Aquascaping Basics For the Planted Tank

by Cory Hopkins

Aquascaping can be an aspect of the aquarium hobby that many find hard to get into.  Once a hobbyist starts making their own displays and begins to understand the basics of designing an aquascape it gets much easier.  It’s not difficult but it can sometimes be hard to figure out where to start.

Tanks in general try to create a representation of a natural setting.  It doesn’t have to be an underwater scene. For me scape planning usually consists of inspirational photos I find on Facebook or through Google searches.  Sometimes they come from crude sketches I come up with. When I start scaping a lot of the time the original plan turns into something different as I get inspired by the placement of the wood or stones.

Hemichromis lifalili Biotope hardscapeStart with as much hardscape as possible and try and come up with a loose vision of what you want. Finding inspiration from other tanks is a huge part of my creative process. Do lots of research on the subject, plant placement, wood and stone placement.  Look at different styles of aquascaping and aquascapers in general.

As far as hardscape placement, setup a few different layouts and take photos of them. Pick from the photos or make more.  Take your time, and ask knowledgeable people questions and opinions on the subject. There are many, many, fantastic resources online for learning how to aquascape. Facebook has been where I have met hundreds of aquascapers and have gotten inspired by their works. YouTube, Facebook, and Google are my #1 best resources.

Hemichromis lifalili Biotope hardscape plantedTools for aquascaping are a must for creating your aquascape! My favorite kit would be straight and curved pincets, sand scraper, straight and curved scissors,  paintbrush, a hammer (for smashing rocks), and a chisel (for shaping and smashing rocks).  Improvised tools can work but best results come from tools designed for aquascaping.

There are many types of substrate that you can use in your design.  Aquasoil is my go-to substrate. Other substrates like Eco-Complete, Flourite, and topsoil capped with sand work well for me and follow up behind my favorite. Lastly plain sand or small gravels.

Hardscape is a broad subject but normally I factor in size, color, and type. Size is an obvious one and mainly for wood but that obstacle can be bent a little by having some sticking out from the top of the tank. Color is something you want to stick to throughout your design; meaning no mixing stone colors.  Wood will all eventually turn a dark brown no matter the type.

Selecting stones or wood with lots of character is best in my opinion. Wood and stone can be boring if it’s smooth with no texture.  Also sticking to the same type of stone, not only just by color, is preferred. Mixed stone types don’t look all that great together generally.

Most of the time the stones simply sit in the sand. There are a few aquascapers that glue or tie them together when stacking is not an option. All of my rock scapes are stacked. The wood is what I normally glue to the stone to keep it down until it gets water logged and is able to hold itself down.

Some use stainless steel screws for driftwood to attach it to slate.  The only problem I have with slate is that it is pretty much stuck in one spot and you can’t position the wood in any other position than you have mounted it.  Although you could just move the slate, I find it easier to either presoak the wood or glue to existing stone.

2015 Aquatic Experience in Chicago
Lighting depends on what the scape entails or includes as inhabitants. Biotopes don’t need such intense lighting as Dutch or Nature style scapes might. Adequate plant lighting is a must.  Run-of-the-mill aquarium lighting doesn’t normally do the trick because of the plants need for higher lighting. LED fixtures made for plants are what I use most but some tanks I use with T5HO.

2GalPaludarium2Pressurized CO2 is used in most but not all of my aquascape tanks. Most of the biotopes are CO2 free.  Injecting carbon dioxide is useful most of the time but it isn’t completely necessary.  The addition of CO2 can help battle algae as well as getting the full potential out of your plants. Some plants can grow more compact if grown without CO2 and could also happen under a lower amount of light.

The Estimative Index method of fertilizing the planted tank is a method of giving nutrients to your plants.  EI at different percentages is my favorite. Mostly I make a liquid stock of each, Micro and Macro nutrients and dosing that way. 1ml per 10 gallons is what I go by for my dosing needs.  You can find a method that works for you or that you like.

Water changes are an important part of any aquariums maintenance.  I like to do 50% water changes a few times a week at the beginning, then I cut it down to one 50% water change a week.  This is needed to remove excess nutrients from the water and detritus that may build up.

WabiKusaWhat plants are best is a very broad subject and could be an article by itself. A 100 gallon tank could use only foreground plants if it were a mountain or diorama style scape. A 5 gallon scape could use the same or small leaf structured stem plants.  In a nutshell adjusting plants for plant size to scale is important to balance out the perspective.

You wouldn’t want an Aponogeton madagascariensis aka Madagascar Lace plant or a huge Amazon sword in a 10 gallon aquarium. You would definitely try and stick to scale but that usually takes a little plant knowledge beforehand so asking a group or a forum for plant suggestions is a good idea.

Stem plants can be great in the scaped tank. If you trim stem plants down they eventually build a mat on their upper growth.  As long as the plants are healthy and growing well, it’s very easy.  While I’m trying to build up a tight bundle I trim and replant. When I’m to that point, I trim and sell, throw away, or give away the excess.

I am not a fan of the Dry Start Method.  DSM, is basically growing the plants emersed before flooding which can create a few problems but also make it easier to fully carpet a scape without all the algae problems and such.  It helps it fill in foreground and mid level plants before you submerge it by mainly not having to deal with algae.  However emersed form of some plants look completely different from their submerged form.  Leaves might die back as they regrow to submerged life.

When initially filling an aquascape, I normally use an airline hose to fill it very slowly. Also lying paper towels over your scape before flooding will help keep everything in place. Even adding a plastic bag for the water to pour onto is recommended to keep everything in place and to diffuse the water in all directions instead of the flow being concentrated on one area.

Aquascaping is not only fun, it’s therapeutic, creative, and expressive. It keeps your mind busy, plus the whole family can enjoy your or their own creations. It brings people together who would otherwise never meet. Aquascaping is as broad as any other artform, it can be as simple as a single piece of driftwood or as elaborate as an awesome prospective piece.

Cory is an administrator for  The Planted Tank Center on FB and owner of The Aquascapers Collective on FB. His aquascaping contest participation includes the 2015 Aquatic Experience in Chicago for the live aquascaping contest, the 2015 AGA aquascaping competition in the Paludarium category and  Aquascapes Award’s 1st place winner of January 2016 monthly contest.

I got into aquascaping by being a fisherman and wondering what plants the fish I was targeting lived with.  After a few Google searches, one of Takashi Amano’s tanks popped up. I fell in love and had to learn more. That was about 2 years ago.  I have kept community and a few cichlid tanks since I was a kid of about 10yrs old. I’m 33 now.

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