Aquascape Aquarium Tutorial: A Step-By-Step Guide For Beginners

by Jan 19, 2017

So, you have heard of Aquascaping Aquariums before and you are not entirely sure what it is? Well, this article is for you! We have compiled all the information you need into one place. It is our goal to educate you on everything about our passion, hoping you will fall in love with it too!

Before we get started we need to identify who this post is actually for. If you are looking for a new hobby this is for you. If you are bored of standard fish tanks, this is for you. If you have been interested in Aquascaping but weren’t entirely sure how to begin, this is for you!

In this article you will learn some of the common terminology used in this hobby. That way, later on as you browse throughout the site you will understand exactly what we are referring to, naturally growing you knowledge base as yu browse.

You will also learn about the different styles of aquascapes like Dutch, Taiwanese, Iwagumi and more. Some are harder than others so are more suited to beginners, giving you options based on your skill level and experience.

We explain in detail, the different equipment you will need depending on your setup and layout and some actionable steps you can take to begin.

Aquascape Aquarium Tutorial: A Step By Step Guide For Beginners

Beautiful example of an aquarium which has been aquascaped.

credit: DefiniteAquascape.TV

We will give you a complete overview of what it is, and how to get started. Some sections will be covered in more depth in other areas so do make sure you take your time and explore the site. We will be adding more content so if you have any feedback, please let us know!

Now, let’s begin with the definition of Aquascaping:

What is Aquascaping?

This is a common question and one that is best answered here on Wikipedia:


Aquascaping is the craft of arranging aquatic plants, as well as rocks, stones, cavework, or driftwood, in an aesthetically pleasing manner within an aquarium—in effect, gardening under water.

Typically, an aquascape houses fish as well as plants, although it is possible to create an aquascape with plants only, or with rockwork or other hardscape and no plants.

Good aquascapes are achieved through a careful mixture and arrangement of elements like vegetation, substrate and other hardscape features. The whole point is to make the design visually, mentally and emotionally appealing.

Aquascaping Basic Setup

When you’re doing aquascapes it’s important to emphasize that it’s an art. Your creativity is at use here so feel free to experiment with your design later. Setting it up will require a number of materials that is well explained in the following paragraphs.

What is Needed for Aquascaping?

  • First things first, you need a tank

Ideally, the larger the better. A small tank will have faster waste build up, therefore it needs high maintenance. Height also matters. Deep tanks (2ft or taller) are harder to clean, and light penetration becomes difficult which affects plant growth. Don’t choose a tank that is both narrow and deep. It’s dangerous for your plants, and difficult to maintain anyway. The Tetra 20 Gallon Aquarium Kit is a good option for beginners.

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  • Lighting

In the artificial world, you’ll create, your light fixture will have a colossal impact on the health of your creatures and vegetation. Deeper tanks generally have higher lighting requirement than shallower ones, because light needs to reach down the bottom. LED lights, Metal Halides and T-5 Fluorescents are just a few of the lighting systems available in the market today. The Nicrew LED Aquarium Light is a great option.

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Water filtration system

The 3 basic filter media you can opt to use are the following: mechanical, biological and chemical media. Filter systems also come in many types, including hanging filters, canister filters, internal filters or under gravel filters. Whatever filter system you choose, its main job should be to keep the water clear and habitable, by sifting excess waste and decaying matters inside the aquarium. The AquaClear Power Filter is a very popular filter and comes highly recommended.

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  • CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) equipment

Photosynthesis- that’s the reason why we can’t state the importance of CO2 supply in your tanks hard enough. Carbon dioxide dissolves in water and, like light, it is essential for plant growth. Pressurized CO2, CO2 liquids, and Electronic CO2 are some of the ways you can deliver the gas in your tanks. But close monitoring is needed: low CO2 level encourages algae growth, while high CO2 concentration can alter the PH level of the water, turning it acidic. Here is a cheap DIY CO2 Aquarium Plant System that has very high user ratings.

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  • Greenery

They could be moss, plants, ferns or grass. Experts recommend that you use a mixture of these. Some beginners opt to use artificial plants first- this is your call, so long as you maintain balance in your design. Vegetation is absent in aquariums with only a hardscape design. Check out these best selling 4 LUFFY Marimo Moss Balls.

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  • Hardscape and substrate materials

When laying out an aquascape, a substrate is a material that serves as the ‘ground’ where nutrients can be found, and hold the roots of your plants. Hardscape materials include pebbles, rocks, gravel, driftwood, and stones. They help bring balance and natural look into your design. These Ohko Stones will look amazing in your aquascape aquarium.

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  • Fertilizers

Liquid fertilizers are needed for your plants to reach optimum growth. Choose fertilizers which are nitrate and phosphates-free, as these help in preventing algae from growing.

A time release pond plant food that is safe for fish and aquatic life. Feeds all types of flowering pond plants for 30 days. The AgSafe Aquatic Tabs Pond Plant Water Lily Fertilizer is effective and affordable.

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Aquascaping Supplies

There are many places where you can get these materials, as long as you know what you want to buy for your design in mind. But if you don’t, we suggest you consult a friend who’s into aquascaping, or talk to us. Just click that ‘Contact Us’ tab on our page and we should be able to answer you in no time!


While you can opt to buy as big a tank as your budget and time allow, it would also be nice to start with one with just an adequate space for your first aquascaping project. The general consensus seems to be at at least 30-55 gallon range. Try the department store near you and go to their aquatic supply section. You should be able to find good glass cube fish tanks there for starters.  If not, check out online stores and inquire for their available stocks.

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Your filter’s capacity should be able to accommodate your tank’s size. Sites like Amazon, eBay and have good and affordable supplies of water filters and media, depending on your design. They also have a range of CO2 equipment and accessories that can suit your budget.

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Substrates can be in the form of gravel, sand, soil, peat or clay. Online stores like and offer different kinds of substrate you can use for your project.  By far, brands like ADA Aquasoil Amazonia, Eco Complete, and Seachem Flourite have gained popularity in the fish tank world.

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While there are many decorative rocks available on almost all aquatic supplies stores, why buy when you can collect? Seriously, though, there are rocks which are aquarium friendly and there are those which aren’t. By aquarium friendly, we mean rocks that will add to the tank’s aesthetics and not alter the water’s chemistry.

Make sure that your collected rocks don’t have elements that dissolve in the water (marble, limestone, dolomite, etc) because they increase water hardness- unless your fishes prefer that. But if you aren’t sure about the properties of the rocks you have in your backyard, the best thing to do is get them from a store.

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The good thing about underwater plants is that there are so many of them! As mentioned earlier, it’s really recommended to use different types of vegetation for your underwater garden.

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Aquascaping Designs

As with landscaping, some aquarists prefer to follow aquascape designs for a more appealing visual effect. This is not to say you should, though. Again, this is your art. But it would be good to consider these for your planted tank.

Different types of Aquascapes

Below are the 7 more popular aquascape designs you’ll come across as you do your research:


Dutch Style Aquascape:

The Dutch Aquarium utilizes layers and terraces in its design to convey depth using hardscape materials. Plant density may be high, but there’s a balance of color and variety which gives off the feeling of harmony. This is one of the most popular aquascape designs.


Taiwanese Style aquascape:

Though the popularity of this design has declined in the recent years, some hobbyists continue to create Taiwanese aquascapes because they give off a sense of liveliness. The Taiwanese design is heavily influenced by Iwagumi and Dutch styles and is characterized by the presence of several aquatic creatures, rock formations, figurines or representations of sunken treasures to imitate underwater environment. It makes use of terraces and hardscape materials to create unique architectures that produce a sense of depth and dimension.


Iwagumi Design Aquascape:

Aquarist Takashi Amano introduced it 30 years ago. In an Iwagumi  (“Rock Formation”) style, stones are the main focal points and the ones that give structure to the whole design. The Japanese believe that design of a garden fall into place once there are well-laid stones. The key is to use an odd number of stones/rocks.


Biotope Design Aquascape:

Most marine researchers are especially fond of Biotope aquascapes. This design’s objective is to simulate a specific marine environment closely, like a Mangrove swamp tank, a Rocky lake, or an Amazon River tank.


Jungle Design Aquascape:

Among the seven designs, this is the wildest. Its model is the untamed wilderness. The aquarium is characterized by dense vegetation, a variety of fishes, stones placed randomly and little open space. Some aquariums even put plants that grow tall enough to create a canopy effect. Lots of aquarists aim for a ‘pleasing’ chaos in a jungle layout.

Natural Design Aquascape:


Another one that’s popular is the Nature aquascape. This style imitates terrestrial scenery underwater. Although this aquascape may look unplanned, achieving that ‘nature’ look entails a careful arrangement of plants, substrate and hardscape materials to bring depict mountains ranges, hills, grass fields or rainforests. The layout usually follows 3 shapes: concave, convex and triangular.


Walstad Design Aquascape:

Popularized by the well-known ecologist Diana Walstad, this method simply means that you should create a ‘natural environment’ for your fishes.  It aims more on functionality, not on aesthetics.

Commonly called “El Natural” this style requires very low maintenance and while it is similar to the Nature and Dutch variations, the final result looks very different.

You can find her book titled: Ecology of the Planted Aquarium: A Practical Manual and Scientific Treatise

Aquascaping Tips & Ideas

The Focal Point

In Aquascaping it’s important that you guide your viewer’s focus to your main feature- and it shouldn’t be at the center.

The Rule of Thirds

Imagine that your aquarium is divided into 3 parts and crisscrossed by 2 vertical lines and you have something like this:

This is your guide to which area the main focal point should be. In large tanks, an aquarist can put several points of focus, but they shouldn’t be of the same intensity. Meaning, there should always be one that stands out from the rest. Smaller tanks are advised to have only one main focal point; putting more than one can make the design look too crowded- other features must only remain secondary.

The Golden Ratio

The ration of 1:1.618 applies even in aquascaping to determine exactly where your main feature or focal point will be put. This could be a big rock, a really nice plant or a figurine.

Throw symmetry out of the window

Don’t try to look ‘neat’. A symmetrical design will only make that design look too structured and rigid; you don’t want that. If you’ve got bog-wood that sticks out, let it be. You’re aiming for a natural and fresh look.


  • planting your aquascape aquariumStart from the background. Planting will start from the back of the aquarium down to the front. Foreground should have low-growing plants than those in the back; the middle area can serve as a ground for rock formations or decorations.
  • Use more than one plant and color. Don’t clump same varieties together when you arrange.
  • Mind proportion. Big plants will make the tank look small, shallow and full, whereas smaller ones like dwarf hair grass will make your tank look deeper, your landscape seem bigger and leave lots of open spaces.


  • Do your research. Not all fishes are compatible with each other. Stock your tanks with fish with equal requirements when it comes to water temperature, temperament, activity level and diet (some freshwater fishes are bullies or eat other freshwater fishes!)
  • Choose those that school. Paradise fishes, Tetras, and Rainbowfishes are popular choices.

Aquascaping Step by Step Process

Assuming that you have all the necessary materials and your desired design, follow the instructions below to start creating the aquascape.

  • Set your aquarium up.
  • Wash your materials.
  • Place your substrate.
  • Do the hardscaping.
  • Arrange the aquatic plants.
  • Pour in water.
  • Add fishes.

Your substrate, rocks, driftwood and even your filter- they should all be washed before they’re put inside the aquarium.

The base layer should be at least ½ inch thick before you add more to create different land formations and achieve your design. Create slopes; these add dimension, shape, and depth.

The next step is to arrange the rocks, stones, driftwood and other decorations. Make sure that there’s enough space for the plants to grow (unless you’re only doing hardscaping) and fishes to swim.

Break the flow of the water with your palm, with one of your rock features or with a bowl placed over the substrate. The water should be at the same temperature as the aquarium’s interior.

Wait until the plants have grown before adding your freshwater fishes. Newly completed aquascapes will still have some dangerous substance that needs to be filtered.