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Aquascaping Basics - Part One

George Farmer

30 Jun 2007
What is Aquascaping?

Aquascaping is the art of arranging plants and materials in the aquarium environment. It is unique to many other forms of art, as it is a living evolving entity. As the plants grow the aquascape develops accordingly and the more experienced hobbyist will use this to their advantage, visualizing how the layout will appear when mature.

Dutch, Nature and everything in-between

Some of you may well have heard of the Dutch style planted aquarium. These generally rely on the western school of aesthetics where groups of plants, typically stem plants are neatly arranged with little or no hard aquascaping (known as hardscape) materials such as wood and rocks. The concept is comparable to the style of the traditional formal English garden. Many enjoy this orderly type of aquascape with its richness, colour and texture varieties.

Did you know?

Holland still runs the oldest aquascaping contest, held by the Nederlandse Bond Aqua Terra (NBAT) dedicated to Dutch style planted tanks where the judges actually view the aquariums in person by visiting their owners. This ensures there is no cheating via digital image adjusting etc. and allows the judge to see the plant and fish health in real time, something that surely cannot be portrayed as authentically in a photograph.

Some may wonder why more aquascaping contests are not judged in this way. The answer to this is simple geography, the other “big three” contests; Aqua Design Amano (ADA) International Layout Contest, Aquatic Gardeners Association (AGA) Aquascaping Contest and the new Aquatic Plant Central (APC) International Aquascaping Contest are all truly international with as many as 40+ countries taking part. Imagine that airfare!

In contrast to the Dutch style the Nature style concept utililses the enormous diversity of nature and its richness as the source of inspiration for the aquascape. Not only are plant species chosen carefully for their colours, shapes, textures and growth rates but in particular the use of hardscape is a very important aspect as this helps produce the wabi-sabi effect (basic Japanese translation – “sense of nature”). Typically mosses, ferns and Anubias sp. are attached to wood to create a pleasing well-established look. Plain wood can often look too clinical and unnatural, so partially covering it with slow growing plants or Riccia fluitans is a very effective way to provide an aged illusion from the outset. A Nature style aquascape can have as many as 20+ individual species or as little as one single species.

Another aquascape category that has been unofficially described is the Jungle style. This has no set rules as such but rather allows the plants to develop the aquascape into whatever the plants “choose”, with the aquascaper taming the jungle as they see fit. Typically it will have many separate species of plant, possibly arranged in groups, possibly not. For me the Jungle style is simply a convenient way to describe a densely planted aquascape that simply does not conform to either Dutch or Nature although it may have elements of both. It is worth mentioning that Dutch and Nature styles can also be blended to a degree with some nicknaming this technique as “Nutch”. Of course we do not have to categorise our aquascapes but use our own sense of individuality to create our own style, whatever that may be.

The master

Takashi Amano, the internationally acclaimed Japanese photographer, aquascaping guru and owner of the bespoke planted aquarium company Aqua Design Amano (ADA) pioneered the Nature Aquarium concept back in the 1980s. With his first planted aquarium book Nature Aquarium World published in English in the mid-1990s it took the planted aquarium scene by storm with its awe-inspiring display of wonderful photography and truly breathtaking aquascapes. Nothing like it had been seen before and his works opened up a brave new world for the planted aquarium enthusiast. For many hobbyists including myself, Amano changed the way we think about the planted aquarium. He effectively converted it from a volume of water containing collections of orderly or more chaotically arranged plants (think Dutch or Jungle style) to the art of recreating a slice of nature in our own contrasting modern living spaces.

Defining the Nature Aquarium

It is difficult to define the Nature Aquarium because individual interpretations of nature will essentially differ due to our own experiences and environmental conditioning. But this works in our favour as it leaves us to create our own aquascape, as we so desire. Nature is infinite in variety and therefore so is the potential in our aquarium layout.

It may cause some surprise that the aim of a Nature Aquarium is not to recreate the biotope of a specific region (although this is possible). The main goal is in fact to create a kind of underwater landscape or an imaginary fantasy scene. If you study many of Amano’s and other Nature style aquascapes you will soon get the idea. Scenes that physically replicate a realistic underwater environment can be created but generally speaking they do not provide the same degree of aesthetic appeal to the aquascaper as an underwater landscape. I believe the reason for this lays in our own perception of what appears to most represent nature. Being a land-based species we humans are familiar with landscapes, certainly more so than underwater scenes and the Nature Aquarium uses this relative attractiveness to its advantage.

Perhaps another surprising aspect to the Nature Aquarium is that it is not a typical natural aquarium. Confused? Let me explain. The natural aquarium is usually low-tech, uses basic equipment, lower lighting levels, no CO2 injection and minimal water column fertilisation. In contrast the Nature Aquarium as pioneered and promoted by ADA is contradictory to this low-tech methodology. ADA is at the cutting edge of design, technology and style and their whole philosophy revolves around merging their high-tech products with nature.

“To learn from nature, to connect a human being to the nature…
The nature aquarium situated in a room provides a direct impression of this high and dense technology, and unites the human being with nature. This corresponds to the philosophy of The Nature Aquarium.”

ADA Euro Catalogue 2005 edition

Choosing our fish

In the Nature Aquarium the plants and the fish are the stars. They should be chosen with consideration to complement one another and provide a feeling of balance to the aquascape. Many planted aquarium enthusiasts actually set up the plants and let the aquascape mature prior to adding any fish with the possible exception of algae-eaters. This allows the aquascaper to ensure their fish perfectly suit the plants and their design.

Our choice in fish selection can vary as much as our planted layout. One example is using a large shoal of a single species to create a stunning effect that brings a sense of harmony to an aquascape of similar simplicity. In contrast using a large diversity of fish species to bring balance to a correspondingly varied selection of plant species, textures and colours can be very effective. Fish colour and their swimming habits are important considerations too. Brightly coloured fish contrast wonderfully against a dark background. Surprisingly for some perhaps, plain looking fish can be stunning when in large shoals, especially amongst a simple aquascape with a paler background. Fast, active fish like plenty of swimming space so create their ideal environment through designing the aquascape accordingly. Bear in mind at what depths the fish swim in the aquarium i.e. upper, middle or bottom dwellers. Some fish like to dig and rummage in the substrate so bear this in mind if you want to grow a carpeting plant. It may sound obvious but don’t buy fish that are well known to eat aquarium plants, although it possible to keep such fish with particularly hardy plants i.e. Anubias sp. and Microsorium pteropus (Java fern).

One effective technique at making the aquarium appear larger is to use shoals of small fish. These also have the advantage of producing less waste and therefore minimising pollution. For instance six 1”/2.5cm tetras will generally produce less waste than a 6”/15cm catfish. Do your research too. Remember that when we purchase our fish from the shop they are often juvenile and are therefore not fully grown. Stocking levels should always account for maximum adult size. It is very wise to understock a planted aquarium, personally I would recommend no more than 1” per gal. / 2.5cm per 4.5 l. Ammonium is a major algae trigger and even with effective biological filtration levels are present in minute quantities, so the fewer fish present the less risk of nuisance algae. Because our intention is to have the plants and fish as the focus fewer fish will paradoxically appear more attractive and enhance the overall visual appeal of the aquascape. Less is sometimes more.
28 May 2013
where the judges actually view the aquariums in person by visiting their owners. This ensures there is no cheating via digital image adjusting etc. and allows the judge to see the plant and fish health in real time, something that surely cannot be portrayed as authentically in a photograph.

The judges even look at the hardware of the tank (how nice it's been done and tucked away in the cabinet....the whole in and out of it all) and it's position in the room.

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