AQUASCAPING 101

by Tom Sarac

Anyone can appreciate the art of aquascaping. When you consider the vast number of beautiful setups and the masterpieces created by aquatic artists such as Amano and Oliver Knott, it becomes clear that aquascaping is truly an art form. However, it also requires a plan and some vision.

While an aquarium with its basic hardware supports the fish and invertebrates that fascinate us, the purposefully aquascaped aquarium inevitably captivates us. What starts as a plain 5-sided glass box transforms into an intricate underwater vision with a theme. You can consider it the story inside the cover of a book.

WHERE TO START

The first and most important point to address is how much focus will be placed on plants and their requirements.

In most aquascaped tanks, the hardscape consisting of wood and rocks is a given. Will they be the main focal point, or is this honor given to your plants? You also need to consider the plants themselves; low to medium light-plants require less maintenance, lighting and nutrient input versus high-light plants. You may really like a certain type of look but be aware of what the plants require as this will drive much of your aquarium hardware investment: Low-tech = less expensive, high-tech = more expensive.

The size of the aquarium also plays a major role. Supplying nutrients, including CO2, plus lighting, substrate, filtration, etc., to a larger tank is understandably and significantly more expensive as is the stocking of it. It is interesting to note that larger broad leaf plants are not common in aquascaped tanks since they aren’t ideal for creating that manicured, defined look that is the general idea.

Once you’ve decided on how much you are willing to invest based on the look (or theme), size of aquarium, and plants you intend to keep, you need to understand the basic rules behind creating your ‘scape’.

CREATE A FOCAL POINT

For smaller aquariums, creating a focal point is less of a challenge since the area is limited, and so there would generally be only one. The rest of the aquascape will become a consequence to that one point.

In larger aquariums, there must be multiple focal points. To help identify these, you can employ the rule of thirds: Simply take your canvas (the front face of your aquarium) and divide it by three equally-spaced vertical and horizontal lines. This will give you an intersection of four points surrounding the center of the aquarium. On these four points is where you place a piece of hardscape or a group of plants that frame and set up the look of your aquarium. Leaving a trailing division that drives inward to the middle of this intersection is a great way to add depth and perspective to your display.

THE GOLDEN RATIO

Architects and artists alike use the golden ratio when ensuring a visually-perceived proportion is present in the form of the golden rectangle.

Golden Ratio = the ratio of the whole (rectangle) to the larger part is the same as the ratio of the larger part to the smaller. This equals to 1.618.

LAYOUT

When considering the overall layout and positioning of the focal point pieces as well as plant groupings, it is important to remember to avoid placing the major focal pieces of your composition in the middle of your aquarium.

The typical human approach is to make things symmetrical, which is the opposite of what you are trying to emulate when creating what nature offers, this being the lack of symmetry.

Open Surround

In this type of layout, the tallest pieces and slope of substrate is found on the sides, and they visually slope down to the front center of the aquarium.

Reverse Surround

In this type of layout, the tallest plants are located in the middle-rear-half of the aquarium (Vallisneria gigantea is the perfect plan for this setup.) The plants on either side are shorter and kept that way.  Focal hardscape is positioned according to the golden ratio.

End-to-End Slope

In this type of layout, the decorative flow is higher on one side, and sloping down to the other far side.

THE BASICS

There are basic points to consider when looking at your tank and how you want to ensure the aquascape you are planning is set up in the best way. The following fundamentals will help ensure you cover all the necessary details to support a well thought-out aquascape.

Create Depth

There are a few important ways to help you create depth perspective when you put your aquascape together. If you are going with an image on the back of your aquarium, then to really use the aquascape to its maximum potential it must look like a continuance of that background into the aquarium. If you are not using an image, go with a black or other darker-colored background.

Using the Golden Ratio, make sure your main hardscape focal point is correctly positioned so that the eye is attracted to that point. From there, you can incorporate taller plants behind with some foreground plants or small bits of hardscape in front to build depth perspective. This is where you’d be sweating the details, getting the plant positioning right and finessing your substrate slope to support depth.

Go Natural

Any substrate you use should look natural. There is no call for fake epoxy-coated colors or extra shiny polished stones here. The finer sands or gravel between 2-3 mm is ideal. Coarse gravel is not recommended and neither are multiple contrasting substrate colors on the bottom of the tank as this creates a busy, distracting look that is best avoided.

Some smaller pebbles can be used if they make sense within the context of the rest of the hardscape. For example, if you combine smooth pebbles with coarse pieces of porous rock, you are going to get the feeling they don’t belong, and this is what you want to avoid.

Good examples of hardscape that blend harmoniously are driftwood, twigs and leaves since you would probably find these grouped together in nature. Combining that with one or two large broadleaf plants can provide a very realistic scape.

Plants

As already mentioned, the selection of live plants is very much related to the level of investment that is made: Low to mid-light level plants = less hardware dollars spent on lighting, supplements, and CO2 injection.

Some examples of plants that can flourish in low-tech aquariums include Java moss, Java fern, various Anubias and some Cryptocorynes. Here we would advise to practice frugal nutrient-dosing. Also, while CO2 injection is a good idea, it is not mandatory.

If you don’t know the maximum size a plant will grow, find out. Like with fish, what you usually purchase in a store is a young plant, or in the case of bunch plants, cuttings that are combined in a bunch. Place them accordingly in your aquarium, which means for many larger broad leaf plants, the requirement calls for leaving plenty of room around them. Though, this makes it harder to use them effectively from the outset.

Plants that feature strong, red content are always a pleasant addition and serve to create visually-defined borders between various groups of plants. Take note that most of these plants also require strong lighting and CO2 injection.

Position your tallest plants in the rear half of the aquarium, and the shorter in foreground or front half of the aquarium, using a step-type approach when trimming your plants, the highest to the rear and the shortest in the front create multiple planes as well as a pleasing visual effect.

Next, you need to consider the basic equipment that will be necessary to help you set up and maintain your aquascaped aquarium.

HARDWARE

In addition to the filter and heater an aquascape requires, you need to ensure you have some basic tools to aid with the setup, plant growth and condition and, of course, the maintenance.

Note: When choosing a filtration system, select the model that places your aquarium size at the minimum end of its capacity and offers flow control. This is important because aquascapes can be crowded and water flow is necessary, so you may need more than you think with a high plant and hardscape content level.

CO2

In our opinion, because up to 50% of a plant’s dry weight is composed of carbon, and your aquarium is deficient in carbon, there is no question this is the most important macro-nutrient for plants, and the best method for providing it is CO2 injection.

There are some liquids on the market that claim to provide carbon, but we can tell you that they are no match for a CO2 injection system. Injecting carbon dioxide must be done carefully, especially in small aquariums.

There are plenty of online resources you can consult that show tables of CO2 concentration values based on pH and KH levels. Usually in smaller aquariums, you can safely dose at the rate of 1 bubble every 3 to 5 seconds. This is enough to make a substantial difference for your plants.

Plants will grow rapidly from the start, which will effectively prevent algae growth. Show me an aquarium that has strong vigorous plant growth and I’ll show you a tank that does not have unwanted algae issues. The mass and color of aquatic plants will be substantially superior, so there’s no debating that CO2 is a must-have.

PLANT FOOD

Plants also require trace elements, which are often deficient in water, and in the confines of an aquarium, these will be consumed. That said, a good, chelated plant micronutrient solution is called for.

Dosing instructions on the label are a general recommendation, but it is usually better to apply half doses at twice the frequency.

Additional substrate fertilizers are not necessary unless you are keeping heavily-rooted, large broad leaf plants, at which point they are.

TEST KITS

While test kits are necessary for all aquariums, for the aquascaped tank where mint plant condition is an uncompromised given, Iron test (FE), pH, KH, and Phosphate are all test kits you should keep, in addition to the standard kits for testing ammonia, nitrite and nitrate.

Dosing with nutrients needs to be monitored to ensure you don’t end up with algae issues. Proper pH and KH values are also necessary for the health and condition of plants, and your water may need dilution with R/O water if it is too hard, making a KH kit necessary.

The test kits we’ve mentioned here are necessary, but we also suggest keeping a running log of results. This will ensure you have a history that you can reference in case you encounter any issues in the future.

LIGHTING

Lighting is a key component of your hardware. Think spectrum when you think of plants, and roughly anywhere from 1 to 3 watts per gallon depending on the type of plants being kept.

Plant-friendly lighting has essential peaks in the blue and red ends of the spectrum with a color temperature between 5000K and 7000K.

STAINLESS PLANTING TOOLS

Aquascapes are arranged to ensure visual beauty, and this means they can often be intricate and tightly arranged, so a small set of stainless planting tools is important when you must disturb your setup.

A set of tweezers to help position plants where they belong and a pair of long-handle plant snips are essential. You can also use a long-handle algae cleaner to help arrange the substrate, enabling you to create the right slope and detail without disturbing the rest of your creation.

So there you have it. We suggest a little research before trying your hand at creating your own masterpiece, and check out some of the creations by well-known aquascapers. This can be motivation enough to make you want to stretch your aquatic thumb.

Happy ‘scaping’!

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