How To Start Aquascaping For Beginners (A Complete Step-By-Step Guide)

When I was a beginner like you, I wondered how people could make such a beautiful aquascape in their aquarium. Like you, I also wanted to replicate those.

However, it wasn’t so easy back in the day because of limited resources and knowledge. I had tried, failed, and failed several times before making a successful aquascape in my own style. Later, I realized that it was similar to a nature-style aquascape.

Since that time, I have felt the necessity to write a complete guide on aquascaping for beginners. The drive is still in me, helping to write the article.

In this guide, you’ll learn the basics of aquascaping, the different styles associated with that, and how to start aquascaping in a step-by-step way. So, without further ado, let’s get started.

What Is Aquascaping?

What is aquascaping? The term aquascaping is derived from the word landscape. It’s the art (YES, I call it an art) of arranging and decorating aquatic plants, rocks, stones, cave works, and driftwood in an aesthetically pleasing way inside an aquarium.

You can basically call it underwater gardening. 

The main goal of aquascaping is to build artful underwater landscapes, and numerous distinctive styles are there to incorporate. In general, plants or fish are common in aquascaping.

However, it’s also possible to aquascape solely with plants, rockwork, or hardscape, even with no plants. 

Benefits Of Aquascaping

Having any type of hobby is beneficial in many ways. Spending time doing enjoyable activities will force you to take some time for yourself, release stress, and ward off depression.

Hobbies like aquascaping will encourage you to stretch your limits of creativity and imagination. Aquascaping also positively impacts kids, really spurs their curiosity, and keeps their creative juices flowing. 

An aquascaping aquarium located at the focal point of any room brings a beautiful ambiance. Watching the breathtaking view of the aquascape lowers blood pressure and calms the mind.

Building the aquarium will keep you physically active. When you devote yourself to some sort of hobby, you learn to take on new challenges. 

Different Styles Of Aquascaping

There are several types of aquascaping popular in home aquariums. I am here discussing the top most popular six.

Nature Aquascaping

Nature Aquascaping

Nature aquascaping is one of the popular design styles in the aquascaping world. Its founding father is the Japanese aquascaper, Takashi Amano. This style involves imitating a natural landscape as close as possible such as hills, mountains, rainforests, or valleys.

Japanese gardening techniques are usually used to build nature aquascapes. It allows several plants of the same species in the aquarium space, and plants are selected based on their similarities to the outdoor environment.

Nature aquascape utilizes the Golden Ratio throughout the design, and you have the flexibility to add a wide variety of plants and hardscapes.

The drawback is you need constant trimming to retain the shape and often encounter algae outbreaks.

Jungle Style Aquascaping

Jungle-style aquascape is the easiest to replicate and best for inexperienced aquarists. It’s a bit of a combination of Dutch and Nature styles; however, it has its own unique style. As the name implies, the jungle style resembles a natural, boundless, and wild ecosystem.

Plants in this style are left on their own to raise naturally and spontaneously. Over time, the plant covers so densely, and tanks achieve a certain balance, which requires less maintenance. The jungle style has less open space as well as very little or no hardscape.

It’s not the most complex type of aquascape design, but it could be very appealing once established.

Biotope Aquascaping

Biotope Aquascaping

Biotopes are the most versatile aquascaping style and aim to create an exact replica of a specific aquatic landscape found in nature. In other words, they are providing natural habitat conditions for fish and other critters.

That is why biotope aquariums can be of various types which represent different natures.

Biotope aquascape doesn’t follow fixed guidelines, but basic aquascaping principles can still apply. A deep understanding of the natural ecosystem is necessary to mimic and maintain a healthy aquatic life.

A true biotope is capable of recreating the ecosystem and can work as a refuge for endangered species. So apart from visual appeal, biotope aquascape also serves as an important aspect.

Dutch Aquascaping Style

Dutch aquascape is the oldest and started to become popular back in the 1930s in the Netherlands. Dutch and nature aquascape are two dominant styles in freshwater aquariums. 

Dutch aquascape is not replicating a natural ecosystem or a specific setting. Instead, it focuses on the growth and arrangements of various plant species. Usually, it doesn’t use rocks, driftwood, or any hardscape material.

Selection of plants and placement is crucial for this style so that plant species complement each other in color and shape. Therefore, extensive knowledge is necessary of aquatic plants, planting them, and arranging them to make an appealing view. 

In Dutch style, common practice is to plant 70% of the aquarium space and no more than one species per 4 inches of tank length. Also, avoid duplication of the same species in another group for color contrast and variety. 

Iwagumi Aquascaping

Iwagumi Aquascaping

It is a challenging aquascape style and requires experience and knowledge to implement and maintain. “Iwagumi” stood for “rock formation” in Japanese and was also developed by Takashi Amano.

The stones act as structures for this style, and any number of stones can be utilized as long as it is an odd number to avoid symmetry.

The goal should be to position a group of rocks—similar in color and texture but of different shapes and outlines—in a fluent, spacious way so that they are intertwined with each other and to the aquascape.

Plants and fish are also part of this aquascape but to a minimum extent. Carpeting plants are the best choice as they can’t overshadow the stones and preserve the open space inside the aquarium.

Walstad Aquascaping

Walstad Aquascaping

Diana Walstad, an American biologist, and aquarist originated the Walstad method. The whole concept of the Walstad method is to make an aquarium as maintenance-free as possible.

This approach will grow aquatic plants with minimum technology, i.e., no fertilizer and no CO2 injection.

In the Walstad method, organic no-additives soil is used as the substrate. Plants and fish are supposed to take care of each other by establishing a symbiotic relationship between them so that the tank becomes a self-sustaining fish tank.

This encourages a “no-filter” method but can still clear the mess (fish feces or other materials).

It differs from the Nature or Biotope style since the placement of plants and hardscape are quite random rather than following specific rules.

How To Make An Aquascaping Attractive

No matter what style you prefer or if you want to build your own style, the target of every individual in aquascaping is to make a beautiful display.

Aquascaping is where your imagination and creativity play the most significant role. Knowing the basic points is necessary for your success. Nature is mathematical before it was beautiful and diverse.

Following the rules of mathematics helps you tremendously to make a lovely view in aquascaping.

Focal Points

Focal point in Aquascaping

A focal point is a point that stands out in your tank and grabs attention. Without a focal point, the design more often looks dull and uninteresting. The focal point can be a contrasting red plant or an excellent stone.

Focal points are the dominant factor and need to be selected and placed with care. Several focal points may be in your tank, but make sure they are balanced.

The principles of aquascapes are all about drawing eyes to the focal points—the center of interest, and displaying them with the best possible effect.

Avoid Symmetry

asymmetry in Aquascaping

Nature is asymmetrical; perfect symmetry isn’t found in nature. Aquascaping mainly replicates natural scenes in aquariums; therefore, avoiding symmetry will make the aquascape more natural.

Aquascapers try their best to prevent symmetrical arrangement by grouping rocks and focal points in uneven numbers, never in pairs.

The central focus point also shouldn’t be at the dead center, somewhat slightly off-center. For this instance, the Golden ratio is very effective for finding the optimal focus point, and it’s widely accepted as mathematically aesthetic.

Rule Of Thirds

Rule Of Thirds in Aquascaping

The rule of thirds in photography also implies aquascaping to create exciting and well-balanced visual effects. The basic principle is to break images down into thirds (vertically and horizontally) with imaginary lines. Now you have nine equal parts and four intersections. 

The theory is placing the piece of interest in the intersections or along the lines so that any image or aquascape looks more balanced and viewers can interact more naturally.

Studies have found that human eyes usually go to one of the intersection points instead of the center. 

Therefore, draw imaginary lines over the front glass of the aquarium and find the focal points. It’s a simplified version of the golden ratio for finding optimum focal points. 

The Golden Ratio/ Scaling

The golden ratio has been used extensively throughout ancient times to the modern era in art, architecture, photography, etc. You can also use this beautiful element in your aquascaping to find the best place for focal points.

By arranging elements at the focal points derived from the golden ratio, you can achieve the best viewing experience. 

The golden ratio is derived by dividing a line into two parts so that if you divide the longer leg with the smaller ones, it equals dividing the whole part with the larger one.

The magic number is 1.618, and the best ratio that pleases your eyes is 1:1.618. In aquascaping, it is the point where eyes direct at first glance. 


Contrast in Aquascaping

Contrast is significant for aquascaping as it sets the overall tone. Contrast can be of two types; color and size. The distinction between different sizes of rocks and plants is readily achievable, which is especially required for the Iwagumi style.

The color contrast is also straightforward; red plants or gray rocks in lush green plants make a good contrast and attract the viewer’s attention.

Sequential Steps To Aquascape Your Aquarium

Aquascaping is a broad task that requires time, labor, and creativity. But you can easily start your first aquascaping with a few steps. Here I have discussed six primary steps of aquascaping.

Step 1: Choose The Style And Layout

Aquascaping Choose Your Style

First, you should select what style and layout you want to replicate in your aquarium because the items you need to buy will differ substantially according to that. As a beginner, you can try the easiest one first, i.e., nature aquascape or jungle-style aquascape.

Step 2: Buying And Placement Of The Tank

Aquascaping arrange a tank

An aquarium is a canvas for aquascaping and what size you prefer solely depends on you. However, all aquarium sizes have some advantages and disadvantages. 

Large ones are time-consuming to maintain and also require many expensive accessories to run them effectively. On the contrary, small tank setup, water change, and pruning are relatively easy; obviously, all other costs are less. 

Although it’s your call, I would recommend tanks between 10 gallons to 50 gallons if you are a beginner. Nowadays, rimless tanks are popular for aquascaping because a better view is obtainable without any silicone joint. 

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Place your tank near an electrical outlet because you have to plug in a heater, filters, lighting, etc. But never expose it to direct sunlight; it may cause algae outbreaks, and water may heat up unnecessarily. 

Step 3: Add Substrate

Aquascaping add substrate

When you grow aquatic plants in an aquarium, a significant consideration is necessary to select the substrate. Although it’s possible to grow plants in inert substances (containing no nutrients) like sand or gravel, you may have difficulty maintaining the nutrient balance

Moreover, it may not be possible to achieve the desired scaping with those substrates. Artificial substrates especially made for planted tanks are helpful because they contain nutrients for plants to grow. Substrates are used to create slopes and up and down-valleys. 

Step 4: Making Perfect Foreground, Midground, And Background

It is vastly important to use your aquarium ground effectively to portray the layout you want to achieve and to make the aquascape appealing to the eyes.

Obviously, you wouldn’t like to put tall plants or large stones in the front; then, you can’t see anything else. 

You have to buy and introduce decor (hardscape and plants) into the tank according to your chosen style. Most hardscapes are rocks, stone, driftwood, etc. Lay them nicely as per your choice; the better is according to the focal points. 

While adding decor, avoid sharp edges since fish can get injured. If you like to add driftwood, you have to prepare that well; otherwise, that can bring harmful materials to your tank.

Place the shortest and slow-growing plants (carpeting plants) and the smallest rocks at the front. Next, use the midground for mid-height plants and stones. Lastly, the background is where the tallest elements, including plants, are ready to go. 

Anchor the plants in the substrate properly to prevent detachments and breaking loose. Read my detailed article on how to plant different aquarium plants in various substrates. 

Use the aforementioned techniques to find focal points and place points of interest in those areas to allure the eyes. 

Step 5: Add Water And Let It Cycle

It’s time to add water and let the tank cycle. Don’t stir up the substrate during water filling. Cycling the aquarium is about establishing a healthy bacterial colony essential to dealing with fish wastes and other organic matters.

Keep your accessories running during the cycling period (filter, heater, lighting, etc.). 

In-depth read: What is a nitrogen cycle and how to cycle a fish tank   

Step 6: Add Fish And Invertebrates

Aquascaping add fish

Never overstock because it is associated with so many other problems. Stock quantity should be congruent with the tank size. Also, the fish size shouldn’t be too big for your tank. 

In aquascaping, usually, people prefer small schooling fish like neon tetra, zebra danios, etc. However, it’s always a good practice to incorporate a few bottom feeders since they keep the aquarium naturally clean by eating the foods that sink to the bottom. 

Related topicStocking ideas for a 10-gallon fish tank.

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Items To Consider For Setting Up And Maintenance Of The Tank


Lightings are an indispensable part of a planted aquarium. There are varieties of lights available in the market, including Incandescent Light, Metal Halogen Light, Fluorescent Light, LED Light, etc.  

I suggest LED lights because they are energy-efficient, durable, and don’t add extra heat to the aquarium water. In addition, they provide the right spectrum and intensity for growing aquatic plants.

Aquarium Filter

Nothing can work as an aquarium filter for keeping the aquarium in good health. Therefore you must have a filter for your aquascape aquarium.

Since aquascaping is all about creating beautiful picturesque scenes, you should keep gadgets in the aquarium out of sight.

An external type filter, either a canister or HOB (hang on the back) filter, will be a good match for that. 

Aquarium Heater

Maintaining the water temperature for your fish’s comfort can easily be done by an aquarium heater. An inline external heater or built-in heater with the tank or any other filter that remains out of sight— can serve the purpose of aquascaping. 

Always invest in a quality heater because heater malfunction is common. A good brand heater and a separate temperature controller are handy for keeping aquariums safe from heater malfunction

Siphon Gravel Vacuum

Water change is necessary to keep water parameters at optimum levels in aquariums. 10-15% of water change is recommended every week. Siphon gravel vacuum helps to remove water from the aquarium during the water change.

Also, regular vacuuming at substrates prevents detritus buildup. Therefore, a siphon gravel vacuum is quite handy in this instance. 

A Protein Skimmer

Protein skimmer removes organic wastes, including but not limited to fish poops and leftover foods. Organic matter in the tank water creates foam when whisked by the protein skimmer and air; after that, foam spills over into the collection cup.

A protein skimmer helps clean the toxic material, requiring less water change and continuously oxygenating the water.

Nutrients & CO2

You have to replenish the nutrients from time to time for the growth of plants. Since plants suck nutrients from both roots and leaves, liquid fertilizer and root tabs are two ways to add nutrients. 

Regular use of root tabs will maintain necessary ingredients in substrates, from where root feeder plants get nutrients. In comparison, liquid fertilizer adds the required balance in the liquid column. Get more ideas on fertilization from this aquarium fertilizer guide.

CO2 is essential for plants’ photosynthesis; CO2 presented in aquarium water may sometimes be insufficient for plants to undergo the process. For this instance, a complete CO2 system may be necessary for plants’ survival and growth.  

Water Test Kits

Measuring the water parameter is vital to understanding any unwanted alteration in tank chemistry. Therefore, I suggest buying a quality test kit so that you get reliable results.

Measuring the ammonia, nitrite, pH, and nitrate levels regularly is essential to know the condition and make the necessary adjustments.

Scissors And Tweezers

Scissors and tweezers are effective tools in aquascaping. Tweezer helps in planting the aquarium plants, whereas scissors in pruning. Regular trimming may require preserving the shape of the plants and, most notably, the aquascape.


In this aquascaping for beginners guide, I have discussed everything you need to know for a beginner aquascaper. Before implementing the imagination into reality in your aquarium, making a sketch on a white paper of what you want to achieve ultimately is pretty helpful.

Aquascaping is a subtle art, and like all arts, it requires a bit of patience, knowledge, and dedication.

I hope my article will help you in your aquarium journey. If you’d like to share the experience of the first-ever attempt at aquascaping, leave a comment below.

Sujit Modak

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