Being a design major and gardening enthusiast, it was only natural that Kevin Teoh picked up the hobby of aquascaping. That was about 14 years ago.
But wait, what is aquascaping, you may ask?
In a nutshell, it is the art of arranging aquatic plants, rocks, stones or driftwood in an aesthetically pleasing manner within an aquarium. This is also known as “gardening under water”. Aquascape designs vary in styles and settings.
“This is called a paludarium, which features a partially submerged tank. Many people use it to keep reptiles or insects. The types of fish suitable for this setting include fighting fish, guppies and those which can breathe through the water’s surface,” explains Teoh, 40, when we meet to view his collection in Kota Damansara, Selangor, recently.
A paludarium is defined as a type of vivarium that features both terrestrial and aquatic elements.
Seen in Teoh’s paludarium were dried sphagnum moss, jewel orchids, dried wood, a variety of ferns and other aquatic plants, as well as a few tetra fish.
In his other aquascape designs, there are carpet plants and crawlers, driftwood and fishes like bettas, swordtails, gouramies, barbs and also shrimps.
Teoh got interested in aquascaping for a few reasons; first, because he wanted to introduce plants into the aquarium to help keep it clean and also keep the fish healthy, as his fish kept dying at the beginning.
“Secondly, I wanted to create a better environment for the fishes to live in, so I started decorating with stones and driftwood to make the whole aquarium look nicer and more natural. I also wanted to see how the fish interacted with the environment I created for them, like caves and bridges.
“Thirdly, I like greenery and gardening, and I studied design in college, so it’s like a natural fit to do something like this. For me, trimming the plants is also therapeutic and a stress reliever,” says the formal digital content marketing executive who holds a Diploma in Multimedia Design.
He describes the beauty of aquascaping as being able to create art with nature.
“It’s like painting or drawing but instead of paints and canvas, we use rocks, wood and plants to create art, with the aquarium as our canvas. You can directly copy from nature, like a diorama, or create something according to your own interpretation of how nature should be. There is absolute freedom in how you want to do it,” he says enthusiastically.
“After the hard work of setting up the aquascape is done, you get to see how the whole aquascape grows and matures. For some, the beauty is to be able to collect different types of aquatic plants and seeing them grow. Then there are others who like to compete in aquascape competitions to see who can create the best aquascapes,” he says, adding that he has made many friends from all over the world who share the same passion.
Teoh, who comes from Petaling Jaya, has taken part in many competitions, locally and abroad. In 2010, he won first place in the AGA International Aquascaping Contest 2010 (large category) and was first runner-up in the Malaysia Aquascaping Club Planted Tank Competition.
He also took home the bronze price in the 2011 Russia Open Aquatic Plants Layout and ranked world No.32 in the Ista International Aquatic Plants Layout 2015 competition.
But his highest accolade was being ranked world No.8 in the International Aquatic Plants Layout Contest in 2012.
Patience is key
What does it take for someone to be good at aquascaping?
“Well, I guess the most important thing is patience, as this is not a hobby that offers instant gratification. It takes time for plants to grow and also for you to grow your skills.
“Furthermore, most if not everyone, will surely encounter some problems like algae attack or plants not growing at the beginning, which may cause many people to give up the hobby,” he says.
Algae attacks are a common problem and can happen when there is overfeeding, insufficient water changes, or too many fishes in the tank.
Teoh encourages beginners to get the right soil system, and to understand their plants and fishes well.
“Certain plants thrive in light or less carbon dioxide, others not so. Find out what kinds of fish are suited for your set-up. For example, goldfish will chew up most of the plants hence it’s not suitable for aquascaping,” he says.
Teoh suggests that newbies start with a two-foot tank because a smaller one will get polluted faster and easily get overcrowded with fish.
Setting up a basic aquascaped aquarium takes about two to three days, after which, Teoh says, it only requires less than 10 minutes a day to do some basic maintenance like cleaning algae from the glass, feeding the fish and adding some fertilisers.
Teoh spends two to three hours on weekends to trim the plants and change the tank water.
“I think I spend more time looking at the aquarium!” he quips.
“More importantly, treat your aquascape as a pet or living thing, and don’t give up easily,” says Teoh, on a serious note. So passionate was he about aquascaping that he turned his hobby into a full-time career earlier this year, and recently set up shop in Kota Damansara.
He advises enthusiasts to keep looking at other scapes and try to mimic them before slowly developing their own styles and preferences.
“But it is entirely up to you how you want to design it, as long as your plants are alive and the fish are healthy,” he says.
The start-up cost for a two-foot aquascape tank is between RM2,000 and RM3,000 for a medium-priced range and that will last at least a few years.
“The high cost comes in when you newly set up the aquarium because you need to get all the necessary equipment (like the filtration system and carbon dioxode tanks), plants, driftwood and stones.
“Good quality products cost more but they also last a lot longer and hardly need changing if well taken care of. For the maintenance cost, it’s just fish food, and fertilisers for the plants, and some other consummables, so in the long run it’s not a costly hobby,” he explains.