How to Set Up a Dutch Aquarium

How to Set Up a Dutch Aquarium

It’s worth noting that Dutch and Natural styles are most common in the world of aquarium decoration or aquascaping. The first one is the oldest and probably the most famous. However, if you try to find a clear list of rules and a detailed description of the principles of building for this style, it may become one of the toughest tasks.

First of all, the Dutch style in the aquarium represents an abundance of aquatic vegetation. However, those plants are not just chaotically attached to the ground, but planted in accordance with the set of rules provided for this design and requirements of the biological balance.

In this article, you will discover everything about the Dutch aquarium and how to create it with your own hands. I will give you the basic principles and rules for building a Dutch aquarium, as well tell you about the required equipment and tools. 

Dutch Aquascaping

First of all, it’s worth noting that the design of the Dutch aquarium was first invented about 80 years ago in the Netherlands. It became popular because of the lush vegetation that gives the aquarium the appearance of a real underwater world, while all the inhabitants feel comfortable there.

Here’s an interesting fact, Dutch people don’t think that their aquarium can be similar to regular gardens. According to them, an aquarium in this style is just a traditional way of introducing an aquarium. Furthermore, these rules were refined for dozens and dozens of years.

Even though, the Dutch aquarium has always been considered very attractive in the history of aquariums. In recent years, the Japanese style of design of the herbalist aquarium (or a Natural aquarium) has been actively promoted. It’s worth noting that it was invented by famous Takashi Amano. As a result, the Dutch aquarium is gradually disappearing in the shadow of the Natural aquarium.

Dutch aquarium by Raymond Duindam 2015
Dutch aquarium by Raymond Duindam 2015

Best Aquarium Sizes for Dutch Aquascaping

The first step is to purchase an aquarium of the appropriate size. When buying, the main attention should be paid to the overall size of the bottom. It should be big.

The recommended width is about 40 – 70 cm (~15 – 30 inches). If you take a bigger one, it will be hard to reach the back corners of the aquarium. The main point is that the height of the aquarium should not exceed the width of the aquarium.

This ratio of width and length allows you to create a volume of composition and a deep perspective within the aquarium. Also, the light won’t reach (good enough) the plants in a high aquarium due to a thick layer of water.

In general, you shall use the following rule: length/height = 3/1, and width>height.

Aquascaping professionals confirm that the minimum volume of the Dutch aquarium is 200 liters, and the optimal volume is 500 liters. Kindly note that a small aquarium with an underwater garden can easily “get lost” in the interior of the house, while the plants will be located too dense.

The Dutch people calculate the height of a column of water using a formula that expresses the ratio between the surface area of water and the height of its column, where the necessary gas exchange happens:

D = P : V2,

where D is the rate of diffusion; P is the surface area, and V is the height of the water column. In case if D is less than 2, the size of the aquarium is inappropriate; when D is in the range from 2 to 3.5, it’s satisfactory; when D is in the range from 3.5 to 7, the chosen size is good.

Dutch Aquarium by Henk Bretvelds
Dutch Aquarium by Henk Bretvelds

Dutch Aquascaping Rules

In the case of the Dutch aquarium, it’s not enough just to locate several plants. All of them have to be planted in groups and lined up on the bottom of the aquarium.

The Dutch style does not reproduce the natural environment. It’s worth noting that it’s an underwater decorative garden, which can become an unusual decoration of the home interior.

1. The contrast of the plants

The main composition of the Dutch style is represented by dense plants. The design involves a huge variety of plants, which differ in size, color, texture, and shape of leaves. For example, the visual height of the group should be higher or lower than 2 cm (~ 0.8 inches).

Each species is planted in a specific area, while the plants of neighboring areas should contrast with each other standing out against the general background.
Each plant must be visible in contrast to the other plant. For example, green plants against red plants, or large leaves of a plant against a plant with small leaves.

At the same time, it’s necessary to plant them in such a way that each plant is visible in the aquarium. One of the biggest mistakes in the case when one of the plants begins to obscure other plants in the aquarium, thus moving them out from the entire composition.

There should also be no smooth lines when different plants flow smoothly into each other.

2. Combination of colors

In the general composition, red-leaved (including pink, yellow, etc.) plants should occupy not more than 25-30 %. It’s important to remember that the dominant color of the Dutch aquarium is green.

3. Levels of plants

In the Dutch aquarium, strict leveling rules have to be observed when locating plants. Plants are divided by height into the foreground scene, middle scene, and background scene.

Low plants are planted in the foreground. After that, one shall use the medium-sized plants. A solid background of tall plants has to be created at the last stage.

4. The density of plants

In the Dutch aquarium, not more than 20% of the open (empty) space is allowed, i.e. more than 80% of the bottom of the aquarium must be filled with plants. Each group of plants should be close to the other. The ideal aquarium is the one where there is no free space at all on the bottom.

There has to be almost the same number of each type of plant. At the same time, only very tiny plants can be located in the foreground and planted over a larger area.

5. The planting area of each plant

The number of plant species is also limited, while their excessive number can spoil the impression of the aquarium. According to the principles of the Dutch Aquascaping, each type of plant has to be located only in groups. For example, it is unacceptable that one plant covers an area of fewer than 10 centimeters (4 inches).

Note: Kindly note that there may be small exceptions in the case of a small aquarium. In such aquariums, a planting area of up to 5 cm (2 inches) is allowed.

At the same time, it is absolutely not allowed that one of the plants completely occupies any of the aquarium plans (Foreground, mid-ground or background).

6. One plant rule

One of the rules of the Dutch aquarium is that you should not plant the same plant in different places. In other words, one type of plant shall be located only in one place.

Note: The exception can be made only in case when the species that make up the Leiden street can be a mix or duplicate each other to enhance the visual effect (but not more than 2 plant species).

7. Сentration and symmetry are not allowed

It’s not allowed to center anything in this type of aquarium. It’s worth noting that this principle can easily be extended to any type of aquascaping… In general, you can’t center elements in any aquarium.

In any case, you can not adhere to the symmetry and “mirror” arrangement of plants. Placing plants in such a way completely deprives the underwater garden of harmony and naturalness.

8. Number of plants

The number of plant species is limited, while their excessive number can spoil the impression of the aquarium. In general, we may use not more than 3 types of plants per 30 cm of space.

However, small aquariums with a volume of 40 – 80 liters (10 – 20-gallon tanks) can contain 5 to 7 species of plants (2 – 3 in the foreground, 3 – 4 in the middle and the background). An aquarium of 200 liters (50 gallons), on the contrary, allows one to use 10 – 15 species (3 – 5 for the foreground, and 5 – 10 for the middle and the background).

9. Rule of thirds

One needs to remember that the process of plant distribution in the aquarium is based on the principle of the Golden section (the “rule of thirds” and the highlighting of the central point of the exposition), where each part visually looks complete (read more about some rules of aquascaping here).

The strongest point is usually taken to locate a large plant (maximum 2 species). E.g., a group of tall bright (red) plants that stands out strongly against the background. One can also put driftwood right next to it.

One can define the main work points on the plan as follows:

  • Divide the area of the aquarium into 3 equal parts in height and width.
  • Mark 4 points in the middle that were formed as a result of intersecting vertical and horizontal lines.

The first pair of points in the foreground are the places to focus on when planting and placing low plants. Another pair of dots at the back of the aquarium is a reference point when placing tall or long climbing plants.

You can also mark the points where the main accents will be located on the plan. These may be plants with unusual colors, leaf shapes, or flowers that bloom underwater. Such vegetation should be clearly visible when viewing the aquarium, so you should take care in advance that nothing obstructs it.

10. Dead zone

The Dutch aquarium should also have a “dead zone”, which has to be empty. It’s located near the center of the aquarium.

The fact is that the lens effect is extremely strong in a container with water. In addition, it will prevent you from observing plants.

11. Hidden equipment and the background

According to the rules, all equipment installed in the aquarium must be completely covered with plants. The viewers should not even guess about its existence.

Ideally, the walls (back and even side) of the aquarium should also be completely covered with plants.

12. The Leiden-street

To diversify the landscape, the Leyden street technique is used. Residents of the Dutch city of Leiden are famous for their talents in decorating homes with flowers and greenery.

In Dutch aquariums, the Leyden street is a common element in the form of a narrowing strip of moss or small plants. They can be planted obliquely through a wall of plants that contrast in color and shape with the rest.

At the end of the “street”, there has to be a remarkable fragment: driftwood, a stone, or a single large plant that will stand out from the general background.

Stones and driftwood in case of the Dutch Aquascaping

The Dutch aquarium provides a very high density of plants, so stones are not really used in the landscape. Sometimes it is possible to place driftwood on the bottom of the aquarium. However, it has to be small, so only some parts shall be slightly visible through the plants.

Note: Do not forget that unlike, for example, Iwagumi aquascape, rocks and driftwood are not focal points in Dutch Aquascaping.

Michael C.W.Wong - 3rd place - 65L Aquatic Garden Winter is upon us
Michael C.W.Wong – 3rd place – 65L Aquatic Garden “Winter is upon us”

Plants for Dutch Aquascaping

The main difficulty in creating and maintaining a Dutch aquarium is related to the choice and care of plants. You need to know each plant and have a clear understanding of the results you plan to achieve.

It’s important to choose the right species and varieties that are able to grow in dense groups, as well as provide enough fertilizers and set the necessary level of illumination. In addition, regular pruning and thinning of plants, the fight against algae are an integral part of the work to maintain a beautiful design.

In the case of the Dutch landscape, the most suitable are fast-growing plants, which are undemanding in care. In addition, you may have dense thickets in a matter of days.

Note: Experienced aquarists often use the method of planting plants in pots, hidden in the ground. This will facilitate the division of bushes and streamline the growth of the root system.

Dutch Aquascaping: Single Planting

If the aquarium is large enough, then we can use single planting. Usually, 2 – 3 large plants are used for this purpose. Unlike plants in the middle and background that are planted in quite numerous groups, single plants are placed as separate bushes in several strong points

One can use large species of Echinodorus as single plants: Echinodorus Bleheri, Echinodorus Parviflorus, Echinodorus cordifolius, Echinodorus Uruguayans and many other plants of this type.  Crinum (Crinum Thaitanium) and Nymphaea (Nymphaea Lotus) are also great for single planting.

In small aquariums, it’s better to avoid using single planting, since such plants can take up the entire volume and hide remaining plants.

Fish for Dutch Aquascaping

It is noteworthy that aquariums of this type may not even contain any aquatic life. Since the main role is given to plants that occupy a large volume of the aquarium, the fish are not that important.

However, it’s allowed to use flocks of miniature fish swimming in the water column or near the surface. One can use neon Tetra, Zebrafish, Angelfish, etc.

When creating such an aquarium with your own hands, it’s important to compare the compatibility of the selected plants and fish that will populate it. For example, fish that live in an aquarium should not have the habit of digging up the ground and do not perceive plants as food.

Dutch Aquarium by Geert Hoogeveen
Dutch aquarium by Geert Hoogeveen

Dutch Aquascaping Layout

It’s worth noting that the harmony of the green composition seriously depends on a detailed scheme of planting. It has to be started long before the arrangement of the aquarium.

This stage consists of taking a sheet of paper according to the size of the bottom and marking out areas for different types of plants on it. You can do this in the aquarium itself by using the soil.

It’s recommended to study the range of plants in pet stores in advance. Here’s what you need to consider when selecting them:

  • the similarity of habitat conditions
  • growth rate and maximum plant size
  • the color of the vegetation
  • find plants to make required focal points, and plants to highlight the overall style
  • define which plants are best placed behind, in the middle and in the foreground.

I want to repeat that there has to be no symmetry since the Dutch Aquarium will look ridiculous and unnatural. The bright plants should be shifted from the center in order not to attract too much attention.

Dutch Aquascaping Soil

A dark-colored soil is good for the Dutch Aquarium. One can also use large river sand or small gravel made of basalt or granite. The bottom can be decorated with various elements: large granite or basalt stones and well-treated driftwood.

Before laying it, it’s recommended to locate a nutrient-rich substrate on the bottom. In the future, it will contribute to more active growth and development of plants.
The ground level at the front glass should be very low.

Dutch Aquascaping Equipment

At first glance, it may seem that the Dutch Aquarium is an aquarium without filtration, with natural light and minimal equipment. This opinion is formed because all the equipment in such aquariums is hidden behind plants and it seems that all the water is filtered and purified by the plants themselves.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. One needs to know that the Dutch Aquarium is a high-tech tank. And one of the main parameters for growing both land and water plants is the correct selection of equipment.

Dutch Aquascaping Lighting

Light is fundamental and one of the most important points. It’s necessary to understand that when we talk about lighting, everything is too conditional. For example, for an aquarium with a depth of up to 50 cm (20 inches), even 30 – 50 PAR can be more than enough.

The correct selection of light sources plays an important role in the development of the Dutch Aquarium. It is necessary to provide comfort to plants so that they do not experience light hunger. But each plant is individual, which should be taken into account when placing artificial lamps.

The length of daylight for aquatic plants is usually around 10 hours.

If possible, you should hang specialized lamps over the aquarium without a lid. In a classic aquarium with a tight lid, lighting is enhanced with reflectors that can be made from foil or aluminum. 

Read more about it in my article “Advanced Guide to Planted Tank Lighting”.

CO2 and Fertilizers

The most important element of nutrition that plants require is carbon. In the Dutch Aquarium, the density of plants is so great that everything will be eaten in the first hour of daylight.

Plants living on the surface of the earth get the necessary amount of carbon from the carbon dioxide contained in the air. Aquarium plants cover their need for carbon from various sources, primarily from free carbon dioxide released during fish respiration.

Many aquarium plants are able to live with a low content of carbon dioxide, but their growth will undoubtedly be better with a significant concentration of free carbon dioxide in the water.

Don’t forget about the daily addition of liquid fertilizers.

Equipment For Dutch Aquascape

It is important to understand that without good lighting, CO2 system, CO2 bubble diffusor, and filter, it will be very hard to achieve amazing effects. Therefore, the list of necessary items (with some examples) looks like this (links to Amazon):

The maintenance schedule for the Dutch aquarium:

Daily:

  • Add liquid fertilizers
  • Check the water temperature
  • Adjust the CO2 supply
  • Feed fish
  • Remove floating and unhealthy leaves

Weekly:

  • Clean the walls of the aquarium
  • Remove accumulated dirt around plants and on the ground, with further substitution of 50% water
  • Clean filter elements
  • Prune and transplant plants as necessary

In Conclusion

The Dutch Aquarium is a fundamentally different scheme of aquarium decoration in comparison with other types of aquascaping. It’s driven by the traditions of harmony and beauty.

All aspects are taken into account: the size and parameters of the aquarium itself, its location and exterior design, special soil preparation and many other aspects. In addition, to create a composition in the style of a Dutch Aquarium, one needs to know the characteristics of aquatic plants perfectly.

Despite the fact that the aquarium in the Dutch style is quite often found at competitions and exhibitions… Leading masters of aquascaping say that the tradition of maintaining such an aquarium is gradually being lost. Young people don’t want to adhere to clear rules and wording.

Meanwhile, the Dutch aquarium will look attractive only if these rules are observed. Only in this case, it can become a bright accent in any interior design, while making it truly exclusive.

Michael G.W. Wong, Happy Valley n/a Hong Kong | Aquascaper Website

Related articles:

Aquascaping For Beginners. Introduction
How to Set Up an Iwagumi Aquarium

CO2 in a Shrimp Tank

Shrimp Safe Plant Fertilizers
Top 5 Substrates For Planted Aquariums

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