Dirty thoughts....

I'm thinking it may be time to really play with dirt.

I mean, flat-out, full-on, dirt-from-the-garden-bed dirt. Obviously, nothing with pesticides or whatever...but, like dirt.


Now, I know that the idea of "dirted" tanks is not at all new, particularly to the planted tank world. There is a whole fascinating subculture of planted people doing amazing things with "dirted" tanks. I enjoy reading about their almost rebellious simplistic approach. I love these folks! Now, they're utilizing garden soil and such, which is geared towards, well- growing stuff. 

I'm talking about utilizing it in a tank where plants are not the primary focus. Like, using it as part of an aesthetic and functional substrate.

Yes, I'm thinking about dirt...the stuff in your garden that get's kind of muddy when it gets wet. Would using this stuff in your substrate, either "solo" or as a "mix", be a cool way of capturing the "look and feel" of some of our blackwater habitats? Now, I realize it's  A LOT more complicated than just throwing some dirt into the water, and that the chemical compositions of many of the soils which originate in the tropical regions we attempt to replicate in our aquariums are often vastly different geologically from our North American/European soils. Yet, I find it sort of intriguing to utilize clean dirt (boy, is THAT an oxymoron?) in a botanical-style, blackwater aquarium. 

This is probably one of the more reckless, least scientific ideas I've wanted to play with...There is absolutely no basis for using "just any old dirt" in a blackwater, botanical-style aquarium- other than the fact that "dirt" is found in many of the streams and rivers of the world. There must be some benefits, right?

Sure, super alkaline soils or soils with a lot of salt or other mineral content will possibly wreak havoc on our attempts to create soft, acidic waters- but there must be some types of soils with some attributes that will perhaps release some beneficial trace elements and minerals into the water? Again, I AM NOT SUGGESTING THAT ANYONE DO THIS without a lot of consideration

I'm merely sharing with you something I might play with at some point.

When I was working on a museum tank in Connecticut several years back, we were growing riparian plants from the beaches of Long Island Sound, and I remember literally digging up clumps of these plants, along with the surrounding soil, and utilizing them in an aquarium with local marine life...it was an incredible display...Super simple, but cool- and the experience never quite left my head...I thought, "Why not do this with a tropical freshwater tank?" 

Or, perhaps with brackish?

Now, with the launch of Estuary, our foray into brackish water, the idea of utilizing/recreating the muds and silts as the basis of our mangrove biotopes, I can't help but let my mind return back to that "dirt thing" and the potentially interesting benefits (like the potential to impart trace elements, organics, etc. to the water) that could come from it. Mixing muds and soils with dried mangrove leaves and some botanicals would be a very interesting long-term game! My vindication for my strange dirt/mud obsession came when I had a  brief chat with Mike Tuccinardi, who is thinking through a brackish display, and we are touched briefly on how to simulate/utilize/recreate mud in the aquarium in a way that is, well, "muddy", and sort of concluded that more thought is required on this!

Mud and dirt can be used in a variety of ways, once we figure out how best to utilize them!

There are some cool commercial products out there, and I have played with them before and will in the future...I just wonder what the ins and outs of using naturally collected stuff could be. 

I'm rambling. Not really fully developing the idea..Just sort of throwing out thoughts. It's an idea...sort of one of those "bring up to your fish geek friends and let them run with it" types...

So...look for more on this. Let me know if you've played around with this before. And feel free to bring up any of the off-the-wall, unorthodox, or otherwise unusual aquatic ideas YOU might have floating around in your mind!

It would be only fitting (although perhaps slightly creepy) to suggest that you "talk dirty to me.."

Yeah, creepy. Nevermind.


Stay creative. Stay unencumbered by convention. Stay bold. Stay inventive.


And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


1 Response


July 04, 2017

I love the idea of dirt. I follow a few people who have dirted tanks. A big thing is letting the soil remineralize over a few weeks, as well as “burning out” excess nutrients. Avoiding “floaters” is also key to keeping your filtration clean and clear.

I like the “hybrid” soil concept as well. Resources like PFK Magazine often have detailed descriptions of natural environments that can include substrate composition.

In my own Asian-themed 35G tank I’ve used a combination of sand, mulm, crushed bark, dead plant matter, a small amount of dead crustaceans, a scoop of aquarium gravel, a scoop of clay (unscented cat litter) and about a gallon of coconut fibre. Mixed together and with a layer of leaves on top, it looks remarkably similar to blackwater stream beds, and it has been interesting watching the different components “settle” as my snails and loaches forage for buried treasure.

In my next endeavour I’d like to do a long Amazonian setup and incorporate some soil – it is the next logical step in the breakdown of materials, after all – as well as a deeper sand bed, and a deep leaf litter bed. I’m talking 10 to 20 centimeters of substrate materials! It will be fascinating to see how this ecosystem performs.

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