How to aquascape a freshwater aquarium

Aquascaping doesn’t have to be the sole domain of planted tank owners and literally just means landscaping underwater. Or even landscaping with water in the case of a garden pond. It’s more about design, and by using a few simple design principles you can make any aquarium look good, large or small, goldfish, cichlids or a community tank. 

Hardscape

Hardscape is the term given to rocks, wood or ornaments. Keep rocks and wood of the same type and it will look more natural, so just choose one type of rock and one type of wood. Don’t be afraid of adding large pieces to small tanks. You need hardscape to reach up to two thirds the height of the tank so go big and make sure you order enough in the first place. It’s better to have a choice and some leftover than not enough. 

Where you place the hardscape is key too. Lots of design and artworks use something called the golden ratio, or the rule of two thirds. Looking at your rectangular tank face-on place wood or rock two thirds along the length of the tank and have it come to a point two-thirds of the way up. This will form a natural focal point which draws the eye. If you want to balance that focal point on the other side of the tank place smaller wood or rocks at two thirds on the opposite side but this time make it come to a point at just one third the height of the tank. 

Make sure the rock pile is stable by building it up directly on the base of the tank. That way if you have fish that dig they won’t be able to undermine the rocks and cause an avalanche. 

Substrate

Prewash any sand or gravel in a bucket first, and then pour it into the tank. Bank the gravel up so that its deepest at the back and gently slopes towards the front of the tank. This gives perspective but also brings debris to the front for easy removal with a syphon. If you have any small rock fragments leftover scatter them around the base of the large rocks for a natural look. 

Eye-catching red plants should be placed off-centre

Planting

For a Malawi cichlid tank, your aquascaping can literally stop there as plants don’t make up the habitat in much of the lake. If you don’t want the hassle of live plants, artificial plants can be really effective at adding colour to a dull tank. Place tall plants at the back and short plants at the front, but buy multiples of just a few types and plant them in groups. Red is a very strong, eye-catching colour, so it should be planted in just one place in the tank, again at two thirds across, and two thirds in height. Plant groups of green plants around it and it will highlight it even more. 

Fish

The fish you choose are key to a really eye-catching aquatic display too. For tall tanks choose tall fish like Angelfish or Discus, For long, thin tanks choose slender fish like scissortail rasboras and for chunky tanks choose chunky fish like Parrot cichlids or Fancy goldfish. 

Add groups of fish to provide blocks of colour and movement in all areas, or for the ultimate design statement choose just one fish type but add lots of them. Always choose odd numbers of fish as when they shoal they form a better shape. And when you photograph your amazing aquascape for Insta, get the perfect shot by capturing your main display fish swimming in a group in the same direction, two thirds across the tank. 

Stick to some of these simple design rules and your tank will be the talk of social media. 

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Jeremy Gay is an author, lifelong fishkeeper, and aquatic specialist. He's a former editor of Practical Fishkeeping Magazine, UK editor at Reefbuilders, a former aquatic store manager, and has collected fish in Sri Lanka and the Amazon. He's been on tv and radio, contributed to Koi Carp and Gardeners World magazines, been a product tester, a judge, and a product developer. Jeremy is here to guide and advise you on all things tropical, pond and marine, from set-up to stocking, health, feeding to breeding, as well as solving many common fishkeeping problems along the way.


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