Aquascaping for Beginners: How To Guide

We've all seen the award-winning aquascapes created by professional Aquascapers like George Farmer, James Findley, and even Takashi Amano. The biggest factor that makes their tanks beautiful is understanding the basic principles of aquascaping a planted tank.

I want to make one thing clear: George Farmer is damned good at Aquascaping. He’s probably some sort of visual prodigy, and his tanks are worthy of the many awards he wins every year. Ever wonder what makes his tanks THAT beautiful? Here’s are the simple principles that make beautiful planted tanks every time you’re ready to build.

There are four principles to Aquascaping. If you make yourself familiar with these four principles, and apply them to your tanks, you’ll quickly begin to see those ideas in your head turn into aquascapes that attract attention (we recommend these aquascape tools).

Let’s start with the most important principle first: the Rule of Thirds. (Don’t skip this; it’s important so you know how to set up an aquascape.)

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The Rule of Thirds: Aquascape Design Layout

The Rule of Thirds has been used since humans first started creating visual objects. For some reason, the human eye is attracted to things that are divided into a grid, and placing things on lines created by this grid nearly always creates a balanced, visually interesting layout. The same is true of Aquascaping.

Let’s take a look at a sample layout: which is a great example of how to aquascape!

Aquascaping for Beginners

What’s immediately apparent are two things: this guy is good at carpeting plants, and this tank is definitely composed according to the Rule of Thirds.

I’ve marked two important areas:

1: focal point placement

We’ll cover this in-depth later, but I want you to notice the placement of the highest part of the tank: It’s placed almost exactly one-third away from the right side. That wasn’t an accident.

Whether intentional or subconsciously, the aquascaper found that to be a pleasing location for the focal point. Now that you’re looking for it, you’ll notice it in almost every tank you see.

2: breaking the rules

It’s cliché, but it’s true: every rule is meant to be broken. However, it’s the intentional breaking of it, and in a conscious way, that makes it appealing.

If the lesser stone was placed exactly one-third away from the left side, it would make the tank nearly mirrored, and it would look rigid.

Focal Points

Focal points keep your layout from becoming to busy or distracting. In most cases, less is more. In many aquascaping styles, focal points are naturally created by following the style’s guidelines.

The Iwagumi style, for example, uses multiples of stones placed in a certain pattern, with a central stone being placed on one of the third-lines of the tank. This (by design) creates a focal point according to the Rule of Thirds.

When it comes to your hardscape, when in doubt, don’t add, but take away. This ensures that your tank has a striking visual aspect, and guides the viewer’s eye across your tank.

Focal points can be created through the effective use of plant selection, by either color, scale, or texture.

Plant Selection

It’s important to keep in mind the plant’s adult size & coloration. Choose a plant that’s appropriately sized for where you’re placing it. For example, in most cases, you wouldn’t put a stem plant in the foreground, since it’s likely to grow so tall that it blocks the view of the tank.

You also wouldn’t put a low-growing, carpeting plant in the back behind your aquascape. There wouldn’t be a point, because it would never be seen.

In most cases, however, focal points are created with one easily-used principle…


This is what separates the entries from the winners. Proper use of scale in an aquascape is what makes the ‘magic’. Again, most of us learn better visually, so here’s a sample layout:

Beginner Aquascaping

Once again, you can see the Rule of Thirds is very prevalent in this tank. What’s more, you might notice the scale that’s present in this aquascape.

1: substrate size

Substrate size can play a huge role in the appearance of your tank. That’s why you see almost all professional Aquascapers using the ADA powder type topsoil. (We personally recommend this particular type of substrate (see more info at Amazon)). The small granules lend a greater sense of scale between the hardscape, aquatic plants, and substrate.

If you have the budget to use powder-type, do so. Just remember: it’s a top coat, not a substrate you should be creating depth with.

2: large focal stone(s)

Using larger stones in tanks is a great way to use not just the horizontal space in the aquascape, but also the vertical. That’s important, so I’ll repeat it:

Using larger stones makes use of the vertical space in your aquascape. These are what we use.

This is the most common problem I see in beginner tanks: they’re making relatively good decisions about substrate, plant placement, and fish selection, but their hardscape simply isn’t using the full tank.

The stones or driftwood aren’t large enough to make use of the open space above the substrate, and so everything ends up looking like a low, ‘squat’ layout. If you do need some pointers on driftwood then perhaps our post on the best aquarium driftwood for sale will help you out.

3: smaller accent stones

Beginners almost always forget these stones. While it’s sometimes hard to get these from stone purchases (sellers only include the large/medium stones), it’s important to incorporate these to create variance in your hardscape.

It’s important in hardscapes to think as if it’s in nature: large stones aren’t by themselves. There’s almost always a few smaller stones around it that have either chipped off, or been pushed up next to it. The same should be true of your Aquascape: place smaller stones naturally in the tank to create a natural look.


This is a subtle principle, and it’s not always found in many of the Aquascaping Tanks you’ll find on Aquatic Gardeners. The basic premise of this principle is this:

If everything is emphasized, nothing is emphasized.

Which basically means that if you’re putting a ton of variation in your aquatic plants, substrates, and hardscapes, it’s going to create a busy tank that has too much contrast.

However, choose two aquatic plants that differ greatly (in color, for example), a one-color substrate, and one stone type—then you’ll have the beginnings of a great tank.

The green box

There’s a danger with most aquascapes to become what I call the ‘green box’. Essentially, your tank has almost no contrast, and so it becomes a ‘green box’ to most viewers. (A box with some green, underwater plants.)

The easiest way to avoid this is using all the aspects of your tank (the substrate, hardscape, and aquatic plants) in such a way as to show differences between your chosen materials. If you have lots of green plants that grow quickly, choose one vivid red plant (Like this Dark Red Ludwigia Plant). that’ll be placed next to your focal point.

If you need some fish suggestions, we have put this a post that covers the easiest fish to take care of.

Different Styles of Aquascaping

What is really cool about aquascaping is that there are many different styles you can adhere to. You can make ones that look like natural forests, jungles, biotopes, and so much more.

Let’s take a look at the most popular types of aquascapes.

Iwagumi Aquascaping

Iwagumi aquascape

This type of aquascaping is extremely popular among aquarium enthusiasts, and as you might be able to tell by the name of it, this is a Japanese style of aquascaping.

The defining feature of this sort of aquascape is that stones and rocks are the only things used as hardscapes.

In other words, people will use rocks and stones to form things like mountains and large rock formations.

This type of aquascaping also usually involves some sort of aquatic plant which will carpet the bottom of the tank and grow on the rocks too, so something grassy or mossy. It’s all about forming a mountainous landscape.

Dutch Aquascaping

The most important thing to note here is that Dutch aquascaping is actually the first and oldest type of aquascaping.

The defining feature of Dutch aquascapes is a very high density of plant life, with the focus being on the fast and widespread growth of fairly large plants, as well as how they are arranged.

The main point of a Dutch aquascape is to have an aquarium that has a very dense population of plant life, and moreover, those plants should all be quite colorful, have many different colors, and form great color contrasts too.

This might just be the most plant heavy type of aquascape out there, not to mention one of the most colorful ones too. It’s all about the aquatic plants and a good aquascape for beginners.

Nature Aquascaping

nature aquascape

Nature aquascaping is another fairly old one, and we do have to say that it looks quite beautiful.

The main point of this type of aquascape is to recreate or to create your own natural setting, and in this case, this will usually take the form of some kind of forest or grassy landscape.

This is another very plant heavy type of aquascape, but unlike with Dutch aquascaping which is purely about the plants, nature aquascaping should also involve things like driftwood, rocks, and caves, thus making it look like something that could occur in nature.

This type of aquascape tends to feature the color green more than anything else.

Jungle Aquascaping

Most people would say that jungle aquascaping is like a mix between the nature and Dutch styles of aquascaping.

Here you will find a combination of aquatic plants, rocks, and driftwood, although the jungle aquascape is more plant heavy and less focused on things like rocks and driftwood.

The jungle aquascape does focus heavily on having lots of plant life arranged in a natural looking way, and yes, there should be plenty of colors too, although, as in the jungle, the color green is a big deal here.

Imagine the types of plants you would find in a jungle or a tropical rainforest. This is what the jungle aquascape is supposed to look like, somehow wild and untamed while simultaneously organized and beautiful.

These tend to look more natural than other types of aquascapes.

Biotope Aquascaping

This might just be the coolest type of aquascape out there, and it’s because it lets you recreate a natural setting that can be found in the wild.

In this sense, this is one of the most diverse types of aquascapes out there, because it can take any form.

Many people who make biotope aquascapes will use pictures from real life to recreate a natural scene down to the exact detail.

This could take the form of a mountain landscape, a desert, a canyon, a jungle, a grassy field, a forest, or anything in between.

Commonly Asked Questions

How long does an Aquascape last?

When you are learning aquascaping, you might hear some people saying that aquascapes only last a certain amount of time. Some may say 6 weeks, some 6 months, and some more than a year.

Folks, this is all total bologna, absolutely bogus! An aquascape will last for as long as you decide to maintain it.

As long as you supplement your water with nutrients for the aquatic plants, you make sure the fish are well fed and healthy, and you have a great aquarium filter, you can keep an aquascape going for as long as you choose. The ball is in your court.

How to become a professional aquascaper?

Quite honestly, this is one of those things where you kind of have to learn through trial and error. Yes, you can come to us for advice and tips, you can look online in other places, and you can talk to your local fish keeping community too.

There are many places where you can become a pro aquascaper. We would say that a good idea is to start off with an aquascaping starter kit, as it will come with everything you need to get started.

The best way to go about this is simply by asking others for advice. However, yes, a part of this is going to be you, by which we mean that it takes practice. Practice makes perfect, so get to it!

Where can I get some good aquascaping ideas for beginners?

There are many great places out there to get aquascaping tips and ideas which are ideal for beginners.

You can go to YouTube, buy books, check out forums, and so much more.

What do you recommend as an aquascape starter kit?

Alright, so there are indeed some essential tools and items that you will need to create your own aquascape.

Whether you buy an all in one starter kit for aquascapes, or you choose to create your own from scratch, here are the most important items that you are going to need (aside from of course plants!).

1. A Tank

Yes, the first thing you are going to need for aquascaping is a good tank. Whether you choose to go with glass or acrylic for the tank material is up to you.

Although acrylic may be a bit tougher, it certainly does not look as nice as glass. What size you go for is also up to you, although to make a good aquascape, you might want to go for a 20 gallon tank.

2. An Aquarium Filter

Aquascapes, due to their high concentration of plants, and often fish too, are quite sensitive to debris, waste, rotting plant matter, and organic compounds in the water.

Therefore, you are definitely going to need a top notch filtration unit that can perform chemical, biological, and mechanical filtration.

3. A Protein Skimmer

A protein skimmer can also be very helpful for an aquascape, as it removes all sorts of debris and organic compounds from the water.

It helps takes a bit of the load off the filter, and is especially important if you are creating a saltwater aquascape.

4. An Air Stone

Something else you may want to consider adding to your aquascape is an air pump and an air stone. This is important because to really thrive, your plants and fish will require lots of oxygen.

5. Nutrients & CO2

If you are creating an aquascape that is very heavily planted, you will also want to consider adding nutrients and CO2 to the tank, as both will help keep plants healthy and growing.

What is Nano Aquascape?

Nano simply means small or miniature. Therefore, an aquascape is a miniature aquascape, or in other words, an aquascape made inside of a very small tank. A nano tank is usually less than 5 gallons in size.

How do you maintain an Aquascape tank?

In all fairness, aquascape tanks are not the easiest to maintain, but really not all that difficult either.

Here are some of the best tips to follow in terms of aquascape maintenance.

  • Always make sure to keep your filter running and clean. This means that you need to regularly clean the filter and clean or change the media as required. You want as much waste being removed from the water as humanly possible.
  • Another part of maintaining your aquascape has to do with water changes and cleaning. You want to perform regular water changes, you need to vacuum sand and gravel, use algae scrubbers, and anything else you can think of to keep things clean.
  • To really make your plants in the aquascape pop, you probably want to do some CO2 injection and add nutrients to the water.
  • Regular trimming and pruning of the aquascape plants is a good idea too. To keep things looking great, you want to ensure that your plants don’t grow too large or out of shape, as it will ruin the aesthetic appeal of the scene.

What Fish & Invertebrates Work Well for Aquascape Tanks?

For the most part, aquascape tanks are not going to be that large. Of course, you can choose to make your aquascape as big as you please, but for the most part, they are usually quite compact.

Therefore, when choosing the right fish for aquascapes, most people will stick with smaller fish.

At the same time, aquascapes are supposed to look super beautiful, so having some very colorful fish doesn’t hurt either. It’s all about the color when it comes down to it.

So, what are some of the best fish to put in your aquascape aquarium?

  • Rainbows.
  • Dwarf Gouramis.
  • Angel Fish.
  • Chili Rasboras.
  • Mosquito Rasboras.
  • Guppies.
  • Discus Fish.
  • Harlequin Rasboras.
  • Cardinal Tetras.
  • Neon Tetras.
  • Black Neon Tetras.
  • Ember Tetras.
  • Danios.
  • Mollies.
  • Platies.
  • Swordtails.
  • Killifish.
  • Dwarf Catfish.

There are also a few invertebrates which work well for aquascape tanks, so what might some examples of these be?

  • Assassin Snails.
  • Nerite Snails.
  • Bumblebee Shrimp.
  • Cherry Shrimp.
  • Ghost Shrimp.
  • Amano Shrimp.

Aquascape Tutorial For Beginners

Here is a good tutorial video to help get you started;

Your Aquascape

Do you have an aquascape that exhibits these principles? If you do, we’d love to feature it in Aquascape Addiction! Let us know in the comments about your tank (and attach an image, if you’d like).

If you’re looking for some aquascaping help, post an image of your tank and we’d love to help you with it!

Photo Credits: Andreea Filip & Gergely Hideg (FlickrCC).

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