El Natural Vs Tom Barr's Low Tech

This article reflects my efforts to set up a 5 gallon hex· low light, low tech, low maintenance, and non c02 injected tank.· I will experiment and share my experiences· with these three different methods: High light with DIY CO2 and Seachem Fluorite, Diana Walstad’s El Natural Aquarium setups using potting soil, and Tom Barr’s low tech, non CO2 setups.

High light with DIY CO2 and Seachem Fluorite Setup

I first attempted to make this hex tank a high light (30 watts) tank with DIY c02 injection and Seachem Fluorite (regular) substrate.· This was met with failure, I believe largely due to overheating issues.

The water turned a never ending brown color, the plants pretty much decayed, and all the fauna in the aquarium ( African Dwarf Frog, Cherry Shrimp, and Otocinclus perished.· No amount of water changes resolved the issue.

I tore the tank down and started a new setup· as a 5 gallon Natural Planted Tank· (NPT) as per Diana Walstad's El Natural Method which recommends using top soil capped with pea gravel.· When I created this NPT, I also set up a 5 gallon rectangular tank as per Tom Barr's low light, non C02 method. Both tanks were set up on November 7 2007 and the differences that I observed between these two tanks as the months passed were remarkable.

El Natural Planted Tank

First,· let’s talk about the NPT hex tank.· The plants did not die or grow much within the first 2-3 months.· However· after this time period, I saw a rapid deterioration of plant growth, and fish and shrimp deaths like I had never seen.·· I tried to prevent the fish and plant deaths by increasing the frequency of water changes, removing decaying plant matter, adding new plants, using carbon in the filter, and reducing feeding but nothing seemed to work. Ammonia and nitrite levels tested zero.

Tom Barr’s Low Tech Method

Things progressed quite differently in my Tom Barr 5 gallon low tech tank. The 2 Amano Shrimp tripled in size, while the Otocinclus and Dwarf Aquatic Frog appeared to be healthy and active.· The plants show new growth each day.· Left with a 5 gallon hex tank in which nothing would survive, including plants I had little choice but to dismantle the tank.· This left me with 2 options. (1)· to sell the tank, or· (2) to redo the tank.· As I had space in my home,

I chose to redo the tank using Tom Barr's Method as I had the most success with the method. For the record, I would like to state that I have the utmost respect for Diana Walstad and I am just sharing my experience with her method.· I am not in anyway suggesting that people should avoid the method.· Many people who have set up natural planted tank methods have had a lot of success and· Diana's book, “Ecology Of The Planted Aquarium,”· has had rave reviews.

The Setup with the Tom Barr Low Tech Method

With a method chosen, I have redone my 5 gallon Marineland Hexagon tank and setup it up on March 4, 2008 following Tom Barr’s low tech recommendations.


The filter was a simply· Biowheel filtration system with Polyfloss over a pantyhose containing a tablespoon of Seachem Purigen (to be replaced monthly) as the media.


I cheated here a little bit by adding a thin layer of Schultz Aquatic soil and overlaying that with a thin layer of leonardite, peat moss, and crushed Seachem fertilizer tab pieces.· I capped this with about· 1 ½ “ of Seachem Onyx sand and capped the Seachem Onyx Sand with a thin 1/4” of pool filter sand.· I planned to keep some Peppered Cory catfish and I felt that they would enjoy the layer of pool filter sand because it would be softer on their sensitive barbells.

I used Seachem Fertilizer Tablet pieces· to further enrich the substrate.· The reason for using a thin layer of Schultz Aquatic soil was to see if it would help with faster bacterial colonization of the substrate in much the same way that a layer of power sand under ADA Aqua Soil is supposed to do.

Lighting and Photo period

The tank was initially setup using a screw in 6400 K 14 watt compact fluorescent bulb with 8 hour straight photoperiod.· With the appearance of diatom algae one month after the tank was set up, I decided to change the light bulb to a screw in 6500K 15 watt compact fluorescent tube.

I also switched to a split photoperiod with the lights coming on at 10:30 A.M to 3:30 P.M., off from 3:30 P.M. To 5:30 P.M, and on again from 5:30 P.M. To 9:30 P.M (total 9 hours of lighting).· I switched to the split photoperiod as I had the most success with this.

Fertilizer Dosing

I used limited amounts of fertilizers, and dosed about once per week. A pinch of nitrates, phosphates, potassium, Seachem Equilibrium plus a ½ teaspoon of Yamato Green trace element supplement with weekly 50% water changes.· I also dosed the tank with 50 CC's of Seachem Flourish Excel to provide the plants a carbon source.


The Plant Species I used were: Asian Ambulia (Limnophila sessiliflora), Onion Plant(crinumthaianum, 2 dwarf lily bulbs( Nymphaea zenkeri) fully sprouted, Red Cryptocorne Wendtii, Java Fern, Dwarf sag(Sagittaria subulata), and· Anubias nana.· I chose these plants as they were the ones that I had previously had the most success with.


A zebra danio was added to the tank when it was setup to cycle the tank.· After approximately 3 weeks when ammonia and nitrite levels tested zero and the tank appeared cycled, an Otocinclus was added to help resolve a diatom algae problem.· A week after that, two cherry shrimp were added.· I wanted to add Amano Shrimp as I found them to be hardier than cherry shrimp, but I was unable to find a local supplier of Amano Shrimp, so I opted to add the cherry shrimp instead.

My Results

Diatom algae materialized 3 weeks after the tank was setup.· Fortunately, the Otocinclus that was added to the tank at that time made short work of the algae.· To date, the onion plant is growing really well.· It is shooting off roots above the surface as I did not plant it deep enough when I set up the tank.· The dwarf lilies were shooting out new leaves almost weekly and I was forced to trim the leaves to prevent them from blocking out light.· This is why the leaves are not visible in the picture.· The bulbs are hidden in the background and out of sight.· Hopefully as new smaller leaves shoot out that don't need to be trimmed, they will become more visible.

The Asian amublia had also grown considerably but some stems were still showing residual diatom algae on rosette tips, and the diatom algae was giving the rosette tips a yellowish to brownish tinge.· The dwarf sag completely melted, which was somewhat surprising considering that it is flourishing in the rectangular 5 gallon Tom Barr type low tech tank.

Also surprising was the growth of the Anubias nana.· While it was not dieing the tips or the plant leaves were browning.· How this tank progresses overtime is anyone's guess.

Below is a picture of what the tank looks like.· This was the best picture that I could take and I apologize to readers ahead of time for my poor camera and picture taking skills.· As far as the aquascape of aesthetics of the tank, the scape’s appearance took a backseat to the primary goal of setting up a tank that would support and promote healthy fish/shrimp and plants, so I make no apologies for that.

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