Aquascaping is the art of underwater gardening: arranging aquatic plants and décor in an aesthetically pleasing manner within an aquarium. There are a number of distinct styles including the Dutch garden aquascape, the Japanese nature style, jungles, biotopes, and for the more adventurous – paludariums. Aquascapes usually include small fish or shrimps as well as the plants, although some choose to feature plants only. Décor such as driftwood and various types of rockwork can be used to further enhance the scene.

The gladdest moment in human life, me thinks, is a departure into unknown lands.

The primary aim is to create an artistic underwater ‘landscape’, taking in the requirements of individual plant species and their growth habits. There are lots of factors that need to be considered and balanced, including lighting, substrate, feeding (fertilisers), CO2 dosage, water temperature, filtration, algae control etc. Aquascapes that include fish must also take their needs into account.

The Dutch Garden AquariumThe Dutch style aquascape was developed in the Netherlands during the 1930s at a time when aquarium equipment started to become more readily available. This type of aquascape utilizes high densities of several different species of plants, with varying leaf shapes and colours to provide contrast. These aquascapes are presented in a similar fashion to that of a lush terrestrial garden, showcasing plants on terraces and in large groupings of the same kind for added impact.There is usually little in the way of rocks or driftwood, as the plants themselves are the focal points. Stem plants (chosen carefully for their appearance and eventual height: foreground, midground, and background) are grown together in large groups of the same species and placed adjacent to groups of those with differing colour or texture.Typically, 80% or more of the substrate will be covered by these blocks of plants, with little of the floor visible, and equipment is ingeniously hidden by growing taller plants along the back glass. Plants should be positioned in linear rows with small gaps in between known as ‘streets’, that taper towards the rear of the tank, offering the illusion of depth. Although many species of plant can be grown successfully in a Dutch style aquarium, it is important to remember that simplicity is a common theme in such aquascapes, and having too much variety in terms of textures and colours can adversely affect the end result. Plants typically suitable for the foreground could include Lobelia cardinalis, Pogostemon helferi, Saurus cernuus, or Staurogyne repens. Midground and background plants could consist of various Hygrophila species and Limnophila aquatica, with Alternanthera reineckii, Ammania gracilis, or Rotala spp. for colour and contrast. An aquascaper hoping to create a Dutch style aquarium must have a solid understanding of how to cultivate, nurture, and maintain aquatic plants so that the eventual result ends up in line with the original design. Such aquariums require a good deal of pruning every few days, so strict plant management is crucial. Fish can be added to the Dutch style aquarium, ideally picked to compliment the different areas within the aquascape, and generally require at least 12 specimens of the same species in a shoal for best effect.

Photo by Peter Raddison

The Japanese Nature Style Aquarium

During the 1990s, legendary aquascaper Takashi Amano introduced the Japanese nature aquarium. By contrast to the Dutch aquarium, the Japanese nature aquarium aims to evoke an underwater representation of a terrestrial landscape in miniature, rather than a dense and colourful garden. Compositions draw largely on Japanese concepts such as Wabi-sabi, a world view that is centred on transience and imperfection. In such aquascapes, natural panoramas are mimicked in miniature by the asymmetric placement of groups of relatively few species of plants and carefully selected rocks or pieces of driftwood, usually with a single focal point. In the majority of Japanese nature aquaria, the aquascapes depict scaled down versions of hillsides, mountains, rainforests, and valleys. Many of the plants are selected for their resemblance to terrestrial vegetation, creating the appearance of grass, moss, and trees. Foliage colours tend to be more limited and muted compared to those in a typical Dutch aquarium, and the substrate and décor are usually left partially uncovered.The aquascapes take on one of three layouts: concave, convex, or triangle. The concave layout offers the impression of open space somewhere near the middle of the aquarium, the height of plants decreasing to a central low point and drawing the eye in. The concave display has an island appearance, with lower growing plants either side of an almost central focal point of rocks, driftwood, and taller plants. The triangle scape is visually impressive with the height of the plants and décor sloping gradually from high at one side of the aquarium to low at the other.Typical plants for the Japanese nature aquarium include small-leaved species such as Echinodorus tenellus, Eleocharis parvula, Glossostigma elatinoides, Hemianthus callitrichoides, Riccia fluitans, Staurogyne repens, and Taxiphyllum barbieri. Small groups of petite fish and shrimps are usually added to compliment the planting and to help control algae. Even though the Japanese nature aquarium may appear to be rather random and without rigid design, in truth, this type of natural scape often requires a great deal of intricate planning and management.

An offshoot of the Japanese nature aquarium - the Iwagumi aquascape - is worthy of mention here. The term Iwagumi loosely translates from Japanese as ‘rock formation’ in reference to a Japanese gardening technique where stones play a leading role in providing structural focal points. It is asserted that if the stones are well placed in the garden, then the rest of the garden follows naturally. In Iwagumi aquascaping, each stone has a specific name and role. The master stone or Oyaishi is placed according to the golden ratio (or rule of thirds); so the stone should be approximately 2/3 the height of the aquarium and placed at a point that is off-centre (preferably at a location 1/3 or 2/3 the width of the aquarium). It should lean slightly to give the impression that it has been water worn this way over time in the current. The secondary stone is known as the Fukuseki and is the second largest stone in the aquarium. It should be placed in a subordinate position, either left or right of the Oyaishi. The tertiary or accompanying stone/s are known as the Soeishi and should be positioned near the Oyaishi, lending strength to the design and accentuating the presence of the master stone. The simplest of Iwagumi layouts, known as Sanzon Iwagumi, (which are often the most effective) tend to employ three main stones: the large master stone and the smaller secondary and tertiary stones, but additional rocks are acceptable. However, an uneven number should always be used in order to convey a more natural feel (landscapes are rarely symmetrical). The rocks used in an Iwagumi should all be of the same type. Study the Oyaishi thoroughly before placement to ascertain which angle would be the most aesthetically pleasing for display. Note which way any strata or patterns run through the rock, and ensure the Fukuseki and Soeishi are also arranged in this orientation so that the formation appears natural with strata all running the same direction. Some like to add a fourth type of stone, a small sacrificial stone, known as the Suteishi (‘discarded stone’ or ‘throwaway stone’). This diminutive stone is placed in a seemingly offhand manner and is not usually particularly noticeable, even becoming carpeted with plants over time. However, it is said to enhance other parts of the garden, lending a subtle complexity and spontaneity to the design. When you have arrived at a layout you are happy with, you may like to add a little more substrate, pouring it in with a jug and letting it mound up naturally in places so the floor area is not entirely flat. Low growing plants such as Eleocharis acicularis, Eleocharis parvula, Glossostigma elatinoides, Hemianthus callitrichoides, and Pogostemon helferi can be used to soften the visual impact of the stones, without obscuring the main structure. Low growing greenery also bestows the impression of land covered by forest, with the centerpiece stones as mountains. Slightly taller growing plants may be placed along the back of the aquarium to add more depth if desired. Planting out individual plantlets with tweezers may take considerable time, but once they have grown in, the harmonious end effect will be well worth it. Plants cultivated in an Iwagumi aquascape are likely to require a weekly pruning to maintain the compact carpeting nature. Fish are not strictly necessary, but a group of small shoaling species such as Neon Tetras or Trigonostigma espei can really compliment the aquascape. Small Caridina and Neocaridina shrimp also work well.

Jungle Style

The jungle style aquarium is probably the easiest aquascape to replicate, although it still presents an enjoyable challenge for the inexperienced planted tank enthusiast. As the name suggests, the plants in a jungle style aquarium appear wild and untamed, and are left to grow vigorously and assume a natural and untrimmed look. Jungle style aquariums are unorderly and usually have little in the way of open space or hardscape, although choice pieces of driftwood may be used for attaching plants such as Microsorum or Anubias species to, in order to help create an overhanging jungle canopy. A dark substrate, tall plants growing up to and along the surface of the water, and floating plants that create a dappled light effect will all add to the jungle feel. Typical plants for this type of set up could include the aforementioned Java Fern and Anubias, along with other statement plants such as Aponogeton spp., Echinodorus bleheri, Echinodorus ‘ozelot’, plus Hygrophila spp., Limnobium laevigatum, Sagittaria subulata, and Vallisneria species, for example. Over time, the vegetation will become very dense, and once the tank achieves a good level of balance, little maintenance will be required. This type of setup is perfect for many types of fish due to the security and sheer labyrinth of hiding places the plants provide. The natural setting should even encourage breeding.

The Biotope Aquarium

All of the aforementioned aquascapes tend to combine plants and fish that suit the individual styles of the tanks, without any strict adherence to geographic origin. A biotope aquarium, however, is designed to precisely replicate a specific habitat at an exact geographic location. Not only should the plants and fish match whichever species coexist in a particular habitat, but the substrate, hardscape, and chemical composition of the water need to match precisely too. Such biotopes provide valuable ecological insight into the natural interactions between organisms which are found together in the wild, and under representative conditions.


A paludarium combines terrestrial and aquatic elements within the same glass enclosure, and may simulate habitats such as beaches, bogs, jungle pools, mangroves, rainforests,riverbanks, or swamps. It is a slightly more challenging type of aquascape to set up, and typically incorporates a dropped water level, submersed and emersed planting, along with a pool and expanses of dry land. This form of environment is particularly well suited to keeping amphibians or semi-aquatic crabs. The substrate is usually added first and could be shaped in several ways: it could be built up on one side of the aquarium with water to the other side, there could be a pool towards the centre with land on either side, or the land could be an island surrounded by water. The latter may be a little more tricky to maintain unless you find a way to contain the substrate so it doesn’t just gradually sink into the surrounding water – eggcrate and rockwork helps, and bear in mind that over time as the plants become more established, the mature root system will help to shore up the land areas. Driftwood could be added to softwater paludaria to create ladders in and out of the aquatic zone and is always welcomed by crabs when they wish to bask outside of the water. There are no hard and fast rules when designing a paludarium – as long as the areas of land and water are sufficiently spacious to meet the requirements of the livestock that will be inhabiting the tank - and although a certain amount of trial and error may be involved with creating the layout, it can make for a very rewarding project. Along with many of our favourite aquarium plants that can grow in - or partially out of - freshwater, numerous other marginal plants, bog plants, and carnivorous plants will thrive in a paludarium given a suitable substrate. Even some of the well-known terrestrial vines can be grown up the back of the aquarium as long as their roots are kept wet e.g. Ficus pumila, Philodendron, and Epipremnum aureum. It can be fascinating to observe some of the tropical plants flowering above the water line, as we seldom get to see this in traditional aquaria. Additionally, if the tank is kept lightly stocked (whilst being fairly heavily planted) there may be no need for filtration in the water zone as the plant roots will hungrily absorb excess nutrients and create a healthy balance. Paludaria with larger areas of water and heavier stocking will require some form of filtration though, and this can be of double benefit if the return pipe is positioned over rocks placed near the edge of the land area, as it will create a beautiful waterfall effect as water drops back down over the rocks and returns to the pool area. Plants that are popular for a range of different areas in a humid paludarium environment (please carry out prior research on ideal placement) include various bromeliad and orchid species, Anubias spp., Cryptocoryne spp., Cyperus alternifolius, Dracaena spp., Echinodorus spp., Glossostigma elatinoides, Hygrophila spp., Spathiphyllum wallisii, Taxiphyllum barbieri. Epiphytic plants, perhaps better known as ‘air plants’ (Tillandsia spp.) can also be attached to décor above the water line, and floating species may be shown off to their best effect as they can be fully viewed both above and below the water. Mangroves may be cultivated in brackish environments. Finally, misters (also known as mist-makers) can create a very atmospheric feel when used over the water’s surface in some paludaria, particularly those representing rainforest or swampy habitats.

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to speak to a friendly member of staff. Your local branch of Maidenhead Aquatics may be found here. Happy aquascaping!