Ammonia Rich

JPog

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Founding Member
Nov 2, 2022
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New York
So, I'm a pretty strong believer that there is no such thing as a "Heavy Root Feeder" or should I say a plant that needs to be feed by directly inserting nutrients into the substrate or needing an active soil. I realize there is many times a surge of growth with a loaded substrate, but overall everything I've grown long-term has done well in an inert substrate with generous column dosing.

Lately I've been seeing chatter that certain newer and/or "designer" plants need an ammonia rich substrate to grow well. A few that come to mind since I've recently acquired them would be Centrolepis drummondiana and Xyris sp red. What has your experience been with these and other plants? So far they seem to be doing well in my inert/tap setup with only no3 dosing, but I'm curious of other experiences and/or opinions.
 
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Due to my work and family schedule, my tanks are set up long term. IME, I have found that most of the plants I’ve kept (stems mostly) so better in what I would call a soil substrate like AquaSoil. That said, I think plants will grow fine in combination and even inert soil given plants ability to uptake nutrients via their stems/leaves. There is also an exchange of nutrients between the water column and substrate even with inert substrates so the roots will uptake nutrients in any case.

While I don’t doubt that different plants have different nutrient requirements and uptake pathways, I think a soil substrate provides the best environment long term for nutrient cycling and root health which translates to healthy plants long term. I am skeptical of blanket statements such as “needs ammonia rich environment”. I’ve grown plants in many different nutrient environments and one element typically didn’t change things.

I have noted that some plants don’t do well unless in a very soft water environment. That does make a big difference for me. I’ve had the worst luck with Rotala wallichii!
 
Yep, I agree about the nutrients coming from the water column into the substrate, so whether there really is such a thing as a "heavy root feeder" its' needs are being taken care of. I think many associate plants that are "heavy root feeders" with physically inserting nutrients into the substrate.

Most plants we grow do fine with just no3 dosing for N, so I'm trying to see what others say (including yourself) about some plants needing ammonia or urea to grow robustly.
 
IME there are such plants as "heavy" root feeders. Those are the crypto and echino species. Even anubias can be a heavy root feeder. Try pulling up any of those that have been planted in aquasoil! Like pulling a tree out of the ground. Most inert substrates allow for an ion exchange. This allows the "heavy" root feeders to still pull from their roots. I mean if you look at accomplished aquascapers or plant keepers they use aquasoil from the start. As Art said, some species do require softer water. Aquasoil will make those types of plants thrive.
 
Yep, I agree about the nutrients coming from the water column into the substrate, so whether there really is such a thing as a "heavy root feeder" its' needs are being taken care of. I think many associate plants that are "heavy root feeders" with physically inserting nutrients into the substrate.

Most plants we grow do fine with just no3 dosing for N, so I'm trying to see what others say (including yourself) about some plants needing ammonia or urea to grow robustly.
I haven't found a plant yet that "needs" ammonia.

I also have never found a plant that is a true "root" feeder. I've grown about every plant there is without any root tabs or anything in the soil. Just water column ferts.

I've grown giant crypts and anubias with giant root systems that stretch the entire length of the tank in inert soil with water column ferts.

In my opinion plants don't really care. Ferts in the water column or in the substrate makes little difference.

Here's my tank with completely inert BDBS soil.

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And here it is with Landen aquasoil. In my opinion if you get everything right the soil means little.

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I haven't found a plant yet that "needs" ammonia.

I also have never found a plant that is a true "root" feeder. I've grown about every plant there is without any root tabs or anything in the soil. Just water column ferts.

I've grown giant crypts and anubias with giant root systems that stretch the entire length of the tank in inert soil with water column ferts.

In my opinion plants don't really care. Ferts in the water column or in the substrate makes little difference.

Here's my tank with completely inert BDBS soil.

View attachment 258


And here it is with Landen aquasoil. In my opinion if you get everything right the soil means little.

View attachment 259
Hey Gregg...one could argue and say the tank with the Aquasoil looks a little more lush.
 
I haven't found a plant yet that "needs" ammonia.

I also have never found a plant that is a true "root" feeder. I've grown about every plant there is without any root tabs or anything in the soil. Just water column ferts.

I've grown giant crypts and anubias with giant root systems that stretch the entire length of the tank in inert soil with water column ferts.

In my opinion plants don't really care. Ferts in the water column or in the substrate makes little difference.

That has been my experience as well. There are some advantages of aquasoil IMO. One, you can receive a rush of growth at one point that is very suited to competitive aquascapers since time is of the essence and two it can act as a security blanket of sorts if you missed something in the water column.

I really don't believe in the root feeder thing in terms of "needing something in the substrate" and I don't know if it's possible to determine how much intake a particular plant is taking in through the roots vs the leaves.

I do know from my own experience the crypts, swords I've grown had massive root systems as @GreggZ has mentioned. where the roots are doing laps around the bottom of the tank in completely inert substrate. The plants don't look deficient in any way and the colors are really nice. So I can't imagine what an active substrate would do for them.

Getting away from the root feeder thing, I'm trying to determine if some plants do better with ammonia/urea either dosed or in the substrate as I've seen talk that some will struggle without it and an ammonia rich substrate is recommended. I haven't seen an issue with things I've grown for years and @GreggZ has stated the same, but there many new plants in the hobby these days that I haven't tried yet, so wanted to see if "some plants" grow noticeably better with ammonia available to them in the substrate.
 
I have read, but can't confirm, that plants convert NO3 taken up into NH4 for use. If this is so, logically, it would be less taxing, metabolically, if the plant would uptake NH4 by avoiding the expense of converting. Also, we do know that all plants will uptake NH4 from the water column. You can run a filterless tank with plenty of plants for this reason.

That being said, bacteria in nature is available in vast quantities in the substrate. I would find it difficult to believe that there exists a location where there is sufficient NH4 in the substrate that a plant(s) has developed a specialization so limited that it now prefers NH4 in a meaningful way. I would think that all decay in the substrate would convert NH4 to NO3 rather quickly via the nitrogen cycle.

So if you ask me, without testing and seeing the difference, I would tell you that you shouldn't waste too much time thinking about this. If you find a plant that refuses to do well in your aquarium, perhaps you've found a test subject. Until then, move on.

I also remember Tom saying that adding NH4 is walking the razor's edge with algae. This was one substance that too much of usually ended up with an algae infestation. Probably because algae's simple uptake system allows it to grab it faster than bacteria can get to it and, in so, outcompeting plants for a nitrogen source.
 
Hey Gregg...one could argue and say the tank with the Aquasoil looks a little more lush.
First of good to meet you and welcome to the forum.

And yes you could say that, but in my opinion it's a pretty fine line. The difference in the pics above probably has more to do with the plant species and where they were in the growing/trimming cycle at the moment the pic was taken. It could even have something to do with my growing skills as those pics were taken about 4 years apart.

I have found that some plants do prefer soil, and there are even a few that prefer inert. And all in all active soil is just a bit more forgiving for most species, and root systems are a bit larger. But again it's kind of like shades of grey.

Here's the thing. In my experience having used both for years with either you still need to get everything else right. Light, CO2, fertilization, maintenance, horticulture, etc. You can have a great tank with either, and you can have a disaster with either.

And as to root tabs I have tried them sparingly here and there over the years and have never really noticed any difference. Not to say others haven't, I am just saying what I have observed in my own tank.

All that being said and all things being equal if I was starting a new tank I would go with some type of aquasoil. But with larger tanks there is a large cost difference that would need to be considered.

Getting away from the root feeder thing, I'm trying to determine if some plants do better with ammonia/urea either dosed or in the substrate as I've seen talk that some will struggle without it and an ammonia rich substrate is recommended. I haven't seen an issue with things I've grown for years and @GreggZ has stated the same, but there many new plants in the hobby these days that I haven't tried yet, so wanted to see if "some plants" grow noticeably better with ammonia available to them in the substrate.
As to those particular plants I am not growing them so have no frame of reference. I would seek out people who do exceptionally well with them and pick their brains. Winston would be a good place to start.

The only way to really to tell is to have two tanks set up exactly the same except for an ammonia source and observe the results. I would be very curious to follow that experiment and see what happens.
 
I also remember Tom saying that adding NH4 is walking the razor's edge with algae. This was one substance that too much of usually ended up with an algae infestation. Probably because algae's simple uptake system allows it to grab it faster than bacteria can get to it and, in so, outcompeting plants for a nitrogen source.
IMO no question about this. The easiest way to increase algae is to have an ammonia spike. Seen it many times over the years.
 
@Art nice post. That's more what I was getting at. If it's easier for some plants to use nh4 is it a matter of "need" or simply "speed". I think that could be a fine line in a planted tank. And yes, although I see some are dosing urea and variants of ammonia I'm not going to start putting that into the column I would only want it in the AS. The ability to dose ammonia into the column would without worry would be a very narrow window with very dense plant mass and very low livestock volume.

@GreggZ Funny that you mentioned setting up two tanks, that's not possible right now, but I did setup an "experiment" of sorts by placing one of my Xyris sp red in a glass aquatic planter with straight amazonia. It should receive pretty much the same light, co2 that my other Xyris sp is getting in the black inert sand. So I'll report back to see how it goes.
 
You have plants such as Blyxia, Alternanthera reineckii, crypt pink panther and Hairgrass that explode in growth once you add very nutrient rich soils. Or even add root tabs underneath then. Think its more of them being primarily root feeders vs water column feeders. You also have plants like Hygro Pinnatifida that actually change leaf shape and color depending upon the pH of the soil its grown in. You also have plants like Utricularia graminifolia (UG) that rely on the symbiotic relationship between soil enzymes and bacteria to get their nutrients.
 
You have plants such as Blyxia, Alternanthera reineckii, crypt pink panther and Hairgrass that explode in growth once you add very nutrient rich soils. Or even add root tabs underneath then. Think its more of them being primarily root feeders vs water column feeders. You also have plants like Hygro Pinnatifida that actually change leaf shape and color depending upon the pH of the soil its grown in. You also have plants like Utricularia graminifolia (UG) that rely on the symbiotic relationship between soil enzymes and bacteria to get their nutrients.

Yep, I'm with ya on the burst of growth. I normally would only run hi-tech with active soils. When I started to get into my epiphytes I started using inert and that carried over to my current stem tank. Anyway, the root feeder thing is still very debatable to me. Is it that fact that they are being feed in the substrate or is it because they simply have the ammonia available. Most don't dose ammonia in the column for various reasons so it's hard to separate the ammonia from the substrate and not conflating them together.

The other part of this is, besides the burst of growth is this sort of a case of the tortoise vs the hare where your getting somewhere faster with rich soils, but in the end slow and steady with inert is just as good or do you actually get better overall growth long-term.
 
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