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Aquascaping Principles

First in a series of Aquascaping articles

Aquascaping 101

This is the article that my friend Birgit Fruehwirth who lives in Austria wrote for a forum a while back that will stand the test of time. Birgit has gracefully given permission to publish this article for all of you who would like to try your hand at aquascaping. Next week I will go into some particulars for aquascaping, considerations for placement of individual species, compatabilities, color textures. Until then, enjoy Birgits article!
Don Matakis

In recent years the term aquascaping has become better known by aquarists all over the world. The big man from Japan, Takashi Amano started with his books, a new style in aquaristic. The simple gathering of plants, beautiful stones and driftwood is no longer the goal of many aquarists.
Aquascaping has become a valued art.

This article is based on the style and ideas of the Nature Aquarium, combined with my very own opinions and experiences. It is allways a question of personal preferences on what type of aquascape you try to achieve. Many people just love those good looking japanese aquascapes, but they donīt feel able to achieve it. It is not a question of experience wether you can do it or not. It is no more difficult to have a beautiful Nature Aquarium than it is to have a normal tank. It is just the careful selection of plants and accessories that makes the difference. So many people just donīt have enough self confidence to try it. This article will give you a very compact guideline. Follow the rules and you will achieve your goal.

Amanos Nature Aquarium (NA) is often misunderstood. It is not the aim of the NA to reproduce nature biotopes of special regions. It is more the goal of creating an underwater landscape. A landscape seen before in real nature, not under water.
I myself started, trying to copy some of Amano's works. But soon I realised that you cannot copy anything that has to do with living beings. Nevertheless it is good for practicing to start with copying an aquascape you really like. You will automatically use the right plants, place the stones correctly and create some free space which will give your tank more depth of field. With time, you will develop your own style, and sometimes you will like it even more than the one you tried to copy.
Then you start your new setups by thinking of a landscape you once saw and really liked. This may be just an accumulation of stones in the mountains, or a huge clearance in a wood. Everyone has his own preferrals, so everyone will choose another landscape and get his own style.
In Nature Aquarium, plants AND fishes are the centerpiece of a tank. In providing the best conditions for your plants to grow, you usually do the same for your fishes. When the plants have everything they need to grow well, at the same time they provide the best conditions for your fishes. Plants use up excessive nutrients in the water that may cause Nitrate levels to spike, and they produce oxygen which is indespensable to the life of fishes.

AGAIN: This short article shall help you create those beautiful aquascapes you have seen in books or on the net and you never thought you can achieve.

So letīs start:

1. Imagination
Imagination is the key to aquascaping.
Get the pictures of available plants and accessories into your mind. Try to combine them in several ways. If you are not able to do this, youīd better start with copying a tank you like. With time you will find it easier to do your imaginative work.
Youīve got your picture? Well, then letīs go.

2. Choosing a background
There are some different ways of choosing a background. Some people use cork, others wood, some paint the background and some use self adhesive foliage. No matter what you do: as long as you donīt want your tank to stand in the middle of a room, give it a background. It is very unnatural to see the wall with all the hoses and cables shining through the tank.
When painting, or using foliage: Youīd best use black or blue. This will give your tank a wonderful contrast and also make it easy to concentrate on the tank itself. You donīt want the people to focus on the background, just because it is red?

3. Choosing your substrate
It is unlikely that your aquascape will look natural when you use pink, blue or bright green gravel. Youīd better choose brown, gray or black. There are many different types of substrate that will assist your plants in growth.

4. Choosing the shape of your future layout

There are several composition types:

The concave setup (high on either side and low in the middle)

The convex setup (the opposite of the one above, so low on either side and high in the middle)

"Convexity" doesnīt need to be produced by plants only, as you can see.

The triangular setup (high on one side, getting lower to the other)

The rectangular setup (high everywhere). This is the one you should avoid. It doesnīt give you areas of free space. But these are very important to create an illusion of depth. So less sometimes is much more.

5. Choosing the accessories
For a long time, aquarists where looking for the perfect (beautiful) piece of driftwood, or stone. Then they placed it into the tank, and.... well, it didnīt look satisfying, did it?
Especially when making a setup with stones it is much more important to use different sizes of the same type, than just take one very beautiful stone. One single stone in a tank will allways look artificial, but when you place two or more, thatīs what you usually see in nature. OK, OK there is Ayers Rock, but it doesnīt actually look natural, does it (sorry to the Australians, didnīt mean to offend you).
Now take your stones or your driftwood and place them in a triangle (if they are at least three). The biggest one (if really big enough) usually is the main focal point, so take special care where to place it (see golden ratio in main focal points in the following chapter).
Never use different type of stones or driftwood. You can gather the ugliest stones you can think of. They just have to be the same type. Place them correctly in a group: I promise, they will look nice (donīt know if it works for red-bricks though)!

6. Setting the main focal points
To get a smooth aquascape you need to set one or at maximum two focal points. This is usually something that pleases your eye. Either a stone, or a piece of driftwood, or a beautiful (group of) plant(s). This is where the golden ratio comes in.
You sure have tried to put the most beautiful of your plants right into the middle of your tank. Well, it didnīt look too good, right? Thatīs because when you have a symmetrical aquascape, your eyes tend to wander from left to right and back, forth and back.... This is not the relaxed atmosphere you are looking for when you sit in front of your tank and watch it for hours.
Greek philosophers and mathematicians found out long ago: the best ratio that pleases your eye is 1:1,618. Heeeh?????
To explain. When you drink your coffee, you mix one part of milk with 5 parts of coffee (just as an idea) You have a ratio of 1:5.
So when you place your focal point, you devide your tank length into two pieces. One has the ratio of 1,618 and the other the ratio of 1.
How to do that??? Very simple: just measure the length of your tank and divide it through 2.618. Take the result and measure it from one side of your tank. Mark it. The rest is 1.618 (no math there). This is the place for your very special centerpiece, focal point or whatever you call it.

It is not wise to have two centerpieces in relatively small tanks (under about 60gal). Never try to create more than 2 focal points.

7. Foreground, Midground, Background
To get some depth into your tanks it is most important to use low growing plants. It is not particularely necessary to have high growing plants as well, because you can have hills or higher stones and driftwood that fulfill their demand.
If you donīt have either stones, hills (terraces) or driftwood, you need higher plants as well to give a fine background.
Amano often uses Riccia fluitans and glossostigma elatinoides. While the second one can really be a challenge sometimes even for experienced aquascapers, Riccia is quite easy to cultivate. It is a floating plant that needs a little care.
Hairgrass (eleocharis) is another plant used very often as a foreground. Note: Glossostigma and Hairgrass must not be planted as they come from your lfs. Divide them into very small bundles, and plant them separately. This will make it grow in faster and also reduces the risk of decaying. After planting Hairgrass, prune the plant to a hight of about ― - 1 inch. Eleocharis is grown emersed (above water) in plant nurserys. Until the new shoots will appear, the old ones will rot and get infested with algaes.

8. Planting order
First you plant (place) the focal point. Then the lowgrowers and midgrowers and in the end the high plants.
Try to allways plant very dense.
Especially stem plants are a good way to form your aquascape. Many small leaved species, such as micranthemum micranthemoides, m. umbrosum, mayaca sellowiana or rotala indica to just name a few, can easily be trimmed to a desired shape. But therefore you have to plant it quite dense as I stated. Take two to three stems and plant them with tweezers. About an inch beside: plant the next bundle of two to three stems, and so on. The more dense you plant in the beginning, the faster the tank will grow in. Especially in the initial stage it is wise to cut the tops, replant the cuttings between the old ones while you leave the rooted parts in the substrate. So you can easily propagate your plants. The rooted parts will bud new shoots within short time.

9. Plant leaves and colour
It is allways wise to use plants with different leave size and/or colour. This again will create more depth and naturalness. If your tank is not too big (under 60gallon) it is wise to mainly use plants with smaller leaves. That will make it look much bigger than it actually is.
Especially red plants can help you give your tank more contrast. But be aware: If you use one single red plant it will again work as a focal point. If you allready chose a stone to be a focal point, you may get too much tension into your scape and your eyes will wander from one focal point to the other.

10. Fishes
You shouldnīt add fishes right from the start. There are many articles on fishless cycling in the net.
IMO (and not only IMO) it is better to choose schools of small fishes than just a few different big ones. A huge shool of tetras or rasboras will make your tank look much bigger (especially on pictures you want to take part in an aquascape competition, donīt you?!?).
Choose fishes that wonīt disturb your aquascape. Many species tend to dig, not good for your foreground carpet as you can imagine.
Also keep in mind that many fishes that are small when you buy it may easily grow to the size of half your tank. This is neither good for your aquascape, nor for the fish, so ask and READ before buying. Sometimes it is better to read, or ask in the net, because many lfs just want to sell. A bargain which was said to stay small may easily grow to size of a small shark.

11. Maintainance
Setting up an aquascape is one thing, but maintaining and enhancing its beauty is completely different. Only regular pruning and waterchanging as well as getting the right balance of nutrients/light/CO2 will make you achieve your goal. Sometimes when your plants grow in, you may even have to change a group of plants, cause it doesnīt look like your original imagination. You just have to give it a try and believe in yourself.
Birgit Fruehwirth

Aquatic Scapes
P.O. Box 1115
Faribault, MN 55012
Telephone: 507-331-5801
Fax: 507-331-7125

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