Aquascaping with a shallow aquarium


Editor's Picks
George Farmer liked the look of a new and trendy shape of aquarium so much that he had one custom built - and then created one of his favourite aquascapes.

Aquariums have been traditionally made with their height exceeding front to rear depth, so that the frontal view is the largest, most dominant aspect.

However, there’s a new trend developing whereby the aquarium is made open-topped with no braces and deliberately shallow. The best have a greater front to rear depth that offers more space for aquascaping.

A good example is an aquarium measuring just 25cm/10” high but 40cm/16” in width and 60cm/25” in length. This is the size used for this feature and, so far, the best-sized aquarium I’ve yet owned.

Why go shallow?

A shallow aquarium offers new areas for creativity. Decorative materials such as wood, rocks and plants can be deliberately exposed above the water to add a world of new dimensions.

Many aquarium plants are happy to grow above water and some also produce attractive flowers. If the aquarium is in a relatively low position the aquascape can be easily viewed from above, giving it a more natural pond/pool-like appearance.

Shallow aquariums are also easy to maintain. Using longer aquascaping tweezers and scissors I can perform simple pruning tasks without getting my hands wet!

Because a shallow aquarium has a greater front to rear width it creates a larger surface area to promote oxygen.

However, the dimensions of such an aquarium render it unsuitable for deep-bodied fish. Water evaporation is quicker because of that large surface area and it increases with more surface agitation and higher water temperatures.

It’s best to top up losses with reverse osmosis filtered water, as this prevents mineral build-up in the aquarium.

The main pictures here of the aquascape were taken when it was about four months old.

Taking shape

The design is based around the large piece of wood representing a tree trunk as the focal point positioned off-centre to give aesthetic balance.

I have chosen lots of different plants species and mixed them up to create a wild look.

Hygrophila sp. ‘Araguaia’ is relatively new to the hobby and stays relatively short, making it an ideal candidate for the background. It changes colour, depending on lighting and nutrient levels, ranging from a green/brown to a crimson red.  

Brown crypts planted around the trunk make for an ideal transition from the carpeting plants and the colour harmonises so well with the bright green.

After a couple of months the moss really takes hold on the wood and requires regular trimming. It also creeps above the surface and grows well in its emerged form.

The remaining areas are planted with a mix of foreground species, ranging from the very fast growing Glossostigma and Hydrocotyle to slow growing Lilaeopsis brasiliensis.

At first planting is quite regimented but, as the plants merge into one another, a more naturalistic appearance takes hold. Every few weeks the entire carpet can be hacked back quite brutally with large scissors, and healthy new growth soon occurs — seemingly better with each pruning session.

This is testament to the high quality substrate and fertiliser system, as well as ideal CO2 levels and distribution.

Fish selection was relatively easy. I have always wanted to try Celestial pearl danio (Danio margaritatus) but never realised how shy they were. I had to sit almost motionless before they would show, unless being fed.

I added a shoal of Danio choprai that made the D. margaritatus more confident and the interaction between the two species proved quite fascinating.


This is an essential component for any planted aquarium. I’ve used LEDs in long-term set-ups and had no trouble growing any plants. I used TMC 1000ND tiles for most of this aquascape’s life, but recently experimented with T5 lamps.

I still love T5 because the colour rendition is incredible, depending on the chosen lamps.

I have been using Arcadia Plant Pro and Arcadia Freshwater Pro in combination, which produces a well-rounded colour rendition as well as great plant growth.

I have also tried the impressive EcoTech Radion XR30w (pictured above) which can create almost any colour, thanks to its programmable red, green, blue, cool white, blue and royal blue LEDs.

In the images shown here I have used 100% red, 100% green, 20% blue, 100% cool white and 0% royal blue.  

The Radion has certainly earned its niche in the freshwater aquascaping hobby. It’s ideal for those who like to change their aquascape frequently and change lighting to suit.

As a tip, buy or borrow a PAR meter to measure your current lighting levels. If it’s over 50 µmol at the substrate you’ll need CO2 injection and regular fertiliser additions. If you have suspended lighting raise or lower the unit to adjust the intensity. Lighting over 100 µmol at the substrate will demand high CO2 and nutrient levels and is only recommended for experienced plant growers.

High-output T5 lamps with electronic starters will remain operational at near full strength for their entire life — and that can run into several years. T8 lamps with electromagnet starters will degrade gradually and need replacing every 12 months or so.


My daily routine means spending just five minutes tinkering here and there. The fertilisers are dosed, then any plants needing pruning are nipped back with long scissors. Floating cuttings are netted off and either re-planted or composted.

One of the trickiest plants to maintain is the moss. It sinks as soon as it’s pruned, so try and remove as much as possible before it starts to settle among the carpeting plants.

Water changes are incredibly easy too. A 50% change using de-chlorinated tap water takes around 15 minutes.

Daily: Feed fish, dose liquid fertilisers, check filter, temperature and CO2, prune plants

Weekly: Clean all glass, 50% water change, clean pre-filter

Monthly: Clean glass filter inlet and outlet and filter hoses.

Top tips

  • Always clean the aquarium glass just before a water change. This way the algae removed from the glass is also removed via the water change.
  • Don’t be afraid to prune your plants, but use sharp scissors. In a healthy set-up this promotes new growth and the old cuttings can be re-planted, given away or sold. Always dispose of unwanted plants responsibly.

How I created my shallow aquascape

1. The Optiwhite glass aquarium was custom built to fit an existing cabinet. The low-iron glass has greater clarity than regular float glass. The aquarium is braceless, so ideal for suspended lighting and glass filter lily pipes. This style is perfect for aquascaping enthusiasts.

2. A piece of Unipac Sumatra Wood resembling a tree stump is added. It has been pre-soaked for three weeks to prevent floating or staining. I have positioned it off-centre to provide aesthetic balance. The roots at the bottom ensure the stump looks natural.

3. Five litres of Elos Bottom Mineral are then added. This product is enriched with micro and macro nutrients and has a high cation exchange capacity (CEC) that takes in nutrients from the water and makes them readily available to the plant roots.

4. More nutrients and bacterial cultures are then added to the ‘scape via Elos Terra Zero and Aqua Uno. The substrate is cleaned from the aquarium sides so when the soil is added it does not show through the front or sides of the glass.

5. Nine litres of Elos Terra Black Medium are added. This is a soil-based substrate that lowers the pH and hardness. It does not produce ammonia, like some soil products. The grains are light and tiny at 1-4mm, so they are just perfect for root penetration.

6. Some water is then added to the aquarium. I add to around 25% full to make planting easier. Planting into wet substrate is possible, but I find plants tend to stay supported better if planting is done under a little water, especially in loose soils.

7. Cryptocoryne wendtii ‘brown’ is added around the wood. This tolerates shade and is slow growing, making it ideal for long-term aquascapes. The colour looks natural next to the wood. There will be crypt melt as the plant adjusts to new water conditions, but it will revive.

8. Staurogyne repens is added to the remaining open substrate in the background. Staurogyne is attractive, doing best in a nutrient-rich substrate with CO2 injection. It takes time to establish but is robust once settled. Frequent pruning produces offshoots that help it spread across the substrate.

9. Hygrophila sp. ‘Araguaia’ is added to the background. It has a lovely texture and colour and does not grow tall. In good light it will turn an attractive reddish. It is also quite slow growing, compared with other Hygrophila species, so ideal for a lower maintenance set-up.

10. The water is topped up as required. Nymphaea micrantha was added but subsequently removed as it did not suit the layout. During following weeks more species are added, including Glossostigma elatinoides, Eleocharis acicularis, Lilaeopsis brasiliensis, Riccardia chamedryfolia, Vesicularia montagnei and Hydrocotyle sp. ‘Japan’.

The tank — and what’s in it

Aquarium: Custom Optiwhite glass, 60 x 40 x 25cm (25 x 16 x 10”), 60 l/ 13 gal.

Cabinet: Pureaqua gloss white cabinet from Aquajardin.

Lighting: Two TMC 1000ND LED tiles and computer controllers, 30w each, suspended 30cm/12” above aquarium, eight-hour photoperiod.

Filter: Fluval G3 with Hydor ETH200 external heater and gUSH glass inlet and outlet.

CO2: Dennerle 2kg pressurised system with solenoid and Up Aqua inline diffuser.

Substrate: Elos substrate system, 9 l/2 gal Terra Black with all Elos additives.

Fertilisers: Elos Expert-Line fertiliser system.

Fish/inverts: Danio margaritatus, Danio chropei, Neocaridina heteropoda ‘red’, Neocaridina heteropoda ‘Rili’.

Plants: Hygrophila sp. ‘Araguaia’, Glossostigma elationoides, Eleocharis acicularis, Lilaeopsis brasiliensis, Hydrocotyle sp. ‘Japan’, Crypocoryne wendtii ‘Brown’, Staurogyne repens, Taxiphyllum barberei ‘Mini’, Riccardia chamedryfolia.

Cost at a glance

I was using some high-end and relatively expensive equipment, but a similar system can be set up for:

Tank and cabinet: £250

Lighting: £100

Filter, heater: £75

CO2: £120

Substrate: £25

Fertilisers: £15

Livestock and plants: £100

Total: £685

Why not take out a subscription to Practical Fishkeeping magazine? See our latest subscription offer.

Don't forget that PFK is now available to download on the iPad.