For about close to 4 years now I have been into Nature Style Aquariums and during the course of my learning I came across this method called "Dry Start Method" or "Emersed Growth Method" of starting a planted tank. On SN I have come across a few people who were interested in this method and hence thought would do a small write up on the same.
What is it about?
The concept is to create a scape and use aquatic plants, but instead of filling the tank with water, we grow the plants in an emersed stage till it fills in the scape and then fill in the water.
Why is this done?
Different people may have different opinions on this, but in my opinion this is the easiest way to create a scape especially "Iwagumi" style aquascapes where the plants we use are just foreground plants. One of the biggest challenges when we create aquascapes with just one variety of foreground plants is the plant mass is less when the initial planting is done. Now when we use substrate like ADA Amazonia II which is rich in nutrients the plant volume is not enough to absorb all the excess nutrients that algae takes over and it becomes extremely difficult to maintain such tanks until the plants have established and grown fully. Now for people who don't want to go through this trouble of the initial phase but yet end up with a Iwagumi scape like the one below, this method is the perfect solution.
Starting a Scape
Starting a scape is the same as you would with any planted tank with laying your substrate and using rocks for your scape. Once you have arranged your rocks the way you like them, fill the tank with water just till it rises a few millimeters above the substrate. Now do the planting using foreground plant of your choice. I used Hemianthus callichtroides sp. 'cuba' (HC) in this scape purely for the beautiful carpet this plant makes. Plant in small bunches about 2cm apart as shown in the picture below. The best part about this method is that you don't have to plant a lot to get a nice carpet, Just ensure you plant uniformly across.
Front View of Tank After Planting
Top View of Tank After Planting
Once you finish planting, seal the top of the tank airtight with a glass plate or another easy way is to use plastic wrap used for food. Fit your lights and your done.
Maintenance during Dry Start Method
During this phase you really don't need to do much maintenance on the tank. You don't need to have very high lights on the tank as well as there is no water column to penetrate. No CO2 injection required. All you need to do is keep your lights on for 8-10 Hrs a day, open the wrap once a week for 5 min so that fresh air gets in and seal it back up. The results after two and half months is below.
Front View of Tank
Top View of Tank
Flooding the Tank
Once the plants have filled in like shown above, it's time to fill the tank with water. Once the water is filled, CO2 injection is required and needs to be kept very high for 2 weeks close to 5 bubbles per second (bps). Afterward, bring it down to 3bps. Setup lights as per the plants requirements. (Cuba is not a very light demanding plant). Setup filter that you have decided on using. If you are using nutrient rich substrate like ADA Amazonia II, follow the below light and water change routine.
Week 1: 3 Hrs of Light , 50 % Water change once in 3 Days
Week 2: 5 Hrs of Light , 30 % Water change once in 3 Days
Week 3: 7 Hrs of Light , 30% Water change once a week
Week 4: 9 Hrs of Light , 30% Water change once a week
Your tank is completely cycled after this stage and if you follow the above routine you will have minimal algae issues except for some diatom algae during the first 2 weeks on the glass which is easily wiped off during your water changes.
NOTE: A correct combination of amount of Light , CO2 and nutrients is required to keep a planted tank free of algae bloom. In most cases it is excessive light that causes the problem. Keep your lighting moderate and you will have minimal algae issues.
Added Notes: This method can be used to grow aquatic plants even in small tubs and kept outdoors such that it gets diffused sunlight. You will have your very own supply of plants for your tanks when you need them. I hope people will benefit from this article as I did and have fun creating such scapes.