Wormstrate or Soil Substrate?

March 26th, 2008

About a week ago, I started a substrate experiment that I’ve been wanting to try for some time. Having always used commercial substrates, often at high expense, I’ve had a lot of success growing plants over the past few years in my aquarium. Of course, nearly all of these substrates, when used in a light-intensive+CO2 setup require supplemental dosing of fertilizers. Hence, my previous entry about automating the dosing of those fertilizers.

Wormstrate and Soil Substrate Experiment

I watched as both local GWAPA members and other enthusiasts around the world started growing beautiful aquascapes with nothing more than garden soil, and a few additives, at probably 1/10th of the cost of my ADA substrate. Not only that, but they aren’t required to dose additional fertilizers as the soil is sufficiently rich for at least a decade. In addition to these soil methods, I wanted to try something different as well — a wormstrate — that is, a substrate based on worm castings. With two empty 2.5G tanks sitting around, I decided to do a side-by-side experiment of the two natural substrate options.

For the soil substrate, I used a method designed and perfected by a local GWAPA member, consisting of mineralized topsoil, potash, dolomite, pottery clay, and an inert top layer. As mentioned, a number of GWAPA members have successfully run high-tech tanks using this method, with the only downside often being an green water outbreak at the beginning of the process.

For the wormstrate, I used Vladimir Simoes Method, which was used successfully by a number of AGA contestant tanks from Brazil. This is essentially just worm castings, mixed with sand, and topped with an inert top layer. The most appealing thing about this method is that I could use my own worm castings, produced from my kitchen scraps, creating a full cycle of food to waste to worms to aquarium to plants to compost. Can anyone else say that they made their substrate from their kitchen scraps? Nerdy, I know, but cool!

So, I setup both 2.5G aquariums within a few days of each other, fit a 24″ 55W light over top of them, outfitted each with a hang-on-the-back filter, and planted each with roughly the same number and type of plants from my other tanks. I started the tanks using water from the same established 20L aquarium, which I believe has helped me avoid the green-water cycle often experienced. The only thing I have been dosing has been Seachem Excel, since I don’t have two extra CO2 diffusers.

Over about a week and a half, I’ve seen some modest growth, zero algae, and clear water. I’m hoping that the growth will pick up, as the plants adjust to feeding from the roots instead of the water column. I’ll be sure to continue providing updates on this experiment as it progresses. My hope is to have one of these two methods convince me to redo one of my larger tanks with a natural-based substrate, so that I can further lessen my fertilizer use. Comments/suggestions welcome!

12 Responses to “Wormstrate or Soil Substrate?”

  1. Kelley Says:

    What an exciting test!

    I have been using Aaron’s soil method in my own tanks for a few months now and I have to say that I absolutely LOVE the results! My crypt growth is so lush and I love not having to dose. I can’t compare it to ADA substrates because those are beyond my budget.

    I only do a couple of things different than Aaron does. I do not use the Dolomite sprinkled at the bottom of the tank. My water is hard enough. I also painstakingly sieve out any twigs and leaves that are in the soil by soaking it in a bucket and skimming them off. Because I only set up tanks in the cold of winter, I evaporate the mud in the oven or on the stove top in a pot instead of drying it on a tarp. I believe this is why I have completely bypassed the greenwater stage that Aaron described.

    Good luck with the worm casting experiment. It will be interesting to see the results.

  2. guitarfish Says:

    Thanks Kelley! I’m glad you’re having luck with the soil method! I’m pretty much following it exactly. I seem to remember some folks arguing that baking the soil kills beneficial bacteria or something like that, but I’ve read enough positive reviews of doing so (like yours) that it doesn’t seem to be a problem at all.

    In that regard, I kind of have an experiment in the experiment with my worm castings, as I did not boil/bake them at all. My logic is that I often make “worm tea” from my castings by pouring water through the container once every 2-4 weeks, and havesting the tea at the bottom for fertilizing my house plants. I’m theorizing that this process is similar to the wet/dry methods with the soil. We’ll see!

  3. Jason Says:

    This sounds amazing! I can’t wait to see how this will turn out! Then all we’d need is a way to avoid water changes…

  4. guitarfish Says:

    Well, there are a few GWAPA members who have their large tanks plumbed into their house water supply and drain with water changes done on a timer. Anything else? 😉

  5. Aaron Says:

    I demand an update! 😀

    I’ve started sifting my soil as Kelley mentioned and have also noticed a significant decrease in initial algae in newly setup tanks. The soil I lent to Kris for this experiment was prepared in that manner.

  6. guitarfish Says:

    Aaron, an update for this was April 10th: 😉


  7. Soil/Wormstrates - 9 Weeks-- Guitarfish Says:

    […] been a little bit more than 2 months since I setup my side-by-side comparison of soil substrate (left) and worm casting substrate (right). Both are looking kind of pathetic, but the wormstrate appears to be doing a little bit less […]

  8. 40G - Wormstrate Aquascape!-- Guitarfish Says:

    […] my previous soil vs. earthworm casting experiment, I decided that it was time to really give one of the methods a chance in a “real” […]

  9. Odd n Ends-- Guitarfish Says:

    […] also torn down both of my 2.5G tanks that I had used for my first wormstrate/soil experiment. All that’s left is the 20L and two 10Gs, which I’ll need to consolidate at some point. […]

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    David, the odds are really good. Just click on the Subscribe link at the top of the page. 🙂

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