Aquascaping for Beginners: Getting the basics right

Aquascaping for Beginners: Getting the basics right

More about foreground plants here

More about midground plants here

More about background plants here

About Aquascaping

balanced aquascaped rocks, plants, gravel and fish
balanced aquascaped rocks, plants, gravel and fish

Aquascaping is the art of setting-up, decorating and arranging aquatic plants along with stones, rocks, driftwood or cavework in an aesthetically pleasing manner. Also termed as underwater gardening, aquascaping was first introduced to the world way back in 1990’s by Takashi Amano from Japan, who made the natural underwater gardens look like dreamscapes. Although it is possible to create an aquascape with plants only, it can also be set up with fish as well as plants; or with rockwork, hardscape and no plants by following some specific methods.

If you find it difficult to create an aquascape then scan through the many examples of good aquascape scenes on the internet and pick a scene that you really like and that you can replicate.

Basic Principles for Aquascaping

aquascape to replicate amazon river scene with angelfish
aquascape to replicate amazon river scene with angelfish

To reach the perfection in the design of your aquascape you must follow a few important principles that are listed below:

Simplicity is the key – While aquascaping is all about imagination, it is recommended that you follow a particular style and maintain simplicity which would make the aquascape look more appealing to the human eye.
 
Choosing the aquascaping style – There are several major styles that you can choose from, which you can create a visually-enticing aquascape. These include the Japanese-inspired nature style, the garden-like Dutch style, the jungle style and many others. While the nature aquarium style is the re-creation of terrestrial landscapes – mountains, hills, valleys, etc., the Dutch style is characterized by terraces or raised layers containing distinct types of plants with different leaf types.

Balanced aquascape using moss covered driftwood.
Balanced aquascape using moss covered driftwood.

Maintaining Proportion- To maintain harmony in the aquarium, it is crucial to strike the perfect balance between plants, decorative items and fish as well as between filled and empty spaces in the aquarium. Also, arrange plants, rocks and wood in a manner that there is a balancing contrast of light and dark spaces.

Use your imagination- There are no defined rules for aquascaping. Use your imagination to make a beautiful aquascape that has clean water and an appropriate amount of light, CO2, and other essential elements.

To ensure proper care, maintenance and success of an aquascape, aquascapers must keep in mind several factors to strike balance in the closed system of the water tank. These factors include:

  • aquascape with clever use of various plants and driftwood
    aquascape with clever use of various plants and driftwood

    Filtration System

  • Liquid fertilizers
  • Medium to high level of lighting
  • Maintaining the correct amount of carbon dioxide to support photosynthesis
  • Frequent water changes
  • Substrate and fertilization
  • Algae control

Plants and Plant Types

Besides the layout, style and design of an aquascape, aquascaping require specific ways to ensure proper care and maintenance of plants underwater. One of the most crucial things that aquascapers must keep in mind is choosing healthy and vibrant plants. Also, they must be trimmed to get the desired shape and positioned properly using a thread. Before beginning, you must know the plants and plant types that we shall discuss now!

Dwarf hair grass makes a nice flooring plant
Dwarf hair grass makes a nice flooring plant

Carpet Plants: Just as the name suggests, carpet plants are used by aquascapers to create a mat of plants or a lush of green lawn, making the underwater garden more beautiful and attractive. You can choose foreground pl ants such as Hairgrass, Dwarf Baby Tears, Java Moss, Water Wisteria or Willow Moss as they stay low to the ground and spread horizontally across the floor of the water tank.

Fast Growing Plants: When you begin with aquascaping, you can choose fast growing plants like hornwort, Vallisneria, Cabomba and Hygrophilia that would grow quickly, with no effort and would not even put a hole in your pocket. Other stem plants including sword plants, Java fern are also suitable but a little expensive.
Floating plants: While a number of floating plants can block light, many aquascapers prefer using them for visually-enticing aquascape. These plants include Hornwoot, Java Moss and Najas.

Artificial Plants: While using artificial plants is not considered aquascaping, it is one of the easiest ways for beginners. So, if you find it difficult to care for and maintain natural plants, you can go for artificial plants that do not require light or water parameters.

green cabomba or fanwort makes a nice bushy background plant
green cabomba or fanwort makes a nice bushy background

Location for Short, Large and Bushy Plants

To create a beautiful landscape underwater, it is essential for aquascapers to place the plants in an aesthetic manner. The major aspect to keep in mind is the focal point. It can be anything like a rock, a piece of driftwood or a bunch of plants or even one dominant plant. It is recommended to begin with carpet plants at the foreground and place the bushy and large plants at the background.

You can begin with the focal of the water tank and continue with the low-growing and mid-growing plants. At the end, place the higher plants. You can choose an appropriate composition such as the concave set up, the convex set up, the rectangular set-up, the triangular set up, or the Iwagumi set-up.

Different Coloured plants

red water hedge plant nice alternative to green
red water hedge plant nice alternative to green

To create in-depth perspective and make the aquarium look more natural, aquascapers use plants of different colours and sizes. Plants can be grown in groups and with rich colour contrast. Commonly used plants for colour contrast and highlights include lutea, lucens, wendtii, walkeri, and becketii of the Cryptocoryne species, Ammania, Alternanthera reineckii and Rotala.
Notably, 3 plant species per foot would be preferred to ensure good colour contrast.

Open Spaces for Fish

Before you kick-start aquascaping, you must understand that plants as well as fish are EQUALLY important in your water tank. When you provide the best conditions for your plants to stay healthy, you are providing a healthy environment for the fish as well. At the same time, it is a must to wisely use spaces between plants by creating imaginary streets as well as pathways. Also, make sure that you have as must open space as must filled space to provide space for your fish to lively comfortably and happily.

Hardscape: Use of Bogwood/Driftwood

discus in an amazon biotope with driftwwod to simulate roots
discus in an amazon biotope with driftwwod to simulate roots

Hardscape is one of the most commonly used techniques used by aquascapers across the globe. It involves using driftwood, rocks and resin sculptures. Driftwood adds a decorative touch to the aquarium, while making it look natural. The wood can be the main focal point, around which the plants can be placed. Many aquascapers prefer using the Malaysian driftwood or manzanita branches, depending on their preference.

Use of Rocks and Stones

In addition to wood, aquascapers use rocks and stones at the heart of their aquarium to create a natural-looking aquascape underwater. You can place boulders, large cobbles and smaller pebbles aesthetically in the water tank to further enhance its beauty. The classic way to use rocks is to place 2-4 flat rocks on the bottom of the aquarium and then arrange other rocks in the order of their size. Alongside, you can also add airstones and submersible lights to create visual effects and make the water tank more attractive.

Balanced aquascape with driftwood, plants and hairgrass carpet
Balanced aquascape: driftwood, plants and hairgrass carpet

Get Started!

Aquascaping is not all about creating a plan and sticking rigidly to it. Sometimes it is better to do a quick sketch up and then proceed to plant according to your rough draft. Then when it’s all laid out, you can see that it might not be right so you will need to rearrange things until you get it right. And don’t forget plants do grow and some grow more than others. So your aquascape will actually develop over time.

Aquascaping is all about imagination and creating enchanting visuals that appeal to the human eye. So, make sure that you use your imagination to create an amazingly-looking aquascape. Happy aquascaping!

Lake Malawi biotope aquarium

Malawi biotope aquarium with algae on rocks

Lake Malawi biotope

See also perfect Malawi Aquarium

and Breeding Malawi

Malawi biotope aquarium with algae on rocks
Malawi biotope aquarium with algae on rocks

Reasons for creating a Lake Malawi Biotope

Now more than ever, is a good time to set up a natural biotope of Lake Malawi. For instance, there is a lot of information on the behaviour and environment of most species inhabiting Lake Malawi. Which means we can recreate conditions in the aquarium, that are very close to those found in Lake Malawi.

Another reason is that with the discovery of oil in Lake Malawi, the ongoing destruction of the habitat in and around the lake is increasing. This is causing the near extinction of many species of fish and plants. How does setting up a Malawi Biotope aquarium help this, you may ask? In conservation, it is only species that people are aware of that get saved. And so if many aquarists set up a Lake Malawi biotope then what better way of showing what beauty will be destroyed by showing off their aquariums. The press can be invited to see the natural beauty of fish from Lake Malawi and told about which species are facing extinction in order to raise awareness and save the lake.

A final reason is that the fish can be observed in something that approximates their natural environment. The fish will of course be happier and you, the observer, will get to see the full range of natural behaviours and interactions between the fish and their environment. The fish will naturally try to inhabit the same niche in the biotope aquarium that they would normally inhabit in the wild, instead of being forced to lump it with other species that they would normally avoid.

How faithful a Malawian biotope can be created?

Recreating a Lake Malawi Biotope that is absolutely accurate down to the`smallest detail is an impossible task. But we can go a long way to recreating something that very closely resembles the lake. We can also very closely recreate the same water parameters, lighting, rocks and sandy base. Recreating the muddy parts of the lake would requre a very large aquarium, such as a public aquarium. So is not really feasible in the home aquarium. Luckily there are lots of sections of lake Malawi that are just rocks and sand, just rocks mostly or just sand mostly. These we can recreate in the aquarium.

Different approaches to building a Malawian biotope

There are possibly two approaches to recreating the biotope. The first way is to base it around the fish species in your possession or that you intend to buy. Then it would be a matter of researching to find out which environment your fish live in and if they are compatible. Then you would have to recreate a biotope that best accommodates your particular set of fish.

The second approach is to have a look at many pictures of lake Malawi in order to choose a scene that you particularly like. Then recreating that scene in the aquarium. Once that scene has been created then it would be a matter of finding which species would comfortably fit in your biotope and going out to buy them.

If you have species that inhabit different environments within the lake, then you need a very large aquarium to try and accommodate them all. Lake Malawi divides into two areas mostly with an open sandy region broken up with a few scattered rocks and a dense rocky area with many hiding places consisting of caves and crevices.

Aquascaping your Malawi biotope aquarium

Typical hobbyists biotope aquarium
Typical hobbyists biotope aquarium

The base is going to be a layer of sand of about 3 inches in depth. Most normal sands are fine, even crushed coral sand should be fine. However, wash well because sand creates more cloudiness than gravel.

Your rock choices are limestone and sandstone. The sand comes from the sandstone in the lake. Limestone is present in the lake also and gives the lake its ph and hardness. The sandstone can be the golden type or a grey type. Choose types of various sizes with smoothed edges. Algae will also grow quite well on these types of stone.

Arrange the stones in your aquarium so that caves, crevices and hiding places are created. Leave an open space of sand in the front of the aquarium. Scatter a few smaller rocks around the sand but separate from each other.

The rocks at the back need to be stacked up along the back so that they reach the surface and even break the surface of the water in places. To ensure the safety of your glass and fish, use silicone to glue rocks together to create a stable rock formation.

Plants and other creatures

planted rocky malawi aquarium
Atypical planted rocky malawi aquarium with sand substrate

Besides the fish there will be algae and small insects and invertebrates. Since many species from lake Malawi feed off snails then including snails in the aquarium is a good idea. Try apple snails that are native to lake Malawi or snails that are similar to those of lake Malawi such as snails of the genus bulinas. Obtain snails that look and behave similarly that can live in hard water.

Most mbuna species feed off the algae growing on the rocks and the micro organisms growing in the algae. In the sand will be worms and other insects that the Auloconara species(peacock) feed off. Trying to find suitable creatures that will live, grow and reproduce in the sand is a difficult task. You risk the creatures dying and polluting the sand and the aquarium. In the wild it would be these creatures that would dig through the sand that prevents the sand in the wild from compacting the way it does in the aquarium.

Insects found in lake Malawi include water bears, daphnia, cyclops. Create a separate culture of these and feed the fish. These will be native food for your Malawi fish.

There are few plants in lake Malawi so you do not have to have any plants in the aquarium. But valisneria and hornwort are a possibility that do occur in lake Malawi. Plant singly and sparsely.

Which fish to have in a Malawian biotope

Malawi biotope typically found in public aquariums
Malawi biotope typically found in public aquariums

Mbunas are perfect for the rocky parts of the biotope. One or two species will quickly set up home and create territories within the rocky structures, each fish with its own little cave or crevice. Aulonocara species like open waters above sand but not too far from rocks. One or two species will be great for the open, sandy areas. They feed off insects that they can find in the sand. The aggressive mbunas will only rarely venture out from their rocky area while the Aulonocara will avoid the rocks.

In a large enough aquaria with distinct areas the two groups of fish will approach each other and there will be aggression but the fish usually retire to their own habitat.

If your aquarium is not too large then you will have to settle for one group or the other. If you settle for auloconara then you shouldn’t have a large rocky formation. A smaller rocky set up is better for them. Aulonocara do like to swim in open spaces. However, aggression between the fish means that they too need hiding places.

Finally, it is an aquarium so run it like one

You can buy Malawi salts to recreate the exact water found in the lake. However, don’t just add it to tap water. Tap water already has some hardness and minerals which you will have to take into account. SInce you are creating a biotope you should use a reverse osmosis filter to remove all minerals from your tap water then add your Malawi salts to get the correct hardness and ph. For tap water you will obviously have to reduce the amounts of Malawi salt per litre. This is best done by testing your water after adding a half dose to tap water. If it comes out too hard reduce the amount of salt used. If not hard enough increase the amount of salts.

You need good quality lighting that will encourage rock algae without causing an algae bloom. Also, too bright a light will spook the fish. In lake Malawi the waters are not pristine and there is a little murkiness there. This is where most aquarists depart from the strict biotope by having pristine water.

The ecosystem however needs some way to operate the nitrogen cycle without plants. This means that you will have to have powerful biological filters that have a high turnover of water and a filter media with a large surface area for the nitrifying bacteria to grow on.

Water changes are also a necessity. While some may consider this as cheating, you may want to consider the real lake Malawi. There is an inflow of fresh water from the Ruhuhu river. And the lake is vast giving a lot of scope for de-nitrification.

If you have followed these guidelines, the end result should be a pleasant aquarium full of colourful fish. It should look like a piece of lake Malawi. So, sit back and enjoy your hard work.

15 best plants for beginners

Plants flourishing in a planted aquarium

Best plants for beginners to avoid plant failures

Plants flourishing in a planted aquarium
Plants flourishing in a planted aquarium

Here is a list of 15 hardy tropical freshwater plants that are the best plants for beginners. These plants don’t need much attention to grow. No special lighting, no Co2 and no fertiliser. Just tough plants that will grow in normal temperatures and most ph and hardness water conditions. Plants that need no maintenance except to trim them when they get bigger.

See also succeed with aquarium plants

and healthy aquarium plants

and aquascaping for beginners

Java moss

Java moss can grow in low lighting levels. It grows profusely. It likes a wide temperature range from 59F-82F. It can live in a wide range of ph and hardness. It is easy to care for.

java moss
java moss

It is not strictly a plant but it does much the same thing. It Doesn’t require gravel or sand. Spread it thinly over rocks and driftwood. It will attach itself. It can be made to float and hang down by attaching it to a piece of cork. Once it starts growing well then start pruning it heavily. It is great for fry to hide in and pick off infusoria growing on it. It is tough and difficult to kill. It may need cleaning sometimes by running under a tap. Algae may grow into it and be difficult to remove.

Java moss is like having all the benefits of plants without actually growing plants. No need for fertilisers, special lighting or other bits of plant maintenance. It is great for aquarists who don’t care for plants but recognise the benefits.

Java fern

java fern
java fern

Java ferns prefers low lighting conditions. It grows slowly but is very hardy and doesn’t need looking after. It can cope with a temperature range from 64F-86F. It is not fussy with ph or hardness.
Don’t bury the roots of the Java fern in the gravel. Algae may grow on the leaves and needs to be removed occasionally. If it is damaged it repairs itself quickly. If it is cut or broken, each piece will grow into a separate plant. It absorbs nitrates well. If co2 and fertiliser is used it can grow more quickly, if you want.

Amazon sword

Amazon swords are easy to care for. It likes neutral ph 6.5 to 7.5 and soft to moderately hard water. Its temperature range is 72-82F.
It can grow large and so it is best in a 36 inch tank or bigger. Plant it in a loose gravel. It needs time to root well.

amazon sword
amazon sword

Great for angel fish and discus to spawn on. It can grow faster if iron rich fertiliser is used. Remove damaged leaves and remove any algae on leaves. It can be propogated off runners. Plantlets will grow at the end of the runners. When the plantlets develop roots then you can remove them and plant them. Plecos will eat and damage amazons.

Amazon frogbit or duckweed

American frogbit can survive in cold pond water as well as tropical temperatures up to 78F. It likes a ph of 6-7.5 and moderate hard water. It requires low to medium lighting. it grows very fast. It is very low maintenance and very tough.
This is a pure floating plant. It provides good cover for fry. It really soaks up ammonia, nitrites, nitrates and phosphates, helping the nitrogen cycle and controlling algae.

Anubias nana (Anubias barteri nana)

anubias nana
anubias nana

Anubias nana is easy to care for and very hardy. It prefers low to medium lighting. Its temperature is tropical at 72F-82F. The water conditions for Anubias are soft to neutral hardness with a ph 6.0 – 7.6.
It is easily reproduced. It is slow growing but will grow faster with CO2 and extra lighting and fertilisers. It doesnt need to be rooted in gravel. Fish don’t like the taste of anubias.

Anacharis (elodea)

Anacharis is easy to care for. It takes any lighting (low light to bright lighting). It is not really a tropical plant will cope with temperatures up to 75F. The water conditions are not crucial with a preferred ph of 6.5 to 7.5 and soft to hard water but avoid extremes. Elodea can root into the gravel but can also be kept free floating. You can propogate it from cuttings. It is low maintenance and grows well without any help.

Cryptocoryne wendtii

Cryptocoryne wendtii
Cryptocoryne wendtii

Wendt’s crypt can be kept in low light or bright light. It has a ph range on the acid side of 5ph-7ph and likes soft water. temperature 72F-86F. The plant likes stable water conditions and may take some time to settle. Once settled and never disturbs it becomes a hardy plant.
There are several colour variations with different leaf size and texture. It is easy to propogate. Propoagate by taking cuttings with some roots attached. It can also produce runners with plantlets on the end. Separate the plantlets when they have grown roots. It is generally a slow grower. If there is change in the water conditions it may start to deteriorate.

Dwarf hairgrass

dwarf hair grass
dwarf hair grass

Dwarf hairgrass likes a temperature range 60F-83F. It prefers water on the acid side but is flexible with a ph range of ph5.0-7.5. It likes low to medium lighting.
It is fast growing. It does tend to attract dirt and algae. It propogates by sending out runners with plantlets. Cut off plantlets when they grow roots. You can create an underwater lawn with dwarf hairgrass.

Pygmy chain sword

Pygmy chain swords are tropical with a temperature range of 68F-84F.Its preferred water conditions are medium hard and ph 5.5-7.5. ph 5-7.5. It prefers a medium level of lighting. because of its small size it prefers sandy soil.
It propogates by growing runners with plantlets on the end. When the plantlets grow roots then you can separate them. It grows reasonably well and is easy to care for. It might need tablet fertiliser near roots.

Dwarf sagittaria

dwarf sagittaria
dwarf sagittaria

Dwarf sagittaria’s temperature range is 71F – 82F. It prefers its water to be acid but copes with a ph between 5.0 and 7.5ph. It prefers medium lighting but can cope with low lighting levels. It grows fast and is easy to care for.
It can grow in gravel. Use small grained gravel or sand. It may benefit from root fertiliser tablets. If grown out of water before buying, it will change its form in the aquarium. It will shed all of its leaves and develop small grassy leaves from the centre. It may look dead soon after buying but will make a complete recovery.
It propagates by sending runners under the gravel that will pop up as mini plants next to the original plant.

Water wisteria

water wisteria
water wisteria

Water wisteria is quick growing, hardy and very easy to care for. It likes its water between 6.5ph and 7.5ph and soft to medium hard water. It is tropical with a temperature range between 75F-82F.
It is usually rooted but can still grow when floating. It is a relatively small aquarium plant. Fertiliser tablets will help with growth but are not necessary. You can propogate it through plant cuttings. Goldfish and other big plant eaters will eat and kill it.

Hornwort

Hornwort is a floating plant that can also be planted. It is a sub-tropical plant with a temperature range of 50-86F. It doesn’t care about its ph or hardness. It grows in low lighting levels. It is very easy to care for and grows very fast. Some fish will eat it.

Water Sprite

water sprite
water sprite

Water sprite is a floating plant that is easy to grow. It can be planted in the substrate as well. It will grow in almost any water conditions. Its temperature range is 68F-86F. It is quite hardy and grows fast. Lighting is not important and it will grow in low lighting.
Water sprite is helpful in cleaning up ammonia, nitrites and nitrates from the water. It will provide shade to shy fish and fry. . It is a great cover for fry that grow near the surface. Self propogates by growing new plantlets on the body which break off to form new plants. Snails love this and may destroy it. Fish may graze on it too, harming it.

Rotala Rotundifolia

Rotala Rotundifolia is a red plant. It likes medium to bright light. It can grow in low light but will turn green. It grows fast in bright light. It is subtropical with a temperature range of 64F-82FC. It likes slightly acid water but can cope with a ph between 5.0-7.5ph with neutral hardness.
It can be propogated by taking cuttings. It is hardy and easy to care for as long as it is well lit.

Hygrophila Polysperma

Hygrophila Polysperma
Hygrophila Polysperma

Hygrophila Polysperma grows fast. It prefers low to medium lighting. And will grow faster with more lighting or even some sunlight. It has a wide temperature range of 64F-86F. Copes with almost any water ph and hardness. It is easy to care for.
Because of its small size it is called dwarf hygro. It is light green in colour. It can be propogated by taking cuttings. Pruning is helpful occasionally to spruce it up and stop it overgrowing. It can be grown on gravel or sand.