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The Art of Natural Aquascaping

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So you want to setup a planted tank with a professional and natural looking layout, but you have no idea what to do? Well, worry no more because I will show you some great basic aquascaping "guidelines" to help you make your dream tank come true!

Now, I will not go through the basics of fish keeping and how to establish an aquarium, those are covered in other articles in this section. I'll just discuss the artistic principles and techniques of Nature Aquariums in brief, and I hope this small article will give you a solid base so that you can build whatever you want later. Let us begin…

The Focal Point
This is very well acknowledged in art. When you look at a good painting, for example, your eyes are guided to the main subject of the painting (a man, a house, a dog, etc.) but in poorly composed paintings your eyes will just move around without finding a spot to relax, no subject focus on! Aquariums are exactly like paintings, and we must decide what the focal point is going to be, so that the tank will be pleasurable to look at. The focal point can be anything not moving – a bunch of plants, a rock, a piece of drift wood, etc., but keep in mind that when you place your centerpiece, don't let the tank look too symmetrical, it will seem unnatural if you do. In most cases the best thing is to place your focal point a bit to the left or to the right.

The Composition of the Layout
Now comes the fun part! Images work a lot better than words, so here's a sequence of basic layout examples. Choose the composition you like the most:

1) The concave setup (U shape or V shape):

Concave Aquascape

Concave Aquascape

2) The convex setup (or the island setup):

Convex Aquascape

3) The triangular setup (or the sloped setup):

Triangular Aquascape

4) The rectangular setup (high everywhere, plants cover most of the background):

Rectangular Aquascape

5) The Iwagumi style (a difficult Japanese style resembling beautiful rocky/grassy landscapes):

Iwagumi Aquascape

Some Extra Tips:

  • Use a neutral color for the background ( black, white or blue ).
  • Since natural is your goal here , don't add anything artificial in the tank ( like fake wood or plastic plants! ).
  • Don't forget the general rule: low plant's are to be used in the foreground, and tall plants are for the background.
  • Make the gravel sloped, it will help make the tank look deeper.
  • Don't mix more than one type of rocks! What you need is a few of the same type ( preferably dark, with a good texture ). Same thing for the wood.

Using wood in the setup:
Try to avoid pieces that are artificially cut on the end, but if you already bought one like that, try to hide the unnatural looking tip. Also, don't add too many pieces of wood because you need some space for planting. Another good thing to do is to attach moss plants and/or ferns to the wood, they give a great sense of age, but always watch out for the overall balance of the layout.

Planting and trimming your aquatic plants:
First of all you must know that aquatic plants grow, and they grow a lot (especially when they are really healthy), so you will need to prune them to keep your aquascape balanced. All you need is long, sharp scissors, and long pinsettes (important for planting). When you setup your aquarium, it's best to plant most of the desired plants from the beginning, this will fill out the tank and make it mature faster (plants do not require a cycled tank). When it comes to planting, pinsettes are your best friend! Avoid using your hands.

Planting with Pinsettes

Do your first planting just before filling the tank with water (you can pour in a part of the water to keep the plants moist), this way the water will be very clear when you add it afterwards! Also note that most aquatic plants look much better in groups and bunches, keep that in mind while you are planning for your aquascape.

OK, let's talk a bit about trimming those plants! Each type of plant requires a different technique for trimming:

  • Mosses are trimmed just like hair, but be careful not to make a huge mess.
  • Stem plants should be cut at the stem, and from each cut new leaves will grow. You can also replant the cut-off heads if you want.
  • Carpet plants (or any plant that propagates sideways from runners) can grow pretty dense and suffocate themselves, so carefully cut away any extra runners and leaves and don't allow those delicate plants to pile up or over grow.
  • Vallisneria propagates sideways but is different story, you should remove any yellow leaves you see. This plant can grow pretty long and will cover the surface, just cut the leaves so that they stay on level with the water surface. Be aware that Vals produce runners for reproduction, cut those runners if you don't want the plant to grow out of control! Sometimes I find baby Vals growing on the opposite side of the tank from their mother plants.
  • Water lilies can also cover the surface, so cut the long floating leaves from the bottom.
  • Anubias are strong and can live for a long time, but Anubias leaves get covered with algae very easily, so if you spot any ugly looking leaves (dead, algae-covered, full of holes, etc,) remove them quickly, and new leaves will grow. You can also cut the rhizome of the Anubias if it starts growing in a direction you don't want (and yes you can replant the cut part).
  • Ferns need to be trimmed as well, old leaves become spotted and ugly (for reproduction). Simply cut and remove the old leaves and any secondary rhizomes that might affect the mother plant.
  • Cryptocorynes also need to be trimmed! The most important thing about cutting Crypt leaves is to cut it right at the bottom, otherwise you will be surprised by a nasty mass of dead matter after lots of wrong trimmings. Trust me.

Pruning Moss Plants

Pruning Stem Plants

Pruning Anubias Plants

As I mentioned, these are just the basic rules or guidelines for having neat and eye-catching aquascapes, what really makes a difference is the creative touch from you!

Assembled and illustrated by Al-Haitham Jassar
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