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An interview with Karen Randall

by Timber Press on March 9, 2017

in Design, Gardening

“Terrestrial gardening gets us outdoors and in touch with nature in a very profound way. Aquatic gardening gives us the opportunity to keep our hands dirty (and wet) year round!” —Karen Randall

You are an international speaker on aquascape. From the questions you get asked, what do you think is the most common mistake or misconception about planted aquariums?

I think the biggest problem for people who are used to keeping “fish tanks” is remembering that plants are living, growing organisms that need specific care too. They are not just aquarium decorations. Cared for properly, aquatic plants make the aquarium beautiful and a healthier environment for the animals maintained. If the needs of the plants are not met, they slowly die, and the breakdown of dying plant tissue contributes to water quality problems in the tank.

If you could only give only one piece of advice to a beginning aquarium design professional, what would you say? What about for a new hobbyist?

There are almost no aquarium design professionals who didn’t start off as hobbyists first. And, honestly, there are very few successful aquascape professionals worldwide. There are two big, well-known firms in the whole of the United States, a few in Europe, and a scattering in other parts of the world. Anyone who wants to make a living in that industry must have a huge amount of passion and business sense as well as talent, and they must be in an affluent area of the country where people will pay for their services.

Hobbyists are in a very different situation. Anyone with $200 of discretionary funds can set up a small, beautiful planted aquarium and begin to learn. For those people, my advice is to get my book! Read as much as you can, and join a local aquatic plant club or local general aquarium club in your area. There is good advice available on the Internet, but it is buried in a lot of bad advice. It can be hard for a beginner to sift through the piles of information and come up with a clear understanding of what will work. There is a list of Internet sites that I feel are reliable on my website.

What first got you interested in aquascaping? When did you decide to build a career on this unique cross section of flora and fauna?

I always have been passionate about animals, plants, and all parts of the natural sciences. My parents were great about allowing me to have many different types of pets, from fish to lizards to birds as well as the obligate hamsters, guinea pigs, cats, dogs, and horses! We always had gardens, and I helped my mom with those. I don’t ever remember a time without aquariums in the house. I got my own first aquarium when I was about ten. I had to save my money (with a $0.25 per week allowance) for the tank, and my parents bought the rest of the equipment for me. I earned the fish and plants for that tank by helping out at the local pet store, where I gentled hamsters and parakeets and cleaned cages. I often rode my bike home with a fish bag clutched over the handlebars.

As far as building a career. . . I didn’t! I am still very much a passionate hobbyist. I do not make my living in the aquarium business. I am very lucky if the money I bring in from articles, etc., covers the cost of the trips I take to study plants in the wild. I am first and foremost a wife and mother, and my day job is working as an educational advocate for children with special needs.

You started a program to put aquariums in elementary school classrooms. Why is that kind of advocacy important to you? What can young people learn from aquariums?

Young people are the future of our hobby, and I believe that children need to be encouraged to explore nature in a hands-on way from an early age. My older son used to take plaster of paris outside on our property to collect animal footprints. Other parents thought it was funny that my son would sit watching plaster dry… I thought it was fantastic! Children that grow up learning about plants and animals will also learn to care more about our environment as adults. And that is something we all need to be more aware of.

You have traveled extensively to study aquatic plants in the wild, including to Brazil for Project Piaba. Can you tell us more about that conservation program?

Ooooh! That would be an article in itself! Essentially, Project Piaba is a program where local people in the Brazilian Amazon are taught to collect aquarium fish in an ethical, humane, sustainable way. They have found that when people understand how important the flooded forest is to their livelihood, they also become guardians of that forest, acting as the eyes and ears of the government to report and shut down illegal mining, poaching, and deforestation. It is a win-win program, all driven by the tiny, brightly colored cardinal tetra.

Which aquarium design consultation are you most proud of?

I am always honored to be asked to help the public aquariums. I think my favorite was a changeable exhibit at the New England Aquarium that was focused on kettle hole ponds in Massachusetts. This exhibit used all native plants, and the aquarium staff wanted to learn how to grow and maintain these plants in their exhibits. While that exhibit is long gone now, you can see by the beautifully maintained plants in the Fresh Water Gallery there that the knowledge they gained has become a normal part of the way they maintain their exhibits.

What do you think will be the next big trend in aquascaping?

I am hoping that aquascape artists will move away from the current trend of “twig and moss” and toward more sustainable layouts. While I can certainly appreciate the skill and talent required for these scapes as well as the great attention to detail and maintenance needed to bring one to maturity, my preference is for something that will last longer.

What can a home gardener learn from the principles of aquascaping, and what can an aquarium designer learn from the principles of home gardening?

Whether you are talking about painting, photography, sculpture, or gardening, the basic design principles are the same. While it is certainly possible to place one plant here and another there, understanding how the eye flows through a layout, the balance of light and dark, the composition of negative space, etc., can make both terrestrial gardeners and aquatic gardeners better at their craft. So I think it’s a matter of people choosing to elevate their own design aesthetic. I think that most types of gardening compliment each other. Terrestrial gardening gets us outdoors and in touch with nature in a very profound way. Aquatic gardening gives us the opportunity to keep our hands dirty (and wet) year round!


Karen A. Randall is an expert on planted display aquariums and the propagation of aquatic plants. Her articles and photography have been published internationally. For many years she wrote the monthly column “Sunken Gardens” in Aquarium Fish Magazine and is now technical editor of the Aquatic Gardeners Association magazine, The Aquatic Gardener. In 2003 she won the Northeast Council of Aquarium Society’s Betty Mueller Award, a lifetime award for her outreach work and other contributions to the aquarium hobby.


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