Build your own aquarium with 6 things you (mostly) already have

I am sure everyone knows the feeling, you are spending a lot of time at your table, working or studying. And out of blue, you decided there is something missing. Something that would give your working environment bigger meaning, nicer color …something that would simply make it better, and easier for you to carry out with whatever are you doing.

I was studying at the university, living in a small shared dormitory room. My roommate dropped off in the middle of the semester, and surprisingly, I stayed alone. After a month, I realized I am not getting anyone new. At least until the beginning of the next semester. Also, I was studying a lot, spending many hours sitting at my table writing or reading. Then I decided I need an aquarium in my life, as soon as possible, and without spending a lot of money I didn’t have.

You will need:

  • big pickle jar
  • sand
  • lamp
  • any decorations
  • undemanding aquatic plants
  • water

Do not overthink it

“The aquarium”

Now, the key is to use some common sense. I believe, that the pickle jar part is easy. And it doesn’t have to be pickle jar exactly. It would be actually better to use something not round if you want to keep fish. You can use anything that anyhow reminds you of the aquarium. It can be a big vase or plastic bowl.


Sand is a little more tricky. When I was creating my aquarium, I simply walked around the town as long as I finally found district where they were building houses (our houses are from concrete or bricks, and there is always some sand around), and I collected a bag of sand. But that is not all, do not forget to wash it thoroughly before you put it into your “aquarium”. You will see how dirty it was, and that is something you don’t want to see in your tank. I mean, you want to see in it, and dirty substrate means dirty water.

Sufficient lighting

I believe everyone has a lamp on their table. Since we are concentrating on easy aquatic plants, we should be fine with anything you could have.


Here starts the fun part. Now you need to make your aquarium look pretty. All you have to do is go outside and find some rocks you fancy. It is better to choose smooth rocks rather than rough ones. Also, before you put them it the tank, clean them or better, let them boil for a few minutes in water. You can also soak them in vinegar to see if they make bubbles. If they do, they probably bear lime and I would not use them. They will change the pH of water in the long run. If you are not scared of more work, you can also collect some wooden sticks but you need hardwood (oak, beech, pear/apple tree) without bark. In my experience, dead branches from the ground are much better than freshly cut ones. You need to soak it in water for 1-3 months and load it with rock so it does not float. You need to clean any mold regularly and wait until the wood does not float without rocks.


Obviously, you can’t grow just any plant in a tank like this. Because we are going low-tech (and low-cost), you need to pick hardy plants that don’t need too much light. Which means definitely nothing red. Red plants, in general, need a lot of light and nutrition. Good plants are mosses – Java moss, ferns – Java fern, or hornwort (Ceratophyllum demersum). Smaller Anubias could work too. You can’t collect plants outside just like that, you need to buy them in the shop. Or try to ask fellow aquarists, I am sure they would share their abundant plants.

Water – the liquid of life

In this case, I would not be worried about what water you have. Can you drink it? If the answer is yes, it is fine to use.

Avoid new aquarium syndrome

Now, you have a nice “aquarium” on your table. But beware! You can’t put anything alive inside yet. Now you have to wait at least a month. The plants need to root, and balance needs to be set. Right now ammonia and nitrite levels are too high because there are not enough bacteria to break it down into nitrate.

What can you keep?

With this low-tech setup, you have to pick hardy animals easy to keep. You need to think about space, lack of filtration, and temperature. In general, I would try to avoid any fish. I know many people will be intrigued to buy betta fish, but 1 gallon (3.7 liters) is still too small. But I also understand you would like to see something moving in your new tank. What about some small snails (you may even bring them unplanned with plants ) or cherry shrimps? Just keep in mind that less is more and do not overstock.

How to take care of your new tank?

There is no filtration in your tank, so you really need to change the water regularly. It is a small tank, so changing 1/4 of water every second or third day should do the trick. Also, do not put water from the tab in the aquarium straight away. You need to wait at least a couple of hours to get rid of chloride. Your tank should live its own life without your interference. Plants will help to keep balance, algae will grow thanks to the light, and shrimps or snails will eat it. You will need to cut the plants every now and then.

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