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Issue: March 2009

Aquatic Gardeners Association 2008 Convention

Author: Jay Luto

Photographer: Jay Luto
A planted tank hobbyist and skilled photographer attends the AGA Convention to hear from renowned speakers, watch the Iron Aquascaper competition, take in an informative aquascaping presentation from the world-famous Mr. Takashi Amano, visit the breathtaking Georgia Aquarium, and catch up with some old friends.

The Aquatic Gardeners Association (AGA) 2008 Convention took place in Atlanta, Georgia on the weekend of November 14-–16, 2008. A similar summary I wrote of the 2006 convention began with my thanking its host, the local plant club, but there was no such thing this year. The AGA Board of Directors and a few other local folks organized this event without the help of a dedicated fish or plant club; considering this, to be brutally honest, my expectations were low. However, I’m not sure if the AGA hired a project manager, set up a remote location, or the stars simply lined up for them, but this had to be one of the best—if not the best—AGA convention I have attended. With great organizational skills, a global speaker lineup, and a visit to the breathtaking Georgia Aquarium (with a behind-the-scenes tour), no one could have asked for more.

As a photographer and plant hobbyist, my goal was to fly in on Thursday, quickly catch up with fellow plant addicts and close personal friends, and do a little bit of sightseeing with a camera. Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world, and due to plane delays the sightseeing had to be cancelled.

Cryptocoryne Fans Unite!

As with AGA 2006 and its debut of the Iron Aquascaper contest, AGA 2008 had something unique for its members, especially those with an interest in Cryptocoryne—a genus of about 50 to 60 species of aquatic monocot plants from the family Araceae (arums). On Thursday night, the newly organized North American Cryptocoryne Society (NACS) held its first in-person meeting. Roughly 20 members introduced themselves, talked about their setups, available plants, successes, failures, future goals, and the hobby in general. I was one of those members who talked about what is currently working for me and what did not work in the past. Most of us were taking mental notes and thinking about improving our existing emersed/submerged Cryptocoryne “collectoritis.”

The highlight of the meeting was the introduction of a new plant released by one of the AGA 2008 donors, Florida Aquatic Nurseries. Cryptocoryne wendtii “Florida sunset,” a multicolored leaf plant worked on for over a year, is a sport from Cryptocoryne wendtii “Mi Oya.” Cryptocoryne online forums are blooming nowadays, plant exchange is increasing, and knowledge is being shared as I write this. I see a bright future for this group of people. We hope that those who are truly addicted to Cryptocoryne will report back to us with new tips—and hopefully, new plants—that they picked up at the internationally recognized European Cryptocoryne Society annual meeting, which took place on October 17–19, 2008 in Vienna, Austria.

Georgia Aquarium Tour

Friday morning was something that I had been looking forward to for the past three years. For AGA 2008, the Georgia Aquarium, conveniently located a few blocks from the hotel, was booked as a field trip. My expectations were extremely high for this place, and it met all of them—in both my interests as plant hobbyist and photographer. The Georgia Aquarium is currently recognized as the “world’s largest aquarium,” with more than 8.1 million gallons of salt and fresh water housing more than 100,000 animals of 500 different species. The aquarium’s notable specimens include whale sharks, beluga whales, and a manta ray. The AGA was able to secure a behind-the-scenes tour of the Ocean Voyager and Tropical Diver exhibits, as well as a meeting with staff members who are in charge of the planted aquarium exhibits. I took tons of photos, and my camera’s shutter was hot even after I left the building. This was my first visit to the Georgia Aquarium, but definitely not my last. Thanks AGA!

Friday’s Speakers

Friday was also the official convention kick-off. Evidently the AGA did their homework and spent a few extra minutes thinking about the speaker lineup, which was, as I have stated before, one of the best.

For chemistry buffs and those who take fertilization above and beyond, the AGA brought in Greg Morin, PhD, Chairman and CEO of Seachem. Dr. Morin covered news on advancements in the understanding of the efficacy of foliar versus root-zone uptake for ferric and ferrous iron sources.

The second speaker was Michael Kane, PhD, professor and assistant chair of the Environmental Horticulture Department at the University of Florida, who discussed tissue culture and its possibilities outside of high-tech laboratory setups. Although Dr. Kane is using this technique to enhance the restoration of wetland habitats, the same approach can be taken by average aquarium hobbyists to produce quantity and quality in limited space. A quick peek around the room indicated a huge interest and temptation to start such an operation immediately, as the previously mentioned NACS members, including myself, who work with many species and limited space, were happy to find out that there is a light at the end of the tunnel of our madness. All members listening to Dr. Kane were pleased to find that tissue culture, a foreign subject up to this date, is within our reach with a fairly minimal investment. Dr. Kane was pleased to find that many people attended his presentation not because they had to, but because they wanted to. This is definitely not the end to the collaboration of Michael Kane and the AGA—look for a surprise at the end of this article!

The Iron Aquascaper

To wrap up Friday’s activities, the AGA presented the Iron Aquascaper sequel. In 2006, I mentioned that this competition would become an AGA standard, and indeed I was correct. Similar to 2006, two well-established aquascapers—this year, Jason Baliban and John Ciotti—put their knowledge, skills, and imaginations to the test by aquascaping one aquarium each. To see the entire competition and the winner, check out the convention DVD, which you can buy through the AGA Website ( The materials provided—plants, rocks, wood—and live commentary were perfect. A well-deserved thanks goes to Jeff and Mike Senske from the Aquarium Design Group (ADG)—the official sponsors of the Iron Aquascaper contest.

Saturday’s Speakers

Saturday’s lineup was as good as Friday’s. We kicked off with an international figure—Benito Tan, PhD from Singapore Botanic Gardens. You wouldn’t think that a person could get the attention of over a hundred people by discussing mosses, but Professor Tan did exactly that. He talked about aquatic mosses, techniques, and modern methods in taxonomy in reference to accurate species identification of bryophyte plants grown in aquaria. Professor Tan mentioned his passionate debate with Christel Kasselmann over the identification of the well-known Java moss, which, in Tan’s opinion, should be identified as Taxiphyllum barbieri, not Vesicularia dubyana. Professor Tan spent a few minutes talking about subwassertang, which at some point was considered a liverwort. Upon further investigation, subwassertang was reclassified and is now considered a fern gametophyte. Professor Tan closed the presentation by showing a couple of possible aquatic candidates currently identified as Philonotis sp. and Takakia sp.

Next in line was a well-recognized figure in the aquatic community—Takashi Amano from Niigata, Japan. His original Nature Aquarium style introduced unique aquascaping techniques to the planted aquarium hobby. His work can be seen in the Nature Aquarium World series (T.F.H. Publications, 1994), as well as monthly in TFH. Mr. Amano discussed a few of his setups from the design stage all the way to the maturity and photography stage. He talked about the “Amano Magic” misconception—how there are no secrets to a Nature Aquarium, how all you need is the right knowledge and materials, and how we aquatic plantscapers should be thinking about aquarium inhabitants in order to create a successful Nature Aquarium. Mr. Amano proceeded to discuss his non-aquarium-related hobby, nature photography. He finished his presentation by sharing two enormous prints of a pristine cedar tree forest in Sado Island that made their way to the G8 Hokkaido Toyako Summit.

After lunch, we all gathered to listen to Jeff Senske, co-founder of Aquarium Design Group, located in Houston, Texas. If you have never heard of philosophy or effective design as pertains to aquascaping, then this was the presentation to pay attention to. One of my personal philosophies that I follow in life is simplicity. I often say that “less is more,” and evidently Jeff feels the same way. Jeff talked about balancing simplicity and design presence in the natural aquarium. His passion for aquariums, art, architecture, photography, and design shows through his daily work and his achievements.

A Presentation
by Takashi Amano

After three long speaker presentations and a quick lunch, members were itching to see Takashi Amano do what he does best—aquascape. Mr. Amano flew an entire Aqua Design Amano (ADA) 90-cm setup to Atlanta to show and share what he does, and how he does it! Although I saw a live presentation by Mr. Amano back in 2004, this year’s was just as exciting as the first time.

Those that saw this for the first time probably noticed that preparation and patience are extremely important. The choice of plants, wood, and rocks is something that we all should pay attention to. Mr. Amano had his crew behind him, tying moss to the rocks and wood, prepping plants and dividing them into three-stem bunches, passing substrate bags, installing the light fixture and filtration system, etc. For an average hobbyist, this operation would probably take all day, but with a little bit of help, preparation, and the tons of knowledge/experience under Mr. Amano’s belt, this aquascape was finished in just over an hour. Priceless!

Saturday Wrap-up

Every AGA Convention has a banquet and AGA aquascaping contest review, and this year was no different. Erik Olson was the official MC who showed us amazing work completed by international aquascapers. Erik quoted comments made by judges who were not able to attend and passed the microphone to those who were present at the banquet. I think many would agree that we would like to see more local members win prizes, but the competition bar is set high and it is now time to go back to the drawing board and create something that reflects a deeper understanding of planted-tank philosophy and design.

Last, but definitely not least, was Karen Randall who talked about collecting in Thailand. Karen took us on a journey through Thailand by showing us the diverse plant life and biotopes of that region. Seeing the natural habitats of some of my Cryptocoryne species made me rethink a couple of my setups. I find it very interesting that we cherish these rare plants so much, yet to others they are simply weeds growing in someone’s backyard.


Sunday, and Saying Goodbye

Sunday’s auction was a huge success. I stayed only for a couple of hours, but I did witness some very interesting bidding wars. The previously mentioned new Cryptocoryne wendtii “Florida sunset” sold for $120, while a few other rare Cryptocoryne species went only for a little over $10.

In conclusion, and on a more personal note, I would like to mention a few other random thoughts. Melissa Sambrook was my photo savior, giving up her battery to let me continue my visual TFH coverage (thanks, Melissa!). Also, special thanks to Tomoko Schum for translating for Mr. Amano until about 3 a.m. on Sunday morning. The AGA convention is not only about presentations. We spent an hour enjoying ourselves in the Atlanta Botanical Garden, which, despite the season, was full of blooming orchids. That same day after all the presentations, a few people gathered for a game of Texas Hold ‘em. If you listen well, and to the right people, you will be exposed to very interesting behind-the-scenes stories. No wonder Larry Lampert, AGA President, was seen on the phone looking a little frazzled by the end of the weekend. There is something for everyone, but in order to experience all of this in person, you will have to join the AGA and make an effort to attend one of the conventions. Trust me, it’s worth it!

AGA 2008 was another well-organized event. I spent quality time with old friends and met many new people who share the same hobby and speak the same language. I will see you all next time—possibly in Florida with Michael Kane! D

Visit Jay Luto’s aquatic life and photography website at

See the full article on TFH Digital

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