How To Setup a Walstad, Low-Tech Aquarium

How to Setup a Walstad Tank

Welcome to the first of hopefully many DIY articles here on StockMyTank!  Today, we are talking about low-tech planted tanks and the best ways to set one up.  If you are running low on time or money but are still itching to set up a new aquarium, the Walstad method may be perfect for you.  Walstad tanks, also known as “low tech” planted tanks, are great additions for small spaces like a home office desk, coffee table or kitchen counter top.

Here’s my current Walstad setup! It reminds me of a little mountain range beneath a giant forest. If you have house plants lying around, its super fun to make them a part of your setup and incorporate them into the overall design.

What is the Walstad Method?

The Walstad method was created by Diana Walstad, author of the book “Ecology of the Planted Aquarium – A Practical Manual and Scientific Treatise for the Home Aquarist.”  The Walstad Method is essentially a series of steps that aid in setting up a natural biome within an aquarium with minimal inputs outside of what one could find in nature.  By following the Walstad method, you can create a beautiful, easy to care for aquarium setup that requires little to no maintenance.  No expensive filters or lighting is needed! In total, the cost of a Walstand tank can be as cheap as the cost of a container/aquarium + potting soil + plants.

Choosing the Aquarium or Container

The first step is to choose the size and shape of your Walstad setup.

  • If you are planning to add aquatic life such as shrimps or fish, you should optimize for the setup that allows for the most surface area  (largest area where the water touches the air). Because Walstad tanks do not use filters that oxygenate the water, it is important to be thoughtful in choosing tank inhabitants that can survive in low-oxygen environments.
  • Jars can be great to use but make sure you have easy access to take care of and remove plants as they grow.  Any jars or glass containers should also be deep enough to allow for at least 2″ depth for the soil bed with ample room for plant growth above.
  • If you are using a true aquarium, take care to make sure all of the walls are sealed (not leaking) and that the aquarium isn’t located in direct sunlight to limit algae growth.

Setting up the Substrate

The substrate is the most important part of a Walstad tank.  By using the correct substrate, you are setting yourself up for the best chance at success in creating a natural, long-lasting biome for any aquatic inhabitants.

  • Layer 1″ of potting soil on the bottom of your tank or container.  The soil should be as free of additional fertilizers as possible.  Avoid soils with extra nitrates or sulphates added in. The most basic potting soil available at the garden store is usually the best.
  • On top of your potting soil, I recommend layering another inch of sand.  Black Diamond Blasting Sand works great and is already black in color which blends in nicely atop the potting soil. 
  • Some suggest adding another thin layer of light gravel to “hold in” the potting soil and keep it from floating away, but I have found gravel to be optional in establishing a healthy natural biome.
  • Next, slowly pour in your water (make sure you add water conditioner to remove harmful chlorine and other chemical contaminants that will be detrimental to the setup). 

Selecting Ideal Lighting

Small desk lamps and clip-on reading lights make great lighting choices for Walstad tanks.  You do not necessarily need a high powered light to achieve a successful outcome.  Oftentimes, lighting that you already have on your desk or in your kitchen is sufficient to sustain the biome.  If you are seeing algae growth, consider cutting back the amount of time that the light is on above the tank.  A 10 hour photo period should be enough to sustain most plants and some plants can live on much less.

Picking Out Plants

When it comes to plants, choose plants that naturally mimic the shape of your Walstad tank.  For example, if you are using a tall jar, choose a plant that grows vertically like Rotala that can grow in and fill that space.  If your container is shorter, perhaps consider Java moss or Christmas Tree moss which I have found to do exceeding well in Walstad environments.  Other great plant choices include:

  • Rotala
  • Ludwigia
  • Hornwort
  • Riccia

Maintenance

Walstad tanks require minimal maintenance, however, small water changes should still be conducted once a month or every other month to clean out any contaminants that may have built up in your system.  This is especially important during the first few months of the aquarium being established and if you are adding shrimp or fish.  After the initial development phase, water changes are less critical and may not be necessary.  Outside of water changes, be sure to trim overgrown plants (share your trimmings with other local aquarium hobbyists) and top off any water that has evaporated with freshly conditioned water. 

Conclusion

Walstad planted tanks are an absolute joy to keep and can be a great addition to a small space. Because these setups are so low maintenance, they can be a fun way to add to your aquarium hobby without over-committing yourself to buying expensive equipment and lighting. My Walstad setup has been up and running for over a year now with minimal input required from me. To create my setup, I borrowed two rocks from a local creek and used a beautiful twisted branch to create a space to hang a lightbulb above the bowl. In my Walstad tank, I currently have Java moss growing in addition to a few white cloud minnows which add color and energy to the setup.

Send pics of your Walstad setups @stockmytank on Instagram. Looking forward to seeing your beautiful creations!

-Nat

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