Aquascaping an Aquarium: Guide to Aquascape Styles & More


There you are, standing in front of your brand new empty aquarium, and your mind is racing.  It is racing because you have an idea; an idea of turning that empty aquarium into an underwater viewing spectacle.  You have the perfect spot in the house to place the tank.  You can already see the fish swimming around the tank, resting under some curled leaf of a plant, and pushing up to the top of the water to feed.  The fish can be of all different colors, shapes, and sizes and spend their lives making that aquarium their home.  There is an underwater world you wish to create and so many possibilities give you such excitement!  If this sounds like you, then welcome to the wonderful world of aquascaping! 

Aquascaping is the art of decorating and arranging aquariums.  It is like interior design, but for a small space.  Aquascaping involves the planning and placement of aquatic plants, stones, cave works, driftwoods, and rocks in such an aesthetic way inside the aquarium.  The practice is also called underwater landscaping.  The whole purpose behind aquascaping is to create an aquarium that have artistic underwater landscapes using appropriate items.  Aquarist, as they call themselves, have many different styles and look upon aquariums as canvasses that can be filled up to give an amazing aesthetic to a room, rather than having fish in an empty water bowl.  There is a large following online and tons of information available for beginners.  Aquascaping is so popular that it even gets to the point of being competitive. 

Aquascaping
Aquascaping is the art of decorating and arranging aquariums.

History of Aquariums

The earliest people to have aquariums were the Sumerians, who kept different kinds of fish in artificial ponds around 4,500 years ago.  Around this same time, the ancient Egyptians and Assyrians were known to be fish keepers.  The Chinese were also known to raise carp for food.  However, the glass aquariums as we know them today did not become widely used until the 19th century.  The first recognizable glass aquarium was invented in 1832 by French-born naturalist Jeanne Villerpreux-Power.  However, the term “aquarium” really took hold from the works of British naturalist Philip Gosse, which used the term to describe a vessel in which aquatic animals, as well as plants, can be held.  This brought a new popularity to aquatic life.  Furthermore, by 1850, aquariums were being used to keep animals for scientific research and study.  After that, display aquariums began to pop up all over the world.  The first public aquarium was in Regent’s Park in London in 1853, then Berlin, Paris, and Naples all opened ones.  By 1928, there were 45 public or commercial aquariums all over the world.  Each of these places aimed to give the illusion of an underwater world with tanks made of glass. This is where the idea of decoration and aqauscaping began. 

Aquascaping
Aquascape with rocks and plants.

History of Aquascaping

This rise in popularity with aquariums brought on more attention to making better tanks in the 1960s as fish keeping became a booming business.  Crack-resistant, lighter weight tanks were made, as well as the acrylic tanks which easily can be made into other shapes besides a normal rectangle.  Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, aquariums saw many more developments and soon the aquarium itself became a popular household item.  As the technical aspects of the aquarium became more sophisticated, the idea of keeping fish in a public or private space became an artistic endeavor and the hobby was born.  There are reports of people in the Netherlands practicing aquascaping as far back as the 1930s.  

However, the first known mentioning of aquascaping is in a book was published in 1970 and called The Complete Guide to Freshwater Tropical Fish, which was edited by Raymond Legge.  This edit is the first printed reference of the concept of aquascaping, which really just came from Legge commenting on what a pleasant and proper choice limestone and rocks were for that particularly larger aquarium.  There is a science behind what works well in an aquarium and by following those rules, you would maximize your growth and presentation.  Legge goes on to warn the reader about using artificial rocks, cave placement, and keeping background simple.  While this seems to be the earliest publication of the concept, other countries were also developing aquascaping styles themselves. 

Nature Aquarium Aquascape
Nature Aquarium Aquascape

One of the most famous aquarist was a Japanese man named Takashi Amano.  Amano was famous for bringing Zen and wabi-sabi gardening concepts to his aquariums.  He wrote about freshwater aquascaping and developed a very particular plant and rock layout.  Amano founded this unique style called Nature Aquarium, which incorporated elements of nature to aquatic plant layout.  It inspired an intriguing idea that the fish do not necessarily have to be the center of attention in the aquarium.  He was the author of a three-part series about aquascaping and freshwater aquarium plants and fish called Nature Aquarium World.  Takashi Amano was also a well-established nature photographer as well and has advocated for the importance of tree-planting programs to protect the earth’s environment.  His incredible contribution to the environment and to aquarists around the world is immeasurable. 

How to Aquascape an Aquarium

As the concept of keeping animals and fish in an aquarium became more and more popular, it eventually grew into a full time hobby.  People started really learning about how to care for their fish while making the aquarium look amazing.  There is a lot of detail and research that goes into aquascaping, but it really depends on how dedicated you are to the art.  The first place to start is planning.  What kind of tank are you going to use?  Is this going to be a large aquarium or a small one?  What exactly are you thinking of putting in it?  Where would you put this aquarium once it is created?  These kinds of questions are important to establish right away so that you can research about what works first before you go out and buy anything. 

Size of the tank aside, the best and safest option for aquarium material is glass.  There are other options like polyethylene, polypropylene, and Plexiglas, which are all non-toxic.  But be careful because some plastics and adhesives are non-toxic to humans but are toxic to water-breathing animals. Some people even have wooden tanks, which sound nice, but are often susceptible to rot and boring organisms.  Metals are generally not used, especially when dealing with saltwater because of the corrosion.  However, stainless steel has low enough toxicity and can be used, especially in freshwater systems. 

Iwagumi style inspired aquascape
Nature stype aquascape replicating a rock mountain.

After you have chosen your tank, you will now need to consider on what you plan to inside.  Ideally, you want to think of fish, plants, and whatever else that all grouped together can operate in similar water conditions.  There are a lot of aquatic life that works best in specific conditions.  This will make the aquascaping much easier.  Next, you will need to get a decent water filter, a light, a protein skimmer, and carbon dioxide that will be essential for plant’s growth.  You will also need to purchase a few aquascaping tools such as scissors, tweezers, and a carbon dioxide indicator.

Once you have everything in place, you will need to think about what the final product will look like.  It is imperative to plan your layout and consider the flora and fauna that will inhabit the tank.  Next, you will choose a substrate and add it to the tank.  Sand and gravel will play no part in plant growth, so therefore, soil will work best.  Find a soil that has a high nutrient content and that will maintain a neutral or slightly acidic pH to promote healthy plant growth.  You should also add a lava granulate base to support larger stones, as well as to provide gaps to loosen the soil and allow for nutrient and water circulation.  Now that you have you base, you can add hardscape.  Hardscapes are generally made up of rock, stones, driftwood, or bogwood.  These are essentially the larger pieces of the tank.  Lay them out in whatever way you wish, but make sure that the pieces are well-supported and will not slip when you add the water.  You could risk cracking or breaking the glass if one of these big guys gets loose.

The meticulous portion of the aquascaping comes from planting the aquarium.  The plants should be placed into the substrate using tweezers and should be pushed down far enough so they do not break loose or detach.  Once each of the plants are placed, you can carefully add the water carefully so as not to disturb the substrate.  Feel free to use a small bowl to gently pour water into the tank at first.  You can also use a thin siphon as well.  Once the tank is completely filled, check all the systems and make sure nothing is out of place.  It would also be a good time to check the temperature and levels of the water.  Because once everything is confirmed to be ok, you can find some creatures to put into the aquarium.  You can add whatever you like as long as they thrive in that water’s levels.  Make sure that they do not get too big for the tank either.  Allow for any new fish to get used to the tank’s water by placing the bag they came in into the water for about ten minutes, then add a small cup of tank water into the bag and let sit for five minutes.  Do this until the fish bag is full and then you can release the fish into the tank.  Then, your aquarium is complete and everyone can enjoy the underwater pocket world you have created. 

Techniques of Aquascaping

There are some techniques involved with aquascaping that many have used.  For example, there is the rule of thirds.  The rule of thirds is a design layout that takes advantage of human’s natural attraction to things that are divided into grids.  The idea is to create a layout that is well balanced and visually interesting.  By following the rule of thirds, you can avoid having too much clutter in your tank, which will not only make your tank look too packed, but it will also make it difficult for any aquatic life to prosper because of the lack of space in the tank. 

Another technique is using a focal point placement.  The focal point is where your eye tends to focus on inside the tank.  Finding a pleasing focal point will help your tank be more aesthetically pleasing and prevent layouts from becoming too busy or distracting.  Many aquarists will often agree that less is more when it comes to aquascaping.  You may want to add the hardscape aspect, but if it clutters the tank or takes away the visual continuity of the tank, then it might be better to take the hardscape away.    You’ll also want to think about plant selection and placement, but keep in mind the adult size and coloration of mature aquatic plants. 

Placing the plants strategically will be one of the biggest challenges to aquascaping because of the plant’s growth.  Therefore, keep an eye on your plants and how they are growing and if they look like they are getting in the way of the visual aspect of the tank, then you may need to reposition it or remove the plant altogether.  To avoid this issue, you can also think about scale.  Proper use of scale will bring the magic of aquascaping to life.  You can use large focal stones to make vertical or horizontal spaces in your tank.  Making good use of the hardscape will be paramount to how your tank looks visually, so make sure you have the correct sized object.

Iwagumi aquascape in a nano aquarium.
Iwagumi aquascape in a nano aquarium.

Substrate size can also have a major impact on the tank.  Most professional aquascapers will use the ADA powder type for topsoil.  The small granules help with creating a greater sense of scale between the hardscape, aquatic plants, and the substrate itself.  You can also use smaller accent stones to make the tank look more natural.  Finally, keep in mind the concept of contrast as you can have certain points in the tank emphasized., while other things in the tank are left to the background.  One technique is to get two different colored plants, one lighter while the other is darker.  The lighter plant will help the aquarium pop, while the darker plants give more depth and contrast to it.

Be careful not to create what many aquarists call the “green box.”  This is when the tank has no contrast at all and looks like a green box to most viewers.  This happens when the tank has so much inside that the tank becomes overwhelming to the viewer.  To avoid this, think more on the contrast aspect of the tank to make sure you are not just throwing anything into the tank.  If you have a lot of light green plants, then consider putting a different colored plant inside or consider the coloring of the hardscape so as not to upset any focal points you have created. 

Styles of Aquascaping

Aquascaping has been increasing in popularity over the last few decades. Throughout the years, there have been many different styles that have been birthed from this practice.  Each of these styles have a different focus, but all of them provide a wonderful aquatic setting that can light up a space.

Iwagumi Aquascape

Iwagumi Aquascape
Iwagumi Aquascape

This is a Japanese style of aquascaping that has a slight difference than other styles.  That difference lies in the fact that stones and rocks are the only things used as hardscapes.  The rocks and stones are used to form things like mountains and rock formations and usually involves some sort of aquatic plant that will carpet the bottom of the tank and grow on the rocks as well.  This extremely popular style is all about forming a mountainous landscape that stays true to the rule of thirds.

Nature Aquarium

Nature Aquarium Aquascape
Nature Aquarium Aquascape

Nature aquariums can take many forms, but they are one of the most beautiful styles of aquascaping.  The main idea behind this style is that it forms a kind of forest or grassy landscape in the tank.  Nature aquascaping involves driftwood, rocks, and caves, which make the tank look more like something that would be captured in nature.  The color green is very prominently displayed in this style.

Dutch Aquascaping

Dutch Aquascape
Dutch Aquascape

This is one of the oldest styles of aquascaping.  The defining feature of this style is a very high density of plant life and how they are arranged.  The plants should be quite colorful with many different colors that form great color contrasts.  This style is very plant heavy and is a great style to start with if you are a beginner in the art form.

Biotope Aquascaping

Biotope Aquascape
Biotope Aquascape

One of the coolest aspects of the biotope style it lets you recreate a natural setting that can be found in the wild.  This is one of the more diverse styles of aquascaping because it can take any form.  One of the more popular techniques with this style is to take a picture of real nature and try to recreate it in the tank.  Biotopes can take the form of a mountain landscape, desert, canyon, jungle, or a grassy green field.  There’s a lot of flexibility with this style. Depending on the biotope that it is trying to replicate, some may contain more plants than others.

Jungle Aquascaping

Jungle Aquascape
Jungle Aquascape

As the name suggests, this is another very green style of aquascaping.  It is a bit of a mix between Dutch and nature styles where you will find a combination of aquatic plants, rocks, and driftwood.  The jungle style focuses more on the greenery and less on the rocks and driftwood.  It is a very colorful style, but the color green is prominently displayed.  This style tends to look more natural than other types of aquascaping.

Taiwanese Aquascaping

Taiwanese Aquascape
Taiwanese Aquascape

While Taiwanese aquascaping was once a very popular style of aquascaping, its popularity has declined in recent years.  This style makes use of high terraces, illusions of depth, rich plant life, and small replicas to create a feeling of life within the tank.  It blends the Dutch style and Iwagumi style and maintains its simplicity and organization.  It has multiple kinds of aquatic plants, but is not as dense as other styles.  Another major difference is how the Taiwanese aquascaping uses hardscapes and differing depths of substrate in the design. 

Other Styles

There are other more particular styles of aquascaping that involve using smaller tanks.  This is referred to as Nano aquascaping.  This style uses ten gallon tanks or less in order to set up a smaller environment.  Obviously, since there is the use of smaller tanks, the amount of things you can put into the tank changes.  This style usually works around some centerpiece in the tank with some detailing around the sides.

Nano Aquarium Aquascape
Nano Aquarium Aquascape

How much does Aquascaping cost?

If you have made it this far into this article, then you must be excited and looking to start working on your new aquascape project.  However, you must remember that this project is going to require a lot of planning, time, care, and money.  For one, you will need all of the aforementioned tools to get started.  Each decoration, creature, tool, machine, and plant is going to cost money.  How much you want to spend is going to be determined greatly by how much you are willing to budget for this hobby.  For example, trimming scissors can start as low as $20, but can go as high as $130.  As a general ballpark figure, to get started with aquascaping, which includes a tank, plants, objects, creatures, food, lamps, water heater, and a basic CO2 system, it will probably run you around $900-$1000.  Again, this a general figure as you can buy cheaper products, but if you have the money to spend on higher quality equipment, then it will certainly help in making your aquascape that much more beautiful. 

Aquascaping Competitions

If you really enjoy aquascaping, you may want to consider putting your aquatic world into a competition.  These are extremely challenging to win as the judges judge your ability to maintain such a gorgeous environment.  They look at things like the artistic impression, the health of the aquatic plants, the water conditions, the use of hardscapes, appropriate fish life, more.  The biggest competition currently is the International Aquatic Plants Layout Contest that was put together by ADA. 

Many different aquascaping styles can be observed in an aquascaping contest.
Many different aquascaping styles can be observed in an aquascaping contest.

There is also the AGA Aquascaping Contest and the CBAP Brazilian Aquascaping Contest.  There are many more contests that span the globe and each one generally has thousands of applicant from multiple countries.  Winning these contests is not easy and requires a lot of knowledge, dedication, patience, and motivation. 

Fish Laboratory

With decades of collective fishkeeping experience, we are happy to share the fish care tips that we've picked up along the way. Our goal at Fish Laboratory is to keep publishing accurate content to help fishkeepers keep their fish and aquarium healthy.

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