Nitrate limitation is the term used by advanced aquascapers to describe the strategy of unlocking the deeper reds in selected plant species that respond well to those conditions.
Nitrogen is the element that is used in the largest quantity in plant tissue besides Carbon/H2O. For many natural ecosystems the availability of nitrogen determines the overall growth rate of plants. Nitrogen rich soil is great for farming for example.
For many aquatic plants, chlorophyll development is delayed when there is a lack of Nitrogen available - under this condition this can make plants that are red or orange appear significantly redder. For species such as Rotala rotundifolia and its variants colorata/H'ra/etc, Rotala Goias, Hygrophila pinnatifida & H. araguaia, Ludwigia arcuata & L. brevipes - they only get truly deep red under very low N conditions - using high light alone will not achieve the same effect.
Rotala rotundifolia red; you can tell exactly at which point in its growth cycle that Nitrate limitation occurred in this tank; where the leaves start growing much redder.
A side by side comparison of Rotala H'ra grown in two different nutrient settings:
Nitrate limitation has no impact on coloration for Ludwigia sp red, but growing it in lean conditions causes smaller growth forms. Both plants here were grown from the same cutting in different tank nutrient dosing regimes.
Ludwigia arcuata grows with narrower, redder leaves under nitrate limitation. When NO3 is rich, it grows wider leaves, in a more pale yellow.
Nitrate limitation has no impact on Alternanthera reineckii's coloration.
This effect is achieved when all other nutrients are available in excess, but Nitrogen is supplemented at a controlled rate. This approach is often done by dosing less N in the water column, but using a rich substrate, which serves as a backup store for N. We do not want N to bottom out completely as this leads to stunting/stop of growth.
The other advantage of using controlled Nitrogen levels is that it gives tighter growth forms and shorter inter-node distance for some stem plants. This is particularly desirable for the aquascaping crowd which want to control plant bushes by trimming to match hardscape contours. This is the main reason most competition scapes in hardscape focused competitions use leaner dosing regimes. Slowing down growth rates often also mean more stability for the tank overall, as there is less trimming/replanting, slower overcrowding - which are very common issues for aquarists.
If you are intending to farm plants at maximum speed, high N levels will achieve that goal. Whereas if your goal is aquascaping and controlling the aesthetic sizing and form of plants, and deep reds for coloured plants, going the N limited route will be more advantageous.
Hygrophila pinnatifida requires Nitrate limitation to get red. Even in bright light, the leaves will be olive green if NO3 levels are rich.
Some commonly asked questions:
When should I do the nitrate limitation approach? Is it suitable for all tanks?
You can do it if your goal is to grow plants more slowly and choose a combination of plants that grow well in lean conditions. This approach is usually done with rooted plants in rich substrate. One must also look out for conditions becoming too lean, and supplementing with nutrients at the correct time. Overly lean conditions may give rise to unhealthy plants in long run, so enriching the soil is important if doing this method over long term. Certain species such as Ludwigia pantanal grow more stable with richer water column dosing.
Isn't it problematic that the nitrate is 0ppm? Is that part of npk how do plants live like this?
The plants in these tanks are rooted in aquasoil - so they can get Nitrogen through the soil. Some N also leaks from the substrate over time. Plants will calibrate their growth to match available nutrients - so their growth rates just slow down when N is scarce. This often give more compact, smaller forms which aquascapers find useful. However, one must also determine when N source drops too low in the long horizon, which can result in unhealthy plants. Depending on the species, some plants are better scavenging low levels of nutrients better than others, so overall plant choice in such tanks need to be taken into account.
Which plant is healthier? Those grown in high NO3 or low NO3?
The one grown in higher N levels is usually more robust; prolonged low N makes plants more delicate if done for long run. Some species are better at scavenging lean nutrient levels than others, so overall plant choices in tank need to reflect that. For the Rotala rotundifolia picture above, there is virtually no difference in plant health for RR above, as RR does quite well in lean conditions.
Would you say there is correlation between plant tolerance for N stressing and PAR?
I think tolerance for low N condition depends on the species of plant. With regards to N stress coloration, it depends on the plant species as well - some plants react strongly, some not at all. For RR, even if you have pretty strong lighting and high NO3, often it is not as red as tanks that have significantly lower light and no NO3. Other plants are somewhat in between... like the Red Eriocaulon grows more red under low NO3, but if you blast it with a lot of light, it is also pretty red.
In terms of the Capstone range of fertilizers, the benefits of nitrate limitation are realised when paired with the right tank environment: