Your beginner guide to aquascaping

If you’re interested in aquascaping, you’ve found the complete guide to everything you need to know.

Aquascaping requires dedication and patience.

In this beginner guide, you will learn the basics of setup, construction, and other essentials of creating the perfect aquascape aquarium.

What is Aquascaping?

Aquascaping is the art of arranging hardscapes, including rocks, plants, cave work, and other items that create an underwater utopia in an aquarium.

In recent years, aquascaping has become a popular hobby for many people.

Aquascaping is often referred to as underwater gardening.

Types of Aquascaping

There are different styles of aquascaping, including:

  • Dutch
  • Japanese
  • Iwagumi
  • Jungle

Japanese-Style Aquascaping (Natural Landscape)

Japanese-style aquascaping is known as a natural aquarium. Takashi Amano created this style of aquascaping in the 1990s. Takashi has a three-volume series, Nature Aquarium World, that sparked the interest of millions of people about aquascaping.

Amano has been cited as the person who set the new standard of aquarium management. Takashi used Japanese gardening techniques to create underwater wonders.

Japanese-style aquascaping often has one focal point and a terrestrial landscape instead of a sea of color.

With Japanese-style aquascaping, the concept of Wabi-Sabi is used, which has a primary focal point of minimalism and transience.

Plants that feature small leaves are best for Japanese-style aquascaping, such as, small aquatic ferns and Java moss.

Iwagumi-Style Aquascaping

Iwagumi-style aquascaping is a subtype of the Japanese-style aquascaping.

The name Iwagumi means rock formation. With Iwagumi-style aquascaping, stones are the primary item used in the design.

Each rock in this aquascaping design has a specific role and name.

Iwagumi-style aquascaping designs consist of one big stone and two smaller stones. Additional stones can be added according to your preference.

Dutch-Style Aquascaping

Dutch-style aquascaping involves a variety of plant types that feature multiple colors.

Plants that are included in Dutch-style aquascaping are different sizes and textures. This aquascaping was developed in the 1930s in the Netherlands. The 1930s is the time when freshwater aquariums were available for commercial purposes.

Dutch-style aquascaping rarely includes driftwood or rocks. You will notice rows of neatly grouped and trimmed trees.

Over 80 percent of a Dutch-style aquarium floor is covered with plants.

How to Aquascape

Step 1: Planning Your Layout

There is a right and wrong way to aquascape if you’re following specific layouts. Aquascaping is a form of art, and there are different rules you need to follow.

There are four standard layouts, including:

  • Island
  • U-Shape
  • Triangle
  • Linear


The island layout is the least used in aquascaping, but if you have a large aquarium, it can be the best layout to use.

This aquascape layout resembles an island, hence its name.

This underwater layout features various plants, and the main hardscape is in the center of the tank.

Some aquarists use triangles in their island design to create a dynamic work of art.

An island layout has the highest hardscapes features in the center of the tank, but shorter hardscapes can be featured around the edges of the tank.


The u-shape layout might be the easiest to create. Like the triangle layout, the u-shape layout has a sense of depth.

The u-shape layout for a tank is self-explanatory. This layout is the master of open space. With the u-shape layout, plants and other items will be featured on the left and right-hand sides of the tank.


The triangle layout for aquascaping provides an excellent structure that offers enough space for hardscapes and plants. This type of aquascape requires a substrate that rises towards the back of the tank to create depth.


The linear aquascape layout is an out-of-the-box layout because it doesn’t follow any rules of aquascaping.

The linear layout is a new technique for arranging hardscapes and plants. James Findley created this aquascape. This structure creates an underwater utopia using straight lines to arrange hardscapes and plants.

Step Two: Choosing and Adding Substrate

Before you can choose and add substrate, you need to decide which style of aquascaping interests you. If you want an underworld growth tank where plants can thrive, you will need soil because gravel and sand will not aid with plant growth. For the healthiest plants, you will need soil that is packed with nutrients.

Why Is Soil Important?

If you’re using live plants in your layout, you need high-quality soil that promotes plant growth.

Soil is essential because it lowers the pH of the water and reduces water hardness.

Another reason soil is an integral part of aquascaping is that it removes magnesium and calcium cations, which is the determining factor for the total hardness of the tank’s water.

Due to the carbon exchangeability of different types of soil, the soil can store and provide essential nutrients for plants.

Can Soil Expire?

The longevity of soil depends on the type of water you use. In general, soil can last as long as three years or a little longer. As time progresses, the tank will become less efficient, which means the reduction of water hardness, and decreasing pH levels will not be as sufficient as they once were.

Using water that contains high amounts of magnesium and calcium, the tank will become less efficient quicker than if you were using water that contains little to no calcium.

Before you start your aquascaping adventure, you need a lava granule base to provide stable support to enable proper water and soil circulation and provide support for large stones.

Step Three: Hardscaping

The hardscape you decide to use is similar to choosing the type of soil you want for your tank.

The kind of aquascape layout determines the type of hardscape you will use.

Most hardscapes are made of driftwood, rock, bogwood, and stones.

You can arrange hardscapes any way you want, but make sure it is stable to prevent slipping and potentially cracking or breaking the tank’s glass.

Step Four: Adding equipment


Filtration in a planted aquarium is essential to ensure the circulation of nutrients across the tank. The filter’s circulation rate (shown in liters/hour) is something to consider before going ahead and buying one.

A rule of thumb to follow is a filter that is able to circulate the water in your tank at least three times in an hour. For example, if you have a 100-liter tank, the circulation rate of your filter should be 300 liters per hour (3 x 100).

Always aim for a slightly higher circulation rate than what is recommended to give yourself a buffer because you may not always have the perfect conditions in the tank.

As your tank ages, there will be a build-up of slime and dirt in the filter, in the tubing and the inlet and outlet pipes, which can reduce the flow rate.

Similarly, bushy plants, the hardscape, etc. can also reduce circulation in the tank.

Remember, over filtration is not a bad thing but under filtration can cause problems in your aquarium.

Make sure to install the filter before starting the cycling process of the tank.

There are different types of filters: Canister filters are the most efficient but HOB filters are more common.


The temperature in the aquarium should be maintained at 78 degrees Fahrenheit (25.5 Celsius), which is considered to be the right temperature for most aquatic plants.

You can add a heater to the back of the aquarium if the temperature in your home is below the optimum temperature mentioned above. You can use an aquatic thermometer to check the water temperature and adjust the heater.


Lighting is an essential part of an aquarium because it aids with plant growth and photosynthesis. Proper lighting is also required for maintaining a disease-free ecosystem. The lighting you use must be at least 6,500 Kelvin.

The three different suitable lighting setups for aquariums include:

  • T5 Fluorescent Bulbs
  • LEDs
  • Metal Halides

T5 Fluorescent Bulbs – These bulbs provide adequate lighting, but these may not be your choice if you’re on a strict budget because they can be costly. In addition to the price of these bulbs, they are less efficient than other lighting options, such as LED lights.

LEDs – LED bulbs are the primary choice for most aquariums because they are efficient and last over 45,000 hours. These LED bulbs also feature minimal heat emission.

Metal Halides – If you have a deep aquarium, look no further than metal halides lighting. This type of light is not as efficient as other lighting options, and the lighting can become extremely hot at times, but they are the better option for deep aquariums.

Step Five: Planting the Aquarium

You want to prevent plants from detaching and breaking loose, so make sure you use tweezers to push the plants approximately an inch deep into the soil.
Tall plants should go in the back of the tank and the short ones in the front.

A few points to keep in mind:

  • Fine-leaved plants should go in front of those with similar leaf patterns.
  • Plants that have big roots should be planted in the deeper part of the substrate.
  • Plants that have petite roots should be planted in rocks, cracks, and shallow substrate.
  • Roots of plants like fern, moss, and Anubias should not be covered in the substrate. Plants like ferns and Anubias have rhizomes in place of true roots; these rhizomes can be held between hardscape objects or tied to rocks and wood with fishing line. Moss can also be tied to wood or rock.
  • Easy plants for those entering into the hobby include Amazon Sword, Cryptocoryne wendtii, Java Moss, Water Sprite, Java Fern, Water Lilies, and Anubias species.

Step Six: Adding Water

Carefully pour water into the tank, so you don’t disturb the substrate. One method you can use is placing a small bowl directly on top of the substrate and carefully pour water into the tank. You can also fill the tank using a thin siphon.

Step Seven: Cycling the Aquarium

It takes at least six weeks for an aquarium to complete the nitrogen cycle.
Allowing six weeks enables beneficial bacteria to grow in the tank and convert ammonia and nitrites. Ammonia and nitrites can have fatal effects on any fish you place in the tank.

Adding Bacteria Culture

You can speed up the tank cycling process through the addition of a bacteria culture.

A product like Seachem Stability Water Conditioner is ideal to quickly establish the aquarium biofilter without any adverse effects.

The main reason for fish death is new tank syndrome and adding the bacteria culture helps to prevent this.

Step Eight: Recommended Fish

Don’t add fish to your aquarium until the tank cycling process is complete, which usually takes about a week. The beneficial bacteria take about a week to grow inside the filter media and the substrate.

Be careful not to add too many fishes; the best practice is to add 1 inch of fish (fully grown size) for every gallon of water in your aquarium.

The type of fish you put in your tank is your decision, but make sure you choose fish that are not going to outgrow the tank.

Before you start adding fish to the tank, allow the fish to acclimatize to the surrounding water conditions by allowing them to stay in the bag you purchased them in.

Leave the fish in the bag for at least 10 minutes and pour small amounts of water from the tank into the fish’s bag every 5 minutes.

Aquascape Equipment

Regardless of the aquascape layout, you choose to follow, specific pieces of equipment are required for the proper functioning of the aquarium.

Aquascape Pumps

You have the choice of two pumps, such as air and water pumps.

Air pumps are an excellent source of dissolved oxygen, and they’re great to use for creating underwater gravel or sand waterfalls.

Water pumps are the second option, and these pumps are generally used for outdoor ponds to create a stunning waterfall effect.


Like lighting, there are a variety of substrate options. You have the option of soil, gravel, or sand.

Soil is the most common type of substrate because of the nutrients it provides for stimulating healthy plant growth.

Sand and gravel are the other substrate options, and they are most often used for their visual appeal because it is available in different sizes and colors.

CO2 and Fertilizers

Carbon dioxide (CO2), is a vital part of an aquarium because it aids in photosynthesis for the plants in your tank.

You can add carbon dioxide to a tank by using gas injection or a liquid.

Gas injections are pressurized, and they can be expensive.

Liquid fertilizers that contain carbon are not as effective as gas injections, and this lack of effectiveness causes slower plant growth.


The two types of ornaments for aquascaping are wood and rocks.

Wood ornaments are made of driftwood or bogwood.

The types of ornaments you use will depend on the layout you are using for the tank.

Aquascape Ideas

It’s no secret that aquascapers find inspiration in the environment around them and use it to create a setup for their tank.

Other times, coming up with something epic for your tank can take a while, so here’s a few ideas to help jumpstart your brain with excellent ideas.


A waterfall in an aquascape is not a traditional flowing waterfall, but it consists of sandy gravel that runs from a rocky centerpiece, then drops back to the bottom of the tank.


Pools for aquascaping are often made in a tank that features terrestrial and aquatic life, known as paludariums.

Some of these tanks feature large planted areas with a small pool of water.

You can create your paludarium by creating a substrate stop at the bottom of the aquarium to ensure the false bottom and soil substrate of the tank remain separated.


The art of aquascaping frequently uses stones or rocks as the feature or focal point of the tank. You can use a variety of rocks and stones.

The price of the stones and rocks you use depends on size, style, color, and other similar features.

Choose rocks that will help you bring your vision for your aquarium to life.

Betta Aquascape

When it comes to aquascaping, betta tanks are always in the spotlight. If you’re interested in creating a betta tank, use driftwood or a bog for the centerpiece of your tank, and use soil substrate.

Anubias plant species are great to use with this type of tank. Carpeting plants can also be used.

The most common carpeting plants are Dwarf Hairgrass, Dwarf Baby Tears, and similar plants. Floating plants, such as Amazon Frogbit and Mosses, including Christmas Moss, are other plant options for your tank.

Nano Aquascape

A nano aquascape is just as the name sounds. This type of aquascape is an aquarium on a smaller scale, approximately less than 10 gallons.

The most popular nano aquascapes are 5 and 10-gallon aquascape. The 5-gallon aquascape requires a simple layout, while the 10-gallon aquascape can feature a lot more hardscapes and other features. The proper lighting for these tanks are LED lights only.

Aquascaping can be a fun and challenging adventure and an excellent hobby. Use this aquascaping how-to guide to get started on creating something amazingly unique.