The Aquatic Gardner - October 2003
THE AQUATIC GARDENERS ASSOCIATION
There is only one English language association dedicated to aquarium plants - the Aquatic Gardeners Association, and you could make the point that it grew up with the Internet. While the AGA predates the net (although not by a lot) it is certainly true that the net was catalytic in the clubs growth. Almost a decade ago when I was asked to submit an article for it (on aquarium lighting) I was only tangentially aware the organization even existed.
These days, if you're on the net at all and interested in aquatic plants you'd have to be dead not to have heard of it; it's mentioned nearly everywhere and has really adopted the internet in a way few, if any aquarium hobby organizations have. To wit: when the aquascaping contest is running it's pretty much all that's talked about on the various online fora that concern themselves with aquatic plants. It's quite a popular organization now, and seems to show signs of growth if the website and look and feel of the quarterly bulletin are any indication. Keep in mind the organization all but died a few years back and is now run by internet savvy people who have more than saved it - they've propelled it into growth the originators could only dream of.
The AGA website is at http://www.aquatic-gardeners.org and is maintained by Erik Olson of http://thekrib.com fame.
The AGA uses the net for the same things any fish club does; it has an online store, it can make important announcements without the 1 month (or more) turn around time for the printed word; it advertises the national convention - all brick and mortar concepts made easier by use of the net - but it also does something that could really only happen because of internet technology - an online aquascaping contest. Ok, well, it's not strictly an online contest, you can send in photos and slides if you want, but they will be digitized and slapped on the web to be judges by the AGA designated judges around the world. Distributed processing at its finest! A first as far as I can tell. Kudos!
If you read every issue of TFH you may notice there is an index of articles once a year. The AGA does this one better, theirs is online. You can look at the cover and table of contents for nearly every issue ever printed. Given that any competent search engine (is there really life outside of Google? Certainly no other search engine has become a very in everyday parlance) can find these is a tremendous advantage to the AGA and it's members - to say nothing of John Q. Netsurfer - and one of the areas in which the net lets you do things you just can't do with just paper.
The aquascaping contest is tremendously popular... where else are you going to get to see dozens superbly planted aquaria, with commentary and suggestions from some of the best plant folks around - for free. at http://showcase.aquatic-gardeners.org/ or you can pay $15 for the CD and save the download time.
What the AGA does is a model for all other aquaria associations in cyberspace. Whether you collect cichlids, killifish, livebearers, what have you, wouldn't it be nice to be able to see picture of all show entries either online or a CD?
Having said all that, there is still something to be said for face to face meetings and the National AGA convention, in Texas this year, is a "can't miss" event for plant freaks this November. See http://www.aquatic-gardeners.org/convention.html foe details. The lineup of speakers puts many national conventions to shame. It is truly impressive.
AQUARIA ASSOCIATIONS ONLINE
I don't know what is is about fish clubs being so slow to adopt the net... I remember wandering around the AKA convention in Los Angeles in, I think, 1988, with flyers I had printed up hoping to get a few killifans online with the killifish mailing list I ran then (and still do: http://lists.killi.net/killies) and got absolutely zero response. Da nada. Zip. Zero. None. Not a sausage. This perked up a little bit when I tried again in 1991. We managed to pick up a few people but the AKA powers that be were very very leery of the idea of doing anything on the net and stopped just short of being hostile to the idea. I registered the domain AKA.ORG anyway for safe keeping until they warmed up to the idea. A decade later the AKA website (http://www.aka.org) is alive and kicking and not too shabby and they have their own mailing list. You've come a long way baby.
New technologies frighten people and just as video killed the radio star the AKA folks were afraid the net would kill the AKA. Of course nothing could be further from the truth and 9 out of 10 questions answered about killifish on the net have as answers: "Join the AKA!"
other killi clubs around the world were not as reluctant though and by the late 1990s most of them were online, coming up one by one: Holland (KFN) was next, then Germany (DKG) then the UK then all of a sudden, Japan, Belgium (2 no less), Portugal and so on and so forth. As an aside, the Portuguese (APK) monthly bulletin puts all others to shame, it is utterly superb and I enjoy it immensely even though I don't speak a word of Portuguese.
Now, this is not as much a testament to their foresight in many cases as it is a statement of how well your truly nags people (and giving fish clubs free websites probably didn't hurt either). None the less, as the 20th century closed all killi clubs around the world were online and that to me seemed pretty cool as killies are anything but the most popular "niche" fish in the aquarium hobby. The lesson learned from this is: every new technology needs its advocate and persistence is everything.
There are many advantages for a fish club to use the net, first and foremost, what's the biggest pain in the butt for any fish club? If you're an editor or publisher of your clubs periodical you already know and are probably pounding your head against the closest piece of furniture at the moment. That's right - the club bulletin.
With ubiquitous internet access though you can do away with paper, ink and postage; I get my Canadian Killifish Association (http://www.cka.org) bulletin as an email. Is a dollar a member too much to save? When a national club has hundreds if not thousands of members, this adds up to serious money.
One alternative to emailing a club bulletin is to put a "members only" section of the website. This is the most efficient way of doing it really, and from the end users standpoint much more convenient than getting it in mail. But, I don't know of any clubs that do this... yet. Maybe there are some that do, but they just aren't known to me.
So where exactly does one learn how to aquascape? How do you get to the point where you can have tanks similar to the AGA show winners?
I'm a computer programmer by trade, and I was speaking with a lawyer today. Each of us expressed the sentiment that what we do was easy but each of us proclaimed we could never do what the other did. Why? Or rather, why not? Are some people born with brains that predispose them to be lawyers ? Or computer programmers? Are they incapable of learning the others skill? Of course not. The only thing that counts is practice. Ok, it helps to like math and understand logic if you're a programmer and it helps to have a good memory and quick mind to be a lawyer... usually. I know some programmers that hate math and I know some fairly dim yet perfectly competent lawyers. So what's the secret? Practice practice practice.
Very few people are born with the ability to landscape a garden and make it look like something out of Better Homes and Gardens and fewer yet can aquascape like the AGA showcase winners. Practice practice practice...
You don't need exotic plants to create these masterpieces. Look carefully at some really cool setups in books, magazines, or on the web. You'll notice they have some of the most common plants and only a few things in the tank could be considered "exotic". In fact, attempts to make fancy aquascapes with all truly exotic plants can sometimes look kinda dumb. You need the texture of common plants like Hygrophilia, Rotala indica (one of my favorites) and Cabomba to provide some balance.
What you will find though, is an attention to detail and evidence of great amounts of care in these show tanks. You may have a happily growing clump of Rotala indica growing up to the surface of the tank but that's wrong wrong wrong. If you look at the show winning tanks you'll notice this plant, more often than not, growing in the mid foreground and carefully trimmed so it slopes gently upward towards the back.
Of course, as with terrestrial gardens, aquatic gardens have a key and utterly critical component - the plan. Maybe you can just stick plants in a tank and have it coming out looking like the famous aquascaped tanks of Europe, Japan and Colorado, but I can't; there needs to be an overall planting plan.
SO where so you get these plans? Beats me, they're few and far between. I can't really say I've seen to very many at all. The most I've ever seen are on the AGA showcase site.
So what's a guy (or gal) to do? Copy. That's right, make your tank look like somebody else's. Despite the surge in outrageously stupid intellectual property claims, it is at this juncture not yet illegal to copy somebody's aquarium. That's right, just blatantly rip off the design and see if you can coax and trim your plants to behave themselves and simply make them look like the ones in the picture of the tank you're copying. To paraphrase the old joke "just remove all the parts that don't like the tank you're copying.
It's also the first rule of engineering: don't re-invent what already exists.
Finally, a positive attitude goes a long way. I can't count the number of excuses I've told myself over the years why I shouldn't attempt something like this by saying to myself "tank is too small", "tank is tall and I should be long" or "tank is long and should be tall. Nonsense; once you get the hang of it (practice practice practice) you could make a brandy snifter or a bathtub look like you imported a bunch of Dutchmen to aquascape it.
Did I mention practice practice practice?