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Discussion Starter · #1 · (Edited)
I’ve been deep diving into studies of SE Asian peat swamps, particularly those of Borneo and Thailand, and I’ve settled on attempting to replicate the look and feel of a Malaysian peat swamp biotope with a 22-25 gallon blackwater tank. I say “look and feel” because I’ll be replacing a few plants with smaller or more accessible versions, and I might throw in a few Thai or Vietnamese plants as well, but I am attempting to do an actual biotope, i.e. plants and fish that actually live next to each other, not just “things that you can find in Malaysia”. This will be low-tech and low bioload, I’m not interested in CO2 and most of the plant growth will be emersed.

A beginner doing a biotope - am I nuts?
Yeah, a little. I do have experience with emersed and aquatic plants in a stable low pH/low GH tank, just not with fish.

Inspiration
Sumatran peat swamp with Nepenthes ampullaria

Moody blackwater tank with palm frond

Riparium with Chamaedorea palm

Malaysian blackwater tank

Malaysian peat swamp

Tank
Looking at UNS 90L, UNS 75S or Aquamaxx 22 long

Fish
6+ sparkling gouramis, or a wild type Betta pair

Equipment
  • Heater - I’m thinking Fluval E100 based on tank size and reviews
  • Filter - AquaClear 30 power filter, carbon replaced with peat
  • 3 spot lights - 1 powerful with a 6500K bulb for plant growth, 2 to create “sun beams” penetrating into the tank. I might experiment with color temperature to see what brings out the best colors in the gouramis. Suggestions welcome.
  • Clear mesh cover with cutouts for riparium section - at least at first while I determine jumping risk
  • House of Hydro floating mistmaker, to create a humid layer of air for the labyrinthine fish, and for ambience.

Parameters
I’ll be aiming for a pH of 6 and a GH and KH of 2-5 degrees using RO, a remineralizer, Indian almond leaves and wood for the tannins, and peat in the filter.

Hardscape
Lots of Manzanita (if I can identify it, it grows locally), Malaysian driftwood and/or spider wood, built up on the right for a small “land” area, and some stones

Substrate
Sand with pockets of ADA Amazonia on the bottom, turface or flourite in planters on the back wall for riparium plants. LECA or turface for the Nepenthes.

Plants

Submerged
  • Cryptocoryne cordata and/or Barclaya longifolia
  • Cryptocoryne parva- looking for an easy, bright green accent plant for the aquarium bottom. Also considering Blyxa japonica
  • Considering Nymphaea stellata
Riparium/background
  • A bunch of Chamaedorea elegans as a stand in for more mature leaf forms of palms, which the minis may not be able to attain with the limited space I have. If it doesn’t do well hydroponically, there is a slightly more expensive species in the genus that is actually riparian
  • A few mini palms - leaning toward Pinanga ‘Thai Mottled’
  • Colocasia fallax, to act as a smaller stand in for Colocasia esculenta
  • Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’ - I’m sure there are grass-like plants in peat swamps, but I can’t find any record of actual species, and this is at least native to the area
  • Maybe a Phaius tankervilleae hybrid
  • Maybe Lagenandra ‘Chocolate’ - no idea what species this is, but I already have it and it’s not very happy submerged, so I’ll try it emersed
  • Cryptocoryne parva

Built up “island” on top of wood
  • Nepenthes ampullaria x (spectabilis x talangensis) as a stand in for Nepenthes ampullaria - I already have this hybrid, I may replace it with the species eventually
  • Utricularia graminifolia
  • Pyrrosia piloselloides - I may sub in nummularifolia which I already have
  • Crepidomanes sp. - I'll see how it does at water's edge, but exposed to lower humidity
  • Maybe Scindapsus treubii, trailing out of the tank
  • Some sort of mini epiphytic orchid is tempting, but I don’t want to have to hand water it and me and Hygrolon don’t get along very well

Floating plants
  • Salvinia minima for now since I have it; there is some mention of Salvinia in peat swamps but I can’t find a species. S. cucullata would be neat eventually.
  • Maybe Ricciocarpos natans, which is found worldwide in swamps and riparian areas, and I already have it
References


Congrats, you made it to the end! My girlfriend says this reads like a research paper, which she meant as a compliment and I took in kind. Suggestions welcome, but fair warning that I may strongly disagree! :)
 

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Of the tanks you mention the 75S would be my clear choice for the extra depth. BUT its sold out on buceplant. Not sure if you know of anyone else that has it but be aware they can take a long time to restock. My UNS 120P took every bit of 8 months from the time I ordered it to the time of delivery, and this with the original estimate being 2-3 months. The 90L on the other hand is in stock as are other tanks of similar dimensions. So if you want this setup say sooner then 6 months from now I would go with either the 90L or the Aquamaxx. I really wanted the UNS tank for my 120P because of the 45 degree mitered corners but for a tank this small my own opinion is that it doesn't much matter.

I would also skip the peat moss in the filter but /shrug that's because I just don't think its needed and it will add a very peaty smell when its new. Adding leaf litter will accomplish what you want and changing it out as needed will be easy to do. Since you plan to use a HOB filter it's not a big deal and you will quickly figure out if you like it or not.

For lights I suggest using smart bulbs where you can because you will be able to adjust how bright they are. My current favorite smart bulb for aquariums is this Feit Electric bulb. It won't create a sunbeam but it has nice colors and is very adjustable and decently bright at full power. If you really want a sunbeam then I strongly suggest not using a bulb with a great spread then 25 degrees, and less would be better if possible. I am not aware of any smart bulbs that do this, but those change around all the time so maybe they exist? Good luck!
 

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I've grown chaemadora elegans in a riparium, it does just fine with its feet wet. My nepenthes did not do so well. I think the fish waste in the water kept it from producing pitchers, as you know they want very pure water.

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Discussion Starter · #4 ·
I've grown chaemadora elegans in a riparium, it does just fine with its feet wet. My nepenthes did not do so well. I think the fish waste in the water kept it from producing pitchers, as you know they want very pure water.
Thanks, that helps! My tank should have a pretty low bioload and soft, low TDS water, so maybe the Nepenthes will do better, but that does solidify my plan to just take a baby from my existing plant and test it out before buying a species ampullaria. I just love the idea of a Nepenthes draping over the side of the tank.
 

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Discussion Starter · #5 · (Edited)
Of the tanks you mention the 75S would be my clear choice for the extra depth. BUT its sold out on buceplant. Not sure if you know of anyone else that has it but be aware they can take a long time to restock. My UNS 120P took every bit of 8 months from the time I ordered it to the time of delivery, and this with the original estimate being 2-3 months. The 90L on the other hand is in stock as are other tanks of similar dimensions. So if you want this setup say sooner then 6 months from now I would go with either the 90L or the Aquamaxx. I really wanted the UNS tank for my 120P because of the 45 degree mitered corners but for a tank this small my own opinion is that it doesn't much matter.

I would also skip the peat moss in the filter but /shrug that's because I just don't think its needed and it will add a very peaty smell when its new. Adding leaf litter will accomplish what you want and changing it out as needed will be easy to do. Since you plan to use a HOB filter it's not a big deal and you will quickly figure out if you like it or not.

For lights I suggest using smart bulbs where you can because you will be able to adjust how bright they are. My current favorite smart bulb for aquariums is this Feit Electric bulb. It won't create a sunbeam but it has nice colors and is very adjustable and decently bright at full power. If you really want a sunbeam then I strongly suggest not using a bulb with a great spread then 25 degrees, and less would be better if possible. I am not aware of any smart bulbs that do this, but those change around all the time so maybe they exist? Good luck!
Leaning toward the Aquamaxx because of price and reviews seem good, but I won't have the funds for a while anyway, so I'll see if Buce has a good Black Friday sale - not sure if the sales ever apply to tanks.

The narrowest spread I'm finding on smart bulbs is 45°, but I can install a dimmer and use a regular dimmable spotlight bulb. Just need to decide on color temperature.
 

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Thanks, that helps! My tank should have a pretty low bioload and soft, low TDS water, so maybe the Nepenthes will do better, but that does solidify my plan to just take a baby from my existing plant and test it out before buying a species ampullaria. I just love the idea of a Nepenthes draping over the side of the tank.
I had similar conditions. I would suggest placing the nepenthes roots in a plastic bag filled with sphagnum. Then you can water it with pure water separate from the tank water. It's just a matter of hiding the plastic bag from view.
 

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I had similar conditions. I would suggest placing the nepenthes roots in a plastic bag filled with sphagnum. Then you can water it with pure water separate from the tank water. It's just a matter of hiding the plastic bag from view.
This is a great idea. I know you aren't settled on shrimp yet but keep in mind any snails or shrimp are going to require a minimum of 100 tds and possibly up to 200 to be happy. I'm pretty sure that would be the end of any carnivorous plants.
 

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Discussion Starter · #8 · (Edited)
This is a great idea. I know you aren't settled on shrimp yet but keep in mind any snails or shrimp are going to require a minimum of 100 tds and possibly up to 200 to be happy. I'm pretty sure that would be the end of any carnivorous plants.
My paludarium aquatic section is usually around 150 tds and my Blue Dreams are happily coexisting with Utricularia graminifolia and 2 species of Pings that absorb water via lava rock. Snails don't do well at any pH below 7, so snails are out, and I'm not intending to keep any shrimp either. I'm not sure where my pH will settle out, but if it's below 6 I wouldn't want cherries in there anyway - really a peat swamp is not a habitable place for either of those creatures, and I haven't found any reference to either shrimp or snails while reading about the biotope. But there is absolutely an overlap where some carnivorous plants and cherry shrimp can both thrive. I believe specifically Utricularias, Pings, and Nepenthes generally do fine up to 150ish.

When Nepenthes don't pitcher, that's often due to low humidity, so that could have been the issue, or damage to the root system due to a unaerated/biodegradable substrate, or possibly too many nutrients in the water - hard to say without more details. There has been some success growing N. ampullaria hybrids hydroponically, so as long as I elevate it so that most of the "pocket" it's in is above the water level and use a non-biodegradable substrate like LECA or turface I think it will be OK. Putting it in a plastic bag would be more iffy, IMO, since you can't see how much water is sitting in the bottom and you can never flush it. If I just keep it elevated, I expect I can top water it once or a twice a week with pure RO, which will serve to replenish water that has evaporated from the tank and also flush out some minerals.

I wouldn't try this experiment with my epiphytic or expensive plants (Utricularia quelchii), but ampullaria is mostly terrestrial, and I have a hunch that means it's exposed to slightly more nutrients. I'll try it out and see what happens - in the end my humidity may not be high enough for pitchers either.
 

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Plant Plant community Green Leaf Botany


The nepenthes had its roots wrapped in sphagnum, and was in the flow of the drip "wall" (a piece of mopani wood). You can see it to the right of the rabbit's foot fern here. There were also some drosera capensis that did very well in this setup until they got overrun by the christmas moss.

Humidity could have been the issue, but I was growing bucephalandra, aquatic mosses, and other humidity-loving plants in this setup. My theory was that if there are enough nutrients to keep the rest of the plants happy, it was too much for the nepenthes. But since I never got that setup to work, it's still a mystery why the nepenthes struggled. Could have been too much light, roots wrapped too tight, etc.

The plastic bag method definitely goes against conventional wisdom, but it's worked for the past year for me. I came up with it to isolate a nepenthes from the hydroponic nutrients I was using in a living wall. It put out a bunch of new pitchers over the summer and generally looks healthy! I was inspired by James Wong (@botanygeek) who keeps his inundated all the way to the crown with tap water.

I look forward to seeing how your setup works. I love carnivores, and I'm looking forward to setting up a pond with some sarracenia this summer!
 

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Discussion Starter · #10 ·
The nepenthes had its roots wrapped in sphagnum, and was in the flow of the drip "wall" (a piece of mopani wood). You can see it to the right of the rabbit's foot fern here. There were also some drosera capensis that did very well in this setup until they got overrun by the christmas moss.
That setup is gorgeous! My guess is that between the sphagnum and the constant water flow, the root system was unhappy. I haven't found any epiphytic plants that do well in a constant stream of water, especially not with their roots wrapped in sphagnum. If you have a water-loving plant (not most Nepenthes), you might get away with constant water flow if you have a very well-aerated soil substitute, otherwise roots will get fungal infections and just rot away. The hydroponics systems that I have seen proposed with Nepenthes have an ebb and flow type approach, so that it is not constantly saturated, but I haven't seen botanygeek's approach (I do like a lot of what he does). Anyway, that's my theory, especially if your TDS was in the range of 150.
 

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My paludarium aquatic section is usually around 150 tds and my Blue Dreams are happily coexisting with Utricularia graminifolia and 2 species of Pings that absorb water via lava rock. Snails don't do well at any pH below 7, so snails are out, and I'm not intending to keep any shrimp either. I'm not sure where my pH will settle out, but if it's below 6 I wouldn't want cherries in there anyway - really a peat swamp is not a habitable place for either of those creatures, and I haven't found any reference to either shrimp or snails while reading about the biotope. But there is absolutely an overlap where some carnivorous plants and cherry shrimp can both thrive. I believe specifically Utricularias, Pings, and Nepenthes generally do fine up to 150ish.

When Nepenthes don't pitcher, that's often due to low humidity, so that could have been the issue, or damage to the root system due to a unaerated/biodegradable substrate, or possibly too many nutrients in the water - hard to say without more details. There has been some success growing N. ampullaria hybrids hydroponically, so as long as I elevate it so that most of the "pocket" it's in is above the water level and use a non-biodegradable substrate like LECA or turface I think it will be OK. Putting it in a plastic bag would be more iffy, IMO, since you can't see how much water is sitting in the bottom and you can never flush it. If I just keep it elevated, I expect I can top water it once or a twice a week with pure RO, which will serve to replenish water that has evaporated from the tank and also flush out some minerals.

I wouldn't try this experiment with my epiphytic or expensive plants (Utricularia quelchii), but ampullaria is mostly terrestrial, and I have a hunch that means it's exposed to slightly more nutrients. I'll try it out and see what happens - in the end my humidity may not be high enough for pitchers either.
I was unaware that there are carnivorous plants that would be happy at 150 tds. Maybe you can make it work, but I will say it will be super tricky. Miss a water change, or get too much evaporation and your tds will easily spike 50+ in less then a week. I think putting a sealed pot of some kind (be it a bag or something else) in the tank and growing the plant out of that with its own completely separate water supply would be far easier. You would want the container to be above the water's surface in your tank with a hole in the side above the water's surface as well. That way you can dump in as much RO water as you want and it will overflow the container and into the tank without tank water going into the container. You could build up a back corner of the tank with rocks and substrate and sit the container into that area to hide it. Or just accept that the container is visible and make that part of the aesthetic.
 

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Discussion Starter · #12 · (Edited)
At this point I'm pretty settled on a tank with a footprint of 36x12, since I have an inset spot in a wall that would be perfect (an extension of a window box, but there is 36" beyond the window that would get no direct light). I also found a local aquarium maker who could make a rimless, low iron tank with 10mm thick starphire glass. He would do a 36"x12"x15" tall tank for $200. I would like the extra height so I can keep water level 3-4" below the rim to reduce jumping risk, and have a localized humid environment for some of the plants like the Nepenthes.

What are the risks with a local, custom tank vs. something like Aquamaxx? I always like supporting local small businesses, but don't want to risk the tank just falling apart some day...
 

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At this point I'm pretty settled on a tank with a footprint of 36x12, since I have an inset spot in a wall that would be perfect (an extension of a window box, but there is 36" beyond the window that would get no direct light). I also found a local aquarium maker who could make a rimless, low iron tank with 10mm thick starphire glass. He would do a 36"x12"x15" tall tank for $200. I would like the extra height so I can keep water level 3-4" below the rim to reduce jumping risk, and have a localized humid environment for some of the plants like the Nepenthes.

What are the risks with a local, custom tank vs. something like Aquamaxx? I always like supporting local small businesses, but don't want to risk the tank just falling apart some day...
The main risk is getting something that doesn't have great silicone for aesthetic purposes. Mr. Aqua, Aquamaxx, UNS, ADA, they all have really really clean silicone lines. The guy down the street may have good silicone work, or it might come out looking like something aqueon put together or worse. If you have seen his work and you are happy with it then you are good to go. If you haven't seen his work in person (only some pictures or the like) then its a big gamble. I am kind of picky with my silicone so I wouldn't go with a local person unless I had personally seen at least a couple of the aquariums they put together with my own eyes.
 

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Discussion Starter · #16 ·
Found these gorgeous green rocks hiking in an arroyo. I bleached and vinegar tested them:
Rock Foot Stuffed toy Comfort Still life photography


Trying to decide if I want to use them in this tank. I doubt there would be many rocks in a peat swamp, and they lose some of the subtle green through tannin stained water. Still pretty though, and I don’t think a gray or red rock would stand out as nicely against the sand and wood:
Artifact Sculpture Art Metal Rock


Water Vertebrate Body of water Underwater Marine biology


Then yesterday Petco had a tank sale, with this 6G Aqueon frameless for $32. I couldn’t resist, so now I have a blackwater quarantine & breeding tank to tide me over until I can afford the 28G:
Light Window Rectangle Line Wood
 
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