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Aquascaping Basics - Part Two

George Farmer

30 Jun 2007
In Part One we discussed the basic principles behind three styles of planted aquarium aquascaping - Dutch, Jungle and Nature with an emphasis on the original Nature Aquarium concept as pioneered and developed by Japan’s Takashi Amano. In this Part Two I will detail the aquascaping theories and techniques involved with creating our own Nature Aquarium.

High vs. low-tech

Most of the techniques described will assume that you already have some background knowledge on the planted aquarium subject, particularly the higher-tech methods i.e. plenty of light, CO2 injection, nutrient-rich substrate and water. A high-tech planted aquarium is preferable for the majority of aquascaping enthusiasts because plant choice is not a limiting factor due to the higher lighting and nutrient levels that are utilised. These are essential to satisfy even the most demanding species that are synonymous with many Nature Aquariums i.e. Glossostigma elatinoides, submerged Riccia fluitans and stem plants such as the lovely Eusteralis stellata. However it is still possible to create a beautiful aquascape in a lower-tech aquarium i.e. low light, non-CO2 injection. Just bear in mind that it may be difficult to grow most of the carpeting foreground plants and other demanding species that are often associated with the Nature Aquarium style of aquascaping.

To copy or not?

So where do we start with our aquascape, assuming we already have all the appropriate equipment and knowledge necessary to grow our plants successfully? A plan is always a very good idea, even though the final layout will more than likely not rigidly conform to our initial intentions. Plants grow at different rates; form varying shapes, textures and colours than we may have initially expected. Photographs of the plants themselves and from aquascapes in books, magazines and the web will often look significantly different in our own aquarium. The huge amount of variables (light, nutrients, water chemistry, temperature, plant origin, complex bio-chemical interactions etc.) involved in the aquarium environment dictate these inevitable differences. The actual photography may also mislead the reader to a certain degree.

Copying beautiful aquascapes from other talented aquascapers will often result in something that may not entirely resemble the original work. However it is still a very useful exercise. Appropriate plant species, hardscape choice (rocks, wood etc.) and composition will generally be employed and providing we utilise an ideal balance of light, CO2 and nutrients then success, to a degree at least will be inevitable. This is a very beneficial learning experience particularly for beginners. The important lessons learnt will boost confidence and later enable the aquascaper to create an original work that they may well prefer and provide them with a greater sense of satisfaction.

Using Nature

The master, Takashi Amano teaches us to use nature as the inspiration for our aquascapes. Most of us can appreciate the beauty of nature, and not just stereotypical wonders such as huge waterfalls and mountain ranges but the smaller things. For instance a small group rocks in a stream can give us a valuable lesson in aquascape composition. The rocks all vary in size, shape and position. They are not positioned symmetrically and more often than not there will be a large rock to draw the eye. This is the focal point (more on that later). The same principles can be applied for plant arrangement. In nature notice how often tall plants exist behind shorter ones, creating a pleasing layered effect with a dominant group of plants creating a focal point. All these concepts can be adapted to our own Nature Aquarium aquascape with great success, a technique in Japan known as Shakkei (pronounced sigh-kay).

It is important to remember that when attempting to recreate a scene from nature that we are not necessarily reproducing a miniaturized scale model of the whole environment. This is not only impractical, especially in the smaller confines of the aquarium but it will often not portray the feeling of nature that we are attempting to convey. It is usually more effective to concentrate on a small area of a larger surrounding and use this to aid us in the design of the aquascape. And the key word here is “aid” as we do not have to copy exactly what we see, just use nature to help guide us in our aquascape composition.

“The process of recreating a scene from nature in your aquarium is not like model building... It is through our own sensitivity and feeling for nature, rather than mere imitation or its exact reconstruction. In adaptation for aquascaping design, elements are used symbolically to represent parts of a natural vista.”

Takashi Amano – “Taking our cue from nature”, Aqua Journal no. 35


There are three basic shaped compositions that can be employed in the Nature Aquarium – triangular, mound (also known as island or convex) and U-shaped (also known as concave). These three styles can also be combined to a degree to create an appealing aquascape i.e. one may have a concave foreground in front of a convex (island/mound) main composition.


The use of triangles is an effective way to construct the layout of plants, hardscape and substrate. If the aquarium is being viewed from more than one side then bear this in mind and position the plants, hardscape and substrate accordingly. When viewed from the front the plants and hardscape will be taller at one end then gradually slope down to the other. The substrate should be shallower at the front and deepen towards the rear. When viewed from the front an illusion of depth is created. When viewed from the side the lower front section of the bottom of our triangle should be planted with foreground, low plants. The higher rear section should be planted with taller background plants. This also creates a great sense of depth and the two effects combined will work very well together.


This is regarded as the most challenging layout to produce effectively. The aquascape is constructed by positioning wood, rocks and taller plants toward the center of the aquarium (not exactly in the center, more in this later). The periphery is then filled with foreground plants and possibly low pieces of hardscape. Aquariums that are relatively tall are better suited to this type composition i.e. 24x18Hx12” / 60x45x30cm or 36x24Hx18” / 90x60x45cm.


The opposite in shape to the mound layout is the U-shaped aquascape and it is also the easiest to create and carry off effectively. Hardscape and plants are placed to the sides with an open (negative) space in the center of the aquarium (but never directly center). Positioning the open space in a ratio of 2:1, 3:1 or using the golden ratio creates a far greater sense of balance. Relatively long tanks are more suitable for this type of aquascape i.e. 48x18x18” / 120x45x45cm or 72x24x24” / 180x60x60cm.

The use of space

The effective use of space is important in many art forms – painting, photography, landscape gardening, architecture and interior design to name a few. Aquascaping is no different and the appropriate use of space is essential to enable us to create a well-balanced and aesthetically appealing layout. As a negative example think of an aquarium filled with tall plants nearing or touching the surface along its entire length and breadth. It would probably look unnatural and rather boring, let alone cramped for our fish. Areas of free space are necessary to create an illusion of depth (and some swimming space for our fish of course!) Too much space can also be unattractive. Most of us don’t find a planted aquarium sparsely populated with just a few plants and little or no hardscape very interesting or attractive. The key is creating a balance between the fuller (positive) and emptier (negative) spaces.

Focal points

Every successful aquascape needs an ideal focal point. It can range from a piece of driftwood or a rock to a group of colourful plants. The focal point is the dominant decorative element to the whole aquarium and therefore needs to be placed very carefully to draw the eye through the aquascape in a pleasing manner. I’ll use another negative example. Think of two focal points; let’s say groups of bright red stem plants placed symmetrically in the left and right corners of the tank. The bright colour will rapidly draw the observer’s eye back and forth creating a disharmonious feeling. It is for this reason that symmetry is not suitable for an aquascape and only one strong focal point should be used (unless the aquarium is large, typically over 150cm / 60” in length).

The Golden Ratio

The golden ratio (also known as the golden section and optical center) is a very useful tool for the positioning our plants and hardscape. This ratio, 1:1.618 to be precise has been around for many years and was first used in design by the ancient architect Vitruvius. He stated “For a space divided into equal parts to be agreeable and aesthetic, between the smallest and largest parts there must be the same relationship as between this larger part and the whole space”. Or to put it more simply, the small is to the large as the large is to the whole. We can use this ratio to our advantage when positioning our focal point, especially if we have no natural talent for design (like me!)

For many aquascapers the use of the golden ratio may already come naturally. Imagine an empty aquarium containing just gravel and a single piece of wood or a rock. Think about where you would place the object. Hopefully you wouldn’t place it slap bang in the center. You should place it slightly left or right as this would provide a greater sense of aesthetic appeal.

Using the Golden ratio to position focal points

A technique to using the golden ratio when positioning our potential focal points is to take our aquarium’s length and height and multiply them both by 0.618. Do this from left to right, right to left, top to bottom and bottom to top. Draw a line across each measurement and you will end up with a grid with four intersections; these are our possible focal points. (see diagram)

For example take a 90x45x45cm aquarium.

90cm x 0.618 = 55.6cm from left to right and right to left
45cm x 0.618 = 27.8cm from top to bottom and bottom to top

Not only do the intersection points show us where we can place our focal point but the horizontal and vertical lines can also be used. Either side of the lines can be used to position our positive or negative spaces. The horizontal lines can be used to create a horizon i.e. where the top of the plant line or substrate meets the open water column.

Strictly adhering to the golden ratio is not essential, it is only a guide. Many aquascapers deliberately place their focal points off the optical center as it can create a feeling of tension and interest to the layout. As with anything in life you will become better the more you practice and hopefully after some experience it should become second nature (no pun intended!) where to position the focal points.

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