Plants are the stars of nature aquariums

Aquariums aren't just for fish anymore.

Dave Getzschman/Los Angeles Times
Steven and George Lo at their Aqua Forest Aquarium in San Francisco.

In the display tanks of Aqua Forest Aquarium, there is no neon gravel, no miniature plastic castles, no sunken treasure boxes sprinkled with glitter. Instead, owners and brothers George and Steven Lo have created natural replicas of miniature underwater worlds: a branched piece of driftwood draped with dark green moss, a lush undulating fern-filled forest, a peaceful grassy meadow and, in a tiny 5-1/2-gallon tank, a jewel-box water-filled terrarium.

Small fish and shrimp dot these environments, but, like a flock of birds or grazing cattle in a landscape painting, they are only supporting characters. Here, the underwater plants get the attention.

Aqua Forest Aquarium is the first shop in the United States to specialize in the style known as "nature aquarium" -- the idea that rather than simply housing a colorful collection of fish, an aquarium should reflect the beauty, visual harmony, and even tension of a wild landscape.

Plants are the main element, but driftwood and stones are used as well to create a more natural feel. There are other types of planted aquariums, but this design philosophy was developed in the late 1970s by Japanese nature photographer Takashi Amano, whom George Lo describes as "like a god."

Nature aquariums are more popular in Asia, but the trend is taking root in the US. The movement owes its existence to Mr. Amano, who has put out four lavish books about freshwater aquascaping.

He began experimenting with aquariums in his early 20s, inspired by a boyhood playing in the Yoroi wetlands in Japan and later during trips to tropical rain forests in the Amazon, West Africa, and Borneo.

"When I swam in the river, I found many aquatic plants flourishing and fish swimming in schools," he wrote in an e-mail. "Here the plants are the place for spawning, and [a] hiding place for fish."

Underwater, he found a world where plants turned sunlight into oxygen for fish, where nature found balance. "I wanted to create a space where plants and fish coexist in a harmony inside an aquarium tank."

Amano's aquascapes are so dynamic and full of movement they look as if they are going to burst out of the tank. Sometimes they do. It is not uncommon for his plants, stones, and driftwood to pop right out of the top by design.

"Based on my experiences, and exploration to tropical regions, I believe my layout is getting close to the image of nature and natural habitat," Amano says. "In a sense, the layout looks more natural than nature, I think."

Last year George Lo placed 20th in an international competition sponsored by Amano's aquascaping company, ADA. No fewer than 1,342 people from 51 countries submitted photographs of their aquascapes.

George Lo's tank -- the only American entry to place in the top 30 -- was a 170-gallon scene of serenity. A delicate carpet of clover rolled across the foreground as tufts of soft grass rose gently in the background. A thoughtful arrangement of gray stone slabs anchored the green, and a school of small blue and red cardinal tetra fish floated above it all.

George Lo says the iwagumi design, based on a Japanese rock garden layout, took him more than a year to perfect.

He spent weeks on the placement of the stones alone. He wanted them to look as though they had been tossed in a riverbed, resting at the most stable positions. But they were heavy and difficult to move, and if he had dropped one, it could have cracked his tank.

He also had trouble making sure the clover filled out along the bottom correctly. It kept getting leggy.

"It is kind of stressful to design a tank," he says. "They are always changing, and with these tanks you won't know how it looks until the plants start to grow out."

For some, the home aquarium may conjure images of children trying out their pet-raising training wheels or a bored bachelor overinvesting in tropical fish, but the planted aquarium has been gaining a US following.

Karen Randall, who sits on the board of the Aquatic Gardeners Association, began getting serious about growing plants in her aquariums in the mid-1980s but had trouble back then finding a store that sold a variety of live plants.

Even if an aquarium owner could find underwater plants, Ms. Randall says, information on how to take care of them was limited.

The rise of the Internet, however, has changed all that. Finding fellow underwater plant enthusiasts and sharing advice became much easier, even on an international level.

"Europe was kind of ahead of the US in terms of plant selection and how to best keep them alive," Randall says.

By 1991, the Aquatic Gardeners Association put out a magazine for 300 aquascapers, who met mostly through online message boards. Since then, the number of subscriptions to the quarterly publication has quadrupled to a current high of 1,200.

At their last bi-annual conference in Atlanta, 150 aquascapers attended lectures on tissue grafting and watched an "iron man aquascaping challenge" in which two people were each given one tank and one hour to aquascape it.

Amano's books have been translated into six languages, and he lectures and holds workshops throughout the world. His company creates and sells high-end aquascaping tools, making him the authority not only on how these underwater gardens are designed, but also on how they're tended (with near-surgical precision).

His aquariums borrow ideas from Japanese flower arranging, Zen rock arrangements, and the idea of wabi-sabi -- that imperfect is beautiful. "It is important the tank doesn't look too symmetrical," Steven Lo says. "There is a lack of dynamic tension."

Randall, who served as a judge for this year's ADA contest, said she looked for "a balance in the layout, that the plants make sense in terms of sizes and colors, as well as textures and shades."

And the fish matter too. They should complement the planted waterscape.

The Lo brothers, two of a handful of people in the world who have a certificate of completion for their studies with Amano, did not compete in the ADA contest this year because they've been too busy with Aqua Forest Aquarium. Business has been growing.

On a recent afternoon their small storefront was filled with an assortment of customers: two heavy-set men obsessing over what fern plants to buy, three middle-school kids just looking around, a mother of two buying fish for her son's tank.

"It wasn't until I came here that I realized how much more you can do with an aquarium," says David Herzenberg, a 28-year-old aquarium enthusiast who kept his girlfriend waiting two hours while he examined the plant-filled tanks at Aqua Forest. "It makes more sense to have a real ecosystem in there."

Editor’s note: For more on gardening, see the Monitor’s main gardening page, which offers articles on many gardening topics. Also, check out our blog archive and our RSS feed. You may want to visit Gardening With the Monitor on Flickr. Take part in the discussions and get answers to your gardening questions. If you join the group (it’s free), you can upload your garden photos and enter our contests.

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