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An interview with Jeff Senske, April 2004
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11-12-2005, 04:58 PM
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| | An interview with Jeff Senske, April 2004
Thank you for volunteering your time for our aquascaping forum. Here are the questions I would like to ask you for the interview. You can simply answer the questions and send them to me when you are done by email. Here are the questions:
Carlos: How did you become interested in the planted aquarium hobby?How long have you been in the hobby? JEFF: Aquariums have always been a part of my life. My Grandfather kept aquariums in Germany (which,of course, has always had a strong presence in the aquarium hobby/industry). My Dad owned a tropical fish store while he was in verterinary school and we always had tanks around the house. Saltwater, freshwater- I can't remember a time when we didn't have a "pet" Arowana, for example. All my first jobs were in fish and pet stores and I just really enjoyed it. We started our own retail store from scratch in 1990 and it quickly became a true hobbyist's shop. Unfortunately, as successful as the shop was, Mike and I were young and not very business savvy. As well we were such hard-core hobbyists ourselves, we had a tendency to spend all our profits on new displays and cool rare fish. I ended up moving to California for a few years and my brother decided to sell the store and go into custom aquarium design,installation and service. I moved back to Texas and we worked together for another company for a few years before starting Aquarium Design Group in May of 2000. Around 1997 I saw Amano's Nature Aquarium World books and, like countless others, was completely blown away. I knew instantly that the Nature Aquarium style was what I wanted to do. I spent a good year just studying those books trying to figure out how on earth to create such things. So while I have been in the aquarium hobby all my life, and did keep "tanks with plants in them" before seeing Amano, I really only have been serious about planted tanks and aquascaping for about 7 years.
Carlos: As a professional aquarium designer, what strategies and techniques do you use such as decisions effecting plant choice, technology, and pruning techniques to make sure the aquarium runs smoothly while you are not there? JEFF: The majority of my layouts must last at least 2 years. While I do have a select few clients with smaller tanks where I can do stemmed-plant compositions, mostly I am dealing with 200 plus gallon systems-often taller than the standard 24" (60cm) Amano and most others work with. So, as for plant choice, I work with a lot of anubias, all the ferns (narrow-leaf Java fern has been perhaps the greatest plant to come along for my needs), Cyperus helferi (great because it really adds a certain elegance or what I like to call "finery" to a layout- especially when using a lot of anubias and thicker-leafed ferns), Crypts, and Echinodorus. I am really into Crypt willisi for a foreground plant in big tanks right now. I like Crypt lucens a lot as well. These thicker-leafed varities seem alot more resilient and less prone to meltdowns or Crypt disease and make really cool, low-maintenance foregrounds that can last and last.
Technology-wise, I am totally into trickle filters/overflow boxes on big tanks now. CO2 reactors are a must over diffusers. I am also totally dedicated to halide lighting now too; especially HQI. It packs such a punch in a small package- you can grow anything under them.
As far as pruning techniques are concerned, it's really an area that I fell I am still constantly learning. I have really had to "learn as I go" and devise my specific methods because so many of my tanks are in settings where they have to be very presentable at all times. So where you might normally really whack a section, I might have to be more careful or trim in a more detailed manner as to really retain the shape or presence of a given section or plant. Thinning out really mature tanks has proven to be an area where I have not had any real reference points or "tips" if you will; unlike with trimming stem plants for example, where at least Amano has provided some direction or reference. It's really just a feel thing and sort of hard to describe in terms of specifics. Suffice it to say my goal is to maintain as much consistency as possible. There is definitely a "pressure" element to it, I can assure you, when the client expects the tank to always look great. I can add here that I do lately emphasize plants that don't necessarily need to be rooted in substrate (again, anubias, ferns, mosses) and this has even come to include many stem plants. I've found a lot of awesome stem plants actually do better and are much easier to manage when the aren't planted/rooted deeply in the substrate. I am either gently attaching them to stones or using a weight to hold them in place. Do keep in mind, though, my use of stem plants is generally pretty limited to only the hardiest species (lots of Hygrophila varieties).
Carlos: I've heard members of the Dallas-Ft Worth club discuss your DIY substrate recipe. Do you still use this substrate mix? If not the ingredients, could you please detail your reasoning behind the recipe? If you have switched to commercial substrates, which one do you use now? JEFF: My recipe has always been a mixture of laterite, Flourite, Terra-lit, and Flourish tabs. I usually cap this with whatever gravel I'm using on the specific layout. Recently I started adding a little Ferti-Plant Plus on the topmost layer just for a little "jump-start" of nutrients near the initial root growth. I tried switching to Carib-Sea's Eco-Complete and was really disappointed. It did not seem to measure up to the claims on the packaging- which would have you believe it was the most amazing and all encompassing product ever made. I wish there was a comparable system to Amano's out there. Why one of these companies have not analyzed Amano's stuff and basically duplicated it is an ongoing mystery to me. Obviously his system is awesome and looks awesome too. I think there is really something to his Power Sand product. While Flourite makes up the bulk of my mixture, I find it exceedingly ugly and never keep it exposed.
Carlos: Of all the aquascapers I've interviewed so far, your aquarium layouts seem to be the most influenced by Takashi Amano. Do you follow any particular artistic style or philosophy when creating your planted aquarium layouts? JEFF: Let me just say that I would not be doing what I am doing in this life were it not for Amano. He has been a source of boundless inspiration, and I owe the man a tremendous debt of gratitude. If you follow Aqua Journal, you know he continues to progress and push limits. Yes, I do still reference Amano when devising a new layout. Especially in the area of "tricks" and planting techniques. The different ways he uses Java moss for example- as an accent, a foreground, or completely encasing a piece of wood, for example- I study his work and deploy the same techniques. However, I feel in the end I am still creating something unique and my own. I have never (intentionally ) tried to duplicate and Amano layout, but to take cues from him is sort of necessary. The ADA Layout Contest has certainly exposed us all to some world-class aquascaping as well.
I also wouldn't say I try and follow any one style or aesthetic, though obviously I amdrawn to Japanese styles and influences. Because the spaces in which I do tanks varies so much, I feel I must be able to cover a lot of ground in terms of style. I can tell you that if there was one defining moment for me- a singular event that forever changed the way I approach aquascaping- it was at the 2001 AGA Convention. I had brought several photos of my work and like the student before the master I showed them to Amano. He said I was on the right track and obviously knew how to grow healthy plants-but that my tanks lacked "philosophy." While he did not elaborate, I understood what he meant. I was arranging plants and trying to balance things enough, but my compositions lacked a unifying element- a clear direction or intent. Plants growing healthfully in an aquarium alone are not sufficient to achieve the higher goals of aquascaping, though I do think such tanks to can evoke a similar response from someone who doesn't "know" anything about aquascaping as an artform (i.e. what we are now commonly referring to as "collector tanks"). Ghanzafar Ghori's Tank of the Month here at APC certainly shows that. He claims it's not aquascaped, but I find it beautiful and a brilliant accident.
Carlos: When creating a new layout for a customer, what type of design planning occurs before actually setting up the tank? JEFF: These days, quite bit of design planning occurs. When I first started, I was both ambitious and naive. I was attempting all sorts of high maintenance foregrounds and lots of stemmed plants. To a large extent, I was limited in terms of plant availability and resources because I had only ever really bought plants from my local retailer. I would see all these cool species in the Amano books, but I had no idea how to get them. Cyperus helferi is one that always sticks out in my mind because it is the perfect tall, grassy, very elegant plant and it is totally stationary- no unwanted runners invading other sections and no real trimming involved. Now that I can get most all of the species I need, I have been able to form more coherent ideas in my head and then actually produce them with at least some degree of accuracy.
Typically I meet with the client specifically to discuss the layout. They look at a combination of my portfolio and Amano books and Aqua Journals. Of course they migrate toward the most amazingly impossible designs first, whereby I proceed to tell them the 100 reasons why that design won't work for them (inappropriate tank dimensions, maintenance issues, etc.) What this does, though is allows us to figure out the general direction of the aquascape. Are we going minimal, dense, stem plants, shade plants, is layout consistency a major concern or is some down-time while stem plants grow back on O.K.? Rocks, wood, rock and wood, open foreground or glosso/riccia fantasy? etc. From there I try and think of the lowest maintenance/most manageable way to achieve the look. Most of the time I have a few weeks from the time I have discussed layout until I go in and do it, so I spend quite a bit of time- while I'm driving, eating lunch, etc.- thinking about layouts. It ultimately is a lot of mental prep because when I go in to execute, I'm in a setting where (unlike your own home) I really have to get it right the first time. Of course I can still make changes once the tank gets going, but the essence and direction has to be there from the get go.
Carlos: What are your main goals when setting up a new tank? JEFF: My goals are foremost concerned with blowing the clients mind, to put it frankly. Right up there though is the desire to impress or feel like I've outdone myself. I am extremely critical of and usually very hard on myself. In my mind, I am yet to produce an aquascape that's even close to where I want to be. I feel I've done some cool tanks, but still have so far to go to even get in the same universe as Amano and many of the other great aquascape designers out there. I do have to remember that the VAST majority of my planted tanks really do have different objectives and accompanying needs that put me in a (at least somewhat) different category. I am doing this as a business and not just a hobby, so my approach is different- as are the results. My main goal right now is to create an aquascape of the ultimate impact that still is practical to maintain (into the years, not just months). At the same, I don't want to become formulic- I want to do something different every time, even if it's with the same core elements.
Carlos: Are there any tactics or techniques you use to make arrangement decisions in your designs? Do you use any guidelines or rules for wood or rock placement? How about the use of colored plants? Fish choice? JEFF: I try to go into a layout with some design direction but a lot of times, once I start arranging the hardscape, it takes a turn I never expected. Often it's even totally accidental. Maybe a piece of wood shifts a certain way, revealing an angle that cues the repositioning of another piece and so on until pretty soon you've created something totally spontaneous and new. So I like to have a clear direction, but really try to keep my mind open and in the moment. Though I can say for the most part I do often use same of the defaults we all do of tall plants in back, shorter plants in the front with a well defined midground. Where I can't do this is on many of the really challenging room-divider or multiple-angle installations I do. On these, you basically have to abandon all rules because- as far as I 've seen anyway- there are none. I just haven't seen enough examples of those types of layout situations to have any sort of reference point for how to go about it in my mind. Amano certainly has not gone there to any degree. Oliver Knott is among the only others, and let me just say here his layouts are very cool.
As for using colored plants, I find I just don't have a lot of great settings. So many of my tanks are exceedingly tall- 30 inches plus. It is really hard to grow a lot of color plants in those dimensions. What I do try and do is bring in different shades of green and really focus on leaf shapes. A good contrast of shapes with the right complements can create good visual interest even the color is predominantly green. Sometimes I do incorporate a red stem plant or something that will get some height and is rugged (i.e. Rotala magenta, Rotala indica, Hygophila ploysperma) in a way that if I either trim it down or have to get rid of it down the road, the layout as a whole is not dependent on it.
Fish choice is a biggie for me. I'm really into trying to harmonize the fish with the aquascape. It's a double challenge for me in many instances, though, where the client gets set on having a fish because of the fish- not the way it will complement the layout. Cardinal tetras are the best example of this. Everyone wants cardinals for their bright colors whether the are right for the tank or not. Ultimately, I am really looking to satify the needs of the specific project and people are generally more into fish than plants and you have got to impress both those with and without a clue as to what a planted tank is all about. I always try to avoid the "fish circus" look that can easily occur when you have too many species. We have all learned that fish don't stay in these perfect formations like in Amanophotographs. Too many species scattered about can really distract from a great aquascape. I've certainly encountered the same thing with discus. I think that's what kept my extra-large entry in the 2003 AGA Contest out of more serious running. Too many garish discus amongst a rather serene copmposition. I could not have agreed more with the judges' critique in that respect. That was,however, a prime example of a client dictating the fish and me not having much say in the matter. While fish to layout harmony is a subjective, creative, artistic matter, it's really the key to bringing it all together. It all depends on your goals for the aquascape. I think Amano has more than proven it's not just about color- shape and movement are a big part of the equation.
Carlos: What do you enjoy most about designing and creating aquariums? JEFF: Honestly, the coolest thing for me is seeing people's reactions to planted tanks. I mean to aquariums in general, when they are well executed, most people inherently respond in some sort of positive way. But planted tanks truly evoke their own unique response. I think it's that a tank with flourishing live plants is actually what most people idealize in their mind when they even just think of the word "aquarium"- they have just never actually seen it really done. I think that's why we all had that tingling feeling when we first saw the Nature Aquarium World books. The coolest thing before that (to the non-hobbyist anyway) was a reef tank or salt water fish tanks.
Laying out the hardscape, in particular, has become very enjoyable. I'm sure finally having access to beautiful wood and stone helps! Dry-scaping changed everything for me, too. Laying the tank out without water in it gives you better overall perspective and you can move things around so much easier. It's just a lot more civilized! Plus the tank is nice and clear when you fill it up; they seem to get going much faster, too. I'm much more into the process now. Before I was just going for it- I didn't know how I was going to manage so many tanks and control all the variables. Now that I've got a little experience under my belt, I can relax a little and try and enjoy it more.
I feel very fortunate to get to do something I am so passionate about for my daily work. Getting to work with architects and designers and other artists on big projects is very rewarding. ADG is really trying hard to elevate the aquarium arts to the same heights as other artforms and crafts, and we have made a lot of encouraging headway this past two years. It's a ton of work, but when you love it, it's not so bad.
Carlos: What is in the horizon for you in terms of aquascaping? Are there any particular ideas you look forward to implementing in future arrangements? Do you feel that you have anything left to learn? JEFF: I'm going to continue to work on designing really high impact but lower maintenance/long-term oriented aquascapes. I want to push the limits of what can be done with the familiar, hardy, and abundant Cryptocorynes, Anubias, Echinodorus, Valisnerias, ferns and Hygrophila species. But I also love stem plants and intricate foregrounds and I want to expand in those areas as well. Sand and open foregrounds are really intriguing also. Using an open, sandy foreground has proven awesome for discus planted tanks. I'm doing heavy Ehinodorus species in the back, dividing the substrate from the sand with stones. This creates a wonderful open area for food to settle so the discus can graze off the bottom at their leisure. Another big benefit is that you can vacuum the open portion as often as you like to keep it really clean. This not only improves water quality by removing an excess of debris you nornally wouldn't get to, but keeps the foreground sand itself pristinely clean and nice looking. This style of discus layout has allowed me to feed a wider range of foods to the point that I have got most of my fish totally off bloodworms (so they actually grow and thrive!).
We recently completed our first open-top tank here at Gallery ADG. The custom tank is a totally trimless, no center-bracing or perimeter support construction making it a super clean-lined Amano-style glass box and it is gorgeous. The composition is almost entirely stem plants with 3 species of hairgrass, 2 species of tenellus, and Glossostigma foreground. The mostly wood hardscape has long branches that break the surface and create a dramatic architectural feel. High-maintenance? Indeed! It's not a layout style we expect to offer to a lot of clients. We really did it foremost for the sheer art and coolness of it. I'd love to see the open style get more momentum here in the States and people have to see it to get it and progress it.
Anything left to learn? Oh my, so much still left to learn. I'm just getting started. I did my first serious plant tank in 1998 so my career is still in it's infancy. I have many ideas, some of which I've held on to for a long time now, that I am yet to have the setting or the TIME (!) to execute. To those ends, I am still full of energy and passion. I HAVE NOT YET BEGUN TO AQUASCAPE!!
Carlos: Finally, is there any particular advice you would give to a hobbyist creating his first planted aquarium layout? JEFF: Keep it simple in terms of species until you get the hang of it. Try and explore your creative ideas, don't worry about getting every latest cool plant. Think about how you can creatively use the plants you can get and get more into your hardscape (wood, stone, decorative substrate). Always enjoy.
700 gallon (10 ft x 3 ft x 3 ft)
Lighting: 4x175w Metal Halide + 2x110watt 10,000k VHO over the Hygrophila (1.31 wpg)
Substrate: Eco-complete capped with natural quartz gravel
Plants: Anubias barteri v barteri, Anubias barteri v nana, Cryptocoryne wendtii 'red', Cryptocoryne lucens, Cryptocoryne x willisii, Microsorium pteropus "Windelov", Microsorium pteropus "Narrow Leaf", Hygrophila sp., Vesicularia dubyana (Java moss)
Fish/Invertebrates: Congo Tetras, Serpae Tetras, P. simulans (green neon), Roseline sharks, Otocinclus sp, Caridinia japonica.
375 gallon (8 ft x 30 in x 30 in)
Lighting: 3x150w Metal Halide (1.2 wpg)
Substrate: Eco-complete in the back with Deko-line "Broken White" in the front
Plants: Echinodorus bleheri, Echinodorus "Ozelot"
Fish/Invertebrates: Discus (Blue Diamond and Striated Red from Jack Wattley Discus), Cadinal Tetras (P. axelrodi), Caridinia japonica.
550 gallon (8 ft x 3 ft x 3ft)
Lighting: 3x150 Metal Halide + 2x140w 10,000k VHO Flourescent (1.33 wpg)
Substrate: Laterite+Terralit+Flourite capped with natural quartz gravel
Plants: Hygrophila sp., Cyperus helferi, Anubias barteri v barteri, Anubias barteri v nana, Microsorium pteropus "Narrow Leaf", Microsorium pteropus "Windelov", Cryptocoryne wendtii "green", Cryptocoryne walkeri, Cryptocoryne pontederiifolia Cryptocoryne balansae, Cryptocoryne lucens
Fish/Invertebrates: Cardinal Tetras (P. axelrodi), Rummy-nose Tetra (H. rhodostomus), Lemon Tetra (H. pulchripinnis), Otocinculus sp, Caridinia japonica.
Last edited by tsunami; 11-12-2005 at 06:08 PM..
An interview with Jeff Senske, April 2004
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