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Aquascaping Basics - Part Three

George Farmer

30 Jun 2007
In Part Two we looked in more detail at the concepts behind Nature Aquarium aquascaping including composition, focal points and the golden ratio as well as studying and using nature itself as a tool. This month we will look at the importance of choosing and arranging our plants and hardscape (wood, rocks) as well as some practical tips and techniques.

Painting with plants

An aquascape can be likened to a painting, the main differences being our planted aquarium is living and three-dimensional. Think of us as the artist, our hands and tools as the brush, the naked aquarium as the canvas, and of course not forgetting the vital ingredient – the plants as the paint. So we therefore need to choose our plants, their quantity and location with foresight and care just like an artist chooses their paint and brushstrokes to suit their intention.


A common mistake for many aquascapers is not paying sufficient attention to the foreground. Plants that remain low in height and carpet are both very popular and effective in the Nature Aquarium. These create the base of the aquascape and help to fill out the picture producing the effective use of space that we discussed last month. Ideally the foreground will provide an attractive transition to the taller plants or hardscape behind so it is important to choose the species that compliment each other’s colour, texture and leaf shape. An effective transition can be achieved by having foreground plants that either contrast vividly with the plants/hardscape behind or at the other end of the spectrum look similar in shape and colour – it depends on what type of aquascape you wish to produce. One attribute that all foregrounds should have is to convey a feeling of relative open space that harmonises with the rest of the composition.


As I mentioned carpeting plants are very effective for creating the foreground. These have the advantage of self-propagation via runners and a planted carpet can quickly fill our desired area in a few weeks or months (species and tank spec. dependent). Most carpeting plants are sold in pots. They need to be removed (carefully pick off the growth media from around the roots) and separated into individual plantlets using sharp scissors. Each plantlet then needs to be planted separately using tweezers – spread the plantlets out uniformly to achieve an even growth rate for the carpet. The plantlets may need re-planting occasionally until their roots provide sufficient anchorage. With the right levels of lighting and nutrients the plantlets will quickly establish and send out new runners. Over a few weeks the plants will multiply and a carpet will form surprisingly quickly if conditions are ideal. I have had a 3cm / 1” thick carpet of Glossostigma elatinoides establish itself from just thirty or so single plantlets in six weeks or so. Maintenance is species dependent but generally the carpet will need thinning once it is too thick as the leaves can smother out light causing the plant to suffocate from the bottom. Low water circulation and excess detritus build-up can be an issue in very thick carpets. These can lead to potential algae and cyanobacteria problems so maintaining a carpet is important.

Thinning the carpet can be as simple as taking some sharp scissors and giving the lawn a “haircut”. Depending on the species after a few months it may be necessary to uproot the whole carpet and replant the healthiest specimens. The key is “little and often” where maintenance is concerned, this prevents huge maintenance tasks later on.

Popular carpeting foreground plants

Cryptocoryne parva
Echinodorus tenellus
Eleocharis acicularis
Glossostigma elatinoides
Hemianthus calletrichoides
Lilaeopsis brasiliensis
Marsilea angustifolia
Sagittaria platyphylla
Sagittaria pusilla

Other foreground aquascaping techniques

We don’t have to use carpeting plants in our foreground. Small rocks, stones or pebbles can be used to provide a natural look. These look even better when covered with moss, Riccia fluitans or small Anubias i.e. Anubias barteri var. nana or the smaller ‘petite’ variety.

A fairly new technique used in the Nature Aquarium is to have an open sandy foreground. This can provide a great contrast to the plants behind and is obviously low maintenance. It is important to bear in mind what we discussed earlier about a smooth transition though. Going from an empty sand foreground directly to some tall stem plants would more than likely look very unnatural and unappealing. Using moss or Anubias covered stones is an effective way to provide an attractive blend from the sand to the planted area behind. These covered stones also have the benefit of requiring far less maintenance than traditional carpets due to their slower growth.

Mid-ground to background

The mid-ground to background has an infinite potential for variety and there are no set rules as such, just guidelines. Depending on what style of aquascape we wish to create obviously dictates how the mid-ground needs to be filled. The planting scheme and hardscape should compliment the foreground and create a sense of balance to the overall layout. In contrast to the foreground’s relative open space the remaining areas can be filled with anything ranging from a few dominating rocks and single species of plant to a more complex composition perhaps containing wood, rocks and over a dozen different species of plant. The mid-ground and background will contain the main body of the picture and typically situate the highlighting plants and hardscape i.e. the focal point(s). As discussed last month it is very important to choose our focal points carefully and so planning our planting and hardscape positioning is vital to ensure that the aquascape appeals to the observer and draws the eye across the whole layout in pleasing manner.

Plants that can be used as focal points and highlights

The size of the aquarium and our own style influences what species of plant should be used as a focal point. The obvious choice is red plants as these contrast well with the greens that are generally used in the foreground (and sometimes background).

Popular red plants

Alternanthera reineckii
Ammania gracilis
Barclaya longifolia
Cabomba piauhyensis
Echinodorus barthii
Echinodorus horemanii ‘red’
Echinodorus ‘Red Flame’
Eusteralis stellata
Hygrophila polysperma ‘sunset’
Limnophila aromatica
Ludwigia arcuata
Ludwigia glandulosa
Ludwigia inclinata
Myriophyllum mattagrossense ‘red’
Nesaea sp.
Nypmhaea lotus var. rubra
Nymphaea stellata
Rotala macrandra
Rotala rotundifolia
Rotala wallichii

Did you know?
Most red plants require plenty of light and nutrients, in particular iron to look their reddest. Many plants will actually remain green until there is sufficient light and nutrients – Ludwigia arcuata is one example. On the other hand some plants turn their reddest when deprived of nitrogen. A classic early symptom of nitrogen deficiency in regular Hygrophila polysperma is pinking of the leaves. Some aquascapers will use this to their advantage and deliberately “starve” their plants of nitrogen prior to photographing.

Because red plants make excellent focal points it is important to ensure that for most aquascapes only one group is used. As discussed last month one major focal point is all that should be employed to ensure the aquascape is well balanced. Larger aquariums i.e. over 150cm / 60” can employ more than one focal point but bear in mind the overall layout to ensure there is not too much tension created from drawing the observer’s eye back and forth excessively. I have listed red plants here but red/brown plants can also be used as an effective focal point.

Of course we do not have to use colourful plants as our focal points. Hardscape and other dominating plants can be used. My most recent aquascape had no red plants and no visible hardscape. Instead I relied on my three-year-old Microsorium pteropus (Java fern) to provide a dominating focal point. The other plants were chosen to compliment and to provide a smooth transition from the fuller (positive) to the emptier (negative) space. This aquascape also provides a good example of how fish selection is important as discussed in Part One of this series. Imagine the tank filled with many different fish species; it would look rather odd and provide little harmony to this aquascape’s simplicity. (See georgenature.jpg)

Stem plants

With such a diverse range of colours, leaf shapes, leaf size, texture, size and growth characteristics it is no wonder stem plants often form a large proportion of a successful aquascape. They should always be planted in dense groups of the same species, ideally planting two or three stems in the same hole using tweezers. Plant each group of stems around an inch apart. Do not use lead weights as they restrict growth. Planting densely from the outset is important to avoid algae as discussed in my previous series.

Most stem plants require regular pruning, every week or so. I like to maintain my plants at the same time as my weekly water change. After planting new stem plants it is a good idea to allow them to reach the surface before pruning. This ensures a very strong growing tip and if we choose to replant the cutting then it will have the best chance of success. It is important to use sharp scissors when pruning stems as this prevent crushing and damaging of the plant.

The careful positioning of the stem plants in their groups is very important. Think in terms of dark/light colours and fine/broad leaves. Placing dark green plants towards the edges with lighter plants towards the center creates a nice contrast and a greater illusion of space. The same principle applies to leaf shapes; finer leafed plants should be planted toward the center with broader leaves toward the edges. It is all about creating effective contrasts and spaces bringing harmony and balance to the aquascape.

With many stem plants the lower portions of the plant are not very well developed so it is a very good idea to obstruct this ugly part of the plant. Non-stem plants and/or hardscape i.e. small Crypts, Anubias, ferns, rocks, wood etc. are effective for this task.

Popular fine leafed stem plants

Diplidis diandra
Hemianthus micranthemoides
Hydrotriche hottoniiflora
Hottonia inflata
Mayaca fluviatilis
Mayaca sellowiana
Micranthemum umbrosum
Potamogeton gayi
Rotala sp.“Green”
Rotala sp.“Nanjenshan”
Rotala rotundifolia var. Green

Popular broader leafed stem plants

Bacopa caroliniana
Cardamine lyrata
Gymnocoronis spilanthoides
Heteranthera zosterifolia
Hydrocotyle leucocephala
Hygrophila corymbosa
Hygrophila difformis
Hygrophila polysperma
Hygrophila salicifolia
Hygrophila stricta
Lobelia cardinalis
Ludwigia mullertii
Ludwigia palustris
Ludwigia repens
Lysimachia nummularia

Regular pruning of stem plants will result in a bushier appearance due to side shoots being produced. Eventually the lower portion of the plant may become weak so uproot, cut from the bottom and re-plant the stronger upper portion.

Non-stem plants

Non-stem plants i.e. that grow from a bulb or rhizome have the benefit of generally needing less maintenance. They do not need regular pruning and re-planting like many stems and can be left in situ for long periods of time, years in some cases for slow growers i.e. Anubias, mosses, ferns and some Crypts (Cryptocoryne sp.). I’ve said it before in previous articles and make no apology for repeating myself but do your research. Check out the maximum potential size for the species and ensure that it won’t take over your aquarium i.e. it wouldn’t be wise to plant an Amazon sword like Echinodorus bleheri in a small, shallow aquarium. Remember that after purchase the plant will probably grow significantly once established. For this reason it is important to choose our specimens with care. As with stem plants the same principles can be applied when positioning the non-stem plants i.e. finer leaves and lighter colours plants toward the center of the aquascape and darker coloured, heavier leaves at the edges. Obviously taller plants should be placed toward the rear. Ideal non-stem background plants include Crinum sp., Aponogeton sp., most Vallisneria sp., and tall Cryptocoryne sp. and Cyperus helferi.

Popular non-stem plants (not including plants that attach to hardscape)

Aponogeton sp.
Blyxa aubertii
Blyxa japonica
Crinum calamistratum
Crinum natans
Cyperus helferi
Cryptocoryne sp.
Echinodorus sp.
Eleocharis vivipari
Hydrocotyle verticillata
Vallisneria sp.

The importance of hardscape

Hardscape is defined as hard aquascaping materials. The right balance of hardscape and planting gives us a very natural look to the aquarium and helps us create the very essence of the Nature Aquarium. There are two main types of hardscape in the Nature Aquarium – wood and rocks.


If we choose to use driftwood as our hardscape it is important to remember that it can and often should form the framework of the aquascape. The shape, size and placement of the pieces of wood will determine how the aquascape will appear and the plants should be planted accordingly to compliment the wood and vice versa. Because the wood may well be a very dominating feature to the layout it is vital to take time and care when setting it up in the aquarium. Think golden ratios and focal points as discussed last month.

There are two ways to choosing our wood. The most common method is to pick a piece or pieces that we particularly like, install them into the aquarium then plan the rest of the aquascape around it. The more experienced aquascapers will have an aquascape design already planned and then wait until that ideal piece is found that fits in with their design. If locating a suitable piece of wood is difficult then remember that it is possible to combine several pieces together. “Branchy” driftwood is popular in Nature Aquarium aquascapes but unfortunately it is hard to source in the UK. Aqua Essentials (http://www.aquaessentials.co.uk) is one outlet that I know stocks it. Or you could get lucky and find some in a river or on the beach. Be careful that some wood may rot in the warm aquatic environment of our tank so it is worth soaking it in a suitable large container to test it. Even wood bought from shops may leak tannins. Submerging the wood in boiling water can flush out the tannins rapidly. Tannins in the aquarium are not harmful though so do not worry. Active carbon filtration and plenty of water changes will help clear the water.


A popular Nature Aquarium aquascape is one that uses rocks as the dominating feature. Either we can attempt to recreate a scene from nature itself, reproduce the style of a Japanese rock garden or create something individual to our own style.

There are many types of rock that can be used in the aquascape but whatever type you choose ensure the edges are not sharp. Not only can the fish harm themselves but they will give a harsh feeling to the layout. When choosing rock do not pick each rock out for its individual appeal but look how they will look when placed in groups of three or five etc. Always keep it an odd number. Try out as many rocks as necessary and keep experimenting with various positions until the ideal combination and position occurs. Sit the rocks at different angles – on their side, lying down, leaning, touching one another etc. Do not line up the rocks in line with one another if they are the same size or arrange them symmetrically as it will look unnatural and unattractive. Stick to the same type and colour/shade of rock. Using contrasting rocks will look unnatural.

Dressing hardscape

In the Nature Aquarium plants are often attached to wood (and rock to a lesser extent). This helps create a natural appearance described as Wabi Sabi that we discussed in the first part of this series.

Popular plants that attach to hardscape

Anubias barteri var. nana (and varieties)
Bolbitis heudelotii
Microsorium pteropus (and varieties)
Vesicularia dubyana
Fontinalis antipyretica
Riccia fluitans

All the above plants can be attached to the wood or rock using cotton thread. This will eventually rot but by this time the plant will have secured itself to the hardscape. The once exception is Riccia fluitans that should be tied on either using a fishing line that helps reflect light back onto the plants or a hairnet that can be used effectively to secure larger clumps of the plant to pieces of slate etc.

Before attaching the plants it is important to visualise how the plant will affect the aquascape composition. Arrange the wood in the aquarium prior to attaching the plant and ensure the plant is attached to the desired area of the wood best suited to the aquascape.

Sketching our intentions

So we have in our imagination what aquascape we wish to produce, either a copy from another aquascape or combination of aquascapes that we admire or an inspired scene from nature. It is entirely possible to use a completely imaginary scene too; it may be conjured up from old memories, dreams, or simply something we fancy creating. If you are not copying an aquascape directly then at this point it is a good idea to sketch our intentions. Draw the groups of plants and hardscape, to scale if possible and ensure the layout appears as you wish – using the golden ratio here is a good idea. Experiment with different compositions until you are entirely satisfied that what you have planned. Remember that aquascaping is a living art and therefore your final result may look different from your original intention, sometimes this can work in our favour, sometimes not. With more experience you will gain a greater sense of foresight. Practice makes perfect.

Final word

As I mentioned at the end of my high-tech planted series, the techniques I have described in this series are by no mean the “best”. What I have outlined are the basic principles to hopefully give you an idea of how to go about creating something that you can gain real pleasure from on many levels. Most of the techniques described can be applied to whatever style of aquascape you choose – Nature Aquarium or not.

Please feel free to visit http://www.fishforums.net and http://www.aquaessentials.co.uk/forum where I am a moderator and will be happy to respond to any questions or feedback (spare time permitting).

Recommended reading

Nature Aquarium World Books One, Two and Three by Takashi Amano (1996) TFH publications, inc.
Aquatic Plant Paradise by Takashi Amano (1997) TFH publications, inc.
Aqua Journal magazines (Japanese to English translation – rare) Vectrapoint publishing
ADA Euro Catalogue (2006) available from http://www.aquaessentials.co.uk
The Inspired Aquarium by Jeff and Mike Senke (2006) Quayside Publishing

Recommended websites

http://www.pbase.com/plantella/nature_a ... llery_2005

Twisted Melon

4 Feb 2018
Depending on the species after a few months it may be necessary to uproot the whole carpet and replant the healthiest specimens.

I really didn’t know this. It kinda puts me off doing a carpet. Especially smas I’m getting going.

What are the species George refers to that don’t require this?


Tim Harrison

5 Nov 2011
George has a point, but if you choose the right species and stay on top of trimming and maintenance a carpet should last a lot longer than a few months.
I've had my carpet of MC for three months and it's still going strong. I expect it will continue to do so for a long time yet...

Prior to that I kept a carpet of HC going for the best part of 6 months.

However, if you don't stay on top of trimming HC carpets will eventually lift, and then you will have to replant, as George mentions...


16 Apr 2015
What are the species George refers to that don’t require this?

Anything small trailing stem species.. If these suffer melt or get an algae attack that needs trimming than you are looking at stems with leaves dead, faul or dirty with algae. Than it is about impossible to snip out every sinlge tiny leaf 1000nds of them and even if so, it still would leave you with an empty leafless stem. And because it are trailing plants spreading left and right and up it intertwines like a wig and stack, possibly more likely creating accumulating dead spots with too little circulation under it that is to much shaded from light it can get unhealthy and dirty. There is little saying if when and how, it is go with the flow and do when and what is nessecary to keep it growing healthy. :)

Grassy plant species that grow from a rosete, like dwarf sag or hairgrass is again a different story requiring an other approach and a tad more easy to maintain.

Tim Harrison

5 Nov 2011
Anything small trailing stem species.. If these suffer melt or get an algae attack that needs trimming than you are looking at stems with leaves dead, faul or dirty with algae. Than it is about impossible to snip out every sinlge tiny leaf 1000nds of them and even if so, it still would leave you with an empty leafless stem. And because it are trailing plants spreading left and right and up it intertwines like a wig and stack, possibly more likely creating accumulating dead spots with too little circulation under it that is to much shaded from light it can get unhealthy and dirty. There is little saying if when and how, it is go with the flow and do when and what is nessecary to keep it growing healthy. :)

Grassy plant species that grow from a rosete, like dwarf sag or hairgrass is again a different story requiring an other approach and a tad more easy to maintain.
There is that - the dreaded melt, and it can be a problem. Luckily, I've only experienced it at the very beginning of a scapes life, probably because the plants didn't transition well from emersed to immersed growth...and/or because the plants weren't particularly healthy in the first place. At that stage it's easy to pull up the plants and replant with new healthy ones.

The only other problem I had with a carpet was with one composed of dwarf hair grass. This fell victim to an outbreak of BBA, or something similar. The CO2 cylinder died whilst I was away on holiday, and the algae took hold in the areas of highest flow. But don't let that put you off Twisted Melon ;) The beginning of the end...


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