What is Aquascaping?

Through building and maintaining beautiful nature aquaria people re-learn the intricate connections between forms of life, plants, fish, microorganism and humans. Riches and beauty come from harmony, from balance. Aquaria are great teachers of this truth —  Takashi Amano

Aquascaping is a term we generally use for describing the setting up and decorating of an aquarium in such a way that it satisfies our own perceptions of what is aesthetically pleasing. Yet in truth, Aquascaping is so much more.

After all, our aquariums not only display our interest in beautiful or interesting fish species, but they also become part of our homes, our conversations, our pride and very often, our hidden dreams. And when we begin to compare those dreams, we suddenly begin to realise just how many options there are.

Most of us adore our fish, and will do anything to give them both a good and a beautiful home. However, there are aquarists who do not have fish as their priority. They do planted tanks — indoor underwater gardens of great beauty.


 The first kind of these are what is known as ‘Dutch Planted Tanks’. As the name implies, these have been made famous by the Dutch who became great experts in this method, which specialises in the keeping of aquarium plants, rather than aquarium fish. I often wonder whether this hobby has been fed by the human desire to plant and grow beautiful plants, in spite of the lack of enough easy to reach and cultivate territory. As South Africans, used to vast expanses close to home,  we  seldom pay attention to just how very small the spaces are that Europeans call home. In Asian countries, where population in cities are much larger, these spaces shrink even more. What, then, do these people do when they live in apartments stacked one upon another without a single garden in sight? That’s right: They grow plants in window boxes and on balconies and excel at it. And they plant and grow their gardens in aquariums with absolute passion!


Do not for a moment believe that a Dutch tank is a haphazard, do-what-you-want affair. There are very strict styles and rules associated with the execution of these tanks, and they are regularly shown and praised, or criticised at club and  national championship events, with only the very best going forward to compete internationally!


The second style of planted aquariums have equally much to do with fulfilling the human desire to grow things, and like the Dutch aquariums, these underwater gardens are also created to bring the beauty of nature into limited indoor spaces. They are known as ‘Nature Aquariums’ and have come into being because of the amazing creativity of an artistic Japanese photographer, internationally known simply as Amano. Takashi Amano not only uses his imagination, but always bases his aquascaping designs on snapshots of nature and brings them inside with the typical knack of a Japanese master gardener. Imagine walking in a forest, or somewhere in a glade and happening on a little (or large) scene that for a moment enthrals you and takes your breath away. This is what Amano does… and what he copies. He transplants his magic scenes into almost zen-like aquariums that have the most wonderful meditative qualities.

Again there are various different styles and certain set rules that determine what makes a beautiful, balanced Amano style ‘Nature Aquarium’. These are of course challenging, but for its sheer creativity, the style has adherents across the entire world. The competitive spirit amongst fans of the style is alive here too, and finally, after many regional events, culminates in a huge international competition/display event.




I must, however, point out that both the Dutch and Nature aquarium tanks are high-tech in that they require specific implements and plants and a regular fertilizing and pruning schedule, as well as CO2 dosing system of some sort, and pretty powerful lights. Initially they are also a bit costly to start, and they definitely require dedication and patience. If you cannot commit to these, do not start tanks in these styles!


The latest development in the art of aquascaping, is the use of very shallow tanks. The planting methods are similar to those of the two previous styles. The difference comes with the particular ‘look’ that is achieved. They really are breathtakingly beautiful!

Because they are shallow, they are also a lot easier to cope with if you happen to be wheelchair-bound!



The scarcer large living spaces become, the more aquascapers must innovate to keep on having their hobby. This led to a new genre of aquascaping under the collective name of nano-tanks. Nano-tanks are small aquariums, and can have less, but should not have more than 30 litres of water.  You can follow any of the aquascaping disciplines in a nano tank; there are no restrictions.  Lately, though, there is a trend to cultivate a collection of nano-tanks,  and to enter them as small ‘show’ tanks into competitions, when they are then called ‘nature art’. They are usually dedicated to the scene rather than  inhabitants, so they often display exceptionally beautiful rocks, but they can also be used to display beautiful shrimps or small species of fish. Both choices are especially popular in Asia. 


And if that is still too large for you, you can join the ranks of those who set miniaturisation as their greatest challenge! The tiny tank below measures just 2.2 x 2.2 cm.




Also new on the scene is a style called Wabi Kusa, which when used in  thge context of aquascaping literally translated means ‘tiny nature’. Reminiscent of terrariums, these are miniature aquascapes which cater to the increasing scarcity of space. Wabi Kusa involve balls of substrate that are covered with plants that are grown in their terrestrial, or ’emersed’ rather than ‘submersed’ form, very similar to plants that are grown hydroponically in nurseries. These substrate balls are placed directly into a small glass container with some water and then allowed to grow naturally. This approach is very different from aquascaping techniques, where the layout of the aquarium is planned with exquisite care and the plants are carefully maintained. Wabi-kusa allow nature to flow freely,  and as such they produce stunning results. For that reason there is a trend to create Wabi Kusa in what is known as nano-tanks, a little larger than just glass containers, but desktop-size nevertheless. In essence, Wabi-kusa is a celebration of the wildness and chaos of nature, but also of the impermanence of all things – and is evocative, extremely seductive and inspiring – a piece of untamed wilderness in your home, bedroom or office.



Whether we are planted tank fans or not, we can all learn a lot from looking at how cleverly these planted tanks have been designed and executed to imply depth, balance and texture that delights the eye.


There is a third style of planted tank, referred to as ‘el Natural’ and sometimes Natural Planted Tanks (NPTs). In this case the method, which has been pioneered by Diana Walstad, a technical advisor for AGA, is both low-tech and low maintenance. Her book, “Ecology of the Planted Aquarium: A Practical Manual and Scientific Treatise for the Home Aquarist, explains how this approach has several basic tenets, and very specific do’s and don’ts.

As controversial as it sounds, she uses regular potting soil, capped by a small gravel layer as her substrate. (BUT PLEASE DO NOT DO SO without proper research!) She also says that with her method no filtration is needed, aside from a power head for water movement. Her lighting is low, at most  1-2 watts per gallon, and is often supplemented by sunlight from a window. Her tanks require no fertilization and no CO2 is used, only liberal fish feeding. She only does water changes every 6 months or so, as her plants act as filters, while her fish act as fertilizers, creating a balanced ecosystem. In fact, the very goal of her method is to set up an ecosystem where “plants and fish balance each other’s needs”. In this type of tank, the plants are the water purifiers rather than the usual filters. Rather than converting ammonia to nitrate, plants convert ammonia to plant mass, so there’s no buildup of nitrate and pH doesn’t drop over time.

The end result is a tank that looks very different from any of the carefully designed Dutch or Nature style aquariums — but that requires almost no maintenance, while maintaining a lush planted look. The types of plants available to someone starting an “el Natural” fish tank are somewhat limited, since lots of plants require high light and fertilization, but algae is rarely a problem with this approach. Unlike Dutch and Nature style aquariums, there is also no set school for plant placement, composition, or hardscape. It’s all left to your own ingenuity to create a tank that can match any of the other carefully designed tanks.

 However, this approach is not designed for someone who likes to re-scape their tank every few months, as moving plants around in this set-up  is difficult to do without disturbing the potting soil underneath the gravel. The natural soil substrate is probably the most volatile part of an “el Natural” style fish tank, and there are lots of do’s and don’ts explained in Diana’s book. However, once you get it set up, an “el Natural” style tank can be perfect for someone who is tired of dosing, testing, and re-dosing every day, or for someone who just doesn’t have the time for a high-tech aquarium.

I have no personal experience with this approach, but accept that as a technical advisor for The Aquatic Garden Association, famous for its annual international aquascaping competitions, Diana Walstad must know what she is talking about.


And that finally brings us to the fish fans and their aquariums!

But that is not as simple as it sounds either, because there are community tanks, species tanks, biotope tanks, as well as palludariums and ripariums — and each of these offer yet another array of choices we can make.


In planted community tanks we try to create scenery that is beautiful to look at, but place the emphasis on the various fish species we choose to select and keep   for their compatability. The plants we choose must, of course, also be compatible with the fish we keep. While the composition of the aquascape is still extremely important, planting in this case has another important purpose besides just beauty. Upright growing plants serve to delineate territories and provide hides so that peace may prevail inside our mixed population underwater garden creations. Floating plants allow our fish to breed and hide their offspring, while decorative driftwood and rocks set the accent points to the scenes our imaginations brought forth. But biologically, plants also offer a recycling service and keep our aquariums stable and healthy by exchanging the partial uptake of fish waste for the production of underwater oxygen. If we have an aquarium with super healthy plants, we automatically have an aquarium that is good for our fish!



In Biotope aquariums, we mimic a specific piece of nature, by copying a small slice of the original habitat of our chosen species as closely as possible. When creating Biotopes, we concentrate on species that are found in that specific area, and add only those co-inhabitants that would naturally occur in that habitat and will have the same requirements as our main species. Rules are strict for biotopes. In international competitions, tanks that mix the wrong kind of plants or fish into their biotopes are always heavily penalised.



In species tanks we are quite close to biotopes, because in such aquariums we only keep one single species and create miniature nature-mimicking worlds for them, in which they can flourish and show off to their best. The difference here is that we do not introduce co-inhabitants. Some aquarists make this choice on purpose. But a whole lot more aquarists end up creating species tanks because of unwise initial choices, or because they have had to separate particularly aggressive species out of their community tanks. Nevertheless, a species tank can be as spectacular as a community tank if we choose to make it so.


In Palludariums we combine a slice of the underwater world with a slice of the world directly above it, and so embrace the concept that it takes more than just water for an ecological niche to be different and spectacular.


With Ripariums, the idea is to mimic river banks, both above and under water. Ripariums and palludariums initially seem to look very much alike. The difference is slight, but there is a difference, nevertheless. In palludariums there is above water space for land-living species – often frogs and the like. In Ripariums, there is above water planting, but no living space for terrestrial creatures.



An African cichlid tank is a mix of biotope and species tanks. Cichlids are notorious diggers and therefore not really suited to planted tanks, and the waters from which they come do not have any plants except for algae or estuarine reeds. For this reason cichlid tanks with plants are usually frowned upon. But that does not mean our aquariums need to be any less spectacular than planted tanks. The perfect Cichlid tanks is essentially a hard-scaped tank.

We can make a cichlid tank spectacular by catering to the species’ most famous trait: territorial aggression. Since peace is impossible in a cichlid tank unless every fish has a place it can call its own, our decorating talents must of necessity go into creating a spectacular scenes with rocks. This is called “Hardscaping”. And for this we look at nature too. We learn that nature seldom builds walls, that she uses ins and outs and niches and caves and crevices,  interspersed with gullies and valleys, with areas of pebble debris directly juxtaposed with arid, sandy spots. If you have ever been in the Cederberg area, and really looked at the bold ways of nature, you will know exactly what I mean.




The last school of aquascaping has to do with miming our ocean world – Reef Aquariums. Reef tanks are highly specialised in terms of technical know-how, as well as species. The aim is to mimic natural reefs so well that we can successfully keep marine species and and the exotic animals known as ‘corals’, so often mistaken as ‘ plants’,  in the closed eco-system of the aquarium. This entails creating currents and wave action in the tank, as well as a feeding system that mimics the ever abundant food production systems of the coral reefs. Any aquascaper who wants to start a reef tank must be dedicated to studying what the keeping of a reef tank entails before they even start thinking about venturing into this exquisitely exciting, but also taxing hobby.



Whatever style you choose, your goal with any aquarium is to take a landscape from nature that stirs you and to put it under water. This means looking at Nature with fresh eyes and studying her ingenuity at creating magical places  —  and then translating them to  into your tank!

In fact, if Amano can teach us just one thing, it is this: When you are out in nature, pay attention. Focus on the small as well as the large. Really look and see just how beautiful certain spots are, and try to understand why they are beautiful. Remember what you see. Take it all in. Notice shapes, colours, textures, lines and arrangements. Take a photograph. Then come back home and plan your own aquascape. You can hardly do better than to copy what nature demonstrates right before your eyes every day!

But then, again, you may prefer to wander around in the recesses of your wildest imaginations, and create an aquarium scene that exists nowhere in nature  – and still have something beautiful to look at!

However, it is best to refrain from using animated movie hits like “Finding Nemo” as your inspiration! The reason is that you will come away with false expectations!  Animated films are masters at “creative licence”! In reality, the species that so charmingly interact and speak with each other in the film are totally incompatable as tank mates in the aquarium, and the plants of the movie simply do not exist in that environment in nature!

aquascaping-non-natural-species tank

 As for learning more about the different aquarium styles and how to achieve them, we have inspiring photographs, as well as tons of information how to go about becoming an expert aquascaper and we will constantly add to our knowledge base  You will find these articles under the Aquascape drop-down menu above.

Back to top