by Hailie Whatley, DarkWater Aquatics
When mentioning a “good freshwater tank”, most people have an Amano-esque vision that comes to mind. A miniature world full of intricate landscapes, a tasteful selection of well-integrated plants and a harmonic balance between livestock and their surroundings. “Aquatic Gardening” is a conversational term for aquascaping. It can vary from a cliche’ Spongebob themed aquarium with a mishmash of tetras and live bearers, or it can apply to the AGA worthy competition scapes. There is no wrong way to aquascape, as it is based on aesthetics, much like there is no wrong way to decorate a room. Although the previous statement bears a sound diction, in aquascaping we always strive for the truley stunning aquascapes. There are a few key elements in achieving the “wow” factor.
Improving your Aquascape
I always find myself trying to describe to someone who is having difficulty with an aesthetically pleasing aquarium how they can improve. They compare my work with theirs and are
puzzled with why they are different, and why they cannot duplicate the effect. The magic is in detail and structure.
The Eye and the Aquaskape
Aquascapes adhere to a single formula of a strong point in which the eye is drawn. For an Iwagumi, the point is the harmonic assembly of stones usually placed in the center of the scape.
For the “U” or “V” formula, high sides draw the eye to a centerpiece or open space.
A heavy side scape focuses on opposites. This usually consists of the majority of the
hardscape concentrated on one side, while the other side remains as open space. Don’t underestimate the power of nothingness.
Dutch style scapes rely on contrast and appearing “busy” as it utilizes several colors and textures
in nearly every area of the tank. The power in the Dutch scape is in chaotic balance.
As we gaze in awe at a well-done aquascape, we find ourselves being drawn to a point. That point is the not the single most important element of
the aquascape, but the soloist shining in support from the harmony.
Substrate use in Aquascape
An impressive aquascape starts from the ground. You must have a plan for design before construction begins. In an “Iwagumi” scape, the substrate will be generally even, with light,
sloping to add dimension and the effect of “rolling hills.” High sides sloping inward create open space and a valley-like effect. A go-to substrate structure is low in the
foreground and sloping up to the back. This provides an easy scaping ground with the luxury of dimension. It is important to realize there are no boundaries. Steep slopes and mountainous
terrain provide an interesting effect and a truly different terrain. Experiment and don’t be afraid of being creative.
Rocks and driftwood are go-to’s for aquascaping. Driftwood varies from gnarly and twisty to straight and trunk-like. Every piece has potential. Twisty pieces can create the reaching effect
and straight pieces can create the illusion of peering through a forest when fastened upright.
Rocks come in every flavor, as well. Smooth, round pieces are great for a river or beach effect
while jagged pieces give you the feeling of a perilous mountain peak. Hardscape should appear to have natural erosion. Place your pieces in the substrate and sweep sand over it, as if
it had been there for years. Once you have completed your design plan, don’t settle on a compromise for hardscape pieces- you will ultimately
be dissatisfied. Pursue until you have the perfect pieces.
As stated previously, the power of the aquascape comes from the draw of the eye. Several ways of doing so (cheating) can include a simply stunning centerpiece, a stump piece that
is powerful on it’s own or a stone that has enough character to steal the show. Another way is the path illusion. A simple, but powerful aquascape consists of the “V” substrate plan
and a path of contrasting substrate that trails off through the point of the “V”. To further the effect, narrow the path as it moves back, until it disappears. This creates a vanishing
Choosing your plants should be part of the planning phase. Remain consistent with your level of maintenance and tech level (low light, high light, Co2). Once a list of possible plants
have been made, map out where you want foreground, midground and background. The next step is purely based on what you want. Color and texture vary immensely in plants. Downoi (P. helferi)
has a completely different effect than Valisineria. Envision the plants in your scape and choose accordingly. Don’t be afraid to place plants in between rocks or in precarious areas.
Fish and invertebrates are the final addition. We have been conditioned to rely solely on livestock as the focus of our aquariums, when that is not the purpose. Resist the impervious urge to
overstock the tank. The fewer fish, the better. Most aquascapes utilize a small shoal of tetras, as they are unlikely to molest the intricacies of the scape. Invertebrates such as shrimp and
dwarf crayfish are also popular, as they come in a rainbow of colors. A tasteful aquascape will appreciate a modest stock of animals and will achieve a harmonic balance in doing so.
Don’t neglect attention to detail. A simple alteration of the placement of a stone or direction a branch is facing can literally make or break the scape. Take time to work your hardscape
before the first drop hits the substrate. Arrange, take a step back and assess, arrange further. In some instances, leave the hardscape for a few days to see if it has the effect
you want. It is far easier to adjust sticks and stones than it is to disassemble an entire ecosystem. Let your creativity fly. See how it looks if you directed your substrate path
over a stone, or if you made the driftwood look like a fallen tree. Plant small mosses and rosettes in between stones to mimic natural growth patterns. Nothing should look contrived
This is only the surface of what aquascaping is. It takes practice, and with each scape you are freer to take a steeper risk, to try a more daring look. There are no boundaries with
the aquascape, but you will only be satisfied when you are impressed. Keep reaching and pushing forward and you will be great at what you do. Don’t forget to account for a mature
look- note how the scape will appear once it has grown in and matured. Patience is key in art, and this art in particular. It will be a challenge and it will be expensive. You will
face setbacks and failures, but don’t let this discourage you. In the end you will have mastered an art that is both dying and being born. It is up to you to strive and succeed.
Don’t neglect the inspiration of others and learning of their challenges. In the end, becoming an Aquatic Gardener will be a rewarding and educational success.
For more information on Aquascaping and aquarium plants, Contact DarkWater Aquatics: