My aquatic micro-ecosystem

There are these two big, clear-glass jars that I’ve long refused to throw away, but allowed to just lie around the house because we couldn’t decide what to use them for.

These jars are at least 50 years old, probably manufactured ca. 1950s, perhaps even earlier. I remember my Lola Itang used one such jar for her magickal liniments of garlic and ginger soaked in coconut oil and kerosene, which she used as remedy for miscellaneous muscle, joint, and tummy aches. I remember the other jar was formerly the fuel base container for a gas-lit lamp. The rusty tin caps have long been discarded.

So for many years, the jars were just shunted from one shelf to another, from one window sill to another, gathering dust and neglect—if not contempt from housemates who saw me as yet another packrat (just like my parents), fighting to protect a sanctuary for my highly valued quasi-antiques.

A couple of years back, at the height of the Covid lockdown, I experimented using one of the jars as a miniature terrarium, complete with mossy compost, tiny ferns, and my favorite miniature plant, “sandakot na bigas” (Pilea microphylla). My elementary-school teacher and esteemed Garden Club adviser Mr. Serapion Metilla had taught us how.

But disappointingly, the terrarium could not sustain itself, I still don’t know why. Maybe it had to do with positioning the jar vis-a-vis sunlight, or keeping just the right humidity inside the jar.

Next, I considered the more practical tack of turning the jars into miniature semi-aquatic gardens of kangkong (water spinach, Ipomoea aquatica). After all, I already knew from experience that kangkong stems—discarded when cooking sinigang but saved for my garden purposes—are amazingly easy to grow, sprouting and climbing up as mini-vines when given the chance. You just soak them in a bottleful of water in a sunny curner, for nature’s miracle to proceed.

The only drawback was that stagnant water in open jars invites mosquito larvae (kiti-kiti). This meant I had to change the water every couple of days to keep it mosquito-free. This problem always stumped me, since I wanted a low-maintenance kangkong garden but not a mosquito breeder.

A solution had been simmering in my mind, and now I decided to act on it. I bought ten tiny and cheap aquarium fish at the neighborhood petshop at P15 a piece, and stocked my two kangkong jars with them. I placed the jars on the southside window sill, so that the kangkong could get maximum sunlight and use the iron grills as trellis for faster spreading.

While I was ladling out the fish into the jars, though, two panicky ones decided to high-jump in the wrong direction, and landed beyond my reach on the hot tin roof. Poor guys! They didn’t have a platys’ chance as my two cats mercilessly feasted on them.

The fish, which I learned were called platys or possibly mollies—I’m a newbie on the different types—were themselves low-maintenance. They happily fed on the larvae and tiny algae growing on the kangkong stems and roots.

So now I have two miniature experimental aquaria. They have no pump-driven aeration. Ergo, the fish would have to sink or swim (exactly!) based on the success of the internally driven micro-ecosystem. After two weeks, two more died. I’m not sure why. I didn’t have the coroner’s patience and stomach to do an autopsy. Most likely cause of death: lack of oxygen.

This God of Mini-Aquaria might have been acquiring some ecosystem sense all these years, bit by bit. But he doesn’t know a lot about platys habits in artificial kangkong wilds. So wish me, and the fish especially, a lot of luck. #

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