How To Easily Setup A Walstad Betta Tank! (Beginner-Friendly)

Betta fish are among the most popular species in the aquarium hobby, and with the rising popularity of Walstad tanks, I decided to make a Walstad betta tank setup.

After receiving several inquiries about creating Walstad betta fish tanks, I decided to publish this article to help as many readers as possible.

Introduction To The Walstad Method

Pros

  • Cheap
  • Easy
  • Can Be Low Maintenance
  • Natural Ecosystem

Cons

  • High Initial Ammonia
  • Low Tech Plants Only
  • Limited Hardscape
  • Requires Heavy Planting

The Walstad method uses topsoil as a cheap nutrient layer for an aquarium, which is then capped with sand or gravel to keep the nutrients from entering the water column.

The tank is heavily planted, ideally with fast-growing stem plants, to absorb as many nitrogen compounds as possible and act as the tank’s filter.

Floating plants are also highly recommended for any Walstad-style tank.

The natural filtration provided by your plants can eliminate the need for a filter. However, if this is your first betta tank, as mentioned in my article on filters for betta tanks, I highly recommend using a cheap sponge filter to ensure your betta stays safe.

In my opinion, the Walstad method is a very beginner-friendly, budget-friendly way to set up a planted aquarium that has the potential to thrive!

Choosing The Right Aquarium Tank

My 8 US Gallon Cube Tank
My 8 US Gallon Cube Tank

An optimal Walstad betta tank is 5-10 US gallons (19-38 liters), with both cube-shaped and rectangular tanks working well.

Technically, a “long” or rectangular tank is arguably better for betta fish and the Walstad method as it provides a longer footprint for swim space and plants.

My 8 US gallon (30 liter) cube tank is perfect for betta fish and I have kept a couple of betta fish in them over the years without issue.

Betta fish are known to be jumpers, so an aquarium with a lid is a bonus.

Adding The Substrate Layers

Top Soil For A Walstad Shrimp Bowl
Top Soil For A Walstad Betta Tank

Properly arranging your substrate layers is essential for a successful Walstad tank, and it’s often simpler than beginners think.

Dianna Walstad’s book outlines two “official” methods for setting up your substrate.

The first method involves adding one inch of top soil to your tank and capping it with one inch of fine gravel.

The second method involves adding one inch of topsoil to your tank and then capping it with 3/4 inch of sand.

This method uses a thinner capping layer of sand to make it easier for plant roots to penetrate.

I prefer the thicker capping layer of fine gravel, but if you prefer sand, use sand when I mention gravel below.

Using My Soil Sieve
Using My Soil Sieve

I always like to sieve my soil before adding it to my tank since some cheaper topsoil products can contain rocks and twigs.

Some people gather topsoil from their yard or garden to keep costs low. Although this can work, I prefer to purchase topsoil to ensure it is free from pesticides or chemicals that could harm my aquarium.

Regardless of the source, I highly recommend sieving your soil or picking out any large pebbles or twigs.

Debris From My Soil
Debris From My Soil

My photograph above shows the amount of debris I removed from my topsoil when adding a one-inch layer to my tank.

I removed several pebbles and some twigs that would have otherwise ended up in the tank.

Adding One Inch Of Top Soil
Adding One Inch Of Top Soil

At this stage, you should have a smooth, flat layer of approximately one inch of topsoil across the base of your aquarium.

If you have too little, try to add a bit more soil. If you have too much, remove some to prevent issues later in the process.

Adding One Inch Of Fine Gravel
Adding One Inch Of Fine Gravel

Once I am satisfied with the one-inch layer of topsoil at the bottom of my tank, I add around one inch of fine gravel.

My photograph above shows how fine my gravel is—only slightly larger than sand—making it easier for plant roots to penetrate.

Remember, if you are using sand for your capping layer, you should only add 3/4 of an inch rather than a full inch.

Adding The Initial Water

This next step is optional but highly recommended: adding some water to your aquarium.

To avoid disturbing the gravel or sand cap and letting the soil spread everywhere, I like to place some tissue paper in one corner and then slowly add the water.

The goal is not to fill your aquarium completely at this stage; aim to add enough water so that there is about one inch of water above the substrate surface.

Excess Gas Escaping

As shown in my video clip above, a surprising amount of gas can be trapped in the soil and gravel. It’s better for this gas to work its way out at this stage.

I typically leave the tank overnight to allow the gas to bubble out, but some people wait just a few hours before moving on to the next step.

The main reason for doing this is to prevent bubbles from escaping later, which could loosen the gravel and cause your plants to float out of place.

From experience, it’s much easier to add a little water now than to have to replant half your tank later.

Choosing The Correct Plants

My Plant Selection
My Plant Selection

Choosing the right plants for your Walstad tank is crucial, and adding as many fast-growing stem plants as possible is essential.

There is a wide variety of plants available in the hobby, and many will work well in a Walstad tank. My article on choosing plants for a betta tank can help you find the perfect options.

For this tank, I will be using the following plants:

  • Limnophila Sessiliflora
  • Ludwigia Mini Super Red
  • Hygrophila Polysperma
  • Rotala Rotundifolia
  • Staurogyne Repens
  • Eleocharis Pusilla (Mini Hair Grass)
  • Salvinia

The key is to select plants with a high growth rate that will absorb large amounts of ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate, keeping your water parameters stable and safe for your betta fish.

It’s important to prioritize high-growth rate plants and use low-growth rate plants sparingly.

For a Walstad tank, fast-growing stem plants are the best, followed by floating plants, with other types being less effective.

My Initial Planting Plan
My Initial Planting Plan

My graphic above outlines my initial planting plan for this project, and I highly recommend you do something similar.

As you can see, my plan is to keep the taller, faster-growing stem plants towards the rear of the tank, with Staurogyne Repens in the midground and Mini Hair Grass in the foreground.

I have also ensured that at least half of the planting space in my tank is occupied by fast-growing stem plants.

This should ensure there are plenty of plants to handle any potential water parameter issues.

Another benefit of this strategy is that the more nutrients my plants absorb from the water column, the fewer nutrients are available for potential algae growth.

Adding The Plants To The Tank

Plants In My Walstad Betta Tank

The key to successfully adding live plants to your Walstad betta tank is to avoid disturbing the cap layer and allowing nutrients to leak from the soil.

This is easier than many people think, and I use two different methods that both work well.

For this tank, I used planting tweezers, which are perfect for stem plants and dwarf grass.

You don’t need expensive tweezers; the ones from my cheap aquascaping set work perfectly for this type of planting.

For slightly larger plants like cryptocorynes and sword plants, I use my fingers.

Knowing the cap layer is around 1 inch thick, I adjust the pressure I apply when planting. This method has always worked well for me with larger plants.

Adding Ludwigia Mini Super Red
Adding Ludwigia Mini Super Red

I plant two pots of Ludwigia Mini Super Red to the back right of the tank, spacing the stems about 1 inch apart.

This allows ample room for trimming and replanting the cuttings, which will increase the number of plants in this Walstad setup.

Over time, the Ludwigia Mini Super Red should bush out, creating thick plant growth that provides hiding spots for my betta fish and acts as a natural water purifier.

Adding Limnophila Sessiliflora
Adding Limnophila Sessiliflora

Next, I add two pots of Limnophila Sessiliflora to the back left of the tank. I expect this plant to be the heavy lifter in terms of natural water purification.

I follow the same strategy of spacing each stem about 1 inch apart to facilitate easy replanting of cuttings.

Over time, the Limnophila Sessiliflora should bush out, providing ample cover for my betta and effectively managing any potential water parameter issues.

Adding Hygrophila Polysperma
Adding Hygrophila Polysperma

Next, I add one pot of Hygrophila Polysperma to the back center of the tank. Although I could have easily added two pots, I wanted to include Rotala here for additional leaf shape and color diversification.

This choice is purely aesthetic, as I love the look of Rotala.

Even though Hygrophila Polysperma may not bush out as much as Ludwigia Mini Super Red and Limnophila Sessiliflora, it grows rapidly and provides ample cover for my betta.

I stick to my plan of spacing the stems about 1 inch apart to facilitate future replanting of cuttings.

Adding Rotala Rotundifolia
Adding Rotala Rotundifolia

Next, I added Rotala Rotundifolia to the back center of the tank, in front of the Hygrophila Polysperma.

My plan is for Hygrophila Polysperma to handle most of the heavy lifting due to its faster growth rate while allowing the more visually appealing Rotala Rotundifolia to be easily seen.

Rotala Rotundifolia typically bushes out well if trimmed low, providing ample cover for my betta. I maintained the 1-inch spacing between stems.

Adding Rotala Rotundifolia
Adding Staurogyne Repens

Next, I plant Staurogyne Repens across the midground of the tank, in front of all the stem plants.

My Staurogyne Repens came in Tropica 2-1 Grow Cups, which I usually find tricky to break down into individual plants. However, this time all three cups were easy to work with.

I broke the Staurogyne Repens into small bunches, making them easy to plant with tweezers.

Adding Eleocharis Pusilla (Mini Hair Grass)
Adding Eleocharis Pusilla (Mini Hair Grass)

The final plant I added to the substrate is Eleocharis Pusilla (Mini Hair Grass), covering the foreground of the tank.

This plant also came in Tropica 1-2 Grow Cups, which were relatively easy to break down into small bunches and plant with tweezers.

I broke the plant into as many clumps as possible to help it carpet the tank’s foreground effectively.

Plants In My Walstad Betta Tank
Plants In My Walstad Betta Tank

My photograph above shows the tank after adding water. As you can see, the stem plants are crooked or lying horizontally.

This is normal at this stage, and they will straighten up over the next few days as they grow toward the tank light.

Filling The Tank With Water

Filling The Tank With Water

Filling your Walstad tank with water might seem straightforward, but it’s important to avoid disturbing the capping layer.

If you’re using a bucket, you can place a colander on the rim of your tank and pour the water through it. The colander’s holes will diffuse the water, preventing it from disturbing the gravel or sand.

Another method is to place a small plate in your tank and pour the water onto it. The plate will absorb the force of the water, allowing it to flow gently onto the gravel or sand.

As the tank fills, the risk of disturbing the substrate decreases. At this point, you can remove the plate or colander and pour the water directly into the tank if necessary.

I use a cheap siphon and bucket as its easy and works perfectly.

My Tap Water Conditioner
My Tap Water Conditioner

Most people should remove chlorine, chloramines, and heavy metals from the tap water they’ve just added to their tank.

I use API Tap Water Conditioner, but several other products on the market perform similarly.

Chlorine and chloramines can harm the beneficial bacteria colonies that help maintain safe and stable water parameters.

Although live plants do much of the work in a Walstad setup, they prefer ammonium and nitrate as their food source.

Beneficial bacteria are still needed to convert ammonia and nitrite, so don’t skip this step.

Adding My Salvinia
Adding My Salvinia

Now that my tank has water, I can add my Salvinia and floating plant ring.

The primary purpose of the floating plant ring is to create a space free from floating plants, making it easier to feed my betta fish.

Betta fish are labyrinth fish, meaning they have a labyrinth organ that allows them to breathe air directly from the surface of their tank.

The floating plant ring ensures there is always a clear area at the surface for the fish to breathe, making it a useful tank accessory.

Lighting And Heating The Tank

My Light, Heater, And Floating Plant Ring
My Light, Heater, And Floating Plant Ring

The lighting and heating system in your Walstad tank are more important than many people initially realize.

I had to use one of my backup heaters during the initial setup of this tank since my preferred heater was out of stock, but I upgraded to the Fluval T50 as soon as it became available.

Heater

My Fluval T50
My Fluval T50

Betta fish are tropical and typically require a heater to maintain a stable water temperature of 72-86°F (22 – 30°C), but I prefer to keep it at 79°F (26°C).

I highly recommend the Fluval T50 heaters for small betta tanks because they are reliable and maintain a safe, steady temperature for my betta fish.

There are cheaper heaters but it’s not worth the risk of a cheap heater failing.

Lighting

The Stock Light On My Walstad Betta Tank
The Stock Light On My Walstad Betta Tank

Lighting is crucial for Walstad tanks, and it’s a common area where people make mistakes. In a Walstad tank, plants act as the filter system, and they need sufficient light to thrive, so it’s important not to skimp on your lighting unit.

Fortunately, the stock light on the tank I’m using for this build is powerful enough to support all the plants I’ve chosen, but this isn’t always the case. A common guideline is to use 2 watts of power per US gallon of water in the tank.

Most plants used in Walstad tanks have low to medium light requirements, making affordable lights a viable option. The Seaoura SR-616 is a great, budget-friendly light that should work well for most Walstad betta tanks.

Cycling Your Walstad Betta Tank

Water Parameters On Day 1
Water Parameters On Day 1

Cycling a Walstad tank differs from cycling a regular aquarium, as there’s no need to wait for beneficial bacteria levels to build up significantly to manage your tank’s water parameters.

While bacteria are necessary for handling ammonia and nitrite, fast-growing stem plants and floating plants can quickly utilize the ammonium, leaving only small amounts of ammonia.

This means that even small bacterial colonies can convert the minimal ammonia into nitrite, and those small colonies can further convert nitrite into nitrate. Your stem plants and floating plants will help manage nitrate levels by using it as a nutrient, thus keeping your betta fish safe.

One crucial step is allowing your plants to grow in. I typically leave my tank for 4-6 weeks to ensure the plants have grown sufficiently to handle the bioload of a betta fish.

This is based on having around 50% of the planting area covered with fast-growing stem plants and floating plants on the surface as shown in this article.

To build up beneficial bacteria colonies more quickly, you can dose your tank with Dr. Tim’s ammonia solution to simulate a bioload. However, the ammonia leached by your topsoil should generally be enough to establish adequate bacteria levels to ensure your betta’s safety.

Conclusion

In conclusion, setting up a Walstad betta tank is a budget-friendly, beginner-friendly approach to creating a thriving, low-maintenance aquatic ecosystem.

The use of top soil and heavy planting, especially with fast-growing stem plants and floating varieties, effectively manages nitrogen compounds and maintains water quality, often negating the need for a filter.

Although the Walstad method is adaptable to various tank sizes and shapes, it works exceptionally well for small betta tanks, offering a natural, healthy habitat for these popular fish.

This guide demonstrates that with careful planning, appropriate plant selection, and patience during the cycling process, anyone can successfully establish a Walstad betta tank, making it an ideal project for both novice and experienced aquarium enthusiasts.