The Dry Start Up Method for Planted Aquariums

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Tom Barr

Staff member
Jan 23, 2005
This will be published in The Aquatic Gardener:

A New Method Using an Old Technique: “Dry Start Method” for Submersed Aquatic Plant Tanks

Aquatic plant aquarist often lament about the initial start up phase of planted aquariums. They often have algae issues, some plants do not root well, multiple large water changes, poor initial bacteria establishment, few roots, CO2 not correctly adjusted, too much light, not enough plant biomass, want to wait for the plants to grow in rather than buying a lot of plants from day one(economic reasons) …….the list is long. New aquarists as well as seasoned aquarists know this stage can make or break their tank for the next few months, requiring lots of labor to stop the established algae from taking over their well thought out design and display. How much do we dose at this initial phase? Some? None at all? How many water changes should we do? Such questions often confuse aquarists.

This method is rather simple, it’s simply terrarium horticulture for the first 2-6 weeks and then the planted aquarium is filled with water after the plants are grown in and well rooted. Generally this method is most suited for lawns of HC, Glossostigma, Crypts, some stem plants, swords, dwarf clover, dwarf hygro and the like. It is particularly useful for iwagumi style rock layouts using low growing plants. Such tanks with low total plant biomass can be challenging to start up and established. While terrariums and emergent dry aquariums is hardly a new hobby, applying this to the start up phase of a submersed approach is new. Often, when we realize how simple and useful the method is we have a light bulb go off and slap ourselves on the head! “Why didn’t I do this years ago!!???”
Perhaps someone did, but we do not see or hear about much if so.

The goal of this method is avoid such labor. By starting a new tank out “dry”, with only the sediment fully saturated with water. We avoid water changes, there’s none to change (this saves us several intensive weeks of water changes and dosing carefully)! Dosing? There are no nutrients to dose. Bacteria? It’s cycling in the root zone just fine. We only need to buy a small amount of HC to make a nice lawn of foreground plants in a few weeks; these are also very well rooted. Roots add O2 to the sediment and the O2 helps increase bacterial cycling. Upon adding the water and submersing the aquarium, the bacteria will be ready, the plants will be ready and adding CO2 (or not) and dosing (or not) is all that’s needed from this point on. However, this method however will not save someone who’s not very good at keeping submersed plants to begin with, but it will give anyone an upper leg up on a new tank start up.

Does this method work with non CO2 planted tanks? Yes! CO2 enriched planted tanks? Yes! Using organic carbon sources? Yes! Suppose you have some parts of the tank that do not want to use, these can be left bare until you fill the tank up and add stem plants to those sections. Hardscape materials such as rocks, driftwood etc should be added prior to use. What about hillsides and higher slopes? Generally, through capillary action, water will permeate upward (just like with a 300ft redwood tree’s tip), so even the higher sections should have access to water. To help this process, pre soaking the sediment prior may help or misting every couple of days. I suggested using ADA aqua soil Amazonia as this has been shown to be very useful as a good sediment for growing submersed aquatic plants and have plenty of nutrients already in it; no other addition is required until after the tank is filled. Other methods can use SMS, plain sand, sand + clay wetland sediment hydrosoils, kitty litter (clay), Flourite, Eco Complete and virtually any sediment you wish to use. With more inert sediments, the water added to saturate the sediment should have NPK added, such KNO3, KH2PO4, K2SO4 etc. Miracle grow and terrestrial fertilizers can also be used easily and without issue. “What? Even with the NH4?” Yes! The bacteria will oxidize the NH4 into NO3 in about 3-4 weeks anyway, just like with fishless cycling where folks add NH4 to foster faster large bacterial colonization. A good flush by doing two to three large 50-80% water changes can rinse any left over NH4 present when the tank is grown in enough to fill and start the transition to submersed culture.

Some plants will adapt better than others to submersed culture. The biggest issue for plants going through this process is gas exchange. So adding plenty of CO2 and current will help. Ethylene is a gas as well as a plant hormone that is generally considered a senescence hormone. Ethylene is no long able to diffuse out easily and causes some species to melt and rot back, but the new growth will have a much better chance and already have a nice strong root system to draw on for growth of new shoots above the sediment, whereas am emergent plant from an aquatic nursery will have both the roots and shoot being transplanted and experience the shock of the tank’s water, the light, the CO2, and bacteria changes. This Dry Start Method avoids all of that. So what are the problems with this method? Folks do not want to wait 2-6 weeks for the tank to grow in well first is perhaps the biggest issue, but seeing their small clump of HC or Gloss grow in and spread, no water changes and other very helpful, less costly and labor intensive advantages might convince them. The time required for submerse culture to grow in well versus this method are about equal if not slated towards emergent culture. So the time until lush growth is present is no different. “Where to put the fish until the tank is filled?”
This is another disadvantage, but generally this can be resolved by not buying the fish until the time is right: when the tank is healthy, full of well rooted plants.

Another side hobby that some of the hobbyists may consider, growing Crypts emergently! Much of the methods used there can be applied here. As many use organic rich sediments for non CO2 planted tanks, this method works very well to cycle out much of the NH4 present that causes issues in the start up phases, and the plants are well rooted so they just need a week or so to transition to lower CO2 levels. Activated carbon and zeolite can be used for the first week (or Excel and then stop using it later).

I would suggest trying a small nano sized 5 gallon tank, use some ADA aqua soil, use a glass lid, get some nice rocks with good character, sit down and play with the arrangement until you feel this display feels the best to you, then plant a small bit of HC about 1-2cm apart. Sit this in a window for 3-4 weeks, fill the tank up, add SeaChem Excel, some nice small fish you like such as Endler’s or Killifish (these both jump!, use a lid!!), perhaps some Cherry Shrimp if you wish, add a few fertilizers such as trace elements, maybe 1 ml three times a week, and a small light to about 10-15watts. Change water once a week, about 50%. Very simple, very easy and cheap too! Some folks use the sunlight to do this and it does work well with the Excel, try to use slightly indirect light if so. So what are you waiting for? Go try it!



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