How to: Dry Start Method

How to Dry start method

So, the Dry Start Method (or DSM) – what is it, should we use it and how should we do it the right way?

Aquatic plants in nature and aquariums are often limited by CO2. To surpass this problem, the Dry Start Method involves terrarium horticulture for the first 4 – 8 weeks. When plants have unlimited access to CO2 under high humidity conditions. Although it can be a decently long process, the Dry Start Method still significantly boosts the development of the slow-growing plants, cycles the substrate, and removes algae problem.

This method is especially useful for Iwagumi technique of aquascaping because it can be really hard to start up and establish a tank with low total plant biomass made of carpet plants.

History of the Dry Start Method

The Aquarium Dry Start Method was created in 2007 by one of the most famous aquascapers in the world Tom Barr. This method let him immediately start new aquariums for some low growing plants.

The biggest advantage of the method is that you do not have to use filtration, CO2, and in some cases even lights. Basically, we allow the plants to grow and settle emersed, before filling the tank with water. It sounds really amazing!

Since then, the Dry Start Method has become pretty popular and more and more aquarists have been using it or giving it a try.

Dry Start Method vs Classic Start.

Right from the start, I would like to point out some advantages of the Dry Start Method over the classic start.

Cons of Classic Start Pros of Dry Start Method
Most carpet plants are hard to plant because of the small/weak root system. They often start floating. Easy to plant. No floating problem.
A lot of plants require heavy CO2 dosing to start off. Natural and unlimited CO2.
We have to plant a lot of plants to compensate the slow growth. This is a waste of money. Do not have to plant a lot because plants will grow very fast.
Algae problems. No algae problems.
  Less maintenance.
  No water changes.
  No need for fertilizers.
  Possible to use even in small containers to propagate.

Of course, this method also has some cons, but we will talk about them later and how to avoid them.

What Do We Need for the Dry Start Method?

This method requires:

  1. Aquarium.
  2. Nutrient-rich substrate.
  3. Plants.
  4. Tweezers.
  5. Scissors.
  6. Decoration (Stones or driftwood). 
  7. Plastic Food Wrap.
  8. Spray bottle.
  9. Aquarium lighting.
  10. Aquarium Light Timer (not necessary, you can do it yourself).

You can also buy a full set of Aquascape Tools if needed (check out the price on Amazon).

Dry Start Method. Preparation – Cleaning and Testing

It looks like I am one of a few people how actually constantly talks about this step in the articles. Unfortunately, people are often so eager to start that they completely forget to do that. However, it can be absolutely spirit breaking after setting up your aquarium to find out that it is leaking.

Cleaning is very simple. For example, you can use hydrogen peroxide (this is a cheap and handy household supply that is often used for cleaning and disinfecting). Spray it on the walls, and let it sit for 10 – 20 minutes. Next, wash it off properly (do it at least twice to remove hydrogen peroxide).

Testing is also very easy to do. Put some paper underneath the tank, fill it with water and leave it for 1 day. If you do not see any wet spots on the paper you are good to go.

Dry Start Method and Nutrient-rich Substrate

The Dry Start Method is based on the assumption that you are going to use nutrient-rich substrates (like ADA Amazonia aqua soil – link to check the current price on Amazon). This is one of the key elements in the concept.

These substrates provide rooted plants with a concentrated nutrient supply right from the start. In addition, the decomposition of soil organic matter will increase CO2 concentration later (after filling it with water), which plants always need especially in new tanks.

Despite the importance of this fact, some people still keep trying the Dry Start Method using inert substrates. Even if we add fertilizers or nutrients in the water to mist plants during this method – it will not be good enough!

Remember that our goal is to provide extra nutrients for the start up of the tank. There is no way around it.

Dry Start Method and Hardscape

Once we lay down the substrate, we need to design and place down the hardscape.

Hardscape is an aquarium layout with stones and driftwood. In aquascaping, the hardscape is not just a decoration. In some cases, it becomes a kind of small masterpiece and even a work of art or it is valued at least as highly as the aquatic plants used in such a layout.

Therefore, setting hardscape should be done upfront.  That way the plants can grow around or even on it, creating natural design patterns that cannot be replicated by simply putting stones or driftwood on the plants later.                              

Dry Start Method. Plants

It is really important to note that not all plants will work with the Dry Start Method.

Some plants simply do not have emersed form and will not be able to survive outside water for a long period of time. Other plants may grow rather big and without water will not be able to stand.

Therefore, the plants which are often used in Dry Start Methods should meet several criteria:

  • Plants that are very easy to grow emersed.
  • They should not be too tall. Carpet plants are ideal for that.
  • Ideally, these plants should transition from emersed to submersed form without massive die-offs.

Therefore, the most popular plants for the Dry Start Methods:

It is also worth mentioning that some aquarists believe, that use of tissue cultures (In-Vitro plants) greatly reduces the chance of bacteria/mold growth.

Although it is true that In-Vitro plants grow in sterile conditions (free from pesticides and parasites), potted plants are still more robust than plants from tissue culture. In addition, In-Vitro plants usually need a little longer to adapt to their new surroundings. While potted plants are already adapted to life above water.

Therefore, according to a world-known German company, Aquasabi potted plants in their emerged form should be preferred if we are talking about growth. Nonetheless, if we are looking for a safe choice then we should pick In-Vitro plants.

Dry Start Method and Planting

How to Dry start methodSo, depending on the cultivation methods you will get either classic potted aquarium plants or In-Vitro plants. When it comes to planting, there will not be any difference between them except for preparation.

  1. Potted plants

You need to remove the rockwood. Try to do this carefully, so the roots of the plants will not be damaged.

  1. In-Vitro plants

Instead of rockwood, there is only a nutrient gel at the bottom of the containers. Wash the in-vitro propagated plant with warm water until it completely disappears.

Tip: Do not forget to spray the plants with water if necessary. It prevents the plant from drying out.

The last step is to divide them into equal portions and plant them evenly over the area you wish to cover. Using tweezers will greatly help you here, especially when you are going to work with thin roots.

Note: It really does not matter in how many portions you divide the plants. If you are on the budget it is possible to separate them even in individual plantlets. It will simply take them some more time to cover the whole area.

Dry Start Method and Lazy Planting

This is another technique that some aquarists are experimenting with. Basically, they cut the plant into small pieces (1 – 2 cm or 0.4 – 0.8 inches) and simply throw them or sprinkle them over the substrate.
Yes, you have heard it right. They do not plant them at all.

Dry Start Method. Adding Water

This is one of the most important moments in the concept of the Dry Start Method and I would like you to pay more attention.

You will often see that aquarists add enough water to reach the surface of the lowest part of the substrate. Well, DO NOT do that! We do not need a swamp in the tank, it can lead to mold.

Use a spray bottle to evenly wet the substrate in the tank until the water reaches the bottom glass. This is when you stop before it starts to build up.

Now, what should you do if your landscape has a slant and it is way higher in the back? The answer is – Do the same thing. While you are spraying, check the sides of your aquarium to see how much you need to add.

Once again, you do not want too much water to be inside. A wet substrate is more than enough for plant growth.
In addition, I would like to mention that there is just no point in using soft water because it’s just to keep the substrate wet for spraying afterward.

Dry Start Method and Humidity

How to Dry start methodBy maintaining optimal relative humidity levels in our aquariums, we ensure optimal water movement through a plant and its evaporation from aerial parts, such as leaves and stems. If we do not do that the plants can dry out and die.

Cover the top of the aquarium with plastic food wrap to increase the humidity level. It will successfully promote growth during a Dry Start Method.

However, do not cover it completely. Plants need CO2 to grow. Leave some small slit so that there is enough of a CO2 exchange with the ambient air. I would suggest two, one of each back corner.  This opening should not be too big, so the tank cannot build humidity. It is better to have less than more.

Note: Some aquarists do not leave any slits and completely seal the tank. They open it up for 5 – 10 minutes every day to add CO2 that is in the room and replace old stagnant air with fresh air, while they are spraying the plants. Although this method also works I still believe that it is counterproductive (see the Lights).

Dry Start Method and Misting

Spraying helps to maintain high humidity so there is always enough moisture for the plants while they are growing.  It also removes dust and dirt and creates a draft that helps with the circulation of air in and out of the tank.

Do not spray too much! Some people are over-enthusiastic and keep spraying until they have to syphon out some water using an air hose or a syringe. This is wrong. A few quick sprays will be enough to cover the plants with a thin layer of moisture on the leaves.

Some aquarists over-cautious and do not recommend spraying the leaves because it can cause mold. In my opinion, a thin layer of moisture will not harm the plants because under high humidity it will be on the plants after condensation anyway, even if we do not spray them.

Do not mist before nightfall. If the plants remain wet for an extended period, they are prone to mold that requires a moist environment to grow. We can solve this problem by spraying our plants early in the morning so the foliage has time to dry.

How often should you spray?
You need to do it daily in the morning. One time a day will be enough.

Dry Start Method and Lights

Another advantage of the Dry Start Method is that you can have a much longer photoperiod before you

flood the tank. You can keep this light on for 10 – 14 hours and you do not have to worry about algae because there is no water in there.

In aquariums with dense vegetation, CO2 may be depleted very fast by heavy photosynthesis. However, with the Dry Start Method, we do not have extreme fluctuations of CO2 because our plants have full access to CO2 all the time.

Therefore, I do not see any reason why we should completely close the tank, as some people do. With CO2, the average photosynthesis is like ten times faster for emergent leaves than submerged leaves. It explains why aquatic plants do not have stable growth compared to this method. 

Dry Start Method and Plants Growth

It usually takes 2 – 3 weeks for the plants to acclimate and begin rooting. Once you notice that the roots are going through the soil, you are on the right way.  At first, it can be difficult to see the growth but if you take pictures from the same position and compare them it will be obvious.

Do not worry if some plants die off, this is normal. Their place will be soon covered by other plants.
Be patient and do not hurry the process.

Dry Start Method and Mold Problems

Lots of people complain that they have molt issues. This is the number one problem of the Dry Start Method. Well, we cannot blame anybody but ourselves here.

The mold problems will only show up if we add too much water in the beginning and mist the substrate too much afterward. I have to repeat again – the substrate needs to be wet, not flooded with water.

Nonetheless, if you already have mold or fungus, we can remove it.

Treatment: Use H2O2 1:4 with water or Excel (link to check the price on Amazon) straight up. H202 should not harm your plants as long as you are not drowning the plants in it.

Dry Start Method – Final Tips

After 6 – 8 weeks, you should reach the final result. So, it is time to fill the tank with water and install the filter, the heater, and CO2 setup.

Tip # 1: First of all, you have to trim the carpet. This ensures the light gets to the roots so they do not rot out. This is an extremely important step. Do not feel sorry that you have to cut down your lush carpet. If you do not do that you are risking to lose everything!

Tip #2: After trimming do a big (70 – 90 %) water change to remove the trimmings and any junk that might have built up during all these weeks. Next, do a 50 % water change every day for the first week and every 2 – 3 days for the second week. We need to do that to clear out anything that might have been leftover from the Dry Start Method, reduce algae and potential ammonia spikes.

Tip #3: After flooding, you have to expect diebacks. For some plants, it can be harder to adapt to a new environment and their old emersed leaves will rot away, and new submersed type leaves will grow. Do not panic, it is pretty normal. Rotting or dying leaves means more decay, so you can do an additional water change. 

Tip # 4: You need the plants to recover fast and CO2 will do that. So, start pumping CO2 at a high rate. We do that to make the plant’s transition as painless as it is possible. The point is that emersed plants have an abundance of CO2 available for them and once we flood the tank that source is gone. It can shock them. So you need to compensate it with a high rate of CO2 injections (8 – 12 bubbles). Then slowly lower it over the course of a few weeks.

Tip #5: It is time to add some other plants that cannot tolerate the Dry Start Method.

Adding Livestock

Do not add the fish or shrimp right from the start. Although after 6 – 8 weeks all the ammonia from the soil will already be mineralized during the Dry Start Period and you will have a nice source of bacteria in the substrate to jumpstart your filter, it is still possible to have some spikes. So, test your water parameter first.

Personally, I would wait at least 2 – 3 weeks before adding any livestock to the tank after the Dry Start Method. That is just me playing safe.

In addition, during these weeks we are going to heavily inject CO2 and slowly reduce the concentration until we get to the level we are comfortable with. Remember that a high CO2 level will kill everything in the tank.  

In conclusion

The point of the Dry Start Method is to keep the aquarium humid and damp but not filled with water. This method can save you a lot of trouble in having the algae or extremely slow growth of carpeting species. 

17 thoughts on “How to: Dry Start Method

    1. Hi Ankit Sharma,
      Thank you 🙂
      Best regards,

  1. I love the concept of the dry start method and esp appreciate the ease of planting the low carpet plants. I don’t want to use CO2 injection though – I’m more of low-tech, beginner aquascaper. Is the CO2 absolutely necessary, or are there any lower tech alternatives? Excel?

    1. Hi Cori,
      It really depends on your goals.
      For home aquariums, you may get away without using CO2 if you choose plants that are not picky.
      However, if you want to do some serious aquascaping designs, low-tech tanks are not good for that.
      Unfortunately, liquid carbon is a very weak alternative to CO2.
      Best regards,

  2. Hello Michael,

    I hope you are doing well. I am about to set up a dry start with a tank, but I suddenly remembered it has a pretty dim light. The only plant I plan on dry starting is java moss via the “yogurt” method on a bunch of lava rocks. I had a feeling that the lack of light intensity would severely slow the process, and I am about to decide against doing it as a result. I wanted to know what thoughts you had regarding this and if you had any possible tips or recommendations?

    On a completely separate note…I used to read through your articles all the time when I first got started with shrimp and planted tanks almost exactly a year ago. I loved reading these articles and learning more about the hobby, and I know that I will continue to do so because of stuff like this; I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to create and provide these easy to understand and accessible information for us. Keep doing what you are doing!

    1. Hi Eric,
      Sorry, I could not answer earlier.
      Also, thank you for the kind words!
      As for your question, it is really hard to say without details. For example, ‘pretty dim light’ – what is it? Can you provide more details?
      The good thing about dry start method is that it does not require as much lighting as we need when our plants are in the water!
      So, a dim light (according to the aquarium standarts) can be absolutely fine in DSM.
      Best regards,

      1. Not a problem Michael. Normally I would provide specs but it is not a typical branded light like Chihiros or Nicrew that I would normally be buying. It is a USB LED gooseneck ring light that is rated for 10W but it appears slightly dimmer than the average fluorescent. The only plant I plan on dry starting is java moss so it may not be as big a problem as I originally thought.


        1. Hi Eric,
          I get it.
          Frankly saying, I don’t think that you will have any problem with such plant as java moss. After all, it is pretty undemanding plant and can grow almost anywhere.
          Best regards,

          1. Michael,
            I was beginning to think that as well. Thank you for the reassurance; I am excited to see how it turns out.

            Many thanks,

  3. Michael,

    First of all, thank you so much for all of your articles. I enjoy reading them and have learned a lot.

    I have a question about trimming after flooding. How short should I trim dwarf hairgrass?


    1. Hi Susie,

      Thank you!
      It is better to keep it at 1 – 2 inches (2.5 – 5 cm).

      Best regards,

  4. Michael,

    Thank you so much for all of your articles. I enjoy reading them and have learned a lot.

    I have a question about trimming after flooding. How short should I trim dwarf hairgrass?


    1. Hi Susie,
      Thank you!
      It is better to keep it at 1 – 2 inches (2.5 – 5 cm).
      Best regards,

  5. Awesome Michael! With soo much content around the www you’ve made it a good and an interesting read covering all nuances of the hobby. Thanks a bunch!

    1. Hi Ben,
      Thank you for the kind words. 🙂
      I do my best!
      Best regards,

  6. I bought a small monte. Never did this before. Want to just grow in low glass container with potting soul and stones. Will get plenty of light. Should I just spray lightly daily and keep parcially covered. (Open an hour a day)
    Thanks! I love the look, like moss

    1. Hi Anita Menarde,
      Certainly, that would be the most optimal way. The main thing is not to overdo it with watering and not to create swamps in the aquarium.
      Best regards,

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