Introduction: Ikea Aquascape on the Cheap $12

Picture of Ikea Aquascape on the Cheap $12

Quick and easy mini-aquascape for decoration. I became obsessed with the idea of an aquascape a few years ago. I built one with fish, a CO2 pump, and a lot of plants, but the snails took over, the fish had babies, and everything went nuts. That isn't a problem with this setup.

The idea of an aquascape is essentially an underwater garden that releases oxygen into the room. You can make them into mini-biospheres (ala Make 10), but this one won't require you to pick things out of a pond.

Step 1: Aquire the Materials

Picture of Aquire the Materials

There are four things needed for this project. Two can be purchased at IKEA, but the same two can be acquired nearly anywhere.

You will need a container (glass jar, bottle, cup) about $6 for mine
Gravel (Ikea has small bags for $2, enough to make two of these)
Plant bulbs (I picked these up at Wal-Mart(BOO, HISS) for about $3
Water (I used distilled water for fear the chlorine mine kill the plants) $1

You can easily substitute anything but the bulbs. The water could be purified or treated water (for an aquarium). I would advise against pond water for the micro-organism count, and the smell. The distilled water won't have many of the same problems. I waited to post this until the plant had grown to see if there were any problems with the distilled water sucking the nutrients out of the plant, but I don't see any problems so far.

The taller the container, the more elegant the plants will look. Wal-Mart sells two types of plants, Aponogeton and Lily bulbs. The first is what I used, the second has a different color and shape of leaves. That is about the only difference, they will both work.

Growing from bulbs eliminates the chances of snail infestation. It will also make it easier to setup.

Step 2: Wash and Soak the Gravel

As with any aquarium/colored gravel, there will be a lot of dust. Use a strainer or cloth of wash the gravel and eliminate as much of the dust as you can. I originally tried to put soil beneath the gravel for the plants, but this did not work at all, and I wouldn't advise it. After the gravel has been cleaned, place a couple inches of it at the bottom of the container and fill just a bit above the gravel with distilled water.

This step may not be necessary, buy any chemical residue from the dye or bleach should leech into the water and can be poured off the next day. Shake the gravel/water every few hours and let stand for 24 hours (give or take) prior to completing the project

Step 3: Start the Bulbs

This step will take you less time than it did to read it. Take a glass (not your jar) and fill it with a couple inches of distilled water. Place your bulbs in the glass and set it aside. There is no reason to add all of the bulbs to the aquascape if some of them won't sprout!

In a few days, you'll see the sprout start to work its way out. When this happens, it's time to transplant it to the gravel.

Step 4: Transplant the Bulbs and Enjoy

Picture of Transplant the Bulbs and Enjoy

Fill the display jars with the cleaned gravel and just a bit of distilled water. Remember that you want to be able to manipulate the bulb into the right position prior to filling the jar. For this, I used bamboo skewers(for kabobs) that reach just below the top of the gravel.

Carve a shallow trench in the gravel and orient the bulb so the shoot it up. After the shoot grows a little taller, you can fill in the trench over the majority of the bulb.

It won't quite look like a real aquascape, but it will add a touch of elegance to your living room or desk. I will probably add a couple shrimp or fish to my aquascape, and maybe give the real deal another try. I don't know for certain excess oxygen will bleed into the room, but it makes a nice excuse for assembling such a simple and pretty display.

If I could do it over, I'd like to use a taller container. I'm sure at a 99 cents store or somewhere else I could find a vase or jar that meets the order, but IKEA is so darn convenient.



BartholomewH (author)2015-06-12

How can IKEA offer SO MUCH stuff you could use in SO MANY ways!
Good hack there! Does has the looks

flying pie (author)2010-05-17

can u use this for a biosphere w/ shrimps

cwellems (author)2009-06-04

You seem to have more experience growing aquatic plants than I do, so maybe you can help me. I have a year-old tank with a variety of plants and fish. For the first six months the plants grew like crazy, and then eventually everything slowed down. The plants still grew, but nothing took over the tank. In the last two months, though, all the plants are dyeing. Only duckweed grows -minimally. Even algae isn't growing.
My lighting is three 24" 20-watt bulbs, and I use Flourish Iron fertilizer. Any suggestions as to the cause of this problem?

Alaska_Fanson (author)cwellems2009-07-03

It can be a hundred different things. Too much light, not enough nutrients, not enough water changes, wrong ph, etc etc etc. If you have too much light in your tank without enough nutrients, the plants will struggle to grow with whatever they have on hand. Contrary to popular belief, fish poop isn't the only thing plants need. ;) With all the light you have, a plant is able to photosynthesize like it's supposed to as long as it has food AND CO2. Fish only produce small amounts of CO2. Your filter helps remove it by oxygenating the water.

Also, if you choose plants that grow from bulbs, that can be part of the problem. The reason a plant grows a bulb is to store nutrients for a later date. A lot of the time, an aquatic plant may only be under water for 6 months at a time and the rest of the year be completely dry. The plant has a kind of "internal clock" that tells is to start dying off for the start of a dry season. And if you don't supply the nutrients a bulb needs in the long run, it will use itself up completely and the plant then dies.

Something else can be the plants themselves. If you pick out plants that are picky, they might do alright at first, but in the long run, they end up just completely horrible. I kept jungle val for a long time, but it kept dying off. I found out it was a calcium defficiency. A plant. Needing calcium supplements. Yikes. :P

You can also be adding too much iron. You use Flourish, so instead of iron, go out and grab some flourish EXCEL(which is an organic CO2 made from liquid that you just pour in) and get yourself some Flourish root tabs. That helps put a lot of basic must-haves back at the plant's disposal. This was long winded of me. :P Try this site if you're still interested: GREAT site with friendly people. :) Good luck!

sleighbedguy (author)cwellems2009-06-05

I'm none too experienced when it comes to growing anything, but the basics are generally pretty simple. If nothing is growing and you have not changed anything else, it stands to reason something is out of whack. Perhaps too much fertilizer is shocking the plants, there is too little diffused CO2, or the lights may be too intense for the plants. It would stand to reason the best approach may be replacing a larger portion of the water, and laying off the fertilizer for a while. That and temporarily putting a bubbler or CO2 pump might be worthwhile. Again, I'm not an expert at all, but if the plants started wonderfully and have steadily dropped off and are now struggling...I have to assume the problem has built up for a long time. If the plants have not been able to process the fertilizer, I'd imagine they would be shocked just as houseplants are. It is at least a good starting point...

xVAGUE (author)2008-08-10

What do you use as a light source?

sleighbedguy (author)xVAGUE2008-08-10

Z Sun...The aquascapes sit above my sink which gets a little indirect light everyday. One side does better than the other, so I switch them occasionally. Be careful with using direct sunlight due to algae. I don't know if the distilled water limits that issue, I suppose it can be tried and altered as necessary. It has never been a problem for me. Anyone have any knowledge of algae and growing in distilled water?

xVAGUE (author)sleighbedguy2008-08-15


NeilLizard (author)2008-08-08

I have done this before. I took a clear glass bottle and bought an aquatic plant at petco. I planted the plant in some old aquarium gravel(which I cleaned)and added water. I just dont know if the aquatic plants will survive in the lower water pressure compared to that of an aquarium.

MissPennyFarthing (author)2008-07-27

Do you have to add any sort of special nutrients to the water to keep the plant healthy? Or does the plant just absorb everything it needs from the water anyway?

As long as the jar is not completely closed off from the air, everything seems to be alright. The aquascape recycles the majority of the nutrients, so little is lost. Mine has been growing strong for nearly a year.

That's good to know, thanks! So it really is low-maintenance! Cool! I just wondered with you using distilled water, as I know that distilling removes a lot of the minerals, etc. (I think that's why doctors don't recommend drinking it for long periods of time.) Thanks again! :)

Miss World (author)2008-05-30

thank you for the cool instructable :) been curious on how to make those, now I might just give it a try!

JonGery (author)2008-05-02

beta fish?

Gnome (author)2007-11-04

Great instructable! Could you perhaps give us a link to the original aquascape's instructions or info? I'd love to make one for a fish! I'd try to keep it simple though :)

sleighbedguy (author)Gnome2007-11-04

I have been unable to find the site for years! I know it is on the Amateur Telescope Making webring. It was a private site, and a link I accidentally clicked on within his site. All I can tell you is it was a site about an 8" Dobsonian telescope build. There isn't much to it though, and there are a lot of sites out there about it. There are websites that sell plants, plans to build CO2 injectors and everything in between.

ironsmiter (author)sleighbedguy2007-11-05

CO2 injectors are SUPER simple. get a 2 liter soda bottle, fill with sugar water, toss in some yeast(bread, beer and wine all work just dandy). Drill a hole in the cap, hot-glue an air tube into it, and run the tube into the bottom of your aquarium. The happy little yeasties will go on producing CO2 for weeks at a time. If the sugar water stops bubbling, or the water goes green, unscrew the cap, toss the bottle, and start with a fresh 2-liter. If the soda is cheap enough, you can add the yeast straight to it!

Gnome (author)ironsmiter2007-11-08

Cool! So you could just dump beer in a container filled with sugar water and the yeast will produce CO2? Have you tried this before? It looks too simple to be true!

ironsmiter (author)Gnome2007-11-08

sorry, it's not that simple, unless you brew your own beer. in which case, just hook a hose to your air-lock and run the other end into the tank with all the plants. The issue with using bottled beer as your source of yeast is, every commercial beer I know of has been pasturized. AKA, they killed off all the swimmies. the good ones, AND the bad ones. "fresh" homebrew would work, but you're better off drinking your beer, and getting a 25cent packet of yeast from the grocery store.

bobise (author)ironsmiter2008-01-11

I think that yeasts FOR bread or beer and wine was intended, I know I was thinking that using beer or wine as a starter was advised, the comment was oddly worded... We use potassium metabisulfate to kill off yeast before bottling our wine.

Gnome (author)ironsmiter2007-11-08

Thank you so much! I think I'll try this out. Great info!

Haraisuru (author)2007-11-19

Soil definitely does not work well, but there are many great alternatives to gravel.

I personally hate pea gravel especially the rainbow brite colored junk at most pet stores. I have a 55 Gallon tank at home that is planted with live plants of various types and use a product called Flourite. Flourite really emulates the look and texture of soil very well. Flourite is actually made especially for planted aquariums and so it is not only really good for plants but it is also fish safe too. I don't endorse Petsmart in any way, but I wanted to give an example of the what I am talking about. They were the first link at the top and I am lazy so....


If anyone is interested and I can make the time (when I get home from work) I could post a picture of my aquarium so you can see what Flourite looks like in application.

nepheron (author)2007-11-16

put some sea monkeys in there

PerfectlySquare (author)2007-11-16

Is that a VOSS water bottle?

Zetheros (author)2007-11-12

Alas, if only humans were as self containing as guppies...

laradioken (author)2007-11-09

If you do this with live plants and don't mind having fish, get yourself a Clown Loch. They love eating the snails. With enough snails, you won't have to worry all that much about feeding 'em either.

cekayak (author)2007-11-09

I've been making these things for years with my first graders. We use 2 liter soda bottle, plants from the river, gravel from the play sand section, guppies and snails. The snails never overran the bottle. The plants will kill and dissolve the guppies within three days if there are not enough nutrients in the water, named urine, etc. It's a bio sphere, completely self contained. The weeds produce oxygen, the guppies produce CO2 for the plants. The gravel acts a filter, the plants act as aerators. It all worked. Guppies didn't need fed, they lived for 1 1/2 yrs. If you're not lucky you'll have to make new bottles for the baby guppies. But actually guppies are canbalistic so that wasn't much of a problem. source. Sorry just a litttle teacher humor.

trebuchet03 (author)2007-11-04

the fish had babies, and everything went nuts.

Tis the fate of society :p

crazymatt (author)trebuchet032007-11-04

So true.... Too true.... This is a pretty nice project to work on, I have this tall water bottle made of glass that I bought a while ago and I think this is a perfect way to reuse the bottle. (I got the bottle at 7-11 :P )

xenobiologista (author)crazymatt2007-11-08

OOoooh...There's a tall cylindrical vase outside my apartment that I've been wanting to use for something fish-related for a long time. Thanks for the reminder. Hint hint: if you know how to use chopsticks they're good for rearranging stuff in aquaria. Get some really long ones from the kitchen utensil aisle in a Chinese grocery or something.

brownsug10987 (author)2007-11-06

What kind of fish would you recommend? And what happens with the fish poop? Would you have to feed the fish?

In my HUGE 5 gallon aquascape I had two mollies. Three days later I had 20 some. The problem here is that comets (el cheapo feeder fish) give off a lot of ammonia and fecal matter, just to prove that the cheapest solution isn't always the best. In Make 10 they talk about using ghost shrimp since they more or less take care of themselves. I imagine I will either use these or tetras. There really isn't much room in the new setup. With one or two, the feeding/fecal situation should be fairly easy to deal with. I'd check on and scout around the internet for what organisms are used in aquascapes and mini-biospheres.

Thoth (author)sleighbedguy2007-11-08

Tetras aren't the best choice, many tend to be very delicate (the ever popular neon tetras are an example). Labyrnth fish like bettas, honey or sparkling gouramis which remain small and are hardy. Or one apple snail (Pomacea bridgesii) they don't eat live plants. Another cool choice is african dwarf frog.

Syrcen (author)2007-11-08

Set tap water out in a cabnit overnight in an open container and the clorine will 'evaporate' out of the water. If it is a huge anount of water, if could take longer, but a gallon jug of water will be ok for use in most fresh water fish tanks after a single evening.

CapnChkn (author)2007-11-06


It's hard to do this one right, you need just the right balance between temperature, light, plant, animal, and microorganism to make it all work. I salute you!

If you can keep outer organisms from invading, you will have a really workable system going there. I ended up with a lot of blue-green algae sliming everything. This is part of the problem with people using real plants in their aquariums.

You aren't the first to add a lamp to the machine Cheese! You probably wouldn't want to use fish Brownsug, there's and article written in the early 80's from "Mother Earth News"talking about the same as Sleighbedguy here. The biologist used Anacharis and Ghost shrimp I think.

TheCheese9921 (author)2007-11-04

Very simple, looks really good. An idea, incorporate a light (led or not) put a lampshade on it and you have one SWEET looking lamp

annaharris (author)TheCheese99212007-11-05

Nice idea!

TheCheese9921 (author)annaharris2007-11-05


jsweeks (author)2007-11-05

You can purchase this clay called laterite--I recommend the balls, not the powder. Just push a ball or two into the gravel. You could do this right before you add the bulb(s) Check your online aquarium supplier.

MrT1ki (author)2007-11-04

is there any upkeep in making one of these? such as do you need to clean out the water every so often

sleighbedguy (author)MrT1ki2007-11-04

There hasn't been any so far. I swapped out the water when the sprout was about an inch out. The lid keeps the evaporation low, and the distilled water keeps mineral rings from forming. I haven't seen any algae so far. It's been a couple months.

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