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How To: Aquascaping

If you’re new to the world of (planted) aquariums, the concept of aquascaping can seem like a bewildering one. How do aquarists set up these amazing underwater landscapes? Luckily, creating your own basic aquascape is not actually as difficult as some fear.

Keep reading to find out how to get started with your first aquascape!

Aquascaping How to Step 1: Your Plan

If you’ve been keeping aquariums for a while, you’ll probably have figured out that things work best in this hobby if you thoroughly think them through before you get started. This especially applies to something as precise as aquascaping, so follow the steps below before running out to the aquarium store.

Figure out what you want and how you’re going to do it:

Aquarium size

Will you be going nano (< 15 gallons), medium (15-40 gallons) or large? It can be tempting to want to set up a mini aquarium and save space, but if you’re an absolute beginner then medium can actually work out better. Slightly larger aquariums are easier to keep stable and more forgiving to small errors in nutrient dosing and maintenance upkeep.

On the downside, with a larger tank, you’ll be spending a little bit more on plants and hardscape such as rocks and driftwood. Don’t forget to also think about whether you’d like a long, square or tall tank!

High-tech or low-tech?

One of the most important decisions for any aquascape is whether you’d like to go for a high-light set-up with supplemented Co2 or a low-light one without Co2.

The former allows you to go all out with the plants but is the more expensive option. The latter keeps the budget down but restricts your options when it comes to plants. Most aquascapers prefer to go high-tech, but there’s still a lot you can do without fancy lights!

Aquascape type

A long tradition of scaping aquariums has led to various different styles popping up. Choosing your favorite can help you figure out the tank’s layout, so be sure to look at plenty of examples to see what’s out there!

Go for Iwagumi if you like simplicity, Dutch if you like over-the-top planting and Taiwanese if you’re into mini worlds that combine artificial figurines with nature.


Once you’ve figured out roughly what aquascaping style you’d like to go for, it’s advisable to think about what you’d like your layout to look like before even buying anything.

Try drawing things out. Even if you’re not an artist and your drawing looks messy, it’ll help you visualize things more clearly.

Fish & invertebrates

If you’d like to keep some live critters in your aquascape, you’ll have to think about what species you’d like to go for beforehand. There are a lot of factors that influence your possible choices, after all, like aquarium size, tankmates and how densely planted the tank is. Most dedicated aquascapers like to go for a single group of small schooling fish or maybe even just shrimp, as they prefer the focus to be on the scape itself.

Also be sure to think about what plants you’d like to use. Choose ones that match the feel of the tank, as well as the amount of lighting and Co2 you supply.

Aquascape with various plants and tetra fish

Aquascaping How to Step 2: Your Equipment

What you’ll need to successfully set up your aquascape depends largely on whether you’ve chosen to go high-tech or low-tech.

As the name suggests, low tech requires less equipment and therefore a lower initial investment. The list below contains roughly what you need to get started.

  • Your aquarium. There are many brands out there, ranging from relatively cheap to very pricey. Read reviews and check out different tanks at your local aquarium store to see if you like the look!
  • Lighting. If you’re getting an aquarium kit it might come with a light, but be aware that kit lights are usually not very strong and will only work for a low-tech set-up. If you want something a bit more spectacular you’ll have to dive into the world of aquarium lighting.

    Get acquainted with the different lighting types (LED, fluorescent) and how lighting affects the other elements that comprise your aquascape!
  • Co2 set. High light without Co2 is a recipe for horrific algae growth, which is why you’ll have to get a Co2 set if you’re looking to go high-tech.

    Aquascaping without Co2 is possible, but supplying Co2 will really make it easier to get spectacular results. Some aquarists like to use a homemade Co2 kit but since these can be quite unstable it’s usually advisable to buy one, especially if you’re a beginner.
  • Nutrients/fertilizer. Even in low-tech aquariums, it’s usually a good idea to do at least some nutrient dosing. This is a whole world of itself with many differing opinions and methods, so dive into it before getting started to figure out how you’re going to go about it.
  • Aquarium test kit. Keeping an eye on your aquarium’s water values is always important and even more so when you’re aquascaping. After all, you’ll be dosing nutrients and you’ll have to know the levels of at least basic nutrient elements like nitrates and phosphates.

    For a good insight into what’s going on in your scape, go for one of the more extensive test kits that go beyond just ammonia, nitrite, nitrate and pH.
  • Additional equipment that all aquariums need includes a filter, most likely a heater and any accessories you think you require.

    Aquascapers generally like to keep their filter and heater of out of the actual aquarium so as to not ruin the natural feel. If you’d like to do the same, go for a canister filter that has room for a heater and connect it to the tank using glass lily pipes.

In addition to your equipment, you’re obviously also going to need décor. Substrate, plants, and especially the hardscape (rocks and driftwood) are essential to the end result.

Aquascape aquarium with rocks, plants and moss.

Aquascaping How to Step 3: Set-up

Everyone likes to go about their aquascape set-up process differently. All in all though, starting your aquascape is not so different from starting any other aquarium:

  • Place the substrate in the aquarium and play around with the hardscape (rocks and driftwood) until you find a layout you like. The hardscape is like your scape’s skeleton, so take your time to find something that works. Keep in mind that symmetry is not really desirable, so you can use the rule of thirds and the golden ratio to guide you.
  • Planting time! It can be very hard to see how something is going to end up growing in because aquarium plants can look a bit sad and sparse before they establish. In any case, place tall plants at the back while keeping the foreground low. Play with textures, leaf sizes and even color to create something that’s pleasant to look at.
  • Once the plants are in place and well-anchored, you can ever so carefully flood the tank. After that, you can turn on the equipment and sit back. Once your test kit indicated the tank has cycled, you can add any fish or invertebrates you would like to inhabit your aquascape.
  • Your scape will change and grow once the plants settle in. There’s a good chance you’ll end up wanting to change some things around once you see the end result, which is absolutely fine! You can use aquascaping equipment to easily and carefully move plants and small décor around.
Close-up of plants in an aquascape with neon tetra fish in the background.

Aquascaping How to Step 4: Maintenance

Although you’ll be able to lean back and relax for a bit after the initial planting and flooding of your aquascape, your peace and quiet won’t last long. All aquariums require regular maintenance, and aquascapes even more so due to the amount of plants they contain. Especially in high-tech set-ups that promote fast growth, you can feel like the pruning never ends!

The basic maintenance of an aquascape is largely equal to that of a ‘normal’ aquarium. You’ll have to do water changes, filter cleaning, gravel vacuuming and glass cleaning to keep things healthy and nice to look at.

The difference is in the aforementioned pruning as well as, of course, nutrient dosing and more extensive testing to keep an eye on said nutrients. Don’t forget to also regularly check whether your Co2 set-up is still working as it should and tweak things if you’re having problems with algae or nutrient imbalances.

You might be discouraged to see that your aquascape doesn’t always look like the inspiring photos you’ve seen online. This is entirely normal, as picture day is a special moment in any aquascape’s life cycle and aquarists will generally give the scape a deep clean and maybe even temporarily remove equipment to be able to snap a good photo. The rest of the time, there’s a good chance even a professional’s scape might contain a tuft of algae here and there and get a little overgrown. It’s all part of the process: nature is not always clean and perfect!

Need Help?

Aquascaping is a wonderfully relaxing hobby that can result in a fantastic aquarium experience. That being said, it also requires practice and can be very frustrating when problems pop up. If you want a beautiful aquascape in your home but would like to skip the hard part, contact us here and we’ll get your dream tank set up.

Photo of author

Marijke Puts

Hey! I'm Marijke, FantaSEA's resident blog writer. I'm a full-time pop science author, part-time PADI diver and snorkeler, and have been keeping fish since I was a kid. When I'm not writing fish care guides, you can usually find me underwater or trying to figure out how to fit more tanks into my house.

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