CREDIT: GEORGE FARMER
When James Wong was growing up in Singapore, aquariums were the norm. “Having fish as pets is just a thing that people do,” the botanist, broadcaster and Gardener’s Question Time regular says. “I grew up in an environment where 90 per cent of people don’t have gardens. But even if you had a tiny house, or a tiny balcony, you could have an aquarium with some fish and some plants in.”
Aquariums are considerably less ubiquitous/common in the UK. For many, they conjure notions of dentist waiting rooms or luxuriant bars in the West End. Gardening in this country stays firmly in the ground, to which water is something that’s regularly applied.
There is, however, a burgeoning group of gardeners who are choosing to plant underwater. Aquascaping, as it’s known, is the practice of creating beautiful miniature worlds entirely out of natural materials and aquatic plants. While places such as Singapore, America and increasingly Germany and parts of Eastern Europe have been quietly nurturing a love for aquascaping for decades, the UK is only just beginning to catch on. As George Farmer, a former RAF bomb disposal expert who has made his love of aquascaping a profession, says: “In the UK we’re gardeners by nature, but when it comes to gardening in an aquarium, fewer people are interested.”
There are good reasons why we’ve been slow on the uptake: gardening underwater is a hobby that requires time, patience and a considerable amount of cash. “The minimum spend for a half-decent system is probably about £200 – £300,” says Farmer. “It’s an investment”. That will get the rookie aquascaper a tank and the filters, lighting and heating necessary to get started – and more elaborate systems can easily cost 10 times that.
The science, too, can be mind-boggling. The balance of nitrogen and phosphorus is a delicate one which, if not mastered, can result in algae blooms – an aquascaper’s worst nightmare. Carbon dioxide injections help plant life along and daily doses of nutrients such as potassium, iron, magnesium and calcium can mean that growing aquatic plants all sounds rather exhausting.
All aquascapers, however, started out as hobbyists. Farmer got his first tank in 2002, after “figuring it would be cool to keep freshwater plants”, and swiftly made a name for himself after disagreeing with the experts in Practical Fishkeeping magazine. He’s been a columnist for them for over a decade now, and celebrated 2018 by signing up 20,000 subscribers to his aquascaping YouTube channel.
For Cheryl Rogers, president of the US Aquatic Gardeners Association, or AGA, it started with the fish. “I wanted to create a natural and healthy environment for my pets,” she explains. “Fish look and act better if you recreate their natural world. Gradually the aesthetics of the plants became more intriguing to me than the fish themselves.” Rogers, who oversees one of the world’s biggest aquascaping contests, describes her tank as “an ongoing project spanning quite literally decades”.
By these standards, Wong is a rookie. He only started keeping tanks six months ago, but his approach could potentially tear up the rulebook. “When I moved to the UK I was put off by all the filters and heaters and fancy rigmarole I didn’t have. I’m terrified by measuring water chemistry,” he admits. “Even as a science geek it put me off.”
Instead, he took the approach he was more familiar with: “When I was a kid you just filled a container with water and grew things.” Wong reasoned that, in his central London flat at least, a container of water wouldn’t drop much below room temperature, so a tank wouldn’t need heating. So he filled an Ikea fruit bowl with water, put a desk lamp over it to boost light levels and started planting. “The plants do the filtering biologically. So I put some substrate in and put a load of plants in to see if it worked,” Wong says. “I’ve got four of them on the go now, and none of them have failed.”
Wong’s fruit bowl didn’t merely resist failure – it went viral. “I put a photo on Instagram and expected about four of my horticultural mates to like it,” he says. “I got 160,000 likes. People really enjoyed it.” His post was captioned: “I love ponds, but I live in a tiny London flat. So I made a ‘nano pond’. #GenerationRent”
“I’m 36,” he says, “Like most of my generation, I’m not going to be able to afford a house, but I want a high-maintenance garden. It’s my hobby. In that tiny tank I can spend one or two hours looking after it. I’m very uninterested in maintaining a lawn, but I love creating a little piece of the Amazon on my desk.”
Wong replaces some water using a mug every week, to help reduce the build-up of nitrates, but otherwise hasn’t struggled with algae. One of the secrets of his success, he believes, is buying plants that have been grown in-vitro, or in a laboratory, from the internet. “They’re surprisingly inexpensive, and it means there’s no risk of snails or algae contaminating the water,” he says.
Farmer is now on a mission to spread the word of aquascaping: he co-founded the UK Aquatic Plants Society in 2007, and it now boasts 25,000 members. Much as he is fascinated by the science of aquascaping, and is a proponent of the “nature aquarium”, which aims to “creating a slice of nature underwater”, he’s also found aquascaping enormously therapeutic.
“I was in the Air Force and I didn’t really respect what I was doing, so I decided to do aquascaping full time” he explains. “I had a really bad tour in Afghanistan, and suffered from PTSD. Aquascaping has helped massively with that. Now I can see I’m genuinely making a difference to people. In my mind, a well-aquascaped aquarium is the most therapeutic thing you can look at.”
Felipe Olivieira, a Portuguese aquascaper who has 51,000 followers on Instagram, also changed his life after discovering aquascaping’s benefits. He started 20 years ago, and has been professional for the past 10. “I started it because I was too stressed,” he says, “I was manager of a civil engineering department with the Porto subway, and I would spend all day on computers, trying to fix things. Aquascaping for me is like therapy. I like to have my hands wet.”
The AGA was started in 1990, and today aquascapers from all over the world glean tips, inspiration and camaraderie from one another. Rogers reckons it’s the best way to start: “I would advise a rank beginner to planted tanks to join a friendly Facebook group or forum and ask questions,” she says. “I’d encourage beginners to try. Just start slow and don’t worry about making mistakes, that’s how you learn.”
Alice is the author of How to Grow Stuff: Easy, No-stress Gardening for Beginners. For more gardening trends, follow her on Instagram.com/noughticulture.