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Down the River PDF Print E-mail
Written by Editorial Staff   

Remember the Kenny Rogers and Dolly  Parton song “Islands in the Stream”? What does that title mean? When you look at Sergio Canabal’s aquascape Down the River one can’t help but notice the separation of the two Anubias bordered islands. Each island is a near replica of the other, and  despite the separation, the river that runs through the islands serves as the connective ribbon to bring them together into one complete aquascape.

Aquascape in Focus: Down the River 

Perhaps the meaning of the song title, like this month’s Aquascape in Focus, implies a story of two entities forever linked together. As you read more about Canabal’s aquascape discover the more intricate details and trimming techniques for his aquascape, Down the River.

Q: Sergio congratulations on creating such a well balanced aquascape. Before we get into your aquascape, let’s get to know you a little better. 

A: My name is Sergio Canabal.  I’m 31 years old, and I live in Montclair, NJ with my wife and daughter.  I’m a pharmacist by profession and I have found the chemistry (non-organic, organic, bio and medicinal) I’ve been “subjected” to has been very helpful in understanding some of the principles of maintaining a planted tank.

I’ve kept “fish” tanks since I’m very young.  Surely it’s been more than 20 years.  I began keeping plants when my wife was pregnant with my daughter.  Up until that point I spent quite a bit of free time woodworking.  With a baby on the way, I knew that would have to take a back seat for a while (razor sharp hand-tools + power tools + baby = emergency room!).  I wanted to keep myself occupied, but with something that I could do right at home and wasn’t so dangerous.  I had tried to keep aquatic plants previously but failed because I didn’t understand any of the major principles.  So I decided to read up and give it another shot.  I became a member of my local planted aquarium group, The New Jersey Aquatic Gardeners Club.  The membership includes some of the nicest, most helpful people out there! They’ve help me grow aquatic plants better.

A buddy of mine and I began building CO2 regulators this year for fellow planted tank enthusiasts, under the name SuMo.  I’ve learned quite a bit from this and am grateful to have the opportunity to meet and dialogue with other hobbyists who are as excited about the hobby as I am!

I’ve also recently become interested in keeping Bonsai, though I still have quite a bit to learn on the subject.

Initial Setup: at 3 MonthsQ: Manipulating Bonsai trees is very similar to what we do with our planted aquarium plants.  Is that what inspired your aquascape “Down the River”?

A: There have been many influences and inspirations for this aquarium!  The source of initial inspiration would probably be Jason Baliban’s “Valley to the East” tank.  Subsequent influences for the tank came from many, many places.  So many individuals, situations and experiences affected the tank and its progression that I think it would be difficult to cover every one!

Planning for the aquarium began in October/November 2006.  The substrate went in at the February 2007 NJAGC Meeting.  I did not really rush any aspect of the aquarium.  I think patience is absolutely necessary in keeping a planted aquarium. When I look at the tank today, I still don’t see it as complete!

Q:  How did you separate the different islands and how did you create the rock/driftwood arrangements?

A: The substrate is the ADA System, and includes PowerSand Special M, Tourmaline BC, AquaSoil Amazonia (Type I) and BrightSand.  Cardboard and stones were used to separate the “islands” for the initial layout.  A stone called “Shou stone” was used as the final barrier between AquaSoil and BrightSand. 

A decent width border helps to prevent substrate mixing (shrimp are the primary villains), though maintaining separate substrates does take a fair amount of maintenance.  Everything is held in place by gravity.  I do not have  the wood tied down.

9 Months LaterThe driftwood was laid out by trial and many errors.  The original driftwood layout was almost entirely “consumed” by the plants and vanished.  About a year in, the tank had to be re-scaped to shift plants away from the front glass.  I’ve recently added a bit more wood to re-acquire a bit of visible hardscape and have been toying around with the pieces to come up with a “final” layout.

From this aquascape I learned and would advise others who are planning to design a tank with a large plant mass to start with more hardscape than  you think you will  need.  It does not take long for plants to grow in most tanks, so rather than having to redo things later on, start with the right amount of hardscape to begin with.  This can obviously be tricky, as it isn’t always easy to visualize what an aquarium will look like a year down the road!

Q: What does it take to keep an aquascape like this?

A: Water changes and dosing are done daily.  I change 15% of  daily via an auto-water changer.  It utilizes a RO/DI filter, so I need to reconstitute for GH.  I use Seachem Equilibrium for this which allows me to skip dosing for potassium.

The aquarium is dosed daily via an auto-dosing system to maintain target parameters of:

NO3 = 9ppm

PO4 = 1.5ppm

K = ~30ppm

KH = < 1dKH

GH = ~4dGH

pH = 5.00

T = 25°C

CO2 ~30ppm

Flourish and Flourish Iron are dosed at 8mL each daily for micros. The automation was integrated to allow me a bit more time to spend with the family.  Trimming is usually done every 10 days or so, cleaning the pipes and substrate are done as needed – usually every few weeks.

Q: How have you overcome algae infestations?

A: Currently I get the occasional Green Spot Algae if I try extending my midday burst too long.  BUT when the tank started up, it certainly went through all of the traditionally expected startup algae.  That was a very frustrating period of time.  The tank was first infected by diatoms, which time and a dozen Otocinculs fish helped to clear up.  Then Staghorn Algae and Hair/Thread Algae took over.  Hours of manual removal and about 60 Amano shrimp help to get rid of.  It took about 2 to 3 months in total to be rid of everything. 

I don’t suspect that there is really a planted tank that is 100% algae free. That’s not realistic to expect for a planted aquarium.  We are after all, creating conditions that are good for plant growth.  Most algae forms are like plants! 

The best we can do is keep algae to a minimum in my experience.  The trick is to provide good conditions and environmental consistency for the growth of “higher” plants.  When the plants are growing happily, algae is kept at bay.

Q: How did you choose your plant species?

A: For this aquarium, I decided what plants were going to be kept based on what grows best with the parameters I was keeping.  It takes a few months for plants to really “settle in” in my experience, but they are constantly developing.  The “slow growers” in particular have not really stopped developing.  There were no additional Anubias barteri var nana "petite" for example, added to the tank between nine months of development.  You can see from the progression pictures how they have grown exponentially.

Anubias barteri var Q: Describe your initial planting and ongoing trimming techniques for your plants.

A: Initially, the tank was planted with as many fast growing stems that I could get my hands on.  This was to follow the conventional wisdom that packing the tank with fast growers may save me from “startup algae.”  In my case, there was no saving!  The algae came, and had to run its course anyway!

There is no good way to trim Cyperus helferi that I’m aware of.  When mine become too tall, I remove and replace them with new, younger plants.  While I was keeping Rotala macrandra I trimmed them by cutting off the top six or so inches, removing the bottoms, and replanting only the tops.  The Rotala sp. ‘Colorata’ species and currently Ludwigia arcuata are trimmed by essentially mowing them into the shape I want.  I do not replant the tops (unless I need more stems) and simply leave the bottoms in place to thicken up.

Q: What are some of the DIY elements to your tank?

A: During the warmer months I use cooling fans to maintain the water temperature at about 25°C.  They are Azoo Cooling Fans and work by means of evaporation which cools the water.  Topping off the tank is necessary with these fans as I’d be loosing a gallon or more daily through evaporation.  The depth sensor on the auto water-changer keeps the tank at the appropriate level for me.

The other DIY elements to the tank are the plumbing manifold that keeps most of the instrumentation out of the tank, the auto-water changer and the auto-dosing system, all inspired by some of the brilliant members of the planted aquarium community!

My auto-water change works by Approximately 4 gallons of water are drained from the tank daily. Overnight, an electric solenoid and water pump (Eheim 1250) which are plumbed into the waste line, kick on at the same time via a timer. When the solenoid receives power, it opens, allowing water to run through the waste line and down the drain. The water pump is there to speed the process along. Draining the desired amount of water takes 19 minutes. The timer then cuts power to the pump and the solenoid (which closes without power). That completes the draining procedure.

Q: What will you do with this aquascape now that it’s about complete?

A: Well, I’m not really sure that it is complete!  I may continue the tank making “small” changes here and there, or I may tear it down and start over!  Only time will tell!

Down the River 240 liters - Down the River by Sergio Canabal

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