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I was chatting with a friend few weeks ago after i showed him my layout for 2023. He said: "Josh, while everyone else is focusing on perfecting their hardscape for contest, you seems to be totally given up on hardscape in recent years, you are playing in another field from the rest of us". I think this has got to be one of the nicest compliment i received with regards to my aquascaping evolution. (ps: yesterday, that friend of mine, Fan ZheMin, was crowned the new world champion!) 

I spend a grand total of 30min (most likely lesser) to complete the main structure of my 2023 layout "Eternal" - as shown in the first photo. Of course this is not the end of the hardscaping process, i use some tree skin (as in the 2nd photo) to decorate the wood so that it has more texture, character and details - which took a couple of hours. Then it came the first major decision (or risk) i have taken: i painted the wood in white! It was a big decision but the effect turned out pretty good. The reason for painting the wood: to give it a good contrast in color from the tree skin. I've used similar tree skin last year but the color was too close to the driftwood at the end, so you dont really notice the different. With the white paint, i feel that the texture is richer and more details can be seen.

Ok, back to my hardscaping approach, i think it is perfectly fine to build meticulous, majestic and inch perfect hardscape, but normally by doing so, you need to sacrifice the planting method, planting space and plant choice. Nobody wants to see the hardscape that they use days or weeks to build get destroyed by plants, so it very much limit the option in planting. This is not what i want! I want to have full freedom in planting. Another reason for going "simple" on my hardscape: i have been studying a lot of underwater photography and i realized that most underwater scenes do not have big amount of rocks or woods. In contrary, some of the most breathtaking underwater photos are without "hardscape". So this got me thinking (since a few years back), if i really want to stay truthful to an underwater layout, i have to somewhat control my hardscape quantity.

Ok, enough about hardscape, let's talk about another very important element in my layout: plants and planting approach. Firstly, i want you to close your eyes and imagine a few famous layout from Amano sensei that you can recall. Let me give you some the one in his house, or those in Sumida aquarium, how about the few classic NA layouts that we use as textbook material to study all our aquascaping life? Yes....try to imagine those tanks and tell me what you see in common.

I can tell you what i see: i see plants that are growing freely, plants that are growing at optimum condition and plants that are growing the way they are supposed to grow. No limit, no restriction, just simple pure nature beauty. As a result of this planting philosophy, what we get is a wildly sexy vibrance atmosphere that exudes freedom of the wabi sabi spirit. The wilderness that brings a little bit of choas and imperfection, is the essence of Nature Aquarium, in my very own definition.

Now lets take a look at the common planting trend in the modern aquascaping world. Many layouts are using plants that are "easy to manipulate". Plants like mosses, ricardia, monte carlo, anubias, bucephalandra and other "neat and tame" plants are the mainstream now. Why? Because you can easily control how you want these plants to grow in a limited area that you want them to grow! These plants can be easily trimmed to your desired shape or the growth is so slow that you can be sure they stay the same from the moment you put them in until the moment you take the photo. As a result, you get very organized layout: neat, well-controlled, tidy, clean, all the plants are shaped inch-perfect like the ladies' medicures. I have to say, this is not really a bad thing and it takes high skill to achieve it! It is also crowd-pleasing like an eyes candy. I am sure even some judges will appreciate it.

But....where is the wild wabi-sabi spirit and the sexiness in it? It is gone.

Therefore, i would like to set the plant free, let them grow the way they are supposed to be! Yes of course i trimmed my plants too, i do also use those "tame" plants as well, but i do not limit their growth too much and i am making sure that i want my audiences to see a natural scene, not a garden or well trimmed forest. Learning from what Homma san said - if we let the aquatic plants grow freely, it gives us a special effect beyond any human skill can achieve (my own interpretation from his 2022 IAPLC comment).

Then it comes to the 2nd risk i have taken: using a tall background plant like Eleocharis Montedivensis in the foreground! This is not a popular decision among my aquascaping friends! But i insisted. In a nature scene, we cannot control that a tall plants must be at the back. Sometime, our view get blocked by some tall plants in front of us, this is inevitable in nature. Therefore i want to try this concept. But of course, i need to execute them taking into consideration from aesthetic point of view - i want them to block certain view but not too much, so yes, i need to somewhat "control" their growth a little bit by trimming, guilty as charged! But as you can see, i did not purposely trimmed them, suppressed their growth and make them look like foreground plants as they are still tall and blocking some view!

Finally it comes to the 3rd big decision: fish choice. If you noticed in recent years i have been using some uncommon fish which can be a hit or a miss: Pearl Gourami, Altum Angel, Samurai Gourami. This year....i thought, hey, nobody ever use Corydoras as the main fish before so why not!! After checking through the list of corydoras available in local market, some are too common and the others too expensive, so i finally decided on using Orange Venezuela Cory (C. Aeneus Venezuela). It is such a blessing!! They are cute and super easy to photograph! Just sprinkle some food on the ground and they will all come out to let you take photo for as long as you like!! Yeah....of course there are the schooling SAE (Crossocheilus) too, but as i said it before, they just happened to be at the right place and at the wrong time!! Pure coincidental shot! But pretty special too arent they?

Last but not least, i want to share a photography method that i used this year. If you see the final photo, you would notice that the top corners are darken! I want this effect to eccentuate the underwater feeling and brings out the brightness of the vanishing point. What i did was just using some black board to block the flash light at the corners, simple as that! If you want the same effect, it can be done easily!!

Finally...i want to thank 2 friends that i discussed during the development of this layout - Yeo SW and Juan. They gave me advises and pointers that i truly appreciated and followed! It is a blessing to have someone to discuss because we all have the blindspots that we do not realize until someone told us!

There is no right or wrong in aquascaping. As long as you are happy with the final outcome, you are doing the right thing! All of the above are purely based on my personal opinion, i did not mean to discredit any parties that are doing things differently. So i apologize in advance if i offended anyone.  

Step 1: Ideas 

Step 2: Materials



Step 3: Hardscape




Step 4: Planting




Step 5: Final





 Author: Josh Sim / Malaysia

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