What is Aquascaping
Aquascaping is the ‘underwater gardening’ trend that has made a big splash amongst botanists, crafters, and aquariasts alike. The aim of aquascaping is to create an underwater world that is not only visually enchanting but also biologically self-sufficient.
Aquascaping uses plants, rocks, wood, substrates, and other design artefacts to replicate vibrant and captivating aquatic scenes. Fish may or may not be included, but usually as a sideshow rather than the main attraction, with the vegetation being the star of the show.
Aquascaping was first developed as an art form during the 1930s but has exploded in popularity over the past decade. This is in part due to the increasingly intricate, vivid, and sophisticated displays which are made possible as both technology, and our knowledge of aquatic ecosystems expands.
Aquascaping is something of a precise and technical art form, which finely balances biology, creativity, and clever design. It takes time, research, skill, and dedication both to build and maintain a flourishing underwater ecosystem.
Aside from their ethereal beauty, aquascapes offer a whole range of benefits as a hobby! Designing an aquascape allows us to tap into our creativity and explore our imagination. Nurturing the plants is a very mindful task. Simply gazing at an aquascape is scientifically proven to improve mental wellbeing, reduce stress, and even lower heart rate and blood pressure.
If you’re thinking of taking the plunge and setting up your own aquascape, get ready to dive in headfirst with our guide to 23 of the most inspiring aquascape ideas.
Tanks are the containers that encapsulate your underwater world. Here are some of the best tank ideas for aquascaping.
If you don’t have much space, or you’re just starting out in your aquascape journey and looking for something manageable, why not try a nano tank? These tanks are usually less than 10 litres in capacity. It’s much simpler to establish appropriate biological conditions in a smaller tank, and they are cheaper to set up and maintain, but there is less margin for error if any of the conditions do become unbalanced.
The larger your tank, the more space there is for your imagination to run wild. Larger tanks with a capacity of 50 gallons or more offer more scope for a variety of plants and aquatic creatures.
Bear in mind they can require a considerable amount of regular maintenance, and they are often quite costly to set up and maintain.
Ideas for Styles and Themes
There are several main ‘themes’ used in aquascaping, and most aquascapes will fall into one of these categories. Why don’t you have a go at creating your own version of these classic aquascape styles?
The Dutch aquascape is the original, and possibly most popular style of aquascape which places all of the emphasis on the underwater flora. Dutch styles forgo fish and hardscaping, with foliage being at the forefront of the design. Often, these aquascapes will contain many diverse plant species and are popular with die-hard botanists.
If you’re green-fingered and don’t mind plenty of pruning, this is the style for you.
The nature-style aquariums actually encompass a variety of natural landscape styles. A nature aquascape aims to visually replicate ecosystems, habitats, or geographic areas from the natural world using a variety of hardscaping, plants, and aquatic animals.
They are a great idea if you enjoy the natural beauty of our planet. You can recreate any habitat or environment imaginable.
Nature – Rainforest
Rainforest and jungle-themed nature aquascapes mimic dense and diverse jungle ecosystems, incorporating plenty of driftwood and large, sprawling aquatic plants to represent the canopy.
Jungle aquascapes are best suited to larger tanks since plants should be allowed to spread out as they do in the rainforest, which is great if you don’t have loads of time to dedicate to pruning.
Nature – Mountain
To create a miniature underwater mountain range, you should incorporate plenty of rocky hardscaping, with different textures, heights, gradients, and sizes. Allow the rocks, rather than the plants, to take centre stage with this nature aquascape style.
Nature – River bed
If you want to create a riverbed-style aquascape, you should choose a sandy or pebbly substrate, with plenty of carpeting plants to creep along the hardscape. Consider adding river-dwelling fish to really complete the ambience of this nature aquascape.
The Walstad method is possibly the most beginner-friendly style of aquascape. It does away with complicated filtration systems, water changes, CO2 injections, and fertilisers, and instead uses simple, organic potting soil to create a stable and self-sufficient ecosystem for plants and fish.
If you’re tempted to try aquascaping but are feeling overwhelmed by some of the more technical and scientific considerations, then a Walstad aquascape is a great way to get started. They are also budget-friendly since they don’t need any expensive equipment.
Iwagumi style aquascapes originated in Japan, and are all about inducing a sense of zen in the viewer. They are the most simplistic and minimalist of all styles, often containing just three individual rocks and a single plant species. The composition should always be made up of an odd number of rocks, usually, three, and the accompanying plants are usually low-growing or carpeting species.
You should ideally have one large centrepiece rock, and two smaller rocks, all with the same texture. The minimalistic designs of Iwagumi aquascapes are perfect for beginners. If you could do with some mindful relaxation, then the Iwagumi style will certainly help you find your zen.
Biotope aquascapes are similar to nature aquascapes, only rather than simply replicating an environment visually, you must replicate the exact biological conditions of that environment. You could select any habitat to recreate in your biotype aquascape, but you must ensure that all of the plants, animals and hardscaping would coexist together in that natural environment.
Aquascaping is a visual art, so here are some clever ideas to help elevate your scene into a truly mesmerising feast for the eyes!
Play with Perspective
The aim of aquascaping is to tempt the viewers’ gaze with intriguing design and layout configurations. A great way to add interest and dynamism to your scene is to introduce different perspectives. Position smaller plants and objects at the front, with larger elements towards the back to create a realistic sense of depth.
Another great way to entice the viewers’ gaze is to include a range of vibrant colours, both in your plants, and in your decor, and perhaps even in your fish! Planted aquariums that are overwhelmed by greens may look a little flat, but there are plenty of colourful aquatic plants to brighten up your tank.
The Golden Ratio
The ‘golden ratio’ is possibly the most important design factor in many of the most beautiful planted tanks. It involves splitting the front view into nine sections using an imaginary grid. The places where the grid lines intersect are known as ‘focal points’.
These points are where you should position eye-catching or prominent features, to achieve the most balanced and aesthetically pleasing display.
Hardscaping is a crucial element in aquascaping. Not only do solid features like rocks and driftwood provide a place to anchor your plants, but they also offer safe places for fish to hide and breed, as well as enhancing the naturalistic beauty of an aquascape by introducing texture.
There is a huge variety of aquarium-safe rocks and driftwood available to suit any style of aquascape. Be mindful when adding rocks or wood to your scene, as they can alter the pH levels of the water, and never place a rock directly onto the bottom surface of the tank, as it can scratch or damage the glass. Here are some great hardscape ideas for your underwater garden.
Dragon Stone is one of the most popular and versatile rocks for hardscaping, with its irregular, jagged shape, it will not only add drama to your aquascape, but it is beloved by fish who hide in its crevices, and its fissures are perfect for securing small plants. Additionally, Dragon Stone won’t alter the pH of your water, so opt for this if you have a very finely balanced ecosystem.
Like Dragon Stone, Lava Rock is a firm favourite amongst aquariasts because of its rough, irregular texture, which is ideal for growing carpeting plants like moss. It is sourced from historical volcanic eruptions and is available in a variety of shades from red to black.
Driftwood is pieces of natural wood that have been cleaned and treated, especially for aquascaping. They provide excellent protection for fish and can be used to secure epiphyte plants such as Anubias. Some types of driftwood also contain tannins which help to lower pH levels in the water. They are perfect in jungle aquascapes.
Coral reef aquascapes are unique in that they generally require saltwater to replicate the corals’ natural habitat. This is a very precise and highly delicate ecosystem, requiring a great deal of maintenance. You can create a far simpler lookalike reef environment in your aquascape by using plenty of colourful rocks and a sandy substrate, but keep planting to a minimum.
Substrates play a crucial role in the aquatic ecosystems by providing an anchor and nutrients for your plants. Allow your chosen style of aquascape to dictate your choice of substrate. Sandy substrates are best for riverbed or beach-themed scenes, whilst soil-based substrates will be more appropriate for heavily planted scenes.
Just because it provides the foundations of a thriving aquascape doesn’t mean it has to be boring. Here are some ideas to help you brighten up your substrate.
Introduce colour to your aquascape with a layer of brightly coloured sand, stone, or pebbles. There is a whole rainbow spectrum of coloured substrates available to really brighten up a dark, underwater world.
Introduce depth and interest by creating slopes within your substrate. Slopes and level changes can be made by layering hardscaping elements, or by simply increasing and decreasing the substrate depth in different areas of the tank.
You may need to provide additional support if you are using a loose substrate to stop it from slipping away with gravity. Sloped substrates are particularly effective in valley-themed nature aquascapes.
Plants are the centre-pieces in all aquascapes, and there are plenty of wonderful ways to incorporate fauna in interesting and unusual ways.
To create a stunning visual display within your tank, try incorporating a variety of plants with different sizes, textures, and growth habits. Monotypic planting can look a bit one-dimensional. The aim of aquascaping is to draw the viewer in, and the more diverse your plants, the more captivated the viewer will be.
Mosses are well suited to aquatic environments since they love low light levels and moist conditions. There is a huge array of aquatic mosses that you can use for an underwater moss garden. To create a naturalistic underwater moss garden, use plenty of rocks covered in different moss species. Moss is also a great way to disguise a bland substrate.
Although technically a protist rather than a plant, algae can make for an unusual planted aquarium. It’s not advisable to place fish or any other plants in an algal aquascape since it can cause the underwater environment to become hypoxic.
In fact, in most aquascapes algae is considered a problem, but it’s a fantastic air purifier, so if you’d like to cleanse the oxygen in your home and create a unique display, look no further than algae!
Many horticulturalists have tried their hands at traditional bonsai, but how about creating an underwater bonsai? Sadly, terrestrial bonsais are unlikely to survive underwater, since their roots hate being oversaturated.
You can easily recreate an aquatic bonsai by arranging a piece of driftwood in the centre of the tank to act as the trunk and adding mossy aquatic plants around the top of the wood in place of foliage.
How To Set Up and Maintain Your Aquascape
Now you’ve seen plenty of great aquascaping ideas to get your creative juices flowing, let’s take a closer look at how to set up and maintain your aquascape.
Once you have decided what style of aquarium you want to build, you should consider the design and placement of each of your elements. It’s a good idea to sketch it out on paper before making any permanent fixtures.
Before filling the tank with water, place different objects and move them around until you are completely happy with the composition, as it’s very difficult to change things once they are submerged.
Choosing the right substrate is vital to ensure your plants get the support and security they need from their growing medium. Sterile substrates like sand and gravel are well suited to aquatic environments, but they don’t offer much nutritional value.
Specialist aquatic substrates are more soil-like and contain plenty of nutrients, but can appear less natural in the underwater setting. You can mix different kinds of substrate to achieve the perfect blend for your plants.
Do plenty of research on plants before buying anything. Opt for plants that not only suit the theme of your aquascape but also require the kind of maintenance that you have time for. Fast-growing or unruly species will need lots of pruning.
Aquatic plants are usually sold in pots. It’s best to remove these before planting so the roots have plenty of space to spread out and anchor themselves deep within the substrate or hardscape
Fertiliser and Carbon Dioxide
Often, soil-based aquatic substrates will be nutrient-rich, helping to feed and nurture your plants, but these nutrients will dwindle over time and you will need to replenish them with fertiliser periodically.
Similarly, sand-based substrates are usually very low in nutritional value. You should use a liquid or water-soluble aquarium-safe fertiliser to ensure it doesn’t disrupt the existing ecological balance.
Plants need carbon dioxide to perform photosynthesis and many aquariasts supplement their plants using a CO2 injector, although this is not always essential. There will be a certain amount of carbon dioxide present in the water, but adding additional CO2 will help them photosynthesise faster, boosting growth.
You must monitor the carbon dioxide levels in the water to ensure that you don’t suffocate the fish!
Artificial lighting is essential for plants to photosynthesise effectively underwater. Fluorescent lights are budget-friendly but they are less efficient and will need replacing periodically. LED lights are the most efficient and longer-lived, but they are more costly. As a general rule of thumb, you should aim for 2-4 watts of light per gallon of water.
Once you are happy with the composition of your aquascape and have secured all your elements, it’s time to fill the tank with water. You should use a conditioner to purify the water and match the temperature of the water to the preferred temperature of the plants if your tank doesn’t have a heater.
You will need to regularly monitor the pH levels and temperature of the water to ensure its suitable for the plants and animals that live in it.
Unless creating a Walstad aquascape, you will need to change the water regularly. Aim to change up to 50 percent of the water weekly, dependent on the size of your tank.
You may need to install a filter to help keep the water in your aquascape clean and free of debris and to aid in circulation. Filters aren’t essential, but can really help with maintenance and prevent buildups of potentially harmful chemicals and bacteria in the water.
It’s crucial to research which species of fish will be best suited to the kind of aquarium that you are creating. Maintaining a harmonious and symbiotic relationship between fish, plants, substrate, and water will ensure that your aquascape can sustain a healthy ecosystem.
You should always wait several weeks after planting and filling your tank with water before adding fish. This is known as ‘cycling’, and gives the aquascape time to establish a balanced ecosystem.
How long will my aquascape last?
As with all living things, aquascapes won’t last forever. The longevity of your aquascape will depend on the level of care it receives, and the lifespans of the organisms it contains. Some aquascapes may only last for a few months, whilst others can be successfully maintained for years.
Are aquascapes difficult to maintain?
Your aquascape can be as high or low maintenance as you like. If you are a beginner, start small with low-maintenance plants and fish. As your skills develop, you can graduate to more complex systems and designs.
So, whether you fancy dipping your toe into a low maintenance Walstad aquascape, or diving headfirst into a large-scale aquatic rainforest replica, these incredible aquascaping ideas should give you plenty of inspiration for plunging into the vibrant waters of aquatic gardening!