Aquascaping a Planted Aquarium

The simple gathering of plants, beautiful stones and driftwood is no longer the only goal of the modern aquarist. We ‘aquascape’ these days, and not only that — the very practice of aquascaping has become a valued art. It has been made so by the big man from Japan, Takashi Amano, who first introduced the world to natural underwater gardens that looked like dreamscapes.

Whether we create Nature Aquaria in the style of Amano, or not, there is much we can learn from this artistic man’s approach.  Amano’s Nature Aquarium is often misunderstood. It is not the aim of the Nature Aquarium to reproduce nature biotopes of special regions. The goal is to create an underwater landscape that bewitches the viewer and is derived from landscapes seen in real nature. Most of us, when attempting to copy this style for the first time, realised immediately that you cannot really copy anything that has to do with living things, simply because you cannot ever fully copy the infinite feedback loops that nature possesses. Nature is open to everything. In contrast our aquariums are closed systems.

Nevertheless if you set up an aquascape by thinking of a landscape you saw and really liked — whether this may be just an accumulation of stones in the mountains, a little clearing  in a forest, or a romantic river bank on which you once kissed somebody special — once your mind is set on fire, it is as if magic happens: You automatically know which plants to use, or which rocks to collect. You instinctively  ‘feel’ where to place your rocks or driftwood, and you somehow just seem to know how to create some free space which in turn creates a depth of field in your tank.

The Question is: How difficult is it to create an aquarium that looks like those award-winning tanks you see in books or on the internet?

The answer is: It is no more difficult to have a beautiful planted aquarium, or even a Nature Aquarium, than it is to have a normal tank. It is just the careful selection of plants and accessories that makes the difference — and the discipline to effect and maintain it.

At this point, however, I must add a disclaimer:

While I can help you with aquascaping a planted tank, I cannot go into the technical aspects of keeping and maintaining a planted tank here. You must research that separately. You need to know all about the perfect lighting for plants, as they will not grow if you do not have adequate lighting. You also need to know more about the correct soil to, as well as fertilising, as fish poop alone does not deliver enough trace elements and minerals for plants to thrive. And lastly you need to know about CO2 dosing, as this is a main element in maintaining a thriving planted tank. I have recently heard that there is a new bottled product on the market that lets you add CO2 without having to use a doser, but have not had any feedback on its success. That having been said, let’s continue.

If you do not have the confidence to begin, or doubt your inherent artistic abilities, this article is for you. It is meant to be your guide. Follow the guidelines and you will not only achieve your goal — you will soon become an experienced aquascaping artist!

Before we begin, you need to understand that plants AND fishes are equally important in your aquarium, and that by providing the best conditions for your plants to grow, you actually are doing the same for your fishes. When your plants have everything they need to grow well, they simultaneously provide the best conditions for your fishes, as plants use up wastes and excessive nutrients in the water that may cause Nitrate levels to spike, and in return produce oxygen which is indispensable to the life of fishes.

You also need to know that whenever you start a new set-up, your tank needs to cycle before you put in any fish. Granted, there are some wonderfully magic potions these days, that will allow you to almost instantly create an aquarium — and you can use them even when using my method — but some cycling is really better, because it saves you all those problems you are likely to encounter while your tank still struggles to balance itself, potion or not. So ask yourself: Is instant really the best thing for you?

Consider this: Amano, the master of planted tanks, works in exactly the way I encourage you to work, and in the rare instance when he works with an already filled tank, he will not even touch a single plant or rock before the tank he is going to work in is fully cycled!

If you follow my way, you will embrace cycling. With my method, planting is the last task of your aquascaping process, because you will have completed the main part of designing and creating the aquascape well before – and outside of your tank! What is more, instead of experiencing the frustration of waiting aimlessly through the cycling process, you will actually be able to look at a tank full of beautiful plants beginning to settle and grow in — well on its way to becoming a stunning aquarium, and in the meantime will be able to ensure that everything runs perfectly, well before you introduce fish.

However, there are those of you who may like the ‘gardening’ aspect of aquascaping better than the fish-keeping and therefore choose to have a planted tank with no fish at all. With the advent of small tanks,  called nano-tanks, many aquarists have chosen to create several mini aquascapes, instead of just one aquarium, perfecting their technique to almost cult status. Some keep shrimp in them, others simply leave livestock out, and some use this method specifically to display the beauty of the rocks they found. This style is particularly popular in the Orient, as it suits both the Oriental mindset and their acute constraint of living spaces.These tanks are lovingly called ‘The Art of Nature’, and they are truly beautiful. More about them later.

 So let us begin.

Imagination

Imagination is the key to aquascaping. What will your underwater landscape look like? What is the mood you want to create — peaceful and tranquil, or vivacious and bursting with life?  Have you been captured by landscapes in nature? Have you taken a photograph, or stored a picture in your mind? Have you looked at pictures of prize-winning aquariums and found something inspiring to emulate? Or have you found one element in one tank attractive and another element in a second, and would like to combine the two to create a new and unique aquarium?

The question now is: How big does you aquarium need to be to accommodate both the fish you will keep, as well as the scenery in which you will house them?  You need to pay attention to this, long before you venture out to look at plants and accessories. The adult size of the fish you want to keep, as well as the number of species, if you are creating a community tank, will determine how much space you will need. The knock-on effect is that tank-ware like filters and lights are determined by the size of the tank, as well as the fish and plants you will put in. The pro tip here is always to go for a bigger tank if you want to keep many species, or large fish, unless you have space constraints. It is much, much easier to create and maintain water stability in a bigger tank. On the other hand, if you intend to keep tiny species, or just one specific small species of fish, you may well want to consider a nano-tank — or several nano tanks for variety! They can be stunning, and although they need more frequent water changes and top-ups, they require much less maintenance. Once that decision has been made, we can begin our planning phase.

The spine of everything

Although you would perhaps not think so at first, hardscaping, which can be a style in itself,  is also the very spine of most planted tanks. We are talking about rocks and driftwood here – the bones that give your aquascape structure and impact. Hardscape elements lend visual stability and a feeling of permanence, they define fish territories, and provide cover. Rocks and wood can also help you effect changes of level. In addition, they help mask the line where the substrate meets the rear glass, which should never show.

Hardscaping is not just a matter of finding some pretty rocks or driftwood pieces — you need to understand what to look for, and how to make them into the focal point in your tank. So, I urge you to read the article on hardscaping, which actually involves aquascaping without any plant material whatsoever. It is titled “Between a rock and a hard place — Hardscaping your aquarium” and you will find it here or in the Aquascaping drop-down menu. The point of reading this article is that it gives you an in-depth understanding of how we find our materials and then go about composing our aquascape. It would be silly of me to repeat this information when it is already available right here, at a single click of your mouse. I will however repeat the most important tenet of successful design.

The rule of thirds  

We have all heard of the rule of thirds. While slightly different from the Golden Ratio, which was first discovered and realised by the ancient Greeks and has been used in all art forms for thousands of years,  it is a derivative of the Golden Ratio. Not only is it held that this ratio permeates all of organic life, and occurs over and over in nature — but it is a foolproof method we can use to design and arrange elements into an order that is aesthetically pleasing, be it knick-knacks on a coffee table, books in a shelf, or rocks and plants in an aquarium.

The rule of thirds gives us the guidelines on how to place elements with in a design as a way to control where a viewers eyes will travel and what they will see. The rule states that an image should be imagined as divided into nine equal parts by two equally-spaced horizontal lines and two equally-spaced vertical lines, and that important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections.

The idea is that by placing and arranging elements with the rule of thirds in mind will create a more interesting design and that a user’s eyes will flow through the intersections of the grid, thus creating a design that has more energy and tension.

When you’re planning out an aquascape, one of the most important aspects is how and where you want to draw the viewer’s gaze. In fact, the viewer’s gaze is what the aquascape is all about. The primary goal of an aquascape is to be pleasing, relaxing, and interesting to look at for the viewer. To do so, you need to set a sort of “anchor” for the mind. That anchor is called ‘the focal point’. It is the point that draws the gaze of the viewer first, and from where they can then explore the rest of the tank. We use the rule of thirds to establish where to place the focal point and all secondary points of interest.

As we said, the function of the focal point is to draw attention. You have to make it stand out in some way. There are a few simple things to remember about a focal point. The most important is that you should always have some sort of focal point in every aquascape. Not having any does the same as having too many: the viewer’s eyes are left wandering back and forth, stressed and uncomfortable.

Remember, in a small aquarium there should be only one main focal point. Having more than one focal point in a small tank leaves the viewer’s  mind uncomfortable and stressed, looking back and forth from focal point to focal point. In  larger tanks, however, you need to create more than one focal point, and even then one of those should still be the main attraction, while the other points of interest should all be subordinate to it. We use the rule of thirds to do this.

Here’s how it works:

Imagine that there are four lines — two horizontal and two vertical — running through a square of white paper, splitting it into nine equal sections. Wherever the lines cross, is considered a a golden focus point, or ‘sweet spot’ for whatever you want to arrange on it. Let’s use a portrait to demonstrate this.

The rule of thirds is widely encountered among the best works of famous artists and photographers. In fact, several books and articles have been written on this technique. But how do we translate this for the purpose of decorating our aquariums?

This is how:

Imagine again that there are four lines — two horizontal and two vertical — running through the front of your tank, splitting it into nine equal sections. Wherever the lines cross we find the ‘sweet spots’ providing us with a possibility we can consider for placing prominent features like main stones or wood shapes in our aquascape. 

When we use the same method across the top of our tank, we immediately have a layout diagram for the tank floor, telling us exactly where to place our focal point structure/s — on the ‘sweet spots’, of course! 

Once the diagram makes sense to you, it becomes easier to understand that just as we used the same front-of-the-tank rule of thirds diagram both across the top and the front of the tank, we can now also translate the idea further.

We can use the rule of thirds on the front of our tank to plan the height of our ‘main feature’ or ‘focal point’ and then determine how much lower our secondary and possibly a third accent complimentary feature/s or focal point/s  should be.  

We can also take this even further into our over-all plan and choose, for example, to fill about 1/3 of our tank space with our two or three main features together with plants, while leaving 2/3 of our space as ‘negative’ or swimming space – or vice versa. There are almost an infinite number of combinations to play with, and all can help you achieve stunning results.

And once we understand the concept of the rule of thirds, it becomes much easier to see how the backbone of hardscaped rocks are transformed with planting, and how the rule of thirds has been used several times over in the same tank, when we look at the following images.

Planted-tank-designed-with-the rule-of-thirds

 

Planted-tank-rule-of-thirds-main-and-secondary-focal-point

If you thought you were done, think again! The correct placement of our main elements is halfway there, but not enough to give us a successful aquascape!

We also need to create perspective

Creating perspective, or a ‘feeling of depth’, can be one of the greatest challenges in an aquarium, as tanks usually do not have enough depth from front to back to give a true sense of perspective. However, we can achieve the illusion of depth, or perspective,  by how we position the elements of our scape — again using the Rule of Thirds, looking down onto our layout from the top of the tank, as we have demonstrated in the diagram above.

The problem: The most common mistake aquarists make when positioning hardscape elements, is to place their stones or wood in a very unnatural, straight line from left to right. This results in a flat, two-dimensional image. The second most common mistake  is to place only one hardscape element in the tank, if it is a larger, rectangular tank.

The solution: To avoid this, look at the diagram again, as if looking down into your tank. You can see where the suggested ‘sweet spots’ are. But now also imagine your layout as a whole consisting of several images, or slices, layered one after the other from the front to the back of the tank, each with a small gap in between, so that each image is slightly further away from the  front of the tank. (Imagine building a sandwich, layer by layer, from the front to the back of your tank) This means that wherever you place hardscape elements, and later your plants, as long as they are in different layers or slices, they will span a variety of points across the depth of your tank.

While some pieces of hardscape and plants can share the same ‘slice’, or point of depth, the key is to create more slices that just the one required for your focal  point. For example, begin at the front of the tank, where the slice and what it contains should be lowest, in the next layer growing higher, in the next even higher, until you reach the back of the tank, where they will finally be the highest. But this is just one example. You may not want to have the highest point at the back of the tank, but rather on one of the sweet spots, leaving swimming space for your fish towards the back of the tank. Thinking in layers is just like the rule of thirds — simply a guide to creating a good sense of perspective within the aquarium. The images below demonstrate this principle, and the impact it has, perfectly. It is also quite interesting to know that these aquascapes have been done in small tanks — the lower one in just a 25 litre tank!

Planted-tank-Perspective-created-with-layers

This is a brilliant example of layering from front to back to achieve perspective. See how the low front introduces us, but then leads the eye to the highest focal point at the back left, resting only briefly on the the medium height planting, which so artfully helps adding to the overall illusion of scene depth.

 

aquascaping-layering-for-perspective

Another brilliant aquascape depth illusion! The arrangement draws us in – almost urging us to climb to the very back back to see what lies beyond.

When it comes to creating the illusion of depth, one of the most spectacular aquascapes is the one below – all illusion, but very, very skillfully done! It has been created by Cliff Hui of China, an aquascaper that has become famous for the detail he pays to his creations. Note the tremendous amount of attention that has been given to making this illusion seem true, by leading the eye towards the seemingly un-ending horizon and note how a certain amount of unordered ‘wildness’ helps add to the ‘feeling’ of the depth.

In this case the focal point is close to the front, while a patch leads us toward the infinite horizon.

 

Also note how the rule of thirds comes into play: one third of this scape is filled with attention grabbing elements, two thirds contains very little, creating that wonderful illusion of depth and airiness!

There are a few more tricks you can consider to help you create depth. Consider creating different levels. You could plan, for example, to slope your substrate, so that the foreground is much lower than the background. Or, slope from left and right, creating a valley in the middle. Artfully done, slopes are a great tool for adding depth.

More controversial, and therefore seldom chosen, you could consider simulating depth by placing larger items toward the front, and smaller items toward the back. If this is skilfully done, the scape gives the effect of depth because as everything gets smaller it, it seems to recede into the far back distance.  In this case you must also consider the leave sizes of your plants! Various sizes of Anubias can be great for achieving this effect. In the image below, driftwood was used to create a forest feel. The ‘tree trunks’ in the front were heavily planted at the base and appear larger than those seen further back. This gives the viewer the illusion of being drawn in to wander through the ‘forest’. Can you see how the rule of thirds was used for the placement of the ‘trees’?

It helps to keep your foreground layer fairly shallow – not in substrate depth, but in terms of front to back depth. Having a huge foreground compresses the mid-ground and background, and takes away space from transitioning between them. Finally, when you get a chance to position your hardscape elements, you will have to make sure that once planted, there will be clear lines for the eye to follow from front to back. For this you need to pay special attention to ensure that the foreground naturally transitions to the mid-ground, and then from there to the background.

In the three images below, we can see clearly how the eye, as well as the imagination is being led.

And then again, if you are a rebel, you may want to break all the rules!  Can your tank be a success without following rules slavishly? Of course, if you have an innate sense of design, as the tank below demonstrates.

Once you have established where the ‘bones’ of your future aquascape are going to be positioned, and how high they should be, it becomes much easier to judge what rocks, or wood you will need for your hardscaping and you can begin hunting in earnest for the perfect pieces. Forget about the plants you will need. That comes a little later — after we have done a ‘dry run’ outside of your tank.

HUNTING FOR ROCKS AND WOOD

Instead, as you hunt for your rock or wood, ponder upon this: It is much more important to use different sizes of the same type of rock or wood, than to take just one very beautiful piece. One single stone in a tank always looks artificial. So does a single piece of wood. Nature will quickly tell you to place at least two, and preferably more. In fact, for some bizarre reason arrangements always look better if they are made up of uneven numbers, irrespective of whether they are rock, or flowers, or fruit in a bowl.

The biggest piece of rock (if really big enough) will be the main focal point. If you cannot find a piece that is big or important enough, you may have to look for two or three pieces with matching strata or grain that you can glue together to give you more ‘bulk’.

The second piece should be smaller, but still of the same kind, because it becomes the harmonious complimentary counterpoint for the big focal piece. Also look for a third piece or a grouping of pieces even smaller, and perhaps a little flatter that the secondary focal point, which would look good when placed closer to the front of the tank, almost like a little accent to echo the other pieces. Not only will this allow you to arrange three distinct points into a rough triangle, it will become a major part of the trick we call leading the eye.

COMPOSITION

Many aquascaping articles on the internet at this stage throw composition possibilities at you, talking of U-shaped, triangular and convex arrangements. I will not do that, because it is like painting with numbers and I do not want you to create yet another same-old-same-old aquarium! There are too many of them around. Where is the fun and personal creativity in that? Consider my method instead — because my goal is to pull the hidden creativity you have to the foreground and let you scape a perfectly individual aquarium. Have confidence, because if you follow the basic rules, it is really impossible to aquascape a mediocre or ugly tank.

 

BUILDING YOUR AQUASCAPE

So, at this stage, when you have all you hardscaping elements collected, you should be ready to begin constructing your structural layout OUTSIDE of the aquarium. Follow the instructions I have given in the Hardscaping article. You can click here or use the Aquascaping drop-down menu above. Mimic your tank floor and back wall with cardboard, or Styrofoam, cut to the correct dimensions of your actual tank. Use a table on which to do this, as it gives you a better visual point of view. Mark out your rule of thirds grid on the floor and decide on your sweet spots.

Now is the time to begin constructing the bones of your aquascape and experimenting with various possibilities. But before you do, heed this warning: Balanced is Unbalanced. While we in the aquarium hobby always strive for balance in our systems, this pertains to our water parameters. In aquascaping ‘balance’ or symmetry is not natural. Nature makes it abundantly clear that non-symmetry rules, and that it is beautiful. Don’t space the elements in your aquatic environment evenly. Use your rule of thirds grid! And when you group elements, use uneven numbers — 1, 3, 5, or 7.

To demonstrate, I have a story. I once wanted to create a woodland effect in my garden, with bulb plants popping up and creeping out of the lawn in spring. Instead of ‘calculating’ where I would plant the bulbs – it never looked natural to me, whatever I tried – I simply decided to  ’pour’ the bulbs out of the bag on to the lawn, letting them fall where they wanted. That is where I planted them! The effect, once my bulbs burst into bloom was not only stunning, but very, very natural. You may want to try that with your individual rocks, to see how they naturally fall; at the very least the fall will disclose the ‘balance’ of the individual rocks!

Instead of symmetry, rather pursue ‘harmony’ — or if this makes it easier to understand, tell a story. This is really a worthy quality to strive for. Whether your goal is a bio-typical slice of real habitat, or some other-worldly vision, the arrangement you create can and should be an attempt at telling a complete story, or making a discernible statement.

So, let us commence! Begin by placing your main element. Is it high enough or do you need to elevate it with a base? Remember, this is the main focal point. It is supposed to draw your attention, and it should in 90% of cases actually dwarf your future inhabitants. Besides, that base could be hidden by your substrate. In fact, rocks effectively look more natural if they are bedded in the substrate. So when you use a base, keep the height of your substrate levels in mind. When you are done, place your second focal point, more-or-less around the second complimentary sweet spot you chose. Check for height. You want something around 1/3rd lower that your main focal point. Again adjust the height with a base if necessary. Now see if you want to place a third, even lower element towards the front of the tank, forming roughly a ‘skewed’ triangle with the other two? Do so now. Check height and keep future levels in mind. Then stop! Don’t go any further before you have not looked the arrangement in its totality. You should already get a feeling of harmony. Pay particular attention to how much of the upwards space of your aquarium you used: I am referring here to the space between the floor and the future water surface of your aquarium! Many tanks miss the mark because that space has not been used to its full potential! Don’t create an aquascape that leaves your tank only half filled! It will look and feel unbalanced and stingy. 

I want to make another particular point here, and it is this: If you have placed your stones properly in your aquascape arrangement, the rest of the scape, as if by magic, will lay itself out for you.  You will know it the second this happens for you. It is as if the moment you attain a harmony and balance in your placement, everything else is drawn towards and wants to become part of that balanced harmony.

The two images below demonstrate what happens when you set your stones correctly! The Rockwork in this nano-tank is absolutely brilliant! And just as an aside, while the  second image shows the aquascape planted, it is also clear that some growing – and pruning –  must still occur. But all-in-all, the plants nestle between and against the rocks in a very natural way.

So stand back and ask yourself: Do I want to tilt my rocks? (If you do, you need to stick to this same tilt throughout!) Do I want different levels? Would terraces make my scape more interesting, or more dynamic? Will I have to shore up substrate when I get to that stage? What colour substrate will look best with my arrangement? (After all a black substrate would seem discordant with pale rocks) What do I need to do with the back wall of my aquarium? Paint it? What colour? Which plants will work best? Where will my highest plants go? After all, It would be silly to plant a tall sword plant next to my main focal point if its stone  is supposed to simulate a mountain! What will show off my plants best? Do my eyes get led from front to back in a natural way? If not, how will I change my arrangement? Will my foreground hardscape element/s be tall enough once my carpeting plants take off?  What else do I need to add to make this arrangement better? Or, do I actually need to take something away to make it better?

You must by now be able to see the sense in my method of building the scape structure outside of the tank. What if you need to make a drastic change, or find a new or additional piece? How can you choose a substrate, or the size of your substrate, or for that matter, a background, before you know for certain what you are going to do?

If you were working inside an already established, or filled aquarium you would not only be dripping water all over the place, you would be cursing, or crying with frustration! And the more you stress, the more mistakes will you make! You can avoid all of this agony by being a little patient and doing things the right way! If you already have an aquarium and wish to re-scape, do yourself a favour and temporarily re-home your fish in a spare tank, together with your heaters and filters with their filter medium, so that you keep your good bacteria alive.  Empty and clean your tank, and then begin to work as you really should!

So back to the design. Simply back off, observe, and do what needs to be done to rectify things if they were not right. Get what you need. Glue, or putty pieces together if needs be. Think about how you will hide, or disguise your tank-ware once you actually start to build inside your aquarium.

Do not be discouraged. We have help at the tips of our fingers, in the form or Amano’s principles. I am not asking you to act upon these principles — at least not yet. All I want is for you to read and absorb the ideas because some of them will stand out, or inspire you, and some will inevitably lead you towards decisions you may not even have considered before.

 This is what Amano says about Principles:

1. Plant all groups in odd numbers.
2. Fine leaved plants look best in the mid to back centre of a tank, with heavier leaved plants toward the edges.
3. Don’t use red in the middle as they have a heavy, dark, feel.
4. Dark leaves (red or dark green) look best toward back edges, with light coloured leaves toward the centre.
5. Arrange plants and hardscape (rocks and wood) to provide good contrast of light and dark areas.
6. Light coloured sand provides good contrast to plants.
7. When rocks are used, use multiple sizes, mixing large and small rocks, as in nature.
8. Rock edges should generally be rounded.
10. Hide your intentions with rocks. Allow plants to obscure them to some extent, sometimes maybe even completely.
11. Aquascapes with unplanted sand in front is a good alternative to the traditional “Nature Aquarium” style of all foreground covered with foreground plants.
12. An attractive layout alternative is a slope up from near the middle up to the two back corners.

And this is what he says about Technique: 

1.Use cotton thread to attach Java moss to wood, or lava rocks.
2. Moss on rocks is great for edge work, blending an open sandy area into a planted area.
3. Use driftwood with moss, or large moss rocks, as something for background to grow over and cast shadows for good dark/light contrast areas.
4. Wrap Anubias onto moss covered rocks using a plastic ties, and trim off almost all roots, for “rocked Anubias”.
5. A rocked Anubias can be set right on sand, or moved around as desired. But initially face it slightly forward to hide its roots. Later it will grow upward toward the light.
6. Plan on putting crypts (underwater heating) only in places with deep substrate.
7. Use stem plants in even lengths with graduated height sets, descending from high to low, as the sets move toward the front or middle of the tank.
8. Plant stems 2 or 3 at a time, in the same hole.
9. A new tank should not be trimmed for 3 months.
10. On first trimming, let stem plants grow to the top, and then trim to halfway point.
11. Anubias and moss make great foreground plants as they take no trimming.
12. Putting tubing and/or wires that come into, or out of, the tank on the side makes it less visible to straight on viewing due to a “mirror” effect from side reflections.
13. Creating a substrate with separate sand vs. soil areas can be accommodated by placing cardboard in the tanks where you want the boundaries between the two, and slowly filling in both sides until full. After adjusting any slope you might want in the sand or soil, and making sure that both sides are at the same height where they touch either side of the cardboard, the cardboard can be gently removed.
14. Sloping substrate from front to back works better if something like drift wood is placed in the middle of the slope to keep substrate from moving forward. Moss rocks also make a nice barrier if placed to serve the same purpose.
15. If a substrate of separated soil and sand is used, driftwood and/or rocks can be placed on the line between the two to cover or hide the separation point.
16. Light shining up from the back bottom looks great! And it will light any ripples on the surface from an angle beneath, highlighting them.
17. For a really simple landscape, use mossed pebbles around big central rocks.
18. A fully mossed group of interwoven driftwood branches looks wonderful when it fills in. It will look almost solid, and if done correctly can give a sloping look from lower front to upper back, possibly also sloping low and toward the middle, and up toward back corners.

Wow, the mind literally reels. In just this short read I have found several points that are literally making me drool to start a new aquascape! I hope it has given you ideas too!

Pro tip:

There are different ways to treat your tank background.  In “Nature Aquariums” you seldom see tank backgrounds. This only works if you can afford the very modern, streamlined tank-ware sold by Amano outlets. For most of us, a background is a necessity. Some people use cork, others wood, some paint the background and some use self adhesive foliage scenes (not my first choice!). Yet there is a very neat trick that actually makes a tank look very deep. It is attained by using an adhesive film with a frosted effect (that looks like sandblasting) to the outside of the aquarium back wall. This is a decorative material (registered brand DC Fix) and can be found at places that sell materials for home improvement.

No matter which background treatment you choose, you need to give your tank a background if it is not an Amano style tank, except when you create an aquarium that is visible from both sides, or one that will stand in the middle of the room. In every other case it is unnatural to see the wall with all the hoses and cables shining through the glass. If you paint, blue and black are the best colours, as this gives your tank a wonderful contrast and yet, somehow also causes it to disappear, making it easy for any viewer to concentrate on the aquascape and its inhabitants. 

When you have made all the adjustments and completed your hardscape on your table, and you have chosen and bought the substrate you need (both decorative and soil) and all glues, putties and silicone stick-togethers have had 48 hours to properly cure, you are ready to work in your actual aquarium. It is time to get your plants too, and that should now be an easy task, because the visual input from your out-of-tank scape would have given you a very good idea of what you will need.

We now come to the only difference between scaping a hardscape and creating a planted tank. For a planted tank you usually need to put your substrate into the aquarium first. The only time you must deviate from this course is if you are using large rocks and you want them to be partially embedded into the substrate — or if you need to place your rocks as barrier,  to keep different levels of substrate from collapsing forward!

As you are planning to have plants grow in this medium, it needs to be a substrate specifically designed for planted tanks. At this stage you will begin creating some levels, by shoring up. If you have not done so before, you now need to begin to transfer your pre-built hardscape into your aquarium, focal point by focal point, placing them in the tank exactly as they had been arranged on the table. It could not be easier!

Pro tip:

Please note that if you have a large aquarium and wish to transfer any heavy rocks into your tank, you should rather opt for the bare-base placement method. The  bottom of your tank should be clean and you should have cut pieces of Styrofoam sheeting, or egg-crate to go beneath the heavy rocks, to cushion them from the glass. It is not the weight of the stones that crack aquarium floors, but the weight of the rocks concentrated on a few sand grains. This does not pertain to drift wood, unless you have a very large and heavy piece of wood.

In this case your substrate filling and shoring follows after the rock placement. One useful method is by placing hidden plastic pieces in such a way that they keep the soil from sliding forward, as in the riverbank aquascape demonstration below.

Hardscaping-shoring-up

Once that is done, it is time to plant. Note that we still have no water in the tank! Instead you will have an ordinary garden spray bottle ready, and with this mist the plants and the substrate from time to time.

When it comes to planting itself , I could scarcely give you better advice than that given by Amano. The man is after all the master of planted tanks!

However, if you are new to preparing purchased plants for planting in a aquarium, you may want to watch this video beforehand, which not only makes clear how to go about it, but also gives you the courage to do it:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=44cDbR2YvK4

As for planting order, it is best to begin at or around your main focal point. Always look to nature to see how grass grows around stones and how moss grows around roots. Nature is the perfect teacher. Emulate that! Decide whether you want to emphasise the rock, or partially hide it. Then do the low growers, then the mid-growers and right at the end the high plants.

Always plant very densely. It is more expensive at first, but oh, so gratifying in the long run!

Stem plants are an especially good way to add form to your aquascape. Many small leaved species, such as micranthemum micranthemoides, m. umbrosum, mayaca sellowiana, or rotala indica to just name a few, can easily be trimmed to a desired shape. That is the reason you have to plant these species quite densely. Take two to three stems and use tweezers to place them in one hole. Repeat about 2 cm beside this, and so on. The more densely you plant in the beginning, the faster the tank will grow in. This is especially important considering that in the initial stage, when it becomes to cut the tops, you will be able to replant the cuttings between the parent stems while you leave the rooted parts of the parent plants in the substrate. Propagation is where you begin saving money, and the rooted parts will bud new shoots within short time!

It is wise to use plants with different leave sizes and/or colours. This helps you create more depth and texture and adds to the natural feel. The smaller your tank is, the smaller must the leaves of your plants be, as that helps to create the illusion that your tank is larger than it actually is.

Red plants do really stand our and can help you with contrast — but do be aware they can inadvertently become yet another focal point, and distract the eye from that special focal point you so carefully chose. As Amano points out, their darker, heavier feel makes them more suited to the back or edges of your scape.

Once you have planted, it is time to fill your tank. There is a special way to do this: Scrunch up several sheets of newspaper and place them over the finished planting until it is completely covered. Wet the newspaper down with the garden spray. Next place a large sheet of thin plastic (the kind dry-cleaners place over coats and dresses) over the newspaper and ensure all of the surface area is covered. Then slowly fill the tank with a hose ensuring that the flow falls very gently onto the central part of the plastic sheet. When the tank is full, very  gently remove the plastic sheeting, and then the newspaper. You will be surprised at just how effective this can be, leaving your plants, substrate and aqua scape just as you intended. What is more, you will have almost perfectly clear water!

Once filled, cycled your tank. Do not add fishes yet. You need some time for your plants to adjust, take root and settle into their new lighting conditions. You also need to let your water gradually move into its own balance. Over-hasty dosing with chemicals and buffering potions often lead to wildly fluctuating water parameters when you add fish too soon.

Give the nature you brought into your tank via you plants a chance to work. Watch your tank carefully over this time, in case there is a sudden algal bloom. This is usually caused by too much light (or if you added fish anyway, a sudden nitrate spike). The easiest, and in my experience the most natural way to stop algae in its tracks is to temporarily add floating plants to the tank — lots of them. Floating plants shade your tank and deprives the algae of the bright light they need to flourish,  and they will also sop up the nitrates, if you added fish. You will remove them again once your tank has stabilised. But for the time being, do it in such a way that you do not filter too much light from the plants below, as you still want enough light for your plants to photosynthesise.

Finally, when the time comes to add fish, do so slowly. To keep the beauty of your aquascape intact, you must choose your fish inhabitants very carefully. Nature Aquarium adherents usually choose schools of small fishes like tetras or rasboras, because these make their tanks appear much bigger. Think of your tank size and of proportion. Do not choose species that dig, or species that will outgrow the scale of your aquascape. Do a lot of research about this!

What happens if you do not want hardscaping in your plated tank?

Having said all of the above, I am left with explaining to those of you who do not wish to have any hardscape in your tanks, that plants can be used to execute the same design principles. In your case, you would create your focal points with groupings of suitable plants, so that the height levels and placement planes change, just as they do with hardscape elements. You need to be very careful though, because it is very easy to lose your way and end up with an incorrectly planted  ’Dutch’ style tank. On the other hand, if you do want to do a Dutch planted tank, you need to research the rules of ‘Dutch’ style aquascaping, as they differ significantly from other planted aquariums. See if you can see the difference between a panted tank and a Dutch planted tank below.

I will post the answer at the end of this article.

I thank you for your patience in reading through all of this article. We are almost done. I know I have given you a lot of material to absorb, but at least it is all in one place and you do not have to scrabble around on the internet. For that reason I have decided to add a second page with an illustrated  step-by-step section, as taught by one of today’s most creative and influential aquascapers,  Oliver Knott. I also add a last word there, about maintenance, and of course the answer to my puzzle above.