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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.

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