Some people have a natural eye for design of any kind, including aquascaping. But if you are more in the camp of those who cannot do anything without consulting Pinterest board (check out mine), this aquascaping guide for beginners will be just right for you.
Aquascaping your tank can be incredibly exciting, but also intimidating, daunting, and challengingly complex, especially for beginners. It is very easy to feel overwhelmed and discouraged when the vision in your head does not seem to be materializing.
In this article, I’ve compiled some basic information that will help you with all your aquascaping needs.
Without further ado, let’s start.
What is Aquascaping?
Aquascaping is the craft of arranging aquatic plants, in addition to rocks, stones, hardscapes or driftwood in an aesthetically pleasing manner within an aquarium. The primary aim of aquascaping is to create an artful underwater landscape for tank inhabitants. It also encompasses the technical aspects of tank maintenance and the provision of growth requirements of aquatic plants and animals.
There are many aquascaping designs, it is the duty of the hobbyist to choose the most suitable one for implementation in the tank. The following are renowned aquascaping design styles for those in the fish-keeping hobby.
- Jungle Aquascaping
- Dutch Aquascaping
- Amano / Nature Aquascaping
- Iwagumi Aquascaping
- Biotope Aquascaping
- Walstad Aquascaping
Jungle aquascaping is characterized by a free flow pattern in the tank. Aquarium plants are allowed to grow, thrive and fill in most of the open space in the tank. In this layout, plants like Amazon swords, Vallisneria, Crinium are not solely placed in the background. They can be placed all over the tank and often grouped to form mats without necessarily shading small plants like the Anubias Nana (read the guide).
This form of aquascape is derived from the popular flower and plant arrangements in the Netherlands. It works by placing a colorful contrast of different shaped plants into large beds and terraces. This style does not use ornaments like rocked and driftwood. The Dutch aquascaping is like a formal garden: tidy and duly organized. It relies heavily on contrasting colors like red versus green, fine leaf texture vs broad leaf amongst others.
Amano (Nature) Aquascaping:
This aquatic style was named after Takashi Amano. It became prominent after he started an aquarium design company with an entirely distinct style. Amano aquascaping implements Japanese design philosophies that rose from traditional Japanese gardening.
In this nature layout style, the substrate is piled up drastically to one side to mimic a riverbank. There is plenty of open space and the tank has a design that includes rock canyon with bonsai coming from the walls made from driftwood and Java moss (carpeting plants).
Iwagumi means “rock formation” in Japanese, their style employs the use of large anchor rocks and substrate. Japanese rocks are scattered at the bottom of the tank in an aesthetically pleasing manner. The major highlight of this aquascaping design is the use of rocks to provide the main visual focus in the aquarium.
This is unarguably the most unique style of aquascaping. The main feature of this style is the formation of a layout meant to replicate environments found in nature (biomes). Biotope aquascaping incorporates the elements of Jungle, Dutch and Amano aquascaping.
This aquascaping style utilizes the soil as the main substrate in the aquarium. It is easier to maintain as it does away with filtration, additives and frequent water changes.
The aforementioned aquascaping designs are the most popular and do not require much expertise to replicate them.
A paludarium is a type of aquarium that incorporates both terrestrial and aquatic elements. While one part of the composition in the aquarium is underwater, and the other part is above water. It is best suited to recreate the sensation of a tropical forest, river or shore of a stream, swamp, mangrove or lake.
The paludarium is also ideal for demonstrating plants floating on the surface of the water and one of the most suitable methods for keeping amphibians, and semi-terrestrial invertebrates in aquariums.
Mistakes of Aquascaping
It will be a mistake to assume that the main things in aquascaping are plants. Surprise, surprise!
That’s right, although, plants play a very important role in aquascaping, it is not just about plants (except Dutch and Amano Aquascaping). On the contrary, this part (plants) has become one of the easiest for experienced aquascapers.
Once your tank set up is ready (we will talk about it as well) and you have created the ideal conditions for plant growth, you can forget about them and focus only on technical conditions:
- a system of nutrient soils,
- of course, powerful light, which has a visible spectrum, possibly as close to the sun as possible.
The most important/difficult thing in aquascape is the hardscape! Therefore, if you are a beginner, it will not be a good idea to make aquascapes which are mostly based on the hardscape. Choose only the simplest types – plants based.
Hardscape in aquascaing is a well-thought-out and balanced composition of stones, driftwood, and snags, which is the main and most essential part of aquascape. Actually, hardscape is the most difficult level of skill in aquascaping.
Any mistake in hardscaping is extremely difficult to correct. Remember once and for all that if you have already planted plants and filled your tank with water – the work is done! Basically, it is not possible to accurately change anything without disrupting the concept and in some cases even the cycle! Sure, you can add some more plants here and there. However, the truth is that it will not fix a bad hardscape, you can only hide it behind the plants.
Rules Guiding Aquascaping
When you are aquascaping, applying certain rules of composition with plants, rocks, driftwood, and other ornaments will help boost the overall aesthetical impression and look of the aquarium. The rules are as follows:
- Rule of thirds
- Focal point
- Golden ratio
Rule of thirds:
It is a technique that explains how to use imaginary guidelines in placing certain elements within the aquascape in such a way that one can control what the eye of the viewer sees. In order to understand this principle, try visualizing an image as divided into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines. The main purpose of these lines is to locate the intersection points of the grids where one can establish the focal points of the image.
The application of the rule of thirds in aquascaping prevents the main subject (s) from being in the center of the aquarium, therefore it prevents overshadowing of all other elements in the equation.
A focal point is an invisible visual mark which anchors the viewer’s gaze and from which the viewer’s eyes can glide towards other points of interest making the viewer’s experience more interesting and captivating. Focal points ensure that every corner of the aquascape gets a bit of the spotlight.
Note: Greek philosophers and mathematicians found out long ago: the best ratio that pleases your eye is 1:1,618.
It is a mathematical method used for creating focal points in arts and nature. Golden ratio is achieved by dividing the length of space into two uneven sections. For example, when you divide the longest length by the shorter length and receive the same result as dividing the total length by the longest length. That is where the golden ratio of focal points can be found.
Algorithm on How to Aquascape. Setting up your Tank.
Obviously, if you have some experience in the aquatic hobby, you can skip this basic step-by-step part on setting up the tank. However, if you are completely new, I would strongly recommend reading it.
- Planning the layout: This stage is a conception on deciding the style to implement in the tank, size of the aquarium.
Here, the hobbyist should have a visual idea of what the final design would look like as well as the type of hardscape to be used. Species of both fauna and flora should be considered.
- Choosing the tank size: For nano & small aquarium; 10 gallons (~40 liters) and under is recommended. This takes little space in the room and would not require much time in terms of set up, water changes and trimming. A 10 gallon-tank or less would seem limited for someone who desires a large aquarium, a 50 gallon-tank would be okay.
- Choosing and adding substrate:
The type of substrate to be used in the tank is highly dependent on the aquascaping style you want to replicate. Other factors like species of plants and animals would also determine this.
For the plant based aquascapes, it is essential to find a nutrient-rich substrate: a substrate with a high nutrient content that will maintain a neutral or slightly acidic pH to effectively promote healthy plant growth. Substrates like sand and gravel will make it difficult to grow healthy plants. Artificial and enhanced substrates like Seachem Flourite, ADA Aqua soil, Eco Complete Aqua soil. These substrates is nutrient-rich and aesthetically pleasing to the eye because of its dark color.
For more information, you can read my article “Top 5 Substrates For Planted Aquariums”.
- Hardscaping: As I have said earlier, beginners should not prioritize this kind of aquascapes. If you still want to add them – do not make them the main parts of your designs.
In the process of choosing hardscape type, this will be heavily dependent on the type of setup you are seeking to establish. Hardscapes include rocks, stones, driftwood or bogwood. Bear in mind that when introducing hardscapes into the tank, make sure that they are stable and held in place. The importance of doing this is to ensure that they do not move and skip when water is added to tank as you would not want the rock or driftwood to break the tank glass or destroy any component inside the tank.
- Adding Water: Plants and aquatic animals cannot thrive in the tank without water. Water is necessary for their activities and survival. When adding water into the tank, caution should be taken to avoid displacing the substrate from the base of the tank. To achieve this, you should fill up the aquarium gently using a siphon. Avoid filling the tank to the brim to avoid overflow and messing up the environment.
- Planting: This element of aquascaping requires care and caution. There are foreground, midground, background plants. Do not plant foreground plants in the background. Some plants grow slower than others and can be overshadowed, etc. So, keep all these things in your mind when you start choosing them. Plants should be compatible.
- Complete the cycling of your tank. Your tank should be ready before adding fish or shrimp there. It can take 4-8 weeks. Read more about “Step-by-Step Cycling your Shrimp Aquarium Fishless” here.
- Choosing fish, shrimp, and other tank inhabitants: This stage is also crucial in guaranteeing the success of the tank setup. You should take time to critically examine and consider the species you would like to add to the aquarium.
While doing this, you should also put into consideration: the size of the tank, chosen plant, substrate type, Co2, light requirement.
Only add fish that the size is compatible with the size of the tank. Also, you should consider compatibility of the different tank inhabitants to be introduced, canivorous fish cannot coexist with some snail and shrimp species while others can coexist peacefully.
At this point: Do your research and pick beginner friendly species!
When introducing fish, shrimp, etc in the tank, always remember to avoid overstocking. Overstocking promotes unhealthy competition, cannibalism, and excess ammonia build-up in the tank water. It makes the maintainance activities cumbersome and difficult.
Guide on some essential water parameters and tank requirements.
Temperature is an essential element for aquatic life, it regulates the growth of plants and animals. For example, in shrimp and fish, high temperature increases their metabolism. As a result, it leads to shorter lifespan and faster breeding cycle.
It exerts an influence not only on oxygen levels but also on many other factors. While mammals have a regulated and practical stable temperature, that of fish and other aquatic animals varies according to the temperature of the water around them.
They can survive only at certain temperature and some species are more sensitive than others to variation in temperature. The temperature of fresh tropical water ranges from 20° C to 30° C, characterized by less variations in temperate regions of the world.
Note: The mean temperature most often recommended for aquarium is 22 to 25°C (72 – 77 F) and variations of 1 or 2° C are of little consequence.
PH measures the acidity or alkalinity of water, the value 7 representing neutrality. Below this level, the water is said to be acidic and above the level is alkalinic.
Generally speaking, aquatic life can exist only between pH 5 and 9. These extreme values are rarely found in an aquarium where the pH ranges from 6 to 8 according to the water type. The optimal pH values of an aquarium usually lie between 6.5 and 7.5.
Water hardness refers to the combination of substances based on calcium (Ca) and Magnesium (Mg) that are present in it. These substances known as salts are carbonates, bicarbonates, and sulfates. Water with zero hardness does not contain any of these salts, that is the case with distilled water.
Hardness of water is expressed in German degrees (°GH or °DKH).
There are three main categories of water in fish keeping:
- Soft water: 3°GH or 50ppm.
- Medium water: which is neutral or slightly alkalinic – 6°GH or 100ppm.
- Hard water: Highly alkalinic at 12°GH or 200ppm.
Light not only serves to provide visual pleasure and highlight the aquarium. It also makes it possible for plants to perform photosynthesis and grow. While providing light for the aquarium you should put the lighting requirement of plants into consideration. Some species grow well under low lighting whereas others s thrive under medium or high lighting conditions. Lighting sources include: flourescent tubes, LED light bulbs, halogen light bulbs.
Aeration in the aquarium is made possible through the use of a pump. This pump is connected to the mains, it draws in the atmospheric air surrounding it and pushes it along a narrow pipe to a diffuser. This forms bubbles that break on the surface of the water.
Best Plants for Beginner Aquascaping
There are many different kinds of plants that can be used in aquascaping for beginners.
Floating plants: These plants provide shelter/cover for fish and fry. Examples of floating plants include species like Amazon frogbit, Duckweed, Dwarf water lettuce.
For more information, read my article “Top 7 Floating Plants for Beginners”.
Mosses: These include the popular Java moss, Crystalwort.
In aquascaping, imagination and creativity play an essential role. With the above detailed guide and tips an aquascaper with little or no experience can be able to replicate an aquascaping design in the aquarium with minimal effort.
Just have fun while at it and be creative. Good luck on your first aquascaping!