Aquatic Experience Aquascaping Live Contest

November 13th, 2014

Last weekend, I attended the Aquatic Experience show in Chicago as a participant in the Aquascaping Live contest. My local aquatic plant club, GWAPA, sent two teams totaling seven people to participate in the 75G large tank competition. We were extremely fortunate to take the first and second place positions in the contest.

GWAPA Team 2

The first place went to a GWAPA team led by Jen Williams, a rising aquascaping talent in the hobby. She also won 1st place in the small tank contest. Jen and her team mates , Arlene Wagner, Nick Kinser, and Cristy Keister did an excellent job putting together a very nice rockscape. Jen pioneered a technique using the Great Stuff foam used for filling drafty doorframes to fuse the rocks in this scape together so that they could be transported in three distinct blocks. I’m happy and humbled by their scape.

GWAPA Team 1

My team won second place with the scape above. Aaron Talbot, Cavan Allen, and I worked together on this aquascape about 3 months prior to the contest. The rocks are a quartz-based rock that we sourced locally. I would have liked more small form Bolbitus so that the tall one wasn’t necessary, but overall we’re very happy with the scape.

Texas Team

Next , a team from Texas put together this beautiul aquascape using manzanita. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a picture following the completion of their scape, as they had several issues with plants and materials not arriving on time to the hotel, but the finished scape was about the same but with white sand on the right side. Had they not suffered this setback, I’m sure they would have assembled an even nicer result. What they put together was pretty nice!

Chicago Team

Finally, a local Chicago team put together this last aquascape. They did a nice job and prominently used one of my favorite plants, Blyxa japonica. 

This was the first year the AGA conducted this competition in conjunction with the Aquatic Experience show. I hope that more teams will compete in next year’s contest so that we can continue to grow the aquascaping hobby in the U.S.

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AGA 2010 – Day 2 Speakers

November 14th, 2010

On Saturday, the Aquatic Gardener’s Association’s convention continued with a great line-up of speakers.

Jason Baliban – Photography & Aquascaping Contest Preparation

AGA 2010: Jason Baliban

Jason Baliban had the unlucky spot of having to wake and speak first thing in the morning to groggy attendees about photography. Nevertheless, he did a wonderful job discussing both beginner and advanced topics. Jason gave several tips for shooting aquariums using point-and-shoot cameras: turn off the flash, use manual settings, try the different built-in white-balance modes, try different zoom levels, etc. For me, I was very interested in some of Baliban’s more advanced photography methods.

Jason Baliban's Strobe Setup

He used several slides to demonstrate how he’s used photographic strobes to light his aquascapes, rather than simply piling lots of aquarium lights over a tank. This is a little bit of an expensive way to do it, but if you already used strobes for portrait or product photography, they’re a great way to get a tremendous amount of light over the tank. There were lots of questions from the audience during Jason’s talk, so he didn’t get to spend too much time on his advanced Photoshop tips, but he did show a tip where he added a small amount of blue light to the surface of one of his aquascapes to give the water a slightly cooler, crisp look. I’m going to try that one of these days. I’ve seen much of his presentation before at the last Aquafest convention, but am always impressed by Baliban’s ability to evolve his technique and offer a few new tidbits of information.

Claus Christensen – How to Make the Plants Happy & Avoid Algae

AGA 2010: Claus Christensen

The second speaker was the world-renowned Claus Christensen, former Tropica executive, who is now spending most of his time traveling the world looking for new aquatic plants for the hobby. This sounds like somewhat of a dream job for many of us hobbyists, who enjoy exploring nature for possible aquarium plants. In this talk, Claus took us along on several of his trips to places like Brazil, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Thailand where he collected new plants, but also surveyed and recorded the conditions for several plants already in the hobby.

River in Claus' Talk

One of the main threads of his presentation was to emphasize that plants rarely grow in optimal conditions in nature, so there’s often little point in trying to 100% mimic those conditions in our aquariums. Instead, most plants grow where they do in nature because they just so happened to be able to survive, out-competing plants for that particular swath of a river or bank. In the analysis of his data, he noticed that the mineral content of most plants where plants are found vary greater in the nutrient content, yet often times the same plants exist in these varied conditions. He did find, however, that pH and kH readings seem to be the most important measurements for determining whether or not plants would be present. To demonstrate many of these points, Claus showed several plants with tremendous adaptability, but the Crinum in particular seems to tolerate a wide range of conditions in Thailand. He showed one locality that he visited on several trips, and in some cases the Crinum were several meters under muddy water, other times, they were nearly completely dried up, and everything in-between. Of course, the Crinum uses its onion bulb to sustain through the different times. Finally, at the end of his presentation he showed a new packaging method Tropica is employing. They will be selling tissue cultured plants, still in culture cups, directly to the stores.

Tropica Tissue Culture Product

The benefit of this distribution method are that the plants will be completely sterilized, thus lasting longer on the store shelves. Plus, they will be able to be packaged with growing information, pictures, and for U.S. buyer, will be easier to import to other countries.

Michael Kane – The Secret Lives of Amphibious Plants

AGA 2010: Mike Kane

Unfortunately, I missed most of Dr. Kane’s presentation, but the pieces I did catch were very interesting. Mike Kane is an assistant chair and professor at the University of Florida, specializing in tissue culture with a passion for aquatic plants. He led the tissue culture workshop on Friday afternoon at the convention. During his talk, he described some of the research he’s done on figuring out what triggers an aquatic plant to grow submersed verses aerial leaves. The presentation was definitely above my head in many places, but I gathered that a hormone called ABA is responsible for triggering the change in leaf form for the Myriophyllum plants he was testing. Overall, it was an very informative presentation.

Karen Randall – Modern Aquascaping Design

AGA 2010: Karen Randall

Karen Randall is a mainstay at the Aquatic Gardener’s Association, and gave another great presentation at this years convention. In her talk, Karen drew from her tremendous experience as an aquascaping judge to describe several tips for how to do well in an aquascaping contest. In the beginning, she described the important design principles of thirds and various ratios when setting up a scape. Then, she progressed to sight-lines, which should run in a variety of fashions through an aquascaping in order to guide the viewers eye to the focal point. Open space, pathways, and fish selection are also important things to consider. She warned folks from including too many gimmicks in their scapes, such as waterfalls, fake backdrops, statues/figurines, etc, which often detract from the overall impression of the aquascape. Karen finished her presentation by showing several aquascapes up on the screen, and asking the audience to give their feedback about things they liked and dislikes, as a teaching tool to demonstrate the principles she talked about earlier.

Ghazanfar Ghori – Cryptocoryne

AGA 2010: Ghazanfar Ghori

Ghazanfar Ghori is GWAPA member who was invited to be a speaker about Cryptcoryne, as he has gradually grown into a expert and master cultivator of rare crypts. Ghazanfar’s began his presentation by giving a brief background of the Cryptocoryne genus, which consists of 55 species, with only 8-9 being commercially cultivated in the hobby. He then proceeded to go through the various habitats that Crypts are found, including freshwater, hardwater, and blackwater areas. C. ciliata is the most widely distributed plant in the genus that has adapted to grow in a variety of conditions. After showing pictures of several species in their native habitats, Ghazanfar discussed keeping these plants in captivity. Primarily, he keeps his plants in emersed setups, which are merely aquariums filled with potted plants. The pots are filled with a 50/50 mix of sand and ADA Amazonia for his freshwater setup, while his blackwater tanks typically only use a moss substrate. Having seen Ghazanfar setup in person, I can vouch for his ability to successfully maintain and propagate these plants.

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AGA 2010 Contest Results

November 14th, 2010

After the banquet tonight, the Aquatic Gardener’s Association announced the winner’s of their aquascaping competition. I took quick shots of every winner, and am listing them below. Do you agree with the winners? You can view all of the entries on the AGA website.

2010 AGA Contest Results


2010 AGA Contest: Small Honorable Mention

2010 AGA Contest: Small 3rd Place

2010 AGA Contest: Small 2nd Place

2010 AGA Contest: Small 1st Place


2010 AGA Contest: Paludarium 3rd Place

2010 AGA Contest: Paludarium 2nd Place

2010 AGA Contest: Paludarium 1st Place


2010 AGA Contest: Medium Honorable Mention

2010 AGA Contest: Medium 3rd Place

2010 AGA Contest: Medium 2nd Place

2010 AGA Contest: Medium 1st Place


2010 AGA Contest: Biotope 3rd Place

2010 AGA Contest: Biotope 2nd Place

2010 AGA Contest: Biotope 1st Place


2010 AGA Contest: Large Honorable Mention

2010 AGA Contest: Large 3rd Place

2010 AGA Contest: Large 2nd Place

2010 AGA Contest: Large 1st Place


2010 AGA Contest: Extra Large 3rd Place

2010 AGA Contest: Extra Large 2nd Place

2010 AGA Contest: Extra Large 1st Place

2010 AGA Contest: Best of Show

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AGA 2010 – Day 1

November 13th, 2010

The first day of the Aquatic Gardener’s Association 2010 convention began with a field  trip to Florida Aquatic Nurseries (FAN).  FAN is the top supplier of aquatic plants in the United States, and have hundreds of plants under cultivation across two locations in south Florida. We began the tour strolling through several green houses filled to the brim with emersed aquarium plants. The largest plants in these greenhouses were often the sword plants, which were in full bloom.

FAN Greenhouse

Anubias and Cryptocoryne were the other two very prominent plants in the greenhouses. Outside, rows of cement ponds contained lots of submersed plants, many that were throwing up flower stalks in the Florida sun.

Cement ponds at FAN

One of the most impressive of these flowers for me was the Hydrotriche hottoniiflora, which had a beautiful cluster of yellow flowers on each stalk.

Hydrotriche hottoniiflora Flower

Another plant that was really neat to see was the Echinodorous sp. ‘Vesuvius’ fully emersed and flowering. After seeing it I think Vesuvius may be an even better paludarium plant than an aquarium plant. It’s quite unique looking! During the tour, we also learned about a new hairgrass FAN is hoping to soon put into production. This plant is about 4″ taller, but the leaves are a bit thicker than the other Eleocharis we have in the hobby, similar to how a Lilaeopsis looks.

Echinodorous sp. 'Vesuvius' Emersed

FAN also is a major player in the water lily market, winning international awards for the hybrids over the past few years.

Lily Flower

After touring through their two locations, FAN was kind enough to have the whole group there for lunch, during which they ran a slide-show presentation with more information about their award winning lilies.

Jeff Senske Hosting Iron Aquascaping Competition

Following lunch, many attendees signed up for a tissue culture workshop, which I hear was very informative. Since I have already done a similar workshop with GWAPA members, I decided to take the afternoon off. The convention activities resumed later in the evening with the Iron Aquascaper Competition, hosted by Jeff Senske and ADG. This year’s competition pitted Houston aquascaper, Luis Navarro against ADG’s own Frank Wazeter. Both contestants were required to use the materials at hand to aquascape an ADA 60-P aquarium.

Frank Places Driftwood

Frank started by setting up a driftwood hardscape, along with a bright sand foreground.

Luis Prepares

Luis, on the other hand, chose to plant his foreground, and use rocks as his hardscape. It’s always fascinating to watch other people aquascape, to pick up tricks from them. This was the first time that I saw someone use a paintbrush to level out the sand in the foreground. I’ll have to try that myself on my next scape.

Iron Aquascaper Competition

After about an hour, the two contestants finished their scaping, and began filling the aquariums with water.

Frank's Tank

Frank's Aquascape

In the end, Luis Navarro was the unanimous winner of the competition. Congrats Luis!

Luis' Tank

Luis' Winning Aquascape

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2010 AGA Convention: Register Now!

June 29th, 2010

2010 AGA Convention Banner

The Aquatic Gardener’s Association convention in November is now open for registration. There are a number of compelling reasons to go to this year’s convention:

Don’t miss the premiere U.S. planted aquarium event this year. Register today!

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AGA 2009 Contest Results Released!

November 26th, 2009

The results of the Aquatic Gardener’s Association’s 2009 Aquascaping Contest have been released. Michael G.W. Wong’s tank below one 1st place in the Large category, and took Best in Show. The folks from Hong Kong have really been cleaning up the aquascaping contests lately. The contest itself has a number of fantastic entries, including ones that didn’t win any prizes.

2009 AGA Contest Best in Show

I’d suggest you click over to the AGA’s website to view all of this years’ entries:

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2009 AGA Aquascaping Contest

August 13th, 2009

2009 AGA Contest

The 2009 AGA International Aquascaping Contest is coming up with the entry deadline only 1 month away, on September 15th. I encourage everyone, even beginners, to enter into this competition. One of the best things about the competition is that you get honest feedback from expert judges, which can really help you grow as an aquascaper. The first time I entered a tank, Takashi Amano was a judge, and his comment was “the foreground is ugly.” You know what, that was a bit harsh, but I look at foregrounds a heck of a lot differently now than I did before. So, whip your half-trimmed scape into shape, you’ve got 2 good trimmings left before September 15th, and show the world what you’ve got!

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AGA 2008: Georgia Aquarium Field Trip

November 23rd, 2008

The 2008 Aquatic Gardener’s Association Convention started with a field trip to the Georgia Aquarium, which was conveniently just a few blocks away from the convention hotel. We all assembled in the lobby of the hotel, and created a mob of people filling the street toward the aquarium. It was a great way to meet up with folks that you haven’t seen since the last convention.

George Aquarium

The aquarium is rather new in Georgia, and that shows through in the cleanliness and general niceness of the tanks and facilities. The building has a central cafe/atrium area with wings heading off in different directions. We were first guided into their river wing because they had the planted aquarium staff there to answer any questions we had about those tanks.


The planted tanks that they had were nice tanks. They wouldn’t place highly in an aquascaping contest, but they’re well designed, and accomplish feats that most of us don’t usually attempt. By that, I mean that some of these tanks must have been 5-6 feet tall, and yet they still managed to adequately light them to the floor.

Planted Tank

In addition, I asked one of the staff how they trimmed their plants in such a deep tank, and they said that they literally put on a wetsuit, and dive into the tank. If it was such a rigmarole for me to trim my tanks, I don’t think they’d ever get attention!

Planted Tank

In addition to the planted tanks, they had a fair number of other freshwater tanks, including a large river tank with huge catfish, an African rift lake tank, a piranha tank, and several others. I would have liked to see more freshwater stuff at the aquarium, in comparison to the marine sections, but the things they had were nicely done.


One of the cooler attractions at the aquarium was their beluga whale pool. I counted four whales playfully swimming back and forth, clearly recognizing the humans on the other side of the glass. It’s always amazing to watch humongous creatures maneuver so gracefully and with such ease underwater.

Beluga Whale

And of course, they had a sea dragon exhibit. These odd-ball creatures don’t seem to move around much, but they’re fun to watch just due to their unique appearance.

Sea Dragon

I would be completely negligent if I didn’t show a picture of a guitarfish (below), for which this blog is *not* named after, but a coincidence that was nice to discover. Although they kind of look like a shark, they’re actually in the ray family, and cruise along the bottom searching for small crustaceans to eat.


The most impressive display at the Georgia Aquarium is their huge tank, which I believe is the largest aquarium in the world. They had large informational cards that you could take listing most of the species in the aquarium, so that you could find and identify the various fish in the tank. I could have sat in front of this glass all day long.

Huge Tank!

In fact, I believe that they several events in this room with the aquarium as a backdrop, and they even allow you to sleep over in some cases, where you can fall asleep watching the fishes. Obviously, there were countless other exhibits throughout the aquarium, but two of my favorites, which most public aquariums seem to have these days, were the eels/worms, and then the jellyfish below.


It’s just so neat to watch both of these creatures flow in the current, just waiting for food to come their way. The jellyfish, especially, are beautiful with the blue backdrop, and their orange and reddish colors.


I would recommend the Georgia Aquarium to anyone who’s in Atlanta and needs something to see. It’s definitely got a lot of offer, and is worth the price of admission. That huge tank is worth it by itself.

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AGA 2008: Banquet & Auction

November 20th, 2008

The informational part of 2008 Aquatic Gardener’s Association Convention wrapped up on Saturday evening with Karen Randall talking about her collecting trip to Thailand with aquatic plant author and expert, Christel Kasselman.

Bangkok Aquarium Market

When they first got to Thailand, they wanted to experience the huge market in Bangkok. They had heard stories about the size and quality of the aquarium-related stands setup there. After much walking, they finally came to some of the dealers, finding rack after rack of aquariums filled with aquatic plants. Karen said that they could pretty much locate any aquarium plant known to the hobby in that market, in addition to some new ones.

Exotic Java Fern (maybe)

Take for example this variegated fern shown above, which was purportedly a form of Java Fern. Unfortunately, with several weeks ahead of them, they weren’t confident they any plants bought in the market would survive to make it back to their homes. In addition to the plants, the markets had an amazing selection of other materials including rocks, wood, equipment, and even an insane variety of gravel. (shown below)

Gravel in Bangkok Market

I can only imagine what it must be like to walk through so many shops who really get it in terms of aquatic plants. From there, Karen and Christel traveled throughout the country, collecting various crypts and other plants trying and find something new. They did find some interesting stuff, which she promised we’ll hear more about soon.

2008 AGA Auction

The next day, Sunday, was an all-day auction. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a thousand bags of plants spread across 4-5 rows of tables. I took 30 bags of plants myself to sell, but only came home with four. There was pretty good variety present in the auction, and prices were all over the map. In the beginning, prices tend to be a little bit inflated, but as the day wore on, several folks got some really good deals. It’s interesting to see relatively well-known plants, such as Anubias barteri var. nana, go for high prices while lesser known new plants go for less than they’d sell for online. Every auction is different, however, and I had a great time chatting with folks, while occasionally placing a bid. After 4-5 hours, I was off to the airport, after enjoying a fantastic convention. I highly recommend that every aquatic plant enthusiast try to attend at least one of these conventions in the future.

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AGA 2008: Takashi Amano: Aquascaping Demo

November 19th, 2008

Saturday afternoon at the 2008 Aquatic Gardener’s Association Convention, Takashi Amano setup a beautiful ADA 90P aquarium from start to finish to demonstrate how to properly design an aquascape. With many helpers at hand, and tables full of rocks, wood, substrate, and plants, he began by segmenting with poster-board the floor of the aquarium into bright sand and aquasoil sections.

Amano Aquascaping at AGA 2008

He then added the substrate, and positioned moss-covered-rocks along the line between the two types of substrate. After positioning the driftwood, he began positioning ferns and Anubias into the hardscape. One thing with Mr. Amano, is that he plants incredibly densely, so that when he’s done, it looks like a near finished aquascape. (Often times hobbyists don’t have the luxury of having that many plants available to scape with, and have to grow them out within the aquascape.)

Amano Aquascaping at AGA 2008

Once the more static plants were in place, Amano partially filled up the tank with water, and began planting the stem and other background plants. Again, he planted very densely, so that it would only require a couple trims before the aquascape was completely full and lush.

Amano Aquascaping at AGA 2008

After filling up the tank, and allowing the water to clear, below is his finished scape. It’s amazing what he was able to pull off in just about an hour. Beautiful!

Finished AmanoScape at AGA 2008

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