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How To Get Started With Freshwater Aquascaping

How To Get Started With Freshwater Aquascaping 1

This is exciting, let’s talk about aquascaping!

Aquascaping is a hard one to find a definition for. Not all dictionaries or auto-corrects 😜 will recognize it. It is easy to see aquascaping as an extension of planted aquarium keeping.

From “Aquascaping is the craft of arranging aquatic plants, as well as rocks, stones, cavework, or driftwood, in an aesthetically pleasing manner within an aquarium—in effect, gardening under water”.

That is a simplified description, however. I want you to understand that it takes some creative processes and maybe a little green thumb. Do not be discouraged though, anyone can do this.

Like with all aquariums the final design is ultimately up to you, the keeper of the tank. You want to make a tank that is aesthetically pleasing, and then it will be sure to keep your interest. Plus the end goal is to have something you can show off with pride.

Freshwater and Saltwater tanks can both be designed with aquascaping in mind. Today I will talk about freshwater aquascaping. I will attempt to make this as easy to follow as possible. It should help clear up some questions you may have.


So as stated before I will be focusing on freshwater aquascaping. This is an easy hobby to get into. It can be made even easier if you have the equipment for a normal aquarium set up already.

I am selecting the freshwater version because I can easily get the plants and fish I want. The freshwater tank can also be easier to maintain as compared to saltwater. You do not have to worry about balancing the tank as much.

Both types offer a beautiful underwater kingdom that can add a nice touch to any place in your home or office. The saltwater can be exotic with many different vibrant colors. The freshwater can bring you back to earth with its strong nature tones.

I feel there is also a larger community around the freshwater aquascape. There is a ton of information available on the types of plants to use, how much light to give and even the fertilizers.

There are several different types of aquascaped aquariums. Some can be simple, with only a single rock displayed and a lush green carpet surrounding it. Others can be full of plants from top to bottom giving your tank a jungle feel.

Some of the more well recognized aquascaping styles are:

  • Nature Aquarium
  • Iwagumi Aquarium
  • Biotope Aquarium
  • Jungle Aquarium
  • Dutch Aquarium
  • Walstad Aquarium

I tend to stick with the natural style. The materials are easier to come by and can even be gathered. Depending on where you live you can get some driftwood or maybe some really cool rocks.

So now that we know that there are different types of aquascaping themes, and we have selected the natural style, let’s find out more.


At a bare minimum, you will need an already set up tank, that’s with the substrate awesome light and all. If you do not have that then read on.

Ok for starters you are going to need an aquarium and all of the fixings. So that means the tank, a stand (if needed), the filters, the lights, and more.

If you are considering a planted tank then you have other requirements. The light has to be sufficient enough to provide for the plants. It helps to get one that has a broad enough light spectrum, and the plants will be happy. When I say broad, I mean it covers all spectrums including red. In order for some aquatic plants to produce dark tones and sometimes spots, red light is needed.

I recommend getting this one from Amazon. It is a great starter light that will last forever, has a ton of options and it provides all of the spectra aquatic plants need.

The plants will also need a nutrient rich substrate or one that is supplemented with root tab fertilizers. This is the dirt that the plants grow from. For our tank, we will be using a mix of substrates and a top layer as well.

You will also need either rocks, wood or both. You can find these yourself, or purchase them.

NOTE: It may be a good idea to flush out a spreadsheet with all of the items you need for your set up. The spreadsheet will help keep track of everything you have and still need to purchase.


The perfect substrate is one that will provide long-term nutrients for the plants. The substrate cannot have too many organics or it could turn to rot and make for a dangerous tank environment.

There is a wide range of different substrates used in aquariums:

  • CaribSea Eco-Complete
  • Fluval Stratum
  • ADA Aquasoil Amazonia
  • Seachem Fluorite
  • Potting Soil
  • Sand

I personally like to use a mix of a few from above. I would go with some of the Eco-Complete, the Fluval Shrimp and Plant Stratum, and the ADA Aquasoil Amazonia.

I have used the Flourite substrate in the past and was pretty satisfied. I have yet to attempt using the potting soil, that will be for another post!

Make sure to use an online calculator that helps with volume for your substrate. This will help you determine how much of the different substrates to buy.

NOTE: I find that it is always a good idea to have a few extra bags of substrate on hand. This could be for a failed tank setup, repairs to a current tank, or maybe use it for a new aquarium later on.


Rocks can be a great addition to your new planted scape. They can be small smooth pebbles or large jagged shards.

They can be arranged in any manner. Wound into the path of a stream or set off center as the display rock. There are whole styles just based on the rock you pick and where you put it.

You can also get exotic rocks online and really be a show-off. Another option would be to go out around your house and find some that would look great in your tank.

You can also look online to try and find other aquarists that have found unique rocks in your area. You may need to drive an hour or two but it would give you the potential to find something really unique.

Ok, so the rocks sound really cool. The options are almost endless. A warning though, be careful with the types of rocks you put in your tank. Some rocks can be harmful to your fish. They can have copper in them, or maybe a chemical-finish to them.

NOTE: Never put polished rocks in your fish tank! These rocks can have chemicals that can be very harmful to your fish. This is a big no-no for crustaceans.


How To Get Started With Freshwater Aquascaping 2

Wood can be a great compliment to the rocks in your new planted tank. They can add that extra touch of nature your aquascape needs.

Luckily you can find wood for your tank in many places. Just as with the rocks you need to be careful when putting any type of wood in your tank.

Some wood will carry parasites with it that can contaminate your fish tank. There are other things such as tannins in wood that can cause the tank water to turn brown or get cloudy.

Tannins are a naturally occurring compound in trees and give the wood a darker color. This is the same stuff that gives some wine its dark hue.

It is always best to do some testing of the wood prior to devoting it to your tank. One way to test or condition the wood would be to run a bath and soak the wood for a good amount of time. You will find that this process can take a few days to even a week.

You may need to change the bath water from time to time since it will become colored with the tannins. This soaking process will also help saturate the wood. Soaked wood will have a better chance of staying at the bottom of the tank and not floating.

Sometimes you will find that after soaking you cannot get a piece of wood to stay down. You can try a few different things such as boiling the wood if it is small enough to fit in a pot. You can also try weighing down the wood with your rocks.


There are many different types of plants that you can pick for your tank. Some aquatic plants are easier to grow than others.

You might find that you cannot get a certain plant to grow without the proper light and fertilizer conditions. Other plants you may have to keep cutting back because they grow like a weed.

When designing your tank layout. It is good to look for a variety of plant types and colors. Just like the color, leaf shape can make a big difference when paired with a plant contrasting that form.

The three categories to look for would be foreground, midground, and background plants. Picking the right ones for the right location can make a big difference for your tanks appeal.

The foreground plants would be most types that grow to a maximum height of 2-3”. Often you will see a low growing plant that can be planted to form a carpet. Keeping the carpet trimmed can allow for a thick dense look.

Some of my favorite foreground plants include baby tears, Staurogyne Repens, and dwarf hair grass.

For the mid-ground, it is good to go with medium sized plants that offer a more bushy feel. The midground plants that I like to include are the Cryptocoryne, Java Fern, Amazon Sword, and Dwarf Lily.

To go in the background we need taller plants that will not be dwarfed by the plants in from of them. Some of the midground plants can work in this category if left to grow taller. In the background category, I would suggest Rotala, Vallisneria, Ludwigia, Cabomba, and Wisteria.

There can be other types of plants also. Some can be free floating and just at the surface of the water. Others like the Dwarf lily can be small and bushy or long and reaching.


When looking at what fish to get and how many, care for the bioload should be considered. For each living creature you put in your tank they can produce bio-waste. This can add up and become toxic for the other fish.

This is the reason why we do periodic water changes. In nature, the water is able to be replaced, but not so in the aquarium.

Two things to look at, both the size of the fish when full grown, and also the ratio of those fish to the water amount.

You can go find many fish-to-water ratio calculators online. These calculators can give you a good idea of where to start. They are most likely unable to take into account the size of the fish, their eating habits, and how aggressive they are.

The larger the fish, the most waste produced. That is understandable, the messier the fish the more waste they can leave in the tank. Some will only eat part of the food and leave the rest to rot at the bottom.

If a fish is excessively aggressive then they can destroy the plants in the tank causing bio-waste as well.

With all that said it also comes down to how much food you feed each time. If you over feed then you will have the waste and pests that come with it. Keeping the food in check can make for a healthier aquarium.

Frequently cleaning the tank and also having a cleaning crew can help big time. Examples of cleaning crew inhabitants are Shrimp, Snails, Corydoras, and Plecostomus.


How To Get Started With Freshwater Aquascaping 3

There are so many places to pull information from for your aquascape project. For our natural setup, the best place is probably from nature itself.

Go ahead and take a hike, find yourself a mountain stream. The winding path stream, the smooth rocks, or the water-jammed log.

You can go to the public library and find many books related to the subject. YouTube can be a great source of information as well.

Also, do not forget about going local. Your local fish shop can be a wealth of information. They got into this field because they are passionate about fish keeping.


So it isn’t enough to just set up your tank and put some plants in it. You will want to make sure that you are taking care of them.

Plant fertilizer partnered with CO2 can make your plants grow very quickly.

Cleaning on a weekly or bi-weekly routine can keep the tank healthy for long periods of time. The plants and fish will be happier because of it.

Check out this video from Aquaddiction UK on YouTube, they have some great points on starting your aquascape. The process is a great step by step, and there is a good before and after also.


OK go start! I know I know, I get stuck watching videos over and over or even reading everything I find. I feel like I need to gather as much information on a subject as possible. Sometimes though the best thing to do is to ‘Just start’!

Much of the experience with the aquascaping and the aquarium, in general, will come as you work through the process.

The way I would go about it is to go around and look for inspiration. Then look for materials that can make that style you want. Get all of the supplies.

You will then need to design your tanks layout. From here you can start the process when you have everything. Take it slow.

Set up a table that you can put plastic down. You will open up the plants, cleaning off the old plant material and dirt. Separate them out and lay them on the plastic.

Spray them periodically with water to keep them from drying out while working. If you pre-sort, it will make it much easier to plant. Moisten the substrate with a few inches of water and then go!

Now there are many different things you can still do to your tank. There are other paths that you can take when setting up your Aquascape. The key is to keep learning and monitoring. For the most part, your tank will take care of itself when established.

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