Our tanks: Nathan Hill's nano

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A few months after receiving it and several learning curves later, Nathan Hill shows what's going on in his Hagen Flora kit.

You should have seen the little dance I did when I got to take the Flora kit home. I’d promised to put it together as an ongoing project, but I’d suppressed how excited about cracking on with it I actually was. I looked like a halfwit prancing around my house with glee, and unwrapping everything.

Originally, I’d taken this tank and the Ebi kit as well, placing them both on the designated, faux wood Hagen stand. Courtesy of rough transport in the back of Jeremy’s aging old wagon, the cabinet was scuffed senseless on one side, and I had to make this ugliness face the wall, the same way I do to grotesque friends on a night out. The Ebi never really came to fruition, with my endless distractions, and now resides elsewhere, replaced by a nano-marine tank awaiting experimentation.

I’d already had several dry runs, and courtesy of playing with the thing so much for tried and tested I knew exactly what bits went where. I was concerned that I’d beasted some parts too much, and had to turn a blind eye to a couple of scratches and cracks in equipment, the direct result of some hard testing and bouncing things off of walls to see if they’d still work. In the event, everything fired up, or at least it did at first – more of that later.

The bit I’d decided not to tell Hagen at the time was that I intended to pimp this tank up where I was worried it may have been lacking. So the pimping began.

Aside the standard parts, the two bits I had worries about were the lighting and the CO2 unit. Don’t get me wrong, the CO2 20 is okay, but okay isn’t really corking, and corking would have been the CO2 88 instead. So, on the '88 went.

As for the lighting. 11w of power is fine if you’re mainstream, but I’m much more hardcore than that. I wanted a tank that would roast the skin on my arms when I went in to feed my fish, and something that would make my windows visible from orbit, so I opted for a couple more lights on there. Six gallons of water with 33w of lighting power? Hell, yeah.

Soon filled, with filter running, substrate settled, décor intact, I then made contact with plants alive, to get various plants together and get things rolling. That’s when it all went a bit wrong.

Getting the greenery

Initial plant choice was nothing short of moronic on my part, although in my defence I’d hoped to fill up both this tank and the neighbouring Ebi. Planning on having a Madagascan laceleaf centre, with some sweet carpeting callitrichoides and micranthemoides at the bottom, I proceeded to get most things wrong from here.

The first thing I messed up on was the size of the plants. The laceleafs came in HUGE, really well established and better suited to a tank of around four or five feet long. The carpeting plants came in tiny. I scratched my head and tried to make it work the only way I know how – by getting angry and butchering stuff together.

By now, things were starting to unravel for me. I’d managed to overlook the amount of nutrients that were being pumped out by the planting substrate, and so I was throwing in waaaay too much plant food on top, hurling in CO2 until I couldn’t breathe in that room, and wondering why my tank was turning into a thick bush of hair algae. Slime followed. I had smothered leaves, and more anger, and so I went down the lazy and rather incompetent route of hurling in loads of Amano shrimps and hoping for the best.

There was a slight reprieve when my CO2 88 broke. I’d been unfortunate enough to get an old (old, old) model, and there was evidently an issue with a few of these earliest ones. The damned thing jammed shut and refused to reopen, and so until I could grovel, cajole and bully another one out of Hagen there was a period where CO2 wasn’t going in, even though the tank was still getting the light of a thousand suns.

Never trust a shrimp

It was around this time that the Amano shrimps delighted themselves on uprooting my callitrichoides. I mean, they were positively reveling in it. They’d sit and wait, their shrewd, invertebrate brains working overtime while I swore profanities and carefully tweezered each strand back into substrate, and then as soon as I’d finished they’d be down to inspect my handywork, giving me a little spineless wink as they uprooted the whole lot again systematically.

I was getting nowhere fast, and so I opted for a redesign. This involved draining the tank, cleaning off what algae I could from leaves, and having a reshuffle inside. A week later, while looking at the now furry green-glowing lump that was my aquarium, I was ready to give up.

I had a mixed blessing out of the blue when I was gifted a job lot of plants from someone I knew in the trade. Turning my obvious failure into a success, I transferred what little remaining plant life I had into the Ebi, having plucked my own bodyweight in algae smothered laceleaf leaves from the bulbs, and started afresh.

Now I was onto something. All wood came out, fresh plant went in, a big water change took place, décor was changed, the tank looked underdeveloped but immaculate, and 12 hours later every shrimp I had was dead. Evidently, in the modern world of aquarium plants, pesticides and snail killers aren’t the easiest thing to rinse and soak off. I took the one whitened carcass that still had a bit of twitch left in his pleopods and hurled him into the tank next door. Lesson learned, but at the cost of the shrimps, which upset me considerably.

I pressed on, waterchanging, and replanting the fledgling plants as currents lifted them up and popped them up on the surface of the tank, as a nice surprise for me when I got home after work, tired and grouchy.

It must have been around now that the nutrients in the substrate started to run out, because the tank was starting to look less and less like an enormous bag of green pus, and more like a disappointingly dirty, badly run aquarium – which is basically what it was by now.

The biggest break came when I went across the country to see my good lady, leaving the tank in the dark for nearly a week, without food or CO2. I rode back afterwards, weighing up the option of throwing myself and the bike under the wheels of some passing truck to save myself the horror of having to look at it again, but ultimately I couldn’t really be bothered.

My return surprised me. The tank was a little straggly, yes, but the algae – gone. I knew that I was back in the running, if only I could do things properly from here.

I decided to start using a proper food for the plants, so I dusted off the Estimative Index kit I’d acquired from Aquarium Plant Foods UK, and made the effort of actually following some instructions regarding its preparation and use.

I scampered into the office, where much of our tested stock resides, and shamelessly took a set of planting tools from Planted Tanks. Armed as I now was, I resolved to make the tank work.

I found that the less I did with the thing, the better it looked. Rather than getting bored with the plant layout, and trying to move things around every two days, I left plants where they were to see what would happen. I’d make the occasional cut here and there, sometimes shoving a freshly snipped stem back into the substrate. If it uprooted and floated about, I’d bin it. I didn’t even cry anymore.

I experimented with the lighting and the CO2. I found that if I had the one light running throughout the day while I was at work, and then cracked on the other two when I got home then I could get about nine hours of standard light, followed by five hours of uber-intense illumination, and this in tandem with one bubble a second for the first part, and two or three for the latter, would drive the plants into a pearling, growth spurt frenzy. I was definitely onto something.

I upped the feeding. Although the tank was only 30 litres in capacity, I was offering EI foods rated closer to 80 or 100 litres daily, and water changing 50% or more twice weekly. The plants went mad. Every evening saw a curtain of bubbles from the fast spreading Glossostigma that looked more like I had some hidden airpump on the go.

Algae started to become a thing of the past, although some hairy strands remained, and a little green ooze kept appearing on the odd leaf. I held my ground and waited until we went on a shoptour. Eventually I found some cracking little black and white Crystal shrimp down at Swallow Rayleigh, and some pretty Snowball shrimp at Wayside Aquatics, and grabbing some marginatus pencilfish for good measure, I restocked the tank. There were already some Rasbora dorciocellatus and Microdevario kubotai in there from an earlier visit to The Waterzoo, but they didn’t mind the company.

Then I just sat back and waited. I drank some scotch, had a few beers, did some study for a course I’m doing, and kept up my overfeed and over-illuminate regime until things started to look just right. And then, with a final trim, algae wipe and tidy, the tank was ready to have a couple of pictures taken at last.

However, the happiest part for me came a couple of weeks back, when I was sifting through the now relocated Ebi tank next door, filled with laceleafs in limbo, and a gaggle of other neglected plants, when out of the blue I had a tickling on the back of my hand. The one Amano shrimp from the first batch had made it through, and quickly rejoined the flora tank where he now sits trying to uproot my fast growing Glossostigma. It’s a bit too established for him to do any real damage, but he’s had a couple of leaves floating so far.

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