An introduction to aquascaping

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Aquascaping is a challenging but rewarding side of aquarium care. New contributor Tom Ackrill shares some wisdom from his own time greening up his fingers. 

The planted aquarium is something of a celebrity at the moment. Whilst still a relative newcomer to the green-fingered part of the hobby myself, I can’t help but notice how many people want to dip their toe into this fishkeeping genre. 

I welcome the increase in the number of aquarists, hobbyists, fishkeepers — whatever we call ourselves — opting to add a splash of colour to the tank, and for good reason. Planted aquaria offer several advantages over a bare tank, or one that relies heavily on plastic and silk décor alone. 

Plants help to improve water quality by utilising ammonia and other compounds as a food source.

They increase oxygen content of the water during their photoperiod, and most importantly, they help make things feel a little bit more, well, natural for our fish. 

I don’t consider myself to be any sort of expert, but I have had the benefit of 18 months of experience diving into the planted realm, making a lot of mistakes, and having some guidance from people far more knowledgeable than I. Hopefully, I can share a little of what I’ve learnt along the way, to offer you the softest possible landing into this green and pleasant land. 

Always buy from a reputable supplier.

Rome wasn’t planted in a day

The first thing I’ve learned is that planted aquaria take patience — they don’t look like a professional’s tank after a few hours, days, or even weeks. And the biggest bugbear for most new planted tank keepers is the inevitable onslaught of algae that will appear through that early period. 

Diatoms are probably the most common invader, a sandy-feeling brown silt that sets up camp on both hardscape and plants, or even more annoyingly, in a filamentous form where it billows from plants leaves like hair caught in a breeze. 

All too often, after hitting up Google for its wisdom, people will purchase silicate-removing products to sit inside their filter, without realizing that in the majority, these little self-proclaimed-miracles are actually setting you on a course for other issues, by actively removing phosphates from your water as well as the offending silicates. 

Phosphates are probably the misunderstood middle child of the macronutrient family. Frequently derided for being the cause of algae, they are in fact critical for the formation of new plant material, forming the sugar ‘ladder’ that holds the DNA of new cells together. When stripped from the environment, or equally as egregious, not supplied in sufficient quantities, not only will some algae species run rampant, the plants themselves will struggle. Phosphates are your friend. Embrace them. 

The rewards of planting success.

Substrates, the base of everything

Planted tank keeping isn’t always cheap, and working to a budget is something that everyone has to deal with regardless of the size, complexity, or ambitious nature of their planted project. There is a natural instinct to go with something that’s ‘cheaper’ in order to see how well you get on with a planted tank before committing to more complex equipment. 

By going for something inert like a sand or a gravel base, you’re actually making your life harder in the future. Active substrates such as those produced by Tropica or JBL (specifically, their soils), are worth their weight in gold, and give a far wider range of planting options than you would otherwise be presented with. 

To start off with, between this and your hardscape, a considerable majority of your initial investment should be allocated here.  Soil just makes everything easier — it allows you to increase substrate depth without the risk of any compaction issues, it gives an ideal environment for your plants to root into, and crucially, it feeds the plants rather than being nothing more than an anchoring medium. 

Dragon stone used to fine effect.

The greatest frustration I see, and the same mistake I made myself, is when a planted tank keeper realises that they’re going to have to strip the entire tank in order to switch out whatever inert substrate they had previously, because they’re having issues sustaining good plant growth. 

It doesn’t take long before you find yourself costing up a significant expenditure on root tabs and liquid ferts that could have been spent on the right substrate from the start. 

Tissue cultured plants are great value.

Not all plants are created equal

Like pretty much everything in life, there are plants to suit every budget, but don’t assume that because something is cheap, or at least appears cheap, that it’s a bargain. Equally, don’t assume that expensive means less bang for your buck. 

Plant sellers range from the home aquarist selling off cuttings, through to the larger eBay outfits and online marketplaces, then through to the commercial entities such as AquaDip or Tropica. 

You’ll see a wide variety of prices. Online marketplaces are festooned with offers of 100 plants for the princely sum of £5 or so, but as the Latin saying goes, “caveat emptor”. What often is sold as a ‘plant’ may in fact be a single stem. Granted, this will grow into a plant eventually, but is perhaps not advertised the way it should. 

You also have limited knowledge over the provenance of the plant, which may or may not have been treated with insecticide products
to try and minimize pest snails and other critters, and may then continue having adverse effects in your aquarium. 

On the other hand, a single pot of plants from a reputable grower like Tropica may also cost £5, but here you are guaranteed to receive full plants, complete with established roots. In the case of the tissue-cultured plants, you may receive far more plants than you expect. 

From personal experience with a stem plant like Hygrophila siamensis ‘53B’, I’ve found upwards of a dozen stems can be sourced from one pot. With tissue cultures, even more. 

Purchasing healthy plants early on will pay significant dividends, resulting in plants that root faster, grow quicker, and generally live happier lives. 

A little research beforehand will also help budding aquascapers avoid the trap that many fall into, where plants that are perhaps not ideally suited to aquatic life — think Dracena or Hemigraphis that are more suited to the windowsill. 

Seiryu stone.

Nothing hard about hardscape

I used to think that spending money on big lumps of wood and rock was a waste of money. 

But since taking more time to observe the fundamental construction of an aquascape or a planted tank, I have come to appreciate the critical role that appropriate hardscape plays. 

It helps to make what’s going in the tank look even better, and give a sense of scale, depth, and structure. 

Take some time to consider your options. Perhaps you want something that’s going to look good contrasting against bright greens and reds? Seiryu stone or Frodo stone may do exactly that. 

You may want something with plenty of nooks and crannies with which to accommodate the plants colloquially known as epiphytes — Java ferns, Bucephalandra and Anubias — and in this instance Dragonstone may appeal. 

There is also effort here in making sure that you choose a stone which will not negatively impact the wellbeing of your future fish. Seiryu stone makes a great hardscaping material, but from experience of other tank owners, it can impact on the general hardness (GH) of an aquarium, which brings additional challenges depending on the size and scale of that impact. 

In any case, unless your obsession is to own what’s termed a ‘Dutch style’ aquascape, where there is no hardscape at all, it’s worth disappearing down the rabbit-hole and examining your options closely. 

A fresh and healthy Bucephalandra.

Styling it out

What takes your fancy? A Dutch tank? A minimalist Iwagumi? Nature tank? A biotope? The options for different aquascapes are endless. Each of these styles carry their own rules, their own structures, and their own look and feel. 

In any of these cases, my advice to you would be to first take a step back and decide if you want to keep fish in your aquarium. If so, which fish? 

Too often I find myself viewing amazing aquascapes that look like works of art by the great masters, only to be stocked with species that simply aren’t going to thrive in those sorts of conditions. 

My own humble opinion is that the aquascape and planting should compliment the fish being kept, or at the very least you should consider their needs first. 

A minimalist, crystal-clear Iwagumi may look sublime, but it would be wholly unsuitable to then stock with Harlequin rasboras, Trigonostigma heteromorpha, that would be more at home in a heavily planted environ, or Cardinal tetra, Paracheirodon axelrodi, that are most comfortable when steeped in the dark and tannin-stained waters of the Rio Negro.

In any case, take the time to strike that balance between what you like aesthetically, and the livestock that will most enjoy that miniature world of your making. 

Hardscape can make or break a layout. 

Feed me Seymour!

Plants need feeding just as much as fish do. Take the time in advance to identify what’s going to be a good food supply for your plants. 

Whilst a good substrate will go a long way to giving your plants the best possible start, you’ll want to look at a quality liquid fertilizer (ideally dosed daily) as well as potentially supplementing your substrate with good quality root tabs. 

Here’s where you need to look at your water chemistry. In general, the fertilisers we see on shelves are often what’s considered a ‘Lite’ product, omitting phosphate and nitrate either entirely or only containing a negligible quantity of these two essential nutrients. 

Unless your tapwater is naturally high in nitrates, you’ll benefit from investing in a good-quality ‘complete’ product – personally I’ve had success with TNC and indeed Tropica’s equivalent. 

Don’t forget to enjoy!

The planted aquarium should be a joy. A joy to scape, a joy to plant, a joy to behold growing and thriving as your own private underwater garden. Remember this above all else. 

Will you hit bumps in the road, bursts of algae, and moments of regret? Of course, but that’s no different to any other the hobby. When things settle down, and you can sit back in an evening and gaze upon your creation, I think you’ll soon agree with me that you made the right choice, and hopefully, you’ll have avoided a few disasters