Your tanks: Jessica Leebelt


Jessica Leebelt’s ‘jungle’ is her first hi-tech tank. Now she tells George Farmer she hopes more women will make their mark in the hobby.

When I posted a thread on the Aquatic Plant Central website, asking if anyone knew of any great planted aquascapes created by females, I was pointed towards Jessica Leebelt’s direction in the USA.

The planted tank and aquascaping hobby appears dominated by males, so to see an aquascape of such a high standard created by Jessica was truly refreshing. Having said that I know of at least one UK female planted tank owner, Zoe Loderick, who also has a highly commendable aquascape.

What I really like about Jessica’s layout is its almost chaotic composition of textures and almost exclusive use of green plants to create a very effective jungle feel.  

The wood selection and positioning is excellent, as it helps to balance the whole layout and adds extra impact and interest.

The relatively large variety of fish also suits the complexity of the aquascape with their colours creating attractive contrasts to the greens of the planting. Jessica planted heavily from the outset and this, no doubt, will have helped minimise early algae issues.  

The fact that Jessica regularly has many fish breeding is testament to the health of the aquarium and lays to rest any fears that adding nitrates and phosphates via the Estimative Index (EI) may cause fish health issues. Her attitude is that animals always come first — and rightly so!

George Farmer’s interview with Jessica revealed how the project came about…

How did you come up with the aquascape? What did you use as inspiration?
David Chow’s Nature, Endure Forever was definitely the one tank that struck and inspired me. Since I had so much length (180cm/72”) at my disposal, I found that an expansive Manzanita wood aquascape would work best for me.

Did you have a clear idea of how the aquascape would look when complete, or did it evolve gradually?
I had a basic idea, but understood that, with time, and the size of the tank and the nature of the plants I chose, the tank would go in its own direction. The initial planting stage is shown above. I don’t have much patience, or even the skill, to maintain a highly-manicured tank so the wild jungle look adapted well with the wood hardscape.

What did you learn from creating this aquascape?
To take a step back, I realised I didn’t have complete control over the tank and let it grow. This is the first hi-tech tank I’ve set up and also the first time I’ve attempted EI fertiliser dosing — overdosing nutrients, including nitrate and phosphate and changing water to ensure nutrient levels remain ideal.  

It’s a definite challenge to pinpoint the right ratio of nutrients and, most importantly, accept that it’s not instant! Also, no matter how distracting the aquascape and plants get, I always put the animals first.

Did you encounter any problems? How did you overcome them?
I couldn’t for the life of me get red/pink pigmentation from certain plants. I tried everything from increasing iron, decreasing nitrate, less and more phosphate, for example. Power Compact (PC) fluorescents tubes just didn’t pack the punch I needed for this size tank. I ended up upgrading to High Output (HO) T5s.  

How old is this layout and how long will you keep this aquascape running for?
The photographs here show the tank at roughly six months old. The aquascape was a year old in September.

I can maintain this aquascape for the long term, however I will definitely be easing up and focusing on slower growing plants and less stem plants. The size of the tank, money and general life don’t allow me the time to really devote to demanding plants.

My original choice of high-maintenance plants offered an impressive peak of growth and visual appeal.

However, if left for more than a few days, they quickly become quite unruly and dishevelled. This is not a bad thing, however — I’d always find  Diamond and Emperor tetra fry hopping about during the tank’s 'bad hair' days.

Do you have any more aquascapes and set-ups planned for the future?
I’ve always wanted to do a smaller tank (maybe 182 l/40 gal) for Threadfin rainbows, but I am literally out of space in my little apartment.

As a female aquascaper, you appear to be in the minority in a male-dominated hobby.  Do you have any thoughts on this?
I have truly not felt any difference in how I’m treated. I’ve been in the fishkeeping hobby for nearly 11 years now — since I was 13 — so I’ve been lucky to make some long-lasting friends and connections as a youth and as a female.

I really like seeing other young women making their mark in this hobby and hope more and more can be recruited over time.

Tank specifications
Tank: All glass, 180 x 45 x 60cm/71 x 18 x 24”, 486 l/107 gal.
Lighting: Two 91cm/36” Current USA Nova Extreme 4 x 39w T5 – both with two Giesemann Midday 6,000K and two 10,000K bulbs. Two supplemental Odyssea 72w compact fluorescents over the top. Eight-hour total photoperiod, with one hour sunrise and sunset.
Filtration: Fluval 404, Eheim Ecco 2232, H.O.T. Magnum for polishing.
CO2: Pressurised system with 20lb cylinder, Milwaukee regulator and bubble counter. Currently using Rhinox 5000 diffuser to disperse microbubbles and soon to upgrade to inline external reactor.
Water parameters: pH roughly 7.3.  Everything else healthy.
Substrate: Roughly 9cm/3.5” of regular pea gravel mixed with Seachem Flourite and ADA Aqua Soil Amazonia.
Fertilisation: EI and Flourish Iron, Phosphate. A few teaspoons here, more there. Very relaxed schedule.
Décor/hardscape: Round river rock and Manzanita wood
Plants: Nymphaea lotus; Bacopa caroliniana;, Bacopa monnieri; Microsorum pteropus; Cryptocoryne wendtii 'Bronze', 'Red', 'Mi Oya'; Cryptocoryne ciliata, Cryptocoryne balansae var. crispatula; Anubias coffeefolia; Anubias barteri; Hygrophila polysperma 'Sunset'; Rotala rotundifolia, Echinodorus parviflorus var. Tropica; Vallisneria gigantea — and other stems that come and go.
Fish and inverts: Puntius denisonii; Nematobrycon palmeri and generations of young; Moenkhausia pittieri and generations of young; Xiphorous variatus; Melanotaenia boesemani; Melanotaenia lacustris; Corydoras panda; Crossocheilus siamensis; Farlowella acus; Chromobotia macracanthus; Caridina multidentata.
Maintenance regime: 50% water change weekly, pruning as and when.

Fishkeeping cv
Name: Jessica Leebelt
Age: 24
Location: Denver, Colorado, USA
Occupation: Account manager for local e-commerce agency
Time in hobby: 11 years
Favourite aquascapers: David Chow, Frode Roe.

Check out some of the other great planted tanks in the Your tanks section:

Viktor Lantos
Norbert Sabat
Steven Chong
Jason Baliban

This item first appeared in the Christmas 2008 issue of Practical Fishkeeping magazine. It may not be reproduced without written permission.