Thursday, October 27, 2011

Keeping Things Whole

Growing up, my family sometimes seemed like a pack of gypsies picking up and moving every year or so. That's why the following poem by has been a favorite of mine through the years.  It speaks to me at a primal level.

I actually had the good fortune to hear Mark Strand recite it. I realize that most people would probably put a poetry reading on their Top 10 List of Dreary Activities along with writing thank you notes and counting beans. However, at the time, I was an English Lit major in a whole room of other literary nerds. Mr. Strand was practically a rock-star. In a different setting, we would've been waving Bics.

I was most impressed by the way he read this work -- it was the way I have always felt it.  There was nothing in his voice to suggest self-pity, remorse, regret, dissatisfaction, or anger. Instead, he read simply, calmly. Sort of in an "it is what it is" kind of way.

Originally, I had thought to dissect this poem in my post, but I've had a change of mind. I'd rather let you interpret it for yourself. Hopefully, you'll enjoy it (or at least find something interesting in it), too.

Keeping Things Whole

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body's been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

-- Mark Strand

A field near my house that I'd like to move through one day

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Setting up a Natural Planted Tank Using the Walstad Method

Let me preface this post by saying that I'm a newbie when it comes to keeping aquariums, so I can't tell you the "right" or "wrong" way to do things. I'm just a dabbler who likes fish and plants, but I'm also mom to three busy kids, and I don't want the extra work of constantly taking care of of a tank. So when I read about the Walstad approach to setting up an aquarium, I was intrigued. It's a low-tech approach that involves creating an ecosystem in which the fish and plants balance each others' needs. As a result, the tank requires very minimal care. We're talking water changes maybe every 6 months or so. Now that sounds right up my alley!

This past summer, the last of our goldfish died, so my kids and I decided to give this method a go. This post chronicles our experiences setting up a natural planted tank.

July 21, 2011

Cover of Diana's book
Last week, I ordered a copy of Diana Walstad's book Ecology of the Planted Aquarium: A Practical Manual and Scientific Treatise for the Home Aquarist, Second Edition. 

I started reading it today, and it's every bit as tedious as the title would suggest. In the end, I glossed over most of it and just read the parts on how to select plants, soil, and how to set up the tank. Then I googled for info on other people's experiences setting up this kind of tank.

Do I feel like a cheater? A little, but I just don't feel like reading all the line graphs and mathematical symbols. Plus, all those people on-line had pretty color photos of their tanks.

I probably could've skipped ordering the book, but I'm hanging onto it in case I need to troubleshoot problems in the tank down the road. Maybe all those elemental symbols and charts will come in handy then.

July 22, 2011

Before setting up the tank, Walstad recommends testing one's soil to see whether it will cause any turbidity issues. This morning, we put a small amount of Miracle Gro organic garden soil in a glass with some water.  Now we wait 24 hours to see if it clears.

Walstad's choice
Walstad recommends Miracle Gro organic potting soil, so maybe we could've skipped this step if I'd used that. In any case, this will be a good way to teach the boys patience and some new vocab.

July 23, 2011

Most of the particles in the water settled, but the water has turned a very brown. I guess I'll get some of the potting soil. 

July 25, 2011

We don't have a local fish store with a good variety of plants, so I headed to my favorite shopping site -- The Internet. This morning, I ordered a variety of plants from That Fish Place - That Pet Place, including:

  • Cabomba pulcherrima, "Purple Cabomba" 
  • Ceratopteris thalictroides, "Watersprite"
  • Echinodorus bleheri, "Amazon Sword" 
  • Echinodorus cordifolius var. 'marble queen', "Marble Queen Radican Sword"
  • Echinodorus parviflorus, "Rosette Sword"
  • Hygrophila difformis, "Water Wisteria" 
  • Ludwigia repens, "Broad Leaf Ludwigia" 
  • Nymphaea, sp. "Aquarium Lily" 
  • Vallisneria americana, "Jungle Val"
Because I don't know much about aquatic plants, I took a shotgun approach to selecting them. I'm just going to stick them in the dirt and see what takes off.

July 26, 2011

While waiting for my plants, I added about 1 to 1 1/2 inches of soil to the bottom of my fish tank. Apparently, soil can release a lot of ammonia during the first two months, so some tank owners recommend a 24-hour airing out period (though it's not necessary).

I also tested my tap water. Everything seems ok, except that my water is too soft as a result of our reverse osmosis filter. After doing some research on various ways to increase the hardness, I decided to follow a recommendation on Aquatic Plant Central and got Seachem Equilibrium. It just seemed to offer the most control over my water hardness, and I'm a control freak.

July 27, 2011

We have plants! The vallisneria is looking a little rough, but the others look pretty good to me. This evening:

  • I put some gravel all around the edges of the tank.  (Sorry, forgot to take a photo.)
  • Then we added plants, and put more gravel all around them. 
  • Next, we added water. I poured the water into a bowl so that I wouldn't disturb the plants or their bed.
Plants in a 10-gal tank, with gravel. I poured the water into
the red bowl to avoid creating too much sediment.

Turning on the lights! (Walstad recommends about 1 to 2 W per gallon. I don't know how that works with fluorescent lights, but my hood takes regular incandescent bulbs.)

Tank with plants

July 28, 2011

The water looks slightly like apple juice this morning, but I was prepared for that. Apparently, this is quite normal in a Walstad tank. Water tests were elevated for ammonia (between 0.5 and 3.0 ppm), which I expected, but normal for nitrate, nitrite, alkalinity, and pH.

You can see that the water is a bit yellower (and it's not
just the yellow paint on my wall) today.

Walstad says that she sets up her tanks in the morning and adds fish in the evening. Then she does frequent water changes until the tank cycles.

While I'm tempted to add some red cherry shrimp, I had a bad experience several years ago adding fish to a tank that hadn't cycled yet. So I'm chickening out. However, wanting to speed up the process, I cheated again and added the pump and filter from my goldfish tank (the last one died a few days ago). I'm shooting from the hip here, but I'm hoping to introduce lots of nice bacteria. (I'm going to remove the filter after 24 hours, though, because I don't want to filter out chemicals that the plants use for fertilizer. I plan to continue using the pump.The agitation prevents the formation of biofilm on the water's surface.)

I'll continue to test the water every couple of days until everything tests normal.

July 29, 2011

The water was even darker this morning, so I did a partial water change (approx. 15-20%) to clear it up a little.

August 1, 2011

It's been about 5 days since I set up the tank. The water has continued to darken, but with pool parties and various summer activities, I haven't bothered to change it anymore. However, readings for nitrate, nitrite, alkalinity, and pH have all stayed the same (within normal limits). Water hardness is about 75 ppm, so maybe I'll try to increase that a little. The ammonia reading, though, has dropped to 0.25 ppm. Hooray! Things are happening!

How are the plants? The val never looked great to begin with, and it doesn't look any better now. The marble sword is losing a leaf, and two leaf tips on the Amazon sword have turned brown. Otherwise, the plants don't seem noticeably different. At least, they're all still alive!

August 3, 2011

The ammonia reading has dropped again. This morning, it was between 0 and 0.25 ppm. 

The rosette sword is losing a leaf, but otherwise, the plants don't seems any worse off than they did a few days ago. In fact, the aquarium lily is really starting to take off. Its leaves are much larger, and I think it's even put out a couple new ones.

As you can see below, the water is positively tea-colored (sorry about the glare, water spots and fingerprints.).
Day 7

August 5, 2011

Teeny weeny pond snail
The ammonia reading is 0. Hooray! Readings for nitrate, nitrite, etc. are still all normal, though the pH is inching slightly toward being alkaline. (We just love performing these color-changing tests!)

The kids are very excited to discover that we have lots of snails in our tank, even though we didn't add them. They must have hitchhiked in on the plants somehow. Now my son wants a fish that will eat snails. (That's a boy for you.)

Some of the plants (especially the ludwigia) look less than fabulous, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a comeback. The val looks terrible, but I noticed new leaves coming up. Maybe that's because it's getting more shade now. The water sprite is also looking ragged. However, it appears to be putting out suckers. (I don't know if that's what they're called on water plants, but that's what I'd call them if I saw them on tomatoes.) 

I might try pruning the water sprite today to see if that will stimulate some new growth. Aquatic plants are completely new to me, but I know their terrestrial cousins can sometimes die off before readjusting to new growing conditions. Maybe these watery types work the same way.

On the other hand, the aquarium lily is thriving. Its leaves have doubled in size, at least. The cabomba looks great. Even the amazon sword looks pretty good to me.

August 7, 2011

I put the tank lights on a timer. Walstad recommends putting the tank in front of a window that gets a lot of light, then setting the lights for 5 hours on, 4 hours off (during the day when the tank is getting natural light), and then 5 hours on again.

I don't have any windows with a lot of light, so I'm setting it for 14 hours per day.

August 8, 2011

I wonder what their teenie fishie brains are thinking.
If I were a tetra, I'd be thinking "Jackpot!"
Self-indulgence has won out over self-control. We're going on vacation next week, so this is probably a terrible time to add fish. However, neither the boys nor I can wait any longer. Today, we added 6 neon tetras to our tank.

I had wanted to start the tank with red cherry shrimp, but I'll have to special order those, and they wouldn't have gotten here in time. (Although I don't anticipate any big problems, I'd like to monitor the tank with fauna for at least a week before we leave.)

Also this morning, I decided that the ludwigia was officially a goner, so I replaced it with a moss ball. However, the val seems to have stopped "melting," which makes me happy. The aquarium lily has 4 times the number of leaves than when we planted it.

12 days ago, this plant was a bulb
with three itty-bitty barely leaf thingies.  

August 14, 2011

Back from vacation and all the fish are alive and thriving! The amazon sword is really tall and the water lily has put out tons of leaves. Checked the water, and there is no ammonia, no nitrates, no nitrites.

The only weird thing was that the water was hard but also very acidic. I think the organic matter in the soil might have something to do with that. I added a little baking soda, and that seems to have sorted things out.

Also, I noticed a baby ramshorn snail in the tank. Fun! I love surprises!

October 16, 2011
It's mid-October, and my tank is thriving. Right now, in addition to to the neon tetras, I also have about 12 Endler's livebearers and at least half a dozen red cherry shrimp. (Yes, that's quite a lot of fish for a little tank, but the plants are doing a fantastic job of cleaning the water.)

For a brief couple of weeks, I had a betta fish in there to eat the baby snails. She got along brilliantly with the other fish, but then she started to eat my shrimp and I moved her to her own time-out tank.

The tank has become a real project. I'm constantly moving things, adding things, taking things out. In fact, I have big plans to change the planting arrangement  because a couple of the plants have gotten too big. In fact, I now have plans to move the fish (including bringing the betta out of solitary confinement) and some plants into my new 45 gallon(!) tank (an early birthday gift from my DH). The small aquarium will be my shrimp tank.

As a result of the impending changes, I'm not going to post a current picture now. Instead, I think I'll wait for a year and then post an update.

In the meantime, I'm curious. Have you ever tried growing aquatic plants? What was your experience?
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