Badger's Tea Garden

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Dec 18, 2011
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Where the deer and the antelope play

I came up with the idea for this aquarium because I enjoy drinking really good tea. My favorite teas are from the Yunnan region of southwest China, and the Darjeeling area of northwestern India. These two regions have similar habitats, and even share quite a few fish genera. They are both mountainous regions, thinly populated by hardy people and planted with tea gardens, watered by small, clear, fast-flowing hill streams draining into large, lowland rivers.

So, I'm going to try to re-create those habitats, not as a strict biotope, but more to try to capture the mood of these areas. And just for fun, I'm making it a paludarium with a few tea plants (Camellia sinensis) growing out the top.

The trouble is that most of the fish from these areas are either unavailable, extremely expensive, or get too large to work a 30 gallon tank which is basically functioning as a 20 long. So, I'm going with some closely-related species from just over the mountains in northern Myanmar, and one species that isn't from nearby but looks similar and fills a similar ecological niche.

Planned stocking:
Playing the part of various danio-type critters, I'll have a dozen glowlight danios (Celestichthys choprae). These little guys also resemble their bigger cousins, the blue hill trout, which I dearly want to keep but which are much too big and active for a tank this small.
Standing in for ticto barbs, green barbs, and several others, we'll have a half dozen odessa barbs (Pethia padamya).
Filling the role of adorable, oval-shaped algae sucker, I plan to have a few Borneo suckers (Beaufortia kweichowensis), reticulated hillstream loaches (Sewellia lineolata) or butterfly loach (Beaufortia kweichowensis), whichever the dealers have available when the time comes. I prefer B kweichowensis because they're smaller and less aggressive, but any of them would work.
And in a cameo role, playing itself, is the polka-dot stone loach (Nemacheilus corica) which lives in both Yunnan and Darjeeling, and thus actually belongs to this biotope! Yay.

For hardscape, I've done rock walls, a waterfall, and land areas with blue insulation foam, textured and painted to (hopefully) look like rock. Sand substrate and a river scape of rocks and dry juniper branches. Two powerheads, one connected to a buried PVC manifold for directional flow, and another which I added as an afterthought then the first proved not to provide enough flow. No filter other than the plant and substrate. The terrestrial plants, especially, should keep the water clean.

With plants, I'm not trying to stay close to biotope. I am in the process of adding various terrestrial and aquatic mosses, anubias, bacopa, and crypts. From southwest China comes the peacock fern, and of course the tea plants, which I plan to keep trimmed short, bonsai style. I have serious doubts about growing tea plants in a paludarium, so plan B is some jade pothos, which looks similar but will grow anywhere.

I've been taking some pictures as I build this, so the first part of this journal will be sort of a build-along, showing you how I did everything, including some false-starts and dead-ends. So if nothing else it should provide some entertainment. :) But that will wait for tomorrow.
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Template fitted into the tank. The tape marks show the size of the powerhead. I wanted to be sure I would have room to get my arm in easily for cleaning and maintenance.

Preparing to cut foam, as my assistant looks on. This is 2" thick poly foam. It is absolutely a mess to work with, as the little bits are highly charged with static and stick to your clothes and shoes. The only way to clean them up is with a strong vacuum cleaner. A month later I am still finding little flecks of sky-blue around the house. They also stick to black dogs.

Measuring and cutting. I do the smooth cuts with a regular wood saw. Also note the half-finished bow on the work bench. I'm just waiting for the weather to warm up enough that I can put sinew on it. But that'll be a different thread.




I have nightmares about those little flecks of blue foam. Seriously, if this stuff didn't give such nice results, I would never mess with it.

For smaller cuts or ones that need texture, I use an old steak knife. This is tough on the knives, so don't use the good ones. I think I bought this one from a thrift store a few years ago.

Cutting in a little shelf for the water to flow down.



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Adding texture by scraping off the surface with a paint knife. Pro tip: Have your shop vac handy and clean up the little foam bits as you go. Otherwise you'll end up tracking this stuff ALL over the house, which could strain family relationships somewhat.*
*I'm just kidding, of course. Both Mrs. Badger and the Badgerling were remarkably patient and supportive of this project.


It fits, more of less! Silicone glue covereth a multitude of sins. Now I'm adding some window-privacy film to the back. I think it gives a nice, flowing river feel, don't you?

I can't believe I've never used this stuff before. I've tried various ways to attach backgrounds to tanks, and this is far and away the easiest and best looking. I can't imagine ever going back to duct-taping cloth on the back.


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OK, this is where the magic happens. Painting the pieces with drylok (be sure to get the original product, not Drylok+, which has toxic additives). Tint the drylok with concrete pigment, available at most hardward or home stores.

Building the manifold. I wanted a directional flow, so I ran pipes along the bottom. One end is the intake; the other end is for the powerhead. I really wish I had known I was going to add a second powerhead; I'd have added a second outlet for better directional flow. Oh well.

This is 3/4", schedule 40 pvc. Be sure to use potable-grade pipe and cement so you don't poison your fish.


Ain't it purdy? Too bad no one's ever going to see it.

Drilling holes in the intakes. I will cover these with sponge prefilters. I ended up cutting off the caps. They look nice but just reduce the flow far too much.

Painting the manifold. This isn't strictly necessary since it will all be covered with sand. But the level of flow I'm going for is going to move the sand around some, and I don't want the pipe sticking out like a sore thumb if a bit gets exposed. This did in fact happen, so I'm glad I took the extra step.

I used krylon fusion, which is said to be aquarium safe and rated for long-term submersion. Let it cure REALLY well before putting it in water, though.

I looked at various methods of including terrestrial plants. There are some good hang-on-back planters. I'm especially impressed with the "Poth-o-carry" brand. But none of them give the look I wanted, and by this time I had learned that firebelly toads live in Yunnan province (😃😃😃!), so I wanted to make a small land area in case I decide to add one. Here I am building said land areas out of blue foam. This was the most technically challenging part of the build, and yes, the most fun, too. The upper part of the planters will be just above water level, with the roots of the plants growing through the mesh into the water. Hopefully.

I was kind of getting sick of taking pictures by this point, so I might be skipping a few steps and/or posting pictures out of sequence.


Cutting stainless steel mesh to line the bottom of the planters. This, in turn, will be lined with filter floss to keep the sand from running out. Tin snips work reasonably well for cutting this stuff. Pro tip: Don't try using scissors.

Mesh shaped and glued into the bottom of a planter with silicone.

A planter glued to the "rock wall" and held in place with gorilla tape while the glue cures. The design seems sound, so I made a total of five of these. I also added some shelves to make the waterfall more interesting. I can't wait to see hillstream loaches frollicking about on same.
Tayo, my shop assistant, being extremely helpful. He is three years old, so a relatively new part of my life. It is hard to imagine how I ever got anything done without his help.
OK, I forgot I did this. I put a stainless mesh wall across the top of the waterfall to keep fish from swimming into the pump area. I ended up completely redesigning the waterfall to accommodate a mist maker. But if you're just doing a waterfall, this is probably a good idea.
You know what Man ? They make a jimdandy cutting tool for that stuff. It’s a hot wire type gizmo. Works slicker than hot snot on a cold doorknob. No flecks to clean up. You can make curves and whatever else type of shape you might want.
OK, this is kind of a bummer. I seem to have lost a few pictures, so I'll have to just try to explain what I did.

Here, we're looking down into the pump area. Originally I had the powerhead just filling up this chamber, but way too much flow was being expended fighting gravity. So I decided to just run a tube up to the waterfall. On the left you can just see the edge of where the tube from the powerhead will connect. This leads into a little chamber that holds the mist maker.
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You know what Man ? They make a jimdandy cutting tool for that stuff. It’s a hot wire type gizmo. Works slicker than hot snot on a cold doorknob. No flecks to clean up. You can make curves and whatever else type of shape you might want.
Man, I wish I had asked you about this a month ago. :lol:

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