The Art of Aquascaping
“It is important to provide an unpretentious, casual atmosphere of water and greenery. The very atmosphere creates the harmony between the surrounding space and the aquarium,” says professional aquarist Takashi Amano.
So you’re probably wondering how on earth you would pull that off. Aquascaping is a learned craft, and we’re schooling you about this art in this article.
First, I want you to imagine your dream underwater scene. Read on to discover the simple ways you can create that ideal space.
The Key Principles
Like any other art form, aquascaping has a set of criteria, which you should follow. These standards are not purely aesthetic.
You have to remember that you’re creating a living space here. Here are the principles you should take in designing your tank:
Even though your ideal tank resembles the actual sea, you’ll still have to consider simplicity. I know it is exciting to put every plant possible into the aquarium and surround it with multi-colored ornaments.
Still, I’m pretty sure you’ll get sick of it in just a few seconds of staring at such cluttered view. Great design is not about having more but having enough to bring out something pleasing to the eyes.
As I’ve mentioned, it’s fun to decorate the aquarium with various ornaments and plants. After all, variety is key to making a realistic artificial habitat for your aquatic pets.
Use your imagination, play with various materials, and sketch a combination of all these ideas. As long as the different materials go well together, you’ll be fine.
The proportion between the sizes and forms of your decor is what holds variety and simplicity’s balance. Get a feel of the space you have and scale your materials accordingly.
One tip is to avoid using plants with large leaves. They disrupt the harmony in the tank by taking too much space and depth.
Now that you know what makes a balanced tank landscape, you need to buckle up and extend your patience for a lot of work. You need to be persistent as you are most likely going to redesign over and over until you find what works for you.
The Big 4 Aquascape Styles
To make it easy for you to visualize a doable aquascape project, we’ve gathered the most common styles for aquariums. Each style comes with distinct looks and approaches in constructing them.
The Nature AquariumLike the name says, this style has a very natural feel to it. Takashi Amano himself came up with this design in the 1990s.
The Nature Aquarium characterizes landscapes we see in the real world such as rainforests, valleys, hillsides, and mountains. Wood and rock play a massive role in creating this space.
The Jungle StyleThis style requires the least effort. It’s practically just throwing in various plants into the tank to form a forest.
The layout is simple, and the vegetative scape is favorable and practical for the fish over time. Since the design turns quite dense as time goes by, it then becomes easier to maintain in the long run.
Making this space is easy, yet the habitat has long-term functionality and lasting attractiveness.
The Dutch AquariumThe Dutch style is focused on the arrangement of plants. There are no driftwoods, rocks, and other hardscaping materials involved here.
It’s practically underwater gardening. The style rose to fame in the 1930s in the Netherlands just at the early marketing of aquarium equipment.
The method in styling the plants in the tank is terracing. That makes color choices, plant texture, and height are the priorities in this style’s construction.
The Dutch Aquarium is the most difficult to pull off. Aquascapers need to have a great deal of knowledge about plants to ensure everything goes well together.
The Iwagumi StyleThis style is a complete opposite of the Dutch style. The Iwagumi look is more on hardscape materials and low-growing plants.
The primary method in arranging ornaments in this style is by having three significant stones for the main attraction. They call the largest one the big Buddha while the two other stones are attending accessories to create unity within the tank.
So this style is all about building a rock-based space. Just make sure to use rocks of the same color to have a pleasing finish.
What Aquascaping Supplies Do I need?
There are many aquascaping tools you have to learn about to ensure you get your design done right. Aquascaping is not just about the work you have to put in to accomplish it.
The materials and tools you use make a huge difference, too. A simple failure in selecting a light fixture, for instance, is a significant drawback alone.
Read on to see which aquascaping supplies you need, as well as how you should pick them out.
The first one: Lighting
Lighting is vital in the art of aquascaping, and it’s not just due to the extra oomph it gives to the view. Light aids the growth of your plants and fish as well, so the trick is getting a system that both functions and beautifies.
Check out the following points to remember in choosing a bulb:
- Since the sun is around 6500k (kelvins, color temperature), a light with less than 6000k will make a bad, yellowish look in your tank.
- 10,000k is the ideal upper lighting fixture as it is luminous white, which is also the best for plant and fish growth
- T5 and LED lights carry 6700k to 10000k watts, so we advise checking these lights
To know more about light types, here are the most common setups used in aquascaping:
T5 is the standard fluorescent bulb seen in aquariums. The length of this light can give a fair distribution of its high wattage.
It means all your plants and fish get even light, unlike other lights that only cover a particular portion of the aquarium. The only problem with T5s is its cost.
T5s are expensive, and they need replacement quite a lot. It also doesn’t have the rippling effect that imitates natural lighting, so it’s not such a catch for its price.
These are the oldest type of aquarium light fixture. The brightness of this light goes between 100-400 watts.
Since the light is a single-source type, it has a shimmering feature that complements a beautiful scape. However, it could get too hot, so one should be cautious and place it way above the tank.
Another downside to this older technology is that it uses more energy compared to newer models such as T5s and LEDs.
There are modern halides that are in a clip-on form, but, they only serve small aquariums. Metal halides are the least practical light of them all, but it’s we listed this for a heads up.
LEDs are the most prominent and latest lighting technology for tanks nowadays. These fixtures are also cheaper and more advanced.
A high-wattage LED light is twice as bright as any T5, and it has that rippling effect for a nature-like impact on the tank. Here are the main reasons LEDs are enormous in the aquarists’ community these days:
- You only have to replace it after 50,000 hours of use
- Utilizes the least energy but has the brightest lighting
- Can penetrate deep-water tanks
The NICREW ClassicLED is the most popular aquarium LED light in the market these days. What sets it apart from many other LEDs is the stylish design that doesn’t make it look like a light fixture at all.
This full-spectrum fish tank light has the colors white, blue, red, green, and purple, which are all good for plant and fish growth. Here are its other impressive features that won us over:
- Adjustable fixture legs for both rimless and framed tanks
- Made of lightweight aluminum alloy shell for durability
- Low-profile aluminum optimizes heat management for long-lasting use
- There are different available sizes (12-18”, 18-24”, 30-36”, and 48-54”)
The Base: Substrate
The substrate is an essential element you need to make a natural-looking underwater scape. Since your plants and fish are away from their natural sources of nutrients, they also need substrate to provide those essentials instead.
There are various types of substrate used in tanks, and we’ve made the selection easy for you by listing their pros and cons.
Fluorite remains the most used commercial substrate for aquariums. This substrate is rich in nutrients plants and fish need.
- Rich in iron, potassium, and magnesium
- Come in a wide array of colors, which can help spice up the tank’s look
- The best for plant growth
- Can cloud up the aquarium
- Can discolor the water
Fluorite is an excellent facilitator of growth. However, one should be gentle in pouring it into the tank or consider rinsing it before use to avoid cloudiness.
You can’t use plain gravel for planted tanks, that’s for sure. We recommend that you only put plain gravel in your aquarium if you’re creating an Iwagumi environment.
- Very cheap
- Doesn’t mess with the tank water
- Doesn’t contain necessary nutrients for aquatic plant growth
If you want to use plain gravel in a planted aquarium, you could mix it with at least 50% nutrient-rich aquatic soil.
Experienced aquascapers are mostly the ones who use clay as a substrate. This is due to the complicated reaction of water to the clay.
However, a clay substrate is still ideal for plants.
- Rich in nutrients for plant growth
- Can cloud the tank up for periods
- Difficult to setup
You can avoid cloudiness if you set up the clay substrate in a careful manner. Topping the substrate with a gravel layer will make the clay displace and keep the water clear.
The soil used in making your substrate is a peat moss mix. Do not just throw in any soil without researching as they could carry chemical fertilizers that may affect the life in your tank.
- Cheapest substrate ever
- It’s hard to find a low-phosphate peat moss
Extra: Tabs and Fertilizer Pellets
Tabs and fertilizer pellets are for root plants that need proper nutrition. Root plants do not get enough nutrients from substrates as they do not target these plants anyway.
You put tabs, and fertilizer pellets are planted just in the parts they have to be. That way, root plants get to receive a direct nutrient supply.
- Cost-effective due to specified areas of use
- Maintain root plants’ health and allow quick growth
- Short-root plants cannot receive the nutrients
Seachem Flourite Black is a clay gravel substrate that has been a favorite in the market for quite a while now. The substrate also doesn’t have any chemical coating that can harm your fish and plants.
The substrate does not destabilize the water’s pH level and supports the growth of plants well. Since the product is pre-washed, you don’t have to worry about it causing cloudiness inside the aquarium.
Carbon Dioxide: Plants' Essential
Carbon Dioxide is one of the aquascaping tools that’s going to keep your plants looking good enough like they’re in their natural space. Even your aquatic plants need CO2 to photosynthesize how outdoor plants do.
However, CO2 easily dissolves in water as it is gas, so this one is tricky. Below are the types of CO2 that are suitable for aquariums:
This is the most popular CO2 for aquariums as they are the easiest to use and the most reliable option. The way it works is that an electronic solenoid valve allows CO2’s entry into the tank only during the daytime to avoid pH level instability.
Pressurized CO2 is easy to set up and does not ever require high maintenance in the long run at all. It also doesn’t leave any residue, unlike most tank CO2s.
If you want the cheapest option for this thing and don’t mind some project, you can make your tank CO2. The ingredients are all available in hardware stores, so you don’t have to worry about the materials.
You need to craft a basic diffuser, which you would inject directly into the aquarium’s filter. You could never go wrong with that method, but the every-few-weeks refill takes quite the attention and time.
However, if you are patient enough, this affordable option could work for you.
NiolcG Aquatics’ Glass Co2 Drop Checker with 4dkh/PH Solution is the best-pressurized CO2 in the market, which almost all aquarists use these days. The formula has a pre-mixed fluid, so it has the most accurate measurement and ensures secure CO2 releases.
The dropper style also makes it easy to use. On top of that, the solution provides optimal CO2 concentration, so all the plants get even exposures.
The last but not the least component to ensure your plants complete the art of aquascaping is liquid fertilizer. The volume of the liquid fertilizer you put into the tank depends on how much CO2 and lighting you have, as the following items do the most work in nourishing your plants.
Here are the two groups of liquid fertilizers, which you should know about:
- Macronutrients- Nitrogen Potassium and Phosphorous
- Micronutrients- Iron Boron, Calcium, Copper, Iron, Chloride, Manganese, Molybdenum, Sulfur, Magnesium, and Zinc.
Now that you know the nutritious elements your aquatic plants need, here are your best sources for them:
Commercial products, mostly the brands Seachem and NPK, have all the micro and macronutrients your tank plants need. They are reliable sources that come in different sizes of containers, but continued use is expensive.
If you have a background in gardening, you could whip up your aquarium fertilizer. There are recipes available online, which you can follow with ease.
However, knowledge and experience with handling chemicals is a must to ensure the output doesn’t harm the fish and the plants.
Seachem Flourish Nitrogen is the top liquid fertilizer you should get. For its performance, it has a pretty affordable price.
You can also feel secure as the formula doesn’t have any chemical ingredients that can harm your pets. Also, the product clears up both the water and glass, mainly from algae.
Hardscape to Stick Everything Together
Hardscape ornaments accentuate your tank plants and condition it into a more natural state. The art of aquascaping, like Takashi Amano, said, is about creating a realistic space.
Here are the specific ornaments you can’t forget to add to your underwater scape:
Driftwoods mimic tree branches or provide a sharp look for your plants. There are many ways you can place driftwoods in a tank, but here are the best arrangement and selection methods to ensure you follow the principles of aquascaping:
- Choose bits that look like they fell off without any visible cut signs for a natural touch
- Unique bends are a perfect match for moss and plants
- Modern styles arrange driftwoods in a vertical position for a more edgy look
- If you’re getting your wood, boil it repetitively and leave it in a container for one week
- Wash off store-bought driftwoods to eliminate chemicals that are bad for your fish
Rocks and woods go along well. After all, they are what make the jungle along with different plant types.
However, rocks are a different matter compared to driftwoods. Stones vary in forms and colors.
Even us struggle in visualizing which rocks we want in our dream aquascape. Here are a few tips for you:
- Choose soft colors like grey, deep brown, and black
- Stones can cause imbalance water pH levels, so if bubbles from poured vinegar don’t damage your rocks, then it won’t have reactions with your tank water
- Red desert rock and white hole rock add character, but since they draw too much attention, they can destabilize your aquarium’s supposed naturality
Our Last Say
“A layout that is crafted with overly great finesse is tiring to look at, and it is also difficult to maintain over a long period of time... It is important to provide an unpretentious, casual atmosphere of water and greenery.” -Takashi Amano
Take that last parting quote to heart if ever all the art of aquascaping has now overwhelmed you with all the details for each aquascaping tool. Always remember to enjoy the process of crafting your aquatic pets’ habitat.
Principles are there to guide you for a more structured look. However, your creativity is there to bend it a little bit and make the magic happen.