Aquarist Steven Baker has set up a tank that extends way above the watermark. We meet the man who brought a piece of Borneo to Britain.
WORDS: NATHAN HILL & STEVEN BAKER
PHOTOGRAPHY: NATHAN HILL
Steven Baker is an aquarist with ambition. A long term fishkeeper, with ample time spent in the industry, he’s picked up a lot of ideas along the way.
For some time now, Steven’s tank photos have caught my eye. To my mind, he’s a conventionally unconventional fishkeeper. I see classic biotopes — his African Rift lake aquaria, which we’ll be featuring in a future issue — perfectly executed, while his unique take on a community tank is a modern angle on an old theme.
My original plan was to cover all of Steven’s five current set-ups in one heavily abridged feature, but the first tank I saw threw all of that out of the window. Hitting you like a triffid as soon as you enter his living room, Steven’s above water/below water set up becomes the main attraction.
Leering from the wall — he calls it the ‘wall of life’ — is a bounty of colour. Vain orchids compete for attention amongst creeping vines, and it is only with persuasion that I’m convinced that what I see isn’t synthetic. A squeeze of a leaf confirms its authenticity.
Below it all, nearly lost against the colours, sits a glass-trapped pool of orange water, testament to the acids and decomposition true of Steve’s intended habitat. Half filled, this tank is his vision of Borneo — slow and dark, and alive with fish that require patience.
Living the dream
Here’s what Steven has to say about his flagship aquarium:
“Imagine setting off to a faraway tropical country; a couple of days travelling on airliners, beat-up buses, small charter planes and 4x4s. You set down for the night under a roof thatched with palm leaves supported by bamboo frames. It’s warm enough that walls aren’t really necessary.
“By afternoon the following day you’re walking through dense, tropical rainforest surrounded by lush growth and an abundance of life. Hours in, you stumble upon a small, shaded forest stream. The water is stained brown by discarded leaves from the canopy above. Terrestrial plants grow sparsely in the low light but enjoy the high humidity along the banks. More adaptable plants spill into the water where they grow fully submerged. Taking a few steps for a closer inspection of the plants, you notice the hasty movement of fish darting away from the vegetation to be lost among the leaf litter.
“That’s what I did... I imagined my trip to Borneo.
“Aside the barriers of time and money I’m unsure I’ll ever actually go. The idea of creating all the pollution travelling across the world, so people like me can stomp through the undergrowth and go home with memory sticks full of imagery turns a sweet dream sour.
“So… forget about it? No. I can still experience it indirectly.
An authentic replica
“If you’ve visited the Eden project in Cornwall or if you’ve ever driven a Caterham7 kit car rather than the original Lotus7 you will understand that replicas can be authentic — and so can an aquarium.
“A biotope is fishkeeping’s Caterham — a product of lengthy research that aims to be an authentic replica of nature. For the tank here, it was around three months between the original idea and laying down anything physical.
“First, I needed to cross reference the fish I wanted, build a shortlist of fish species and study pictures and videos of my desired habitat. Once a design was conceived I could consider the materials and methods, factoring in how to conceal my cables, pipes, heaters and filters.
“I wanted to move an existing shoal of Redline rasbora, Trigopoma pauciperforatum, from their 70 l dwelling to a more spacious home. They’re not a fish that normally floats my boat; I’m attracted to character and oddities, fish like puffers, leaf fish, killies and small cichlids.
“They shared their tank with some Indonesian floating frogs (or Puddle frogs) Occidozyga lima, which I also wanted to move on to a larger setting. Luckily, their areas of distribution overlap among the slow-moving forest streams of Borneo.
“So that was my start point.
“Because the tank I intended to use would be open-topped, I opted for a low water level — there would be less chance of me finding frogs crisped on the carpet one morning. It also allowed me to plan for a world of mosses, ferns and some classic aquarium plants growing just above the water.
“Borneo stream biotopes have low equipment demands. Recreating a shady habitat means a standard internal, T8 light or an inexpensive LED unit and a conventional heaterstat will suffice. My light unit is a low-power Arcadia stretch LED which is ample for basic plant growth.
“Vegetation is quite sparse, and made up of slow growing, low energy species so additional CO2 isn’t essential and liquid fertilisers can be basic and dosed lightly. Substrate fertilisers are worth using, holding adequate nutrients to last a long time.
“My tank is drilled to discretely incorporate an external filter; there is no other piece of equipment I like more to tidy up a tank (unless it’s an external filter with an integrated heater – even better!)
Wall of plants
“Decor in my tank is a dedicated affair. Early on, a doubting voice popped into my head: “If this doesn’t work it’s going to be hell getting it back to clean glass!” A deep breath later, and I’m opening a second can of expanding foam.
“I’m an aquarist at heart, but I work on a site that also deals with amphibians and reptiles. Though I expected to be enchanted by frogs and lizards, in the event I was overwhelmed by ‘crossover products’ like decorative sealants and mist makers. Each marked a new possibility for my fish tanks!
“I used expanding foam on the plant wall above the tank and was happy about using it in the tank. When I discovered a sealing resin and a range of colouring powders marketed for amphibians, I knew the destiny of my new set-up.
“Straight from the tin, the resin was a pale, stone grey — ideal for sealing the lower level where the substrate blends into the background. To blend further I used a heavy coating of resin and covered it with sand and fine gravel, which stuck as it dried. Once happy with the substrate level I added a brown colouring powder to the resin and completed the rest, this time adding coconut fibres instead of sand for texture and realism.
“When the resin dried, I tidied any excess from the glass and the wood and put down the substrate. I used Seachem Flourish gravel as a substrate fertiliser covered initially with coarse German quartz gravel, then fine 1mm quartz gravel in patches, topped off with JBL Sansibar river sand, a natural-looking substrate that tends not to compact as easily as other sands. Leaf litter added the finishing touch.
“A Borneo biotope has a limited plant selection available. To start simply, Cryptocoryne bullosa is easy to get hold of, but how natural the obtainable strain is may be questionable. Still, it’s a lovely plant to grow above or below the water line.
“The once scarce Bucephalandra motleyana mostly grows above the water, clinging to stream-side boulders and creeping up muddy banks. Bucephalandra species are widely available now but there are so many variants that if you want to stay true to the regional biotope it may take some searching.
“Then there are species you just will not come across in your local fish shop. Luckily I have a contact, Luke Landsburgh from Bucephalandra UK, who was able to supply me with a natural form of Cryptocoryne bullosa, with a much more prominent ‘hammered’ effect to the leaf compared to my shop bought plants. He also supplied Barclaya motleyi, a dark lily-like plant which is yet to show strong growth, Java fern ‘Narrow’, Aridarium to grow on the ‘bank’ and some Bucephalandra, all of which come from Borneo.
Choosing the right fish
“Though Redline rasbora and Puddle frogs were the original inspiration for this tank, I also already had three Khuli loach, so these joined the mix.
“I added a common Bornean species — the ill-named Pentazona barb — to act as a dither fish and inspire confidence in the rasbora. Pretty much all commercially available ‘Pentazona’ are in fact the more prevalent Desmopuntius hexazona, as mine are. Geographically, they perfectly suit the location of this biotope and they have also encouraged the Redlines to be more outgoing.
“Then there is the fish that really hits the target; the Forest halfbeak. Hemirhamphodon pogonognathus is a full-on predator by design. From its pike-like fin placement to its super-sensory beak detecting the smallest of surface movements, it is fully equipped to feed on flies, gnats, beetles and anything else that falls on to the surface. At 10cm they can threaten small fish even though their attention is focused on the surface, but if they can’t swallow them there’s no danger. They’re unaggressive toward other fish and only slightly so between conspecifics.
“There’s also a pair of Betta albimarginata, which appeal to my love of cryptic fish. I can search for them for some time without a sniff, then all of a sudden they’re right in the middle of the tank, bold as brass before they are gone again. I had to slightly bend the rigidity of my location for these as they live quite a few miles to the west of where I had set the biotope.
“So, though I may never reach Borneo in person, there a part of my imagination which has come to life and now sits in my living room. It’s not an active, buzzing set-up at all, but a peaceful, tranquil tank that you can lose yourself in for a little while every evening.”
Meet the aquarist
Name: Steven Baker.
Location: Cambridge, England.
Occupation: Aquatic retail assistant and also building Cambridge Aquatics as a maintenance service for tanks and ponds.
Time in the hobby: 27 years.
Favourite fish: Freshwater puffers.
Most ever spent on a fish: £175 on a Koi.
Dream tank: A converted indoor swimming pool with sunken logs, lilies and waterside planting. Fish would include a Mbu puffer, a group of Mastacembelus eels (whichever best suit the range of the puffer) and some mid-sized African catfish.
Redline rasbora, Rasbora pauciperforata
Clown rasbora, Rasbora kalochroma
Pentazona barb, Desmopuntius hexazona
Kuhli loach, Acanthopthalmus semicinctus
Forest halfbeak, Hemirhamphodon pogonognathus
Tank: 120 x 45 x 38cm/48 x 18 x 15in.
Filter: Aquamanta EFX400 external canister.
Heating: 200W in-line Hydor external heater.
Lighting: Arcadia Stretch LED on the tank. Fluval Plant LED on the wall.
Quick fire questions
How long did the project take?
Three months of research and planning. About 12–15 hours to construct over three days. It’s now just over seven months old.
What was the approximate cost?
The display of the plant wall and the tank display with all the materials, wood, roots, substrate and so on came to £200, give or take a little. The tank and equipment was purchased bit-by-bit and all some time ago.
A ballpark figure overall would be £550 if I think quickly. I don’t want to think for any longer as it probably cost more. I’d have to guess at the cost of fish and plants — maybe £85 for livestock and a similar amount on the plants.
Which aspect took the longest?
Building up a reasonable selection of plants.
How is the plant rack constructed? How is it supplied with water?
It’s built on a background made from an old shop shelving unit (a peg panel, from which you’d normally have hooks jutting out). Guttering was attached, with drainage pipes and airline to feed water through an airline splitter. A small pump in the tank waters it all for just one minute once a day thanks to a digital plug timer.
What filter media do you use?
Three stages of foam and a mixture of different biomedia collected over the years. There’s definitely some Eheim ehfisubstrat and Fluval Biomax in there.
How do you keep the water stained and acidic?
I add Catappa and Oak leaves regularly but mostly I boil up Alder cones to make my own blackwater extract.
What are the water parameters?
Temperature is 25.5°C, pH 6.2, KH 5, GH 10.
How often do you test?
I test a lot in the early stages to get to know the tank. For the first three months, I tested weekly but I have found this set-up to be quite stable. I now check hardness and acidity one a month.
Do you favour a fish-in or a fishless cycle?
I’ve had fish tanks solidly for many years so I have the beauty of mature filter media on hand. For anyone without this available I definitely recommend fishless cycling. It’s a good way to get used to tank maturation and using test kits without harming fish through innocent enthusiasm.
What’s your advice to anyone who’d like a similar set-up?
If you are at all crafty or artistic it’s not hard. If you struggle with model making or flat packed furniture, then maybe you should call in a mate!
We catch up with former PFK aquascaping star Kris Oddy to see his current, hard-to-tame explosion of greenery.
WORDS: NATHAN HILL
Kris Oddy blew us away when he first appeared on our PFK radar. A leftfield aquascaping unknown in what was usually a tight knit community, he had put together an amazing layout both below water and above it, using orchids and mosses to keep the ’scape going up above his protruding decor.
At the time, he alluded to another project in the pipeline, and now it’s here and it’s even better than his first stab!
We let Kris take up the reins on his new project…
This is a very different layout to your last tank. What was your inspiration behind this one? How would you describe it?
I wanted to create something using the dimension of the tank’s depth, which was tricky in a tank of this size. Originally, I’d planned on using sand to create a ‘disappearing point’ involving a pathway that separated the two sides of the aquarium. In the end, for this particular layout I decided that a carpeting plant like Micranthemum would produce a softer, less dramatic and more delicate feel.
The layout was assembled by placing the hardscape and plants in layers from front to back in such a way as to produce a sense of perspective and depth. Banking up the substrate played a key role in creating the gradual heightening effect. I think it produces a grander sense of scale, even though the aquarium is in reality not that big.
How long has it taken for the tank to grow in? Did you add all the plants at the same time, or were some added later? Which plant species have you used?
It’s all grown in fairly quickly. The photos here were taken after just six months. I started the aquarium with substrate and hardscape – the rocks and wood – for the first couple of weeks before even planting.
I’d planned my plant species from the beginning and knew exactly where they would all go. This isn’t always the case for me, and adding or removing plants is something I consider pretty normal throughout the development of a nature aquarium.
The layout contains: Micranthemum ‘Monte Carlo’; Hydrocotyle sp. ‘Japan’; Micranthemum micranthemoides, also known as Pearl weed; Riccia fluitans; Anubias nana ‘Mini’; Pellia liverwort; Riccardia chamedryfolia; Fissidens fontanus, Phoenix moss.
How do you keep the Riccia down? Isn’t it usually a floating plant?
Riccia is usually a floating plant but it’s easy enough to anchor down just by tying it to stone. It grows extremely well when fully submerged and given the right conditions it pearls — produces loads of bubbles through photosynthesis — like crazy, which is awesome to look at.
What have you done differently to grow the plants in this tank, compared to your last one?
The only things that are different this time are the lights and the method of fertilising. Last time, I was using ADA fertilisers, specifically Green Brighty Step 1 and 2, as well as Brighty K.
This time I’ve adopted the estimative index (EI) method. Co2art.co.uk have formulated their own two-bottle version — one using macronutrients and the other micronutrients. I don’t do anything fancy, I just use as directed and I get great results. I’m not ashamed to say that my reason for deciding to use it is simply because Co2art have given me an unlimited supply to try out for as long as I want.
How much time does it take to maintain the tank? Which chores do you do daily, and which weekly?
This set-up is pretty high maintenance; keeping it at its best takes a lot of effort. I trim and push down the Hydrocotyle every couple of days. Left to its own devices with this much light and CO2, it’ll just take over the aquascape.
I perform a weekly 50% water change, directly after cleaning all the glass and trimming the Pearl weed. At the same time, I run my hand through the mini Pellia to lift out any detritus and give it a little movement — this is important because I’m not running any supplementary flow pumps for circulation, and debris can build up fast. Riccardia chamedryfolia is delicate so I try not to touch it – occasionally I’ll have to reattach it to the wood or rock with a little superglue, and I’ll take the opportunity to trim it. Some of my plants, like the Pellia liverworts, are slow growing and prone to algae so a good clean-up crew is essential. I use Amano shrimp, Otocinclus dwarf suckermouths, and a Flying fox. I’m not doing it myself, but I’d suggest additional flow pumps or powerheads if keeping Pellia.
What substrate are you using?
As in my last tank, I’ve used the full ADA system including all additives, power sand, and Amazonia Aqua Soil.
How much light do the plants get a day, and what light is being used?
The tank gets an eight-hour daily photoperiod. Maxigro supplied me with their Maxibright daylight 315W ballast along with a Philips 315W ceramic metal halide lamp, which is a beast of a set up — it’s actually a horticultural light for hydroponic growth
What type of wood have you used?
I’ve used a driftwood from a local store, Southern Aquatics. Before buying, I like to spend as much time as possible playing with wood and rocks, to decide which will work best for my particular project. It’s vital that a ’scaper takes time when deciding on hardscape for a layout and not just rush into anything.
What size is the tank? What glass is it made of? Is it branded or a custom made model?
It’s the same tank I used for my last layout – a 112 l custom-made 80 x 35 x 40cm Optiwhite glass design. The cabinet was custom built by my brother out of pallet wood.
Which CO2 set up do you have, and how much are you dosing? Do you use a bubble counter and drop checker?
I’m using a fire extinguisher with a dual-stage regulator and 12V dc-safe, low-power, cool-touch solenoid magnetic valve from CO2art, feeding through a bubble counter. I do use a drop checker to assess CO2 levels.
What filtration are you using?
Nothing exciting, just a bog standard external canister filter from CO2art, with the standard media it turned up with. I kickstarted it by using some biomedia from my old set-up.
Is the heater internal or external?
I’m using the Hydor external heater.
Do you use RO water?
No, tapwater all the way, with a pH of around 6.8pH.
Which fish have you opted for?
I personally think a tank looks best with one schooling species — Cardinal tetra, for example. But this time I decided to do something different and went for Cardinal tetra, Rummynose tetra, Celestial pearl danio, Pygmy corys, Amano, Cherry, Rock, and Rilli shrimp, Otocinclus, Flying fox — and a freshwater goby that just sort of ended up in there. Not sure what type it is but he seems happy enough in the tank.
What is the most difficult part about running this tank?
Controlling the Hydrocotyle. It really is rampant.
How do you control algae? Do you use chemicals, fish, or clear it manually?
A mix of everything. If I really need to, I’ll use some hydrogen peroxide 3% in a spray bottle — it kills off algae and is harmless to the plants. For the most part a good clean-up crew consisting of Otocinclus and Amano shrimp will do the job. I added a Flying fox recently after noticing a little hair algae — if you keep the feeding down a fox will happily eat hair algae. During water changes, manual removal of algae is also performed.
What would you guess the combined cost of this set-up to be?
I’d say just over £1,000 all in.
What would you advise someone looking to put together a tank like this for the first time?
I wouldn’t advise it unless you’ve already got some experience in aquascaping. Always think about how much time you have for maintenance chores. This set-up needs daily attention and can get difficult to control if I slack off.
If you do want to do a similar set up, I advise against Hydrocotyle unless you have no life and can spend countless hours maintaining it. I’d also strongly advise having additional flow pumps when using liverworts and Riccardia.
Where do you source your plants?
CO2art supplied all the plants I needed.
Tell us one new thing you learnt when putting this set-up together.
That Hydrocotyle sp. ‘Japan’ looks amazing but is a force to be reckoned with!
You don’t have to be a lifelong hobbyist to put together a great tank. We meet a relative newcomer who has a passion — and a skill — for putting together gorgeous aquascapes.
WORDS: NATHAN HILL; PHOTOGRAPHY: GEORGE FARMER
Ryan Thang To was a name I’d never heard prior to the UKAPS Aquascaping Experience back in March 2016. On that day, not only did I see his work firsthand, I even got to judge it.
Ryan was one of ten qualifiers to the UKAPS hardscaping challenge being held that day — a competition to see who could create the best ‘dry’ aquascape, without water or plants. Even early on, I lingered a little too long over his design, a manzanita wood and slate concept piece that got better every time I passed by.
Come the results, Ryan scored a gracious fifth place against some fierce and incredible high-end competitors. As I recall, I ranked him higher than that, but the weight of judging diluted my own generous score back down.
Soon after, Ryan and I hooked up on social media. I heaped compliments his way, and sent out feelers for other tanks he might have had in the house. The images that came back showed early promise. There was nothing complete at that time, nothing that warranted a journey down to his home in Milton Keynes, so we went radio silent for a while.
Cue three weeks before writing this. Ryan messages me back out of nowhere with one of the finest small ‘scapes I’ve seen in years, and a couple of calls later I’m set. With George Farmer in tow for his aquascape photography skills, I headed down for a morning of strong Chinese tea, a conservatory/greenhouse filled with Asian vegetables, and a bustling bedroom vying to be a gallery of aquaria rather than a living space.
Ryan’s tanks are good — very good. But one stands out above all others. Two-feet long, combining the soft green hues of carpeting plants with the shocking blue and red of tetra, his main ‘scape stole the show for the day. We photographed it senseless, George and I both vying for the perfect shot and clambering over each other.
I was so enamoured with it that just hours later my heart was torn apart. In true aquascaper style, Ryan allowed this tank to be king for a day. No sooner than we’d packed away our lenses and departed back to the office, he’d stripped the tank bare, fish rehoused, plants repatriated.
The space left behind now awaits a tank twice as long, maybe twice as optimistic to replace it.
I doubt this will be the last time we visit Ryan Thang To…
Meet the aquarist
Name: Ryan Thang To.
Occupation: Nail technician.
Favourite fish: Discus, Symphysodon discus.
Most spent on a fish: £100.
Favourite plant: Anubias and Bucephalandra.
Time in the hobby: Three years.
How did you get into fishkeeping?
We had fish tanks when I was a little boy, but I never got involved — I never did any water changes or maintenance chores, my dad did those. Then, three years ago I was browsing Youtube when I found a video about the Fluval Edge aquarium from Hagen, and that alone was all I needed to get me hooked. I didn't start aquascaping until a year after that, when I found the work of Takashi Amano.
What are the most tanks you’ve had running at once?
At one point I had seven tanks up and running at the same time in my room. There were discus, a wide mix of everyday tropical species, and even Malawi cichlids in there.
How small was the smallest aquascape you’ve ever put together?
That would have to be my 20 l/4.4 gal tank. It’s not realistic to aquascape that size easily, but it was a fun tank to put together.
What did you have in your first ever tank?
Ha, it was filled with bright yellow gravel, Cabomba and Vallisneria spiralis, and it had a huge treasure chest in the middle. It was quite a classic!
What’s your approach to aquascaping? Do you use high energy or low energy tanks? Or do you do something totally different?
I would recommend going for low tech, low energy tanks to start with. Many people like myself find that when you attempt your first high energy tank with something like a lush Hemianthus callitrichoides carpet, you just drive in to trouble, inviting an algae strike which causes the whole layout to fail. A low energy tank can look just as nice as a high tech one, and requires less maintenance. From there you can work your way up as and when you build up more confidence and gain more experience. Personally, I like to have both low tech and high. Mix things up and experiment, or else you risk becoming bored.
What have been the most successful plants you’ve worked with?
Oh boy, definitely my Hemianthus callitrichoides 'Cuba'. It’s a pain to grow, can fail easily, and is expensive if you mess up with it, but amazing once it’s formed a full carpet.
And the least successful?
For me, the least successful plants would be any red plants really. I can grow them but never got the intensity of colour that some other aquascapers achieve. I will get there one day, I’m sure.
What fertilisers do you favour?
I use the Tropica range of liquids, as well as the Estimative Index (EI) approach to mixing up my own liquids from powdered fertilisers.
How long does it normally take for a tank to look the way you want it to, after you have set it up?
That depends largely on the layout and what it is for. If I want a tank to grow in quickly I’ll subject it to intense, high lighting, heavy fertilisers and strong CO2. Normally that will get a tank completed from between three to six months.
Who do you consider to be influential aquascapers?
I’ve only met a few aquascapers, but I’d say that like so many, Takashi Amano would be my main influence. His archive of videos, as well as his books, give me ideas and aspirations all the time, and keeps me motivated to always try harder.
What size is the Cardinal tetra tank?
That tank is an ADA 60P, 65 l/14 gal made with low-iron, high-clarity Optiwhite glass.
What have you used in the Cardinal tetra tank for decoration?
I’ve used small twigs of Redmoor root wood to give the illusion of a tree root reaching across, and I’ve built up the rest of the display with ADA aqua soil and rocks I collected from Poland – I have no idea what these rocks are called. There are just the two species of plants in here: Dwarf hairgrass, Eleocharis parvula, and Micranthemum sp. ‘Monte Carlo’.
What was the inspiration behind the design of that tank?
Over the last two years I’ve always constructed wood-only aquascapes, so this time I thought I’d try something different. The inspiration for me here came from just finding the rocks. As soon as I had them, I had to find out what I could do with them and also discover how cool they could look underwater.
What lighting have you used?
It’s a Chihiro Aquasky LED running up to 72W of power consumption. I keep it running over the tank for seven hours a day.
Do you use carbon dioxide on this tank? I don’t see a diffuser anywhere.
I do, and I diffuse it straight into my canister filter.
Do you have any preference regarding filtration?
I’m a big Eheim fan for my filters.
I notice you use IKEA cabinets for your tanks — what do you do to strengthen them?
I use MDF wooden panes wrapped in vinyl. One full panel goes on to the back (inside the cabinet) and I also add a couple of legs inside to give it all extra support.
How much would you say it costs to put together a good aquascape like yours?
If you have cash, you can easily chalk up a shopping list in excess of £1000. But if you prefer to save some money buy a secondhand tank and stand and concentrate the core of your spending on your plants and hardscape.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of become an aquascaper?
Do your research and don’t be afraid to start experimenting. Try your hand at different layouts and look at other peoples ’scapes to draw inspiration. And never be afraid to try again and again after you fail — success is never guaranteed in aquascaping!
An aquarist who travels the world and builds tanks based on where he’s been is inspiring. What’s even better is when he shares those tanks with the rest of us...
WORDS: TAI STREITMAN. PHOTOGRAPHY: GEORGE FARMER
Looking around at the hobby today, I feel it’s fair to say that for many fishkeepers, the days of plain aquarium gravel, a few plastic plants and a novelty treasure chest air-stone have been left behind. High tech aquascapes, biotopes and complex reef systems have all entered the hobby and changed our perspectives on what is feasible, what is available and what is ethical.
There are those who will never relinquish plastic plants, shipwrecks and a diverse community, and that’s fine — each to their own. As long as fish are healthy and quality of life is maintained, people can put whatever they like in their tanks.
My own feeling is that for a little effort, we can create displays that not only prioritise the wellbeing of our fish, but also look beautiful and natural. Looking online or at some of the incredible aquascapes that appear in this magazine can be daunting, but a bit of research and patience can provide even the beginner with an engaging and successful set-up.
I’m a huge fan of blackwater set-ups. If it looks like tea, I’m in. These set-ups aren’t hard to create, although maintaining water quality and stability are important. Using lots of wood and leaf litter produces tannins that stain the water and lower the pH. Also, believe it or not, they’ll bring out the colours of many species more spectacularly than crystal clear water.
Many of our popular characins, dwarf cichlids, rasbora and gourami species will all thrive in blackwater set-ups that mimic their natural environments. I was lucky enough to explore blackwater streams in Colombia and Peru and they have inspired me to create a small blackwater community with species found in the Amazon basin.
I have used a 90cm/36in, 100 l/22 gal tank and Catappa leaves (easily bought online) and a stash of dried finger palm fronds that actually come from the gorilla enclosure at London Zoo!
You can just as easily use beech or oak leaves and it’s worth collecting a few bags in the autumn and storing them in a dry space for use as and when you need them. Amazon frogbit, Limnobium laevigatum, and Salvinia natans provide cover for the fish and with those aerial roots they suck up spare nutrients.
I wanted to have activity at all levels and my choice of fish reflects this. At the top, Giant hatchetfish, Gasteropelecus sternicla, and Hockey stick pencilfish, Nannostomus eques, cruise through the floating plants. Slightly lower down, a troupe of Dwarf pencilfish, Nannostomus marginatus, flit through the palm fronds while Green neons, Paracheirodon simulans, emerge from the shadows to show off their brilliant iridescence before diving away again. A few juvenile Gold tetras, Hemigrammus rodwayi, add contrast to the Green neons in colour and body shape.
At lower levels, charismatic Apistogramma viejita and Rams, Mikrogeophagus ramirezi, scuffle and argue over small territories and favourite display spots. Keeping several females to each male reduces tension but providing plenty of cover is the best way of ensuring that no one fish gets hounded by an opponent or over-amorous male.
Finally, on the bottom the classic Panda corys, Corydoras panda, shuffle and nuzzle their way through the sand and leaf littler, hunting for morsels and providing endless movement.
This was a very simple set-up; two 24W T5 bulbs, a 150W heater, dried leaves, play sand and floating plants was no great investment. The only thing you should not cut corners on is filtration and this tank uses an Aquamanta 300 EFX filter with a flow rate of 1100 lph, although this is turned down to mimic the flow of the natural habitat.
This is one of my favourite set-ups, where the colours and characters of the fish draw you in and the simplicity of the set-up makes running the tank very straightforward.
Blackwater tank factfile
Hardness: 18–215 ppm.
2 x 24W T5 bulbs (running six hours a day).
Aquamanta EFX 300 filter.
Aquarium species and their needs are nothing if not diverse and staying with the theme of simple, easy set-ups catering to the needs of engaging and charismatic species, I have also set up a hillstream tank for Stiphodon atropurpureus.
I got to see Stiphodon gobies in the wild in the Philippines and vowed to keep them at home. These little gems are often seen in shops, slowly starving to death in tanks devoid of the auchwuchs they need to graze on, with little flow and kept much warmer than their natural waters. As these fish are always wild caught, providing them with a close replica of their habitat is vital for success. Cool (20–24°C/68–75°F) oxygen rich water, excellent filtration and plenty of algae and hidey holes will see these little characters thrive. Unlike many gobies, my
S. atropurpureus are not aggressively territorial. There may be the odd spat, but again, providing several females for each male and ensuring that each male has at least one big rock he can perch on will generate harmony. Watching them graze over boulders in a line abreast is very satisfying!
Although plants are not a feature of their natural habitat, I have included Java fern, Microsorum pteropus, and Anubias, both of which will tolerate the flow and cooler temperatures, so as to add colour and cover. Algae gathers on the leaves of these slow-growing species and the gobies will tear chunks off and zip over the plants, happily grazing. The main rocks in this tank were allowed to soak in a tub outside for weeks to build up enough algae to support the gobies when they were added and this will quickly spread to newly added pebbles.
For dither fish I have added White Cloud Mountain minnows, Tanichthys albonubes, a truly underrated little fish which, when kept in cool water with plenty of flow and oxygen, will reward you with gleaming red and gold colours, and stunning displays by the males.
While Stiphodon aren’t the cheapest of fish, the rest of this set-up can be created affordably. An Aquamanta EFX 400 filter provides flow and a high turnover in this 100 l/22 gal tank. No heater is used but to produce plenty of algae, I’ve added cool-running TMC Grobeams, (these could be replaced with simple T5 bulbs). A fine substrate that isn’t light enough to be moved about by the flow allows the gobies to dig. I’ve opted for standard, fine gravel.
Hardness: 18–215 ppm.
2 x TMC Grobeam LEDs (ten hours a day).
Aquamanta EFX 400 filter.
As an aquatic plant enthusiast, I have to have at least one planted aquarium and so my main tank, a 240 l/ 53 gal set-up, is stuffed with greens. I combined plants and species from several habitats from the Pantanal wetlands of Brazil to produce a busy but not overbearing display with subtle fish colours, plenty of movement and some cryptic yet charismatic species.
I enjoy creating layouts with different plant heights and textures and then letting them run riot. A jungly tank, where you have to work to spot some of its inhabitants will always hold more interest for me than a display where everything is on show, straight away.
Again, this is not a particularly difficult display. CO2 injection, a daily and weekly fertiliser regime for the plants, twice-weekly water changes and solid filtration (in the form of a Fluval FX6) does not entail too much effort, but the rewards are considerable.
I believe in trying species that are either considered common or dull, and working to get the best out of them by creating an ideal environment. In this case, I have chosen the Dawn tetra, Aphyocharax nattereri. Famed for being a fin nipper, this behaviour (as in many species) does not become apparent when they are kept in sufficient numbers. They will spend their time chasing each other, with no one fish receiving too much aggression, and race about the tank in their battles to establish hierarchy. You will likely never notice this in shops, but the males develop a soft red on the bellies and anal fin and when well kept, they develop a lovely green gold colour on the body.
A group of Serpae tetra, Hyphessobrycon eques, provides riotous colour to contrast with the subtle tones of the other species and the green backdrop. Rathbun tetras, Aphyocharax rathbuni, dart between the tall leaves and hover like aquatic hummingbirds, eyeing up the situation before zooming to another part of the tank. A gang of Red-breasted acara, Laetacara dorsigera, stalk the long grass, their purple flanks gleaming through the blades of Echinodorus.
Several shy Sheepshead acara, Laetacara curviceps, watch from the shadows and then emerge slowly into the light, their shimmering blue scales, erratic movements and suspicious investigation of everything making me smile. Isn’t that what it is all about at the end of the day? Making your fish happy, so they make you happy?
Helanthium bolivianum ‘Latifolius’
Persicaria sp. ’Sao Paulo’
Hardness: 18–215 ppm.
2 x 39W T5 bulbs (running eight hours a day)
Fluval FX6 filter
CO2 solenoid and gauge with 8kg bottle (two bubbles per second).
The name Kris Oddy may not be one that aquascapers immediately recognise — yet. The amazing talent of this self-taught ’scaper has gone undiscovered, until now...
WORDS: NATHAN HILL
Meet the aquarist
Name: Kris Oddy.
Years keeping fish: On and off for ten years.
Number of tanks: I’ve lost count but there have been a lot!
Favourite fish: I’d probably go with Koi — they’re graceful and always bring a smile to my face. In an aquarium setting, I’ve always loved the Ram cichlid.
Most ever spent on a fish: £200 on a Koi.
Of all the fishkeeping cliques, aquascaping is the one most usually associated with fish tank celebrities. Prizes like those in the International Aquatic Plant Layout Contest, and the associated exposure of a win, put ’scapers the closest to the public eye.
What I never expect from the ’scaping world is an unknown name to come out of nowhere with a magnificent tank, but that’s what happened. When Kris Oddy appeared on the PFK Facebook page posting pictures of his layout, I instantly sent feelers out. Nobody in my circles had heard of him.
Kris is an aquascape privateer, unaffiliated with any clubs or groups. He’s never entered a contest, and has taught himself how to make a great tank without outside influence.
It goes without saying that I had to pin him down for a chat about his magnificent layout. Here’s what we discussed...
The aquarium hardware
NH: What can you tell me about the tank and cabinet?
KO: It’s a custom-made, 80 x 35 x 40cm/31.5 x 14 x 16in Optiwhite tank. It was designed to fit a particular space in my dining room, and I wanted it made with low-iron glass for the best possible viewing.
My brother, Laurence, who is a professional carpenter, made the cabinet. He based the core design on the ADA cabinet for the 90P model, but I asked him to change a few things.
This tank was set up on January 19, 2015. At time of photography, it had been running almost a year.
NH: Is this your first stab at aquascaping?
KO: This is my second aquascape, or high-tech nature aquarium. But throughout my time keeping fish I’ve owned discus tanks, Malawi and Tanganyikan set-ups, and a vast number of low-tech community planted tanks.
NH: How would you describe the tank?
KO: I would describe it as a therapeutic living picture. It’s amazing to sit in the dining room to eat and have such a nice entity to look at.
NH: What filtration do you use?
KO: It’s a cheap Aqua Pro external canister. I went for the largest model they made with a UV included.
NH: Do you use glass inlet and outlet pipes?
KO: I do, and I have to clean them every 3–4 weeks, but with the right tools you can do this very easily. I wash them with warm water first, and then just I soak them in a hydrogen peroxide 3% solution that gets everything off. Handling hydrogen peroxide isn’t to everyone’s liking though, it’s a bit controversial. (Feature ed’s note: Hydrogen peroxide is a powerful bleaching agent that does indeed need careful handling!)
NH: What lights are used?
KO: Lighting was supplied by maxigrow.com. The unit here is the PL 2 propagation grow light, which is a compact fluorescent light using two 55W daylight tubes.
I used to do lighting bursts and try and recreate something close to nature, but in reality I’ve found it works better to keep things simple. I use a set start and finish time and with this tank it took a while to get it just right. Now I have the lights on for just over seven hours constantly.
NH: How do you keep the heater concealed?
KO: I have an external Hydor heater hidden in my cabinet — it works flawlessly.
NH: What substrate and hardscape do you have?
KO: I have used the full ADA substrate system including all additives (ADA Bacter, Clear Super, Tourmaline BC, and Multi Bottom) for this one. The Aquasoil is a mixture of the Amazonia regular and powder types. Driftwood and Dragon stone make up the hardscape.
NH: Is there a reason behind the soil fertilisers?
KO: I wanted to see if it really worked as well as claimed. I’d seen multiple videos showing the power of the ADA system, so I called up James Findlay at The Green Machine to discuss the ADA products and ask his opinion. He spoke very highly of them and after seeing some of his own impressive aquascapes, I wasn’t inclined to disagree with him.
NH: What other fertilisers do you use?
KO: I’ve stuck to ADA ferts. I use Green Brighty step 1 and 2 along with Brighty K. I dose as recommended and it works amazingly — it’s super easy to use too.
NH: How do you inject your carbon dioxide?
KO: It’s all about finding the balance for your own, individual aquarium. I use a fire extinguisher as my source, with a CO2Art Complete Aquarium system (solenoid and regulator) feeding into an in-tank glass diffuser. I use a bubble counter to check dose rate, and currently it’s running at about three bubbles per second. I have a drop checker (a constant, blue-bromo device to measure dissolved CO2 content) too, which comes in handy.
Carbon dioxide dosing starts about an hour before the lights come on and finishes about an hour before the lights go out. This helps the plants adjust and avoids huge fluctuations.
NH: What water parameters do you maintain?
KO: The pH is 6.8, ammonia 0ppm, nitrite 0ppm, nitrate 40ppm.
NH: Do you use RO water or tap?
KO: I use a mixture of both hot and cold tapwater. The ADA Brighty K also helps to neutralise chlorine.
NH: What maintenance do you need to do? Is there a daily, weekly or monthly routine? How long does it take you?
KO: I do a weekly 50% water change and I trim the plants at least once every eight weeks. My weekly routine starts on Friday morning when I clean the inside of the glass and then syphon out 50%. I try not to take any shrimps if I’m cleaning the HC (but it happens). I then refill with fresh water, add the ferts and clean out the skimmer. It takes around 45 minutes on a good day.
NH: What gear do you use on the plants?
KO: I use straight scissors and long tweezers for trimming and replanting.
NH: What have you learned while putting together this set-up?
KO: That if you put in the time and effort, you get good results. But it is hard work.
NH: Do you have any other tanks in the pipeline?
KO: My dream tank would be huge, like Amano’s personal tank he owned in Japan. I am going to take this one down and set up a new one soon. I intend to use some sand for visual effect, along with Aquasoil. It’s going to be amazing!
NH: What plants have you currently got?
KO: Inside the tank there is: Microsorum sp. ‘Trident’, Hemianthus callitrichoides ‘Cuba’, Anubias nana, Staurogyne repens, Java moss and Cryptocoryne wendtii ‘Brown’.
Outside the tank I have two different types of orchid, anchored with zip ties to the wood that juts out from the water, and terrestrial moss taken from the waterfall on my garden pond. The moss is wrapped around the root system of the orchids, but it also slightly touches the water surface, so a capillary motion means that it takes water and feeds the orchids. And it looks great.
NH: Which have been the most and least successful plants?
KO: The most successful was the Hemianthus, but that could be because I’ve grown it in the past and I know what I’m doing with it. The least successful to get going was the Microsorum sp. ‘Trident’, although I believe this was down to the balance of the tank not being right. I don’t think it could handle the tank establishing, and I had to remove lots of it at first.
NH: What inspired you to put the orchid and bromeliad on the wood?
KO: Actually they are both orchids! (Feature ed’s note: That’s me told!) I can see why you’d think one was a bromeliad, as the leaves are very similar. Maybe I’ll try that out, too. I was inspired to try orchids on the wood by my father-in-law, Tony, who is from Venezuela. I’ve visited his home there a number of times and I’m always super impressed with his amazing garden, and his plant growing skills. He has orchids everywhere, all anchored to trees and branches. I saw a lot of this over there and it soon dawned on me that this is how they grow in the wild.
NH: Do you draw inspiration from any particular aquascapers?
KO: I’d have to say yes. I’d also like to dedicate this aquascape to the man himself — Takashi Amano.
I’ve seen a lot of beautiful nature aquariums in my time, all created by a number of great aquascapers. There are way too many to name here.
I’d always kept tropical fish, but one day when I didn’t have a tank set up, I went to a friend’s house and saw his amazing aquascape. I’d never seen plants as healthy before, nor had I heard of using CO2 for plant growth, or even specialist substrates like Aquasoil. I asked my friend how he did it and if he’d seen others doing this. He pulled out his phone, opened up Google and typed in Takashi Amano. We talked about aquascaping for a long time, and after a while of watching Amano videos on YouTube, I was desperate to try a set-up of my own.
NH: How do the terrestrial plants do in this set-up?
KO: They do great, though I’ve had to be careful with placement. For example, I couldn’t put an orchid directly under the lighting because it’s just too intense; it would kill it really quickly. Orchids like light, but not direct light, so I place them away from the centre and they seem to do well.
NH: What advice would you give to somebody planning on a tank like this?
KO: I’d say before doing something like this try something a little smaller first, like a nano tank. Don’t spend loads of money on your first aquascape, try it on a smaller scale.
If you have already have aquascaping experience and would like to take it to the next level, then take as much time as you can planning in advance and thinking about what you want the set-up to look like. Research as much as you can.
Once you’ve decided on the plants you want, consider their lighting, CO2 and nutritional needs. Remember that not all plants like the same conditions.
Think about the hardscape you want and how it will work with your plant choices. I’d recommend going for a low maintenance set-up, avoiding plants like Hemianthius unless you really know what you are doing. Be patient as it really takes a while to find the right balance.
Get a note pad and write down everything you do, including the results of all of your water tests. If you keep a log of what you are doing and what is happening, then you can always look back and understand more about your aquarium from any time period. Moreover, you may pick up some insights of how to fix any problems you encounter.
But, most importantly, have fun doing it.
NH: If you could start again, what would you do differently?
KO: I would add the Microsorum sp. ‘Trident’ much later than I did, at around maybe three months in.
NH: What fish species do you have?
KO: I love to utilise fish in the nature aquarium in a role they’ve evolved to suit. And of course, I like them to bring some colour and movement to the tank.
I think the choice of fish can really affect the appearance and mood of an aquascape, and help bring the original concept to fruition. I originally started this ’scape with Serpae tetra as the main schooling fish but unfortunately they can be very nippy and they just didn’t work out. Even though they looked amazing, they had to go.
Currently the tank houses Cardinal tetra, Flying fox, Pygmy corys, Otocinclus, Rams, King tiger plec L66 (a species that doesn’t eat plants), as well as Amano shrimp, Rock shrimp and Cherry shrimp.
NH: Has there been any spawning?
KO: The Cardinal tetra spawned once, but it was eaten up very quickly. I think I accidentally triggered it as it happened soon after I poured a couple of litres of cooler water into the tank.
The Rams have had a few attempts, but no fry as of yet. The Cherry shrimp have gone crazy in there and I’m convinced they have crossed with the Rock shrimp.
The Amano shrimp are always spitting out eggs but because of their life cycle it could never happen in fresh water.
I attempted to raise Amano shrimp once. I got all the way to adding the saltwater to a separate breeding tank and feeding it with the phytoplankton, but in the event I ended up syphoning the shrimplets out by mistake. I didn’t try again after that.
NH: What food do the fish get?
KO: I feed the fish a variety for a balanced diet, which keeps them healthy and looking their best. I feed New Life Spectrum discus formula (crushed up), Tetra Pro Colour and a spirulina flake. And from time to time I also chuck in some blanched courgette or spinach leaves.
NH: Have you ever had any problems with carbon dioxide and fish?
KO: In the past I’ve run it too high and all my fish were at the water surface trying to get oxygen. That’s why I think a drop checker helps — it allows you to make sure you don’t overdo it for the fish. That’s why I have one, anyway.
This lovely planted aquascape really draws the eye. Meet its creator...
WORDS: BOB MEHEN
Fishkeeper: Jon Friend.
Whereabouts? North London.
Time in the hobby: Three years.
Number of tanks: One and half (I’ve yet to fill the other one with water!)
What attracted you to the hobby?
A colleague had kept fish for a number of years and the idea appealed to me after seeing his tank, so I saved a bit of money and that was it. It was when I was scouring the Internet and saw a plethora of stunning planted tanks that I really got hooked.
How would you describe your tanks?
Hi tech, plant heavy jungle-ish style. I love the shapes Manzanita wood gives you, and always have a tendency to keep plenty of wood and the planting to suit, while trying to keep the overall appearance simple. Having the sandy path helps keep the scape feeling spacious while adding to its depth. I've always liked the idea of a simple Iwagumi layout, but tend to end up with a huge mishmash of plants. This is my second attempt at aquascaping and I'm still adapting it as I go along. The back left side will soon be switched up to better match the larger plants on the right side.
What’s your favourite fish?
Angelfish, Pterophyllum sp. They have great character and in large shoals in an even larger planted tank would be ideal.
What’s the most challenging fish you’ve kept?
I had a second tank years ago, in which I kept a couple of Figure eight puffers. Not having acquired the relevant knowledge, they proved difficult for me to successfully keep.
And the easiest?
Peppered corys, Corydoras paleatus. They were some of the first fish I kept as they were given to me. They unfortunately bore the brunt of my first fumbles into the hobby but always managed to survive.
Any favourite plants?
Hemianthus callitrichoides 'Cuba', because it is a difficult plant to grow properly, but so rewarding when you do, especially when you get it pearling! Hydrocotyle tripartite too, I just really like the bush like effect you can create with regular pruning and its ease to grow.
Cardinal tetras, Paracheirodon axelrodi
Six Otocinclus sp.
Three Siamese algae eaters, Crossocheilus sp.
Eight hatchetfish, Carnegiella marthae
Countless Red cherry shrimp
Which fish would you like to keep next?
I would love a large group of Altum angels, Pterophyllum altum or Discus. Apart from the fact that they're some of the most spectacular fres water tropicals, it would mean a massive planted tank too!
Which plants would you most like to keep?
I've not had much success with hairgrass. This current set-up is the second time I've tried to incorporate it (having purposely left it out due it dying off and becoming a trap to any other plant cuttings) and still not much luck this time around.
What would be your dream aquarium?
A 180 x 50 x 70cm deep/72 x 20 x 28in deep Optiwhite braceless tank. I'd have it all plumbed in so water changes would be automated, not to mention auto-dosing. The ’scape would consist of loads of wood, moss, caves and cliffs; a 'classic' nature aquarium with lots of Altum angels!
My advice for beginners
Read, read and read. I sold my Fluval Roma 90 before I went travelling for half a year. It was then over a year before I set up this one. I spent so much time researching different methods, equipment, manufacturers, products, design ideas, plants, fish, you name it! For me personally, that was just as fun as keeping the fish and putting water in the tank. Patience really is key if you want your tank to look like those done by George Farmer or Takashi Amano.
Buy good quality. I personally don't think I have 'saved' any money in setting up my tank as it was all new equipment with a bespoke tank and cabinet, however I know that the hardware I have bought will last me until I win the lottery and have my huge dream tank!
Buy a small pump to do you water changes for you; so much easier and tidier than pouring buckets of water into the tank.
Things I wish I’d known
I wish I’d known about planted tanks and Takashi Amano sooner. That and how much time and money I would willingly pump into the hobby!
This natural-looking, open-topped tank with its emergent plant growth is just fantastic!
WORDS: BOB MEHEN
Fishkeeper: Tom Black (forum name BigTom).
Occupation: PhD student, LFS assistant and occasional photographer.
Time in the hobby:
I often had tanks as a kid but got back into the hobby about nine years ago.
Number of tanks: Currently just one large display tank and three 'nano' cubes, mainly used for growing on plants and fry.
What attracted you to the hobby?
I grew up in the Pacific and spent a lot of time snorkelling coral reefs, so it’s pretty much always been an interest.
How would you describe your tanks?
Low tech, open topped, semi-naturalistic planted tanks with a high plant biomass and/or plenty of emergent or riparian growth. My current display aquarium is a loose Venezuelan biotope, which is relatively bare in terms of submerged plants as I wanted to emphasise the hardscape, but previous incarnations have been absolute jungles.
What’s your favourite fish?
Probably Liquorice gouramis Parosphromenus sp. They’re just the most beautiful, intimate and rewarding fish to watch go about their business.
What’s the most challenging fish you’ve kept?
Recently the Iguanadectes gave me trouble, as they’re the first fish that I’ve had problems with jumping out of the open topped tank. Some tactically placed corner covers seem to have done the trick however — or perhaps they just needed to settle in a bit. Either way they’ve now stopped, which is a relief.
And the easiest?
I find most fish to be fairly straightforward as long as you give them vaguely appropriate water parameters and housing — and lots of plants! I was surprised at how easy Armoured sticklebacks, Indostomus paradoxus, were to keep; they fed almost entirely on natural micro-fauna in their little nano tank and periodically produced fry without any input from me at all.
What is your favourite plant?
I love Microsorum pteropus 'Trident' — very undemanding, bright green under any light and adds brilliant texture to a tank. Hydrocotyle tripartita is another favourite, as are my newly acquired Bucephelandra. I must also mention being a huge fan of pretty much anything that can be grown as a floating or riparian plant as they do wonders for water quality and are the key to my ultra low-tech approach to fishkeeping.
Which fish would you like to keep next?
Green darter characins, Ammocryptocharax elegans — they only crop up rarely but I’m desperately after some for my Venezuelan biotope. Also, Parosphromenus again! I never quite got them to breed when I kept them previously, so there’s an itch there that still needs scratching.
Which plants would you most like to keep?
Ludwigia sediodes; I tried it last year and it did well for a while but failed to over-winter. It’s such a stunning floating plant that I’m not willing to admit defeat just yet.
What would be your idea of a dream aquarium?
Something massive! There’s something really special about large aquaria, when you get to a certain size you find that different fish really utilise different areas of the tank and the overall impression somehow shifts from being 'fish soup' to feeling like a real, structured habitat. I think from 500 l/110 gal upwards you really see this, but not if you fill the tank with massive fish. It’s all about big groups of small fish for me.
My current fish
Bandit cichlids, Guianacara sp. — adult pair and numerous offspring.
Five Orinoco eartheaters, Biotodoma wavrini.
Three Lyre-tail checkerboard cichlids, Dicrossus filamentosus.
Ten Spotted headstanders, Chilodus punctatus.
Four twig plecs, Farlowella sp.
50 Green neon tetras, Paracheirodon simulans.
15 Hockey stick pencilfish, Nannostomus eques, plus juveniles.
12 Dwarf suckermouths, Otocinclus sp.
Ten G reen line lizard tetras, Iguanadectes spilurus.
My advice for beginners
- Get loads of plants right from the start. Look after your plants and they’ll look after your fish for you.
- Save money. Collect your own hardscape. The countryside is littered with brilliant pieces of wood, dead leaves and rocks. Remember you need to exercise a little care in selecting appropriate material and please respect both the countryside and the rights of the landowners.
- Save time. Again, grow plants. With a large biomass of healthy plants you’ll spend far less time fussing about water quality, fish health or algae.
Things I wish I’d known
You can easily save money on equipment and hardscape, but don’t skimp on quality flora and fauna. I once wiped out about 300 shrimp after buying cheap pesticide-covered plants from the Far East — never again.
Prepare to pay good money for healthy stock and you’ll be much less likely to run into problems.
Strong plant growth and colourful discus combine to make this set-up a real feast for the eyes.
WORDS: BOB MEHEN
Fishkeeper: Abdul Mufti (Medicman).
Whereabouts? London, UK.
Time in the hobby: Almost two years.
Number of tanks: Two... at the moment, with a possible third in development!
What attracted you to the hobby?
My mother-in-law kept goldfish and tropicals for many years, so when I got married, to make our new home feel a bit more familiar for her, I purchased a 100 l/22 gal tank.
I’d assumed my wife and mother-in-law had good experience with fishkeeping and thought it would be fairly straightforward: boy was I wrong! I had little to no knowledge of fishkeeping let alone the nitrogen cycle. Our first foray into the hobby ended in disaster to say the least with several deceased fish as a result of poor advice and lack of research.
How would you describe your tanks?
I have a 250 l/55 gal planted discus tank — a challenge and a nightmare simply for the fact that it houses some of the most "delicate" fish I’ve ever had and also the first time I’ve kept discus. It’s also been a bit nerve wracking because of the CO2 and fertiliser levels I need to keep for the plants.
The other tank is a 150/33 gal planted set-up — a mishmash of random fish that have been left over from previous community attempts. These are the ones that survived ammonia and nitrite spikes at the start of the tank’s life and ones I don’t want to part with just yet!
What’s your favourite fish?
It’s a tie up between discus and German blue Rams; absolutely stunning colours and behaviour. I find the varying colourations of discus very intriguing.
What’s the most challenging fish you’ve kept?
Discus. They need specific water parameters, so it’s always a challenge keeping on top of nitrates as well as good and frequent gravel vacs.
And the easiest?
Guppies. They’re one of those fish that just keep giving… literally! We started a tank off with two females and one male. We ended up with 10 males and 25 females and had to sell off quite a few!
What’s your favourite plant?
This is a difficult one to say! For a long while it’s been Hemianthus callitrichoides because of its 'pearling', the lime-green colour and the dense carpet it forms, and Pogostemon stellata because of its colouration and the way it forms its leaves. Definitely one I’ll be using more of in future 'scapes.
250 l/55 gal aquarium:
- Six juvenile discus, Symphysodon sp.
- Two golden Rams and two German blue Rams, Mikrogeophagus ramirezi
- Six Cardinal tetras, Paracheirodon axelrodi
- Six Otos, Otocinclus sp.
- Two juvenile bristlenose catfish, Ancistrus sp.
- 20 Amano shrimp, Caridina multidentata.
150 l/33 gal planted aquarium:
- Nine Pentazona barbs, Desmopuntius pentazona.
- Six Dwarf blue rainbowfish, Melanotaenia praecox.
- Two bristlenose catfish, Ancistrus sp.
Which fish would you most like to keep next?
Jack Dempseys, Rocio octofasciata, and killifish; again it’s a colour thing!
We like a lively looking tank, so without overcrowding on guppies we want to try interesting and 'out-there' fish that aren’t very common.
Which plant would you most like to keep?
Phoenix moss, Fissidens fontanus. I absolutely love the effect this gives on driftwood when it’s used as a canopy. I’ve yet to get my hands on any for our upcoming attempt at true aquascaping.
What would be your dream aquarium?
It really feels like I’ve already got it with my discus tank but I would really love to get a larger tank and scape that for them. Alternatively, a large marine tank is definitely something the wife and I have been pining for. Potentially something we may do when we move house!
My advice for beginners
Do your research and don’t always trust advice from your LFS (unless they stop you from buying something!) Some of them will just tell you what you want to hear. Make sure you join a good and supportive forum, (like PFK).
Save time and back-ache during water changes on larger tanks by investing in a return pump, a large plastic container (at least 50% your tank’s volume or close to what you’re going to change), a tap garden hose connector, an inline shut-off valve and a long extension! (All of this cost me around £50 to put together). I’m no longer lifting buckets or bottles to do my water changes and rather than the hour it used to take me, it now takes a mere 15 minutes.
Read as many reviews on products as you can — make sure you try to get the assistants to demonstrate them, if they want your custom they’ll oblige. Use EI dosing for fertilisers — it’s far cheaper than premixed stuff and it will last a lot longer too!
Things I wish I’d known
How addictive and expensive it can be! I’ve certainly spent more than I’d like to admit in both time and money on these tanks in the past two years. That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed them a lot though!
Also that you’re better off investing in quality first, rather than trying to go for the cheapest option; Buy quality, buy once. Buy cheap, buy twice.
There's an art to creating authentic tanks and Tom Austin has not only mastered it, he's winning awards for it! We check out some beautiful biotopes.
WORDS: NATHAN HILL
As biotope fever continues to tighten its hold on the UK, it’s invigorating to see ever increasing numbers of aquarists embracing the concept. Though community tanks remain unyielding in their place as a domestic favourite across the land, fishkeepers like Tom Austin are seeking out new sources of information, forging contacts from regions that go beyond the local retailer and using it all to create displays with an outstanding blend of aesthetics and fishy happiness.
Tom, a 25-year-old chef from Oxford, has a simple and direct ethos with his livestock. "If you’re keeping a fish," he says, "keep it the way it’s supposed to be kept."
The first tank that catches our attention is his majestic Juwel Rio 400; a 151cm/60cm slice of dark and moody South American river. Inside, we see the telling flashes of burnished yellow with coloured streaks that indicates that this is a home for discus. As the photographer sets up his flashes to begin shooting, the discus, true to form, slink themselves out of sight behind tangles of wood.
A shaky start
Biotopes aren’t how Tom started out in this hobby. Three years back, when he began, he inherited a small tank from a friend. It turned out that this housed a rambunctious tankbuster — a Red-tailed catfish, no less — and Silver sharks, both woefully ill-suited for this tiny home. The fish were eventually rehomed by a sympathetic Maidenhead Aquatics. However, Tom persevered.
When a partner at that time moved out, a bigger tank moved in. Tom’s bedroom was, for a while at least, the residence of a 90 x 60 x 60cm/36 x 24 x 24in tank, which he established as a classic community with tetras and gouramis.
But this is the digital age, and certain influences have their ways and means of finding a route into a person’s home. On Facebook, Tom stumbled upon another prolific biotoper, Hamza Poonawalla. Soon after, he was flicking through Ivan Mikolji’s (a Venezuelan field explorer) nature videos. It didn’t take long for a purist seed to germinate, and now Tom boasts not one, but three biotopes in his home.
As we turn our attention to a second tank, we decide to make a concession. The fish inside — Altum angelfish — have only arrived the night before. The lights are off and the fish huddled at one end, unsure of our alien antics around them. We decide to spare them the photographer’s flashes, and my ugly, inquisitive mug to let them settle instead. It is a shame as, at a glance, they are young but already stunning.
Tom leads us upstairs to his third set-up. In the hallway at a desk sits a comparatively smaller aquarium: a 90 x 30 x 30cm/36 x 12 x 12in Clearseal all-glass tank, from which he has removed the braces around the rim. Now open-topped, the tank bathes under the light of two clamped-on LED units and houses one more-than-happy family of Yellow convicts, Cryptoheros nanoluteus, from Panama; their insouciance at our presence a clear contrast to the previous two aquaria we’ve seen. Inside, bundles of fry at various stages of development pay homage to Tom’s skill at giving the fish a home so cosy that they bred in it.
Breeding is something that Tom is unintentionally superb at. He bred standard Convicts quite early on, and though he doesn’t really go out of his way to spawn them, he’s also had historic successes with Ivanacara, some Gymnogeophagus species, Nannacara anomala and both Apistogramma agassizii and macmasteri. If you’re a cichlid, then Tom may well be your Cupid.
Despite the charm of this Central American tank, Tom professes a love for all things further south. He also concedes that he’d like to try African riverine fish, as well as species like Pseudocrenilabrus nicholsi.
Then he throws me. "I’m a catfish fan," he says, making me frown as I consider the cichlid-heavy leanings of everything we’ve seen so far. “I just haven’t found what I want yet. I’m after Tatia musaica 'Ninja'’ cats — I think they’re from Orinoco. I’ve never even seen one in the flesh, but I’m captivated by them."
He’s humble about it, but eventually I tease out of him that he’s won contests for his tanks before, entering the JBL sponsored biotope contest and taking two rankings: second with a Central American set-up and fifth with a discus layout. He’d considered entering the Aquatic Gardeners Association contest too, but managed to miss the cut-off date for submissions.
To go from community start-up to almost romping home with first place in a biotope competition inside of three years, tells me that we’ll be witnessing more of Tom’s tanks cruising the viral vine over years to come. Personally, I can’t wait to see them. And when you see how easy they are to copy, you’ll want to have a stab at your own, too.
The discus centrepiece
You wouldn’t think it, but Tom’s centrepiece tank was borne out of absolute disaster. The Friday before our visit, there was a different 400 l/88 gal tank sat in that spot, which chose to spring a leak. After a weekend of fluster, and scouring for a second-hand replacement, another tank was sourced, cleaned, installed and assembled. Not only does Tom put together great looking tanks, it seems he keeps a cool head under pressure.
Rigged up beneath the new 450 l/100 gal, 151 x 51 x 66cm/60 x 20 x 26in system, he has one Aquamanta EFX600 canister filter and an Eheim Profi 2073. The latter of these also connects to the heater on the return feed, a Hydor 300W inline model, so that it doesn’t intrude on the natural look of the tank.
On top, producing a haunting glow, is a USA satellite LED, complete with colour control and storm settings, which Tom found online for £135. With its tight pin-sources of light, it does wonders to create a soft, flickering effect.
Inside, he’s created a finger-tangle of wood using Manzanita branches, combined with a little Redmoor root. The substantial lumps you can see are Sumatra wood, which offer a sturdy hiding place for the fish when they’re feeling shy.
The billowing sand dunes at the base are made up of mere play pit sand, acquired from a garden centre, and the rounded stones, sourced from the aptly named ‘Stoneworld’ are rounded to give a worn, riverine look.
Tom admits to some testing slackness, but knows that the aquarium is currently sat at a TDS (total dissolved solids, or hardness) of between 85 and 90, with a low pH of 5.2.
Contrast that with the chalky, alkaline water at source, and you’ll understand how valuable Tom finds his TMC V2 RO unit. To get the chemistry just right for the demanding discus, he uses one measure of TMC Discus Mineral per 100 l/22 gal of water, and in his canister filters, he runs peat balls from Tyne Valley Aquatics. These leach acids to give his water the slightest 'tea' hue and help to chase the pH down to where the discus like it.
Look about the base closely and there are scattered alder cones. "They stain the water nice and dark," Tom says. "Anything natural I can get my hands on goes in the tanks."
It hasn’t always been that straightforward, though. "I had one bad experience collecting leaves," he explains, "when I thought I was picking up Oak, but it turned out to be something toxic. Some fish died on the back of that, and I felt terrible. It was my own fault, and I felt horrible for it."
Since then, he’s tried buying a few leaves from safer sources, including Guava leaves — noted for their antiseptic and healing properties. At some point, he wants to try some Savu pods, too.
The discus stand out because of their wild origins. They weren’t cheap fish, but then wild types rarely are, and Tom paid out a bargain £90 each for them from Chen’s Discus in Middlesex. The fish came in as Rio Paraconi types, and Tom thinks he has three potential males and a female. All he knows for sure is that when they go through their spawning motions, the harmony of the tank is upset.
Also in there are some Geophagus altifrons 'nhamunda', which Tom sourced from a northern retailer. Though substantial sized fish with potential to grow large (to 25cm/10in), they are peaceful beasts, content to while away their days sifting the sand for nutritious titbits.
Then there are the pacifist Mesonauta festivus cichlids that fill the higher levels of the tank. But like a few fish today, as the flashes go on to the tank, they retreat away and only spend the afternoon teasing us from the corners. Only when we creep up slowly and peer through the sides like fishy voyeurs, do we get to see as much as a glimpse of them. But as soon as the camera comes out, they just go deeper underground and refuse to play.
Tom’s 90cm/36in Panama tank is so simple a set up it’s almost sickening. And with a selection of fish that thrive in harder water, he needn’t do anything to tweak his hard, pH 7.6 tap supply.
Once again, Manzanita features as an integral part, taking on a different hue under the cleaner, brighter light of two cheap, unbranded LEDs clipped to the back.
Beyond that, it’s a riverbed of fine sand and cobbles, the latter providing refuge for young, while the former gives the fish plenty to rummage and forage through. A moulded Exo-Terra polystyrene backing (sold for vivariums) provides a convincing enough illusion of a riverbank.
Powering this tank is an All Pond Solutions 1400 canister filter, which Tom admits rattles, leaks and often doesn’t prime, so it spends its life in a washing up bowl. True to Tom’s style, an inline 300W Hydor heater sits out of sight, between lengths of hosing.
The tank is designed to emulate the Rio Guarumo and only has two species inside it: Yellow convicts, Cryptoheros nanoluteus, and Green swordtails, Xiphophorus helleri. Aggression during post-spawn, when a single cichlid went on a murderous rampage and nailed the male swordtails, means that only the two females remain, but they seem happy in themselves and are most likely pregnant from a former coupling. Doubtless, there will be more of them to follow.
This tank, alas, is on borrowed time. Tom already has someone lined up to buy all of the fry, and once they have vacated the premises, he’s looking to do a complete overhaul. What he’ll venture into next he’s unsure of. Honduran red points (think upmarket Convicts) are possible, but so too are standard Convict cichlids, and even Jade eyed sajica cichlids.
That said, even Teleocichla or African shell dwellers are feasible, as Tom drifts through a long potential list of all the other ‘possibles’ that he clearly has in mind for some point in the future.
Meet the aquarist
Fishkeeper: Tom Austin.
Time in the hobby: Three years.
First fish: Red-tailed catfish and Silver sharks!
Number of tanks: Three.
Favourite fish: Discus.
Fish he’d like to keep: Potamotrygon scobina stingrays.
Most spent on a fish: £90 on discus.
Meet the reader who is breeding shrimp, keeping delicate gouramis and growing demanding plants - all without compromising on aesthetics.
WORDS: NATHAN HILL
As you walk into Iain Sutherland’s Cambridge-based home, a beautiful mix of high-impact aquariums greets you. There are four stunning tanks in Iain’s open-plan living area. The largest is a 120cm/48in high-energy aquascape, which is sitting next to a 60cm/24in blackwater biotope set-up. There are also two shrimp tanks on the kitchen worktop.
First impressions are that Iain clearly has a broad knowledge and interest in the hobby, despite being a relatively late starter just four years ago.
It was a friend who kept a Juwel Rio 300 aquarium that inspired Iain to take the plunge. He bought a Juwel Vision 260 and stocked it with a classic mix of community fish, along with some readily available and easy to keep plants.
Soon after discovering the delights of fishkeeping, Iain came across the UK Aquatic Plant Society (UKAPS) Internet forum and, after plenty of research and inspiration from this online community, immersed himself fully into the world of aquascaping and shrimp keeping.
The budding aquascaper replaced the Vision 260 with a custom-built OptiWhite braceless tank, and his first aquascape, called Barb Island, ranked a respectable 380th out of over 2,000 entries in the prestigious International Aquatic Plant Layout Contest (IAPLC) in 2013. This year saw an even better result, with his Asian Dreams creation (pictured above) ranking 251st and 2nd in the UK.
The Asian Dream aquascape was recently replaced with a new creation that, Iain admits, has seen some neglect recently. His CO2 ran out and it went without maintenance for a week or so.
The results of this were evident to any keen aquatic gardener, with the struggling Glossostigma elatinoides looking a little poorly. However, the aquascape still looks very impressive and he will soon get it back on track with the tender loving care that passionate aquascapers like Iain can provide.
With its two large external filters, two Twinstar Nano devices, a massive CO2 system and Giesemann Futura lighting, this system is one of the most high-tech planted tanks I’ve seen.
“The Futura unit was expensive,” explains Iain. “But it looks great and is future-proof.”
Mix and match
It isn’t just high specification tanks and aquascapes that interest Iain. He also has a rather nice biotope aquarium featuring five Liquorice gouramis, Parosphromenus gunawani.
Positioned next to Iain’s high-energy planted tank, the contrast works really well, highlighting the different feel each aquarium provides to the onlooker. The juxtaposition works wonders, with the subdued lighting and tannin-stained blackwater of the biotope compared to the ultra-clear water and bold colours of the planted aquascape.
The gouramis were very timid, but then Iain produced a cup teeming with live Daphnia and mosquito larvae cultured in his back garden. He poured a little into the tank and almost immediately, these beautiful fish appeared, darting in and out of the hanging roots.
With your face up close to the aquarium front glass, it’s easy to imagine yourself entirely submerged in this wonderful little habitat. There is something really appealing about witnessing fish like this, as opposed to the stereotypical bold colours and in-your-face activity we’re often exposed to in this hobby.
It feels like you’re seeing the fish on their own terms, rather than a forced display. This was cryptic fishkeeping on an inspirational level.
Bee shrimp heaven
Moving to the kitchen area, it was impossible not to notice the two stunning nano aquariums, absolutely choc-a-block with bee shrimp, Caridina cantonensis. Aquascapes in their own right, these two tanks looked amazing next to each other.
Iain started with the one tank 12 months ago, stocking ten various strains of bee shrimp. Six months later, the population grew to the point where Iain needed another tank, so he replicated the original set-up. The only differences are a slightly more powerful filter and smaller lamp.
Iain uses Ebi Gold substrate — it’s popular among the shrimp keeping community because it’s not preloaded with nutrients and doesn’t give an ammonia spike. As his tapwater is hard, he uses RO (reverse osmosis) water with added minerals to make it suitable for his shrimp.
The plants look in great health with minimal levels of background algae, all of which serve to provide extra surface area for the biofilm that the shrimp feed upon.
Iain’s tanks hold a huge amount of appeal, and it’s incredible to see how diverse a style of fishkeeping one man can achieve, at such a high level, in such a short period of time. His story is sure to provide inspiration for other newcomers and experienced hobbyists alike.
Iain’s success is down to a combination of good research and a willingness to invest in appropriate equipment, as well as time dedicated to maintaining his aquariums.
Iain also has a natural gift for the hobby. If he had discovered fishkeeping and aquascaping as a child, or younger adult, then no doubt we’d be looking at some of the most stunning aquariums the UK has ever seen. They’re not far from it now!
Tank: Natural Aquario 60 x 30 x 38cm/24 x 12 x 16in (68 l/15 gal).
Filtration: JBL CristalProfi e901 external.
Lighting: TMC 1000ND LED tile.
Substrate: ADA Aqua Soil Amazonia.
Decor: Manzanita wood, Catappa leaves, oak leaves and Alder cones.
Maintenance: 20% water change per week with RO water and GH booster. TDS 100, pH 5.
Plants: Microsorum pteropus sp. ‘Needle’, Bucephalandra sp. and crypts.
Fish: Five Liquorice gouramis, Parosphromenus gunawani.
Tank: Natural Aquario 120 x 45 x 55cm/48 x 18 x 22in (300 l/66 gal).
Filtration: Eheim 2080 Pro 3, JBL 1501 externals and 2 x Twinstar Nano.
Lighting: Giesemann Futura 4 LED.
Substrate: Tropica Plant Substrate and Unipac Fiji Sand.
CO2: 10kg refillable cylinder with Dennerle regulator. AM1000 external reactors at five bubbles per second. CO2 measured with 4dKH drop checker.
Decor: Redmoor wood and locally collected stones.
Fertilisers: Estimative Index using dry chemicals.
Maintenance: 50% water change per week.
Plants: Glossostigma elatinoides, Vesicularia ferriei, Alternanthera sp. ‘Mini’, Lilaeopsis brasiliensis, Ammania gracilis, Bucephalandra spp. and Ammania sp. ‘Bonsai’.
Fish: Dwarf neon rainbowfish, Melanotaenia praecox and Salt and pepper cory, Corydoras habrosus.
Tank: Two Custom OptiWhite 40 x 30 x 30cm /16 x 12 x 12in (38 l/8.5 gal).
Filtration: Eheim Liberty hang-on-back.
Lighting: 18 and 11W power compact T5.
Substrate: Ebi Gold.
Decor: Maple leaf rock, redmoor wood.
Fertilisers: Tropica Specialised (5ml/four squirts per week).
Maintenance: 40% water change every two weeks with RO water. Salty Shrimp GH+ added to achieve TDS of 190.
Plants: Microsorum pteropus sp. ‘Needle’ and ‘Narrow’, Micranthemum sp. ‘Monte Carlo’, Fissidens fontanus, Lilaeopsis brasiliensis, Philodendron spp. (emerged) and Ficus columbia (emerged).
Shrimp: Caridina cantonensis sp. ‘Blue bolt’, ‘Panda’, ‘Shadow panda’, ‘Hino’, ‘Smiley face’ and ‘Snow’.
Meet the aquarist
Fishkeeper: Iain Sutherland.
Profession: Food and beverages manager.
Time in the hobby: Four years.
First fish: Angelfish.
First breeding success: Zebra danios.
Number of tanks: Four.
Favourite fish: Barbs.
Fish he’d like to keep: Eartheaters.
Ed Gercog has more than just an aquascaping pedigree, he has a thing for quality shrimps too. So it stands to reason that he'd eventually be making a business out of both. Nathan Hill explains more.
Walking into Eduard Gercog’s aquascape and shrimp boutique is an unusual experience for someone like me, more used to the buckets, bubbles and splashes of the hobby, for Ed has found his own niche and style, and a unique feel flows from both his retail premises and his aquascapes.
The founder of the company Freshwatershrimp, Ed is well known in aquascaping circuits, simply by his distinctive surname. A member of UKAPS, he entered his first design in the IAPLC aquascaping contest only last year and gained a more than respectable 150th place from the thousands of entries.
The largest of his current designs is a project for Danish planting company Tropica. Atop a cabinet of shocking white, and framed in brushed metal pipeworks, the tank cuts an imposing display when you enter the premises. Yet, on closer inspection, much of what sits inside it is incredibly basic — basic but beautifully used.
This 'untitled' tank may be decked out with Tropica plants, but the idea and concept remain Ed’s. He wanted a set-up based solely around Tropica’s 'easy plant' category, a range unchallenging for the newer aquascaper. Here, his emphasis was on natural looks from stems and leaves rather than prominent roots.
The tank, as we photographed it, had been in position for just five weeks and there’s still much more growing in to do. Even at this stage, though, it’s enough to make most home aquarists cringe with envy.
The plant selection is as simple as can be. There are two varieties of Anubias on show: petite and nana, Then there’s Bolbitis heudelotii, Microsorum sp. Trident, Ludwigia repens ‘rubin’, Eleocharis parvula sp. Mini, standard Java moss, and some of the richest Monoselenium tenerum around.
You’ll spot other favourites too, like the Vallisneria nana, Hottonia palustris, Lindernia rotundifolia, Hygrophila sp. rosenvig, and the three Cryptocoryne species: balansae, willisii and becketii.
He hasn’t drawn attention to garish fish either. As well as the one species of shrimp keeping algae growth negligible, there are Bentosi tetras, and a handful of bloodfins.
The livestock is subtle, but contrasts well against the ever-present green leaves. If prepared to sit long enough — and the comfortable environment certainly encourages you — you’ll eventually glance a few young Otocinclus on the make as well.
In the set-up
Ed’s unnamed aquascape is designed within a Natural Aquario 90cm/36" model aquarium, sat on an Elite cabinet. Illumination comes from Sun Lumen lighting, involving four 36w bulbs. He can raise or lower these lights according to the intensity needed.
Carbon dioxide is kept at 30mg/l and is supplied by a large pressurised CO2 bottle hooked up to a solenoid and gang valve. The gas from this also supplies the other tanks in the room.
Filtration comes in the form of an Eheim model 2076e, the hosing of which has been incorporated with an inline CO2 diffuser to supply the gas direct to inflow. The hosing melds with Natural Aquario steel piping to give a fresh, clean effect. Heating sits inline and hidden away too, with a single Hydor 300w inline heater providing warmth.
The substrate is a mixture of Tropica’s planting soil topped with Unipac’s Maui gravel to give the tank it’s light feel. Tropica ferts are also used, with Specialised fertilizer added at eight pumps, approximately 40ml, per day.
This tank marks the first time Ed used exclusively RO water, remineralised with Salty shrimp minerals, giving a TDS reading of around 160 to 180. This RO endeavour surprised Ed as he discovered just how much hungrier for fertilisers the tank became and the first stages of setting up involved trying to find the right amounts to use.
Another early issue was Cryptocoryne melt, though Ed puts this down to an unusual photoperiod at the time — some five hours daily with the lighting set very high above the tank.
The only other issue was an early incidence of diatomaceous algae which kicked in some ten days after set-up. Adding those reclusive Otocinclus soon had the desired effect and now not a spot of unwanted green is visible.
Ed has been a UKAPS follower since moving to the UK from his Lithuanian heritage. He touched down some four years back, witnessed an array of tanks from aquascaping’s founding father Takashi Amano online, and was immediately hooked.
He started with limited resources, and his first tank was pieced together on a budget of under £200. The aged, scratchy 60 x 30 x 30cm/2 x 1x 1’ glass one cost him just £10 on eBay and he flirted with devices like yeast-fuelled CO2 injectors. Needless to say the first efforts fell flat, teaching Ed much about the necessity of a quality gas supply and correct use of lighting along the way.
About a year after this initial dabbling Ed achieved his first successful aquascape and on his wall he keeps a memento poster of the first tank he entered in a contest. Of the 60 entrants he came about halfway, being told his design was too symmetrical. Such were the learning experiences.
He considers the most important aspect of successful aquascaping to be a good balance of CO2, lighting and fertilisers.
Essentially, he extols the virtues of not using too much light in the early stages of a tank’s life. He notes that many people up the intensity at the offset and without the relevant CO2 and food, not to mention settled plant growth, a tank can become a simmering time bomb of detracting algae growth.
Ed feels aquascapes need not be labour intensive and this untitled tank takes about an hour and a half of his time each month. Similar tanks have been left for up to six weeks between trims, during which he notes the emergence of flowers and formation of terrestrial leaves at the surface.
Provided light levels aren’t left to glow rampant he never experiences any troubles doing this.
Although the plants here are easy for the beginner, Ed knows his way around difficult plants too, but, like many enthusiasts, he also has his nemesis. In his case Glossostigma is the plant to fear and after many attempts he concedes he can never get it dense enough for his liking.
Ed advises any fledgling plant grower that it’s not worth trying to make the layout perfect from the start. Instead he advises the beginner to view it as a growing canvas, with the plants acting as slow spreading paint.
He also notes that aquascapers shouldn’t be scared to add more plants as they see fit, and as the tank slowly develops.
Ed’s a fish man too, keeping a tank full of Metriaclima at home, even if this tank was prompted at the behest of housemates who desperately wanted some fish.
It’s impossible to miss the fact that although Ed’s premises have a very contemporary layout, you’re actually visiting a store!
It’s immediately apparent that the site is based around shrimp and aquascape goods, and some may even recall these lines from the Aquatics Live venue in 2012 where Ed had a stand.
On show is a different approach to selling. There are no abundant tanks sprawling in all directions, rather a handful of immaculate and establishing aquascapes to provide inspiration. The planting stock is stored, for the best part, inside a fridge, at a controlled temperature and in a moist environment.
Other plants are grown out of sight, kept in a hydroponic type of system, bathed in nutrients and showered with intense light.
It’s not a property can you can just saunter in to, rather you need to make an appointment to browse through the lines. There are many pieces you won’t find sat in the high street — such as exotic aquascaping tools, and novel shrimp foods — but to get a real feel of what’s stocked you’ll need to visit here yourself.
The business side of Ed’s hobby has been active for just over 12 months and, further to earlier overhauls, is more than ready to receive visitors.
Ed excels at shrimp breeding and he’s committed much time and money to their care.
His shrimp room hides behind closed doors and represents the Mr Hyde to Ed’s Dr. Jekyl. If the boutique element of the visit is welcoming white, unblemished surfaces and immaculate aquascapes, then the shrimp room is the visual antithesis.
Scattered buckets and hoses litter the floor like some ad hoc game of snakes and ladders, tanks are stacked onto even more tanks and sagging vats of RO teeter perilously at the sides.
However, once accustomed to the diametrically-opposed feel of the room, you realise you’re in a shrimp facility of the highest order.
Every pane of glass is awash with crustaceans, from drab entry-level experiments to hand-picked prizewinners. Ed is quick to point out some of his prize broodstock, including some former Hanover champions for which he flew to Germany to collect personally.
Ed’s shrimp breeding venture involves more than 100 uniform tanks and they all feature active soils, especially for the Caridina species, I’m informed.
This soil, combined with the reverse osmosis water helps to provide the soft and acidic conditions required for both instigating breeding as well as rearing those delicate shrimplets.
Ed assures me that young shrimp are much easier to raise at lower pH values than higher.
All the tanks have the same method of filtration: a large foam ‘wall’ curved in one corner with a small powerhead within. These filters offer a huge surface area to volume ratio, giving little in the way of dangerous suction at the foam’s edge. That way tiny shrimps can avoid being pulled into the pump mechanisms.
All systems are unheated and Ed explains that the common failing among UK shrimp keepers is an insistence on putting them in tanks that are too hot. Many wild species are found in waters of just 18°C/64°F, and even in these tanks he tries to maintain a 20-22°C/68-72°F maximum.
At higher temperatures he notes that metabolism increases, not only shortening life spans but also increasing the pollutants in the water as higher feeding is required, which in turn generates more waste. Ed prefers a slower, leaner growth rather than rushing things.
Buy them small!
Another error Ed highlights is the purchase of stock when it’s too large. He says that many species here are short-lived and to buy a big bruiser of a shrimp is to invest in something near the end of its natural life. Instead, he advises going for shrimps around 1.5-2cm/0.6-0.8."
The foods used on this crustacean harvest tend to be mixed. Ed favours plenty of vegetation, especially leafy foods, with higher protein offerings only once or twice a week. A common theme is almond leaves acting as a grazing source in every aquarium.
Other staples, in the form of blanched spinach, nettles and even cucumber, all appear too.
Ed rears his copious young on a powdered mix of spinach, nettles, pollen, yeasts, walnut and almond leaves, even montmorillonite clay. Given the sheer volume of tiny feet in each tank, this combination clearly works well.
To get them in the right breeding mood, Ed adds a fabulous 'shrimp viagra' liquid to the tanks. This chemical simulates the pheromones released when female shrimps have moulted and are receptive to spawning.
I’m told there was a point over the winter when the shrimps stopped breeding altogether. Whether this was due to a decline in ambient temperature, or the shrimps sensed some additional seasonal circumstance isn’t clear.
The selection here is far more than you can take in over mere minutes and from tank to tank there are Crystal varieties in red and black, Sulawesi shrimps, Blue pearls, Red rili, Cherries and Sakuras, Tigers — including a striking orange eyed variant – Snow whites and even yellow or orange strains.
It doesn’t seem like work any more!
I asked Ed if he’s ever had any second thoughts about aquatic retailing. After a little thought, he hits me with a quote he’d picked up that sums up his sentiments:
"Once you turn your hobby into your job," he tells me, "you never need to work again." It’s evident that Ed loves what he’s got going. He’s got a great set-up, teeming with healthy stock, and a shop layout that’s as smart as any contemporary home. It’s something to be jealous of...
Visit and see for yourself
If you want to see the delights of this boutique, drop an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.freshwatershrimp.co.uk for more details.
Not everyone has the ability to partner ideal community fish with stunning tank layout, but Gary Nelson pitches it just right. Nathan Hill witnesses a 'marriage' made in heaven.
Are you an aquascaper or a fishkeeper? This question arises frequently in my circles, to the point where I barely notice when I ask it myself. Yet it always appears worded in such a way as to suggest that the two fields are mutually exclusive.
If proof was needed that the two terms can indeed be harmonious, then it’s embodied in Gary Nelson’s striking Juwel Trigon 350. Here, the intelligent blend of community fish and breathtaking layout create more than the sum of their two parts.
Community tanks have their detractors. Some complain that it’s hard to keep fish happy when they come from slightly different habitats. Yet I’d invite anyone making such a claim to take a good look at the fish Gary keeps. They’re immaculate and among the healthiest I’ve found on any reader visit.
Gary is a more recent fishkeeper. He started just two years ago with a BiOrb before moving on to his first planted tank — an Aqua One corner design that took him on a fast learning curve of flow requirements in planted aquaria.
The BiOrb was actually the idea of Gary’s partner who fancied a rounded aquarium. After a stammered start, Gary took to Internet browsing, learning more about plants and their requirements. He changed substrates, added some Amazon swords and had success in this limiting ‘no tech’ tank.
He soon felt he’d outgrown what he could do with the set-up and took the next step. The planting seeds were sown, even though Gary had initially entered into the hobby because he’d wanted fish, not the associated greenery.
From there he moved on to a Juwel Rio 180 and laid it out with rocks and grasses. It was set up for just two weeks before Gary wanted something bigger and more spectacular.
The tank featured here has been running for a scant five months. The first thing he did with it was to remove the integrated Juwel filter system and install his own, for the sake of adequate flow rates.
Upping his game, Gary rigged up a G6 external canister filter — and that’s something he’s quick to recommend to other budding aquascapers because of its ease of use. Aside some early impeller issues that needed to be resolved, the filter has run smoothly ever since.
Unlike some planted tank fans, Gary hasn’t felt the need to boost his lighting to any 'supernova' levels. All the foliage in here is happily bathing beneath the glow of the standard Juwel T5 fluorescent tubes in daylight and nature varieties.
Some of his little touches are truly superb. The lid of the tank was confronted by a Dremel to make an opening tidy enough for Gary’s external piping. As an extra, to keep surface film at a minimum, he has also incorporated a simple skimmer at the top.
The return pipes for water flow are connected to a set of ‘double duck bills’ like on a Fluval aquarium — the kind found in the Studio range of tanks. These give Gary an ideal point of water re-entry, as well as giving him near complete directional control on where the flow goes.
Heating is controlled courtesy of an inline 300w Hydor, so the tank itself is gloriously free of clutter and piping.
Any pipes that do remain have been painted with black Crayon and, combined with the chalkboard paint he used to darken the two rear panels of glass, it’s hard to spot anything that isn’t either a fish or a plant in there. It’s all very well thought through.
The cabinet beneath is a work of creative art. Here you find the filter, CO2 system, timers, plant foods, tool kit, timers, alarms and more.
Gary uses a fire extinguisher for his gas source, opting for a 2kg size connected to an Aqua Essentials Easy Aqua solenoid and valve.
This feeds into an UP inline diffuser connected to the G6 piping and set to give a dosage of two to three bubbles per second.
The gas comes on two hours before the lights do and turns off two hours before they dim. Over a seven-hour photoperiod, this gives Gary all the growth lighting and gas he needs.
It stands to reason that he’s connected all these devices to timers so that they come on and off while he sits and enjoys the view, worry free.
For late night viewings there are also four moonlight LED strips, timed to come on for three to four hours each night, giving Gary a twilight rendition of his work.
For extra security, Gary uses an Aqua Digital pH probe which indicates a near constant pH level of 6.45.
Everything is arranged tidily to make life easy, with a couple of oh-so simple ideas that make life even easier!
The cabinet doors, for example, are connected to switches that turn on some small, domestic 15w fluorescent tubes at the back, making everything clearly visible. A magnetic strip that one might use with kitchen knives sits on the inside of one door, keeping all of Gary’s planting tools together in one handy place.
For such a striking effect, there’s actually not a huge range of plants in this set-up.
Dominating the rear is an abundant growth of Microsorum pteropus sp. 'Needle', poking all of those filamentous fine points through the wood.
The foreground is dominated by thick growth of Vesicularia 'Christmas' moss that has been tied on to slate.
Breaking up the foreground shape, a small number of Staurogyne repens thrust upwards a couple of inches. Lower down at the rear, some Anubias barteri 'Banzai' help to plug lower gaps.
One front corner is dominated by Cryptocoryne wendtii, which Gary describes as his most difficult plant.
Finishing off the scape, a single Aponogeton lurks in one shadow, and centrally — albeit early days — a tiny fragment of Hydrocotyle sp. ‘Japan’ looks ready to start some explosive growth.
Decoration is taken care of with a mixture of Redmoor root, and Seiryu stone. Traditionally, Gary has only used wood, but in this tank —and with a tilt of the hat to UK aquascaper Mark Evans — stones have made an appearance.
Substrate comprises Unipac’s coarse Fiji gravel, set over a layer of black Eco Complete.
Taking care of business
Keeping the tank looking this good takes Gary around an hour and a half each week.
It receives a weekly 50% water change, with replacement water prepared the night before, dechlorinated and heated in a water butt ready for use.
The moss is syphoned through weekly with a gravel cleaner and the gravel gets syphoned fortnightly. At the same time, the glass is wiped. Though there were some early hints of black spot algae trouble, these were soon brought under control.
Not that Gary is overly panicky about a little algae build-up. As he sees it, an aquascape is like an indoor garden and, as he so eloquently puts it: “You never have a garden without any weeds.”
Feeding the plants is a matter of using an Estimative Index dry salt set from TNC. Gary doses 20ml of the macro and trace mixes on alternate days and 15ml of Aqua Essentials’ liquid carbon daily.
'Old school' fish
Unfortunately, when photographing Gary’s aquarium, we managed to startle the inhabitants and upset one of its key features – the neat layering effect of the fish.
Gary’s community choice is pure textbook: a great selection of fish, covering colours, compatibility and every swimming level.
When we arrived, the fish had aligned themselves perfectly. The seven Marbled hatchets (Carnegiella strigata) sit just beneath the surface of the water, their deep bellies just about touching the domain of the 40 False or Green neon tetra (Paracheirodon simulans).
Straight underneath the Neons, the punchy oranges of ten Harlequins (Trigonostigma heteromorpha) create a bright streak which then paves way for the bottom, subtle, shoaling layer of 15 Rummynose tetra.
Taking up residency of the lowest levels of the tank are four Corydoras trilineatus on patrol, accompanied by four Otocinclus dwarf suckermouth catfish.
A few bold fish add punch to the static layers. A pair of Betta patrol all levels, the male maybe the most brazen I’ve met, squaring up to the three M. praecox rainbows and even wriggling his fins at the two passing M. boesemani.
Finishing off the effect are two very underrated fish species. Pearl gourami (Trichogaster leeri) and Honey gourami (T.chuna) patrol across all levels, adding something a little larger for the eye to follow.
The whole collection shouts 'mid-'90s' fish selection, but the execution and the sheer quality of livestock are proof that whatever Gary is doing, he’s doing it right.
This is a tank that all of us at PFK have fallen in love with. It’s where 'old school' meets new — in triumphant celebration.
How much would it cost?
With a mixture of some parts, such as the tank being bought new, some bits picked up as freebies, including some plants, and other bits just making their way over from his earlier set-ups, it’s hard for Gary to tot up an exact cost for this project.
However, as a guide, everything seen on these five pages — fish, plants, hardware and supplements — has been estimated at a combined value of around £1,200.
When James Findley planted a long, shallow aquarium such set-ups were opening up a world that allowed the aquascaper's imagination to run riot.
James Findley, professional aquascaper and founder of The Green Machine, has found that shallow aquariums are not only incredibly fun to work with, but they also make it very simple to achieve outstanding results.
These shapes also present ample opportunity for individual experimentation and creative artistic interpretation — this James' work, titled Tributary, demonstrates just what can be achieved with these unusual aquariums.
He chose the 120 x 30 x 20cm/48 x 12 x 8" ADA Cube Garden 120-F tank for the project as "shallow tanks provide a fantastic opportunity to do something a bit different and to really experiment with aquascaping in a fun and inventive way."
James adds: "Variety is one of the things I love about aquascaping and pushing the boundaries is what makes it so fun and exciting!"
He particularly enjoyed working on this size of aquarium because he could experiment with emergent plant growth and placement of aquatic hardscape outside of traditional parameters.
"This creates a dual perspective, in which you can see both below and above the waterline.
"Each aspect is equally as beautiful, adding a whole new dimension to it all."
James wanted to explore the microcosm of nature and the way that sometimes the smallest, least obvious things in life can be the most beautiful and awe-inspiring, yet so often go completely unnoticed.
He entitled this project Tributary because it focuses on the smallest element of the stream and celebrates the beauty of what is often overlooked.
The end product is certainly original and one of the most striking elements is the way in which he has banked the substrate high at the two diagonally opposite corners of the aquarium. This helped to create the feeling of a tributary in which the natural flow of the stream results in greater depth in the centre.
He chose to position the outflow lily pipe in the centre of this rivulet to add authenticity and recreate the natural flow pattern of a tributary.
Since these tanks are very shallow they can easily be lit by fluorescent lights, which use less energy than metal halides.
What we think...
"When we saw this tank set up in the Green Machine we loved it," says PFK editor Jeremy Gay.
"It had stacks of visual appeal, despite it having to share the same room as many much larger aquascapes.
"James did exactly what we would have done wth a project like this, with immerse plants and exposed wood, and although the tank’s dimensions initially seem odd, it does give a very fluvial dimension and lends itself perfectly to being stream like — and with suitable stream fish.
"We’re sure we’ll be seeing many tanks influenced by this in the future…"
Aquarium and lighting: ADA 120 F cube Garden at RRP £492.59; two ADA Solar 2 twin 36w compact fluorescents (144 watts in all) at RRP £437.08 each and bespoke TGM light stand at RRP £350.
Substrate system: One 9-litre bag of ADA Aquasoil Malaya at RRP £34.99; one 9-litre bag of ADA Aquasoil Malaya powder at RRP £49.99; one 6-litre bag Powersand Special M at RRP £73.28 and 2kg ADA Mekong sand at RRP £9.99.
Substrate additives: Not essential, but James uses them because he finds they make the aquascapes easier to maintain and increase their longevity. About one quarter of each of the following were used: Penac P at RRP £37.99; Penac W at RRP £37.99; ADA Bacter 100 at RRP £25.99; ADA Clear Super at RRP £26.50 and ADA Tourmaline BC at RRP £24.26.
Hardscape: Three pieces of ADA Hornwood TGM river pebbles.
Plants: One Ludwigia arcuata RRP £5.99; two Proserpinaca palustris ‘Cuba’ RRP £7.99 each; three Ludwigia repens ‘Rubin’ RRP £5.99 each; two Polygonum sp. RRP £5.99 each; three Cyperus helferi RRP £5.99 each; three Riccardia chamedryfolia RRP £13.25 each; 12 Hemianthus callitrichoides ‘Cuba’ RRP £5.99 each; three Hydrocotyle tripartita RRP £5.99 each; three Anubias barterivar. nana ‘Petite’ RRP 13.25 each; three Microsorum mini RRP £9.95 each; two Taxiphyllum sp. ‘Spiky’ (Spiky moss) RRP £7.99 each and two Vesicularia ferriei ‘Weeping’ (Weeping moss) RRP £7.99 each.
CO2 injection system: TGM Pro kit, with all ADA glass components at RRP £522.59
Filtration: ADA Superjet ES 600 at RRP £660. This includes ADA inflow and outflow lily pipes and filter media.
Total project: £3,322.39.
John Ciotti surprised the US marine keeping fraternity with his 'upside down' reef tank. He's never been afraid to try something radical and here tells Jeremy Gay how his creation came about.
A photographer of elite aquatic systems, John Ciotti sees at first hand what excites the aquascaping world. He’d set up before, but this latest project took the hobby to a whole new level.
We’ve tracked John down for an exclusive interview:
What are the dimensions of your tank?
It’s a standard Ecoxotic cube aquarium measuring 45 x 45 x 45cm/18 x 18 x 18".
What equipment is fitted to it?
One of the great things about this particular aquarium is the lack of equipment. Being an all-in-one-type it only contains a small and simple protein skimmer that seems to perform well enough, as well as a small 10w return pump to get water from the sump chamber back to the display.
A single MP10 Vortech creating a nice wave motion is also attached to the side pane of glass.
How long has it been set up?
This layout has been up and running for about 24 months now. It has even gone from my home into the care of others, as I was moving from San Diego to Los Angeles. I wasn't comfortable with the prospect of moving the system, so it stayed in place instead of leaving with me.
What was your inspiration for the set-up and have any previous aquascapes been leading up to this design?
The concept came to me more on an impulse than anything else. I hadn’t any sort of clue or divine indication that this was going to end up this way.
Obviously the thought of creating an aquascape out of the norm was intended, but to how far out I didn’t know until it was finished.
I suppose my mum telling me I needed more overhangs in every aquarium I 'scaped as a child could have had some sort of significant impact on this particular layout, Repressed feelings maybe?
How is the rock structure fixed together?
The 'scape was constructed with the use of a single piece of 1.6cm/0.75″ PVC cut to length and slid through four pieces of carefully drilled live rock.
A base was created by drilling a hole halfway into the bottom chosen rock and a cap by repeating the process for the top. Once everything was together a reef safe epoxy was used to keep everything neat and tidy.
Your sun corals look healthy and as if in a natural setting under that overhang. What tips do you have for growing them and how did you fix them?
I switched from exclusively feeding Cyclop-eeze to a combination of Reed Mariculture products, Phyto-Feast, Tiger-pods, Oyster-Feast, for example. A by-product of this switch has been a pleasant and noticeable increase in how long my non-photosynthetic corals stay out.
Although I've not noticed any significant growth increase just yet, other microfauna and tubeworms seem to be taking advantage of the varied diet.
What fish/corals/inverts are in there?
There’s a few different color morphs of Ricordea florida and Zoanthus, Tubastrea, Dendrophillia, Dendronepthya, Stereonepthya, photosynthetic gorgonians and Trachyphyllia geoffroyi. I’m sure there are others I’m forgetting though.
In there too are two captive-raised Pterapogon kauderni and a single captive-raised Elacatinus figaro (Yellow-line goby). At one point I actually tried out some clownfish, but they were aggressively hosting the corals so I had to remove them.
How do you light the bottom without it casting obvious shadows?
There’s a bit of a shadow, but the amount of LED over the aquarium helps give it a softer look, much like a soft box would with photography. I think that the light bouncing back/reflecting from glass also helps.
Did you encounter any problems with this tank set-up?
Getting the flow to work correctly was initially a challenge. Having so much open space allowed a lot less water movement to go a very long way. It was troublesome keeping the sand down and keeping the corals happy up top.
Is there anything you would change?
Quite simply I’d go bigger!
You’ve recently taken part in a marine hardscape aquascaping competition. Can you tell us about that?
Aquascaping competitions seem a bit funny. I really like the idea of the hobby becoming more forward thinking and progressing as an art form but, as far as I am concerned, judging aquarium layouts is a bit subjective and can be difficult to do so fairly.
I've entered a few live aquascaping contests and, by the luck of the draw, won them all.
This last marine competition wasn't so easy. I was up against a very talented Scott Fellman who tried to create a unique and elaborate approach to a dry reef ‘scape, taking his time to perfectly place each piece of rock over a few hours.
I, on the other hand, simply created an aquarium using ‘nature aquarium’ rules to fresh water plant layout but geared towards marine animals and taking just about half an hour.
The judges ruled in my favour. I don't think they did so because my aquarium was any better. It was just different and wasn't what the audience or the US reef community was prepared for.
What’s your background in fishkeeping and what previous set-ups have you had?
Fishkeeping goes back to my childhood keeping goldfish and Tiger barbs. I worked in the aquarium industry from a very young age, scrubbing tanks at the local fish shop to creating aquatic layouts of all types with the Senske brothers at the Aquarium Design Group in Houston, Texas.
Having had the chance to work with and learn from Takashi Amano at the 2008 AGA awards ceremony, I competed against some of the US's most accomplished aquascapers, such as Jason Baliban, in the second annual Iron Aquascaping Challenge.
I have recently designed some of the most popular LED light fixtures on the market for brands like Ecoxotic and Current USA/TrueLumen.
Having had so many opportunities to work with great people in this industry I can't think of a type of set-up I haven't had. It really has been a dream for as long as I can remember.
What do you do for a day job?
Currently I'm an interior architectural photographer, concentrating on aquarium installations. I spent much of 2011 working with Threshold Interactive, an agency based in Los Angeles doing photographic and some designwork for clients such as Nestle Water, Butterfinger, Universal Pictures, Sony and Pampers. One notable project was a horror film with Rob Lowe called Butterfinger the 13th.
This year is a whole new story though and I might even have something up my sleeve for the aquarium industry by the end of it…
What are your future set-ups or aquascaping plans and what would be your dream set-up if size or money were no object?
My future set-ups are going to be much more focused, both freshwater and marine. I'd like to try more single-species reef tanks and hardscape only, or minimalist freshwater layouts.
As for fantasy and money being no object, any healthy adult would want an indoor saltwater tide pool full of Acropora, clams and anemones - wouldn't they?
Of course my freshwater urges would need to be satisfied too. I'd love a massive minimalist hardscape-only aquarium with a few thousand Rummynoses and a partial leaf litter bottom.
George Farmer features Dan Crawford's 'Route to Wilderness' – one of his favourite UK planted aquascapes.
Dan Crawford is no stranger to PFK. He helped me plant Jeremy Gay’s 120cm/47” Iwagumi for the January 2008 issue and also helped me on the step-by-step planted tank featured in May.
I have seen this planted aquarium of his develop from infancy to what you see now. It has not been a smooth journey, however, as Dan has fought various algae issues, but his perseverance and determination has clearly paid off.
Breaking the rules
One of the most impressive aspects is the path running from the extreme right foreground into the centre and background, creating a very effective sense of depth and added air of mystery, hence 'Route to Wilderness'.
Paths are now a common feature in aquascaping but Dan’s differs by not conforming to the normal composition rule of the golden ratio of positioning the path two-thirds along the length of the aquarium.
He uses a blend of various substrates and grain sizes to create a more complex, textured and natural looking path. Either side of it, Dan has placed two different pieces of wood, covering them with ferns, mosses and Anubias. These tree-like features are again not unusual in aquascaping but, by using two in combination with a variety of plants, Dan has created a unique look that breaks away from the stereotypical Japanese-style aquascape.
Exclusive use of green plants works very well, with the Ember tetras adding a subtle touch of orange and red, and Threadfin rainbows adding further colour and interest. This adds to the natural and wild appearance of the aquascape where bright red plants would, I feel, have appeared too gawdy.
The Hairgrass (Eleocharis acicularis) softens the whole layout with a few new Tropica Staurogyne sp. plants on the left foreground breaking the monotony, aided by some Glossostigma elatinoides, intertwined amongst hairgrass near the open path. The narrow ferns, Anubias and various mosses attached to the wood provide a hugely effective sense of maturity to the aquascape.
The taller Vallisneria nana and Eustralis stellata add important height and texture to the background. All the plants, even the Anubias, are remarkably algae-free too.
Dan has opted for the ever popular braceless aquarium with overtank lighting and full glassware. These work together to minimise visible equipment in the tank, providing as little distraction as possible to the aquascape. The water is heated via the Eheim filter’s in-built heater.
Dan now tells me he has plans to upgrade his present float glass aquarium to opti-white glass, further enhancing the display through increased clarity.
Name: Dan Crawford.
Time in hobby: I started about five years ago with a poor goldfish in a bowl, then the same goldfish in a filtered 90 l/20 gal aquarium. Then more tanks and tropical fish followed and I started growing plants. My main interest then became planted aquariums and aquascaping and I co-founded the UK Aquatic Plant Society (www.ukaps.org) with George Farmer and Graeme Edwards.
This aquascape? This tank almost evolved by itself. I started with a principal idea of creating a tree on the left with lots of stems behind it and sloping down towards the right of the tank where there was to be a carpet of Hemianthus callitrichoides covering the vast majority of the substrate.
However, with poor fish choice, the Hemianthus was unsuccessful. So my next thought was to complement the tree on the left and to try and create a canopy effect. I introduced some Sumatra wood to the far right and incorporated a path of sand and gravel between the two — which brought about the name for the aquascape.
Any problems? I had a few algae problems at the start, due largely to the insufficient plant biomass and too long a photoperiod combined with messy fish —a spawning pair of Discus —and warm temperatures. The fish were re-housed, temperature and photoperiod reduced, more plants were added and EI fertilisation combined to produce a nice algae-free aquascape.
What have you learned? Not to be scared of CO2 injection and regular fertiliser (NPK) dosing! If you have enough plants and appropriate light, the plants will simply grow and grow, so algae has no chance. I’ve also learned that it can sometimes work to bend the rules with regards aquascaping composition.
Tank: Custom-built, braceless, 80 x 45 x 45cm, 162 l/36 gal.
Lighting: 80cm Arcadia overtank luminaire, 4 x 24w HO T5, eight hours.
Filtration: Eheim 2128 Professional II Thermofilter, 1050lph, Cal Aqua glass filter inlet and outlet.
CO2: 2kg pressurised system, Rhinox diffuser into filter inlet, two bubbles per second 24/7.
Water parameters: Hard Northamptonshire tapwater.
Substrate: 1-2cm/0.7” depth Tropica Plant Substrate, sloped 3-7cm/1.2-2.8” Unipac 1-2mm black gravel.
Fertilisation technique (types and dosing levels/frequency): Estimative Index (EI) with Tropica Plant Nutrition and Easy Life Easycarbo, daily dosing.
Décor/hardscape: Sumatra wood, Redmoor wood, Mini landscape rocks.
Plants: Microsorium pteropus ‘Narrow’; Anubias barteri var. nana 'Petite'; Blyxa japonica; Eleocharis acicularis; Glossostigma elatinoides; Pogostemon helferi; Staurogyne sp.; Vallisneria nana; Pogostemon stellata; Fissidens fontanus; Vesicularia montagnei 'Christmas moss'.
Fish and inverts: Iriatherina werneri; Hyphessobrycon amandae; Otocinclus sp.; Caridina multidentata.
Maintenance: Water change 50% each week with de-chlorinated tapwater, filter cleaned every eight weeks.
Check out some of the other great planted tanks in the Your Tanks section:
Mark Evans, part one
This is an item from the Practical Fishkeeping archives. It may not be reproduced without written permission.
George Farmer interviews Slobodan Lazaveric, a highly experienced and talented aquascaper from Belgrade in Serbia whose first love is reef tanks.
Despite Slobodan Lazaveric’s 30-plus years in the hobby, I only discovered his work relatively recently on the Aquascaping World website. This is one of many brilliant aquascapes by Slobodan but they all share one thing in common — drawing inspiration directly from nature.
Regular readers will notice this is a common theme so, if ever stuck for inspiration, open your eyes next time you’re taking a walk, jog, cycle or train journey among nature.
Slobodan breaks away from one of the popular aquascaping patterns by mixing rocks types, but, as you can see, it works a treat.â€¯ The heavy use of mosses and Riccia provides a welcome mature look and the lack of stem plants result in less distraction from the plant 'camouflaged' rockwork.
Again breaking practice from most planted tank owners, Slobodan meticulously tests his water and makes all his own fertilisers, including a CO2 replacement similar to Seachem Excel and Easylife Easycarbo.
In this face to face interview I asked Slobodan several key questions:
How did you come up with the aquascape?
Most are inspired by nature and I am just trying to make them to look as natural as possible. Mostly, my aquascapes are nothing but the pictures of various beautiful places I've seen a while ago all around my own country. In this particular case, my inspiration was one typical rural and rustic place located in central Serbia.
Did you have a clear idea of how the aquascape would look when complete, or did it evolve gradually?
Prior to the design of any aquascapes, I have a clear vision what I intend to make and how it should look. That's the reason I never make any drawings. As long as I have a picture in my mind, I'm trying to make an aquascape that would look as much as possible like my imagination.
Only a few times have I made aquascapes that were not exactly the same as pictures I've conceived in my mind.
Did you encounter any problems? If so, how did you overcome them?
I made this ‘scape some four months ago and there have been no problems so far. I'm quite sure this tank will be quite stable and accordingly, free of any eventual problems.
This tank is still algae free, thanks to precise and highly monitored fertilisation on a daily basis. I also have to emphasise that all fertilisers I add to this aquarium, as well as all other tanks, are DIY products. Needless to say, that experience and education are of the highest importance for everyone.
Regarding fertilisation, I do not use any of the methods currently applied by most aquascapers.
First and foremost I'm a reef aquarist and therefore convinced that precious levels of some chemical compounds in the tank are most important for success.
In other words, when you know precise levels of the nutrients in the water column, it is easy to act in time and put everything in order, in accordance with plants’ needs. It is well known what plants need for their growth, which I something I learned in my early academic years.
For how long will you keep this aquascape running?
I'm trying to keep this aquascape under control for as long as possible. According to my experience, this type of aquascape tank could last at least six months to one year. Only a very few of the largest set-ups do I keep running for years.
For most aquascapers, it is time to start thinking about a new layout when plant overgrowth and regular trimming technique can no longer help.
What aquascapes and set-ups do you have planned?
I have a lot of ideas but never enough time to implement them. Currently, I’m working on several set-ups, all pictures from nature, as well as some 'scapes based on some beautiful places from Serbia, I've visited recently. Just like this aquascape…
This was ranked 41 in the ADA Contest 2008. Considering this was my very first entry, I was very satisfied.
Name: Slobodan Lazarevic.
Location: Belgrade, Serbia.
Occupation: Today, the fishkeeping and aquatic plants are my occupation, my business, my hobby and still my obsession. Aquaria is my love and also my way of living. I am a breeder of freshwater fish, aquatic plants and corals as well as an aquascaper. I've been dealing with aquascaping for many years but in last few I have to admit I'm focused a bit more on reef 'scaping.
Time in hobby: Over 30 years.
Favourite aquascapers: When I was young Takashi Amano was my inspiration and today it is Mother Nature.
There are a lot of aquascapers that I won’t name because I may forget someone. I'm convinced that some will have a lot of success in the near future.
Tank: 65 x 36 x 32cm/26 x 14 x 13”, 75 l/17 gal.
Lighting: Arcadia Overtank Luminaire, 4 x 24w T5 supplied with a mix of 2 x Arcadia Marine White 14,000K and 2 x Arcadia Plant Pro.
10:00 2 x Marine White 14,000K 24w on
12:00 2 x T5 Plant Pro 24 W ON
16:00 2 x T5 Plant Pro 24 W OFF
19:00 2 x Marine White 14,000K 24w off.
Filtration: Eheim canister filter and Eheim media.
CO2: Sources for all my tanks under 100l/22 gal are my self-made chemical compounds. Pressurised CO2 system is used only in the tanks over 100 l/22 gal.
Water parameters: Tested with accurate test kits:
Fe : 0,1 – 0,2 mg/l,
K : 10 – 15 mg/l,
Ca: 20 mg/l
Mg : 5 mg/l,
PO4 : 1 mg/l,
NO3 :10 mg/l,
KH : 3
GH : 5, pH : 6-6.5.
Substrate: DIY substrate 2cm/0.8” at front to 5-6cm/2-2.4” at the back.
Fertilisation: Technique based on very precise measurement. It is important to emphasise that all fertilisation should be added on daily basis.
Décor/hardscape: Three different types of stones.
Plants: Hemianthus micranthemoides, Vesicularia dubyana, Riccia fluitans, Hemianthus micranthemoides, Lilaeopsis brasiliensis, Hemianthus callitrichoides cuba, Proserpinaca palustris, Hottonia palustris, Microsorum pteropus 'Windelov' Nano moss- Amblystegium serpens, Heteranthera zosterifolia, Eleocharis parvula.
Fish and inverts: Boraras maculatus, Otocinclus sp., Red cherry shrimp. Planning to add Celestichthys margaritatus.
Maintenance regime and fertilisation: Water change twice a week. I use RO water and add various compounds to reach desired parameters.
See more of Slobodan's amazing aquascapes on his website gallery.
Check out some of the other great planted tanks in the Your Tanks section:
Mark Evans, part one
This is an item from the Practical Fishkeeping archives. It may not be reproduced without written permission.
George Farmer interviews Kristoffer Jørgensen, a Danish aquascaper and planted tank enthusiast who learned a lot from his first project.
This is aquscape is Kristoffer Jørgensen's initial attempt at creating a planted tank.
He uses other well-known aquascapes as inspiration and combined several styles to create this great layout that holds just 54 l/12 gal. It is an excellent example of how plant and fish choice can create an effective sense of scale, resulting in the aquascaping appearing deceptively large.
The combination of wood and rocks and plant choice with their varied textures and colours result in a beautiful display remarkable for a first effort. I hope this inspires newcomers to the planted tank hobby, showing them what results are capable with a little research and appropriate equipment.
Kristoffer faced several challenges when embarking on his debut aquascape. Here, in an interview with George Farmer, he explains how he overcame them...
How did you create your aquascape?
Since this was my first real attemptI looked at countless numbers of pictures for inspiration. My tank was particularly influenced by three specific aquascapes. The first was Mike Senske’s 'Dutch East Passage', the second, Luis Navarro's '75 gallon Open Foreground' and finally, Justin Law’s 'Summer Dance' Allhad my full attention at the time I was planning my own.
Above: Kristoffer's hardscape (top) and planting into wet substrate.
I printed out full-size photographs of all three and placed them on my desk where I could look at them and get some ideas. Specifically I liked the line of stones used in both Senske’s and Navarro’s layouts and the way the mid-ground plants almost fell out from behind the stones. I knew I would do something like that too.
From Law’s layout I liked the nicely trimmed Rotala stems and the way he used the ferns as a focal point. I also liked the way Mike Senske mixed various colours and textures, as done in the Dutch style. Yet I wanted something more easy on the eye and with less variation.
Did you experience any problems and what did you learn from them?
This tank was a challenge all the way, but was also a great learning curve. I have learned so much and it has given me more experience than I could have ever hoped for.
First I had problems with the plant roots because they got loose from the substrate, so I had to fix the roots through small pieces of acrylic sheet. The tank then became infested with all sorts of algae — thread/hair algae appearing first, but algae-eating shrimp solved that. Then it suffered from green dust algae that persisted for a while until the Otocinclus helped.
Green spot algae became a problem that lasted until the aquarium was stripped down.
But algae issues were not my biggest problem. I received various Bolbitis species from Tropica to test. They had apparently suffered damage during transport and slowly perished. This was the main reason the aquascape didn’t last long-term.
I also tried hard to find the right trimming technique to ensure the plants matured simultaneously so they looked their best at any one time. This was a tremendously difficult task and I never succeeded fully on this aquascape.
I also needed to learn how to control the Glossostigma since it grew faster than all the other plants. I never tried to trim it — and that was my worst mistake. It grew so thick that the plants underneath died and the decaying plant matter created issues for the whole tank.
Even though the aquarium was a disaster, as a complete and perfect aquascape, I learned a lot about plant choice and growth, how some are not suited next to others and how to trim them to ensure they stay healthy. That’s something I’m still learning.
However, the most important thing I learned so far is that failures are important. Don’t be afraid to try something different or complicated as every time you fail you can learn to get it right next time.
Plant growth after just 12 days.
Name: Kristoffer Willerslev Jørgensen.
Time in hobby: Ever since my sister asked me to take over her 128 l/28 gal aquarium in 2005.
Future plans: After my current job ends my family and I can hopefully afford to move to a bigger house and have room for more tanks. I hope to build a huge tank with plants growing out and into the living room.
Why aquascaping? Ever since I had problems I tried to learn everything about keeping plants healthy and try to get a tank to look its best.That’s why I like aquascaping so much. It’s a great way to use those techniques every time you set up an aquarium, no matter what you plan on doing. I love helping people decorate their tanks and spend a lot of time on different forums to do that.
Favourite aquascaper: Steven Chong for his effort to inspire all of us to become better artists. I love his Aquascaping Philosophy 101 and 102 articles as they have inspired me a great deal.
Tank: 60 x 30 x 30cm/24 x 12 x 12” (54 l/12 gal).
Lighting: 3 x 20W compact fluorescent bulbs (6000K), 10-hour photoperiod.
Filtration: Eheim Ecco 2232, 300lph with Eheim Substrat Pro and Ehfimech.
CO2: 2kg pressurised CO2 system, DIY external reactor with a glass ceramic diffuser inside, two bubbles per second.
Water parameters: RO and tapwater mixed, due to very hard tapwater (KH 16, GH 20).
Substrate: Tropica Plant Substrate base layer with Elos Terra (large).
Fertilisers: Estimative Index (EI), Rexolin APN for trace elements. This contains more iron (Fe) than the most branded trace elements.
Décor/hardscape: Granite rocks locally collected and Redmoor wood
Maintenance: 50% water change per week.
Plants: Rotala sp. 'Green', Rotala rotundifolia, Didiplis diandra, Bolbitis difformis, Bolbitis heudelotii, Bolbitis cuspidate, Anubias var. nana, Anubias var. nana 'Petite', Cryptocoryne wendtii 'Mi Oya'; Cryptocoryne undulate, Blyxa japonica, Hydrocotyle verticillata, Eleocharis acicularis and Glossostigma elatinoides.
Fish and inverts: Hyphessobrycon amandae, Boraras maculatus, Crossocheilus siamensis, Otocinclus affinis and Caridina multidentata.
James Starr-Marshall takes a look at the fabulous nano aquarium of Hungarian aquascaper Balazs Farkas.
What was your inspiration for this stunning nano aquascape?
A couple of years ago I was standing on a cliff top in Arizona, looking down on the sandstone formations of the Red Rocks in Sedona and admiring their contrast with green bushes and trees.
It was a moment of absolute wonder, so an easy decision to get rid of my old aquascape and do something warm, comforting and less wild.
Were there particular reasons for choosing such a small tank?
There’s a visual challenge as small tanks are a pain to aquascape and you run out of space very quickly.
You need to use simple lines, yet create depth and dimension with small visual tricks and it’s more difficult to get that wow feeling you often have when looking at larger tanks. I have seen many stunning larger aquascapes but few brilliant small ones.
Hi-tech nanos are difficult to maintain. Balance can be lost quickly and algae strike with brute force. However, they are your best teachers if you want to know everything about natural aquariums, plants, ecological balance and aquarium gear.
How did you go about selecting the fish and shrimps? Were shape, size and colour important?
I try to keep to the stocking rule of a maximum of 5cm/2”sized fish per 4.55 l/1 gal. I have strong filtration, so went a little above that.
Then you need to look at the colours of the aquascape and plants and decide whether you want to contrast that with fish colour or be more subtle.
The Sedona set-up required grey fish to contrast with the red hardscape and green plants in this tank. The rainbows are perfect, having just a pink/reddish tint on their fins and nice long shapes.
I am still using and overdosing Easy Carbo so I did not want shrimp sensitive to it. Red cherries tolerate it pretty well but I will be changing to Crystal Reds soon.
Because of their small size, planted nano tanks can quickly get overgrown. What pruning techniques do you employ?
I never use stems or fast-growing plants in small tanks. Pruning is not about jumping in with your best scissors. It is a ritual, so take time to think of what you are going to do and enjoy it. It’s a calming task that will bring nature closer to us.
Which nutrients and additives did you supplement and did you experiment to find the best dosing regime?
That is done for us with the Estimative Index and I have made and used an all-in-one fertiliser solution for a long time. After multiple laboratory measurements of the water in heavily planted tanks we found that aiming to dose about 10ppm of phosphate shows better results, as far as green spot algae is concerned, than the EI 1-3ppm range.
I use a complete GA Macro with potassium-phosphate mix. I also add Easy Carbo mainly for its algae-killing ability. I found that by adding ADA ECA (iron) the leaves of the tenellus started to turn red.
What about your water change and maintenance schedule?
I started with daily changes for the first two weeks and slowly decreased them to two-weekly changes after two months.
Did you experience algae issues and if so how did you combat them?
When we went for a skiing break, and left the tank with just fertilisers added daily, it was full of Staghorn algae when we returned.
The only solution was to remove all affected leaves or parts of leaves, increase water change frequency and inject Easy Carbo directly over the leaves through a syringe after stopping the filter, and left it for a minute.
Your filter is turning the tank over roughly 25 times an hour. Why do you have this high flow rate?`
Nanos need higher flow rates to keep waste floating and deliver the CO2 quickly to the plants. The stronger flow usually comes with a bigger filter canister and that’s a nitrification bonus, keeping the ammonia levels low. General hygiene is very important for a healthy algae-free tank.
Glass lily pipes are an excellent choice for a planted tank of this standard. How often do they require cleaning?
I have cleaned the tank glass and lily pipes zero times since the start of this tank! They are both absolutely spotless.
Name: Balazs Farkas.
Location: Budapest, Hungary.
Years of experience: Four with planted tanks.
Occupation: Television director.
Number of tanks: One.
Favourite fish/inverts: Crystal red shrimp.
Favourite plant: Hydrocotyle verticulata.
Size: 36 x 22 x 26cm/14 x 8.5 x 10".
Volume: 20 l/4.4 gal.
Fish/shrimps: Six Iriatherina werneri, three Otocinclus affinis, nine Cherry shrimps, Neocaridina heteropoda.
Plants: Lilaeopsis brasiliensis, Hydrocotyle verticulata, Hemianthus callitrichoides, Echinodorus tenellus, Anubias barteri var. ‘nana’, Microsorum pteropus 'Windelov', Taxiphyllum barbieri 'Christmas'.
Filtration: Eheim Professionel 2222 with Eheim Substrat Pro, ADA Bio Rio and ADA NA Carbon, Cal Aqua Nano glass lily pipes.
Lighting: ADA Solar Mini M 27w (seven hours).
Substrate and fertilisers: Tropica Plant Substrate, ADA Aqua Soil Africana.
Hardscape: ADA Dragon, Ohko stone.
CO2 dosing: Pressurised, on timer, external diffuser.
Heating: Hydor ETH 200w external heater.
This item first appeared in the May 2010 issue of Practical Fishkeeping magazine. It may not be reproduced without written permission.
Steven Chong draws his creative inspiration directly from nature. George Farmer interviews this talented Japanese aquascaper.
I have known Steven Chong for around five years, having first met him on an Internet tropical fish forum in 2003 when he was just 16. It was clear, even then, that Steven had a passion and talent and I remember him giving my own aquariums welcomed and valuable critiques.
A couple of years later, Steven became quite notorious for not only creating very commendable aquascapes but for writing thought-provoking articles and threads on the ever popular Internet forums.
He wrote two of the best articles I have yet read on aquascaping — Aquascaping Philosophy 101 and 102 — which can be found on the Internet and I recommend them to anyone who takes their aquascaping seriously.
For me, this aquascape — Summer Mountains — represents ‘pure nature’. The extensive use of moss and Riccia, combined with the stem plants and clever open foreground areas, provide a very natural looking layout that looks like a scene from nature itself.
The complexities of the various textures combine brilliantly to convey an essence of the wild, but with enough restraint to maintain a pleasingly well-kept and composed aquascape.
This is Steven Chong’s style through and through, and in all his work I have seen attempts to re-create ‘mini landscapes’ that he has witnessed and from where he draws his inspiration.
When he travelled from Tokyo to visit the UK, we met and I took him to see the PFK office. He also became inspired by the natural scenery in my home village near Stamford, Lincolnshire. He tells me that he will create an aquascape based on his UK experiences, so I look forward to that!
This question and answer session with Steven revealed a remarkable insight into his talent and inspirations
What inspired you to create this aquascape?
Natsu no Yama (Summer Mountains) was inspired by the mountainous areas of Japan which I saw while riding trains between cities two summers ago.â€¯ Funny that. I was going all over the place to look for inspiration, but found it on the rides getting there!â€¯
While looking from the window, there would be rice fields or towns and telephone poles in front of those mountains, places of people. It was beautiful that in such places nature was still in sight.â€¯
On misty, cloudy days, or in bright sunny ones, the sight of yellow and light green plumes of bamboo against a backdrop of green trees was simple, but splendid.
Will you be entering this aquascape into any contests?
Up until the very end of the aquascape I had a massive field of Riccia fluitans up in front with more moss sticks that became simply unmanageable and also not very attractive.â€¯
There was also quite a bit of discussion about this tank on the various forums, whether I was creative or just showcasing a big lump of moss.
I guess one of the things I learned from the experience is that you have just got to trust your own sense.â€¯ It's important to improve and it's important to listen to the advice given to you — but in the end you have to digest it and act in your own way.â€¯
We will see how the judges like this aquascape, as I have entered it this year into the ADA
International Aquatic Plants Layout Contest.â€¯
As for the AGA contest, I am not really sure I am entering this year.â€¯In last year's ADA contest, Takashi Amano rated me higher than the Grand Champion, but Karen Randal gave me my very lowest score!â€¯ I digress though…
Did you encounter any problems with the aquascape?
Not especially, though this is looking back at a tank I did over a year ago.â€¯ I had the typical algae problems, but, by tackling them with patience, they went away.
Name: Steven Chong — though, as living in Japan right now, I end up using my Japanese name, Toshio, more and more.
Location: Currently in Tokyo, but heading back to school in California soon.â€¯ I really want to somehow live in Kyoto or Osaka for a longer time.
Occupation: Student. Daigakusei seikatsu!â€¯ (The life of a college student!)
Years of experience: Approximately five years.
Favourite aquascaper: Takashi Amano – who else?Tank specifications
Tank: Opti-white glass 60 x 30 x 36cm/24 x 12 x14”, 63 l/12 UK gal.
Lighting:â€¯Overtank luminaire with 2 x Daylight 55w PC T5, ten hours.
Filtration: Eheim 2216, with glass lily pipes inlet and outlet.
CO2: Pressurised system with glass/ceramic diffuser, one bubble per second.
Water parameters: Not tested. One-third water change per week.
Substrate: ADA Aqua Soil Amazonia; 5cm/2” in the mid to foreground to 15cm/6” deep at back. ADA Nile Sand in foreground with pea gravel for added texture.
Fertilisation: After the first month, ADA Brighty Series Step 1, three times a week. Potassium (K) dosed via dry chemicals.
Décor/hardscape: Dragon stone. Wood (twigs) from a local river.
Plants: Taiwan moss, Riccia fluitans, Microcarpea minima, Rotala nanjenshan, Glossostigma elatinoides, Hemianthus callitrichoides.
Fish and inverts: Various danios, Caridina multidentata.
This item was first published in the October 2009 issue of Practical Fishkeeping magazine. It may not be reproduced without written permission.
We take a look at the stunning aquascape of Paul Meelen.
Your tank looks great! What was your inspiration?
Most inspiration came from the AGA Aquascaping Contest websites. Years before I had my own aquascaping tank I saw and admired those examples, so wanted an Amano style tank! Then I had the choice of a nature tank or an iwagumi style.
I also like Amano tanks because they use driftwood, look more natural and can create a nice sense of depth.
You are from Holland where the Dutch style of neat arrangement originated. Is this style still popular there and why did not follow it?
You will always see the Dutch style inside every forum or magazine. When I started I was always impressed by Dutch-styled tanks and this is when my passion began.
When I see a Dutch style of tank now I like it, but the longer I look the less interesting it becomes. The plants are too clean and always in neat rows or lines. Amano tanks can use similar plants, but look different and more natural.
What are the current fishkeeping and aquascaping trends in mainland Europe?
While the Dutch style remains popular, I see more people changing over to creating nature and Iwagumi styles. However, aquatic outlets in Holland do not cater well for the keen nature aquascaper.
You can buy basic equipment in our shops, like glass diffusers, driftwood and stones, but for lily pipes, aquascaping tools or other glassware you have to place orders over the Internet.
More people have nano tanks. but these are usually too small for most fishes so shrimps are popular. They are perfect, always busy cleaning the plants and soil.
However, as a contrast, you also see tanks of two or even three metres (6.5-10’) long in the European hobby.
As for fish, a lot of Discus, Tanganyika, Malawi, Amazonian and marines are still very popular.
How is the UK hobby regarded in Holland with regards plants and aquascaping?
The only differences are mostly in the equipment used or materials. I don’t know how easy it is in the UK to order plants through the shops, but it is very easy in Holland. If you can’t find or order in shops you can always try the forums on the Internet.
A lot of enthusiasts trade plants or sell them for reasonable prices.
When I have some left over from pruning I will often send them to fellow forum members. This is also a great way to try new species.
I miss good magazines in Holland, as most are related to the Dutch style or marine tanks. If you want information you need to use the Internet or import foreign magazines.
Did you have any problems with this tank and how did you overcome them?
Luckily I had none. All the equipment worked great. I only changed the filter. First I had an Eheim 2213 but now have an Eheim 2217. I also have the Aquamedic inline CO2 reactor so the stronger flow of the 2217 works better with the reactor.
After buying the reactor I could remove the CO2 diffuser inside the tank.
That reminds me of the time when I used the glass diffuser. I also had a glass valve and bubble counter and, when changing the tube between bubble counter and valve, the top of the valve broke.
How old is this aquascape and for how long will you keep it running?
It is around 11 months old and took time to complete because I was looking for the right shape of driftwood. I finally found the right pieces at an aquascaping event in Holland.
I have no idea how long it will be running. For now it is looking great but, as always, can be better and I get new ideas from the Internet.
One day I want to make an iwagumi layout in my 60 x 30 x 30cm/24 x 12 x12” tank
What’s your maintenance schedule?
For my large tank it isn’t that complicated. Every two weeks I trim the plants, clean the glass and introduce new tapwater.
What would be your biggest tips for planted tank beginners?
Take your time and don’t rush it, but most of all enjoy the progress when setting up
an aquascape and the view it offers. Try to make some parts yourself, as I built the stand from MDF using some pictures from the Internet.
Don’t rush the hardscaping either. Try different layouts and consider them for a day or so. When the tank is not filled it is easy to make changes or adjustments.
How much did the entire set-up cost?
Around 1.000 euros/£905.
Name: Paul Meelen.
Location: The Netherlands.
Years of experience: Eight.
Occupation: Student/web designer.
Number of tanks: Four.
Favourite fish/inverts: Celestichthys margaritatus.
Favourite plant: Pogostemon helferi.
Pet hate: Cats which hang around my aviary in the garden!
Size: 100 x 50 x 50cm/40 x 20 x 20”.
Volume: 250 l/55 gal.
Fish: 25 Celestichthys margaritatus, seven Otocinclus sp. seven Yasuhikotakia sidthimunki, Amano shrimp, Cherry shrimp.
Plants: Java moss, Hemianthus callitrichoides, Anubias nana, Microsorum pteropus ‘Narrow’, Cryptocoryne balansae, Eleocharis acicularis, Pogostemon helferi, Rotala rotundifolia, Rotala sp. ‘Green’.
Filtration: Eheim 2217.
Lighting: HQI lamp, one 150w, two 39w T5 and Moonlight.
Substrate and fertilisers: Simple aquarium gravel and tapwater.
Background: My grey wall!
This item was first published in the Christmas 2009 issue of Practical Fishkeeping magazine. It may not be reproduced without written permission.