Aquascaping for the freshwater aquarium keeper

Aquascaping comes in many different forms. It is an artform in itself and just like any art there are many different genres. You cannot compare high Renaissance paintings to post impressionism and you cannot compare a biotope aquarium to an Iwagumi. It all comes down to personal choice and preference.

Aquascaping began with simple community aquariums, where Joe Public would use whatever nicknacks were available to make a pleasing aquarium. Those with a keen eye for design would apply the “rule of thirds” an archectural technique which creates a balance of full and empty and makes for an attractive piece of art. Or simply put – “don’t just put stuff in the middle.”

Aquascaping: Dutch style and Jungle style

In the 1930s a new movement arose in aquascaping which was the Dutch style aquarium, developed as the name suggests, in the Netherlands. Whereas previously, the staple décor of aquascaping was rocks and driftwood, this style introduced lush arrangements of plants with taller plants at the back and ‘Dutch streets’ of plants across the length of the aquarium.

Whereas the Dutch aquascaping can tend to look like your nan’s flowerbeds, an all-together different style is the Jungle design which uses wild looking plants with more exotic, broader coarse leaves like Echinodorus bleherae – which is available from Swell.

Aquascaping: Japanese style

Twenty years ago another style took the aquascaping world by storm – the Nature Aquarium or Japanese style, introduced by Takashi Amano whose book series Nature Aquarium World became the Bible for many Japanese stylists. The Japanese style draws on oriental gardening techniques which evoke a landscape in miniature – rather like a bonsai – and capturing the spirit of nature rather than something that is literally realistic. Think of those Zen pebble gardens with a single rock – representative of the Japanese concept of Wabi-sabi which is beauty through simple, stark beauty that evokes a sense of modesty.

Among the Japanese aquascaping style is a further genre called Iwagumi. This style is heavily based on the aesthetic placement of rocks, often with a main rock placed off centre (thus conforming to the rule of thirds). Rather than looking like an actual-size slice of a river or garden, the Iwagumi style looks like a landscape in miniature – perhaps a mountain range carpeted in moss and grass.

The key to producing these kinds of stunning aquascapes is using plenty of strong lighting, lots of CO2 and regular water changes. Because of the high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus needed to fertilise the plants, if you’re not careful you could have an algae-scape on your hands, so you may need to do up to 50% water changes each week. You also need a more heavy filtration system to keep up the flow of good clean water to your plants. Another technique for keeping the algae down is to employ algae-munching shrimps, and of course these diminutive helpers are not just industrious workers, they are also little stunners in a range of colourful bumblebee patterns that can fetch thousands of pounds each.

One infamous sale a few years ago cost in the region of £21,000 for three shrimp… That’s the same as a Porsche for three shrimp, a second hand Porsche but a Porsche nonetheless.

Aquascaping: Biotopes

The final genre of aquascaping is the Biotope, whereby aquascapers aim to replicate the natural habitat of their fish as closely and faithfully as possible. In years gone by fishkeepers would have no issue with bunging marine coral sand in a freshwater tank, mixing South American and African plants and topping it all off with a plastic castle, now however things have been taken to a whole ‘nother level.

For example if you keep Malawi cichlids, which are native to the East African Rift valley, you want to use the kind of large boulders that are found in the Rift Lakes (see biotope below). If you’ve ever paddled in a river or lake you’ll have noticed the ground is never just one type of sand. There’s a mixture of sand, gravel and pebbles so this is the kind of mixture you should go for. But remember sands and gravels are usually of a similar colour to the pebbles since over the process of erosion they most likely came from the same source.

In the Rift Lakes you won’t find a lot of greenery and plants except maybe a few reeds but these are quite tricky to keep in an aquarium so you could perhaps consider a Vallisneria gigantea (another plant in the Swell range). These plants can grow to impressive sizes but then if you keep Malawis you ought to have a decent sized tank to keep the angry little fellas from going to war with each other anyway.

A cousin of the Malawi cichlid that lends itself to biotope aquascaping is the Lake Tanganyika cichlid, a breed also found in the Rift Lakes of Tanzania, Zambia and Congo. These cichlids do well with a realistic artificial rock like Swell’s Okiishi Rock. Not only is the Okiishi as naturalistic as it gets, the rock is nice and light which means if the burrowing cichlids get overzealous with their furious excavating, a heavy rock won’t topple on them and kill them. A Tanganyika biotope would look great with a nice pale quartz sand and pebbles and also some shells.

The female of these cichlids are quite large whereas the diminutive male guards the young from his outpost in a snail shell. A cheap and easy way of providing suitable shells is to go for the ones you get with escargot (remember to wipe off the garlic butter). Again this cichlid wouldn’t call plants home but likes a nice deep substrate to burrow and build nests.

A stunning and simple setup can be created using Swell aquascaping equipment. This is a South East Asian style biotope that would be ideal for the likes of Harlequin rasboras. For this setup the aquascape uses a Swell Okiishi Replica Rock as the centre piece and then a bed of Swell Maui Coarse Sand. The sand is topped with Nordic Gravel 4-6mm (don’t worry, you don’t only have to use it with Norwegian fish – the names have artistic license) and some Burmese Mixed Pebbles. A Cyperus helferi is ideal to make the central grassy area and the plants on the left and right are Cryptocoryne. This aquascaping setup below can be recreated as all the pieces in it are available from Swell UK.

If you can’t afford the plane ticket to the People’s Republic of China, why not go for a wade in your local river to observe the way natural rock formations lie and the way pebbles cluster around them. The result may not be as knock-your-socks off stunning as an Iwagumi, but you can create a real talking point and something that is very faithful to nature. After all your fish are pets, not just performing extras in your masterpiece.

Of course you can don your Indiana Jones hat and go and search out these habitats yourself. There is a small scene of UK biotope keepers who will go the ends of the Earth (literally) to track down items for their aquariums. Heiko Bleher is one such intrepid fishkeeper who followed his mother into the adventurous side of the hobby. Amanda Flora Hilda Bleher set off from Germany for a life of death-defying aquatic expeditions in South America. She sailed up the Amazon, exported fish and plants from Brazil and Bolivia and rode ox carts across the rainforests. The aforementioned Echinodorus bleherae (Bleher’s Amazon Sword) is named after her, although not actually from the Amazon. But, hey, when you’ve fled post war Germany, encountered cannibals, faced imprisonment for espionage and dived over venomous snakes, we reckon the plants you discover deserve a dramatic sounding name.

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Georgina is a member of the Swell UK marketing team and has been keeping tropical fish for a number of years now. Her favourite fish being the stunning, male Siamese Fighting Fish. She is also looking to expand her existing collection to include keeping saltwater fish as well. Her other pets include Bengal cat, Walter, and Labrador and Rottweiler cross, Presley.


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