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Aquarium Aquascape Design and Fish Tank Plant Placement

It used to be that fish tank design consisted primarily of brightly colored gravel, glossy paper or 3D backgrounds, a few plastic plants and a bubbling sunken ship. The best aquarium design concept was to place the sunken ship off to one side rather than centering it. Most of us didn’t strive then to achieve natural looking fish tanks, but, yeah, black gravel with an off-centered, bubbling sunken pirate ship was artsy.

Those days are gone. A few sunken ships still linger, but the world of aquarium aquascaping has expanded to depths most of us couldn’t have envisioned thirty years ago. Today live plants are used prolifically by even casual fishkeepers, utilizing CO2 injectors and special formulas of sand in place of the old brightly colored gravels. Saltwater tanks feature live coral and anemones in abundance, and anyone keeping any kind of fish in a fishbowl these days is harshly criticized -and rightly so.

The more sophisticated options in aquarium aquascape designs range from the lush garden look of the Dutch Style to the sometimes barren looking ‘biotopes’ created to replicate -as much as is possible- the exact conditions the resident fish would have enjoyed in the wild. Tank design itself has evolved to provide endless shapes and possibilities, such as acrylic tubes connecting multiple fish tanks like modules in a hamster cage.

But we needn't expend that much time and money to provide our fish with a comfortable, natural looking fish tank that is also very attractive to human viewers. This article provides an introduction to aquarium aquascape design for your own at-home freshwater fish tank, for the use of amateur and beginner fishkeepers, or anyone looking to update the look of their aquarium.

Picture by Pinpin on Wikimedia Commons

Picture by Pinpin on Wikimedia Commons

Dutch Style Aquascapes

The natural tendency of beginner aquarists when they approach the art of fish tank aquascaping is to place tall plants along the back of their tanks, with smaller plants in front. Of course this seems like an obvious and necessary practice in order to keep all the plants viewable, as well as to add depth to the aquarium.

A similar alternative to this is creating an aquascape design using Dutch streets. The Dutch style of aquascaping dates back to the 1940’s when wide spread use of electricity prompted the birth of modern fishkeeping equipment, and many modern fishkeeping practices.

In general the Dutch style of aquascaping utilizes various plant heights, colors and textures in a densely planted fish tank to create a lush garden look in the fish tank. If your final product –given time to grow in- does not have that appearance, it is not a true Dutch style, although you may have utilized some of the Dutch style techniques in your design. That is, of course, perfectly okay. Even if you don’t seek the look of lush growth, the techniques of Dutch style aquascaping can still be useful in your own aquarium design.

Typically Dutch style aquascapes would contain nothing more than multiple rows of plants in ascending heights, and a narrow strip of unplanted area at the very front. The idea is that plants grow in bunches and strips, like to like. In Dutch style aquascaping this concept is achieved through the use of Dutch streets.

Dutch streets –in the aquascaping sense of the term- are rows of the same stem plants ascending in height the further back into the tank it goes. Dutch streets are created by taking a bunch of stems from the same plant and cutting them at varying lengths. Once cut the stems are planted into the tank with the tallest stem the furthest back, and the next tallest planted in front of it perhaps an inch or so to the side. Then the next tallest is planted, the next and so on until you have achieved a row or strip of the plant growing taller the further back it goes. That is a Dutch street, and an important concept of fish tank aquascaping.

A similar concept would be flower arranging. If you were to arrange two dozen red roses in a vase to be placed on a side table or buffet, you would cut their stems in various heights, placing the tallest stems at the back, and the shortest at the front. The finished result would be an arrangement where every stem –or rose- is visible.

Using the above analogy you can see that aquascaping with Dutch streets is not to form straight lines. Rather a bunch of one thing is cut into varying heights and arranged together in a way that creates a whole, but allows each to be seen. 

Often the best of the Dutch style fish tanks create their Dutch streets at angles. These angled aquarium aquascape designs usually run in the general direction of back right corner towards front left corner. This is for some reason more pleasing to the eye than the opposite left to right.

Again, a variety of plants are used, contrasting colors and leaf shapes and textures to obtain the look of a lush garden within your aquarium aquascape. Plants which wouldn’t work as stem plants are also used, to break up the Dutch streets and provide balance, or to create an alternate focal point.

Another invention of the Dutch style is the corkboard wall in the fish tank. A corkboard backing can be used to attach small plants to with thread. These plants would grow to cover the corkboard giving the tank a living back wall of greenery.

It should be noted that Dutch style aquascaping does require a fair amount of regular pruning to maintain the look. Due to the heavy planting of this look it would not be a good idea to attempt it with synthetic plants. Vacuuming of the gravel and even performing water changes can displace synthetic plants, making regular maintenance extremely time consuming and difficult.  

Nonetheless, though Dutch style aquascaping isn’t advised for fake plants, the design principle of Dutch streets still applies. Attempt groupings of the same plant in natural looking strips, and when using various types of plants, you may want there to be contrast amongst them.

In summary the basic aquascaping design principles of the Dutch aquascaping style are using various heights of not just plants but of each individual stem utilizing stem plants to form natural strips of the same plant, angling these strips or Dutch streets from front left of tank towards back right of tank, contrasting colors and textures, and heavy planting to achieve a lush look. Whether you attempt the lush garden look or not, these concepts are great to keep in mind when considering the possibilities for your own aquarium aquascape design.

Picture by Mikey Swales on Flickr

Picture by Mikey Swales on Flickr

Creating Biotopes

Biotopes are less of a style and more of a quest. Biotope aquascaping is all about attempting to recreate as much as possible the exact environment the inhabitants of your tank would have lived in naturally. Biotope aquascapers strive to find the exact plant types or species if possible, the exact substrate, rocks, driftwood etc.

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It’s a demanding task, and definitely not for the beginner aquarist. In considering your own aquascaping ideas, you should still want to consider the environment you’re creating as a whole. For instance, you’ve created a fish tank aquascape using driftwood, mosses, and leafy plants, with gravel the color of river rocks. Then you drop in a few sea shells.

Quick, take them back out! No good, it’s jarring and incohesive. Ideally your aquarium aquascape will have a general theme, such as river, lake, swamp, jungle, or even an ocean theme if you desire. You may go whimsical or opt for greek ruins or castles, or go for the look of a Chinese garden. Whatever suits you is fine, but you will achieve a much more aesthetically pleasing look if you stick within one general theme.

If you don’t want a particular theme, then for freshwater aquariums the best default theme is a river theme, bog theme or a lake theme. A river theme would generally utilize driftwood accents as would a bog theme, while a lake theme would include large rocks. Generally speaking, though not always true, driftwood and large rocks are better used separately. That said, adding a large rock to a tank with driftwood is perfectly okay if the goal will be to let moss grow over most of it.

Though I don’t at all recommend biotope aquascaping for the beginning aquarist, there are basic principles from biotopes that would benefit your own fish tank design plans. Stick with a general theme, and make certain that no element of your design sticks out as not belonging. Additionally, generally speaking driftwood and large rocks don’t mix well.

Amano Style Tank

Picture by Daniel Kwok on Flickr

Picture by Daniel Kwok on Flickr

Natural Aquascapes and Takashi Amano

Takashi Amano aquascapes can provide great inspiration. For the beginner or casual aquarist, however, that particular amount of detail and maintenance isn't always practical. Even if the beginner aspires to create his own Amano style showpiece, as many of us do, we're better off starting with the basics. Nonetheless, Amano has a good deal to teach us about the basics. One might say that Amano aquascape designs are so basic, that to replicate one is indeed very feasible. But that would be overstating their simplicity.

Like a classic Chanel dress, all you may seem to see is a strikingly lovely but oddly simple black dress. But the way the pieces of the dress are assembled is what makes it so perfect. So it is with Amano aquascapes.

You know what you’re looking at is perfect, but at the same time it may be merely a few stones arranged on a bed of grass. However, if you attempt the same idea on your own without some training, it’ll never look nearly as wondrous.

Takashi Amano is a Japanese aquarist, photographer and writer, whose work in aquascaping has helped to promote and recreate the very art. He's also an environmentalist, and his aquascapes focus on the principle of creating a complete ecological system within the freshwater aquarium that utilizes artistic principles.

Aesthetically speaking, his aquascaping designs evoke a pristine harmony of balanced nature that is stunning in both its grandeur and its simplicity. Live plant life, driftwood or rock formations unite to form a very pleasing and soothing nature scene within the tank. 'Zen like' is a term often used to describe Amano designs, and indeed design principles of Zen design are used to guide his placement of the pieces.

Minimalism is a basic principle of Amano style aquascapes. Most of his designs utilize only a few plant species, or even just one or two. Negative -or empty- space is sometimes abundantly used. Despite these seeming limitations, by using sound, time-tested principles of design, Amano style aquascapes achieve a perfection of beauty and balance.

Uniquely, Amano style aquascapes often strive to create a vast landscape within the confines of the aquarium. Be careful, if you get too into this type of aquascaping, every landscape you see will become a challenge to your mind to visualize how it might be recreated in an aquarium. Here are some guidelines to get you started.

The law of thirds is the starting point. Divide your aquarium and the visualized scene you wish to create into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. The bottom third is that which you can create on the floor of your fish tank, including plants and objects that will not extend very far up. The middle third is generally going to be the bulk of your plantings, while the upper third is the tops of your plantings and the sky or negative space. Another way to look at this is foreground, mid-ground and distance. Using this guide of dividing the vertical will help your aquascaping designs to attain greater depth.

The horizontal division into three helps you with placement of your focal points. The best location of a focal point is generally speaking one of the two dividing lines, either 33.3% or 66.6% down the length of your aquarium. Of course, this doesn’t have to be exact, nor is it an unbendable rule, but asymmetry is often more pleasing to the eye as well as more natural looking.

If your focal point is an interesting piece of driftwood that has some length to it, you may wish to center it, or to position it just off-center. That is fine, and often will be the best location. These aren’t to be thought of as rules that must be abided by, but rather as guidelines that generally work best. If you choose to center your focal point, the law of thirds will still be useful in determin