Day 1: Setting up

Yesterday have filled the buckets with water and waited until today for chlorine to dissipate. Walstad suggests to put 1.5″ of soil and 1.5″ of gravel in the tank. A hobbyist with a Walstad aquarium in a forum set up her tank with pond soil, so I followed her example. The pond soil I got does not contain chemical fertilisers and has pieces of clay in it. Walstad says about clay:

Clay has 10,000 times more surface area than sand, which gives clay a much greater capacity to bind plant nutrients than sand. Thus, only clay and humus, not sand or silt, contribute significantly to a soil’s cation-binding capacity.

Soil binding of cation keeps substrate nutrients from entering water. Indeed, soil particles can even pull nutrients like copper out of the overlying water.

Pond soil
Pond soil

I did not even have to sieve out any wood pieces as Foo the Flowerhorn did, because the pond soil contained very few of them—and by sieving I would remove all the valuable clay globlets.

After 1.5″ of pond soil were in the aquarium, I sprayed it with water, watching how it gets moist, wet, and ultimately started building puddles of water. It took a while to spray about 3 litres of water on it, but it was fun to watch.

Spil sprayed wet
Soil sprayed with water until little puddles appear

Within minutes the soil started releasing bubbles and sink to about 1″.

Soil releasing bubbles

The gravel came next. Walstad suggests 1.5″ thick and Foo the Flowerhorn reports that the soil substrate eventually rise into the gravel, so while 1.5″ may seem too much at first, it should turn out just the right amount. The gravel cap compresses the soil a bit.

Soil compressed by the 1.5 inch gravel cap
Soil compressed by the 1.5 inch gravel cap

Then came the big moment. First water. Like the First Light moment for a telescope, First Water for an aquarium is a one-in-a-lifetime occasion. It feels like imbuing it with life. Of course none of it is apparent yet, but I imagined all the tiny microbes and micro-organisms in the soil awaking from their deep sleep and already staring their work.

Aquarium 1 hour after filling up
Aquarium 1 hour after filling up

Now I want to give it two days rest. I may poke around in the gravel cap a bit tomorrow to release the bubbles like Foo did, then let is rest for yet another day.

A drop of water, if it could write out its own history, would explain the universe to us. — Lucy Larcom

How it started

The drive to start an aquarium came suddenly. My parents were planning to have one several years ago but then they decided otherwise. Although I found their idea of having an aquarium exciting I did not long for one when they backed out of it.

Many years later, I was keeping a coriander plant in a pot on my balcony and I was looking for an irrigation system which would water it for about ten days for I was going on a 4000 km road trip to Estonia and back. The local hardware store was selling such gadget in their garden department where they had aquariums on display. That’s where I got excited again and remembered that we almost had one at home.

One random event on my visit of Tallinn contributed—though subconsciously—to my decision to have an aquarium myself. One day I stumbled upon Tallinn Botanical Garden. I like to visit botanical gardens, no matter where I go. I cancelled the rest of the day’s original plans and spent many blissful hours there. It is by far the most magnificent botanical garden I have ever seen. I was especially moved by their exhibition of mosses, lichens, and bark mushrooms.

Moss Exhibition in Tallinn Botanical Garden
Moss Exhibition in Tallinn Botanical Garden

Later I walked through a bog study trail adjacent to the botanical garden eagerly reading the brochure about this peat land I got at the entrance to the botanical garden. I instantly fell in love with mires, bogs, and fens. Especially the Estonian ones.

Samples of peat
Samples of peat

When I got home, all leaves of my coriander plant were eaten by aphids. Except for a few dry ones. The irrigation gadget did not really work. The potting soil was almost completely dry. I’m not sure whether the plant will ever recover. The aphids are staying put. They are munching on every little sprout of a new leaf.

Coriander eaten by aphids
Coriander eaten by aphids

I started reading about aquaristics. I found a good store about half an hour drive from where I live. I was getting familiar with the contemporary technology used in aquariums. While browsing a forum, I found out about paludariums. Now I wanted a paludarium instead. It reminded me of the bog at the botanical garden.

The spotless and clean high-tech aquarium the big companies are promoting suddenly lost its appeal for me—although it was what originally got me interested. While looking for my personal take on aquariums I found that they can also be maintained without expensive devices, barring lighting. The youtube user Foo the Flowerhorn has one such wonderful aquarium going on.

Later I found other people on the forum who are friends—even experts—of the low-tech aquarium. I like to call it a Walstad aquarium, named after Diana Walstad who published a seminal work on its ecology, where she also explains how to establish and maintain them. It’s almost a scientific read, but an enlightening one.

That’s how I found the kind of aquarium (or paludarium) I want. My first attempts with it may fail, but I will keep trying and share my experiences here with you.

If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water. — Loren Eiseley