A Christmas cracker


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Why should your favourite hobby miss out on the Christmas sparkle? Tom Messenger savours the festive spirit to set up a seasonal aquarium!

There comes a time when you just have to stop taking things so seriously — and Christmas has to be one of them. You decorate your house top to bottom with bright colours, flashing lights and all sorts of weird and wonderful things. We even hang balls on trees and stick them in the front room!

So why not the fish tank? It often gets forgotten at Christmas time, and I think it would be a shame if the tank was left out of all the festivities.

Now, artificial colours and ornaments are way out of my comfort zone but, always up for a challenge, I decided to create a Christmas scene in a small Azoo Mirror Bay tank.

The set-up was modelled on a scene from the Swiss Alps or somewhere similar, with snowcapped mountains and picturesque cottages nestled in between — like something you would expect on a Christmas card.

I decided to use primarily gravels and sand to create the look I wanted: green micro-gravel to imitate grass poking through white sand snow, dotted with other green gravel plants.

Pieces of petrified wood made the mountains and I think they are perfectly suited.

Many thanks to Unipac and ALF for supplying the tank and decor I used in this set-up.

A word of warning!
Tom tested the beads and trees in a tank containing a group of shrimp and found no adverse side effects over the course of a week. But if you’re going to add livestock to your aquarium, you must be 100% sure that everything in the set-up is non-toxic, or won’t slowly leach anything into the water that might be a problem long-term. If in doubt, don’t add it - or leave the set-up livestock-free. Tom didn't include any livestock in this set-up.

Buying décor from an aquatic retailer is the best way to ensure everything you add is safe. There are specially designed Christmas aquarium ornaments available such those in the Arcadia Classica range and Aqua One. Neither Tom nor PFK can be held responsible for losses due to any unsafe décor being added to your aquarium.


1. Have a suitable place on which to stand your aquarium. Even though this is only a small tank and still pretty lightweight when full, it will need a stable and solid base. It should not be placed in front of a radiator or in any full sunlight as the temperature in a tank this size can fluctuate greatly, causing harm to any livestock.

2. Once you have positioned the aquarium, the first layer of gravel can be laId down. It is always an idea to rinse the substrates through before use to avoid cloudy water later. Good preparation at this stage will allow for less hassle later. I used Unipac’s Zambezi sand as an earthy base colour for the mountain scene.

3. You can now start to position the rockwork in the tank to your liking. I am going for a mountainous theme here, so I used that as an inspiration when placing the rocks. I left a 'path' through the middle of the tank which can help to create better depth and perspective.

4. More Zambezi sand can then be added to backfill behind the rocks, sloping from deep at the back to shallow at the front. This again should help perspective and emphasises the mountain look. I haven’t added any substrate in the path area, but have included two small houses for extra alpine effect!

5. Once happy with the position of the houses and any other ornaments, you can really start to use your imagination to the full. I chose two grades of green gravel from Unipac and attempted to use them to recreate grass and other plants. The smaller gravel would possibly have been more effective if it was a slightly darker green.

6. I visited a model shop to see what I could include in my tank and came away with eight trees intended for OO gauge railways. There were also plenty of tiny figures, such as mountain climbers. I tried to get hold of a cable car, but finding the right size proved difficult.

7. It’s time to add the 'snow'. I used fine white sand from Unipac and found a small container to make it easier to spread where I wanted. I gave it a thicker layer in the background and on the mountains, and slightly thinner in the foreground — allowing the green gravel to show through. Silicone sealer keeps the sand from slipping off the mountains.

8. Once happy with different gravels and ornaments, I filled with water and attached the filter and light. I also made a Christmas tree using small beads and a leftover tree. I used air line to syphon water into the tank to prevent disturbance. I found it best to keep the filter on the lowest flow setting, as you could find your tank looking too much like a snow globe!

Make your trees really wintry
I visited my local model shop for trees of the right scale and found some intended for OO gauge railways. My tank is livestock-free, but if you're adding fish or inverts, it would be safer to get hold of some twisty pieces of wood and tie moss to each branch. As the moss grows, you will see your tree form.

1. Nice as they are, these model railway trees don’t portray the Christmas theme very well. However, with a little imagination, you can make them look perfect. All you need is a little more of that white sand to use as snow and some aquarium silicone.

2. Spread silicone over the tips of each tree’s branches. I found it easiest to put a little bit on and then spread with my fingers. It’s a messy job, but well worth it.

3. Once each tree is lightly covered in silicone, dip it into your bowl of ‘snow’ and make sure it has a good covering. Then wait for it to dry and tap off the excess.