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Our featured member this month is Jason Baliban. Jason has been an active promoter of the aquascaping hobby. He was recently featured as one of the Iron Aquascapers at the AGA Convention this past November, 2008. He is also noted in AquaJorunal #159.

photo by John Dinh

Tell us a little about yourself.

I live just outside of Philadelphia (Flyers Country!!). I've lived in the Philadelphia area for the majority of my life, aside from a 4-year time period where I lived in south FL. I am married and we support two lovely cats, Satch and Zoe. I have quite a few hobbies, my wife might say too many. I have been playing guitar for 16 years. I collect and smoke cigars. I dabble in photography, carpentry, and audio engineering. I make my living working as a computer programmer for a medical company and for my own company

Jam session

How did you get into aquariums, and planted aquaria in particular?

I got my first aquarium for my 3rd birthday. It was a 10 gallon tank with blue gravel and a sweet bubble filter in the shape of a boat with a cannon. Throughout most of my life, I have had aquariums in one form or another. When I was living in FL, aquatic plants were much more available in LFS's. One day, I finally bit the bullet and bought some at the store. I knew close to nothing about plants, so they didn't do very well. After the plants died, I started to do some research on the internet. I quickly found some pictures of successful planted aquariums. I had never seen anything like them before, especially the Amano stuff. At that point, it was my goal to create something like that for myself. Unfortunately at that time, I was moving back to PA, and I wouldn't set up a real planted tank for another 3 years.


You recently participated in the Iron Aquascaper competition at the 2008 AGA Convention. How was that experience for you?

It was interesting for sure. I was honored to be part of it. I was only told about it a few hours before the actual event, so that did add a little to my nervousness. I had a great group of people sitting in front of me. They were asking me questions and really getting inspired by what was going on around them. I really enjoy answering questions and being challenged during demos or presentations. The interaction is what I enjoyed the most. Hats off to John for putting together a nice tank and eventually taking the gold in the competition.

Both of you did a great job. It was interesting to see some of the techniques you used. I've actually bought some zip ties to help keep my driftwood compositions in shape.

Zip ties are life savers!! I have used them in almost every layout that I have done that utilizes wood. They have more holding power then wood tight, and they are pretty easy to use. Maybe I am starting a trend?

Iron Aquascaper layout by Jason Baliban

What are your favorite books? Movies? Music? Games? Foods? Beverages? Vacation spot?

Books: I wish I had more interest in casual reading. Most of my reading is research or informative.

Movies: Top 10
1) Aliens
2) Goodfellas
3) The Matrix
4) Dark Knight
5) Ghostbusters
6) Jaws
7) Contact
8 ) Empire Strikes Back
9) Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
10) Lord of the Rings Fellowship of the Ring

Music: Top 10 Albums
1) Tool - Aenima
2) Joe Satriani - Crystal Planet
3) Chicane - Behind the Sun
4) Pink Floyd - Animals
5) Metallica - Master of Puppets
6) Dream Theater - Falling into Infinity
7) 311 - Music
8 ) DJ Sakin - Walk on Fire
9) Pantera - Great Southern Trendkill
10) Red Hot Chili Peppers - Blood Sugar Sex Magik

1) Halo!!
2) The new Tomb Raider is pretty good
3) I used to be able to finish The Legend of Zelda (both quests) straight through without dying.

Food: I'm like Louis Navarro; I love all food, that is the problem!! Sorry Louis we are stuck to eating Salmon :(

Vacation: I hate the cold, so i do my best to go to FL, CA, or HI!! That being said, I would like to visit the majority of the US National Parks, New Zealand, and Australia in the future.

Do you have any tips for the aspiring aquascaper?

Understand your goals. Growing and collecting plants requires a different approach than creating layouts and aquascapes. Understanding your ultimate goal will allow you to determine which way to approach the project.

I am an aquascaper through and through. When you are new to aquascaping, I suggest copying your favorite aquascape. The amazing thing about our hobby is that you can't control or contain nature. It will always do what it wants. So even if you do copy an aquascape, it will never turn out the exact same way. This approach will really help a new aquascaper understand how plants grow, and learn to think about layout and composition. Eventually, your own style and philosophy will work their way into your work. Style is a journey. You never stop growing or developing as a person. All of your experiences, struggles, and triumphs will find their way into your style and philosophy.

I would bet that quite a few new aquascapers have used some of your tanks for their inspiration Do you remember your first aquascape and your inspiration for it?

My first aquascape was "Serenity." I think it was really inspired by the idea that I could finally grow plants. I remember struggling, like everyone else, for the first year before I felt comfortable creating something with composition.


I've noticed that your aquascapes have a great sense of depth in their creation. Do you have any tips for our members in creating a depth in a layout?

This is something I really intend to work on in my next few layouts. I've had a lot of artistic training through the years, so perhaps there is a good base already there, but I think the limited success I have with creating depth might have been more of an accident. I hope to offer more insight on this in the coming year.

"Valley to the East"

You've been very proficient in the quality aquascapes you've made. Do you have have a particular way you plan out your aquascapes when you start?

My inspiration has shifted through the years. The first 3 layouts I did were inspired by demonstrations that I had watched. I saw Jeff Senske do a demo and it changed the way I approached the tank, not really in an artistic way, but in a technical way. These technical efficiencies that i picked up from Jeff and some other demos helped me control the possible outcomes of the layout that really inspired me for a while. The next few layouts where inspired by the ADA pictures and the ADA culture. I had bought an ADA tank, made an ADA stand, what was left, but to create ADA? The last tank I did, Hill of Skull, was really designed to evoke emotion, more so than nature or beauty. I really like that layout. It has its shortcomings, but it's wicked and it finished very similarly to what I envisioned. These days I am trying to be inspired by nature and places I have been.

Do you have a favorite aquascape that you've created?

I would say I like Valley to the East and Hill of Skull the best.

Valley to the East, although 2 years old and long torn down, still evokes the most conversation and emotion from people. I still get emails from people amazed by this tank. At the same time, I still get comments stating that it is too busy and unfocused. These two drastically different opinions really do make this the most powerful layout I have done to date.

Hill of Skull, was really different for me. I really went with the idea of creating emotion and tension vs. creating nature. It turned out very similar to what I had pictured in my head, and I'm proud of that.

"Hill of Skull"

If you could be an animal, what kind would you be and why?

A bird; they get places the fastest ;)

We've been honored to have you speak at a Pittsburgh Area Planted Aquarium Society meeting. You've also given talks at the local fish clubs in the Philadelphia area, as well as created your website It seems you have a particular gift for promoting the hobby. What got you interested promoting the planted aquarium hobby and educating others?

It really is what I enjoy most about the hobby. I love to talk to people about their successful and frustrating experiences. I remember how great, and hard, it was to just start out. I remember meeting people who had the patience to talk me through some of the tough concepts. I owe a lot of gratitude to people like Hawkeye, Jeff Senske, and Wolf for getting me going through the learning curve. I enjoy the ability to be that for other people. I am fortunate that most of my work has been well received, so to share my experiences and approaches just makes a lot of sense to me. We are all students, and I still learn something new any time I speak with a fellow hobbyist. Yoshi from ADA just showed me how to properly use a net to skim plants off the surface; how I never knew is beyond me:)

One of these days you'll need to make some videos on techniques like skimming plants off the surface for us.

I wish it was that exciting. It really was just a matter of holding the net in a way that made the netting taught, like a pool skimmer. I feel quite silly that for the longest time I just let the net go uncontrolled like I was catching fish.

You mentioned you dabble in photography. In fact, actually remember a helpful article for improving pictures with a 'point and shoot' cameras that you wrote. What equipment do you use when you take photos of your tanks?

Yes, that article has helped quite a few people. I had a lot of fun making that article. I used a standard point and shoot Canon for it. I remember being so surprised that the results were really very close to the results I would get with a DSLR. What sets those pictures apart from the final pictures I use for my website is just the amount of light I use. I add a considerable amount of light to the top of a tank before I shoot it - sometimes over 500 watts!! I use remote flashes to create the white backgrounds. The camera triggers the flashes, but they are dialed in manually for desired brightness. The camera that I used for all the shots on was the Nikon D80 with a Nikkor 18-55m lens (kit lens). This lens is great for aquariums. It is very sharp and has little distortion. Since the time of my last posted photos, I picked up a Nikon D700, but I have yet to use it for aquarium photography.

photo by Jason Baliban - "Sun"

photo by Jason Baliban - "hands"

photo by Jason Baliban - "Rain"

Do you have a particular fertilizing regime you follow?

Sadly, I am really not a great horticulturist. I rely on people like Max, Cavan and Dave (ingg) to explain to me the science behind the plants. I am not one of those people that can say, "I can tell what I am missing just by looking at the plants." I meet a lot of people who love to talk plants. They love to talk about origin and needs and all kinds of exciting things. Generally during those conversations I am very quiet, as I know very little of the topic. I focus on layout, composition and texture; these are the things that excite me about this hobby.

My current routine for nutrients is pretty simple. I dose my macros all in one solution. The solution has a pretty standard ratio of NPK, I tweak it a little give then excess nitrate in my tap water. I dose very lean, similar to an ADA or PPS Pro approach. I use 1ml of macro per 10 gallons and 1ml of micro per 20 gallons daily.

For CO2 I use diffusers, and generally dial in a bubble rate of 2-3bps for 50 gallons or 3-5bps for 90 gallons.

Thanks for the interview, it's been a pleasure as always!
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