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Crash course Dutch style Aquascaping

Marco Aukes

11 Nov 2009
Nieuwegein, The Netherlands
As requested by Graeme in the topic about Maurits tank, hereby a short story about Dutch style aquariums. Be warned in advance, this is my view on it; not necessarily the 100% correct story. I will start off with some theory and will continue later on with some pictures.

Historic Background & Championship
Ok, before some artistic guy in Japan found it was time to turn the whole aquarium hobby upside down with his introduction of the, at that stage weird, idea that an aquascape should be inspired by nature, the Dutch ruled the aquarium scene. Well, at least where it concerned planted tanks.

Stronghold of the Dutch Aquascaping style used to be the NBAT; the Dutch Society for Aquarists. Founded in 1930, this Society started to write articles on the aquarium hobby and this was the basis from which the style originated. At its top this society consisted of over 24.000 members, but at this moment everything is broken down to less than 4.000.

From the start of the NBAT right till 1956, the publications in their magazine formed the way of thinking Dutch Aquascapers developped into their own style. In 1956 the NBAT took steps to determine general guidelines on how an
planted tank should look like and what rules should be followed. As till today these rules, however adapted to modern ages, still are being applied to their yearly contest "Huiskeuring", which is basicly the National Aquarium Championship.

The first Huiskeuring took place in 1964, and has provided year after year grand champions who truly have shown the best of the Dutch Style i their respective years. And becoming a Grand Champion is not a piece of cake. First contestants have to win the contest of their local Aquarium Society. When they have taken this hurdle, next up is the District Championship, where The Netherlands is devided in 15 districts. Only the winners of these districts qualify for the National Championship.

Unlike the online contests that take place all over the world, the Huiskeuring actually takes place live. One qualified judge at local and district level and even two different judges at national level, go to the contestants home and judge everything: placing of the tank in the room, quality and health of livestock, choice of the livestock combination, waterparameters (and how they relate to the chosen fish and plants), health of plants, safety of the whole electrical setup and not in the least: if the layout matches the Dutch Style criteria.

And about these criteria, more will follow in the coming week........
Interesting so far Marco...

Its a serious competition then, no photoshop or even messy plugs. Blimey, no pressure. I like that though. I can imagine it makes the aquarist take great care in every aspect of their tanks. Its raising the level of what is seen as an odd hobby.

I look forward to reading more about it.

Cheers Marco.
You can say that again Graeme. And because of the fact that each round takes place in a different month of the year the contestants should take care that their tanks are in optimum form throughout the whole year.

In general this schedule looks as follows:

Level/ Period judging/ Period results
Local / October / November or December
District / January or February / March or April
National / June or July / October

This schedule excludes the contestants whom have had a lucky shot at on level and enforces continued high quality.
The Hardware

Whilst the typical dutch tank still has an old fashioned overall look to it, it has developped away from being heated by petroleum heaters. But than again, not far from it. I personally like to tease some of the Dutch Style die-hards that a typical tank should always contain at least a decorative carpet (http://www.themacompany.nl/image/produc ... 5652.large) and some fake antique vases with plastic flowers in them on the top of the tank. Which really was a trend for some years......

In real, 95% of the Dutch Style tanks are placed inside a sturdy wood cabinet. This cabinet covers all side walls of the tank, leaving only the front side open for viewing (and thus improving the depth effect of the tank). All technical equipment is placed below the aquarium in the cabinet, where doors keep everything out of sight.

Filtration consists in most cases of one or several potfilters. Inflows and outflows (and the heaters) are always placed out of sight in the aquarium. If these are vissible in the scape, points will be deducted by the judges.

The lighting is always tucked away within the cabinets toplid and used to always consist of T8 lighting. However, with the introduction of T5 (and the more commonly availability of high demanding plants), tanks have been adapted in the last few years. However, still a lot of them work with T8 only. The judges will look if all lamps are clean (no spatters on them) and as mentioned before, if everything is installed in a safe way.

Back and side walls in the tanks are always covered with thin backgrounds, which make it easy to pin plants to it. Basic colors are brown or black. For instance the basic Juwel backgrounds are being used quite often, but also some hobbyists create their own out of EPS.

The introduction of CO2 was quite a battle for a long period of time, since a lot of the old fashioned aquarists found this was not needed and even dangerous. But again, as plants with a high demand got more and more common in the scapes, CO2 addition became almost unavoidable.

The soil is mostly sand or small gravel; in anyway no fancy colors are allowed without being subject to points reduction. In addition, the combination of Corydoras species (or any other bottom dwellers that love to stick their nose in the gravel) and non-rounded gravel (as in: not being sharp) is not allowed.

The usage of bottom fertilizer is about 60% of the hobbyists do it with and 40% without. Amongst the ones who choose to do it with bottom fertilizer, there are quite a lot of them that experiment with al kind of different fertilizers. Whilst in the early days people would just use garden soil, now combinations with clay, laterite, sand and microelements in any ratios possible are found.
Very interesting so far, Marco! Thanks again for sharing.

I read about the NBAT contests years ago when I first entered the hobby and thought it was a much fairer way to judge a fishkeepers' skill (that is different to an aquascapers').

It's interesting that the actual aquascape is not really the priority, but the whole fishkeeping skill and attention to detail with the strict rules. In many ways this represents a far tougher challenge than setting up a typical short-term aquascape for photographic and contest purposes.

I find the comparison of Dutch to Nature Aquarium style fascinating in other ways too.

Not only in the style and design of the aquascapes, but the whole philosophy regarding equipment.

There are not so different in terms of the principle of hiding equipment i.e. typical ADA-NA style relies on opti-white, braceless, rimless open-top tanks, glassware etc. where the Dutch style hides the equipment through blending it in with the cabinet and hood furniture.

I love the minimalist design of the typical ADA-NA style, but can appreciate the Dutch style, especially in more traditionally furnished homes. I'm thinking how out of place a full ADA system would look in my grandparents home! And conversely how out of place a full Dutch system would look in a typical city modern studio flat.

I predicted a rise in the Dutch style of aquascaping in the UK a few months ago and threads like this may well help the profile.

This is a good thing, I think, as a lot of the general fishkeeping public perceive the UK aquascaping hobby as purely Nature Aquarium bias.

Thanks again! :D
Well George, I do not fully agree on that the NBAT contest is more of a fishkeeping skill contest. At least, not for the planted tank category. It is a part of it, but so are plants and composition.

The NBAT contest consists of 5 main categories:

A1, which is planted tanks where all the typical dutch style scapes take part in.

A2/A3, which is biotope tanks. A2 is for biotopes which also contain plants (such as Amazon, Asia, etc) and A3 for biotopes without or with minimum plants (such as Lake Malawi or Lake Tanganyika)

B1/B2; which are saltwater tanks. B1 is community tanks, B2 is specialty tanks (such as seahorses by example)

C1/C2; which are paludarium and terrarium. C1 is paludarium or poisondart frog tanks, c2 is specialty tanks (such as bearded dragon biotopes)

D1/D3; which are ponds. D1 being community ponds, D2 specialty ponds; such as Koi.

Each of these 5 main categories has a champion. However, the scoring on each seperate item changes within the subcatergories. As an example, the chosen animal combination in a C2 tank has a weiging factor of 6, whilst in a C1 tank this is only 3. So if a judge gives a contestant a 7 for this part of the scoring form, a contestant with a C1 scores 21 points and a C2 contestant already 42 points.

Therefore, yes; this contest promotes keeping animals (not only fish) in a good way. However, it depends on which category you participate in how much the weighing factor is for this particular part of the scoring card.

If we get back to the Dutch Style tanks, which take part in the A1 category, the scoring card looks as followes:

1. Combination of animals, factor 4
2. Health of animals, factor 4
3. Development of animals, factor 4
4. The amount of animals, factor 2
5. Choosen plants, factor 2
6. Health of plants, factor 3
7. Development of plants, factor 4
8. Water parameters, factor 2
9. General impression, factor 3
10. Chosen animals, factor 3
11. Decorative materials (including backwalls, gravel, etc), factor 5
12. Composition, factor 4
13. Technical equipment, factor 4
14. Safety, factor 4
15. Maintenace (cleaning), factor 2

The judges score 1-10 on each item. Each categorie has a total weighing factor of 50 over all the items, only the weiging per item differs. Normal scores are however between 6-8, with 8 being everything being realy good. Only in exceptional cases a score of nine will be given. Therefore when a grand champion reaches a score of 400 or even more, this is really exceptional.

By the way, the above system already shows why this kind of contest should always take place live at the contestants home. Out of the 15 items a maximum of 2 can be judged based on pictures only.
Hi Marco

Thanks for the correction and full scoring explanation.

To me it still seems that the slight majority of the A1 scoring criteria is more geared towards the fishkeeping aspect, rather than the aquascaping. I guess it's a matter of personal interpretation.
Well, I agree with you it is an important part of it. But it is a shared importance with the scaping.

But than again, I count all plant related items as part of the scape. So the total split is 38 % relating to fishkeeping, 42% relating to scape and 20% to general topics.

And in my opinion, for longer term setups, as the A1 category is intended to be, it should be this important as well. That is the only "issue" I have with Nature style; the livestock is not always granted it's needs. And that conflicts with what the style is supposed to do; mimic nature.....
Before continuing on the theory, a short preview:

brilliant :wideyed: :wideyed:
what is that 8 foot?
amazing variety and contrast between leaf structure and colour :thumbup: and some beautifull reds in there too! :clap: :clap:
glenn said:
what is that 8 foot?

On the mainland we use real measurements ;)

This tank is 310*65*50 in cm.

Well, not for me; only in my dreams I have the time to maintain such a tank. This tank is from Bart Laurens, somebody I know very well and whos tank I have seen a few times live in action.

But this man did not make it to the National Championship even; I will show you why later on.
Inside the Dutch Style
Now that we know what the technical requirements are, it is time to start planting. Like everybody knows, the Dutch style is also called aquatic gardening. And for a good reason.

One of the aspects of the Dutch style is a high variety in plants, in particular in color, shape and height. But than again, not to much! As a general guideline, the rule is, for tanks up till 50cm of depth, a maximum of 1 plant species per 10cm of tank width. So a 200cm tank, should not contain much more than 20 species of plants. If the total image is still ok, 22 or 23 would be allowed, but over that will for sure cause deduction of points in any contest. Another rule to stop people from putting to much plants in, is that each group of plants should not be to close to the next one. Ideally a finger should fit between two groups.

Unlike what we see in Nature Style, the same species of plant is always put only in one place in the tank. It is not allowed to have the same species at different places in the tank. Exceptions are sometimes overhanging moss and/or Java ferns from the backwall.

The thing that works the same in Dutch Style aquariums, compared to other styles, is the usage of focus points. The Dutch Style uses the most straightforward method, deviding the tank horizontaly and verticaly into three equal parts. There where the horizontal and vertical lines meet is where the focus points should be created. But not on all four of them, only on two. If on the left the most forward is chosen, than on the right the one in the back is choosen; thus helping to create a sense of depth. On these focuspoints should the eyecathers be planted. Lotus species are often used for the forward focuspoint; a taller eyecather on the backward focus point. If the plant on the focus point could be a red one, this benefits the effect.

Typical for the Dutch Style is the planting of so called streets of plants. If somebody was asked to draw a street on a sheet of paper with a sense of depth, they would draw it broad at the bottom and becoming slimmer at the horizon.
That is how these streets are planted as well; they start broad at the front of the tank and become more slim towards the end. A perfect planted street has a slight curve in it and optically disappears behind another group of plants. The slight increase of hight of the plants should also be taken into consideration along the path of the street. Plants often used for this are Lobelia (small form), H.corymbosa, H.Difformis, or pieces of wood fully covered with moss.

Another golden rule for the Dutch style is variation. So do not put two red plants next to each other, even orange/brown and red is a no-go. Differ with brown, red, light green and dark green in such a way that each individual group of plants comes to full expression. The same goes for variation in leaf shape (do not put two fine leaved plants next to each other or Vallisneria next to Cryptocoryne balansea) and variation in height. No two plant groups that are next to each other should be of the same height. In addition, the difference should be clear; so not a difference of 1-2 cm.

With these basic rules in mind, it than comes down to details. Leaving some small parts of the back wall visible, encourages the sense of depth. Having plants at the frontcorners of the tank that rise up to the surface, give the tank a curtain effect, enhancing the depth effect as well.

The Grand Champions make use of all these rules and combine them in most cases. As an example; a planted street that runs alongst a strong focus point works quite well. If than the focus point is a red lotus, and the planted street consists of licht green Lobelia, than has double impact. If the same group of Lobelia runs al the way to the back wall, leaving above it some bare backwall and just before the backwall "disappears" out of sight behind another group of plants....than you are on your way to mastering the Dutch Style.
Details I forgot to mention
First of all; using rocks and wood as decoration. The usage of these are higly restricted. The reasons for that are the same as for plants; the same thing should not appear more than once in scape. So yes, using a piece of wood or rock, covered with moss or ferns, is allowed. But do it at one place, not more.

And than there is fish. We already touched the subject in the discussion part of this topic, but I want to stress some more on it. First of all, the fish in a Dutch Style aquarium are an addition to the tank. Not the main thing. So the fish that are choosen should not be such a dominant presence that they take the attention away of the scape. The rules are furthermore not to difficult.

The basis of the livestock is a school of an attractive species that fits the tank size. As a rule, a school of fish consists of at least 12 pieces. If less fish of the school are presented to a judge; he will for sure deduct points. Ideally, the different swimiinglevels of the tank all have at least 1 group swimming there. So a bottomdwelling group, a free swimming school and surface dwellers. Additonal shrimps, algea eaters such as Otocinclus and dwarf cichlids are allowed as long as the total tank gets not to crowded (both numbers wise as optical).

So as an example, a good choise of fish would be a group of 25 rummy noses, 15 C.Sterbai, 15 hatched fish, 12 O.affinis and a harem of A.borelli.
SO, that was basicaly all theory for the Dutch Style.

And now for the pop-quiz. Who dares to take a shot at why the above posted picture from the tank of Bart Laurens was not the best in the contest?
Marco Aukes said:
And now for the pop-quiz. Who dares to take a shot at why the above posted picture from the tank of Bart Laurens was not the best in the contest?
Me! Me! Did he lose points for item 14, Safety? All those heavy trophies on the shelf above the tank?

"Fools rush in, where Altums fear to tread..."
Focal point is one biggie. Long tanks are harder for many and the shape of the tank is an issue. Must use larger/longer groups to achieve the focal point. Harder to do with this shape of tank, ADA has trouble as do most with such shaped tanks. Spacing between plants etc.

ADA rules?
Bad photo= minus 50 points.

My personal rating? I like the tank, I think the owner likes the variety and contrast, has nice decent examples of the groups of the plants they like and are manageable. Over time, they might chose different species and reduce the species no# down. There's always a bit of collectoritus, which I like to some degree personally.
Will not go well with judging criteria set forth.

I must say the only fair way to judge an aquarium is in person. I will never judge a tank otherwise and you will never find me even a judge of a photo scaping contest. I support contest on some levels, but have strong reservations to the advice often given.

Good write up.
Look at the roots and see if they are well established is also a god way to judge things for plant health, long term establishment. Fish breeding and health is the other.

I would suggest you edit and condense the article, submit to PFK with some high res pics.

I think sticking to judging aesthetics is suppose to be broken to some degree.
But you should be able to copy the method, before doing that.

This is more pruning/horticulture than NA styles but some of both overlap.
I have some old photos' from the 1950-1960's of NBAT tanks. Really good tanks without CO2.

Tom Barr
Marco Aukes said:
Before continuing on the theory, a short preview:

. Combination of animals, factor 4
2. Health of animals, factor 4
3. Development of animals, factor 4
4. The amount of animals, factor 2
5. Choosen plants, factor 2
6. Health of plants, factor 3
7. Development of plants, factor 4
8. Water parameters, factor 2
9. General impression, factor 3
10. Chosen animals, factor 3
11. Decorative materials (including backwalls, gravel, etc), factor 5
12. Composition, factor 4
13. Technical equipment, factor 4
14. Safety, factor 4
15. Maintenace (cleaning), factor 2

1. I do not see any fish.
2. Health? no fish
3. no fish
4. No fish/critters
5. I like the plants, chosen etc
6.Health looks okay,m cannot tell from pic
7. Development looks okay, not way to tell
8. Cannot tell wate rparameters from a pic
9. Nice impression, lacks focal point to me.
10 Chosen fish? What fish?
11. High points there.
12. Lack of focus/foci point/s.
13 Hard to say for the rest
14. Hard to say
15. Looks good from 3 meters away?

Tough to say much there.
I'd be happy to see a tank like this myself in person.

Tom Barr