Nate Reinhart can help you take the houseplant trend to the next level. The Humboldt Park–based ichthyologist has long tinkered with aquaponics systems — contained water gardens that cultivate a symbiotic environment for flora and fauna, like, say, basil plants and betta fish. Five years ago, he began selling handmade wood and glass microbiomes through Big Fish Interiors, the Etsy shop he cofounded. For Reinhart, each system inspires “a sense of exploration and discovery in everyday life.” But he cautions that the habitat is “not like a rotisserie chicken — you don’t put it in and forget it.” Here, he shows how you can use a standard aquarium to build your personal oasis.

Supplies needed

1½-gallon clear plastic box
Bulkhead fitting with 1-inch slip, locknut, and washer
1-by-2-inch PVC pipe (most home improvement stores can custom-cut this)
5-inch-long sponge filter
2-watt aquarium air pump
5-gallon fish tank
3-inch plastic net pots to hold plants (pick ones that aren’t susceptible to root rot, like pothos, basil, and mint)
Clay pebbles to fill the net pots and encourage microbial growth


Illustration by John Kenzie
Illustrations: John Kenzie

1. Drill a 1½-inch hole through the center of the plastic box’s base. Insert the bulkhead so its threads are outside the box. Tighten the locknut. Inside the box, add the washer to the bulkhead, then lodge the PVC piece in, like a cork, so it juts out. This maintains a 2-inch water level.


Illustration by John Kenzie

2. Drill a ¾-inch hole through one of the box’s shorter sides, about 2 inches above the base. Push the L-shaped end of the sponge filter all the way through. The filter’s suction cups, which will secure it to the tank’s inner side, should face outward.


Illustration by John Kenzie

3. Plug the duct of the sponge filter with the air pump’s hose. This creates a conduit for air to push water into the box. The air pump will sit outside the tank.


Illustration by John Kenzie

4. Drill two 3-inch holes into the box’s lid to hold the net pots. Position the box so its lid rests on the tank’s rim, and fill the tank with enough water to reach the box. Plug in the air pump to turn on the system and start your life as a junior botanist.