Roland on Low Maintenance Layouts (Live Chat, Sept 2005)

By: MiamiAG
October 21st, 2005
6:14 am

<tsunami> Hello all APC members and welcome to one of our guest speaker presentations! This nightís guest speaker comes from the tropical island nation of Singapore at the tip of the Malay Peninsula. His extensive knowledge of Southeast Asian biotopes and experience of setting up aquariums in public and private places has earned him a position in this yearís APC Aquaplant Layout Contest judging panel. Please help me welcome my good friend Roland Seah!

<lorba> I am very honored to be sharing my experiences with you here.

<tsunami> How do you define a long term, low maintenance layout and aquarium?

<lorba> In my humble opinion, a long term layout is one with plants that will keep growing and thriving without replacing. Low maintenance could means little fertilization or lesser water changes required. Most importantly, you do not have to cut and trim them every weekend.

<tsunami> Roland, let us start with a walk through for setting up a successful long term, low maintenance layout, starting with the equipment. What filtration type and filter media do you find best? Do you use any special media or products to keep water clarity high?

<lorba> For me, a long term and low maintenance layout is one which needs minimal handwork. Letís talk about the filters. In all the aquariums (3ft and above) that I set up, I uses 2 external filters. One will be connected to the surface skimmer and output to the tank via an external CO2 reactor. This filter will contain mostly wools and serves as the mechanical filter. The other one is the biological filter with mostly ceramic rings or eheim filter me

<lorba> I found that by using 2 filters, the water can be kept really clean, even if you have quite a few corydoras digging here and there. The best part is, I donít wash them at least for a year. The flow rate may slow down slightly over time, and you can just clean the mechanical filter.

<tsunami> For low maintenance layouts, I am sure that lighting choice is an important decision. One must not keep the light too high or the layout will be hard to keep stable, and not keep the light too low or the plants will not grow. How much lighting and of which type do you tend to use? Does tank size and depth become a consideration in choosing the best lighting option?

<lorba> When budget allows, I always use Metal Halid (MH) with Fluorescents (FL) or Compact Fluorescents (PL) as support. You can find these lights all in one piece, like the Arcadia or Dymax. I believe that very bright lights brings about a good photosynthesize period and plants can grow better, even for a shade/slow plant like java fern.

<lorba> Usually, I will try to provide longer hours of dim lights and shorter period of intense lights to the plants. For example, 8am Ė 1115am, the PLs are switched on. 11am Ė 4pm, the MH are switched on, and 345pm Ė 6pm, the PLs are switched on again. This simulates the lighting period of a normal day, and I find that you have very much less problem with algaes. For example, Iíve never had algae problem for this tank since it was set up.
http://www.greenchapter.com/view.php?pg=0&tp=150&id=7

<tsunami> On to CO2 equipment, what do you tend to use? Do you use any pH controllers or other monitoring devices to assure that CO2 is kept stable?

<lorba> I do use pH controllers sometimes, but most of time, I adjust the amount of CO2 base on bubble counts, tank size and layout. For some tanks, I even remove the CO2 injection after the plants have matured and growing. Of course, this can only be applied on low maintenance set up with hardy plants. See this for a CO2less example : http://www.greenchapter.com/view.php?pg=0&tp=100&id=32

<tsunami> When laying down the substrate, do you use a base fertilizer?What is it composed of and why do you tend to use this product? What do you tend to use over the base fertilizer? Why have you chosen this as your preferred substrate medium?

<lorba> This is really about preference, budget and availability. I used to favor JBL before I switched to ADA and FERKA. JBL is affordable, but it is bulky to transport and store when I set up a big tank. I uses ADA soil and powersand in some of tanks as I find them good for growing beautiful stems plants. The growth is truly different when you put them in ADA and normal sand. I uses FERKA Aquabase most of the time as it is very small and light.

<lorba> I uses FERKA Aquabase most of the time as it is very small and light to carry around in its concentrated powder pack. The Aquabase is mainly organic stuff and works roughly like the powersand. Its really about budget and preference between these two.

<tsunami> Do you have any other comments to make on equipment hardware for setting up a low maintenance aquarium?

<lorba> To make your tank a real low maintenance one, you should invest in some good equipment which helps to keep the water in better condition. Such as installing a UV filter, better filtration and adequate lighting. When the water is good, you have less worries and problem.

<tsunami> Now that we have touched base on equipment, let us move on to the actual setup of a low maintenance layout. Do you tend to use rock, driftwood or both when creating an aquascape? Which aquascaping techniques do you use to help you place these pieces within the aquarium?

<lorba> I usually use both in most of my aquascapes. And depending on the theme, some may have more rocks or wood then the other. Of course, if you have a zenish theme in mind, rocks is very useful.

<lorba> Placing them is really about achieving a sense of balance. When you put some rocks or woods together, they will need to form a connection with each other such that you see a flow of contour or structure.

<lorba> Stand away from the tank and observe them from a further distance after you place them usually helps a lot. You should also imagine how the layout will look like when the plants are matured. This will remind you in creating and catering the space for growth.

<lorba> I am quite a lazy man and thus, I choose the easiest way of doing things - a method which I call Modular Aquascaping. Use as much rock or wood as structure with ferns, moss or Anubias attached on wood. Once they are placed in the tank nicely, you will only be left with the foreground and background plants.

<lorba> Take the below 17footer for example, 70% of it are ďModulesĒ and I completed the entire aquascape in less then 3 hours. Most of the time spent on carrying the big heavy trunk!

<lorba> http://www.greenchapter.com/view.php?pg=0&tp=0&id=28

<tsunami> It seems that a large part of the effort in your low maintenance layouts is devoted to the epiphytes growing upon the driftwood. How do you tie the mosses, Anubias, and ferns to this hardscape material? How do you decide where to place the larger ferns and Anubias and where to place the moss on these pieces? From my understanding, larger ferns and Anubias can be focal points or fillers while mosses are more subtle layout elements.

<lorba> In the native jungles and swamps that I often trek in, I noticed that there is very sparse vegetation when it reaches the water. Most of the time, if there is any aquatic plants, they are cryptocoryne species. More then often, you find moss covered logs and roots, or ferns and aroids creeping over all the embankment.

<lorba> My aquascape styles are very much affected by what I observe here. (See some photos here:
http://www.greenchapter.com/article.php?catid=3&id=12)

<lorba> To keep your plants nice and lush in a low maintenance tank, you will need to understand the brightness tolerance of these mostly shade plants. Ferns such as microsorium pteorus do well in both low and high. Thus, is suitable to be place higher and central of the tank which probably receive the most light.

<lorba> You can use rocks or bare wood as elevation to place these ferns (tied on wood) to create terrace or contour. I like to tied some on branch forks as well and the ferns usually grow into a nice ball in mid water.

<lorba> Anubias species are broad leafed and thus, is more suitable as carpets at lower heights. This gives the aquascape a better sense of balance. Usually, I place them underneath some plants or at the sides and corners where the light is least intense.

<lorba> Moss is essential to complete the aquascape as they form the micro details in a big picture. You can have them grown into balls among branch forks or even on small pieces of wood on the floor. They will eventually spread out nicely.

<lorba> I used thin fishing line to tie all of them to wood or rock. Threads are quite unsightly and takes long time to disintegrate.

<tsunami> How about the rosette plants such as Cryptocoryne sp. and Echinodorus sp.? How do you choose to plant these in your layouts, and how exactly do you go about planting them? Do you remove all the outer
leaves or shorten the roots before planting?

<lorba> Before I plant them, I will cut the roots down to about 2-3cm. If the Echinodorus has too many leaves, its helpful if you remove 1/3 to 2/5 of the leaves. The plants floats easily when there is too many leaves.

<lorba> Plan the position and space carefully when you go for a echindorous, as most will grow to very large size taking up big diameters. On the other hand, cryptocorynes are wonderful midground plants. I like to stuff them in between woods and in clusters at the sides.

<lorba> Just to share a useful note that I learn from a farm operator. When you plant a potted cryptocoryne which is tissue cultured, it is best not to break them up. Remove as much mineral wools as you care and plant the whole bunch. They will grow faster and nicer this way. You can easily tell a tissue cultured pot by determining if the plants are well rooted, and stick to each other closer by rhizome.

<tsunami> Do stem plants in these layouts play any role, at least in the beginning stages to absorb excess nutrients and control algae?

<lorba> I find that by playing with the light intensity period mentioned before, algae is minimal even without stem plants. However, lots of stem plants do help in the beginning stage of any plant tank. Choose the fast growing species such as rotalas.

<tsunami> What care tends to go into your aquascapes? Do you add liquid fertilizers to the aquarium, and what do you tend to use if you do? I imagine that you would not use too much nitrate or phosphate in such layouts, which would speed up growth.

<lorba> For most of my tanks, Iíve designed so that minimal care is required, such as the lighting period discussed, and also by keeping the water chilled at 25-26C. All fertilization and water changes are kept at once a fortnight for the low maintenance layouts.

<lorba> I do upkeep a few high light stem plants tank on my own which I uses FERKA Aquatilizer (macro, micro) and Balance (K and Trace elements) on alternate days. On top of this, I add Potassium powder almost on daily basis to keep the bubbling and pearling nice and a little Nitrate per water change to get strong stem plants growth.

<lorba> If you love toninas and eriocaulon, this is one of the best way to keep it growing nicely and healthily.

<tsunami> How often do you change the water and when do you start doing so?

<lorba> As mentioned, I do water changes per fortnightly at 50% for low maintenance one. As for the high light tanks which I added lots of fertilizers and nitrate, I do more frequent water change at probably once per week.

<tsunami> Do you usually face any sort of algae infestations during the first few months? How do you handle algae outbreaks if they do appear in such a layout?

<lorba> The only time when I face algae infestations is when the tank gets some direct sunlight and when water change frequency is adequate. Most of time, algae comes from the new plants that I bought, rather then grown out of the tank.

<lorba> I am not permitted to do black outs in my customer places, therefore, frequent water changes and dosing fertilizers as usual helps a lot. Physical removal of the algae is important as well.

<lorba> More then often, if you find algae among your mosses, the best solution would be dump it and start over again. A lazy-man method, but itís the fastest and most effective way.

<tsunami> After the aquarium hardscaping and plantings are completed, how long do you wait before adding the aquarium inhabitants? Do you add shrimp and algae eating fish in the first month and then later add the other fish? Please explain.

<lorba> Most of the time, my tanks are in public location where the owners will not tolerate a single day without any fishes. Since water parameter is pretty neutral here in Singapore, I add the fishes on the first day.

<lorba> The most usual combination I have are : 300 shrimps, 20 otocinclus, 10 Siamese algae eaters, dwarf puffer fishes and whatever fishes chose. More then often, it is 200 cardinal tetras. Casualty rate from what I see is pretty low, mostly the shrimps suffered if they come from a lousy shipment.

<lorba> I guess the 2 filters method helps too where high initial bio-load is concerned.

<tsunami> When choosing fish for these layouts, what do you tend to look for in the fish? Do you choose fish according to color, size, or movement? Feeding habits? How does general maintenance of a fish species affect its viability as a choice for a low maintenance layout? i.e. discus are high maintenance in relation to most other fish.

<lorba> There is a reason for popularity of cardinal tetras. They look beautiful in any aquascape, and stands out especially in slightly dim, low maintenance green tanks. These fishes feeds readily on autofeeders and I have least worries about keeping them well fed.

<lorba> For biotope themes, for example a Southeast Asian one, I choose fishes that are active and school well. Most will get use to the feeding spot and linger around the area during the feeding time. Such as harlequin rasbora, six banded barbs.

<lorba> Discus on the other hand is slightly tricky, especially during the introduction period. They might be very shy and fall sicks easily. But once they get use to it, they are pretty fine with even chilled water at 26C. Make sure you have big plants or hiding places to avoid stressing them out. If you intend to keep them with other cichlids such as altum angels (in bigger group), you will need a biger tank so that territory is not an issue.

<lorba> Tricky fishes are those that have different appetite. I will need to buy crickets to feed the archer fishes, and they may go hungry once they hunted down all those in a vivarium before the maintenance day.

<tsunami> From beginning to end, how long would you say does such an aquascape need to mature? Could you give us a general timeline of what we should be seeing in a week by week basis in the first 8 weeks?

<lorba> For a low maintenance tank with moss ferns, you should not be expecting much in the first 2 months. Most of the time, ferns may brown off before coming back strong. Moss will take some time to adapt and grow lushly.

<lorba> Try to use ferns or anubias that are already grown underwater for your new aquascape. Probably some young plants from a big mother plant. This way, you skip the acclimatization period of the plants which sometimes take months!

<lorba> I would say give a fern, crypt and moss roughly about 4 months to mature.

<tsunami> Do you have any other recommendations to add in the creation and progress of a low maintenance layout in the first couple of months? Anything you have to recommend to the neophyte who does not want to dive immediately into a high light, CO2 injected stem plant tank?

<lorba> Keeping a low maintenance tank does not necessary means lower cost or lower technology. But, generally, fluorescents do the job nicely.

<lorba> CO2-less is fine for new set up, but you will experience very slow growth and may be, not a lush one. A moss-only tank might see good result though.

<tsunami> What do you enjoy most about your work and business as a professional aquascaper in Singapore?

<lorba> The most enjoyable part of my work is to be able to meet many people and be able to create something that they like. The most satisfaction comes when the customer likes the work. Its also very helpful to hear the comments of non-hobbyists as they can usual pin point something that is lacking.

<lorba> Its fun to be able to turn hobby a job!

<tsunami> Thank you for giving us this presentation Roland. It has been most informative and helpful in creating alternative layouts for those who do not have the time to make frequent water changes, weekly pruning, and heavy fertilization.

<lorba> Thank you too, for being here tonight. I hope you find some helpful tips in getting your hands drier and lower your water bills!

<tsunami> Thanks everyone for doing a good job of keeping silent. Now, we will commence our question and answer period. If you have a question, please send me a private message in chat. I will ask questions in order of receipt.

<tsunami> Question asked by SnyperP
<tsunami> Do you forsee FERKA being available in the United states in the future?

<lorba> Likely. I was talking to a company who did a trial on the product. But I have yet to hear anything.

<tsunami> CGI009 asked:
<tsunami> Do you use a TDS meter?

<lorba> No, i guess its not really necessary for a tank. And for good water in Singapore, its less required.

<tsunami> Next question is by squee:
<tsunami> For a 2ft 16 gallon tank, do you think that crypts should be used? If so, are they more suitable in the midground or background?

<lorba> If you If you are planning a low maintenance one, crypts are a perfect choice. Try C. parva for somewhere in the foreground. Other crypts like wendtiis, becketiis are good for mid/background in small tanks. C. balansae will be too big for a 2ft tank.

<tsunami> Last question for the night, asked by SnyperP:
<tsunami> We've all recently seen alot of your customer location tanks. How much time do you generally spend at each location? Specifically in mind at Banmainum in Thailand.

<lorba> The Bnmainum is not maintained by me. J The restaurant owner is a hobbyist himself. There is also a good friend of his who help out at the store within the compound.

<lorba> I try to keep maintenance at a location within an hour. I do spend up
to 2, 3 hours at private houses, maintaining and talking to my customer. Still very much interested to talk about plants and fishse.

<tsunami> First, I'd like to thank Roland again for providing this wonderful
presentation to us. Next, I'd like to thank all of you for cooperating
during this presentation and, most of all, for being here. THANK YOU ALL!
Chat is now open.

End of #apcchat buffer Sun Sep 04 05:06:50 2005

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