Just outside of New York City, dozens of aquascapers from around the United States gathered this past October. Each was hoping to win Aquascaping Live! presented by The Aquatic Gardeners Association, sponsored by Fluval. In the video above, I’ve included detailed shots of every tank in the competition at this year’s Aquatic Experience. There were some incredible tanks this year, but only a handful could place in the top six (photos below).
For this article, I interviewed two people who know the most about how to run and win the competition. The first is Karen Randall, she is one of the organizers of the competition and has been there since the very beginning. She’s also on the board of the Aquatic Gardeners Association and she literally wrote the book on aquascaping—her book, Sunken Gardens, can be found here.
The second person joining us is George Farmer, one of the judges of this year’s competition. Tasked with deciding the winners were a panel of judges, each with their own expertise. One of the judges was George Farmer. He is a successful aquascaper based in the United Kingdom. He runs a beautiful YouTube channel with nearly 400 videos featuring aquascapes, tutorials and reviews as well as an active Instagram page.
I asked Karen and George to give me a bit of insight into the competition’s history, judging process, and it’s future. Below are a few of their answers:
Q: How did the Aquatic Experience Live Aquascaping Contest get started?
Karen: I had the opportunity to judge the Art of the Planted Aquarium contest in Germany in 2010. I really wanted to see a similar, high level, head to head, live competition here in the U.S. At the St Louis AGA convention in 2012, we did a “dry run” with an aquascaping workshop. The problem was that the workshop was too popular, and many people wanted to see it remain a part of the convention in subsequent years.
Early in 2014, Jeff San Souci the marketing manager for Hagen USA approached us with the idea of holding a large aquascaping contest in conjunction with Aquatic Experience. AGA would sanction and run it, Fluval would sponsor it by providing the equipment and funding. So "Aquascaping Live!" was born!
Q: Karen, how are the judges selected?
Karen: In the first few years, we were lucky enough to be able to draw from talented people who were at Aquatic Experience as speakers. We still draw from those people, but we have begun to supplement those people with highly qualified aquascaping experts brought in specifically to judge the contest.
Q: George, how did you become a judge for the live aquascaping contest?
George: Karen Randall reached out to me. She realized I would already be at the Aquatic Experience running a live workshop and asked if I would mind judging the aquascaping contest as well. I was very happy to oblige!
Q: What’s the judging process like?
Karen: As far as how they judge, each judge is given the same judging criteria that the contestants receive when they enter the contest. The judges are each given a score sheet for each tank, to help them make their selections. After they have all completed their individual judging, they go to a secluded area where they can conference to come up with the final winners. This year there was really remarkable agreement among the judges. There were only a couple of tanks where they had to debate placings a little.
George: It’s really good fun. As a hobbyist, as well as a full time aquascaper, it’s a real privilege to be asked to judge. I really enjoy it. I get to analyze each aquascape in a lot of detail and it forces me to consider each tank’s composition. I think judging helps me refine my scapes as well.
Q: George, when you judge an aquascape, is there anything you look for?
George: My judging style is probably a little different to other judges. We are given judging guidelines, but I don’t follow them to the absolute letter. I actually sit in front of each aquarium for a good minute or so. I don’t really analyze it, I just have a feeling—how does it make me feel? In my mind, I score my impression of the tank out of 100. Then I look at the judging guidelines and divide up my score to fit it into the listed criteria. That may be different from other judges, but I find that it’s more accurate way to judge an aquascape as whole than to add up individual criteria.
Q: Has anything changed since the contest began?
Karen: The judging rules are modeled on the rules we use in our long running online aquascaping contest, which started in 2000, and will have it’s 20th anniversary next season… the oldest international on-line aquascaping contest! There were a few minor changes (primarily concerning the use of livestock) to fit a short-term, live contest. The judging criteria haven’t changed since the beginning, but we have tweaked the general rules to tighten up some “loop holes” that people have taken advantage of over the years.
Q: Have you noticed any trends over the years?
Karen: Every year the over-all quality of scapes has gotten stronger. The top contenders now come with a serious plan and all that they need to complete their vision. They do an amazing job! In terms of style, we see the same kind of trends that we see in the photo contests. This year there were even tanks, including the winning tank in the invitational, that were very reminiscent of the “Indonesian style”, with heavy emphasis on intricate hardscape.
Q: Is there a common short-coming you see in live competition aquascapes?
George: A lot of the time it’s really tricky to get the plants looking their best in such a short timescale. The best aquascapes tend to be pre-grown-in. Therefor the plants look mature and they’ve adapted to their submersed state. That means they look more natural and are all facing towards the light. If I would give anyone just one tip, it would be to grow in their plants before hand.
Q: How would you do that?
George: For the best aquascape at a show, I would grow the scape in at home, the same as I would with any other tank. Big water changes, decent fertilizers, good light, good CO2, strong filtration, and consistent maintenance. I’d pay special attention to the scape as the live show approaches. Then just before competition, you have to really carefully pack the aquascape away. Drain as much of the water from the tank as you can. Then cover all the plants with bubble wrap and wedge bubblewrap or polystyrene between your hardscape and the glass to stop anything from moving around. That way your competition scape will look mature right away.
Editor’s note: In some contests, the competitors can bring the tank in, completely scaped, and just fill it on site. This is not allowed at Aquascaping Live! While the competitors are allowed to plan and design their hardscape, and grow out their plants ahead of time, they must transfer all those materials into the contest tank during show hours.
Q: Are there any differences between a live contest and a photo contest?
Karen: It is very different. People have to come to a live contest not only with a concept, but with a fully developed plan, including well-grown plants. For most photo-based contests, there is close to a year to develop a scape. There is even time to start over, or have a back-up tank” if something goes wrong. The artist also has the luxury of being able to wait for the “perfect moment” to take the photo(s) and to use studio lighting, certain lenses and even camera angle to show the tank at its very best. In a live contest, the artist must make the “magic” happen almost instantaneously. If the entrant can’t get their water clear, or has trouble with fish not adapting to the local water... their entry can be (literally and figuratively) dead in the water.
George: I think fundamentally the main difference is that in a live contest you are viewing the aquascape in three dimensions instead of two dimensions you see in a photo. In photos, you can really force a false sense of depth by using a few tricks: Using a wide angle lens; planting large textured plants in the foreground and finer textured plants in the background; building steep slopes and narrowing pathways that employ vanishing points. All of these techniques can be applied to live competition, but it can be more challenging. That’s because in a photo, the illusion can only be viewed from the angle you position your camera. That’s the biggest difference, viewers can move around a live scape.
Q: Is there anything new to look forward to in next year’s competition?
Karen: I want the contest to continue to grow. We are already, by far, the premier live aquascaping contest in North America. The small tank contest has completely filled and had a waiting list for 3 years now. I want to see us continue to build on that. I hope that we can continue to have the small tank contest be a “first come, first served” event, so that even new scapers have a chance of getting in. We took a bit of a hit in the Invitational this year because of the move away from Chicago. We expected this, and know that it takes time to build traction in a new place. But now it’s time to grow it again. I want to see us back up to eight strong teams competing in the invitational next year!
If you enjoyed this article, consider attending next year’s Aquatic Experience so you can see the competition unfold live! If you’d like to compete, sign-ups begin in July, which gives you plenty of time to think about the aquascape you’d like to create! Happy Scaping!