Two Different Low Maintenance Planted Tanks: Two Very Different Approaches
An Experiment to test the long term viability of low tech non-C02 tanks.
In the world of planted aquariums, there are many variations of low tech, low maintenance tank setups, all equally successful. However, there are two predominant approaches to setting up low tech, low maintenance tanks. These setups are designed to remove the drugery, time, and frustration of doing weekly water changes. A secondary benefit to such tanks are the potential savings gained by not having to invest in expensive high tech equipment such as regulators, c02 tanks, and the cost of having ro refill c02 tanks. It is said that low tech tanks are also more forgiving of errors and make it easier to achieve and maintain stability and balance. Also, in theory, algae should not be a huge issue given that low light is used. Although low light was used in this case, a focus on low light is not critical in a Diana Walstead type natural tank. In fact, it is recommended that supplmental sunlight be provided where possible. Also, the issue of algae is irrelevant and minimal algae is welcomed in a Diana Walstead type natural planted tank. Individuals are encouraged to stock the tank with a variety(snails, shrimp, bristlenose plecos, otos, mollies, rosy barbs, etc.,) of algae eating critters to keep algae from getting out of hand.
The purpose of this experiment is two fold:
(1) to determine if a low maintenance non-C02 tank is viable over the short term and more importantly over the long run.
(2) to determine how two very different low maintenance non-c02 tank approaches would compare over the short and long term with respect to healthy plant growth and health of inhabitants.
The two approaches in question are the Tom Barr recommended non-C02 low maintenance tank and the Diana Walstead non-C02 low maintenance natural planted tank. Although there are obvious fundamental differences between both Tom Barr's and Diana Walstead's approaches, both Tom Barr and Diana Walstead are highly regarded in the Aquarium Plant World. Rather than get into the details of what such a setup entails, I have provided the following link which provides the details and idea behind such a setup.
Likewise rather than go into the details of what a Diana Walstead type non-C02 tank involves, the following is a direct link that posts the details and idea behind such a setup.
For people on a limited budget, who do not have the resources and in some cases the time, I hope that the findings and observations of this experiment make it easier to choose the approach that they feel would best work for them. I would like to extend a big thank you to Diana Walstead, Tom Barr, Dataguru(aka; Betty Harris), onemyndseye, NatalieT, Mr. Fishies, Mistergreen, and the other fine folks of the ELNatural forum at www.aquariumplants.com for openly sharing their ideas, experiences, and observations.
In a previous anti-algae experiment, I have been meticulous about logging water parameters monthly. For these two tanks, I decided to chill out and log observations weekly. The idea behind the two non-c02 low maintenance tanks is to not spend a fortune on various test kits and constantly measure water parameters but let nature take its course. The only parameters I will be testing in both tanks until the tank is cycled is ammonia and nitrites.
With respect to inhabitants, I will only add inhabitants to the tank when I notice some new healthy plant growth and when ammonia and nitrites test 0 in both tanks. I have not decided on the inhabitants yet, but I am only start with feeder fish or feeder ghost shrimp for testing purposes. I may also transfer some snails from another 10 gallon snail infested tank. Below are pictures and details of my setup, followed by a weekly update.
Tom Barr recommended 5 gallon low maintenance, low light non-C02 tank.
Date of Setup: November 7 2007
Tank Size: 5 Gallon Conventional/Rectangular Tank.
Filter: Aquaclear 150 with bag of Seachem matrix stone media, Seachem Purigen, and some floss media from the filter of an established tank.
Inhabitants: One whitcloud minnow placed in tank on Nov 13 2007.
Substrate: As per Tom Barr, thin layer of garden peat moss, Black Diamond Leonardite, mulm from an established tank and topped with Seachem Onyx Sand.
Fertilization: As per Tom Barr, weekly dosing of nitrates, phosphates and Seachem Equilibrium. Also , daily dosing of Seachem Fluorish Excel.
Plants: Aponogenton(?crispus?), java fern, pygmy chain sword, Cryptocorne Bronze Wenditti,Anubias ‘Congensis’,Anubias barteri v. ‘Nana’
Light: 10 watt Coral Life Coralmax full spectrum with 10 hour photoperiod.
Diana Walstead recommened Natural Planted Tank non c02 injected.
Date of Setup: November 7 2007
Tank Size: 5 Gallon Marineland Hex Tank.
Filter: It is a marineland with its own built in filter so I left the built in biowheel filter running and placed a carbon filter insert to suck up some of the organics.
Inhabitants: One whitcloud minnow placed in tank on Nov 13 2007.
Substrate: Green Leaf Topping soil from Home Depot, capped with Traction Sand. I had no crushed oyster shells but did have some calcium sulphate, so I mixed in a couple of teaspoons of the calcium sulphate into the soil. As my tap water has submarginal levels of calcium, I felt that this probably would not hurt and if anything would create a ideal environment for shrimp and snails that would be highly dependent on adequate calcium for their exoskeletons and shells.
Fertilization: None. Not part of Diana Walstead Natural Planted tank concept.
Plants: Dwarf Sag, pygmy chain sword, Cryptocorne Bronze Wenditti, Anubias ‘Congensis’,Anubias barteri v. ‘Nana’
Light: 10 watt Coral Life Coralmax full spectrum with 10 hour photoperiod
Weekly Log Nov 7 07 -Dec 5 07. Monthly logs therafter:
Nov 7 2007: Ammonia readings were extremely high in both tanks, despite heavy planting. Lack of floating plants and fast growing stems may account for this. As per recommendation of DataGuru, I added some egera densa and cardamine to make up for lack of floaters and fast growing stem plants in the Diana Walstead type tank. I could not do the same for the Tom Barr Set up as I was using dosing fluorish excel in that tank. With 10 watts lighting in both tanks, I was also hesitant in putting in floating plants for fear of blocking out too much light.
Nov 14 2007: In keeping with the Diana Walstead Natural Planted concept, I transferred a few snails from one of my heavily snail infested 10 gallon tanks to the natural planted tank on Nov 9 2007. Also on November 13 2007, I went to my local pet store and purchased two white cloud minnows to help cycle both setups. I acclimitized both fish using my drip acclimitization setup.
The white cloud minnow I placed in the Tom Barr low type setup appeared jittery. The one placed in the Diana Walstead type setup appeared calm and passive. However, the one placed in the Tom Barr Type Setup appeared to have his tail nipped so he could have already been severley stressed out which would explain his behaviour.
With respect to plant growth some of the leaves of the cryptocornes were melting which would be expected. There was also some die off of anubias Congensis leaves in the Diana Walstead setup as per picture below.
The major decision I was faced with was whether to do water changes or not until the tank was settled and new plant growth was seen. My fear was that with the initial die off of some plant leaves, initial organic waste levels would be too great. I decided to go with weekly water changes for both tanks until things appeared more settled. Today I completed a partial water change of both tanks and as per Tom Barr's recommendation, added a pinch/dash(using the end of a coffee stir stick) of Seachem equilibrium, phosphates, and nitrates to the Tom Barr Type setup. 50 cc(using syringe) of Excel was also dosed in the Tom Barr type setup.
Nov 17 2007: This is an update outside the 7 days a I had added additional plants to both tanks.
These may be either sword or apongenton leaves, I am not 100% sure. One has to question, what would spur such growth. I narrowed it down to three possible things and through the process of elimination narrowed it down to one possible thing. The leonardite, mulm. and peatmoss mixture was not responsible for the growth as I had set up a similar tank at work which was not displaying the same level of growth. It was not due to any excess fertilization or nutrients from the waste of a heavily stocked tank as the tank only had one white cloud minnow. What I believe to be responsible is the Seachem Onyx sand, only because a similarily set up tank at work with the same light intensity and duration and similiar plants was not displaying rapid growth and the main difference between the two tanks was that the tank at work had a cap of Tahitian Moon Sand instead of Seachem Onyx Sand.
Below is also a picture of some dieing leaves that I trimmed. Is the dieoff a natural result of acclimitization, due to some nutrient deficiency, or due to alleopathy?? I don't know and don't care as long as the majority of the plants exhibit healthy growth.
In the Diana Walstead tank, plant growth appears to be at a standstill. There is some die off of cardamine leaves and Green Dust algae appears to be materializing. Green Dust Algae is interesting, it is supposed to have a life cycle of 3-4 weeks and if left alone is said to die off naturally. The other thing that I found from my own experience is that Green Dust Algae does not seem to materialize in tanks where I have the photoperiod restricted to 8 hours or less and only seems to materialize at photoperiods in excess of 8 hours. For this reason, I reduce the photoperiod in the Diana Walstead type tank from 10 hours to 7 hours. Time will tell if this works to cause the Green Dust Algae to complete its cycle and recede faster. Also, I don't anticipate this will cause huge plant growth issues, as the plants in the tank are low light plants.
I am hopeful other types of algae will not surface. As an anti-algae measure, I packed the tank with egera densa and also cheated dosing PPS PRO to further stimulate plant growth. Normally for Natural Planted Tank Substrate one would feed the fish more or increase fish. My Betta enjoys solitude and so increasing fish stock was not an option. As well, with the rate the snails were replicating and continued to replicate, adding additional fish may have lead to excess bioload issues. I was not to keen on feeding the Betta more as this could have further added to the snail problem, which I was trying to keep in check given the size of the tank and its limited capacity to deal with growing bioload issues. Recommended is .50 macro and micro PPS PRO, but that would be a tank with maximum light and c02 injection, and inert substrate, so I adjusted the amount to approximately .20 PPS PRo micro and macro/daily. The Betta appears to be doing well and the pond snails are replicating rapidly. There is also no sign of any algae other than the Green Dust Algae.
Below is a picture of the Diana Walstead type tank as of January 4 2008
Monthly(February 04 2008) update:
On January 11 2008, I decided to perform a 50% water change outside the normal 3-6 month period for the Diana Walstead setup. There was significant die off of cardamine Plant Leaves that I felt were important to remove from the tank. Of interest was the condition of the Betta. His fins appeared to have shrunk as funny as that sounds. At this point, I don't know what to think. He is not showing signs of ill health but his behaviour appears normal. But then how do you define normal and how do you really know that your fish is not suffering? It is not like he can talk and tell me: "hey buddy, my fins are really killing me, can you do something about it?" He still eats. I struggled with the idea of whether to treat him or not with erythromycin. If he has fin rot which bettas are susceptible of given their tendency to rest on gravel and other surfaces that may harbour fungus known to cause fin rot, the condition would likely deteriorate without treatment and could weaken the Betta significantly to the point where it would be too late to treat him. Otherwise, the only other thing that I could think of is the possiblity as unrealistic as it sounds of the growing snail population possibly feeding off his fins at night when he is resting. As a precautionary measure, I treated the tank with Erythromycin rather than leave it to chance. I also replaced many of the dead cardamine leaves with healthy cuttings from my 40 gallon tank to try and maintain stability and avoid huge algae issues.
The Betta's condtion appeared to deteriorate. He spent most of the time on the bottom and did not surface. He did not eat since commencement of treatment with Erythromycin from Jan 12 2008 to Jan 17 2008. I decided to treat him with Maracyn 2(minocycline) from Jan 17 to Jan 22 2008 in the hopes of facilitating his recovery. Well again he spent most of his time on the bottom and did not eat for the duration of the minocycline treatment. I increased aeration with a airstone hooked to a pump and added about 1/2 teaspoon aquarium salt. Tank temperature was a constant 27 degrees celcius. I was pretty sure that he was at death's doorstep. To be sure, I would tap on the tank and he would flee like a bat from hell and hide. On Jan 26 2008, I shook the bag containing his food at the top of the tank. That got his attention and he surfaced in anticipation of being fed. I fed him and he ate. Then on the night of Jan 26 2008, he again hid on the bottom of the tank and did not surface. On Jan 27 2008, I noticed him with his head stuck in some anubias plants with his tail sticking out; kind of like a ostrich with his head buried in sand. I scared him into surfacing and he stayed at the surface and ate. The drawn out antibiotic treatment, the fin and tail rot, and failure to eat have pretty much weakened him. He again stopped eating and appeared to be going downhill. He developed bilateral popeye which to be confirmed that he had been and was suffering a bacterial infection. As a last resort, I isolated him into a heated 2.5 gallon, with 2 and 3/4 teaspoons aquarium salt added. Although hesitant to do so given all the controversy surrounding the use of Melafix and Pimafix between those that state it is safe to use on bettas and those that say it is outright dangerous, I dosed Melafix and Pimafix at 1/2 of the recommended dose. All I could do was hope for the best and do water changes every 2 days. For now, I have left the Diana Walstead tank without fish as there are snails in the tank should I decide to add fish later. I don't plan to tear the tank down despite what happened to the Betta, but what I will do is put in some cheap feeder ghost shrimp or feeder guppies and continue to see how the tank performs over the long run.
As a tester, I like to experiment with different things. so long as those things don't in my estimation pose significant risks to my fish. After coming across this interesting article, I purchased some Yamato Green Fertilizer to test it on the Tom Barr Low Tech tank set up in addition to the nitrate and Seachem Equilibrium dosing. Yamato Green Fertilizer is an interesting fertilizer. On the surface, it really is not that different from a regular trace element supplement like Seachem Comprehensive, Tropica Master Grow, or Plantax CSM+B with respect to its trace element compostion. However, the makers of Yamato Green claim that their product is unique in that it contains plant growth hormones known as plant auxins not found in other trace element mix and which are know to stimulate plant growth. To use Yamato Green's own words: "Auxins are plant growth stimulators that induce plants to produce more and larger leaves, and strong, healthy root systems. No other commercial aquarium fertilizers contain Auxins, which is one reason why Yamato Green outperforms all competitors."
I am very trustful of a lot that Tom Barr claims as he has been in the planted tank hobby for years and set up several planted tanks. What he says is based on his many years of observation, testing, and experience, something that is difficult to dispute. Tom Barr's position is that plant auxins may have some application for terrestrial plants and crops, but there is little or no research to support their benefit to aquatic plants. Whether Tom Barr was on the money with this and whether Yamato's plant auxin claims were nothing but marketing hype, I wanted to put Yamato Green to the test to satisy my own curiosity. Ideally, my preference would have been to set up another control tank(same size, same substrate, same plants, same fish, same ligthing, etc.,) apart and seperate from the Tom Barr tank and dose only Yamato Green in the control tank to compare differences. Althogh just speculation on my part, if Yamato Green does spur rapid plant growth due to plant auxins, you would more likely see this in high tech(high lighting, c02 injection,etc/,) than the low tech tank that I was testing it on. For this reason, I also decided to test it on a high tech tank with ADA Aquasoil II and c02 injection to see how it would compare to the regular hydrophonic store trace element mix that I was using. In the high tech tank, I am using Tom Barr's Estimative Index Fertilizer dosing, so there would be no change in the dosing, other than to use the Yamato Green for Trace Element dosing. It would be quite interesting to see how the combination of high light, high c02, plant auxins, and ADA Aquasoil II play out with respect to plant growth if there is any validity to Yamato Green being superior due to Auxins. I realize that this may not be the best scientific way to experiment with Yamato Green. Unfortunately, my home is jam packed with aquariums, with no room to setup any new control aquariums, so this is was the compromise I was forced to make.
With respect to the Tom Barr type 5 gallon low tech tank, every week, I would add 1/2 teaspoon of Yamato Green(for trace elements)combined with a pinch/dash of nitrates and a pinch/dash of seachem equilibrium. On January 12 2008, I started dosing 1/2 teaspoon weekly with Yamato Green combined with a pinch/dash of nitrate powder. I decided to forgo dosing with phosphates as my tap water phosphate levels(as tested with a calibrated test kit) were off the charts, which means that even with just weekly water top offs, sufficient phosphates should exist to avoid any deficiencies. The idea of monkeying around with ferts is more to compare growth differences and not really to alter the goal(s) of the original setup. This change was not made to address slow growth in the Tom Barr type setup up. While growth in the Tom Barr type setup was beginning to slow down, the level of growth would still be considered normal in terms of a non-c02, low tech, low light tank. With the Diana Walstead Natural Planted Tank Setup, I did not implement this fert dosing as I was already using PPS Pro and wanted to leave it at that for comparison purposes. One of the beauties of setting up a low tech tank is the wiggle room that you have to test different fert dosing regimes wihtout major fear of the system crashing. Since you are not running the tanks full throttle with respect to lighting and c02, demand for nutrients is much less and nutrient uptake by plants is slower. This means that even if you mess up any minimal damage would not be a chore to address. Algae would certainly have a more difficult time taking advantage of any major mishaps as the algae does not have the amount of light it needs to do its dirty work.
The other change that I made to the Tom Barr type setup was to replace the 10 watt corallife colarmax with a 15 watt GE 6500 K daylight compact fluorescent bulb. In the past I did not have much success with the GE bulb but this may have had to do more with other variables, like consistent c02, as it was in a high tech tank. Cause and effect relationships are always difficult to prove in this hobby. Pet Store staff kept telling me how proper lighting spectra more than the intensity itself was far more important for aquarium plant growth. and in theory the 15 watt should work just as well considering that it is rated as a 6500k daylight bulb. Costwise the 15 watt GE bulb was about $8 for a pack of two 15 watt bulbs and the corallife colormax was $20 for a single 10 watt bulb, more than double the cost of the GE. With all other things being equal with the Tom Barr type set-up, I felt it was the perfect opportunity to test the 15 watt GE bulb and that amount of light would still not be considered excessive for a low light 5 gallon. To be safe, I added a few more healthy cardamine lyrata cuttings to the surface to block out excess light. There were no changes to the photoperiod.
Monthly(March 04 2008) update:
Well, I was holding off posting an update as I was hoping for a miracle with the Diana Walstead type 5 gallon Natural Planted hex tank. While there was no major algae, the plants were dieing and it seemed that anything else placed in the tank did not survive long. The anubias leaves were even turning yellow and dieing. I repopulated the tank with some ghost shrimp and they all died within 3 days. Then, I went with endler's live bearers and they began dropping like flies. All in all, I lost about 8 ghost shrimp and 3 endler's live bearers, not to mention my betta which died of fin and tail rot. I sought to save the sole surving Endler's live bearer from the same fate by transferring it to the Tom Barr type 5 gallon low maintenance. In fairness, the Tom Barr type tank has also not been death free. Since setting it up, I lost 2 out of the 3 Aquatic Dwarf Frogs I placed in it and a otocat which seems to be MIA and presumed dead. However, the plants in the Tom Barr type tank continue to do well and the two Amano Shrimp have tripled in size. Since shrimp are usually the first to die when there is a water quality issue and not triple in size, I don't think that the frog and oto deaths in the Tom Barr type tank are due to a water quality issue.
I now had to make a decision as to what to do with the 5 Gallon Diana Walstead type tank. Leaving it as is was not an option give the magnitude of plant and fish deaths. It had reached a point where it could not be saved. As I had a lot of success with the Tom Barr type setup, I tore the 5 Gallon Hex tank apart, cleaned it with a bleach solution of 1 part bleach and 19 parts water, and converted it to a Tom Barr type low tech, low light tank with a few differences. My plan was to add some peppered cory catfish, but some have indicated that the Seachem Onyx caused the barbells of their catfish to fall off as it was too sharp for them. For this reason,I added a layer of pool filter sand on top of the Seachem Onyx. Also, I added a thin layer of Schultz Aquatic soil to the bottom and mixed in Leonardite, a sprinkling of peat moss, and a bits of a crushed Seachem fert tabs. The plan was to use Seachem Excel as the carbon source instead of c02, lightbulb was upgraded from the 10 watt coral life colormax to a 14 watt 6400K daylight bulb(8 hours - total photo period). Fertilization would be in the form of a pinch of phosphates, nitrates, and potassium with weekly water changes. I was going to use a Zebra Danio to cycle the tank. As I had the most luck with cryptocorne plants, cardamine lyrata, java fern, and ambulia. The idea was to mostly stick with these plants for the new set-up. It is too early to post a picture and I still have to purchase and add some java ferns. Once the tank begins to fill in, hopeully by the next update, I will post some pictures.
Monthly(April 04 2008) update:
After a month of setting up the tank, diatom algae took the tank by storm. I purchased a otocat to clean up the algae. The otocat was sluggish which led to me to suspect that he was ill. Water parameters tested fine. It seems as though I was on the ball, the otocat never consumed the diatom algae and passed away in a matter of 3 days. Luckily the petstore had a 30 day warranty and I returned him and got another. The new otocat consumed all the diatom algae(with the exception of some on the amubulia) in a matter of 3 days and pooped up quite a storm from all the diatoms he consumed. As there was little or no diatom algae left, I was worried about the otocat. He was not feeding off the zucchini and even ignored algae wafers. It seemed that he had developed an addiction for diatom algae and seemed uninterested in consuming anything else.
In the Tom Barr type rectangular low tech 5 gallon, I found that I achieved good results dosing 50CC of Fluorish Excel. I decided to push the limits by dosing 75CC with the 5 gallon hex tank. I am not sure if this was a coincidence as cause and effect relationships are difficult to prove, but it seemed that my Dwarf Sag began withering from the increased Excel dosing. It seems that Dwarf Sag may be another Excel sensitive plant as I found that it does not do well in any of my tanks where I also dose Excel for carbon. I also noticed that the cryptocorne appeared to be undergoing a leaf melt and was shedding leaves. However, cryptocornes are know to experience leaf melt as they acclimitize, so this may not be Excel related. As I added the onion plant later on, I was unable to plant it deep enough into the substrate, so it was throwing roots above the substrate. This did not appear to be effecting its growth and it seemed to be faring the best of all plants.
Finally, tank temperature was a little on the high side at a consistent 30 degrees celcius. This is a catch 22. This seems to be a good temperature to prevent ich and parasite breakouts and to keep fish healthy, but 30 degrees celcius is not the best temperature for good plant growth and I suspect that this higher than ideal plant growth temperature may account for why I have no luck in keeping java moss alive in this tank.
Here is a picture of the 5 gallon hex tank, one month after it was setup.
Monthly(May 04 2008) update:
As you can see, the ambulia has really taken off. The rest of the plants appear to be doing well. The 2 cherry and 2 amano shrimp are still alive and kicking. The otocat appears more lethargic than usual but is still alive. I believe that he may be suffering the effects of 30+ degree celcius tank temperature. Lol, it there is a 4th attempt with this tank, I think that I am really going to think about going topless to prevent the tank from running too hot.