How to set up a low maintenance cube-shaped aquarium


George Farmer discovers it's hip to be square when he thinks abstract about his first moderately-sized cube aquarium designed for colourful community fish.

I was rather reluctant to set up another tank at home. As an RAF servicemen and a six-month tour abroad pending, I was told by my wife not to take on any high maintenance aquariums.

So with these instructions ringing in my ears — and at the request of my children who wanted a selection of active and colourful fish — the decision was simple. I’d opt for a low maintenance, yet high impact aquarium featuring minimal planting and colourful community fish.

I like cube-shaped aquariums. Not only do they present more challenges than regular rectangular ones, but also offer more potential for creativity. Typically they will be viewed from three sides — front, left and right— so this needs to be considered when designing.


One of the biggest problems with a relatively tall aquarium such like this is finding the right décor (hardscape) or plants to fill the space most effectively.  I didn’t want to use many plants, due to their relatively highmaintenance, so hardscape would have to be the dominant factor.

Luckily, I had recently received a shipment from a wood collector in the USA that was able to fit the bill perfectly.  

Manzanita wood is quickly becoming one of the most popular materials among aquascaping enthusiasts.

However, it is still hard to get hold of over here, most having to be imported.

Twisted and gnarly, it lends itself really well to most aquascapes — and it’s actually quite difficult not to create something very natural looking. It sinks after a few days of soaking and leeches few tannins when compared with other types of wood.

Manzanita is commonly arranged poking upwards, as if it’s protruding from the substrate, but chose to do the exact opposite. I positioned the largest ends of the pieces uppermost with the thinner ends sinking into the substrate.  

The result looks really effective and creates many more hiding places for the fish. In the absence of heavy planting this helps the fish feel secure and that, in turn, makes them show off more.  

I always enjoy experimenting with new materials and when I saw some stone wood from J and K in the PFK office I knew I could use it.

It has a very straight formation with a definite strata, so was quite easy to work with. The burnt orange colour offers a pleasing contrast with the black background and aquarium furniture.

Free plants!

I find it really difficult to reject any thoughts of plants in a freshwater aquascape and this was no exception. It would also be a waste to use my usual suppliers as the postage would have probably cost more than the value of the plants I  wanted to use.

Instead I went on a trading forum where members can sell and buy excess plants. These represent a great idea and help save the hobbyist some cash.

I don’t think the retailers have to suffer either, because by having bread and butter plants at this more accessible level helps to promote the hobby at the grass roots. As the hobbyist becomes more experienced he or she is more likely to progress to harder to find and more demanding plants — and this is where the retailer can step in.

I put on a quick ‘wanted’ thread and within minutes had offers from Crinums to Amazon swords, and finally a Java fern. Special thanks to Julie Lightfoot who sent my Java fern at very short notice so that I could meet my deadline for completing this project.

Fish choice

I usually find choosing fish quite easy. I generally only have one or two species in my aquariums, but with this being a community tank I would need several.

A visit to The WaterZoo, my local retailer, left me overwhelmed with choice! I split the aquarium into surface, midwater and bottom dwellers and all the fish would have to be able to thrive in hard water, so I narrowed my options to those able to be kept in unadjusted mains water.

Some dwarf Blue gouramis caught my attention and would provide great colour and interest at the surface. A group of Sunset platies with their yellow/red would contrast nicely with the blue and green of the Java fern.  

For midwater a shoal of Bleeding heart tetras would provide nice movement and class.

A pair of Bolivian rams would look great nearer the bottom, with their fascinating behaviour and hardy nature making them suitable for my hardwater set-up.

A shoal of Corydoras on the bottom would complete the picture. I had only kept these once before and I’d almost forgotten how adorable they are. Look out for a biotope project next year!


When the aquarium, cabinet and equipment, supplied by ND Aquatics, arrived I immediately became aware that a 60cm/2’ cube is not particularly small. When most of us think of a two footer tank we probably imagine the classic 60 x 30 x 30cm/ 24 x 12 x 12”, but this cube holds around four times as much water!

Built with 10mm/0.4” rimmed and braced float glass it’s heavy too. I could barely lift the aquarium onto its cabinet, let alone through my house. If attempting anything similar get some help.

Perfect for beginners

This is a perfect kind of set-up for beginners. It takes up relatively little space, considering the volume, and at more than 200 l/44 gal is big enough for a wide variety of community fish — as long as they are compatible and appropriately sized, even when adult.

The eye-catching fish and striking décor create a pleasant focal point in any room. The Java fern is almost maintenance free and, longer term, I would likely add other low maintenance plants such as Anubias and crypts.

This tank has received more visitor compliments than most of my other aquascapes and shows how colourful and active fish can perhaps attract a greater following than the relatively complex and much higher maintenance nature aquariums.

How to create your own cubist tank

1. The set-up includes a 60cm/ 24” cube aquarium braced with 10mm float glass and black silicone. The black ash cabinet and hood are popular choices and also provided are a large external filter, 200w internal heater, twin T8 fluorescent controllers, submersible LED light, air pump, air stones, thermometer and 25kg of pea gravel.

2. I decided against the supplied Dorset pea gravel as it requires extensive pre-washing and raises the pH and hardness. Instead I’ve added 20kg of Unipac Fiji sand that’s been previously washed. It’s a fine quartz gravel with rounded grains, making it inert and suitable for the Corydoras catfish and their delicate barbels.

3. The quartz gravel is placed and then gently sloped up towards the rear of the aquarium to give the illusion of extra depth to the whole structure Only a thin layer is required in this case as there are no rooted plants.

The aquarium has a painted black background so that saves me painting it and I’m using some black plastic filter pipes that blend nicely into the background.

4. The first piece of Manzanita is added. Most aquascapes based around branchy-style wood have the piece protruding with smallest ends uppermost. I have done the opposite and positioned the wood as if it’s fallen into a river or lake.

The wood has been pre-soaked to ensure it sinks and tannin leeching is minimised.

5. More wood is added in a similar fashion. The overall effect looks natural and provides the fish with more places for shelter and offers them a greater feeling of security. The ends of the wood are placed into the substrate with the other ends resting gently against the glass. This positioning keeps the wood secure.

6. Stone wood is then added around the base of the wood. It’s colour and texture appears to complement the substrate and wood, and the pieces are positioned as naturally as possible.

Why not experiment with your positioning? It’s worth taking some time to get all of the décor to your liking as best as possible at this stage before any planting and water filling.

7. Java fern is added around the wood. Because so many pieces of wood cross I place the rhizomes between the pieces and this holds everything. Over a few weeks the ferns will attach more securely.

8. Add de-chlorinated tapwater slowly via a colander. This prevents clouding and helps keep wood and ferns in place. My water is hard, so consider yours when picking fish. Stop the fern drying when filling, or it will die.

9. Once the aquarium is full I fit the other equipment. The internal heater is set to 25°C/77°F and large external filter primed.

Although the external is new I have replaced its media with mature biological media. Otherwise I would have to perform fishless cycling to ensure the fish would not be exposed to toxic ammonia.

10. Once the aquarium water is up to the right temperature the fish are acclimatised as per the retailer recommendations and added to the set-up. Within minutes they seem to be very happy with life in their new surroundings and quickly provide genuine interest and entertainment to all visitors to my home — and of course my family!

Top Tips

  • When designing a layout that’s viewable from two or more sides the most effective style of aquascape is the ‘island’ or ‘triangle’ composition. 
  • Always position your décor before filling the aquarium with water. This way you can spend as long as you wish ensuring you are entirely happy with the design without disturbing the substrate and clouding the water.
  • Open substrate or short planting should be used at the front and left/right to give an effective transition to the focal point(s).

Maintenance schedule

Daily: Check fish health, feed fish, check temperature and filter function.

Weekly: 25% water change minimum (if nitrates creep then change more), clean glass, vacuum substrate.

Monthly: Clean half of filter media in old tank water. Alternatively each half of media every month. Clean glass cover glasses, braces and rims.

Three-monthly: Clean filter hoses and pipe work, prune Java fern.

Annually: Replace fluorescent tubes.

Thanks to…

ND Aquatics for the aquarium, cabinet and other equipment.

The WaterZoo, Peterborough, for the fish.

J and K Aquatics Ltd for the stone wood.

Mike and Julie Lightfoot (UKAPS) for the Java fern.

The equipment supplied by ND Aquatics was a nice surprise. It charged £530 for the entire set-up, which I believe is good value considering the high build quality and extras such as Arcadia lighting and TetraTec external filtration.

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