Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Diana Walstad's "el Natural" Approach to Planted Tanks

I've covered two other major schools of aquascaping for planted tanks before, but both of those are relatively high-tech, and high maintenance. For those of you who either don't have the time, patience, or just the wallet for a high-tech Dutch or Nature style tank, or for those of you who have been burned out by one, there is a third school.

This third school, often referred to as "el Natural," and sometimes Natural Planted Tanks (NPTs), is based on a low maintenance, low-tech approach pioneered by Diana Walstad. Outlined in her book, Ecology of the Planted Aquarium: A Practical Manual and Scientific Treatise for the Home Aquarist, the approach has several basic tenets:

  • Regular potting soil, capped by small gravel is used as substrate
  • No filtration is needed, aside from a powerhead for water movement
  • Lighting is low, 1-2 watts per gallon, and is often supplemented by sunlight from a window
  • No fertilization or CO2 is used, only liberal fish feeding
  • Water changes are done only ever 6 months or so
  • Plants will act as filters and fish will act as fertilizers, creating a balanced ecosystem
The end result is a tank that looks very different from any Dutch or Nature style aquarium, but that requires almost no maintenance, while maintaining a lush planted look. The types of plants available to someone starting an "el Natural" fish tank are somewhat limited, since lots of plants require high light and fertilization, but algae is rarely a problem. Unlike Dutch and Nature style aquariums, there is no set school for plant placement or composition of hardscape. This approach is also not designed for someone who likes to rescape their tank every few months, as moving plants around is difficult to do without disturbing the potting soil underneath the gravel. The natural soil substrate is probably the most volatile part of an "el Natural" style fish tank, and there are lots of do's and don'ts explained in Diana's book. However, once you get it set up, an "el Natural" style tank can be perfect for someone who is tired of dosing, testing, and re-dosing every day or for someone who just doesn't have the time for a high-tech aquarium.

For step by step pictures to setting up an "el Natural" style tank, check out Step by Step: Setting Up a Walstead Natural Planted Tank by Betty Harris. For more of Diana Walstad's tanks, check out her gallery.


  1. ah, the economy route ... the most suitable practice for me. thanks for covering this!

  2. Oh god that's me. Looowww tech. I can't imagine pruning plants, fiddling with C02 and dealing with the algae that a high light aquarium seem to bring. Glad you're starting to cover some low tech tanks. tehre are some incredible low tech aquascapes on the net.

  3. it is just what i was looking for.

  4. I just found your blog and I must say I'm very impressed. I just subscribed to your RSS feed. I've played with a lot of fish, but not planted aquariums. Your blog inspires me. I'll be starting up a 70 gallon tank soon. I've got a lot of studying to do. Thank you.

  5. Ms. Walstad's book literally opened my eyes to the concept of balance in an aquarium, and I've been an NPT fanatic ever since. Everyone talks about limited plant selection in an NPT, especially groundcover, but I've successfully grown HC and glosso in mine before.

    Love your blog btw!


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