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Old 10-25-2008, 10:45 PM   #1
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Some beginner questions about substrates for planted tanks.

I redid my largest tank a few months ago to include more plants and was shocked and thrilled that most of them actually lived! Some of them (pennywort, rotala, wisteria) are actually thriving and spreading! My sword, anubias, and java fern are pretty stable. I did lose a lot of hygro, although a couple of them are still hanging on.

These plants lived even though they are planted in inert sand, with low light (80 watts over a 55-gallon, and probably more like 60 since one bulb is half actinic) and no CO2. I am wondering if I can get them to thrive even more.

With these low-light and bare sand conditions, would it be a good idea to switch to a substrate especially made for planted tanks, or do I set myself up for problems that way? I am currently dosing a liquid fertilizer, and would like to see what my plants do in a more fertile substrate. However, I don't know if switching to a nutrient-rich substrate is ill-advised in the absence of CO2. I don't see myself upgrading the lighting or adding CO2 anytime soon.

Also.....I have loaches, and they love the very fine, soft sand that is currently in my tank. I looked at Eco-complete, and it seems brittle and hard-edged. I am wondering if there are any very soft substrates for planted tanks. I tend to anthropomorphize my fish, and I don't want to upset them by moving them to a tank where the substrate is less comfortable. Is there anything so soft that it feels like dirt or sand, but won't be perpetually cloudy with loaches burrowing in it?

Silly question....Could someone compare the different planted substrates in terms of how they would feel to a burrowing loach? What colors are available? I also welcome any other comments or advice you can give.

Thanks for your help.
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Old 10-25-2008, 11:08 PM   #2
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You can do perfectly fine with the sand you have, but if you want to upgrade, the only thing "soft" that I can think of is eco-complete. It's more like a moist dirt than something with rough edges. All of the other substrates I can think of off the top of my head are a little rougher.

The problem with the loaches is that as they get larger, they're really going to like to dig around in it and tear it up and uproot everything in the tank. Ask me how I know? I have eco-complete in my 29g tank, and there came a time when I needed to move my 3 full-grown YoYo loaches out of my 46g tank temporarily while the tank was redone. So, they got temp housed in the 29. Within 48 hours, my relatively flat 4" deep ecocomplete bed had rolling hills, some 7 or 8 inches high, and other areas barebottomed. It was quite entertaining to watch them go nuts though, I must say.

Anyway, the yoyos loved the eco. Especially because the tank they came from had regular gravel.

Oh, and there's no real issues with using a nutrient rich substrate in your setup, even without higher lighting or CO2.

Where in NoVA are you?
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Old 10-25-2008, 11:13 PM   #3
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These are just my thoughts...it seems like your plants did pretty well in the sand. If you want to see if they'll do even better, I think you should replace your bulbs. If they are compact fluorescent bulbs, I have read to replace them every 8-12 months. I have replaced my bulbs every 12 months and that seems ok for my tank.

A nutrient-rich substrate is not ill-advised in a tank with no CO2 but it's probably unnecessary. Eco Complete is rather expensive and it will raise your KH and GH a few to several degrees. I appreciated the buffered KH since I do have pressurized CO2 but you may not necessarily need that benefit.

Your sword plant, and crypts if you have any, will benefit from a root tab under them. I put root tabs under my crypts and I have Eco Complete.

Your anubias, java fern and probably wisteria will not benefit from a special substrate since they are not rooted plants. I haven't had wisteria but it can either float or be weighted down, right? The anubias and ferns have rhizomes that should not be planted in the substrate (you probably know that ).

I have never had loaches so I can't give advice on them. If they like the sand I would probably stick with it. Eco Complete has some larger, rougher particles and some very fine, sand-like particles.

I used Shultz Aquatic Soil once and it was extremely cloudy. Loaches burrowing through it would definitely cloud the aquarium. Flourite may be similarly cloudy but I've never used it.

So, to get your plants to grow better, remember to change your bulbs on a regular schedule and try root tabs. What is the liquid fertilizer that you use? What is your fertilizer routine?
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Old 10-26-2008, 11:20 AM   #4
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Soft substrates and non-cloudy substrates seem to be mutually exclusive categories. ADA's Aquasoil substrate is very soft - you can smash it in your fingers - but is also very cloudy if disturbed. Eco-Complete does not cloud much but is significantly harder, although not nearly as hard and jagged as Flourite.
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Old 10-26-2008, 06:28 PM   #5
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your best bet is to ditch that actinic bulb. the ferts may not even be doing much of anything..... like the others said new bulbs and try some root tabs by some of the heavy root feeders.
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Old 10-27-2008, 11:21 AM   #6
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Thanks very much for all the help.

Okay, so it sounds like the verdict is to keep the sand for now, but make sure the bulbs are new (right now I think they are only about six months old), and try some root tabs. I will have to think about parting with the actinic, although I think I would really miss the color of the light.

neilanh, I'm in Alexandria but haven't made it to a GWAPA or PVAS meeting yet. I do love the mental picture of the loaches playing in the eco-complete--it might *almost* be worth it to sacrifice the aquascaping to see such happiness. My loaches actually don't disturb the look of the sand all that much, although they are constantly burrowing. These are horsefaces, though...I don't know if that makes a difference. They are pretty mellow guys.

An t-iasg, thanks for your help. I am using Plant Gro Iron Enriched Aquatic Plant Fertilizer, by Nutrafin. I do 50 to 70 percent water changes every week and dose after the change. The bottle does not say how often to dose, so I hope I am not overloading or underloading. I just follow the same instructions every time.

Also, thanks for reminding me that the rhizomes should not be buried. Oops. I guess I need to move these particular plants onto the driftwood...

Thanks for all your help, everyone. Not buying new soil now will be cheaper, anyway. I have this white sand which gets dirty very quickly, but I will stick with it a while longer while I think about this.
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Old 10-27-2008, 12:23 PM   #7
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You don't absolutely have to remove the actinic bulb. They do bring out the color of the fish quite nicely. I had an actinic bulb in one of my fixtures for awhile over a planted tank. My purplish-blue betta (the betta I had then) looked beautiful. Just remember not to count the actinic bulb when figuring out your WPG. The actinic lighting is not "used" by plants. Since you said you have 80 watts total and one bulb is actinic, I'm guessing you have three 20-watt daylight bulbs for 60 watts available to the plants, and one 20-watt actinic? Adding another 20-watt daylight bulb will give you about 1.5 WPG, and the 60 watts you have now gives you about 1 watt per gallon. Going up to 1.5 WPG would give you more growth without having to worry about supplementing with CO2. But the bulbs you have now are fine too if you like the actinic.

With a low-light tank, you don't need daily fertilizer dosing. Planted tanks need "macro" nutrients and "micro" nutrients. Macros are nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium. Your fish bioload supplies the nitrogen in the form of nitrates. The fish food contains phosphates. The levels of these macros in the fish waste and the fish food are usually enough for a low-light tank. You could try adding some potassium for more vigorous growth. A liquid additive like Seachem's potassium would be a good one to try. A powdered form would last longer in a larger tank (you wouldn't have to buy it as often).

Your Nutrafin supplement is a "micro" fertilizer. You could possibly keep the same dose you are now using but split it up into two doses spread throughout the week. But if you want to stay with dosing once a week, that sounds like it's working well for you. I wouldn't increase the amount dosed.
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Old 10-28-2008, 12:37 PM   #8
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Great information here...thanks!

Yes, the daylight is 60 watts and the actinic is 20, although they are 40-watt strip bulbs and one is rated half-and-half. I do have another small strip light I could add to the tank. I have been using it to transition to night, but I could also leave it on all day along with the larger lights. I think I will start doing that.

I did not know about macro and micro fertilizers. See, now I have to start reading on this site. I will look for some potassium and maybe try out the half-dosing twice a week.

Thanks again for the education and the excellent suggestions. I'm sure I will have more questions as this tank evolves. I hope to get a camera and pictures at some point.

My next project is a bridge between my two 30-gallon tanks. Maybe now I will make them planted, too, and have a bridge between gardens.

Thanks again, An t-iasg.
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Old 10-28-2008, 02:18 PM   #9
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You're welcome!

Here is some good reading: http://www.aquariumadvice.com/forums/f24/read-this-first-resources-and-references-83826.html

Try some Seachem liquid potassium. If you dose 5 - 10 ml a week, you'll go through the 250 ml bottle in about 6 months to a year. Powdered supplements would be more economical but one or two bottles of liquid supplements a year doesn't sound bad. I think I bought powdered supplements in 2006 and I still have over half the bag of each macro. (for two 10-gallon tanks).

We will definitely need pictures of two tanks with a bridge between them!
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