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Re: The Dirt on Dirt

Tom Farrell asked:
"Actually soil. Is anybody using it? I have been reading Walstad's treatise
on the planted aquarium, and I was wondering if anyone has used and tested
her theories extensively."

Well, Diana Walstad HERSELF used and tested her methods, and detailed them
extensively in her book. When used in a holistic manner, they work. Don't
expect to be able to take a page from Walstad and marry it to another
approach unless you really know what you are doing.

Another person who has extensive experience with soil substrates, and has
placed a lot of the information he has collected online, is Steve Pushak. Go
visit and read his website @ http://home.infinet.net/teban/index.html

I have used soil in a number of tanks, the most successful was maintained
for a few years until illness forced me to cut back on the number of tanks I
was running. Like Ellen O'Connell, I noticed how little algae I had to deal
with in properly set up soil substrate tanks. A soil substrate tank is not
the best choice if you are the type who is always re-arranging your
aquascaping, or really like stem plants. It is perfect if you like Crypts,
Swords, or other plants which grow from a crown.

From my own experience, I'd make several suggestions:

1. Choice of soil. Stick to plain, ordinary, everyday DIRT. Forego the
packaged "super-soils" and "potting soil mixtures" sold for houseplants,
they have far too much organic material (which will decompose in the tank)
and far too much fertilizer (which will leach into the water column and
cause problems). Look for REAL soil which has never been used for
agricultural and/or industrial purposes. Depending upon where you live, this
can be easy or difficult, but it IS worthwhile searching out. I live in the
heart of a city of 3 million people and I found two sites with perfect (but
totally different) soil, both within walking distance from my apartment, by
searching through the website of a local university which teaches Geography
and Geology. As luck would have it, they have extensive information on-line
regarding the local soils. An institution in your area might have similar
information available.

I have had good results with a mixture made up of both topsoil and subsoil,
both pre-screened to remove obvious organic material (roots,  undecomposed
leaves, worms and bugs) and large stones.

2. Pre-treat the soil. Once I had the soil, I followed Paul Krombholz's
"soil soup" instructions (archived on the KRIB at
http://www.thekrib.com/Plants/Fertilizer/soil-soup.html). I placed the soil
I wanted to use in a separate container, filled it with water and let it sit
for several weeks. Soils undergo a number of rapid changes once they are
submerged, primarily due to the presence of organic material. Until the
organic material has been mineralized, the soil is relatively dicey as an
aquarium substrate unless you are able and prepared to make massive and
frequent water changes. By saturating the soil and allowing this
mineralization process to occur before you put the soil into your planted
aquarium, you have a much better chance of success. The only thing required
of the aquarist is patience - are you willing to wait 4-6 weeks for this
"soil-soup" to "cook"??? If you lack the patience, I recommend that you stay
away from soil substrates.

Hope that this helps.

James Purchase