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My Experience Setting up a Naturally Planted Tank Using the Walstad Method

Updated on January 2, 2017

The Walstad Method is an increasingly popular way of creating a small ecosystem within the home aquarium. The Walstad Method enables one to do less water changes on the aquarium because the plants do most of the filtering. It also creates the most natural environment possible for your aquatic pets.

Added about 1.5 inch of soil
Added about 1.5 inch of soil

I really liked the idea of having plants help with the water quality (and look) of the tank so I decided to try it out with my betta's tank. I thought The GAB had the best article on the Walstad Method so I decided to use their instructions as they were written specifically for a betta tank.

I started with an empty 5 gallon aquarium. This is a great size for bettas, but if you are planning on putting in any other type of fish I would suggest at least 10 gallons, as 5 is only big enough for a betta. I rinsed it out it hot water and wiped it down with a clean paper towel. (If you are using a used tank or unsure of what contaminants your tank could have come in contact with, clean it with a solution of 90% water and 10% part regular bleach. Rinse the tank multiple times with hot water extremely thoroughly as any bleach residue could hurt or kill your fish). Next, I added about a 1.5 inch layer of plain potting soil evenly across the bottom of the tank and a thin layer of gravel around the perimeter of the tank as per instructions.

I accidentally switched two of the steps, so I wet the soil before adding the plants and the top layer of gravel. This caused a lot of the soil to float and it made the water almost black. I ended up filling the tank the rest of the way so I could drain the black water. I lost some soil in the process so I put about three large handfuls back in and patted it down really well, and added more gravel around the perimeter. I selected plants that had previously been in my betta's tank as well as some newly purchased plants. I didn't want to wait two weeks to quarantine the plants, so I chose to disinfect them in a "bath" of 95% water and 5% bleach for two minutes. I rinsed the plants under running water for a few minutes each and then let them sit in container of water and about 4 times the dosage of PRIME. I did this twice until the bleach smell went away and then once more.

Top: Peace Lilly, Crypts (undulata), Java Fern, Lace Java Fern, Anacharis Stem Bottom: Unknown, Anubias (Nana), Micro Sword
Top: Peace Lilly, Crypts (undulata), Java Fern, Lace Java Fern, Anacharis Stem Bottom: Unknown, Anubias (Nana), Micro Sword

I added the bigger plants like the Crypts and the Java Ferns towards the back and the rest closer to the front. Some of the roots would not stick in the soil so I used the gravel to weigh them down until the roots grow it. The ferns don't like their rhizomes covered so I only cover them partially. I also put in some moss-covered driftwood to create a hide out for my Betta to make it look more like a mini pond than an aquarium. After finishing with the plants, I added about an inch of gravel to cover the soil and keep it in place.

I used a siphon to drain the water without disrupting the soil.
I used a siphon to drain the water without disrupting the soil.

Satisfied with the placement of the plants, I filled it up with water. I aimed the stream over the driftwood to deflect the current and keep the gravel and soil in place. I filled it with water about 80% of the way and then drained it to clear some of the loose dirt away. Some of the floating dirt stuck to the tank walls as the water lowered so I just wiped that away with a paper towel. The water is much clearer after refilling the tank so I added the Peace Lilly and the heater to start warming the tank. I put my Betta's filter in there to keep the water parameters stable while the plants grow in, and added some SeaChem Excel and a few pieces of New Life Spectrum Betta Formula to give the plants some nutrients. I tried to scoop out as much as the floating soil as possible but a few stubborn floaters remained. There were still some soil particles drifting around the water so I decided to let the tank run fish-less overnight. The plants will take a while to settle in so weekly water changes will still be necessary to prevent harmful levels of ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates, although vacuuming the gravel is not. The water changes are also important while the plants grow in because fresh water replenishes the tank with minerals that the plants really benefit from.

Water is much clearer after the refill.
Water is much clearer after the refill.

The water was much clearer the next morning, so after about 10 minutes adjusting to the temperature and water chemical levels I added in my Betta. I also put it a few pieces of Indian Almond Leaves to help his transition. The leaves release tannins that help soothe the Betta and darken the water like a wild Betta's environment because they grow where Bettas originate.

My Betta really seems like his new Walstad set up, he keeps swimming through the plants and letting the leaves gently brush against his belly. He is much closer to his natural environment now, and has already started working on a bubble nest. I highly recommend using the Walstad Method for your Betta tank or bowl, after setting up just one I know this will be the only way I set up any Betta tank in the future. I have already planned to convert my other tank into a Walstad set up.

Bellino seems to be enjoying his renovated home.
Bellino seems to be enjoying his renovated home.

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    • santos88 profile image
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      santos88 5 years ago from Austin, Texas

      It is not too late, it just means you will have to wait a bit to add your fish. But the idea of testing the soil separately is so smart, that would save people a lot of trouble. I know if my soil had leeched ammonia I would have been soo frustrated!

    • sweeaun profile image

      sweeaun 5 years ago from Malaysia

      Yes, but's that's probably too late. If you detect ammonia, imagine the overhaul you need to do with your newly setup tank. Perhaps we can test the soil separately first in small quantity before using it.

    • santos88 profile image
      Author

      santos88 5 years ago from Austin, Texas

      A good way is to test the water. I tested my water the next morning to make sure there were no dangerous levels of ammonia and a normal ph.

    • sweeaun profile image

      sweeaun 5 years ago from Malaysia

      How do we distinguish between soil that leeches ammonia and those that do not? Good to know the water clears up! Yes, pls post some recent photos. :)

    • santos88 profile image
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      santos88 5 years ago from Austin, Texas

      Not all soil leeches ammonia, but some do so you have to be careful. I have had the tank set up now and it is just as clear as my other tanks. I should maybe add an updated picture. It just took a bit for the soil to settle.

    • sweeaun profile image

      sweeaun 5 years ago from Malaysia

      This is an interesting alternative to conventional aquarium setup which uses filter and bright lights for the plants. The only downside is the watercolor which (although depicts actual environment), but not so pleasing to look at. I'm also concerned on the potted soil which will leach ammonia into the tank.

      I'm contemplating buying her book to read more about this technique.

    • santos88 profile image
      Author

      santos88 5 years ago from Austin, Texas

      Thanks! I really liked the idea of it so I decided to write about my own experience setting it up.

    • Ladybird33 profile image

      Ladybird33 5 years ago from Fabulous USA

      This is very, very informative and insightful. Thank you for sharing this with us.