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!
African cichlid fan, Scott Lynch, explains why his passion is Malawis and how this magnificent display tank was set up.
WORDS, PHOTOGRAPHY AND VIDEO: GEORGE FARMER
I contacted Scott Lynch a few months ago to discuss a project involving a 180cm/6ft aquascape for African cichlids. Soon I was gathering all the necessary hardscaping materials including over a quarter ton of rock and specialist gravel. I’d never created an aquascape for Malawi cichlids before, so I was excited to work on something new using a large amount of rocks.
After the set-up had been up and running for a while, I re-visited the tank, now complete with fish, and I have to say it’s the most impressive aquarium of its type I’ve ever seen (scroll down for the video and see for yourself).
I spoke to Scott about his passion and his amazing set-up.
Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you got into African cichlids?
My dad has been keeping fish for as long as I can remember, the ones that always stood out to me were African cichlids. At the age of eight I set-up my own tank. I went through all the usual standard tropical species such as guppies and tetras but nothing attracted me like African cichlids. I was very lucky that my dad enjoyed fish as much as I did and would often tag along to the local aquatic shops to use my pocket money to purchase fish for my tank. In the early years there wasn’t as much of a choice of African cichlids as there is now. I remember fish such as what are now known as Melanochromis auratus, Pseudotropheus elongatus ornatus and Labidichromis joanjonsonae being particular favourites of mine.
One of the most fascinating aspects of African cichlids that stood out for me was their behaviour and activity, they are constantly on the move or digging their next cave and trying to attract a female into it. As a youngster I loved to watch females mouth brood their young and still find it fascinating to this day to watch a female release young from her mouth and then take them back in unharmed in the presence of danger.
Unfortunately, when I joined the RAF I was forced to take a short spell away from fishkeeping but as soon as I was able to set a tank back up I was straight back to my love of African cichlids. One of the great things I’m finding now is passing that passion for fish on to my children that are of a similar age to when I first started getting into fish and seeing that cycle repeat itself. In recent years my dad’s love of African cichlids has turned into a business for him. He now runs one of the biggest African cichlid specialist businesses in the UK. Fortunately for me I now get the opportunity to browse 60 tanks of some of the rarest fish in the country and like to try and help out down at the fish houses as much as I can, work allowing.
One of my favourite aspects of helping is opening the boxes of fish that have come directly from Lake Malawi — it’s so exciting to see all the rare and wonderful treats that sometimes only days earlier were swimming around in the great lake. My ultimate dream that I hope to fulfil soon is to visit the lake and dive with the fishes at all the various locations across the lake.
The set-up looks very impressive. Can you go through the kit specifications?
Many hours of planning have gone into this tank, I wanted the tank to tick as many boxes as possible. I believe you should give African cichlids as much water volume as you can so I opted to go for a 180cm/6ft tank. I chose a rimless braceless tank to give that clean, open look. I envisaged a ’scape that would rise above the water line and give extra depth and perspective to the tank — to make this possible I lowered the height from the standard 60cm/24in to a 50cm/20in. Fortunately, because the steel stand is just short of 120cm/4ft high it brings the tank to an eye line where you get a view through the aquarium and over the top without adjusting your view too much.
The tank’s full specifications are 15mm polished glass with clear silicone and fitted with two Ultra Reef overflows and drains, the dimensions are 180 x 50 x 60cm/72 x 20 x 24in. The tank was made for me by Selwyn Lloyd. The Zetlight UFOs from TMC are lights that are stylish, very cost effective, give you a full spectrum and the ability to manipulate the lighting cycles throughout the day to give you a true replication of their natural environment from dawn until dusk. At 90W the lights have given me tremendous algae growth which for African cichlids is paramount to supplement their diet and promote grazing.
The custom stand was made in partnership with Nick Chan from Aquarium Cabinet Solutions. The quality and finish is top quality. I’m currently running a 90cm/3ft sump on the system. The first chamber is filled with sponge for mechanical filtration, the second is running as a refugium with various fast growing plants and the final chamber has Alfagrog and polishing media. My return pump is a Jecod 6000 l to provide as much flow as possible through the Ultra Reef drain and returns.
Does the rock layout have an influence on fish behaviour?
Rockwork is very important in an African cichlid tank, especially for mbuna. It is my belief that you should try and produce as much height as you can whilst also creating caves, but you can reduce this when it comes to Haps and Peacocks, which like free swimming space. You will always get dominant males in an African cichlid tank but getting your rockwork right will help to dissolve this behaviour and give your females and sub dominant males the chance to hide or break the line of sight and distract the dominant fish from his pursuit.
Rockwork is also very important to help support the fish’s natural behaviour. Mbuna especially like to graze on the algae from the rocks to support their diet whilst the rocks also provide the perfect surface to breed for many species. I have found that many of my holding females have been more successful at holding full term in this set-up due to the fact that they are able to retreat to the rocks and stay away from the males who would usually harass them and create stress if that rock cover wasn’t there.
Through my stock selection I have created groups with heavy female numbers and this is paying off with plenty of successful breeding. Up to yet I have had holding females of Labidochromis joanjohnsonae ‘Likoma’, Tropheops makokola, Cynotilapia zebroides hongi, Labeotropheus fuelleborni ‘Katale’ and Metriaclima fainzilberi hongi so all going well. I have a trio of a rare species of Metriaclima sp. ‘Yellow tail Manda’ that I’m really hoping to have breed soon. The breeding side of the hobby and rearing the young to adulthood is very rewarding.
What are the main misconceptions about Malawi cichlids?
Most people believe that they are incredibly aggressive — there’s no doubt that they certainly do have an aggressive streak, but with the right stocking and balance of fish this can be minimised hugely. I’m not a fan of the add more fish to dissolve aggression theory, I believe that balanced stocking and correct ratios works much better — you will usually find that in overstocked tanks ultimately there will be fish that end up at the bottom of the food chain and become bullied and start to lose weight. This leads to the fish either dying through malnutrition or being an easy target for an aggressor.
A well thought out, balanced tank with reduced males and compatible species works much more successfully for me and will ultimately end with healthier fish and breeding.
Scott on his aquascape
“I knew I wanted this tank to really stick out from the rest and change perceptions whilst still representing a small piece of Lake Malawi. “We chose the grey pillar rock to give the tank a colour and texture that reflects that of some areas of the lake, there are two huge 40kg plus stones, one on each side that have really made the scape for me. The large pieces gave a strong foundation to allow the rock to break the surface of the water and provide the depth perspective I was looking for, the extra shadows that have been created are a huge bonus as well.
“The substrate is something you will very rarely see in an African cichlid tank but it has complemented the rock perfectly and the varying texture is amazing —who else can say they have algae growth on their substrate? All the substrate was provided by Dennerle — Baikal and Yukon.”
Scott’s top tips for new African cichlid keepers
- Research your stock, read about them as much as possible and look for reputable dealers who will be able to answer any other questions you may have.
- Start with good sized groups of each species — aim for between 5–10 — and try to achieve full stocking as soon as possible to reduce the stress of repeatedly adding new stock.
- Always have a spare tank available to isolate fish should they become bullied or need treatment, and ensure you have the right medications available. I’m a big fan of Waterlife products and always have Octozin, Myxazin and Protozin on hand.
- Stress management is key to successfully keeping these fish happy and healthy. Keep your water quality high with constant water parameters.
- Feed a good quality diet. I’m not a fan of changing foods. I select a good quality fine granular food with added vitamins and spirulina and that becomes the fishes’ staple diet with an addition of Mysis occasionally and maybe a stick-on grazer. Watch your fish, get a feel for their behaviour and then you can identify any issues early — the sooner you catch any problems the more likely you are to successfully treat them.
- Enjoy your fish!
How Scott’s amazing set-up came together
Follow this step-by-step guide and see how this fabulous aquascape was created.
1. The aquarium is 180 x 60 x 50cm/72 x 30 x 20in tall with a 90cm/36in sump. An initial layer of gravel is added to protect the bare glass from the heavy rocks. The colour of the gravel matches the rocks.
2. The largest rock is added with a supporting stone underneath to prevent it from toppling. The first rock acts as a base where smaller stones are placed around it to form the first of two islands.
3. A glue gun is used to fix the rocks in place to help prevent any potentially disastrous accidents involving slipping rocks. Additional smaller stones are added around the base.
4. The first island is complete. The design incorporates lots of overhangs and areas for the fish to use as territories. The point source LED lighting is effective at creating contrasting areas of shadow and light.
5. The same process is repeated to create an island on the right. The two islands form distinct areas of territory for the fish. The island is deliberately made small to prevent too much symmetry.
6. A combination of two gravels from Dennerle (Yukon and Baikal) are added. One is rounded and the other has a sharper texture. The colours suit the aquascape perfectly and the combination adds interest.
7. Water is added slowly with a colander. The dust from the gravel and rocks clouds the water. Usually I would clean the rocks and gravel but the quantities involved here made doing this impractical.
8. The remaining water is added and the filtration is turned on. The tank clears after 24 hours and Scott adds mature media and begins to stock his fish.
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.