Aquascaping is to aquariums as gardening is to potted plants. Rather than pink gravel and bubbling clam shells, Aquascapers are looking to create aquatic art with rocks, driftwood, fish, and live plants.
Aquascapes are increasingly popular and while they can look dramatic, they need not be difficult. Knowing the basics of water chemistry, fish and plant nutrition, and cycling an aquarium are essential to a healthy Aquascape.
Aquascapes take more time to plan and more money to pull off but are well worth the effort! In this guide, we cover everything you need to know about getting started with aquascaping,
Aquascaping Styles: Choosing Your Preferred Layout & Look
The very first step to starting an Aquascaping project is deciding on the design. Like installing a garden or building a house, you’ll need a basic blueprint on going about it.
There are several common styles used by aquatic gardeners around the world:
Jungle Aquascapes are defined by a sense of chaos. Plants are allowed to thrive and fill in most of the open space of the aquarium.
Large leaved plants like Amazon Swords, Banana Plants, and tall species like Vallisneria and Criniums are not placed solely in the background. Instead, they can be placed haphazardly around, though often grouped to create thickets of growth without shading stands of smaller or slower growing species like Anubias or Chain Swords.
The ideal to aim for is a sense of organized chaos, however. Untamed but not quite messy.
The best jungle aquascaping examples have order imposed though species grouping, adequate pruning, algae control, and barriers like driftwood and rock to break up the visual flow.
Driftwood and rock add to the wild appearance, as if swept in during a flood.
Wood also leach tannins that buffer the water towards acidity and provide additional substrate levels for plants that can grow on hard surfaces like Java and African Water Ferns.
Floating plants can also add to the jungle experience.
One significant challenge to Jungle Aquascaping is balancing out light levels. Since plants are encouraged to grow massive and thick with minimal trimming, they tend to easily overshadow one another.
You’ll need to plan and plant with an eye for adult sizes or simply trim enough to keep your plants at a proper size.
Ensuring your plants get enough nutrition is the second challenge, especially if you have a light fish population.
CO2 reactors, while sometimes expensive for larger aquariums, ensure plants get enough carbon dioxide for proper photosynthesis.
Alternatively, providing enough fish and still surface water can provide enough CO2 for all but the most heavily planted Aquascapes.
The Dutch method of Aquascaping is one of the most popular styles. If you’re an outdoor gardener it will also feel the most familiar to you.
While Biome, Amano and Jungle Aquascapes are meant to mimic Nature, Dutch style Aquascapes are like a formal garden – tidy, well maintained, and organized.
Plants are the central focus here, and choosing plants that work together in terms of aesthetics is all-important.
You’ll want to select aquatic plants based on your own preferences but for the overall look, contrast and form is very important! Dutch Aquascapes rely on contrasting colors like red versus green, leaf textures like fine versus broad, size contrasts, and more for their impact.
Rocks and driftwood are used but aren’t nearly as showy or important as in the other styles.
A solid majority (greater than 70%) of the aquarium substrate should be covered by plants. Even if you have an open water zone, creeping or carpeting plants coat the substrate in a Dutch Aquascape.
Since the substrate is meant to be covered, it doesn’t have to be as aesthetically pleasing as in other styles but it should support robust plant life.
Dutch Aquascapes have the highest requirements in terms of maintenance as well.
Regular pruning, water testing, and fertilization are key to maintaining plant health. CO2 reactors or supplements are also a good way to ensure constant health.
Dutch Aquascapes also tend to be fish-heavy as waste products end up as food for plants. Elegant, plant-safe fish like Discus, Corydoras, and Cardinal Tetras are ideal inhabitants for Dutch Aquascapes.
Nature (Amano) Aquascaping
Nature Aquascaping took the world by storm in the 90’s after Takashi Amano started an aquarium design company with a style unlike any other.
Popularly known as the ‘Amano style’, he called it the ‘Nature’ or ‘Natural’ Aquascaping style. Nature Aquascaping retains his use of Japanese design philosophies that stem from traditional Japanese gardening.
Wabi Sabi is a major aesthetic principle that refers to transience, asymmetry, imperfection, and recognizing natural processes.
Nature Aquascapes might have the substrate piled up drastically to one side to mimic a riverbank. More formal designs might include a rock canyon with “bonsai” coming from the walls made from driftwood and Java Moss.
Zen also influences the Nature style, particularly its minimalist design philosophy.
Fish and plants are key players but the nonliving elements of the squarium are just as important to the total aesthetic.
Even heavily planted Nature Aquascapes have plenty of open space and many designs give the tank a dream-like appearance as fish drift through canyons and plants that mimic trees or meadows.
Creeping plants and small fish are the core of the Nature style. Aquatic mosses are carefully trimmed to mimic terrestrial lichen and moss.
Fish like Tetras and Rasboras exist in small schools but only a few species at a time. Showy plants are sometimes used but carefully organized so they don’t crowd the open water.
Maintenance-wise, Nature Aquascapes are easier than they look thanks to the light bioload of these minimalist aquariums.
In yet another nod to natural ecosystems these Aquascapes are easy to maintain once fully established.
Another version of the Nature Aquascaping style, Iwagumi Aquascaping has a special focus on substrate and rocks!
Iwagumi, or “rock formation” in Japanese, involves paying special attention to the location of large anchor rocks.
The Oyaishi is the keystone rock but should never be placed centrally within the aquarium, as a nod to the imperfection of Nature. Soeishi are secondary stone or stones that are not nearly as large as the Oyaishi. And Fujiseki are scattered across the bottom in a manner natural yet aesthetically pleasing.
Incidentally, off-center, non-symmetrical design is an aesthetic common to all Aquascaping styles that mimic Nature!
Iwagumi Aquascaping is even more minimal than Nature style; usually a single plant and fish species are the sole inhabitants of these tanks!
Dwarf hair grass or Vallisneria make a great contrast to the visible substrate and large rocks. Tiny fish like Cherry Barbs or Endler’s Livebearers add interest without taking away from the rock arrangement. A few Cherry or Bee shrimp can finish off the tank.
Even a large, 50+ gallon Iwagumi Aquascape might only have 12 tiny fish.
Choosing your rocks is even more important than your fish in an Iwagumi Aquascape.
Seiryu (Blue Dragon) stones are traditionally used in the Iwagumi style. They have a complex, textured appearance, both in grain and exterior fractures that make them ideal showpieces.
Driftwood is occasionally used but only smaller pieces that never overshadow the Oyaishi or Soeishi.
Biomes or Biotopes are perhaps the most diverse style of Aquascaping.
Biome aquariums are meant to replicate environments found in nature, down to plant and fish species choices.
This usually means doing some research in order to find complementary fish and plant species. Fortunately in today’s aquarium trade, you can easily find fish and plants from almost anywhere in the world.
Biomes take more research but can be a fascinating conversation point. Fish, invertebrates, and plants that are naturally found together have identical water quality requirements in terms of pH, temperature, and other factors.
Biome Aquascapes easily incorporate elements from the above styles as well but the Nature and Jungle styles have the most to add. Biome Aquascaping can appear garden-like, as in the Dutch method, but tends more towards organized chaos.
Depending on how strict you want to be, replicating substrate and rock choices is also not only aesthetically pleasing but often aids the entire ecosystem.
For example, if you create a Rift Lake cichlid Biome Aquascape, using gravel and rocks with minimal plant growth will create a more accurate environment.
Specifically choosing limestone and dolomite will also help buffer the water chemistry towards alkaline, which these fish prefer.
Walstad Aquascaping was popularized by Diana Walstad in her book “Ecology of the Planted Aquarium.”
The Walstad method is less an aesthetic philosophy and more of a design one. Essentially, it does away with filtration, additives, and even water changes! All you need to do is provide food, heat, light, and keep the tank topped off and the plants trimmed.
The key to Walstad Aquascaping is using soil as your main substrate.
Traditional aquariums use sterile gravel or sand, which contains no nutrients and has no capacity to retain them, either. These substrates are difficult for plants to establish themselves in.
Many modern substrates like Carib Sea Eco Complete include not only the trace elements that plants need, like Potassium and Iron, but use materials with a high CEC (cation exchange capacity) to bind nutrients near the roots of hungry plants.
Garden potting and topsoil is not only far less expensive but arguably healthier for aquatic plants.
The main challenge is keeping the soil at the bottom; with so much fine particulate matter it can get messily suspended in the water column easily. A light layer of fine gravel or sand helps keep the soil in place until plant roots can thoroughly penetrate it.
Walstad Aquascapes are the easiest to maintain once they’ve matured, a process that takes several weeks. CO2 and fertilization are entirely unnecessary in mature Aquascapes.
Fish populations should be kept fairly low but not absent to provide CO2 and organic nutrients. A balance of slow and rapid growing plant species is an aid to the process.
Water testing is especially important during the maturation period as without a filter, water parameters can shift to deadly quickly.
While these cover the major Aquascaping groups, keep in mind there’s plenty of crossover.
You can easily use a Walstad substrate in a Jungle aquarium or take elements from Iwagumi and incorporate them into a Biome tank!
There are even other styles, like Paludariums, that can be combined with these aquascaping techniques but as this is a beginner’s guide, I wanted to avoid more advanced projects.
Unless you truly want a formal theme for your Aquascape, treat these are the loosest of guidelines for your creativity!
Aquascaping Materials to Consider
Any Aquascape design means knowing precisely what materials will come together for the final finished project.
Aquariums, accessories, substrates, and organisms are just some of the considerations that come into play and I’ll be laying out each of these one by one:
Choosing an Aquarium Size
Your first consideration should be how big of an aquarium you have space for and want to maintain.
Tiny aquariums can be Aquascaped just like large ones and both have unique challenges to address.
Small and nano aquariums (10 gallons and under) take up little space and don’t require too much time in terms of setup, water changes, pruning, and other tasks.
Filters, heaters, lights, and other accessories are also less expensive and less power consuming. You’ll purchase less substrate and need fewer plants and fish.
The main downside is that smaller tanks mean you have less space for inhabitants.
A 10 gallon aquascape may look large at first but you’ll quickly find its limits as you start choosing your fish.
You don’t want much more than 10 1″ inhabitants; the old 1 inch of fish per gallon rule of thumb actually works – when using small fish. After all, a 10″ Oscar does not equal 10 1″ Neon Tetras in terms of bioload.
Smaller tanks also have less water to buffer negative shifts in water chemistry, especially once you take into account water volume taken up by rocks, driftwood, and substrate.
Fish deaths, temporary power outages, and overfeeding will cause issues faster in small aquariums.
Larger aquariums take more time to maintain when doing basic tasks such as water changes and cleaning the glass. They also require expensive, more power-hungry filters, heaters, and other devices to keep running.
However, every downside I just mentioned to small aquariums is the reverse of a larger one.
Large aquariums provide more space for inhabitants and creative aesthetics. They also are better at buffering shifts in chemistry.
The Middle Ground
If you’re uncertain, medium sized tanks (15-40 gallons) are a great middle ground and small tanks are a great way to practice your Aquascaping techniques.
Larger tanks (50+ gallons) are a financial commitment you may not want to make if this is your first aquascape but are the showpiece of any room.
Personally, I prefer 75 gallon tanks as they are as long as a 55 gallon (48″) but half again as wide (18″) for a spacious feel.
Aquarium lighting is a complex, sometimes contentious topic, but as a rough rule of thumb, you should be aiming for 2-4 Watts of lighting per gallon of volume.
In terms of spectrum, not all light is equally valuable for aquatic plants.
Plants need light within a specific color temperature (between 5000-7000K) for optimal growth. Certain plants stray above or below these parameters but choosing lights within this range are perfect for the majority of Aquascapes.
- Lights with a temperature of 6500K are closest to natural sunlight, with an even, gentle look.
- Below 6500K is increasingly warm in appearance; household light bulbs are 2700-3000K, for example.
- Beyond 7000K is increasingly cold, becoming a clinical white. For reference, Xenon car headlights are 10,000K in color.
Four main types of aquarium bulbs are commonly encountered when setting up a new fish tank:
Incandescent Light Bulbs
Of all the varieties here, incandescent bulbs are the least suitable. These are often found in the cheap hoods that come with smaller aquarium kits.
Incandescents are too warm in color and usually too weak to generate much light. While they can illuminate a small aquarium, the light will only fuel algae growth.
Incandescents also get dangerously hot; a splash of water can easily shatter one.
Metal Halogen Light Bulbs
Metal Halogen bulbs are more often used in saltwater aquariums but are also suitable for freshwater Aquascaping.
As more of a point source of light, they create a distinctive ripple effect that looks especially great in Aquascapes mimicking a shallow water environment, like a river bank or reef tank.
The main downside is that Metal Halogens get very hot. So hot, they can add heat to the aquarium, making temperature control difficult.
They also consume far more power than modern Fluorescent and LED light fixtures.
Fluorescent Light Bulbs
Fluorescent Light Bulbs are a great balance between ease, efficiency, and cost. The fixtures are easily obtained and the bulbs cost less compared to LED fixtures. They also provide even lighting across the aquarium which is more aesthetically pleasing to many.
Fluorescents do burn out more swiftly than LEDs but not as fast as incandescent lights.
They can also shift in spectrum over time as they age; if algae begins to take hold, it may be a sign your lighting color temperature is no longer optimal and in need of replacement.
LED Light Bulbs
LED bulbs are the best Aquascaping lights for your money. They last up to 50,000 hours before needing replacement, run cool, and are more power efficient than any of the above light sources.
The only real downside to LED bulbs is the price; the fixtures and bulbs have the highest initial setup cost.
However, they offer the best return on your money, by far. If you’re even somewhat serious about your aquarium, I highly recommend that you go with an LED light.
If you’re still a bit confused about what light you should use, I recommend checking out our planted aquarium lighting guide.
Choosing Your Substrate
Anytime you’re dealing with live plants, you want to give a lot of thought to your substrate.
Sterile substrates like pure sand and gravel make it difficult to establish healthy plants and nearly impossible to get the rich garden-like growth of a true Aquascape.
Artificial substrates like Seachem Fluorite and Mr. Aqua Aquarium Soil provide a dark base that’s both aesthetically pleasing and nutritionally complete. Substrates can be mixed for nutritional or aesthetic purposes as well.
I highly recommend ADA Aquasoil Amazonia, produced by aquascape legend Takashi Amano specifically for planted aquariums.
- Completely new substrate made from rare and sparse source of Japanese plant-based black soil derived from decomposed leaf mulch. (unlike imitation products that are made from volcanic ash-based black soil).
- Rich in organic elements and nutrients that creates conditions ideal for healthy growth of aquatic plants and has a good influence on the physiological functions of fish and shrimp.
- Helps to bring the pH level and hardness of the water down to an ideal level for most of the aquatic plants.
I cover this topic extensively in my planted aquarium substrate guide.
Live Plant Selection
Plants are the cornerstone of any freshwater Aquascape. You’ll want to choose plants that compliment one another or follow one of the specific design philosophies I outlined above.
Other reasons for selecting plants include ease of care, requiring similar water parameters, or even availability.
Some plants like Elodea and Amazon Swords can be found in every Petsmart and PetCo in the country while others are harder to obtain.
The Internet also expands your possibilities; websites like AquariumPlantsFactory provide common and rare species you may never encounter in local stores. Even Amazon offers live aquarium plants, bulbs, and seeds nowadays!
If you’re looking for specific recommendations on easy to care for live plants that will make great additions to any Aquascape, have a look at my guide on 30 Easy Low Light Aquarium Plants for Beginners.
Choosing Fish and Invertebrates
Fish that dig should best avoided as they’ll destabilize and uproot plants. Cichlids, loaches, and large catfish are some of the worst offenders.
Some cichlids are well suited to Aquascapes; dwarf cichlids like Blue Rams and Discus are great choices. Biome Aquascapes that make allowances for the digging habits of cichlids can also work.
Plant eating fish and invertebrates can also cause problems.
Commonly available plant eaters include silver dollars, pacus, and many snail species. Algae eating fish and invertebrates are very helpful, however.
Algae can be difficult to clean off of decorations without removing them and sometimes impossible to remove from plants without causing hard.
Small algae eaters like Amano Shrimp and Otocinclus help keep your plants looking pristine since algae also enjoys the ample light and nutrition that plants require. They are also interesting to watch on their own!
Small fish are often used in Aquascapes because they make the tank look larger. The Nature and Iwagumi methods all use light populations of small fish to create the sense of a spacious, sky-like habitat.
Additional Maintenance Tools
Lastly, you’ll need to collect additional maintenance tools for upkeep.
- Scissors and tweezers for easy pruning
- Siphon hoses for water changes
- Water chemistry test kits
- Water conditioners like dechlorinator and plant fertilizers
- Brushes for glass and decorations
- Filtration suitable for your tank size
- Heaters warm enough for your tank
Fish tank maintenance is an in-depth topic but need not be overwhelming. I also have a guide for everything you need to know about cleaning and maintaining a fish tank.
Aquascaping Your New Aquarium
Ready to start aquascaping your tank? Here are some of the main topics you should consider:
Rocks in Aquascaping
Rocks are of special concern when Aquascaping because if not used carefully, they can sometimes cause problems.
When placing a rock, never let the rock touch the bottom of the aquarium glass. Rocks can not only scratch the glass but can break through if sudden pressure is applied.
A thin layer of substrate should always separate the rock from the aquarium glass when Aquascaping.
Many rocks contain minerals that will slowly leach into the aquarium over time, causing a swing towards alkalinity. Whether this is a problem or not will depend on your fish, plants, the pH range you’re shooting for, and the overall buffering capacity of the rocks.
If your fish and plants prefer an alkaline environment, such as with African Rift Lakes or Central Mexican Biome Aquascapes, then there’s no problem. However, if you’re trying to create a Southeast Asian Biome, then you’ll find it difficult to maintain the acidic pH these creatures prefer.
A simple test is to take table vinegar or another weak acid and let it sit on a dry sample of the rock in question for 5-10 minutes. If you see fizz or bubbling develop, you know the rock contains alkaline buffering agents like carbonates.
As a general rule of thumb, sedimentary rocks like limestone, coal, and conglomerate should be carefully considered as they tend to leach agents back into the water.
Igneous rocks like granite and metamorphic rocks like slate are usually safer but not always. Some sedimentary rocks like sandstone are ideal for aquariums. So long as you avoid using large amounts of single typed rock that strongly buffers pH towards alkaline, you shouldn’t have too many problems.
If you find a rock in the outdoors you like, placing the rock in a pot of water and slowly raising the temperature to a boil will kill off any unwanted algae, parasites, and other freeloaders.
Ohko Dragon Stone is a very widely used aquascaping rock that we recommend. It has a sleek and unique look that is hard to match.
- 5 Pounds of Aquarium Dragon Stone
- 100% natural stone, Mixed Size: small - medium, range from 2-5 inches
- Please Note: Comes with a variety of colors, not consistent, some are darker or lighter.
Adding water is best done after the substrate and decorations are in place but before your plants are in the aquarium.
While adding plants before water may be easier, if shifting decor takes too much time, your plants can dry out, with fatal results.
Placing a bowl or plate on top of the substrate will help keep incoming water from blowing fine substrate around, especially if you opt for soil as in the Walstad method.
Pouring over rocks and driftwood also helps soften incoming water.
Using a thermometer, you can shorten the amount of time it takes to heat the aquarium by matching temperature coming out of the faucet.
If not, it may take hours to reach the proper temperature, depending on the size of your aquarium and the heater you purchase.
Condition your water using dechlorinator as well as adding the proper pH adjustments.
Water agitation helps dechlorinator do its job, so either swirl the water by hand or give it a few minutes to cycle through a larger aquarium.
API makes both a pH Lowerer and Raiser for bringing your water parameters where they need to be. Keep in mind that additions like driftwood and certain rocks can swing the pH in either direction over time.
When Aquascaping, don’t fill your aquarium to the brim; you still need to add plants and the displacement of water and splashing from your arm will cause spills.
While I cover aesthetics quite thoroughly in the individual biomes, here are a couple of additional tips for getting the most out of an Aquascape!
De-Center Your Decor
Much like painting, photography, and other visual arts, placing objects dead-center within the frame can feel a bit forced and unnatural.
Instead of placing a choice piece of driftwood or a show plant directly in the center of the aquarium, try placing it off-center, or even in a corner.
Corner placement creates a sense of tension and contrast compared to the open water of the rest of the tank.
A second decoration on the opposite side can create an attractive open water gap. Placing a second, smaller decoration of a similar type next to the first creates a gradient that’s intentional but appealing to the eye.
Less is More
While minimalism is all the rage nowadays, it has been a principle in Aquascaping for decades. While the Dutch and Jungle styles make less use of this concept, the Japanese Nature and Iwagumi styles make this a guiding philosophy.
Negative space is a concept that permeates nearly all art forms: emptiness gives form weight and meaning. Don’t rush to fill all of the gaps and bare spaces within an Aquascape. Rather, see if they can enhance the overall design somehow.
This also applies to decor and species choices. Using 10 different kinds of rock can lead to a rather chaotic, haphazard looking aquascape.
Using a single type of rock looks far more natural and lends emphasis to the plants and fish rather than competing for attention.
Selecting many different species of plants and fish for a dazzling community tank is very appealing and something I’m guilty of myself.
However, single species Aquascapes and even using a single plant can accomplish a lot; the Iwagumi style is clear proof that variety does not always lead to better results!
When adding Aquascaping plants, you’ll need to secure them to the substrate. If your plant has roots, hold the plant while placing your index finger along the lowest portion of the stem or rhizome, pointing downwards.
You’ll want to gently drag the plant into the substrate rather than simply plopping it directly downwards. Your extended finger will encourage the roots to fall into the trench you’ve dug and stay properly buried.
If you haven’t laid down your substrate, some Aquascapers prefer laying an initial layer of plastic mesh.
After you’ve added your plant substrate, you can use string to tie plants directly to the mesh so they remain in place until rooted. Since plastic isn’t biodegradable and light can’t reach it to break it down further, it will provide a stable base layer to attach plants with for years to come.
Young plants and even bulbs are ideal for starting an Aquascaped aquarium because as they grow, their roots will shape themselves perfectly to suit the substrate and their nutrition needs.
As sessile (non-moving) organisms, plants hate being disturbed. Growing them where they will remain will result in significantly healthier plants versus taking adults and moving them around.
If you do intend to shift plants around, using Aquatic Planting Pots can take some of the stress off of them, though roots will still poke through the pots with mature plants.
Planting pots can also be packed with materials like Laterlite if a full plant substrate is too much work.
Fish are the last element to add to your newly Aquascaped aquarium.
Assuming you’ve chosen how many and what type, you’ll want to slowly add fish over the course of weeks following the rules for cycling a new aquarium.
If you’ve chosen a live substrate or are using additives like Tetra SafeStart to boost the nitrifying bacterial content, you can add more fish earlier on.
Fish should be floated for around 20 minutes to equalize the temperatures within the bag before release.
Once released, watch them descend into their Aquascaped paradise and feel good about all of the work you’ve done!