I met Jeff Miotke at the 2015 Aquatic Gardeners Association Convention in beautiful Washington, DC. At the time, he was relatively unknown in the aquascaping community but, when I saw his aquascapes, I was flat out amazed! As I wrote in an interview I did with him in 2016 that became ScapeFu episode 57 – Get to Know Jeff Miotke, “[Jeff] has got talent, determination and focus.”
That statement is as true today as it was then, if not more. Since then, Jeff Miotke has semi-retired and has gone pro with his aquascaping. In so doing, he’s taken his aquascaping to the next level culminating in placing 65th in the world in the International Aquatic Plants Layout Contest 2020 – Brilliant Waters.
Beyond his aquascaping game, he has become a fixture in the global aquascaping community with his always cheerful personality and desire to share with and help people. As a fellow American, it’s so wonderful to have seen Jeff Miotke’s progression fueled through his passion and drive. He, along with others, is putting the US on the map when it comes to competitive aquascaping. Jeff is also an important part of the community growing the aquascaping and planted aquarium hobby in the US.
It’s my great pleasure to, once again, have a virtual sit down with my friend, Jeff Miotke, to learn more of what’s going on with him and what he is thinking about aquascaping. As a special treat, Jeff videoed his replies to my questions which came out fantastic! I’ve added the video at the end of this post for your viewing enjoyment.
Get to know, Jeff Miotke…
Hey, Jeff Miotke here!
So, our good friend, Art Pennom, has reached out to me and asked me to answer a few questions for his latest reincarnation called ScapeCrunch.
I’m sure many of you remember ScapeFu. Maybe, a few of you remember Tank on Fire. I had so much fun being part of those that I gladly said “Sure, bring it on!” He then sent over a small questionnaire with 27, yes, 27 questions.
So, buckle up and let’s see if we can get this all in one go!
Who is Jeff today? Please share a little bit about where you live, family, what you do for a living.
I’ve been in Alpharetta, Georgia since 1996 which is a suburb of Atlanta. I’m happily married to my wife, Aimee. Zero kids, one dog.
[Art comment: Jeff has a great comment about Amy, who is obviously very smart and pragmatic, on his blog that I am copying below. Wise words, my friends. Wise woman and sage advice from Jeff Miotke]
“The fact that all three of my aquariums are in my home office is not by chance. This is what my wife and I agreed upon from the beginning. She would let me do pretty much what I wanted if it stayed within those four walls. Deal. My wife is smart and knows me well and she knows that when I go in on something I go ALL in. She obviously can see into the future and as for me, well, I was just happy to have my aquariums. So, before you get too far along, strike your own deal with your spouse, family, roommate or whomever may be in your home.”
What is your typical day like? Any habits/practices you like to do?
I used to be very regimented and thrived on routine when I was working. These days not so much.
I still find myself busy and days go way too fast. I’m currently in learning mode trying to cram in as much knowledge around social media and content creation as I can for my future plans.
I still get out for daily hikes, making meals and more mundane chores.
Where did your interest in the aquarium start?
Long story short, a family friend when I was about eight or nine years old introduced me to the hobby.
I also grew up on a lake in Wisconsin where most of my childhood time was spent swimming, fishing, or boating. One of my favorite things was to get up at the crack of dawn and sneak up to the lake’s edge. The water was so still and clear. I would observe all the fish hoping to get a rare sight of a a big bass or a garfish or one of those big boy carp.
We all know you as a professional aquascaper now. I know you had another profession before. Please tell us what your journey has been with the previous profession and how/why you made the transition to professional aquascaper.
I’ve had two successful careers.
I worked as an environmental engineer early on and then switched to IT in 1999. In IT, I was working as a server administrator and had a successful entrepreneurial run with my IT consulting business through 2019.
After that I took a year off and then signed on with a firm for a short stint which ended in a layoff due to the pandemic. I found myself tired after keeping pace in the IT world.
Now I’m in a financial situation that I can stop working on my chosen career and focus on what my wife and I call “happy fun time” which includes plenty of aquascaping!
What are your thoughts today on planted aquariums for the mass public in the USA? How has your thinking about the US freshwater planted aquarium market changed or evolved?
Well, it’s night and day.
Plants are more readily available and tissue culture plants have been a joy. We have so many more choices. Though, availability is still challenging. Most of the plants I receive are ordered and delivered versus purchasing at a local fish store, which I would prefer.
The future of the planted tank hobby in the USA looks very bright! It’s a great time to get started!
Please describe what is a professional aquascaper for someone that doesn’t know our hobby. What are all the things you do?
Professional, to me, means that I’m paid for a skill. While I’m, technically, a professional now, I would still call myself a hobbyist which I think of as doing an activity that I enjoy in my spare time.
Some of my new roles as a professional – I’m fortunate to have partnered with Oase and am their Ambassador for North America. Oase are a great group of people and it has been a dream to work with them!
It’s it’s funny how small moments can change your course. We may never have met if I had not sought them out at a convention to see if i could get my hands on a new filter I was hearing great things about. I then got to know them and it was an obvious good fit. We share many similar core values and interests.
What’s the future for Jeff? Any projects you’re working on and excited about?
We’re flying right through these!
Oh yes! Now this is a fun question!
The future is looking awesome! My wife and I call it “happy fun time” and I have big plans. I have an upcoming live streams on the Oase North America Instagram channel, so look for those soon.
I’m in the middle of converting my home office, which I’m in now, into a studio. Also, I’m planning on sharing my day-to-day around bringing to life a contest layout. And, once this pandemic is over, I plan doing a lot of travel. Doing lots of presentations for Oase at the local fish stores and events, as well as, visiting fellow hobbyists to hang out with them and share their stories.
What companies are you working with and how?
In addition to Oase, I have the support of two amazing companies on my current endeavors. The first is Sevenports out of Tennessee which has been generously supplying new aquarium hardscape materials. I love getting new hardscape material and glassware from them! They are an organization of like-minded people focused on getting people into this hobby.
Another company I’m working with that’s sponsoring me with product is Tropica Aquarium Plants, which I’m sure needs no introduction. Tropica has supplied my upcoming projects with substrate fertilizers and their awesome plants.
I’ve also had the support of Aqua Forest Aquarium, which is run by the Lo brothers out of California. The Aquarium Design Group which is run by the Senske brothers out of Texas have been supportive as well. Most recently, these last few years, I’ve been getting my fish from a close friend, Jerry Jobe, of Aquarium Fish Depot out of Florida who takes the time to quarantine and prepare the fish for me so I don’t need to do that step. So, yeah, it takes a village.
Tap or RO?
Right! So, RO or RODI stands for reverse osmosis and deionization for purifying water. I use both tap and RODI. I try to use the right tool for the right job.
I’m very fortunate to have great quality water out of my tap it’s very soft on the order of half to one degree KH and, maybe, one to two degrees GH. My contest tank has been only on tap and I do add calcium and magnesium. To decrease the TDS from like say 70 to about 110 parts per million, I use a TDS pen. I use our RODI when it’s called for like in my reef tank which you see behind me or say a shrimp tank, both of which are then mixed with the appropriate salts.
You seem to really enjoy competitive aquascaping. Please share how you are involved with it.
I’m surprised you noticed!
For me, the competitive aspect is just a bonus. It gives me a platform to share with others the pinnacle of my creations. If there were no contests, I’d still be doing what I do!
I have been competing since about 2013 and I’ve entered 20 or so contests. At this point, I’ve had good rankings and always strive to improve my skills which, to me, is more important than, say, ranking itself which is really subjective. To me, it’s more important to show consistent long-term improvement.
I’ve had the honor to be a judge in some of the contests most notably the AGA contest in 2018. It was it was really a good experience to see the competition from another viewpoint and I think this has helped my own vision for my own creations.
What does competitive aquascaping mean to you?
This answer may surprise you but, to me today, it means friendship. It gives us a reason to come together.
One thing I didn’t really have when starting competitive aquascaping was the social aspect. Now, I have so many new friends and all because of the contests. This to me has become the most important aspect of aquascaping and has shaped my future plans.
I believe you’ve placed 42 in the world at the IIAC in 2019 with an aquascape called Abundance. Congratulations! Please tell us more about Abundance. Take us from concept and planning to the trials/successes of implementing it.
Yes, this is true. Abundance was also ranked top 10 in the AGA 2019 contest. Interestingly enough, I think it was the weakest of three layouts I did in 2019. The IIAC stated that they wanted the plants to be the focus for the layouts which differs from other contests and really caught my attention. I had a short time frame to turn around my 120 centimeter aquarium from the IAPLC layout from 2019 to a new IIAC layout so I used many of the same plants to speed up the process.
One of the plants was ludwigia pantanal. I knew that I was going to show this plant off as it is rarely seen in layouts. It’s fairly large. To me it looks like a fire work going off in the sky with its color and shape.
To this end, I built up a mountain scene with a lot of greenery and created these pockets and lines of colors bursting within. One of the things I wish I had done in that layout was to black out the background to make it a night sky but time got away from me and never got around to doing this. It was a very short-lived layout and the tank was turned around for the CIAC which is the China International Aquascaping Contest after only 47 days. Yeah, that’s right, at day 46 I shot the final photo for the contest and then tore it all down. The subsequent layout for the CIAC was only a ridiculous 24 days to complete which I barely finished to submit.
What do you think your role is today in USA aquascaping?
Tough one. My role I would say is to continue to share my experience and help people elevate their own layouts. I have been very careful from early on to not steer anyone who I’ve mentored when it comes to say creativity and let them tell their own story without adding my biases.
Where do you get your plants from? Any US companies that you think are doing a good job of supporting the US planted aquarium market?
Oh, so many of my plants have come from Aqua Forest Aquarium, which sells the ADA plants, Tropica Aquarium Plants and Florida Aquatic Nurseries. We as hobbyists need to continue to support all companies bringing these plants to us as availability is still challenging at times.
When you’re going to create an aquascape, can you explain how you approach doing it? What’s your process?
Inspiration comes from anywhere. I don’t really have a very strong answer for that one. It comes from anywhere and everywhere for me.
Did you ever meet Takashi Amano?
No, never met him. I was certainly influenced by him. At the time, I had no idea what was possible until stumbling across his Nature Aquarium World book. I remember looking at my plant tank and then looking at his pictures and that was that. I was hooked. Funny thing was that I already had the basics down but I lacked the artistry. It was that defining moment when I knew that this concept of nature aquarium was exactly what I wanted and I never looked back.
Do you have any hobbyists (besides Amano) that really inspired or continue to inspire you?
Yes. When I started there was so little available. I do remember that the escapes by Jason Baliban and the projectaquarium.com website were very influential. I think he stopped or disappeared or or something at about the time I started. I’ve yet to meet him. I’ll have to add him to my travel wish list. these days um there are so many uh talented aquascapers and it’s a you know really awesome to see the next level creations year after year the wonderful thing about this hobby is that there is a room that you know that there really is room for all of us and uh everyone has their own unique viewpoint expressed in their layouts so yeah
What guidance would you give someone who aspires to get into the world of competitive aquascaping?
The most important concept for a contest layout is to be very clear in your story. If you’re making a forest layout, you will need more than three pieces of wood. If you’re making a mountain scape, you’re going to need a lot of the same stone in various sizes everything from tiny to huge. So, yeah, lots of hardscape.
Tell me about your first car
Light blue Chevy Chevette. Hand-me-down with power nothing.
Wolverine – he kicks butt.
Describe something about yourself that most people don’t know
I used to post on the forums as mot on plantedtank.net. Check it out – lots of good stuff!
What are some personal values that make you who you are?
Integrity really is the core to who I am.
Describe an aquascape that you create that you’re truly proud of. Why do you think it holds a special place with you?
My my best aquascape to date is the IAPLC 2020 entry titled, Brilliant Waters.
I think this best showcases the current level of my skills and I’m really happy with the use of shadow, color and reflections.
Chocolate or vanilla?
A good dark chocolate bar is my go-to but say, for ice cream, vanilla all the way.
Favorite food? Favorite drink?
Toss-up between a great pizza and a killer fried chicken sandwich. Wash it down with a cold beer.
Most talented aquascaper (other than you)?
Honestly, I never thought too much about it nor do I think it really matters. Straight up, it’s about one’s vision and execution.
One aquascaper that does come to mind and has been the most influential on me in the recent years is Stephen Chong. I’m grateful to have his insights and his friendship. He has been a student of Fukadasan and Onosan and other Tokyo Aquascaping Union members. He has been relaying much of what he has learned to myself and my peers in NorthAmerica, so thank you TAU!
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?
Stay true to yourself and keep working at perfecting your creations. Then, please share them, whether it’s on social media or through a contest.
So there you have it 27 questions and 27 answers. Thanks to ScapeCrunch and thank you, Art!
I want to thank my friend, Jeff Miotke, for taking the time to answer my probing questions. He really is one of North America’s top aquascapers and, like others, constantly pushing to increase the popularity of this beautiful art form and hobby.
I also love the fact that he took the time to do it in video format that I can now share with all of you. Reading Jeff’s thoughts and preserving them in the nether world that is the Internet is important, but it’s also fun to just hit play on the video and really get his personality.
Without further ado, here’s the video for you to enjoy: