How to Set Up A Dirted Tank (How I Did)

While there are many methods to grow colorful aquatic plants, one of the best and most popular is the dirted tank process. This basic approach produces outstanding results in giving your aquarium more life.

It is also considered one of the types of self-sustaining aquariums, where minimal maintenance is required. Excited to start one?

I will respond to all your questions to help you get started with the dirted tank setup, and I’ll also share how I created my own dirted fish tank.

Some of the common questions related to dirted fish tanks are:

  • What’s a dirted tank? 
  • What is the most common challenge of setting up a dirted tank?
  • How to clean a dirted tank?

Continue to read to learn the answers to all of your questions, and know how to set up a dirted tank.

My dirted fish tank with plants, and fish
My dirted fish tank with plants, and fish

What Is A Dirted Fish Tank?

A “dirted fish tank” refers to an aquarium setup that incorporates a layer of nutrient-rich substrate, often composed of potting soil, beneath the gravel or sand substrate.

This method is employed to enhance the growth of aquatic plants by providing essential nutrients directly to the root systems. The dirted tank concept aims to simulate a natural ecosystem, where plants thrive in nutrient-rich soil.

This setup encourages lush plant growth, improved water quality, and creates a visually appealing and ecologically balanced aquatic environment. It is an equilibrium state in which fish and other aquarium inhabitants supplement the needs of plants and vice versa.

Another view of my dirted tank
Another view of my dirted tank

Brief History of Dirted Fish Tank (The Walstad Method)

The dirted fish tank system was developed by Diana Walstad, and it is discussed in detail in her book “Ecology of the Planted Aquarium: A Practical Manual and Scientific Treatise for the Home Aquarist.”

Reading the book will help you know every bit of detail regarding the setup & maintenance of a planted aquarium without expensive gadgets, CO2, fertilizer, and high-tech lights.

The fish and plants in this tank are mutually balanced. Fish releases carbon dioxide, which is used by plants to thrive. In other words, fishes supply fertilizer to help the plants thrive and expand. This is a self-supporting mechanism involving a home aquarium with little intervention.

The system of Walstad has many objectives:

  • Healthy growth of plants with no interference.
  • No algae or small algae may affect plant and fish well-being.
  • No carbon dioxide injection is required.
  • Plant fertilizers are not required.
  • Frequent water changes are needless.

What did I need to Set Up A Dirted Tank?

The only different items you’ll need to set up a dirted tank compared to a traditional aquarium setup is potting soil or garden soil. You can check my other article on 10 must-have things you need for a fish tank if you are a newbie.

Here’s the list of what I used or what you need to set a dirted tank.

  • Fish tank: (at least a 10-gallon tank; I used a 10-gallon tank)
  • Lighting: (low-light or high-light based on the types of plant; I used medium-intensity light)
  • Filter: (Sponge or HOB, I used two HOB filters keeping one as backup)
  • Air pump, air tubing: (I didn’t use an air pump since I have filters)
  • Potting soil or garden soil: (I covered 2 inches from the base, however, a 1-inch covering is sufficient)
  • Capping substrate: (Any type of sand or gravel; I used coarse sand with gravel mix and covered 1-inch in height. If you use 1-inch garden soil you’ve to cover 2-inch with sand or gravel, total substrate height will be 3 inches)
  • Aquatic plants: (Plants that are compatible with your lighting system, you can add floating plants, rooted plants, or both. In my tank, I kept Ludwigia Repens, Monte Carlo, Rotala Roundfolia, and Ludwigia palustris)
  • Fish: Any fish or invertebrates that don’t eat or damage plants ( I kept guppies, Neon tetra, Glofish tetra, and some shrimp)
  • Fertilizer: (Just initially you’ll need it. When your aquarium starts producing enough nitrates you won’t need fertilizer; I used root tabs)
  • Heater: (You’ll need at least a 50-watt heater for your 10-gallon tank; it may change depending on where you stay. I used a 50-watt heater to keep the tank temperature consistent).
  • Water conditioner: (Water conditioner will be needed to make the water aquarium safe, I used Seachem Prime )
A beautiful view of my dirted tank
A beautiful view of my dirted tank

How to Set Up A Dirted Tank Easily (Step-By-Step)

The fact that plants and fish fulfill each other’s needs in this closed ecosystem. The substrate is made of moist soil and coated with sand for easier and safer cultivation of plants.

This combination either eliminates or replaces algae and establishes the aquarium’s nitrogen cycle.

The setup is simple and comfortable for beginners, and your dirted tank will quickly become a sustainable habitat for the survival of both fish and plants.

Step-1: Prepare Substrates

As I mentioned you’ll need at least 3 inches of substrate height in your dirted tank. You can use either a 1 or 2-inch covering with garden soil. Whatever height you go for, find the amount of soil and capping substrates necessary for the setup, and collect them.

3 inches substrate height
3 inches substrate height

You can collect potting soil either from Amazon or a local nursery. Similarly, buy sand or gravel from a pet store or from online (I used this sand if you want you can check it out).

Remove any visible debris or large chunks from the soil. If the soil is not moist add some water to reduce dust. In my case, I found garden soils are moist, so I didn’t add water, rather I directly added it to my aquarium.

Add 2 inches of potting soil or garden soil to the tank, and cover it with gravel or sand top of it by 1 inch.

Step-2: Fill The Tank With Aquarium Safe Water

If your tap water contains Chlorine or Chloramine, you have to treat the water with a water conditioner to make it aquarium safe. I recommend Seachem Prime, I also use it in my aquariums.

Be careful not to stir up the substrates while adding water. Use a plastic bag or some sort of barrier on top of substrates and then add water.

Step-3: Set up Aquarium Accessories

It’s time to set up the heater, filter, and air pump (if you want to use one) in the tank. Position your heater, and filter before planting will help to hide some of those accessories behind plants.

Install aquarium lighting, in my aquarium I used medium-intensity clip-on aquarium light. Use the appropriate light spectrum for plant growth, if you want to know more about planted tank lighting I recommend you to read my other article where I provided a guideline for choosing the ideal light for the planted tank.

Plants in my dirted tank
Plants in my dirted tank

Step-4: Add Aquarium Plants

Now, plant aquarium plants you want to keep in your dirted tank. Be careful not to bring any pests or snails with plants while adding them.

You can add some root tabs to provide nutrients for plants, although it’s not necessary. I used root tabs initially (my pick: Seachem root tabs), however, after that, I didn’t use them anymore.

You can also do the same as me since an initial nutrient boost will help plants to grow steadily.

Step-5: Let the Tank Cycle, and Bring Fish

Cycling is establishing beneficial bacteria in the tank to convert toxic ammonia produced by fish into less harmful nitrates. It takes 6~8 weeks time to establish bacteria colonies in a tank naturally.

But, you can cycle a tank within 24 hours with some techniques. Using API quick start combined with an already cycled filter or filter media is the best way to cycle the tank instantly.

You can read this article to learn how to cycle a tank in just 24 hours. After you cycle the tank add fish to the aquarium. You can also cycle your tank with fish as well, in that case, you need to add only a few hardy fish species. Head over to this article for a detailed understanding of aquarium cycling.

Nice night view of my dirted tank (soothing to the eyes)
Nice night view of my dirted tank (soothing to the eyes)

Essential Benefits of a dirted tank

  • A dirted tank has many benefits that make a beginner or ardent aquarium enthusiast appealing.
  • The arrangement is simple.
  • Dirt produces a good atmosphere that improves root growth and helps the plants grow more rapidly and healthily.
  • To keep plants safe, little or no fertilizer is required.
  • This setup needs little maintenance, so it is an excellent choice for busy hobbyists.
  • The dirt tank needs water changes less frequently.

What is the right soil for a Dirted Tank?

The first step in setting up the dirted tank is to pick suitable soil. You need the correct soil for your plants to establish the roots and have nutrient access.

The best soil for your dirted tank is to use organic soil, as it provides all the nutrients required to build your tank. Also, they are free from chemicals and fertilizers.

  • Organic garden soil: Organic garden soil is the perfect choice. It is used to grow plants, and it is the topsoil that contains decaying plant matter and beneficial micro-organisms.
  • Potting soils: Potting soils contain peat moss and a mixture of other organic materials which is rich in nutrients for plants.

You can source garden soil or topsoil from Amazon easily.

How to Clean a Dirted Tank?

You don’t need too much cleaning in a dirted tank, only filter cleaning in every two months will be enough if you don’t stock heavily.

If you want to clean fish poop or ugly debris from the substrate, I recommend a gravel vacuum to clean those.

Be careful not to damage plants or substrate bedding while cleaning. If you use appropriate lighting periods you won’t have any algae issues. But over time you may need to clean aquarium glasses.

Bottom Line

Setting a dirted tank is a unique way of bringing more charm to your fishkeeping. Finding the right soil can be difficult for you, but the setup is straightforward.

I hope you find this article helpful, if you have any queries please put them in the comment box below.

Sujit Modak

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