What Is Aquascaping?

Aquascape aquarium

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Aquascaping is a niche in the aquarium world that is essentially underwater landscaping. Using live plants, mosses, wood, rock and other natural products, aquascape designs can be wondrous submerged creations. Fish or shrimp may be incorporated, but the main draw is that the aquascape aquarium mimics the natural landscape seen either above or below the water. It can represent forests, mountains, rivers, or any feature of a natural landscape.

What is aquascaping?

Often compared to gardening underwater, aquascaping is the act of designing and outfitting an aquarium with live plants. Hobbyists design their tanks using various plants and mosses, as well as hardscape materials such as sand, stone, and wood. Tanks that display aquascaping often also incorporate fish, however some hobbyists allow the greenery to take center stage alone. There may be only a few fish in the aquarium, and often just a school of a single species of fish.

Types of Aquascaping

There are four main styles or types of aquascaping.

Iwagumi Style

Also known as the Japanese Zen style, Iwagumi tanks are very minimal. Although they may look easy, capturing this simplistic style is harder than it looks. Minimal materials are used, and this style includes the use of three main stones. The largest, known as the Buddha, is accompanied by two smaller attending stones.

Jungle Style

This style of aquascape harnesses the natural growth of live plants. Rather than a structured or readily trimmed appearance, aquatic plants are allowed to grow throughout the tank without restriction. This style requires heavy plant research to understand which types will be suitable to incorporate into your design.

Dutch Aquarium

The Dutch Aquarium does not rely on any hard materials, such as stone or wood, and instead focuses on a wide variety of aquatic plants. With this style, it is critical to understand the overall shape, height, and texture of all varieties of live underwater plants.

Nature Aquarium

The Nature style attempts to capture or recreate a landscape or image of the natural world above ground. This style incorporates all available materials and has led to the development of underwater waterfalls, using sand instead of running water. This style is one of the most difficult since many layers need to fit together in harmony for a cohesive design.

Common Aquascaping Equipment and Materials

Live Plants

Live, aquatic plants are the centerpiece in all aquascape tanks. There are countless varieties of rooted and floating aquatic plants that can be incorporated into your aquascape design. Keep in mind that some plants thrive in different environments, so do your research thoroughly before settling on a final collection.


Driftwood is a common feature in aquascape tanks. However, not all wood can go underwater! Certain types of wood may leech tannins in the water, which may benefit some plants and fish, but not all. Tannins can directly impact your tank's kH and pH and the water quality may change over time as they are released from the wood.

Stones or Sand

Depending on the style of your aquascape, you may be incorporating stones or sand. Some aquascapes even feature waterfalls made out of sand (see Nature-style aquascaping, above). As with various types of wood, choose sand and rocks made for aquarium use. You can use found materials, but be sure to sanitize them properly and rinse them well to get rid of any dust prior to adding them to your system.

Fish or Shrimp

Unlike most other aquariums, live fish and/or shrimp and other invertebrates are a very minor component of aquascape setups. The focus of aquascapes are on the planted materials, not so much the live animals.

Many planted aquascapes designs will often incorporate additional fertilizers or a carbon dioxide system, which may not agree with many fish. If you really want to include fish, stick to small, hardy species that like to school. Invertebrates, such as shrimp, are also good additions.

Aquascaping Design Principles

The design principles for your aquarium depends on which type of style of aquascaping you attempt.

Simplicity Is Your Friend

Unless you are attempting the Jungle Style, most other aquascape tanks do best with a minimalist approach. Especially if you are just getting started in aquascaping, starting simple is much easier to attain and you can add to your design as your skill grows.

Do Your Plant Research

Even if you are going for a certain look, keep in mind that not all plants grow the same. Some have various growth rates, some prefer to float rather than be planted, and some grow horizontally rather than vertically. Doing your research in advance will make things easier down the road.

Proportion and Rule of Thirds

When getting started in aquascape, you don't have to make the whole tank a part of your design! Start with a small section of your tank and explore different styles. Many tanks will be easier to maintain with minimal elements and a specific design.

Aquascaping Maintenance Requirements

Your intended style will dictate how much maintenance is required. Jungle and Nature styles require less upkeep than Iwagumi and Dutch Aquariums. Minimal fish will keep your maintenance needs very low, which is why smaller schools of small fish are typically used. It can be very difficult to clean any deeper than superficially with heavily planted and aquascaped tanks.

Typical tasks for maintaining an aquascape tank:

  • Remove dead plants
  • Trim plants to fit desired aesthetic
  • Monitor plant water quality parameters (nitrogen cycle, carbon dioxide)
  • Lightly vacuum debris from the substrate

Aquascaping Events

Care to test your aquascaping skills? Well, you're in luck! There are many aquascaping competitions that are open to amateurs and aquascape appreciators alike. Just a few of the major events include: