What gardening is to potted plants, aquascaping ideas are to aquariums. Rather than having clam shells or brightly colored gravel, people use their aquascaping ideas to create art with driftwood, rocks, substrate, and live plants or fish. This is starting to gain in popularity very rapidly, and the fact that this isn’t a hugely difficult project can help. Knowing basic plant and fish nutrition, water chemistry, and how to cycle your aquarium to keep everything clean can help you pull off a healthy and thriving aquascape.
Aquascapes can take more money to start and time to plant, depending on how complex and big you want to go. However, they’re well worth the initial effort. This aquascaping idea guide will outline what it is, the most popular forms, and what you’ll need to create your own aquascape below.
Aquascapes come in a huge range of designs from nano setups that are under 10 gallons to huge 50+ gallon aquariums.
At the core, this is the art of creating a living underwater garden that you contain in an aquarium. The goal of this tank can vary, depending on your aquascaping idea and the tank size you pick out. However, you typically try to create a tranquil appearing underwater space that looks natural. You’ll start this project by creating a layout and design that uses:
- Hardscape – This is the landscaping elements like sticks or rocks.
- Live Plants – You’ll nurture and prune your live plants into specific designs or shapes to fit your aquascaping idea.
- Substrates – Finally, substrates like gravel, dirt, or sand give a base layer to support rooting plant growth, and they can add nice visual effects to the finished product.
Six Most Common Aquascaping Ideas
While there are arguably dozens of aquascaping styles available, you usually find yourself drawn to a certain style or look. You may also prefer to mix and match elements from other styles to get a unique aquascaping idea. The most popular styles are:
1. Biotope Aquascaping
Biotopes or biomes are one of the most diverse aquascaping ideas to put into motion. Biome-style aquariums try to replicate the environments you can find outside, and this includes plant and fish species choices. So, you’ll typically do a lot of research to find the complementary plants and fish. In the aquarium trade today, you can easily source plants and fish from virtually anywhere around the world.
Even though this aquascaping idea requires more research, it can turn into a great conversation piece. Invertebrates, fish, and plants that you find together have the same water quality requirements in terms of temperature and pH. These aquascapes work to incorporate elements of other styles, and the Jungle and Nature styles are usually the knees heaviest pulled from. This setup can look like a garden, but it tends to be much more on the organized chaos side.
Depending on how strictly you plan to set up this aquascape idea, replicating the rock and substrate portions of the tank can help keep the ecosystem healthy and it looks very aesthetically pleasing. For example, if you wanted to create the biome of the Rift Lake Cichlid, you would create a much more accurate environment if you used rocks and gravel with little plant growth. Picking dolomite and limestone will also help turn the water chemistry more alkaline, and this will keep your fish happy.
As one of the most diverse options you can have, this one is also very popular due to the flexibility it offers.
2. Dutch Aquascaping
The Dutch aquascaping idea is one of the most popular options available. If you’re someone who gardens outdoors, it will look and feel the most familiar. This aquascape is the one out of all of the styles we’re going to touch on that looks more like a formal garden in the aspect that it’s well maintained, tidy, and organized.
With this aquascape, the plants are the central focus, and picking out plants that boost the aesthetic appeal is the most important thing you do. You’ll want to pick out aquatic plants based on the overall look and your preferences, and form and contrast are something to keep in mind. This setup relies heavily on contrasting colors like green versus red, size contrasts, and leaf textures like broad versus fine to make statements. Driftwood and rocks also get used, but they’re not as important or showy.
Also, roughly 70% of the substrate should have plants covering them. Even if you choose to have an open water zone with this aquascaping idea, carpeting or creeping plants will coat your substrate. Since the substrate gets blanketed in plants, you don’t have to ensure that it’s as aesthetically pleasing as you would in other styles, but it should support strong plant growth. In terms of maintenance, this is the one that is the highest on the list.
You’ll have to regularly test the water, prune the plants, and fertilize everything. It’s also a good idea to have CO2 reactors or supplements to ensure your plants stay healthy. This aquascape idea also tends to incorporate many fish as the waste products are food for your plants. Corydoras, Discus, and Cardinal Tetras are plant-safe fish that are ideal for this aquascape.
3. Iwagumi Aquascaping
Iwagumi aquascaping ideas is a form of Nature aquascaping, and it focuses heavily on rocks and substrate. The name is Japanese for “rock formation” and it involves paying close attention to where you place your larger landscaping or anchor rocks. The keystone rock in this design is the Oyaishi, but you never want to place it dead center in the aquarium.
Secondary rocks are Soeishe, and they’re usually much smaller than the Oyaishi stone. You scatter Fujiseki stones across the aquarium in a way that is aesthetically pleasing while looking natural. The common aesthetic with this aquascaping idea is non-symmetrical, off-center designs that mimic nature. It’s a very minimalistic option, and it usually has a single fish species or plant in the whole aquarium.
Vallisneria or Dwarf hair grass are usually fantastic to use as a contrast to the large rocks and visible substrate. Tiny fish species like Endler’s Livebearers or Cherry Barbs add interest without drawing attention from the rocks. You can finish off your aquascaping idea by adding a few Bee or Cherry shrimp. Even a bigger 50 gallon aquarium in this design will only have 12 small fish.
With this aquascaping idea, picking the rocks is far more important than the fish, and Blue Dragon (Seiryu) stones are very popular. They have a textured, complex look and feel with exterior and grain fractures that make them fantastic showpieces. You can use driftwood too, but you’ll need much smaller pieces scattered about.
4. Jungle Aquascaping
A sense of chaos will define your jungle aquascaping idea. You allow your plants to thrive and fill in virtually every open space in the aquarium. It’s a good idea to pick out Banana Plants, Amazon Swords, and taller cultivars of Criniums and Vallisneria. All of these plants have broad leaves. You don’t have to tuck them into the background either. Instead, you can place them around or group them to create growth thickets without shading out smaller or slower growing plants like Chain Swords or Anubias.
The best jungle aquascaping idea is to have order using species grouping, algae control, adequate pruning, and barriers like rock or driftwood that help to break up the tank’s visual flow. Rock and driftwood contribute to the wild look, like it was swept up in a flood. Wood can also leach tannins, and this can push the water to be slightly more acidic and give more substrate for the plants to grow that thrive on harder surfaces like African Water Ferns or Java. Floating plants can add to the look too.
Balancing out the lighting levels can be a challenge with this aquascaping idea. Since plants grow thick and large with minimal pruning, they can easily overshadow one another. You’ll have to plan and plant everything with the adult sizes in mind and trim them enough to keep them the correct size.
Ensuring that you get enough nutrition to every plant is another challenge, especially if your fish population is small. CO2 rectors, even though they can be expensive for larger setups, will help to ensure that your plants get enough carbon dioxide to help them with photosynthesis. Putting more fish in the water will make sure there is enough CO2 in heavily planted aquascape ideas.
Even though this aquascape idea looks very wild, you actually organize it very well when you first set it up.
5. Nature or Amano Aquascaping
In the 1990s, this landscaping idea exploded in popularity once Takashi Amano started an aquarium design company. This is why many people call in Amano aquascaping, and it incorporates Japanese design philosophies that you find in more traditional Japanese gardening.
Wabi Sabi is one huge aesthetic element that refers to asymmetry, transience, recognizing the natural process, and imperfection. You may pile your substrate drastically to one side with this aquascaping idea to make it look like a riverbank. A more formal design can have a rock canyon with plants that mimic the look of bonsai coming from the walls that are actually java moss and driftwood.
Zen is also an important influence of this style, particularly centering around minimalism. Plants and fish are big, but there is also an importance on natural elements. Even aquascape ideas with heavy plants have an open space somewhere in the design to give a very dream-like appearance as fish drift through the plants and canyons that mimic meadows and trees.
Small fish and creeping plants are at the center of this aquascaping idea. Aquatic moss gets carefully trimmed to look like terrestrial moss or lichen. Fish like Rasboras and Tetras swim in smaller schools, but you’ll only have one or two species at one time. Showy plants are common, but you have to organize them so they don’t crowd your open water.
Finally, this aquascape is surprisingly easy to maintain, and it’s a lot easier than it looks. The goal is to set up a natural ecosystem that is virtually maintenance-free once it establishes itself.
6. Walstad Aquascaping
The final aquascaping idea gained popularity due to the book, “Ecology of the Planted Aquarium” by Diana Walstad. This method isn’t so much about aesthetics as it is about design. You take away additives, filtration, and water changes with this method, and all you provide is light, food, heat, and keep the plants trimmed and the water levels topped off.
You use soil as your main substrate, and this is the key to this design. Traditionally, you’d add sterile sand or gravel to your aquarium, and this has zero nutrients and no capacity to retain any. This makes it very difficult for the plants to establish themselves. More modern substrates have trace elements like Iron and Potassium, and they also contain materials that have a higher cation exchange capacity (CEC) to bind the nutrients to the plant’s roots. Topsoil and garden potting soil is healthier for your [plants and it’s much more cost-effective.
The biggest issue is to keep the soil at the bottom of your aquascape as it has so much fine particulate matter that can hang in the water column. To combat this, you add a very light layer of fine sand or gravel to keep the soil in place until the plant roots take hold and prevent it from eroding and rising to the top.
Once they mature, this is a very easy aquascape idea to maintain. Maturity will take a few weeks, and fertilization and CO2 additions aren’t needed in this setup once you reach this point. You want to keep the fish population low, having a balance of rapidly and slow-growing species of plants is important to help the maturation process. Water testing is critical during this time because you don’t have filters, so it’s easy for the environment to turn deadly.
This immensely popular aquascape idea allows you to design a picture-perfect setup that is an excellent blend of plants and fish.
Necessary Aquascaping Materials
No matter which aquascaping idea you choose to go with, you have to know which materials you’ll need to pull your project together. A few important considerations include aquariums, lighting, substrates, and more. We’ve laid them out for you below.
The first thing to decide on is how large of an aquarium you have space for and have the time to maintain. Generally speaking, you can choose from large, small, or medium.
Larger aquariums will require that you dedicate more time to maintain when you’re doing basic things like cleaning the glass and water changes. They also require more power-hungry and expensive filters and heaters, or any other device you deem necessary to keep the aquarium running. However, they also give you far more space to get creative and have your plants or fish. They’re also better for chemistry buffering.
If you’re not sure, a mid-sized tank that is between 15 and 40 gallons is a fantastic middle ground, and you can use them to practice your aquascaping ideas. You won’t have to spend as much upfront to get the tank up and going, and you can always graduate to a larger tank once you get the feel for this project.
You can aquascape smaller aquariums just like you big ones, and they come with unique challenges. Small or nano aquariums take up very little space, and they don’t need a lot of water changes, setup, or pruning. Heateres, filters, lights, and any other accessories you need are less power hungry and expensive. You need fewer fish, plants, and substrate too.
The biggest downside to this tank is that you’ll have less space to design. A 10 gallon aquascape can look big at first but it can quickly fill up when you start picking fish. You don’t want more than 10 one-inch fish, as long as they’re small.
Smaller tanks also come with less water to buffer out negative chemistry shifts, especially when you take into the water volume that driftwood, rocks, and substrate take up. Temporary power outages, fish deaths, and overfeeding can lead to huge problems very quickly in a small tank.
Fish and Invertebrates
You don’t necessarily have to have fish or invertebrates in your aquascape, but they can add welcome movement, clean away the algae, and feed the plants.
You want to avoid any fish that dig because they’ll uproot or destabilize your plants. Loaches, cichlids, and big catfish are the worst options for this tank. However, dwarf cichlids like Discus and Blue Rams will work well, and if you set up a biome aquascape, they make allowances for cichlid digging habits. You also want to avoid plants eating fish or invertebrates.
Plant eaters that are very commonly available in most pet stores are pacus, silver dollars, and several snail species. Any invertebrates or fish that eat algae are also very nice to have as the algae can be challenging to clean off the decorations without removing them, and this can hurt your plants.
Otocinclus and Amano Shrimp are smaller algae eaters to consider, and they can help keep your aquascape looking pristine. It’s popular to use smaller fish in your aquascapes because they make your tank look much bigger than it actually is. THe Iwagumi and Nature methods use smaller fish populations to give the feel of a sky-like, spacious habitat.
Aquarium lighting is very complex, but as a rough rule of thumb, you want to aim for two to four watts of lighting for every gallon of volume. Also, not all light has the spectrum aquatic plants need. Plant lighting has to fall within a set color temperature that ranges between 5,000 and 7,000K to encourage optimal growth. A few plants will go above this range, but picking lights that fall into this range is ideal for more aquascaping ideas.
- 6,499 and Lower – This spectrum gives you an increasingly warm look, and household light bulbs range from 2,700 to 3,000K.
- 6,500K – Lighting in this range is closest to the natural sunlight and lends a very gentle, even look.
- 7,000K and Up – These lights are very cold, and they turn a sterile white. Xenon car headlights are 10,000K.
Generally speaking, you’ll have the choice of four types of bulbs when you set up your aquascape, including:
Fluorescent Light Bulbs
These bulbs straddle the line between efficiency and cost with ease. You can get these bulbs without a huge hassle, and they cost less than the LED option. You’ll get very even lighting across the aquascape to make it more aesthetically pleasing. However, these bulbs will burn out much more quickly than LEDs, and they can shift your light spectrum as they age. If algae grows, it can be a strong indication that your lighting color temperature isn’t ideal.
Incandescent Light Bulbs
Incandescent bulbs are the last choice to put in your aquascape. You will find them in cheap hoods that come in small aquarium kits. They are much too warm with the coloring, and they’re too weak to throw off much light. They can illuminate a small or nano aquarium, but the light fuels algae growth. They also get extremely hot, and a splash of water can shatter it.
LED Light Bulbs
LED bulbs are the best thing to add to your aquascaping idea for the money as they can easily last up to 50,000 hours. They also run cooler and offer more power efficiency than any other bulb. The price is the only real downside to this option, and they have the highest initial cost. If you’re serious about your aquascape idea, you should heavily consider using these bulbs as they give you the best return for your money.
Metal Halogen Light Bulbs
You see this light bulb used in saltwater aquariums, but they also work decently for freshwater aquascaping. This is a point light source, and they create a ripple effect that looks great as it can mimic the look of a shallow water environment, like a reef tank or river bank. However, they do get very hot, and they can add enough heat to the aquarium that it makes it challenging to control the water temperature. They also eat much more power than LED or Fluorescent lights.
Aquarium lights can help highlight your entire aquascape, and they can also encourage healthy plant growth.
Live Plant Selection
As a cornerstone of your aquascape idea, you’ll want to pick out live plants that work well with one another or follow a design philosophy that we touched on earlier. You want to choose plants that have similar water parameters, ease of care, and plants that are readily available in your area.
You can usually find Amazon Swords or Elodea at your local pet stores, and there are now online merchants who will send you a huge selection of plants that you may never find in local stores. Amazon even has a live aquarium plant section.
If you don’t use your rocks carefully, they can cause issues. When you put a rock down, never allow it to touch the bottom of your aquarium glass. Rocks can easily scratch the glass, and they can break it if you apply pressure suddenly. You should always have a thin substrate layer separating the rocks from the aquarium glass when you aquascape.
A lot of rocks have minerals that leach into your aquarium as time goes on, and this will cause the water to be more alkaline. The plants, fish, and pH range will dictate whether or not this is a problem, as well as the buffering capability the rocks offer. If the things you pick out prefer it to be more alkaline, you won’t have a problem. However, you’ll have to adjust if they won’t do well in this environment.
A simple test you can perform is to take table vinegar or a weak acid and allow it to sit for 5 to 10 minutes on a dry rock sample. If you see it bubble or fizz, this is an indicator that the rock has alkaline buffering agents in it. Sedimentary rocks like coal, limestone, and conglomerate should be something you consider carefully as they leach back into the water.
Igneous rocks like granite or metamorphic rocks are usually a safer bet to use in your aquascaping idea. Sandstone is a sedimentary rock that is perfect for aquariums. You want to avoid using a big amount of a specific rock type that buffers the pH toward alkaline to help avoid issues.
If you find a rock outside, putting it in a pot of water and slowly raising the temperatures until it boils will help kill any parasites, algae, and other contaminants. Ohko Dragon Stone is a very popular landscaping rock that has a sleek and unique look for your aquascape.
Finally, anytime you have live plants, you want to carefully consider the substrate you’re going to use. Sterle options like pure gravel or sand make it very challenging to keep your plants healthy, and it’s virtually impossible to get the garden-like growth aquascapes embodied. Artificial substrates give you a dark base that is nutritionally complete and aesthetically pleasing. You can mix your substrate for aesthetic and nutritional purposes as well.
You know now the basics to help you formulate and pull off your aquascape idea. You can start small and build up to a bigger aquarium as you get more comfortable with the process, and you can create dream-like scapes for your space that last for years.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.