A thoroughly modern aquascape

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This stunning aquascape was set up for PFK by a team of specialists from Dennerle. Our step by step guide shows how it was done.

An idea can snowball pretty quickly at the PFK offices. When Editor Jeremy Gay contacted Dennerle about the possibility of a visit, the top brass snatched at the chance.

Emails zipped back and forth between Peterborough and Germany,  and soon we were booking hotels.

"Why don’t we send over an aquascaper?" was the suggestion.

"Why not?" we replied.

"Why not send over our plant guru too?" Dennerle suggested.

"Why not?" we replied.

"Why not get Chris Lukhaup to tag along too?" they added.

And so on…

Dennerle is a huge company and one of the earliest pioneers of the true planted aquascape.

Ludwig Dennerle, the founder, can trace his aquatic history back to the mid-1960s when he established his first pet store. It wasn’t long before various aquatic plants were travelling home with him, destined for some amateur botany in Ludwig’s greenhouse.

Within a decade his company was constructing greenhouses dedicated to aquarium flora and importing hitherto unseen plants from the tropics.

Some would argue — myself included — that Dennerle created a huge chunk of what we now accept as the aquatics trade and without such early influence it’s likely the aquarium plant market would be very different to the one we have now.

Some are critical of Dennerle’s early exploits, such as under-substrate heating, arguing that such methods are dated.

However, cable heaters were innovative and raised awareness of what plants may or may not need to thrive. It’s also unarguable that, for many working through the 1980s and 1990s without ease-generating modern devices, cable heaters created untold planting victories.

In a world where undergravel filters were the norm, Dennerle was miles ahead.

Dennerle wanted to show us what could be achieved with its plants and equipment in a modern setting and, as you can see, the results are staggering!

The aquarium, an 80 x 60 x 30cm/32 x 24 x 12" Optiwhite, rimless and braceless design with a frosted background, belonged to Jeremy Gay, but almost everything else was flown in just before Dennerle arrived  — the rest arriving the same day.

Biggest player

Chris Lukhaup ran reconnaissance ahead of the others, arriving first. He is Dennerle’s shrimp expert, sponsored to travel world-wide seeking out new and colourful species of shrimp for the trade. It’s in the company’s interest to ensure he does, as it is the biggest player in the global shrimp market.

Dennerle’s nano cube aquaria are recognised as the root of domestic shrimp keeping, and so much has been invested into this element of the hobby that a shrimp has been named after them – Caridina dennerle (pictured above).

Chris was followed by Stefan Hummel and Volker Jochum. Stefan is to plants what Chris is to shrimps. He seeks out new foliage, sniffing out fresh chlorophyll wherever he goes.

Volker is the rising star of Dennerle, an aquascaper with successes already under his fledgling belt. He’s filled with both enthusiasm and a keen but critical eye. During his time with us he frequently scuttled about in the car park, or disappeared from pathways, to re-emerge smiling, transfixed on some new stone or gravel he’d spotted.

The Dennerle crew tore into their task the moment we hit PFK central’s photographic studio, with Stefan and Volker unpacking and cataloging the many boxes of pre-shipped products. They many new and unusual plants.

In all, the project took the best part of six hours, including photography time. The design, a central ravine with lush, overgrown mountains either side, was something Volker had pre-planned.

The ethos was one of a nature aquarium that gives a tilt of the head to other designs and trends, but remains the domain of Dennerle. With the exception of the tank, everything was supplied by this company that’s clearly still very much a big player in the aquascaping game.

One memorable postscript was Volker’s response when Jeremy and I offered him fish and an "instant" maturation agent to complement the effect. He declined politely but firmly, citing that the tank was not ready for any fish and as a vegetarian, he didn’t want any animal to ever come to harm as a result of his actions.

Building the aquascape – step by step

We were fortunate enough to witness Volker in action on his ravine aquascape, and so we took some notes along the way for those wanting to have a go at recreating a beautiful display of their own.

1. The custom made 80 x 60 x 30cm/32 x 24 x 12” opti-white tank is thoroughly cleaned inside and out. Volker adds the first layer of substrate – Dennerle deponitmix, which renders the tank suitable for longer term plant care.

2. The initial outlay of the substrate is shaped, with Volker defining the regions where the valley will run through, as well as the regions where elevation is needed. Everything is brushed into shape, rather than moulded by hand.

3. Black quartz substrate is layered on top of the deponitmix, and sculpted to give the required gradient. Volker is very gentle in doing this, as any cumbersome force could easily displace the lighter substrate below.

4. Imported Sea mountain rocks are arranged to create a ravine shape. Note that the rocks aren’t placed in a gradient of size, with some smaller stones being used towards the rear of the display.

5. Having now created barriers to his raised regions, Volker now fills in the sides with extra substrate. After some more brushing into shape he also runs a lighter sand substrate down the central ravine of the tank.

6. Volker now uses several grades of substrate, from sand size to chipped flakes of stone, to create a focal transition from light regions to dark, equally punctuating the areas directly surrounding any of the rocky outcrops.

7. With the substrates finalised, Volker now begins to place the first of the plants, starting with Christmas moss. He approaches fine detail regions first, leaving the space-filling greenery until later.

8. Volker trims to shape clumps of Riccia and adds them in complementary places to the moss. This stage of the aquascape is laborious, with much trimming of ‘detail’ plants. Frequent misting keeps the plants hydrated.

9. Volker adds Pogostemon, creating focal points for viewing and leading the eye from where higher plants will reside down into the ravine. The aquascape is very much planned with emphasis on visual manipulation of the observer.

10. Very gently, newspaper is added to the tank and misted piece by piece to sink it into position. This is followed by plastic sheeting, which will not tear once water is flowing through a hose to fill the tank.

11. The plastic and newspaper are carefully removed with minimal upset to the layout. Now Volker can add the background plants. Any foreground plants he adds at this stage will be more prone to floating.

12. Larger plants are added to the raised areas: Cyperus furthest back and bushier plants further forward. Each strand is chopped to size first. Once in place, the plant tips are fluffed into shape, and debris is netted from the surface.

How we created the visual effects – without photoshop

Visual impact on any aquascape relies more on the lighting and use of background colours than many aquascapers may be willing to admit. The choice of background alone can make or break a display.

In our main image, we have opted to show you the tank at what we consider its best. The background we’ve gone with – pink – works wonders at bringing out the green hues of the various leaves, rather than having them competing with each other. It also helps to frame the pink of the Rotala sp. “enie” sat either side.

Take a note of the rippling effect on the surface of the water. Aquascapers will often use these for visual effect, but create them in absence of pumps inside the tank. Usually, this will be achieved as we did, by using a fan or otherwise blowing air across the top of the tank, with the source of the movement out of shot.

Classically, most people run a clear, white background when creating an aquascape, and here you can see that the greens appear much darker, especially toward the rear. Also the pink of the Rotala loses much of its ‘zing’ and the effect is less impacting here than the first background was. A little colour can go a long way in a planted aquarium!

With the black background we used a canopy above the tank, whereas before we were using various intense studio lights. Now we can see shadows on the rocks, as well as a mysterious border on the fringes of the display. The price is that we lose some of the depth of the tank, as well as the numerous textures in the rockery that are brought out in better light.

Shopping list

Hardware

The 80 x 60 x 30 tank was our own PFK aquarium, with a price of around £150. The accompanying cabinet in jet black was from Aquarium Cabinet supplies, with a value of around £600.

Our 4X 24w T5 light unit was an Arcadia. The tubes were Dennerle, a combination of 2 x Special plant tubes, and two Amazon Day. Altogether this holds a combined value of around £430.

Heating was a 200w inline Hydor, with a retail of £59.99.

Filtration was an external power filter, and was removed for photographing. These retail for around £119.99.

CO2 injection was taken care of with a Dennerle pressurised CO2 system with disposable bottle and solenoid night shut-off. Expect to pay around £160.

CO2 accessories were the Dennerle Crystal set 125, including diffuser, bubble counter, non-return valve and glass drop checker. Expect to pay £50.

Software

As well as the Deponitmix planting substrate, there were combinations of Dennerle black quartz gravel, light quartz gravel/sand for the central ravine, and multiple intermittent grains used for effect.

Although the dark and light quartz dominate, there were many intermediary sands, put into place with an adapted scoop normally used in the building industry. Notable are the slate chips that were used in all transitional areas between light and dark. These are a cheap purchase, available from most garden centres.

Rocks were Aquadeco of Germany, and the type used is ‘Sea mountain’ rock. With their striations and contrasting lines, they form a consistency among the rockwork.

Volker’s tool kit is something to behold. Notable are the presence of brushes, but also his scoop and substrate-smoothing tools – both adapted builder’s tools.

Total substrate value, including the planting substrate, decorative rock, and tools runs to about £240.

Plants

Foreground and rock-bordering plants comprised Christmas moss (Vesicularia montagnei), Riccia fluitans and Pogostemon helferi (pictured above). Just above them, Eleocharis hairgrass came into play as well.

Starting at the back was a line of Cyperus helferi, and in front sat a broader line of Eustralis stellata.

The main, pink plant that dominated is the newly discovered Rotala sp. “enie”, named after the German TV presenter Enie van de Meiklokjes. She is known for her pink hair and having seen both, there is a definite similarity…

The value of plants sent can only be guessed at. At full retail, the numerous boxes ran into many hundreds of pounds, and only some were used. As an estimate, the plants on show would maybe run as far as £175 in total value.

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