How to become a pro aquascaper

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Graeme Edwards offers 13 essential tips on how to make your artistic mark on that bare tank — offering beauty within budget.

If you're new to the whole genre of aquatic artistry or aquatic plants then you’ll need to take several factors into account. There are many options, some expensive, others scientific, and you need to make the right decisions for you, your skill level and your budget.

Here are a few pretty useful tips to help guide you along the path and join the celebrated ranks of the pro aquascapers.

1. Decide on your goal

Do you want to create an artistic masterpiece, a tank to learn your trade on, or a way of simply keeping your fish happy with living, growing aquatic plants?

This is important. If you fail to set out a clear path then ideas will change, costs will escalate and you never really feel you have achieved a direct goal.

2. Read, read and read some more

There are plenty of books dedicated to aquatic plants, some are a little out-dated but there’s still much you can learn from them. The best books money can buy — and these are truly invaluable — are the Nature Aquarium World books by Takashi Amano. They changed my life and would do the same for you...

For more up to date information visit forums or aquascaping societies such as UKAPS where you can learn from others and read all there is to prepare you for your new project.

3. Plan your approach and your budget

If dreaming of a high end, glossy modernist aquarium but your budget won’t allow for it, then there are two alternatives.

Buy a cheap standard type aquarium and modify it where needed. The other option is to go smaller. Keep to the minimalist look with rimless, brace-less construction, glass inlets and outlets. The look doesn’t come cheap, but does have the wow factor. Reduce your aquarium size until it fits your budget.

4. Make sure you get your filtration right

If you want to follow the ten-times turnover rule, then bigger is definitely better.

There is good reason for buying a large filter. Flow is a key factor in good plant growth and the more flow the better. If you buy a small filter and want to keep ten-times turnover, you’ll need to add extra powerheads into your aquarium to get the desired flow rate.

Powerheads often look ugly and out of place in a beautifully crafted set-up, so buying big avoids the need for extra powerheads, keeping as much of the equipment out of the aquascape as possible.

5. Let there be light

Getting the right amount is not a black and white subject. It can often take time to be naturally intuitive about how much light will be enough.

As a rough guide, and where the tank is initially planted heavily with a mix of plants of various growth rates, you will be aiming to start off with some six or seven hours of light per day.

You can increase this as plants establish and the aquascape becomes fully planted and established, Twelve hours is too much in nearly all cases. If unsure, use around one watt per litre or two watts per gallon, which should grow most plants.

6. Decide if you want to use CO2

I recommend budgeting for the gas if you want a nature aquarium set-up. It is not essential, but adding CO2 will open the door to more demanding and often beautiful aquatic plants.

The flip side is that often when people choose CO2, they also choose higher light levels. Make sure you use a drop checker to make sure your gas levels are OK.

Keep your diffuser as clean as possible, buying a spare to use while the other is being cleaned — and I use Milton to clean my diffusers. Always turn your CO2 down, or off, when introducing new fish.

7. Automate your equipment

Having your lights on a timer means that the light in your aquarium — more so on your plants — is consistent. This encourages plant growth to be consistent too.

The same applies to your CO2. Invest in a solenoid and link it to a separate timer, making sure your gas comes on two hours before your lights come on, and set it to go off two hours before lights out.

Once everything is set, you need only to glance check that everything is running OK and only need to remember to feed your fish and your plants daily.

8. Get some essential tools

Our hands are by far the greatest tools we possess, but sometimes intricate tasks are too much to ask of them.

The most vital aquascaping tool is a pair of tweezers. Planting hair grass, delicate stems like Cabomba or planting a Glossostigma carpet needs tweezers. You don’t have to pay an arm and a leg, but test them in the shop first to check which style is best for you.

9. Find inspiration for your aquascape

Get outside, open your eyes to the world around you and use nature as your teacher. Local parks, mountain passes, walks across local fields; they all offer an abundance of inspiration and you just need to look around.

Take pictures as you go so you can refer to them later, click on the Internet for nature photography, or look at other aquascapes already created. Art influences art, so you don’t need to feel purist about your masterpiece.

10. Learn the basic rules of art

The rule of thirds is the simplest to start with, so look at your tank, divide the rectangle of glass into three with imaginary vertical lines from top to bottom, then do the same from left to right. You will then have nine boxes.

At each point where your lines cross is your focal point. Only choose one and this is where you would place a dominant stone or a bright red plant.

It is designed to draw your attention, and more importantly, give the aquascape balance. Also remember that negative (empty) space is just as import as positive (planted) space.

11. Choose your hardscape wisely

It’s fine to mix stone and wood, but it does not look right if you mix different types/colours of stone or wood. For example, Mopani wood with dark iron wood would look unnatural. It’s also worth bearing in mind that some rocks can affect water parameters.

Do your research to see what repercussions your choice will have on either your plant choice or health and happiness of your fish.

12. Get into the water change habit

The most important maintenance task is doing 50% water changes every week. You might even need to do more during initial set-up.

Find a system that makes water changes a breeze. Buy extra long hoses so you can syphon waste water directly outside. Invest in a powerhead to pump the water out of your buckets to save backache.

Using a powerhead will also help avoid sudden gushes of water that might move wood or disturb your substrate when refilling.

13. Enjoy the journey

It can be a frustrating hobby, but also very rewarding. Learn from mistakes and don’t let ego stop you from asking questions and learning more about aquascaping.

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