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Aquascaping: Intro, Types & Steps to Create Your Own

Designing tank aquascaping can be a formidable experience because of the sheer variety of choices – it’s a fully-realized art form that depends on your imagination.

If you do it right, you’ll be duly rewarded for your efforts as your tank takes soaks in all the attention from guests. Talented and skilled ‘aqua spacers would often submit their work to annualized competitions, hoping to seek recognition for their work.

In this guide, we’ll go over some of the basics of aquascaping that you’ll one day build upon and perfect in the years to come.

Here’s all you need to know about aquascaping.

Aquascaping for Beginners

For the uninitiated, aquascaping is like home décor for fishkeepers. Instead of figuring out where to place your wardrobe and bed, you’re brainstorming ideas for where all flora and fauna go.

At its heart, aquascaping involves the skill of laying out your aquarium with ‘hardscapes’ such as rockwork, woods, caves, stones, as well as plant species.

The work also involves figuring out where essential things like the water filtration unit, aquarium heater, and thermometer (if any) go.

As you can imagine, there is no limit to creativity when it comes to aquascaping. There are various forms of aquatic gardens and many aquascape types. Some of these take years to master and implement in a home tank environment.

Some aqua space arrangements require careful planning and lots of variables that must take into consideration.

Indeed, it is not unheard of for some aquarists to spend months skillfully drawing up their blueprint for what’s next. However, the layout isn’t the end-all and be-all of aquascaping.

You also have to make sure that you’re getting the basics right. Every fish and plant species has its specific requirements regarding temperature, humidity, pH value, and water chemistry.

You have to find a way to provide all species with a balanced environment where everyone can live peacefully and to their max potential.

Another factor that needs to address is the lighting. It is the main component of growth for plants in the tank.

Lighting also brings with it a huge problem – the growth of unwanted algae. An aquarist’s abilities test when finding unique workarounds and solutions to keep algal increases in check.

Different Types of Aquascaping

As we mentioned earlier, the sheer variety of aquascaping is virtually limitless. While the primary fish tank will look the same, most of them will be a variation of 3 popular aqua spaces.

The Nature Aquascaping

Natural aquascape

Takashi Amano was known for pioneering natural aquascaping in the late 20th century.

His goal was to mimic the fish species’ natural landscape (or plant species) using rocks and driftwood as the main piece.

The design is inspired by Japanese gardens, which aim to create an incredibly peaceful and serene environment.

This style usually limits itself to very few plants, with most being either moss or carpet plants.

Natural aquascaping requires tons of ongoing maintenance, such as trimming and water changes regularly. It may be too much to ask for an average aquarist hard-pressed for time and other obligations.

Iwagumi Aquascaping

Iwagumi aquascape

This aquascaping style also borrows heavily from Japanese décor and is quite challenging to recreate.

Its simplicity may lead you to think that it’s easy to recreate it, yet there are a few challenges that you have to overcome. For one, the aquarium goes for a minimalist look, which is hard to maintain when you’re using only 1 or 2 types of slow-growing plants (a precursor to excessive algal growth).

It develops by Takashi Amano, who strongly went after a minimalist style, a hallmark of Japanese culture.

The main features of the Iwagumi Style Aquaspace are rock formation – and lots of it. Stones play a significant role in the earth’s geography, and it would be hard to recreate the fish’s natural habitat without them.

There’s more to the Iwagumi style than meets the eye – you can’t just toss in a few stones and call it a day. The goal is to place them naturally and without creating obstructions in the tank.

A few recommended plants for the Iwagumi layout include Dwarf Baby Tears, Dwarf Hairgrass, and the Utricularia graminifolia.

The best fish for this aquarium type include neon tetras, cardinal tetras, and the firehead tetra.

Dutch Aquascaping

Dutch aquascape

The Dutch Aquaspace style is one of the oldest when it comes to planted tanks and mostly picked up steam in the Netherlands, hence the term “Dutch” Aquaspace. The main focal point of this tank is the use of aquatic plants and their strategic arrangement in the tank.

Most people compare a Dutch Planted Aquarium to an underwater garden. They share many similarities with Natural Aquaspaces, but there’s a big difference: you’re not aiming to resemble nature anymore.

It is creativity in its unadulterated form, as you strive to find intricate ways to group plants and provide more perspective in the aquarium, hoping to complement the fish.

Dutch Aquaspaces are not easy to recreate because of the specialist knowledge needed. It’s an acquired skill, one that will take several months or years, depending on how dedicated you are to the art form.

Commonly used plants for the Dutch Aquaspace include Lutea, Wendtii, Becketii, Ammonia, and Tiger Lotus. Java Moss plants can be used to create a contrast, often growing on pieces of rockwork, usually to create focal points in the tank.

In the Dutch Aquarium, fish play a more secondary role, but they’re significant. Large schools of fish are preferred, such as Angelfish and Congo tetras, because they complement the beauty of the underwater garden.

Because this tank has a heavy emphasis on plants, you will need:

  • Lighting (standard fluorescent lamps should do just fine)
  • A fully equipped filtration system
  • CO2 in the range of 15 to 18pmm
  • A substrate system (for the plants)
  • Fertilizers (in the form of micro and macro liquids to provide the plants with nutrients)

Step-by-Step Guide for Aquascaping

Step 1: Creating a Layout

Fish tank construction, person adding glue

Before you start aquascaping, it helps to get an idea of the size of the tank you want to use as well as the style you’re going.

Try to picture what the final aquarium will look like (as well as the rockwork, if any). Also, consider the species of plants and fish that will inhabit the tank.

Once you have decided upon the inhabitants of the plant, draw up their care requirements and compare them side by side. They need to share overlapping tolerances for things such as water chemistry.

A fundamental error that most beginners are guilty of is placing their tank near sunlight. It is a surefire way of promoting the unwanted growth of algae.

Why are algae bad for the environment? Because algae compete for oxygen with other fish in the tank. If left unchecked, this could lead to the death of your fish and plants.

Here’s a guide on where to place a fish in your home (preferably out of direct sunlight and somewhere cool).

Step 2: Adding the Substrate

Freshwater aquarium gravel cleaning

The substrate depends on the fish type and plant species. As a general rule, gravel and sand will not be good choices because they don’t contribute to the growth of plants.

Your goal is to find soil with a high nutrient content that can maintain a slightly acidic (or neutral) pH value to promote the healthy growth of plants.

Before introducing soil to the plant, you should first place a lava rock as the base layer for the substrate. It will provide a foundational structure for large stones, allow water circulation, and promote nutrient growth for plants.

Once you’ve done installing the substrate, it’s time to move to the next step: Hardscaping and adding rockwork.

Step 3: Adding Rockwork

Rockwood inside an aquarium

The choice of rockwork depends mainly on the type of setup you’re going to. The rockwork is primarily composed of rocks, stones, and driftwood. Spread them out across the tank in the layout of your choice.

Ensure the rockwork does not slip out of its position when you add water because you don’t want to break or crack the glass.

Unstable rockwork can also hurt plants and fish species that use them for support. Certain species like the Diamond Watchman Goby are known for doing a little bit of landscaping of their own. It includes rearranging the rock formations too. It is a bad idea.

There are several types of rocks that you can use, depending on the style that you’re going. For instance, the Iwagumi technique primarily uses rock like Seiryu and Pagoda, which are safe to use.

Step 4: Setting Up Plants

Java moss landscape

Use a set of tweezers to introduce plants into the substrate. For best results, the plants’ roots should reach about an inch into the soil to prevent them from breaking loose and detaching.

It may be tempting to use only one type of plant, but you’ll soon realize that it can be a bit boring. What you should do, instead, is mix different types to add more charm to your tank.

If you use large leaf plants, this could make your tank look smaller and not as deep. As a general rule, the more okay the leaves, the tidier your tank looks.

Do not go overboard by adding all the plant species under the sun! Remember the KISS (keep things simple stupid) – and make sure to leave plenty of open space for your fish to navigate.

The best tanks almost always have lots of space, filled with a school of fish. That kind of aquarium setting will look stellar and is guaranteed to steal the show.

Step 5: Adding Other Elements

Every skilled artist is only as good as the tools they’re using. The pieces of equipment you use can make or break the tank.

Here are a few essential ‘ingredients’ you need to keep your tank working in tip-top quality:

Step 5.i: Lighting

The lighting is paramount for maintaining a healthy ecosystem, primarily because it allows the plants to kickstart photosynthesis, their primary source of growth.

Aquarium light fixtures generally fall into three categories:

Step 5.i.a: LEDs

They are highly efficient and also very long-lasting. LEDs don’t produce much in the way of byproduct heat, which is crucial to the health of your fish.

Step 5.i.b: Fluorescent Bulbs

They are best for freshwater aquariums because of the broad range of light emitted. It does add a little bit of heat to your tank but not too much that it could upset life in the tank. They also have a long operational span.

Step 5.i.c: Metal Halides

These tend to run very hot and aren’t very efficient—metal halides are best used for extremely deep aquariums (since they won’t influence the temperature).

Step 5.ii: Pump

There are two pumps you should know.

The first is an air pump which provides the aquarium with a vital source of dissolved oxygen. Air pumps are also good at creating sand waterfalls for an excellent effect.

The second is a water pump used to create currents and move water through various tools like skimmers and sumps. Water pumps are the primary makers of waves and water movement in tanks.

Step 5.iii: Carbon Dioxide and Fertilizer

Carbon Dioxide is a vital component of the photosynthesis process and contributes to the growth of all plants in your aquarium.

You can introduce CO2 by way of liquid injection or gas injection. It can be expensive to use pressurized Carbon Dioxide gas stations.

They are the most efficient option (especially if you want to maintain the CO2 at around 10 to 15 ppm).

Liquid carbon fertilizers are not nearly as efficient as gas injection, but it does get the job done – albeit, at a much slower pace. It can work like a charm in smaller tanks, however.

Step 5.iv: Waterfall

No, not the actual waterfall. Waterfall in an aquarium refers to the runoff of sandy gravel from a rocky centerpiece that falls back to the bottom of the tank.

The effect has been done with the help of an air pump carefully positioned at the bottom of the tank and a hole for the gravel to fall.

Aquascaping Different Types of Fish Tanks

Paludarium Tank

Paludarium waterfall closeup

It’s an aquarium with plenty of terrestrial plants and pools of water, usually in a ratio of favoring land to water. Much of the paludarium tank is a terrestrial planted area with small pools of water.

Nano Aquarium

Nano aquariums are tanks that hold less than 10 gallons of water. It can be challenging to find the right aquatic and plant life combination for nano tanks, but the result is advantageous.

The two most popular nano aquariums are as follows:

10 Gallon Tank

Make sure you’ve got an idea of what the 10-gallon aquarium will look like when finished.

Start by adding lava rock, introducing a soil substrate, adding the plants, establishing a nitrogen cycle, and adding finishing touches to the tank with rockwork. You can add plants like Java Moss for a more dramatic effect. The best choice of fish is the Neon Tetra and Zebra Danio. They’re both minimal and ideal for a 10-gallon tank.

5 Gallon Tank

Use the above principles for a 5-gallon tank but on a smaller scale. You don’t have much space to work with, so use smaller fish species such as killifish or cherry shrimp. It will help you keep algal growth in check.

Wrapping Up

Now that you know all about the basics of aquascaping, it’s time to explore your creativity.

You can go for a simplistic tank or a complex aquarium that may take years to masterfully. It’s a fun hobby that keeps you on your toes as you look after your little pets.