervous about it, you can always try it out in a small tank before you take it on to a larger scale, but I will tell you, after having a dirted pond and a few dirted tanks, I’ll never go back to anything else. 

 

Well...I do have access to worm castings. I’ll try it! As for the egg crate, do you really need a separating layer in there? I thought just a thick cap would be fine?

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I just look

Quote

 

ed at your blog post and really enjoyed it. I just tried a dirted substrate based on MDs Fish Tanks and created a holy mess and couldn’t lower the pH. So I tore down that substrate removing the dirt and  I tested all the individual components. Gravel, pebbles, sand, and dirt individually, but could not recreate the higher pH. So I put the gravel, sand and pebbles together added wood and plants and the higher pH reappeared. So I am now living with the higher pH in my second tank, a 20 gallon. 
 

But I like your concept of worm castings and the egg crates. I just purchased a 5 gallon Marineland Portrait tank after watching Cory’s video on it. I was going to put my first Betta in it, but I can’t think he would be happy in that small of a tank. 
 

He is currently in my 20 long community tank and doing very well. He is behaving himself with the other fish, cherry shrimp, and ramshorn snails. So I am happy to leave him be. 
 

 

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8 hours ago, Demobanana said:

I’ve heard a range of differing opinions on dirted tanks. Some say they’re plant crack, and some say basic rot tabs do the exact same thing with the same results. What are your guys’ thoughts on them? Have you had success? Failure? Longevity? Brands? And would it be good for a beginner who just wants to provide the best for their plants?

Confession: I’ve not yet set up a dirted tank. However, as I understand it, one seminal book on the method is by Diana Walstadt (see below).

One of the Forum moderators @Streetwise has a fair bit of experience with setting up dirted tanks. I’ve tried (in vain) to find some threads he’s started or contributed to on that subject. Maybe someone can find those and link a reply.

With good advice and help, it sounds like a fascinating project. If you e never watched the guys in Europe over at Green Aqua set up a scape from start to finish, it’s worth noticing how much soil they use in their substrates. Not exactly the dirted tank method, but some overlapping concepts.

 

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6 hours ago, Demobanana said:

Well...I do have access to worm castings. I’ll try it! As for the egg crate, do you really need a separating layer in there? I thought just a thick cap would be fine?

The purpose of the separation is to prevent mess, so no, you don't absolutely have to have it, but it does definitely help contain everything. 

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I'm sure dirted tanks are great. I'm new and haven't tried one myself. The only issue I have has more to do with some of the proponents of them. I've done lots of reading and video watching on the topic and there seems to be a group of very vocal people who are hostile to any other form of planted tanks. Going so far as attacking others for not doing it their way. I don't think Walstad would approve of their behavior.

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2 minutes ago, Patrick_G said:

I’m with you! In my most recent tank I ended up mixing some gravel and some aquasoil to make it go further. 

I have to tell you, I tried ADA aquasoil and I hated every second of it. It lasted barely 10 months before falling apart and it caused a lot of nutrient and algae issues. For such an expensive product, it sure isn’t very user friendly, nor is it very long lasting. Not sure if I got a bad batch or what, but I don’t think I’ll ever touch the stuff again. 

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Just now, sudofish said:

I'm sure dirted tanks are great. I'm new and haven't tried one myself. The only issue I have has more to do with some of the proponents of them. I've done lots of reading and video watching on the topic and there seems to be a group of very vocal people who are hostile to any other form of planted tanks. Going so far as attacking others for not doing it their way. I don't think Walstad would approve of their behavior.

Folks tend to narrow their idea of what’s acceptable in the hobby. It’s cool to have one’s corner of interest and expertise but what’s the harm in acknowledging other equally valid techniques? 

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3 minutes ago, sudofish said:

I'm sure dirted tanks are great. I'm new and haven't tried one myself. The only issue I have has more to do with some of the proponents of them. I've done lots of reading and video watching on the topic and there seems to be a group of very vocal people who are hostile to any other form of planted tanks. Going so far as attacking others for not doing it their way. I don't think Walstad would approve of their behavior.

I think those people are just salty that aquasoil is so exorbitantly expensive when dirt is so cheap and it works so much better. One of the youtubers I watch actually did an experiment on it and found that dirt was the better choice, I have found the same thing to be true. The only real reason aquasoil is so popular is because it’s less messy and personally I think it’s kind of a racket. I won’t hate on people for using it, but I can’t bring myself to spend that much on substrate when there are better, cheaper options, ya know? 

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4 minutes ago, Mmiller2001 said:

This! Pick what looks best to you.

If cost is an issue, look at Black Diamond Blasting Sand.

In our house we have tanks with a variety of substrates including Ecocomplete, black sand, pool filter sand, capped aquasoil and straight Fluval Stratum. They all grow plants, but my wife’s little Nano tank with plain black sand is a plant growing machine. It’s amazing how fast it fills in. 

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Cheers @Fish Folk!

I have my journals listed in my signature. I have learned a lot as I added more tanks, and read DW’s advice more carefully. The mistakes that I made included going too deep with my soil, going too deep with my cap, and using too much sand. When I setup my next tank, I will use 1-1.5 inches of organic soil, and a thin cap of small gravel like Peace River, perhaps about 0.5 inches. It easier to add substrate than remove it.

All my attempts to turbocharge my substrate by going big resulted in anaerobic issues. I have thinned out the caps in some of my tanks, but it is better to get the layering right from the start. I still stab the substrate with skewers in a couple of my older tanks to release gasses.

I also prefer the term organic soil aquarium over dirted tank.

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I always add a layer of soil to all my tanks big or small and my plants grow like GANGBUSTERS I currently have a 29 gal that's packed to the gills with anubias. It's about a year and a half old, and I started with a small potted anubias from petco. I use a lot of oakleaf mulch in my soil. I've used aquasoil in the past, but always found it to be more trouble than  it's worth. I cap my soil with pea gravel that I get from homedepot. Never had an issue with fish digging, but then I don't keep fish that dig. If you wanna give it a shot, I say keep the plants in there first for a bit before you add fish if you're worried about ammonia spikes....

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My thoughts on organic soil aquariums in general is the same as my thoughts on aquariums in general, you should keep aquariums in whatever way you will enjoy them the most as long as they are healthy for the inhabitants. 

Personally, I am the type of person that is busy and enjoys feeding/ watching my aquariums. I prefer to spend time observing the inhabitants and making live baby brine or feeding frozen food rather than constant water changes, dosing liquid fertilizers and adding root tabs. I have found that the best way to do this is with heavily planted aquariums with organic soil or lightly stocked aquariums with only epiphytes. 

I have had and still have planted aquariums without the use of organic soil. I just rarely keep up with them due to my lack of time. I mostly do not keep up with the root tabs if I am being honest but they grow plants well also. 

My aquariums with organic soil use around 1”-1.5” of organic soil at the thickest point capped with a suitable substrate of at least the same thickness of the soil. I have successfully done this with black diamond blasting sand, pool filter sand and normal aquarium gravel. I just use Miracle Gro Natures Care organic soil. I typically sift it with a colander to remove the bigger pieces. All of my organic soil aquariums grow minimal algae (can typically go a month or more without scrubbing front glass panel) and often go a month or more without water changes. 

As far as longevity goes, my longest organic soil aquarium is around 3 years old now, maybe a little older. It is still growing plants without an issue. I actually supplement with liquid fertilizer sometimes because the floating plants and riparian plants take out all the nitrates.

I have yet to have a failure in any of my setups. The key to this is to be prepared. Spend all the time, effort and money upfront and it will be a lot easier in the long run. 

I think a beginner can have success if they prepare enough as mentioned in the prior paragraph. I set up an organic soil aquarium for a family member who knows very little about aquariums and it has been doing great for almost 2 years now. All she does is trim the plants, feed her fish and do a water change every once in awhile. Her aquarium is mostly pogostemon stellatus octopus

I will include pictures of the tanks I have mentioned above. 

29 Gallon with normal gravel only:

CD9C3416-11A7-42BD-BD1D-DA86FD793148.jpeg.31752b83b3cd31b539972d8403d2c288.jpeg

10 Gallon with organic soil capped with gravel:

E6046E47-6254-4F2D-BFFC-87DAF807CB0B.jpeg.6711cc29ce5aac5c613abe248e248220.jpeg

55 Gallon with organic soil capped with black diamond blasting sand:

FECF59DF-2F7C-4F29-A7F4-D4AFFDD1F510.jpeg.315d5a65e6e0b4a6a170a60ec764603c.jpeg

40 Gallon Breeder with organic soil capped with pool filter sand:

DE83CD66-C424-4B77-856B-7CBB4F074ED2.jpeg.d1a87df8578d134b22e617561e1b1191.jpeg

55 Gallon I scaped for family member with organic soil capped with pool filter sand:

3FB77C3D-D9B7-4BAE-BA5C-0BA326728EDE.jpeg.312a9aa3e5dac759b3686e95e7fce83d.jpeg

20 Gallon Long epiphyte only aquarium:

D5EE3756-311D-42FF-87F5-15A17F2DF552.jpeg.54bf3883c9f24779332ccb6b23dcba3f.jpeg

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Dirted tanks are great! I currently have a 29 hex that is mineralized top soil tops with play sand, and a 25g mini pond that is a mixture of organic soil, crushed coral and safetsorb capped with more safetsorb. I also previously had a 5.5g that was mineralized top soil capped with fine aquarium gravel. 

Soon I'll be breaking down my 29hex to switch to a 40 breeder. My plan for that tank is to recycle the mineralized top soil from my hex and mix it with safetsorb and crushed coral then cap it with safetsorb. 

I find that mixing coarser substrate (saftesorb/crushed coral) help prevent messes because I move/add plants pretty often. 

Anyway there are as many ways of setting up a dirted tank as there are people keeping them. Hell there's even different types of dirt people use. 

My recommendation for a first dirted tank is buying an organic top soil and doing a very fine gravel cap. Then you can see what you do or don't like about it and make changes for the next tank you set up. 

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