It's kind of fun to try different concepts in our aquaria, isn't it?
One of the best thing about working with you- our fellow hobbyists and customers- is that we get hear all about the cool ideas you're working on in your aquariums. One of the questions that we receive more often than you'd expect is, "Are aquatic botanicals compatible with 'dirted' planted tanks?"
An interesting thought, and before we get into it, let's just briefly look at what a "dirted planted tank" is.
As it's name belies, this type of system, tied to plant expert Diane Walstad's concept of "Natural Planted Tanks", utilizes terrestrial soil for the bulk of the plant substrate, and operates off of the premise that aquariums are true ecosystems, where plants and fishes "balance each other's needs." In her book, "Ecology of the Planted Aquarium", Diane suggests that, in this type of system, fishes produce the "fertilizers" for the plants, which function as a natural "filter."- a great idea!
These types of aquariums seem to do well with even low to moderate lighting, which makes a lot of sense, because it eschews the typical "mandatory" CO2 supplementation. Rather, the CO2 is produced via bacteria present in the soil ("dirt") and the respiration of the fishes in the aquarium. And, the decomposition of materials in the soil substrate releases CO2 via natural processes over time, which, of course, plants totally love! Soil substrate tanks can produce awesome results, even on par with some of those "high tech" planted tanks, with relatively minimal effort- although they take longer to "get there."
Ohh, a system that's bit different- sort of a "counterculture approach" to the usual high-testosterone, energy-centric typical planted tank? One that requires a lot of patience... How could we not love this? It seems downright rebellious! Count us in!
So, you're essentially adding quality terrestrial potting soil and covering it with gravel or other heavier substrate material at a depth of like 2"-4", planting it very densely from day one, and letting the plants settle in for a while before adding fishes. Logical, natural, and elegantly simple. The kind of concept that we as aquarists have so much trouble accepting at "face value", because we love to "edit" and make stuff like this more complicated! I mean, there must be a way to incorporate a reactor or some other techno-gear in such a system, right? There must be!
Actually, what's cool about this system is that, if you get the balance right between fishes and plants, you can theoretically avoid using a filter altogether. Old school...Like, really "old school", right? A cool idea in principle, and of course, one of the parts of the concept that I veto from day one, being a stubborn, biased, lover of filters (and being a long time, gear-heavy reef aquarist keeps me stubbornly clinging to the idea...). And, since good circulation is not a bad idea, why not use filtration as well, right?
I mean, there is obviously more to this whole concept than just throwing dirt in and walk-in away, but the general point is that it's yet another way to have success with aquariums...you do need to research the detailed information about this approach, and there is much more detailed information and discussion on the topic, that's all over the inter-webs...
Oh, and you can light the aquarium with your choice of lighting form factors, which is just fine by me. It's even recommended to employ that 2-4 hour "siesta", when you kill the lights in the middle of your designated photoperiod. This helps retain more CO2 within the system, which powers photosynthesis in your plants- outcompeting nasty algal growth. I always loved that strategy...
The typical 20%-30% weekly water work nicely, with the typical admonition to go with a bigger water change (like 50%) for the first 2-3 weeks to help alleviate some of the excess nutrients released by the soil and prevent algae from getting a "foothold" in the tank.
So, good- I've given you the most cursory rundown of this concept, possibly either piqued your interest or completely turned you off to the idea- and didn't touch one bit about aquatic botanicals!
So, here's the deal: Sure, you can use aquatic botanicals in a "dirted" tank. I see no reason why not! After all, I've seen many dirted systems with driftwood, so it goes without saying that botanicals should work just fine in there. In fact, some "dirted" tank enthusiasts incorporate peat into their substrate, taking advantage of the humic acids it releases...So botanicals, many with their own capacity to release some of the same compounds, work great!
The best part about such a tank is that you're doing regular water changes, which, especially in the first few weeks, can help alleviate some of the organics released by the botanicals as well. And leaves? Well, I suppose you could use them; however, with their propensity to "tint" the water significantly, and the need for light penetration in the aquarium for the plants' benefit, it's something that you will have to experiment with yourself.
I like this approach to planted tanks, because- much like the "new botanical" approach we blabber on about so much here, it creates its aesthetic based on embracing natural processes- not fighting them- and accepts some of the limitations- and benefits- that go with it. I love that it requires patience- something every hobbyist should have an excess of, and that it's still a sort of "deviant" way in the eyes of many "mainstream" planted tank people (I just can't help but be attracted to stuff that kicks convention in the knees once in a while...).
In the end, your choice of using botanicals in a darted tank really boils down to aesthetics. I think they will add a relatively negligible "fertilizing" component (with the exception of leaves, which could break down into some sort of "aquatic mulch" over time, I suppose), and far more of a "look" to the tank.
The only question I have is, who's tried/gonna try/is thinking of trying - this approach with botanicals for their next planted tank? And, is "dirted" really a word? :)
Be adventurous. Stay curious. Stay rebellious.
And stay wet.