March '02 - Vincent Chan's 10G Nano-Gardens!
"Ten gallons? No way!" is what you're probably thinking after seeing the photos above. But believe me folks, the two tanks you're looking at - created by Asian-American hobbyist Vincent Chan - are just your standard 10G tanks (about 30 liters effective water volume) - the most popular size in the USA, available in any supermarket. Ever since Takashi Amano published his Nature Aquarium World books (see the books section in this site), showing unbelievable planted tanks as small as 1 Liter, the new fashion of "Nano-Gardens" - rich, vibrating aquascapes in very small tanks - is becoming ever more popular, especially considering that such setups are relatively inexpensive and not even that difficult to maintain!
But of course there are certain tricks to make such setups work. The real challenge is to choose the right species of plants and fishes, and then apply your aquascaping talents to create a composition that is harmonious, functional, causes impact on sight and looks much larger than it really is. In fact, even photographing the final setup is part of this "illusion"...the photos above work because of the way they were taken and the way the image was cropped, leaving out details that would otherwise denounce the true size of the tank. If you want to see these tanks as a whole be sure to check out Vincent's Aquascape Journal, which includes many more awesome photos of these tanks and others.
So what do you need to start your own Nano-Garden? Here are some tips, in decreasing order of importance (as I see them):
Lighting: by far the most important issue in any densely planted tank, it's even more important in the small ones, where the common "Watts per liter" or "Watts per gallon" rules fail miserably! Just think...using 1 Watt/liter (4 Watts/gallon) of fluorescent lighting is generally considered bright lighting in the most common rules, so for that previously mentioned Takashi Amano's 1 liter tank, he would only need 1 Watt of lighting! That's about as much light as you get from a single bulb in those Christmas tree decorations. Personally, I think no planted tank should have less than 15 Watts of fluorescent lighting regardless of its size, and a 10G planted tank should have at least two 15 W tubes. Vincent actually uses *four* 15W tubes in the setups above, totalling 2 W/L (8 W/G)! The light spectrum is quite a controversial issue, and Vincent shares my own view of using a wide variety of tube colors when possible...in his case it's one 5000K, one 6500K, one 10000K and one tri-chromatic.
Substrate: In a small setup it's very easy to make the mistake of adding a layer that's too thin, because you don't want to take up too much of the already limited internal volume of the tank. But since a Nano-Garden will often make heavy use of grassy plants, having an adequately thick layer (5-8 cm) of rich substrate is very important for these plants to spread fast and to stay healthy and compact in the long term. You do not want to have to mess around with your substrate *after* the carpet is formed.
Plants: of course you want the grassy and small types of plants. This limits your choices, but there are still lots of beautiful species to work with (see the Garden section of this site for some common examples). Also, despite what may be your first impression, it does not take too many different plant species to create a rich aquascape. Five to eight contrasting species are more than enough, and I've even seen excellent results with 3, 2 and 1 species, combined with rocks/driftwood of course. Many of these small species require bright lighting though, so once again we're back to the lighting issue...if you don't invest in that you'll be *very* limited in plant choices.
Cardinals and other small Tetras are great for Nano-Gardens
Fish: once again you want small, peaceful, non-territorial species. Tetras are especially suited for this application, but almost any species that doesn't grow larger than 5 cm (2") is a good candidate. The fish population should also harmonize with the rest of the setup, and to that end you should avoid having a "fish salad", with several different species and only 1 or 2 specimens of each. It's better to have one species as the "focal" fish (5-10 individuals), and then any other additions are compliments or utility fish such as algae eaters. Populate lightly, or get ready to face heavy water changes for the reasons explained below.
Water Changes: important in all setups, but particularly in small planted ones, where water parameters tend to be less stable, nitrate and phosphate acumulate fast, and algae is always lurking and ready to take over your beautiful tank at the slightest imbalance resultant from neglect. Vincent does 30% weekly water changes, which is a good starting point, but be ready to increase the amount and/or frequency whenever necessary. Changing water in small tanks is not a strenous task anyway, you can easily do it in 5 minutes or less.
CO2 Injection: as in most cases, although you *can* create a nice planted setup without it, DIY CO2 injectors are so simple, and the results are so good (if properly used in combination with lighting and nutrients) that it's hard to find a reason not to use it. Just keep in mind that in small tanks you can get *serious* pH swings when injecting CO2, so start very slow, with the bubbles being released just below the surface, until you get to know your tank water's behavior better and how it reacts to the CO2 injection.
Filtration: this is *almost* irrelevant in a properly set up planted tank. For a 10G Nano-Garden any one of the "Mini" size power filters with a piece of foam or wool will work wonders. More powerful filters are actually harmful, because most plants don't like strong currents. For much smaller tanks you may find that the best is to actually have no filter at all, relying on frequent water changes instead because they become so much easier to do. Just don't use air pumps (they drive away CO2 from the water) and undergravel filters (incompatible with rich substrates and carpet plants).
If you'd like to submit an aquarium for Tank of the Month, just contact me.
Rams are among the few cichlids appropriate for small tanks
Photos taken by Vincent Chan, and displayed here with his with permission.