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Aquascaping Styles: What You Need To Know

Aquascaping Styles: What You Need To Know 1

There are many different aquascaping styles you can use when designing your planted tank. This is good because it allows you a lot of freedom when picking the style. You can be like me and prefer a more natural aquarium style. Others may opt for an Iwagumi style that specializes in the placement of rocks within the tank.

Any of the aquascaping styles will surely produce a beautiful tank. Some will be more beginner friendly and others will require more work. You will see that while one tank is set up with rocks, wood, and plants, another will be very minimalistic.

Each style is different and serves a specific purpose. I think the variety is why aquascaping can be so fun!


Nature Aquarium

This is an aquascaping style that has been made famous by the likes of Takashi Amano, sometimes this is known as the Japanese Style Aquarium. This is my personal favorite aquascape setup. I like the looks of the greens in contrast with the rocks and wood. I think many could find this same connection with the natural style. Nature in itself is very comforting.

The look of a natural tank may not appear to have any organization or planning. The fact is that you can put as much planning into your tank as you want. Considering things such as the rule-of-thirds and the golden ratio can help with balancing. Placing the rocks and wood in contrast to each other or even intermingling them together can give you a lot of options.

This landscape can comprise of plants, rocks, and wood. The plants grow within these objects and create a nice contrast.

I recommend that you take inspiration from real like landscapes. When I say landscapes that is exactly it, the land-based approach. If you are trying to replicate a specific natural underwater scape, then you would be doing a Biotope type aquarium. This is similar but not considered the same as a Nature Aquarium.

Since you have a lot of freedom when it comes to design, it is really up to your imagination. You can try to depict forests, mountains, river ways, or even marshland. Nature with its power can be pretty forgiving when it comes to the design process. Checking out other aquascaping can help give you ideas.

As described by Aqua Design Amano (ADA), and on several fish forums, there can be three main design shapes implemented in a nature aquarium. The Convex, Concave, and Triangular compositions.

  • Convex Shape – All objects are centered in the tank and the sides are left open. This can be described as a mountain type design.
  • Concave Shape – This design has plant, rock, wood buildup on the sides with an open area in the center. The middle could be a path or maybe like a canyon.
  • Triangle Shape – Shaping the tank so that everything resides on one side of the tank or the other. This gives a triangle type shape to the vegetation and keeping a large opening on one side. The vegetation would be higher on one side and slope down to the substrate on the other end.

While I talk about the use of design techniques like the golden ratio, that doesn’t mean that the tank needs to be laid out perfectly. In fact the concept of Wabi Sabi from which this aquarium style is based on explicitly states that imperfection is allowed

From Wikipedia: In traditional Japanese aesthetics, wabi-sabi (侘寂) is a worldview centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection.[2] The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”.

As it is defined on Wikipedia, that can be a hard one to pin down. Basically what I want you to get from it is the idea that you do not need to make every grain of sand in your tank perfect. Wabi Sabi allows for variation in tonality, density, and roughness.

The plants I would pick for the natural style aquarium would be of finer detailed leaves. It would be like creating a masterpiece with precision and not with broad strokes of large leaf plants. Of course, this is completely up to you since this is your design.

Iwagumi Aquarium

Aquascaping Styles: What You Need To Know 2

This is another Japanese style tank. Iwagumi is defined as having rocks as the focal point. It is done in a way that they are replicating Japanese gardening. In contrast to the natural style above this, the Iwagumi has a more organized type of design. You are not restricted to doing a symmetrical design though.

You always want to use an odd number of rocks, normally only three. These are placed with the largest focal-point rock in the center with two or more smaller rocks used as supporting objects. I say centered, but it doesn’t always have to be. The smaller rocks do not need to be leaning on the larger either, they can be off on their own but positioned in a way to point to the focal point.

The plants for the Iwagumi design would be small, mostly foreground carpeting plants. You will not see large stemmy or leafy plants in this tank setup. The plants should complement the contrast of the rocks, not cover or hide them.

Since there is so much open space in this aquascape then it is common for a school of small fish to be added. They will have the open space to move around and show their colors in contrast to the rocks below.

Since you are most likely going to be doing carpeting plants, that limits how you can clean the substrate. Make sure that you are keeping a good cleaning crew to help with the detritus. Also regularly brushing your hand across the plants will dislodge any debris bringing it into the water column to be removed.

  • Oyaishi – This rock is going to be the main focal point. It will be the biggest stone and should be the most visibly striking. Per Iwagumi this rock should be slightly tilted.
  • Soeishi – This is a smaller stone placed near the Oyaishi (largest stone). Not the largest stone and not as small as the Suteishi (smallest stone). This stone helps support the size of the primary Oyaishi stone.
  • Fukuishi – This stone is about medium size compared to the two others. Helps to balance the Oyaishi. It will be placed in contrast or in unison with the largest stone.
  • Suteishi – This is the sacrificial stone, it will be so small and off on its own that it will be overgrown by vegetation. I really don’t see the point in adding this one since you won’t see it later.

Note: Rocks can change the pH of your water drastically. Make sure you are using rocks that are commonly used in aquariums or test them before putting it in the tank. You can introduce harsh minerals such as copper this was also.

Biotope Aquarium

This biotope style can be confused with the nature aquarium. The difference is that this one is trying to faithfully reproduce the natural habitat of a specific species of fish that you wish to keep. An idea of making the same environment will allow the fish to be more comfortable and you also get to see them act more naturally than if they were in a different tank environment. In doing my research on this style, I was really impressed by the biotope inspiration that this site provided,

Going along with the look of the environment you also want to stay true to the water conditions. Is the natural water of the biotope hard or soft? Does it have any specific minerals that will help the fish? So, in short, you want the plants, fish, tank decorations and the water condition to all represent the biotope you are making.

The water can be murky and you could put detritus such as fallen leaves that could be beneficial to some fish species. The different locations will most likely be tropical but that isn’t required. Below are some of the more common biotopes to take inspiration from.

  • African – This one is fun, it will most likely be representing lake Malawi in Africa. Design aesthetics would be based around large piles of smooth rock. You will not find many plants in this setup as many in the hobby are not native to this lake. This is going to be a pH of 7.8 to 8.6.
  • Asian – This is a river or slow-moving estuary biotopes. Some of these rivers are so large that they can have slow moving areas. The environment is a rainforest type with rich sediments. With this richness, you will want to make sure it is heavily planted. This natural rain runoff water is in the 6 to 6.5 pH range.
  • Australian – This is a biotope representing the rainforest mountain creeks of Australia. So this means smooth rocky floor with large leaf plants such as a sword plant. The fish in this one would prefer faster-moving water. The pH on this one is 7 to 7.5.
  • Central American – The coolest copy of this would be the Mexican Cenoté. This is a natural formation in Mexico caused by ground that has washed out from underground springs. This is different than other springs because of the limestone that makes up this area. You will need to make it appear as if there are large mangrove roots from the surface to the substrate. The pH in this biotope is 7 to 8 pH.
  • North American – This can be a biotope of either rivers or lakes. I would recommend finding inspiration in a local stream or maybe where the creek meets a pond. The water can be murky and full of debris. This would have a range of pH but I would go with 6.5 to 7.
  • South American – Like Asia, South America has some really large rivers that feed widespread estuaries. This biotope can range from fast moving water to slow. Large fast growing plants work best here. The pH is from 6.8 to 7.1.

Dutch Aquarium

This style can produce some of the most beautiful tanks but requires the most work in my opinion. It is a style that was created in the 1930’s by the Dutch Society for Aquarists (NBAT). It is a sand only tank without any rocks or wood ornaments. You position the plants in groupings, clumps or rows. The same concept applies where you put the shorter growing plants in the front, then midground plants, and backgrounds plants after.

Make sure you are taking full-size plant growth into account when you are planting the clumps. You may want to use terracing in the substrate to get the different depths you desire.

You would want to create a focal point with a bushy red plant such as a Magenta Rotala. This dark maroon color contrasted by green will really make it stand out. When the plants grow out it should cover the whole substrate. The whole coverage should allow the tank to be pleasant from any angle. Being visible from the front is usually how the Dutch style aquarium goes.

This type of setup requires a lot of upkeep. In order for the plants to grow optimally, you will need to trim frequently. You can keep replanting the cuttings to get the tank filled out how you would like it. Stem plants will do very well in this situation and you may end up remove a bunch each time you trim.

This aquascaping style also requires a good CO2 and fertilizer regiment. I would consider the Dutch style to be a more advanced tank even though it is only planted. This high-tech tank will cause fast algae growth so make sure you have a good cleaning crew.

Walstad Aquarium

Aquascaping Styles: What You Need To Know 3

This is a fairly recent aquascaping style. It was introduced by Diana Walstad who is an authority on planted tanks. In a way, I would consider this type more natural than the natural style. It isn’t because it isn’t natural plants but in how you do the aquarium.

From TheAquariumWiki: Provide an ecosystem where plants and fish balance each other’s needs. The soil underlayer ensures that plants grow well enough to out-compete algae and recycle fish waste and toxins (e.g., ammonia, nitrite, etc.). Without soil, plants don’t grow well enough to do “their job”.

This is the ‘El Natural’ style where you do not use CO2, fertilizers, and no vacuuming of the substrate. It is the lowest-tech tank there could be. You provide the micronutrients through the water changes.

You will most likely use an organic potting soil for the base substrate, ideally, it would be aquatic pond soil. It is important that you do not pick a soil that has manure in it as it will create toxins when it breaks down. After that put a cap on it of either gravel or sand.

After that, you pick the fastest growing plants you can get. The speed of growth is important so that the plants will out compete the algae in the tank. Over time the tank will mature so well that you will barely have to maintain it.


Golden Ratio – This allows you to have a cohesive aquascape that looks like one organized piece. If you do not use this kind of design aesthetic then your tank can appear a little haphazard. This helps bring the focus to a specific focal point in your tank.

Rule-of-thirds – This is a common technique that comes from art and photography. It basically outlines as a grid similar to tic-tac-toe. It will give you the boxes in order to arrange the proper layout.

Planting – When planting use shallow water level in the tank so that it wets the substrate and keeps the roots embedded. If you fill the tank all the way it will be very difficult to seat the plants because they will float.

Quick Growing Plants – Some of the quicker plants to grow can be the easiest as well. I suggest Amazon Swords, Chain Swords, Sagittaria Grass, Dwarf Tiger Lily, Cryptocoryne, Java Fern, and Rotala. These should give you enough variety and color.

Clean Your Tank – This one isn’t really aquascaping specific, but I emphasize this in all my writing about aquariums. Cleaning your tank is one of the most important things you can do in the aquatic hobby. Many of these aquascaping styles will not allow for proper vacuuming. Some will not require it at all. The tank is a confined space and doesn’t have the capability to replenish itself. It is up to us to take care of it.

Check out this video from Oliver Knott on YouTube, the video work on this one is amazing. The details being explained are next to none.  I am really impressed by the presentation, good job Oliver!


This article should give you more knowledge when it comes to designing your aquascape. I have tried to provide all of the needed information to try and figure out which style will work for you.

After you have picked a style, you can select the plants. There are many options available some are beginner friendly and others require more attention.

I really like the nature aquarium since it gives me more freedom in designing it. I also want to try a Walstad tank. I think it would look great in my office and wouldn’t need a lot of attention after it starts going.

Now get out there and aquascape!

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