What is Aquascaping?


Learning aquascaping is not difficult. Like any other passion, it takes time, dedication and extensive research. We’ll try to depict the basic knowledge related to aquascaping, from establishing the simple principles and rules of visual construction and setup, to introducing the essentials of building an aquascape aquarium.

We’ll develop on the best known types of planted tanks and, of course, offer valuable tips and suggestions regarding aquascaping composition and layout.

Introduction to Aquascaping

The craft of aquascaping has become increasingly popular in recent years. A comprehensive definition of the term describes aquascaping as underwater gardening.

It involves techniques of setting up, decorating and arranging a set of natural elements such as: aquatic plants, stones, driftwood and substrates. These elements are combined in such a way that it becomes aesthetically pleasing to human perception.

Yet, differentiating from basic gardening, aquascaping involves a much longer and possibly more difficult path of development. Let’s face it, passionate aquarists know that fishkeeping is more than just growing fish.

Aquariums these days do not only display one’s interest in beautiful and fascinating species of aquatic organisms. It easily transitioned into an art form.

Once aquariums have become part of our homes, they turn into our pride and they emerge in our daily conversations. They fulfil our hidden dreams by enabling us to parade our creativity, imagination and artistic endeavours.

Besides the growing aspect of aquatic horticulture, involving the physiology, pruning, ecology and aquarium maintenance, aquascaping also implies aspects regarding design and layout. These extend beyond the boundaries of the aquarium itself.

It’s not an easy task to obtain the perfect aquascape aquarium, but once you have decided to get into it, aquascaping can be fun, very challenging and most of all rewarding.

Basic Aquascaping Principles

The whole aquascaping process may seem difficult to accomplish in the beginning. But it’s not as hard as it looks if you follow a simple set of principles.

Like in the case of any creative development, aquascaping commits greatly to a reliable knowledge resource and relies heavily on your imagination.

Obtaining the perfect balance between efficiently used scientific principles and creativity is possibly the hardest to achieve. Here’s a couple of principles one has to take into account before even thinking of learning Aquascaping:


Aquascaping is all about taste and usually, less elements is more. Very often people are tempted to incorporate as many types of plants as possible, thinking that this would ensure a great visual variety, but most of the times the result is the opposite.


Keeping it simple does not mean using one type of plant only. Even if your intention is to create a theme, you don’t want your aquascape to look boring. Remember, imagination plays a key role in aquascaping!


It’s very important to give a sense of harmony to your tank, so try to have as much open space as filled space. Avoid using only large leaf plants because they take from the proportion and depth of your aquascape.


Aquascaping can become frustrating, be sure of that!  So be ready to deconstruct and reconstruct if there’s something you don’t like about your aquascape. The more you experiment, the better you will get at it.

Technical and Natural Elements of Aquascaping

If you want to be a pro aquascaper you definitely have to master a couple of elements that will help you create your aquascape aquariums. These include the following:

Aquarium filters

As their name says it, the purpose of water filters is to remove excess food, fish waste, dangerous chemicals and decaying organic matter within the planted tank.

There are three basic methods you can filter water: mechanical, biological and chemical, and most aquarium filters on the market involve a combination of two of them.

Aquarium lighting

One of the most important pieces of aquascaping equipment, with crucial influence upon the health and growth of the aquascape plants, the lighting is considered to be the functioning heart of an aquarium.

Carbon dioxide

The CO2 systems might be slightly costly, but they are essential for the growth of plants. No plant grows without carbon dioxide, period. Those who are truly passionate about aquascaping think for the long term and know that purchasing a good CO2 system enables them to grow their plants to their full potential.

Liquid fertilizers

Think of fertilizers as of vitamins and minerals your body needs to stay healthy and strong. Depending on the lighting and CO2 systems of the aquarium, there are two types of fertilizers you can use to keep it healthy: macronutrients and micronutrients. They both need to be dosed properly to create an appropriate aquatic environment.

Hardscape materials

Aquarium Driftwood and Rocks

You know how you say about a person that she’s beautiful because she has an amazing bone structure? This is what ornaments represent in aquascaping.

The plants are not enough to secure the aesthetic of an aquarium. You need to add rocks, wood, gravel, cosmetic sand etc., make them look as unique as possible, and arrange them in an unusual yet attractive way.

Hardscape materials are the essential elements which ensure the design and layout part of the entire aquascaping process.

Substrates and Aquasoils

Aquascape plants feed not only through their leaves, they also feed through their roots, which makes a correct selection of aquascaping substrate very important.

Depending on the plants you want to grow (small foreground, tall background etc.) the right substrate and aquasoil will ensure their proper size, development and color.

Rules Concerning Aquascaping Visual Composition and Design

Aquascaping may be a form of art in which imagination and creativity play an essential role. Mastering the backbone of this process is elementary if you want to be a successful aquascaper.

Measure is very important in nature, and aquascaping makes no exception. You want your tank to not only please your eye, but make it wonder in the right places.

Your fish must feel comfortable. You want your plants to grow to their full potential. You can do all that by following a set of truly mathematical rules. Yes, before being wonderful, unpredictable and diverse, nature is mathematical.

Aquascaping and the Rule of Thirds

It is true that beauty stands in the eye of the beholder, but it is also true the eye of the beholder can be easily controlled. Any artist knows it and takes advantage of it.

Aquascaping is all about creating enchanting visuals. You do that by suggesting the eye where to look at first and what to glide towards next.

The rule of thirds refers exactly at how we can use imaginary guidelines so that we know how to place certain elements within our scape in such a way that we are able to control what the eye of the viewer sees.

In order to understand how the rule of thirds works, try depicting an image as divided into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines.

The purpose of these imaginary lines is actually to locate the intersection points of the grid, where you can establish the focal point of the image.

This is a specific mark which anchors the viewer’s gaze first. From there the viewer’s eye can glide towards other points of interest, making the visual experience more interesting, captivating, relaxing and pleasing.

Placing the focal point in the middle of your tank would take away from what is happening around.

The Golden Ratio

Simply put, the golden ratio is a number obtained by dividing a line into two parts in such a way that if you divide the longer part by the smaller part the result is equal to the whole part divided by the longer part.

In both art and mathematics as well as in nature, the golden ratio is strictly connected with the creation of a focal point. In aquascaping, this would be the point the eye is directed towards at a first glance.

Creating Focal Points in Aquascaping

As mentioned before, the focal point functions as an anchor for the viewer’s mind. It basically tells him where to look at first and where to go from there. Every aquascape should have at least one focal point.

In the case of smaller tanks, there should be only one focal point and several secondary points of interest. When it comes to larger aquariums, it is necessary that you create more than one focal point. One or two should still remain the main attraction(s).

It’s very important to avoid stressing the eye, so having too many points of interest of the same importance wouldn’t be a good idea.

The most renowned styles of aquascaping make use of the rules described above. Whether we are talking about the Nature Aquarium or Iwagumi style, they all start with the creation of focal points by implementing the golden ratio rule.

Aquascaping Styles

Like any form of art, aquascaping offers a variety of approaches and styles. Each person has their own taste and their own expectations and desires from their scaped aquariums.

There are four major types of aquascaping styles, each of them having particular characteristics and unique features: the Dutch Aquarium, Iwagumi style, the Nature Aqurium and the less difficult Jungle style. Below is a short description of these four main styles.

The Dutch Aquarium

Popularized in the 1930’s in the Nederlands, with the marketing of the first aquarium equipment, this aquascaping style is entirely focused on the culture and arrangement of aquatic plants.

The Dutch style does not involve the use of driftwood or any hardscape materials (rocks and stones). The main focus is placed on the height, colour and texture of a wide variety of aquatic plants. The basic technique of construction is the terracing approach.

It may look easy to accomplish, but the truth is aquascapers need to possess a great quantity of knowledge regarding different plants in order to create an aesthetically pleasing Dutch style aquascape.

The Iwagumi – A Japanese Zen Style

Iwagumi is all about calmness and a zen feeling. Inspired from the Japanese gardening style, this type of aquascape looks easy to create at a first glance.

As opposed to the Dutch style, which only makes use of plants, the implementation of the Iwagumi aquascaping style is based on the design of an arrangement of rocks (hardscape), their positioning being particularly careful. Only 1 to 3 species of aquatic plants are used.

The use of low-growing plants is very common in order to enhance their natural beauty and their disposal.

The typical setup for an Iwagumi aquascape involves the use of three main stones. The larger one is called the big Buddha. Two smaller stones (attending stones) are added afterwards, to complete the design.

In order to create a sense of unity and harmony to the tank, it is important to use stones that have the same color and texture.

The Nature Aquarium Style

This aquascaping style was introduced by Japanese Takashi Amano in the 1990’s and it is characterized by a very natural look and feel.

Opposed to the Iwagumi style, the Nature Aquarium is all about creating interesting visual contrasts, tension and complexity.

The Nature Aquarium style aims to create a scape that resembles a landscape or image from the natural world. Most common Nature Aquarium aquascapes depict underwater versions of rainforests, mountains, hillsides, beaches or valleys.

By far the best aquascapers employing the Nature Aquarium style are the ones from Asia and Brazil.

Both hardscape material (driftwood, rocks) and plants play an important role in the quest for balance in the aquarium.

Other Tips and Suggestions Regarding Aquascaping Composition

Now that we’ve addressed the mathematical aspect of aquascape design and we’ve gone trough the most known aquascaping styles, it is time to approach other things that contribute to the creation of beautiful and interesting aquascapes.

Imagination and Creativity

Building your own aquascape aquarium is the perfect opportunity to set your imagination and creativity free. Start by doing your research, explore what others have done and experiment with new stuff.

The process of creation is a consuming act, but the reward is more than satisfying. Remember: you should follow the basic rules and principle of aquascaping, but in the end, it is your work, your tank, your imagination so you should be the first to like it.

Symmetry and Shape

Don’t strive to obtain symmetry in your tank! Nature isn’t perfect and that’s exactly what makes it beautiful.

Avoid placing big chunks of hardscape material in the centre of the aquarium. It will make everything around look the same, taking away from the beauty of the entire piece.

The best aquascape shapes are the ones following a smooth curve. There are several composition styles in this regard:

  • The concave layout – higher on either side and lower in the middle, this layout offers the impression of open space in the centre.
  • The convex shaped layout, or the Island style – plants are trimmed lower on either side and higher in the middle, which is very nice aesthetically and can be obtained with rocks to make a mountain looking scape.
  • The triangular aquascape design – higher on one side, lower on the other, this type of layout creates very balanced visuals.

However, do not feel constrained by these basic shape setups! It’s far more important to let your creativity do its thing and experiment as much as possible. Follow your guts and listen to what your own eye tells you. Be confident and have fun in the process!

How to Create Perspective in Aquascaping

Perspective is a big thing in aquascaping. It creates depth and the illusion that the tank is wider than it actually is.

1. Choose the Right Background

Unless you place your aquarium in the middle of a room, you should definitely give it a background. One of the most popular material for aquascaping backgrounds nowadays is gradient-colored foil which can be applied on the back of the tank.

The role of the background is to hide the wall, hoses and cables and to help create in-depth perspective.

2. Find the Right Balance between Foreground, Niddle ground and Background

A good balance between these three can give a good aesthetic perspective to the tank. Use stones and driftwood in the mid ground to create the impression of hills or higher ground.

To obtain some in-depth, use low growing plants in the foreground and try some pieces of wood sticking out to the surface in the background. The final setup should make your aquascape look harmonious.

3. Choose a Natural-looking Substrate

Depending on the aquatic plants you intend to grow in your tank, you should choose natural looking gravel or cosmetic sand. The substrate acts as a base for the entire aquarium and you don’t want it to look artificial.

4. Choose the Right Plant Coloration and Size

Planting the tank is very challenging, but quite fun. Make sure you begin with the focal point(s) of your aquarium. Continue with the low-growing and mid-growing plants and, at the end, with the taller ones.

It’s better to plant groups very dense as well, the more items, the higher the chances to catch roots and develop. Use aquatic plants with different colors and sizes. This will help you create contrast and in-depth perspective and will make your tank look more natural.

Recommended Fish for your Aquascape aquarium

Most people already have in mind what fish they want to put in their aquariums. When it comes to aquascaping, getting the right type of fish is a delicate choice, because there are many factors that need to be taken into consideration.

There is no specific rule, but you have think of their behavior, their breeding cycles, swimming habits and so on. You should avoid big fish that would disturb your aquascape.

The most common types of fish are small and usually schooling (tetras, rainbow fish, gouramis and others) because they have nice bright colours and they make the tank look bigger.

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