As with gardening, why on earth would I bother putting in so much effort?
Some people do not get why I would spend any money on baitfish from [[Southeast Asia]] or the tributaries of the [[Amazon]]. Or why I would bother with the weeds they like to live in, either. Or why I would put any significant amount of effort and electricity bills into creating a cross-section of a stream that could only exist outside an Asian fish-breeding farm with a leak, where alien fish and plants have managed to escape into the local waterways to mingle with the locals.
Some people question creating an artificial environment at all. There’s always the issue of cruelty when you keep animals in artificial circumstances. You can tell when a fish is struggling and suffering, if you’re paying attention to things like gill breath rates and body posture and coloring. Whether or not they would be alive if fish farms weren’t selling to wholesalers to pet stores is beside the point when the fish are finally in my tank. At a very basic level, if I can’t keep them healthy for a reasonable lifespan, there is no point to keeping them at all. I find that fish normally expected to live two years tend to live twice that long in my tanks, so it becomes more like adopting a new cat or dog, honestly. The old-time era of buying one of this and two kinds of that, every few weeks, is long gone because of disease issues. There’s strange new antibiotic-resistant fish farm diseases that aren’t easy for beginners to deal with, many aren’t in the common reference books at all. So I try to quarantine new fish coming in. When I risk it at all, I may buy a lot of fish at once, but not often. I notice it when I lose fish.
On the other fin, there’s such a feeling of satisfaction when you see a new little 2” [[Corydorus]] catfish scurrying around with the rest of the scuttle of catfish. Yes, I have a breeding colony of them in my tank, I’ve watched them laying eggs. The fry must be living off what they can scavenge from the sponges on the filter intakes, and there’s more of them when the plant thickets get dense. Cories are tough little buggers with a lot of individual character, as fish go. I’ve only lost two of this batch of adults to old age.
Then there’s the equipment replacement and energy usage issues. [[Fluorescent]] bulbs have to be disposed of properly to avoid contaminating the trash with trace mercury—but other lighting choices currently consume a lot more energy or disperse more contaminants throughout the product’s life. For some time, I’ve been eying solar collectors with fiber-optic cables, and the use of very strong small [[LED]]s as light sources. LEDs are longer-lasting, which reduces their distinctive contamination issues. I’ve actually seen some plant-growing LED arrays in light frequencies that would probably work fine, but not cheap, and the tank’s lighting priority hasn’t earned the right to spend that much money on it so far.
As a piece of living art in the living room, this tank hasn’t got past the Sunday painter level, but I still like looking at it—that is, when I’m not annoyed that I just found some piece of equipment malfunctioning. I’m the same way with the garden outside, too, so I’ve learned to take my satisfaction while I can, before the problem list starts up in my head.
Why bother? Part of this is simple visual appeal, as supremely inexplicable as any other form of artwork. Of course the fish’s colors can be astonishing. I like watching shoals of [[cardinal tetras]] swim around together in relative peace, which is the style they are adapted for in the wild. [[T-Bone Rasboras]] are an interesting case because they’re fairly solitary in the wild, and are crowded unnaturally into tanks, but they still get along fine. I like tolerant fish. Over time, I found I got tired of watching aggressive fin-nippers among the tetras and the barbs, such as [[Tiger Barbs]], who beat up on weaker members like a flock of chickens.
Part of the choices of species I made has come out of the technical demands of limited space. You cannot ask a lot of little fish to escape the Big One if they have no room to run away, and the same is true among plants. You will also fail to keep really fragile fish who need extremely clean water if you cannot maintain it; so I do not have the discus or the various small cichlids that I also find appealing.
Some of the appeal is understandable to folks who like terrariums. Planted tanks belong to the same tradition as conservatories and [[Wardian cases]] and [[terrariums]]. They’ve been around a lot longer than most people realize. The real old-timers just didn’t have [[compact flourescent]] or [[metal halide]] lights to help them grow the variety of sun and shade-loving aquatics available now. In other words, it’s easier now, but we’ve also raised the bar considerably higher. Mine is, as the experts would say, a very amateur effort with conventional gear adapted for a planted tank. I just took out the carbon I used to use and replaced it with more sponges in the power filters that hang on the back. I added more sponges on the intakes for the power heads I put into the tank to increase the water flow. I improvised an intake to disperse a very small metered CO2 gas into the water flow to improve plant growth. More refined design goals may call for rethinking my equipment.
The great Dutch aquarists over the past fifty years created a tradition of using plants for their visual effects, planting them in varying blocks, much as they might plant displays in their famous spring bulb gardens. Many folks don’t realize that the Dutch are also mad for tropical plants and fish of all kinds. This tradition is about how perfectly-grown plants look in contrasted colors and textures, and it shapes all the older books in the hobby. Again, another form of scenic artwork.
In the last ten years the style of aquarium designing has shifted to attempts at a Japanese aesthetic. Instead of lush tropical billows of color, folks have gone mad for a much more asymmetrical, spare, naturalistic interpretation. Visions of sky and rocks and tree branches fix the eye. The scene might be up on the mountainside, or somewhere at the edge of a stream. If you’ve ever seen pictures of a planted aquarium the size of the Astrodome with gorgeous rocks that would be appropriate in anybody’s Zen garden and just a touch of cool green plants as an essential accent to the rocks, then you probably saw a tank created by, or influenced by, the photographer and aquarist [[Takashi Amano]]. He also runs a company supplying the equipment designed to work with his style. His English website has a gallery here:
Here’s a few examples of pix from his books, posted by others.
This influence is clearly recognizable in various prize-winning tanks in contests such as this one.
Other artists in a similar vein, here:
I can go on rather a long bit with links to folks who can tell you how to do this yourself. Now, once you’ve emptied your drool cup (don’t bother putting it away yet), and you’ve figured out you really want to do this, there’s several different approaches open to you. You might never know this from the folks at your local fish store who want to sell you the most astonishing claptrap. Folks who already have ordinary tanks get to toss out half of the equipment they had, which is nice, but then they get to spend that money on lights and pumping water instead.
But you do not have to spend money and have enough joysticks to keep NASA engineers happy. Nor do you have to blast your tank with enough light for keeping reef corals. Nor do you have to be able to juggle molar chemistry and use a proper scale for measuring fertilizer components by the 1/10 gram.
The folks who do that will be the first to tell you there’s people out there who do great tanks very much as musicians can do jazz, instead of classical strictly by the score. Or like cooking, some folks do it with a little pinch of this and a touch of that, and observe results with an interested eye. You can do it that way until you find what works pretty well for you. Some folks get away with pretty minimal inputs, too.
There’s also the other axis of time and effort and fuss which intersects with this. The same as houseplants, or any other gardening, really—you can be very successful using tolerant plants that don’t require a lot of feeding and effort from you, skip the lab equipment.
Or you can be on top of it twice a day, testing and trying things out and clipping things into perfect shape, because that’s what you really love doing when you get home from work. Don’t be fooled by those deceptively plain, simple-looking mossy tanks of Amano’s, for instance. Those tanks are groomed within an inch of their lives and they get 50% water changes weekly, which is a lot of water getting hauled round.
”Big Sekrit No. One:” Water changes remain one of the basics that we tell every beginner, and it remains the single best way to have a great-looking tank. It costs very little, except labor. Rinse out your filter sponges in tank water and take out enough more to do a good water change every time. Don’t toss out the dirty water down the drain if you have anything else green around the place, because…
”Big Sekrit No. Two:” If you change the tank water reasonably often, the micronutrients in that water are really terrific for your other potted plants and your garden. Helps develop really sturdy stems and solid substance in blooms and leaves. The great results are also great motivation to get you to haul water.
”Big Sekrit No. Three:” Give the plants enough light, which means:
(1) get good lights, or
(2) pick plants that will survive on what you can give them.
There’s lists out on the web of what will do well in a dark closet, and what will do well under that blinding reef hood left over from your decommissioned saltwater setup.
[[Tropica]] is one of the biggest world suppliers of [[hydroponically]] grown aquarium plants, and they also share what they know in encyclopedic detail. I do wish they could supply American markets. Species search is by name, on the right–and prepare to be encyclopedically impressed.
At the more demanding end of things, there’s a lot of fuss about the correct frequency of light you need, but many people get by with cheap fluorescent shoplights over a four foot long tank, or over two of those twenty gallon tanks next to each other. Low light levels=1-2 watts per gallon, as a very rough guideline, 3-4 watts per gallon=high light levels.
”Big Sekrit No. 4:” More is not always better. High light means more demanding care. It means you have a wider choice of plants, but you’ll grow a great crop of algae faster if the nutrient levels are messed up, so you may need to feed the plants more than the fish. Seriously. Many of us actually add fertilizers to the water besides what composts from the fish. The effects of imbalance between nitrogen and potassium is rather interesting, actually. One of the clearest explanations is here:
That doesn’t mean you have to tear up your tank siphoning and scrubbing the filters to death every week and tossing wads of carbon into the trash. A tank with enough light, not too many fish, and enough basic nutrients to grow vigorously will digest amazing amounts of grunge with no other help. Besides, carbon just messes up your micronutrient levels. Throw coarse gravel or more sponges in there instead. See? Simple. And completely backward from everything the conventional wisdom used to tell you about fish in tanks of water.
As for learning the background chemistry and information on equipment choices and costs, there’s some truly excellent websites out there with lots of basic information. The granddaddy for planted tanks was the Krib, a forum that began with posts from members growing plants for the benefit of their favorite fish, the Kribensis. Oh yeah, and it’s still running.
Lots of basic water chemistry and biology here. Read everything you have time for.
Read all this too:
More very helpful, basic information on fertilizers from that same site, with a calculator here:
An older classic site with tons of info for more advanced folks who may agree to disagree about various topics, as this is just one way of achieving success:
Don’t know how much actual water that your nominally 20 gallon tank has? Need that to figure out dosing various things? Ah hah, we have that too! Just don’t expect it to figure out an odd shape, like my bowfront corner tank.
A few Major Modern Wetheaded Forums… http://www.aquatic-gardeners.org/
And of course a lot of the aquarium plant suppliers have online forums as well.
I also have collected over the last few years tons of links of narrower interest, such as fish disease photo references, suppliers of equipment such as light and lightbulbs, and so on. As time allows, I will add more of them to del.icio, with tags to make them more useful.
See [[Home]] for the bibliography that lists various works.
See [[About the Author]] for background on how Heather ended up writing at all.
See [[Bibliography]] for the official listing of works completed.
See [[About the Series]] for more on creating the Teot’s War series.
[[Chlorophyll]] will take you to one of my other non-work and non-writing activities.
[[Site Archives]] takes you to old blog-type comments carried over from the ghosts of ancient websites past, if you were interested in seeing how things develop, and just how far back all this goes.
Rather than maintaining an entire page of links that always need updating, I’ve posted lots of bizarre and useful links, with tags, here: http://del.icio.us/hgladney