art, science and business of aquascaping

Xiaozhuang “Dennis” Wong – the 2hr aquarist

Dennis Wong burst onto the global planted aquarium and aquascaping scene from out of nowhere. He did it by releasing his content-packed website, 2hr Aquarist, which is one of the best online resources out there for the planted aquarium hobbyist.

Just by going through his website, you can already get a feel for Dennis Wong’s mind. He’s meticulous, a careful and detailed researcher, a teacher, an entrepreneur. Oh, and one heck of an aquascaper. There is absolutely no question about it. Dennis knows how to grow aquarium plants well. He’s probably one of the best out there.

It was my sincere pleasure to interview Dennis and get to know him a little better. I think you too will enjoy what he has to say and his pragmatic advice for planted aquarium hobbyists.

Meet, Dennis Wong…

Who is Dennis wong today? Please share a little bit about where you live, family, what you do for a living.

Hi, my name is Dennis Wong. Most folks know me now through my website the 2hr Aquarist. The website contains everything pertaining to planted tanks from how to grow specific plant species to fertilization and lightning science. My company, the 2hr Aquarist, also sells a range of comprehensive planted tank liquid fertilizers now to different countries.

I live in sunny Singapore, in the middle of Southeast Asia. It’s hot here year round, most of the year its 80-90F+, and dealing with the heat is one significant issue for running planted tanks here. I have my tanks in a permanently air-conditioned room, but not many folks have that luxury, so many folks keep planted tanks at very warm temperatures here.

Gardens by the bay
Gardens by the bay – Singapore

The advantage of being in Singapore is that we have good access to the many aquatic plant farms in Asia, and we get cheap equipment from China – at the same time, we read and speak English and so get good access to the body of knowledge (online/books) written in English.

What is your typical day like? Any habits/practices you like to do?

I’m a big fan of tea and typically start my day with that. I like to gym as well, and try to get some form of regular exercise – I find that exercise increases both my productivity and metal clarity. Though Singapore is very build-up, I live near a couple of nature parks and go running in them frequently.

I’m kinda of an information freak, and do research on random topics; this involves reading, but in recent years, finding expert talks online also works. 

Where did your interest in the aquarium start? 

Dennis Wong aquarium
copyright Xiaozhuang Dennis Wong

In Asia, fish-keeping is a very widespread hobby in many households. It’s a common pet that parents get to distract their kids. So I’ve seen fish in my household since I was young but only started getting into planted aquariums when I was a teenager, where I did the usual experiments with DIY CO2 and stuff. However, due to the cost of equipment, I did  not spend as much in the hobby until the earlier years of university.

In later years, I grew interested in ecology and a planted aquarium became an easy way to indulge in designing a miniaturized ecosystem.

I first became aware of you via YouTube where you had uploaded some very informative and helpful videos on aquascaping. Tell me about why you started recording videos and uploading them to YouTube?

Thanks… glad that you found the videos helpful! I was actually encouraged to upload videos by another fellow YouTuber who found me on the planted tank forums. I wanted to cover topics on planted aquariums catering to slightly more advanced planted tank aquarists. I felt that there was a lot of beginner level videos out there but not so much in-depth stuff. However, video recording/editing is both very time consuming and has its limitations, such as being difficult to edit to reflect new discoveries. So, eventually I transited to having the information on the website instead where I can easily edit the writings to reflect updated knowledge.

What are your thoughts today on planted aquariums for the mass public? How has your thinking about the freshwater planted aquarium market changed or evolved?

Dennis Wong aquarium
copyright Xiaozhuang Dennis Wong

I think it changed greatly in two ways. One is that planted aquarium equipment started getting cheaper in the last 10 years as China production of equipment ramped up. In Singapore, for example, crystal glass rimless tanks are pretty much the standard for planted tanks. I can buy a 90p dimension rimless crystal glass tank for as low as 100 USD retail. Powerful lights and CO2 systems are also more accessible, with better quality and price, compared to 10 years ago.

The second way the hobby has changed is that many aquarists grow much more difficult plant species or want to construct more complex aquascapes than before. The art of aquascaping itself developed a lot in the last 10 years, with a much heavier focus on hardscape craftsmanship such as fitting wood and rock together before soil and plants are added. Incorporating perspective and depth into the layout has become the norm to strive for. I think this has given the hobby much more depth than before, but it also means that a beginner starting out can feel very lost.

The hobby has a very steep learning curve for beginners that want to quickly learn how to grow more difficult plant species or do a complicated diorama aquascape. The plus side is that there is so much to do! There are more species available on the market than ever before, and so many different styles of planted tank that one can choose to do. I feel that what was once “just a plant growing or ‘fish tank’ hobby” has been elevated to an art form when applied to aquascaping. There has never been a better time for folks to start having planted tanks.

You are now famous for the 2hraquarist.com site. Where did the idea for the site come from and what is your goal for it? How about the name? What’s the behind that?

Dennis Wong 2hr Aquarist Site
copyright Xiaozhuang Dennis Wong

It was inspired by the productivity guru Tim Ferriss’s 4-hour Work Week book.  Tim was focused on getting maximum results in the minimum of time and our website echos that philosophy as well. I think that an Aquarist that is well equipped with knowledge of how to run a tank efficiently should not require more than 2hrs a week to maintain a home planted aquarium in tip-top shape – and hence the name 2hr Aquarist.

Our goal is to focus on efficiently solving planted tank issues – how to reduce incidence of algae? How to maximize color ? What equipment choices make the biggest impact for success in a planted tank? There are many ways to skin a cat but the website aims to find the most optimized/efficient methods to achieve these goals – so that aquarists can spend more time enjoying the tanks and practicing their artistry and less time trying to solve problems.

Your aquascape is what I call Dutch impressionist and absolutely beautiful, both in overall impression and the health of your plants. Please tell me about it. Your initial goals, setup, gear, routine, stats?

Dennis Wong aquarium
copyright Xiaozhuang Dennis Wong

I think I started the hobby by being more plant-growing centric rather than design/composition-centric. This is typical of older hobbyists as the art of aquascaping design was less advanced, or  rather, the design aspect of planted tanks was less emphasized in the past and the hobby was more focused on being able to grow plants well. One of the goals of an esteemed plant grower is to be able display good sized groups of well grown plants in good form and I think I carry that focus in most tanks I create.

However, I do think that hardscape is extremely useful as an element of design. Rock and wood build a setting in which the plants can sit and rock & wood can contribute a variety of different colors and textures to an aquascape. It provides important context in which to enjoy the plants. So while I like my tanks well planted, I do increasingly want to make use of more hardscape elements for impact.

My setups are quite simple actually. This is in line with my 2hr aquarist website philosophy that your planted tank success does not have to be dependent on complicated systems. I never run more than a single canister filter most of the time. My 120p (65 gallons) tank runs on a single Oase 600 filter. I run either T5 or LEDs depending on the style of aquascape I’m doing; but I do like higher light setups (100+ PAR on substrate) because I want stronger colored plants and I like the plant density that stronger lighting gives generally.

For CO2, I run a single inline diffuser attached to the filter outlet. That’s about it for equipment.. For some tanks, I setup auto-dosers especially during periods that I travel. I dose the same fertilizer that my 2hr aquarist brand sells.

What differentiates my setup from many others out there is not so much the equipment but the horticulture skill in managing the plants needs. For example, being able to spot whether a plant is doing well in a certain spot or whether the tank needs more CO2 or fertilization. I think that sensitivity to plant needs – being able to differentiate what is good plant growth form vs poor form – is important.

You also have a fertilizer line that is now available around the world. Congratulations! Tell me about why you decided to create your own line and what it took to bring it to market. Also, with so many fertilizers out there to choose from, what is the role of APT Complete in the market?

Dennis Wong APT Complete Fertilizer
copyright Xiaozhuang Dennis Wong

There are many fertilizers on the market, but not so many all-in-one mixes. APT Complete is the same custom mix I use in my tanks and is designed to balance great plant coloration with minimal algae. It’s a mixture I continue to test consistently across my tanks and is customized right down to the micro-mix unlike other liquid fertilizers on the market that may use terrestrial based fertilizer micro mixes.

We have produced 3 different lines (APT zero, APT complete, and APT EI) which cater to different tank styles. This is important because the same approach that grows a Dutch-style tank well will not be the most optimal approach for a hardscape heavy tank with very light planting. As we started as a smaller company – I have also changed the formulation over time based on customer feedback and what I observe from their tanks. As a result, the product is a direct application of my expertise addressing the issues and feedback from the end users, which is why I think it performs better than more generic planted fertilizers out there.

Tap or RO?

My tap water is excellent, and we have very soft water here so I have never bothered with RO. I think it depends heavily on what comes out of your tap and what your aquascaping objectives are. If you want to keep soft water plants but have liquid rock coming out of the tap, there is little choice.

I think another advantage of RO is that you get to drink better quality water if your tap water quality is poor. For folks where RO is a considerable cost, I would advice doing research on whether the plants they want to keep really require soft water or not because RO isn’t a magic bullet to all problems. I would say 95% of aquatic plant species don’t require super soft water to do well.

What is your current thinking on what it takes to have a successful planted aquarium?

Dennis Wong aquarium
copyright Xiaozhuang Dennis Wong

I think that any casual observer of aquascaping competitions in recent years can attest how much of an impact good hardscape can give a tank. Therefore, one of the easiest ways to have a successful planted tank is by investing more time and money in getting a good hardscape setup, then grow easy plants such as mosses and Anubias attached on the hardscape. You can’t fail with mosses and such, so you are guaranteed a lush green tank, while the hardscape, if done well, provides the visual impact.

You can become a prize-winning aquascaper this way without needing to invest all that much time into researching how to care for more difficult plants as long as you are able to construct a beautiful hardscape (and take nice pictures of it). I think that this combination (of impactful hardscape paired with easy plants) is the best combination for folks that want a nice planted tank but do not want to devote huge effort to gardening (such as folks that are more fish-focused). Choosing easy plants gives tremendous leeway in equipment choices and maintenance.

If you go the plant growing route and want to grow exotic difficult species, then you would probably want to invest in more effective lighting, learn proper CO2 control and fertilization methods, then focus on horticulture skill of growing individual species. Many successful growers are very public with what equipment they use. Many like myself use very simple equipment setups that are easily copied – so copying a setup is definitely one of the easiest way to get past difficult decision making in the initial setup.

Choose a few particular experts and study how they run their tanks. Ignore the rest of the mediocre crowd out there.

Dennis Wong

The part that takes time to learn is probably the set of horticulture skills needed – when to trim or move a plant, spotting plant growth issues etc. I would also advise beginners to stay away from online forums. There is often terrible advice out there and as a beginner you will not be able to tell the difference between who is making sense and who is not. Choose a few particular experts and study how they run their tanks. Ignore the rest of the mediocre crowd out there.

How do you get SO many plants into one aquarium and have each one doing SO well?

A large part of it is horticulture work. Getting the “tank parameters” correct is the easiest part of setting up a tank (and hardly the most important), but folks with less experience tend to be pre-occupied with looking at parameters. If you have good lighting, strong CO2 and regular fertilization, 99% of aquatic plant species can be grown using the same parameters. The rest is figuring out which position they do better in the tank; whether a plant needs more space or flow or CO2 or root/water column fertilization, then carving out space for weaker growers and walling in aggressive growers with hardscape.

It takes dedication to pay attention to each species, and make changes if necessary if they are not doing well. If you look at tanks of many top growers, they often shift plants around looking for a better spot. The more species you have, the more work you have to do to keep everything in its place – so I would advise most aquarists to actually do the opposite; grow less species, but focus on growing them well.

Dennis Wong aquarium
copyright Xiaozhuang Dennis Wong

There are some finer points as well. Quite a few common species such as Rotala rotundifolia and Ludwigia arcuata require low nitrates (nitrate limitation) in the water column to grow red. This may run in conflict with some other species that do better with more nutrients. The easy solution to this is to use a nutrient rich substrate to feed plants N while limiting water column nitrates. In the water column, all plants compete for the same access to nutrients, whereas by root feeding you can feed exact patches of plants (or not). For less astute aquarists, having a rich substrate is by far the easiest way to get over the nutrient angle without needing to be overly competent about managing water column fertilization.

Do you use a farm tank in addition to your main? Please tell me about how important it is for your main tank. Details on gear, substrate, etc. 

At the end of the day I think farming should be left for commercial farms. Plants are generally very cheap in Asia so my farm tank is more used for experimentation and studying different methods of managing plants, even though I call it a farm tank.

I use it to test variables for developing my fertilizer line and to experiment growing new species. For my current farm tank, I run 8xT5 tubes on a 120p (120x45x45cm). A single Aquael Ultramax 2000 with inline CO2 atomizer. I use Platinum Soil for the substrate but it’s not as rich as I like so I enrich it with my own custom root tabs.

I think the main difference between my setup and the ones run by the average aquarist is that I have a ton of light on the tank which means it takes more effort to monitor to keep algae at bay. The more intense light does give stronger coloration for most species, but there is a management trade off.

Your preference and why: tissue culture, emersed, potted plants?

I like tissue cultured plants as you get a lot of plants in one cup. I prefer starting with plantlets so that when they grow into my tank, most of the bio-mass has adapted to current tank conditions. I think tissue culture has gotten a bad rep because folks that do not know how to manage them melt them easily.

There are a few points to successfully do TC; get good quality, fresh TC (there are quality differences between brands and batches) so you have to experiment or ask around. Make sure your tank is well cycled before hand, and ensure high CO2 levels after planting. Even TC Cryptocorynes should not melt if the tank environment is favorable and water quality is good.

You have a successful website that’s helping many people around the world and a growing fertilizer line. What’s next for Dennis? Any big aspirations?

A planted tank in every home… haha, Nah, get a girlfriend. Probably… 

Do you have any hobbyists (besides Amano) that really inspired or continue to inspire you?

I like the works of Takayuki Fukada and Steven Chong from Japan and Luca Galarraga from Brazil. I like Wang Chao from China, Long Tran Hoang from Vietnam for their innovative and technical approach. Indonesian aquascapers also like pushing boundaries so I’ve seen interesting works from that side as well. The scape scene is always developing – so I find that there is always new material to study if you search.

What guidance would you give someone who aspires to get into the world of planted aquariums?

Dennis Wong aquarium
copyright Xiaozhuang Dennis Wong

Visit my website www.2hraquarist.com. It has better planted tank articles than any other site out there. Few folks can claim to personally be able to grow that many plant species successfully to good form and to master that many tank styles; and no-one at that skill level has bothered to write down the instructions for doing so in a format that is as organized and detailed.

Outside of the site, copying successful setups is perhaps the easiest way to learn. If you want to have a farm tank, learn/copy from someone that does a great farm tank. But if you want to do a great aquascape, copy and learn from an aquascaper instead. The techniques for approaching each style may differ.

Avoid online forums – as a beginner you can’t differentiate between good advice and bad advice, and 95% of folks that hang out there have no idea what is optimal for your tank (or their own tank in many cases). Average advice makes for average tanks – if you want to stand out, learn from the best and no one else.

Tell me about your first car.

Dennis Wong first car

Toyota vios. I liked its turning radius.

Favorite superhero?

Ha! Never watched that many superhero movies to have a favorite.

Describe something about yourself that most people don’t know.

Dennis Wong
copyright Xiaozhuang Dennis Wong

I’m an expert at slalom skating; there are videos of me doing skate stunts on YouTube but you won’t be able to find them as I’m not tagged in them.

What are some personal values that make you who you are?

I think I’m an unbearable rationalist most of the time. Perhaps my obsessive personality makes me a good researcher in topics that interest me. Being hyper-focused on a certain topic for periods of time often causes me to ignore social relationships though, so I think that can be hard on my close friends.

Describe an aquascape that you create that you’re truly proud of. Why do you think it holds a special place with you?

I think I like my 3ft farm tank – the one with a large pile of Bucephalandra brownie ghost; that plant has now become a hallmark of my tanks due to its distinctive blue sheen. Despite being able to grow any plant species well, that tank has been actually pretty easy to manage due to how it is setup. It encapsulates all the principles enunciated in my main website (of how to get the maximum output with minimum effort). Those methods have become a template for many aquarists.

In my own country, what was once considered difficult plants such as Eriocaulon quinquangulare, Blood vomit and Hygrophila sp chai have become commonly grown plants with beginners having success growing them even in their first tank – many of such setups are direct copies of my farm tank. What I’m proud of is seeing so many other hobbyists being able to grow difficult species with ease with the information that I provided.

Chocolate or vanilla?

Ha!  I like both! Probably more variation in chocolate so I choose that.

Favorite food? Favorite drink?

I like noodles; pasta, ramen, Chinese la mian etc. I like Islay whisky.

T5 or LED?

T5 for Dutch style/ farm tanks and LED for aquascapes. T5 shows off plant color tones such as yellows/oranges, purples better, while high contrast LED sets give the strongest visual contrasts for red/green aquascapes. Modern LEDs tend to come prebuilt with spectrum tuning, sunrise/sunset functions etc which are really nice to have.

Readers of my blog are avid hobbyists from around the world. Any words of wisdom you would like to share with them to close out the interview?

Dennis Wong aquarium
copyright Xiaozhuang Dennis Wong

I think there are 3 styles of tanks one should try out because each will teach you different lessons.

The first is the low-tech planted tank (non-CO2 injected); the second is the exotic plant farm tank (high light, difficult plants) and the third is the hardscape heavy aquascape (lightly planted, hardscape focused).

Each will give you a different perspective on how to manage a planted tank. Many experts out there specialize only in one of those styles and their recommendations on how others run their tanks heavily reflect the bias of that singular experience. If you want to fully experience how light/CO2/fertilization affect a tank, doing all 3 styles well covers good ground. The horticulture approach to each can differ quite a bit as well.  

conclusion

I want to thank Dennis Wong for taking the time to answer my probing questions and for sharing with us a little more personal view. Dennis provided some solid advice that I think will benefit all of us with our hobby.

Also, I want to personally thank Dennis Wong for creating his informative site, 2hr Aquarist. I can’t imagine how much time, effort and devotion it takes to create a site like that and share it gratuitously with all of us. We should all be grateful for people like Dennis Wong who give of their time and efforts to share this beautiful hobby with others.

Dennis Wong aquarium
copyright Xiaozhuang Dennis Wong

About the author

Art Pennom

Art Pennom is the founder of ScapeCrunch.com where he writes about the world of planted aquariums and aquascaping. In the past, Art founded AquaticPlantCentral.com, ScapeFu.com and the ScapeFu Podcast.

Art lives in Miami, Florida

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art, science and business of aquascaping

Art Pennom

Art Pennom is the founder of ScapeCrunch.com where he writes about the world of planted aquariums and aquascaping. In the past, Art founded AquaticPlantCentral.com, ScapeFu.com and the ScapeFu Podcast.

Art lives in Miami, Florida

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