GWAPA: March 2009

March 30th, 2009

On Saturday, GWAPA held their March meeting at Dave’s house. Dave, also known as ingg on the plant forums, has a basement full of beautiful tanks, and has previously been featured on the APC Tank of the Month. The topic for this meeting was a series of DIY demonstrations, showing how to setup a yeast CO2 system, a duckweed surface cleaner, and a nano-tank auto-top off system. Since GWAPA will be starting our 2.5G aquascaping contest next month, the auto-top off system was of particular interest to me. Hopefully I’ll be able to build of these in the near future.

Dave's 75G

Dave's 75G

The duckweed surface cleaner is a clever idea involving a powerhead and the top half of a soda/water bottle. Attaching the lip of the bottle to the intake of the powerhead, the powerhead creates a vacuum to suck anything on the surface down into a vortex formed in the bottle. If you put some filter floss in the bottle, all of the duckweed/trimmings will get stuck there, and you’ll have a clean surface. Pretty neat, huh?

Dave's 30G

Dave's Oceanic 30G

And of course, we had another huge auction with over 100 bags of plants present. I came away with some nice stuff including Cryptocoryne usteriana x walkerii, Lilaeopsis sp., Rotala sp. ‘Sunset’, and a couple others. GWAPA is pretty lucky to have some rare plants available in every auction. Overall, it was another fun meeting on a rainy Saturday in Maryland.

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L279 Pleco Fry!

March 25th, 2009

I was sitting and enjoying my 75G aquarium this week, when I noticed a tiny little pleco sitting on one of my Cryptocoryne pontederiifolia leaves. Back when I converted my 54G aquarium to a native-themed aquarium, I moved all of the Ancistrus sp. ‘L279’ plecos from there into my 75G, where I already had a few. I had been hoping that they would breed for a couple years, but I guess the new mix of fish finally produced what I was after.

Ancistrus sp. 'L279' Fry

After spotting the one, I looked extra closely throughout the tank, and found at least 3 seperate individuals. They must have been in there for a little while because they’re all about the size of an Otocinclus right now, and actually look quite similar to one since their bristles haven’t yet started to grow on their faces. I hope all of these fry will grow up and start a little colony, as the L279 plecos are fairly hard to come by.

Ancistrus sp. 'L279' Fry

It’s really these little discoveries that make the aquarium hobby worthwhile for me. I spend so much time planted, trimming, feeding the fish, cleaning the tank, etc, that every once in awhile it is nice to find something come about that I wasn’t expecting.

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Tending to the Farm

March 22nd, 2009

Before I went to Seattle, the 40G had started to show signs of something going wrong. This is the aquarium with worm casting underneath the substrate, but also the aquarium that I moved from another part of my house a few months back. Really, ever since that move, I’ve been dealing with a ton of particles coating a lot of the plants. I thought I could make it go away with regular water changes and extra vacuuming, but that didn’t seem to work. Compounding the situation, I suspected that the Bluespotted Sunfish or Banded Killifish that were in the tank might have been doing a little bit of digging around.

Ranalisma rostrata with BBA

I think the problem stemmed from not rinsing out the top-layer of the substrate when I moved the tank. Anyone who’s ever used ADA Aquasoil before knows that after awhile, parts of the substrate can degrade into mud. I should have washed away this mud when I did the move. Instead, the mud kept getting uprooted into the water column, coating the plants, and causing algae.

BGA on Leaves - Ugh!

So, in effect, that’s what I spent several hours yesterday doing. I removed nearly all of the plants from the tank. Moved the fish into my new 54G native-themed aquarium, and proceeded to empty and fill the aquarium several times in order to vacuum all of the substrate.

40G - Replanted

I can only hope that now I’m all set to continue getting great growth from this tank. The other benefit of me doing this is that I was able to rearrange all of the plants in the tank, thin some of them out, and free up a lot of room for more plants. Collectoritis here I come!

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Seattle Aquarium & Butterflies

March 17th, 2009

Last week, my wife and I visited a friend in Seattle, and while I was there, I was able to visit the Seattle Aquarium and the butterfly exhibit at the Pacific Science Center. Upon entering the Seattle Aquarium you come to a huge floor-to-ceiling aquarium with all kinds of fish in it. After spending some time in front of that large tank, and walked around to a number of smaller saltwater aquariums.


Many of the saltwater aquariums there are the type that many hobbyists seem to be able to procure. They have a number of fan favorites including eels, clown fish, tangs, and various other fish you’d see in the movie Nemo.

Saltwater Aquarium

I was a little bit disappointed at the complete lack of freshwater exhibits at the Seattle aquarium, although they did have a nice focus of fish native to the northwest region. In particular, they had a number of features surrounding salmon, for which the area is well-known for.


They had salmon at various stages of their lives, along with descriptions about what wild salmon would be doing, including whether or not they would be in fresh of salt water at the time. The aquarium also exhibited a large number of salmon ladders, which during the proper time of year would show the fish returning home from the wild to their hatchery. I hope to get back to Seattle sometime in the future during the salmon migration.

Salmon Fry

And of course, no aquarium would be complete without their water birds and mammals. The otters were particularly active that day, swimming back and forth, chasing each other, and seemingly having a grand old time.


While the aquarium didn’t have a single planted aquarium exhibit, the native habitat exhibits were worth the price of admission. All of the exhibits there were well-done, and the building itself is a modern facility. Overall, I would recommend visiting the Seattle Aquarium. After visiting the aquarium, I decided to walk across town to the Pacific Science Center, where I had previously spotted their beautiful glass-enclosed butterfly exhibit.


The science center features an IMAX theater, and a huge array of science-related exhibits. This facility is no-doubt largely targeted toward kids, but I still had a nice time browsing what they had to offer. Of course, the main thing I came to see was the butterfly exhibit.


To enter the butterfly room, you have to first go into an adjacent room, where the doorways have blowers to prevent the butterflies from escaping. Once inside, you are in a beautiful 2-3 story glass sun room with a number of tropical flowering plants. At first, I didn’t see any butterflies, but then I realized that they were all around.


They had quite a variety of different butterflies, a few that I recognized from when I spent some time down in the Peruvian Amazon. I’m not sure if some of them were actually moths or not, but all were very pretty. Some folks seemed to attract the butterflies to them, so when everyone left the room they were inspected by the staff to ensure that no critters were tagging along.


I really enjoyed my visit to both the aquarium and the science center. I have a few other photos from my trip on Flickr. If anyone else has been to these places, and would like to add anything I missed, feel free to do so in the comments.

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Aquascaping Tips

March 13th, 2009

Starting a planted aquarium can seem like a daunting task. Most hobbyists start out small, gradually learning by trial and error what works and what doesn’t, and piece together information from books and websites until they finally either succeed or get frustrated and leave the hobby forever. In this series of posts, I’m going to attempt to outline the most important aspects of setting up a planted aquarium. Hopefully this will become a valuable resource to anyone new to the hobby, or experienced fish-keepers who are looking to setup a planted aquarium.

75G - 2-18-2009

Aquascaping, or the arrangement of the items within the aquarium to create a scene, is where the science of planted aquariums meets the artistic side. You can have a very healthy planted aquarium that isn’t very appealing to the eye. Of course, this is an extremely individualistic thing that is largely subjective, but there are a number of guidelines that can help you achieve a nice looking scape.


There are certain proportions that throughout history have proven attractive to the human eye. These proportions can be found in nature, architecture, art, and so on. It only makes sense to incorporate them into our aquariums. In general, perfect symmetry is a bad thing when designing an aquascape. In nature, you don’t commonly see a rock repeated in one place from another, so you shouldn’t do that in your tank. Avoid placing the focal point, whether it is a large rock, piece of wood, or large grouping of plants directly in the middle of the tank. Instead, position the focal point off-center. There are many different possibilities, but the easiest to start with is to divide up your tank into thirds, and put the focal point a third of the way from the left, and a complementary group of wood/rocks/plants a third of the way from the right. The grouping on the left should be larger than the group on the right. If following the golden ratio, one grouping would be 1.61 times as large as the grouping on the right.

When grouping pieces of rocks or wood in your tank, try to ensure that each group has an odd number of items with in. This will help achieve a more natural appearance. In addition, most of the time it is better to slightly angle some of the rocks/wood, verses having them positioned completely vertical.

Using string, you can position your hardscape according to thirds.

Using string, you can position your hardscape according to thirds.


The biggest challenge when aquascaping is figuring out how to make the aquarium appear deeper than it actually is. Most people are only dealing with 12-18″ of space from front to back, however, you want to create the appearence that the scene could go on forever. There are a few tricks that you can use to achieve these feats. First, when you first add the substrate to your aquarium, don’t level it perfectly from front to back. Instead, slope the substrate so that the foreground is lower than the background. As you add the hardscape (rocks/wood), make sure that the slope remains. Second, you can simulate perspective in your aquascape by placing larger items toward the front, and smaller items to the back. This makes it look like things are getting smaller as they get to back of the tank. Don’t overlook leave sizes when considering this, in particular, various sizes of Anubias can be great for achieving this effect. Third, keep your foreground fairly shallow. Having a huge foreground compresses the midground and background, and takes away space from transitioning between them. Finally, position your hardscape so that there are clear lines for the eye to follow from front to back, paying addition to make sure that the foreground naturally transitions from to the midground, and then to the background.

Cliff Hui created amazing depth in his 4th place ranked "Destiny" scape in the 2008 ADA Contest.

Cliff Hui created amazing depth in his 4th place ranked "Destiny" scape in the 2008 ADA Contest.


Make sure all of the separate items that you add to your aquarium look good together. If you have a blank sand substrate, it’s not very believable if you have very light/white rocks on top of it. In addition, if you ultimately want a large rock to look like a mountain top, don’t use a sword plant right next to it, as the large leaves of the sword diminish the impact of the mountain top. Use plants that complement one another, and choose your bright red plants carefully, as you want to use them as accent pieces, not much more. Seek out rocks and wood that have a lot of character, and relatively few straight edges. The more detail on each item, the more it will look like a miniature version of a larger piece of nature.


The rock and wood used in the aquarium make up the hardscape. Your hardscape supports and ultimately makes your aquascape possible — everything stems from the hardscape. After you add the substrate to your tank, it’s time to position your hardscape. I like to add my largest piece, or focal point, first and build around that. Remember to leave room for the plants! It’s easy to have the perfect looking hardscape initially, but then find that you either don’t have room for plants, or that the hardscape ultimately overpowers the plants. On the other hand, particularly for foreground pieces of hardscape, remember that the foreground plants will take up 1-2 inches of height, so don’t use rocks that are going to get covered up by the plants. Plan ahead, even if initially they look slightly too tall there. The idea is to place the hardscape, and have the plants complement it, as they grow in. When you are done positioning your hardscape, use a little bit of extra substrate to fill in any gaps, and to make the scene a little bit more natural looking.

75G Hardscape

Original hardscape for the 75G at the top of post.

Use of Plants

Obviously, plants are an integral part of the aquascape. Mosses, ferns, and Anubias are great plants to use to hide cracks between two rocks, transition between foreground and midground, or to slightly obscure/soften a larger hardscape item to accentuate a particular part of that item. Stem plants are often used as background plants, as they can grow and provide a nice backdrop for your hardscape. By trimming your plants to keep them taller in the back, and shorter in front, you help create a sense of depth from front to back. It’s often better to use more of a few types of plants in an aquascape than the try and cram lots of different species into a single aquascape. The reason is that it’s often hard to ensure that all of those species truly match each other. Besides, in nature, you usually don’t encounter tons of species all growing in the exact same area.

Taiwan Moss

Moss helps soften wood, when tied to it using cotton thread.

Negative Space

So far, I’ve talked mostly about things you want to add to have a nice looking aquascape. Sometimes, it’s as much about what you leave out that really makes the aqauscape great. For example, if you want to have a large rock represent a mountain range, the impact will be the greatest if you have some empty space around that rock. This contract is what draws the eye to the mountain. Similarly, open pathways where the foreground extends back into the midground or background help create a sense of depth, and also highlight the rocks/wood/plants along those pathways. Basically, don’t try to fill every inch of space in your aquarium with something — leave some parts open.


While I have provided a number of good “rules” to aide you when aquascaping your planted aquarium, the design of an aquascape is a very personal thing. There are times when it makes good sense to break one of these rules in order to achieve a desired effect. In all, use these as a basis, and go from there. I hope to see lots of great aquascapes popping up online and in the various aquascaping contests. Good luck!

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March 9th, 2009

Starting a planted aquarium can seem like a daunting task. Most hobbyists start out small, gradually learning by trial and error what works and what doesn’t, and piece together information from books and websites until they finally either succeed or get frustrated and leave the hobby forever. In this series of posts, I’m going to attempt to outline the most important aspects of setting up a planted aquarium. Hopefully this will become a valuable resource to anyone new to the hobby, or experienced fish-keepers who are looking to setup a planted aquarium.


All plants need nutrients in order to grow. This may seem like an obvious statement, however, many aquarists overlook the importance of feeding the plants in their aquarium. If you focus on making sure that your plants eat well, you will be going a long way to minimize algae and keep your fish and plants healthy.

Macro and Micro Nutrients

There are two main groups of nutrients that plants need in order to survive. The first are macro nutrients, often known as NPK, because they consist of the elements nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. The other is micro-nutrients, which pretty much sum up all of the other nutrients that plants need in smaller quantities in order to survive. These are sometimes referred to as trace nutrients.

There are two main ways to fertilize your aquarium: enriching the substrate and dosing fertilizers directly into the water column.

Substrate Fertilization

The type of substrate greatly impacts what type of fertilization method should be used throughout the life of your planted aquarium. Soil-based substrates are rich in nutrients, and do not require regular supplementation of fertilizers. All currently available commercial substrates do require fertilization within a few months of setup.

In most soil substrates the bulk of the nutrients are stored in the soil. Commonly, the main exception is potassium, which can be added as needed using potassium sulfate (K2SO4), or other commercially available liquid fertilizers.  Sometimes, certain trace elements can also go missing, in which case a good micro-fertilizer, such as Seachem Flourish Comprehensive, can be used.

There are times, however, with plants that are heavy root feeders where the nutrition present in the substrate is diminished. At these times, you can use pellets/tabs to add the nutrients back into your substrate. There are several products on the market that can accomplish this. I have used Seachem Flourish Tabs in the past with good success. I have also heard that many aquarists use smaller portions of Jobe’s Fertilizer Spikes with great success. With all of these things, less is more, so start with a little, and gradually increase your fertilization until the proper levels are reached.

Water Column Dosing

Outside of the soil substrate folks, most of us are left having to regularly dose our aquariums with fertilizers. Many plants do better in nutrient-rich water, rewarding you for the extra effort involved with maintaining a dosing schedule. There are many liquid fertilizers available on the market, of which, I have regularly used Seachem’s Flourish line of products. In addition, I dose dry fertilizers KNO3, for nitrate, and KH2PO4, for phosphate directly to avoid the hassle of mixing them into liquid solutions and save money.

There are a couple of systems out there that can help regiment your dosing schedule. The most popular ones are Estimative Index (EI) and Perpetual Preservation System (PPS Pro). Describing these methodoligies in depth goes beyond the scope of this article, but they are essentially at opposite ends of the spectrum. The thinking behind EI is to overload your water column with nutrients so that a shortage never occurs. This allows plants to grow extremely quickly, but requires weekly water changes to avoid nutrient levels from becoming too high. The Perpetual Preservation System is more about maintaining the proper ratios of nutrients over the long term, which may lead to more frequent testing to ensure those ratios stay in check, and may require a slightly more meticulous regimen that EI. Both are proven systems that are worth experimenting with in order to find something that works for you.

What I Do

DIY Auto DoserMy method falls somewhere in-between EI and PPS Pro. I use a fraction of the nutrient levels recommended by EI, and am mindful of certain ratios for my nutrients, but I don’t test frequently. I do maintain bi-weekly water changes to help reset my tank periodically, clear the water of tannins, and top off evaporated water. On Mon/Weds/Fri I dose macro-nutrients (nitrate and phosphate), and on Tues/Thurs I dose micros (flourish and iron). Generally speaking, I watch my tank to let it tell me what to do.

Nutrient Imbalance

Nutrient deficiencies or excesses often manifest themselves through clear-cut symptoms, so by keeping an eye on your aquarium, you can adjust your dosing regimen as needed. For example, if you have green spot algae on the glass, your tank needs more phosphate. If you have hair algae, your nitrate levels are likely out of balance with phosphate. Black brush algae often indicates low nitrates or CO2, as does blue-green algae. If your plants are pale or yellowish, they are likely suffering from iron deficiencies. Extremely red or even purple plants often mean your nitrate levels are low. Pinholes in your leaves indicate a pottasium deficiency. While, there is often some overlap between these symptoms and other factor can be at play, getting a feel for these kinds of things make you more adept at adverting tragedy if let to progress.

Driving Factors

When developing your dosing routine, it is very important to realize the other driving forces involved in plant growth. The more intense your lighting, the more your plants are going to photosynthesize. The addition of CO2 becomes necessary to provide the carbon needed to sustain photosynthesis. At this point, the plants will use up more and more nutrients, which is when fertilizers are required. The main lesson to take from this, is that if your plants are growing too fast or if you’re unable to keep your nutrients in balance, the best thing you can do is to reduce the amount of light over your aquarium. This should help you to reduce any algae that’s crept up, and keep a handle on your dosing routine.


Fertilization is an extremely important piece of maintaining a healthy planted aquarium. It is also often regarded as one of the least desirable aspects of the hobby. Planning ahead, and thinking realistically about the level of commitment you’re willing to make to dosing, will ultimately lead to success. Don’t be intimated by the chemical names and ratios. I recommend starting with a commercial line of fertilizers, and as you get more comfortable, start using the dry nutrients for macros. Good luck!

Further Reading

Estimative Index

Perpetual Preservation System

APC’s Fertilator

Mineralized Soil Substrates

Building an Autodoser

Fertilizing the Planted Aquarium

Seachem’s Plant Dosing Chart

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Winter At Last!

March 2nd, 2009

Today I woke up to 6-8 inches of snow on the ground outside. After the requisite sidewalk shoveling and digging out my car, my wife and I managed to take a short hike in the woods along the Little Patuxent River near our house. I’ve posted similar snowy scenes of this trail in the past, but I wanted to share today’s batch.

Snowy River

So far this winter, we haven’t really had any significant snowfall, and with March upon us, I had already succumb to the fact that we would have to wait another year for snow. Fortunately, mother nature proved me wrong, and fully covered the trail and trees.

Snowy Forest

My wife and I slogged along in somewhat inadequate winter-wear, so our expedition wasn’t more than an hour long. Since the river is not right along the trail, I had to make some side trips to reach the water. More than once, snow had obscured rocks or holes, which I seemed to have a penchant for finding.

Snowy Leaf

I was none the worse for wear, however, and managed to get to the riverside in several spots. The water itself was crystal clear when looking down, but from an angle looked black against the snow.

Snowy River

While I definitely appreciate the beauty of the more open patches of water, I think I’m drawn more toward the spots where snow-covered limbs or large rocks protrude from the water.

Snowy River

Since the temperature stayed in the upper twenties/low thirties throughout much of the day, the snow was wet and clung to the tree branches, giving them a wonderful wintery outline.

Snowy River

As mentioned, our hike didn’t last long as our jeans were soaked with melted snow, and our faces stung by the wind. I’m very glad that we were graced with this snowfall, so that now I can unregrettably wish for Spring!

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GWAPA: February Meeting: Lighting

March 1st, 2009

GWAPA’s February meeting was at Rick and Mary’s house in northern Virgina. Rick gave an excellent presentation about the various lighting options available for planted aquariums. He showed some charts which compared the various types of lighting (T12, T5, MH, PC, etc) and how efficient they are in terms of lumens per watt. From this, he described how the watts/gallon rule breaks down on deeper aquariums. Another member, Jim, discussed how he actually calculated the light produced in terms of lumens per square inch, which is a much better rule of thumb when comparing different light sources. Finally, Sean showed off a LED light strip that he uses, and discussed the benefits, downsides, and future of LED lighting in the aquarium hobby. Right now, it’s largely cost prohibitive to light your tank exclusively using LED lighting due to the cost of producing LEDs that can equally produce white light and light that can be used in photosynthesis. That said, when he’s replaced roughly 70 watts of PC light with a 17 watt LED strip, I’m looking forward to seeing LED technology become more prominent in the hobby.

Rick & Mary's 75G Aquarium

Rick has a nice 75G aquarium, which features a huge stand of Bacopa monnieri growing emersed, and even flowering up and out of his aquarium. After the auction, Rick demonstrated his automatic water change system, which is why the water levels in this picture are a little bit low.

Mary's ADA Tank

Mary maintains a nice ADA aquarium setup, but unfortunately had a lush foreground of Utricularia graminfolia melt about a week before the meeting. She said that it had completely covered the foreground, and was looking great for months, but then a brown patch formed, and 2 days later, nearly all of it had melted away. I’ve experienced Utricularia taking awhile to get established, but haven’t had it melt away this dramitically. Has anyone else experienced this misfortune?

Guppy, Daphnia, Shrimp, and More!

Rick and Mary also maintain an impressive rack of smaller aquariums, which they use to raise guppies, shrimp, bettas, and live food such as daphnia cultures. All in all, it was another great club meeting with almost 100 items in our auction, and a great gathering of aquarists.

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