basic aquascape

as this 75 gallon planted aquarium clearly demonstrates basic aquascaping can really make all the difference in a tank’s appearance.

Basic Aquascaping. Making the tank a treat for the eyes.

Surely among the reasons the tropical fish keeping hobby is so popular is the variety of aquarium setups and fish species available, which not only attract newcomers, but also present new challenges to seasoned aquarists. Although the opportunity to keep fish is often a primary attraction, the hobby also allows the aquarist to demonstrate his or her artistic abilities and creative ideas  through aquascaping. And what is aquascaping? Simply put, aquascaping is the arrangement of various materials, objects and plants in an aquarium, resulting ultimately, in an attractive underwater scene. There are many approaches to this endeavor, and it’s easy to do if you use a common sense approach to create your aquatic masterpiece. Like any other project you might undertake, you should start out with a plan. By that I mean you should have at least a general mental image of what you want your aquascaped tank to look like. Even better than having an image in your head is to make a rough sketch to help you visualize different possibilities before you make your final decision. You can get lots of ideas from the photos of gorgeous display tanks seen in many hobby-related books and periodicals, like the one you’re reading right now. You can also visit local pet shops and public aquariums. Perhaps some of your friends also keep fish and have aquascaped tanks that might give you some ideas. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. A lot of people are hesitant to do so because they don’t want to appear ignorant. First of all, that’t nonsense no one in this bobby has become successful all by his or herself. Second of all, it has been my experience that knowledgeable hobbyists are delighted to share their knowledge and that they get a great deal of satisfaction in being able to repay the kindnesses that were extended to them when they were just starting out. Whatever your source of information, the net result should be a pretty good idea of what appeals to you and what doesn’t. In the final analysis, there’s so much to say about aquascaping that it could fill a book, but for now let’s just stick with the basic.

There two general categories of aquascapes: natural and ornamental. The objective of the natural aquascape is to make your tank appear as it might look in real life nature. If you’re a purist, you might want to use your aquascaping skills to create a biotope tank, which I’II discuss later on in this article. An ornamental aquascape is one which is limited only by your imagination. It is the common experience of serious hobbyists that fish look their best in more natural settings. It’s not that the fish really care, but rather, that their colors and patterns often with subtle shading and iridescence seem to get lost when they are competing with bright, garish aquascaping. We begin at the bottom of the tank, which you will want to cover with gravel of some sort. Before you select gravel, however, you want to give some consideration to the type of filtration you will be using an undergravel filter or some other type, such as a power or canister filter. Extremely fine gravel will rapidly clog with detritus, making an undergravel filter ineffective. Detritus is an accumulation of disintegrated materials, such as uneaten foods, decomposing plant matter or fine particles of gravel, that builds up over time on and the gravel bed. On the other hand, gravel that is too large will trap food where your fish can’t get to it, and this accumulating food will make it increasingly difficult to maintain good water quality. I like to use gravel in most of my aquascaped tanks each pebble is about 3 millimeters in size. This gravel, which is natural in color, is available just about everywhere. Try to get the kind where the edges of the individual pebbles are somewhat rounded. The reason for this is to avoid sharp edges, which can injure the sensitive barbels and underbellies of bottom-dwelling fishes, such as catfish. Speaking of sharp edges, no glass gravel, please ! The edges on this stuff can be as sharp as a razor. You should also take gravel color into consideration. In general, fish are darker on top than on the bottom.

This natural countershading makes it more difficult for predators to see fish when looking down (dark background) or up (light back ground of sky). Extremely light-colored gravel is not natural to the fish and it can reflect so much light back onto the fish’s scales that the normal colors seem faded. In addition, some species never feel secure with the brightness of light-colored gravel. Natural river gravel that has mixed pebbles of beige, brown and nutmeg colors works best for me. It looks good and so do the fish. Natural gravel also has another advantage: it’s inexpensive. You will have to wash the gravel thoroughly before you put it in your tank to remove any dust and debris that is present. Here’s a simple way to do this. First, obtain one of those plastic 5-gallon buckets that restaurants often receive different kinds of foods in, or purchase a new one. Make sure the bucket is clean before you start the washing process. Add no more than 10 pounds of gravel to the bucket to allow lots of room for you to stir it vigorously as you add water. Depending on the time of year and where you live, you can do this chore outdoors with the help of a garden hose or indoors in a suitable location. A bathtub or utility sink works well. If possible, put some kind of fine screen over the drain so you don’t clog it in your enthusiasm to get things clean. Run water into the bucket with the unwashed gravel and stir the gravel with your hand. You may want to wear rubber gloves to save wear and tear on your fingernails. The object is to get the dirt and debris out of the wavel and into the water. When the water in the bucket gets dirty, carefully pour it off, add new water and start again. This is another reason for only cleaning 10 pounds of gravel at a time. Wet gravel plus several gallons of water weighs quite a bit. You don’t want the bucket to become so heavy that you injure yourself trying to lift it or lose control of it and cause a big mess. While you can let the water run continuously, it’s better to get into the habit of practicing resource conservation. You’ll know you’ve washed the gravel enough when you can stir it up and not cloud the water. Add each bucket of gravel to the tank until there is a layer 2 to 3 inches thick on the bottom. Arrange the gravel so that it gently slopes downward from the rear to the front of the tank. The reason for this is that solid matter on the substrate will tend to accumulate toward the front of the tank, making it easy to see and remove when you do tank maintenance. Tank maintenance includes regular water changes and periodic gravel vacuuming. One final note on gravel. There are some instances in which you will want to use a finer substrate instead of gravel. For example, banjo catfish (Aspredinidae) like to burrow into the substrate and cover themselves during the day because they are both shy and nocturnal. Gravel is too coarse for them to burrow in. so you will have to use a medium grade of sand. The gravel you select will serve as a foundation for everything else you’re planning to add to the tank. The variety of natural and artificial (but natural-looking) items that are available to you is almost limitless. A word of caution here, however, is that not everything that will fit into an aquarium is suitable for use therein.

The most commonly use aquascaping objects are rocks, and driftwood. Rocks composed of sandstone, granite. quartz and also slate are good choices. They are readily available in most pet stores. Sometimes rocks will have sharp edges on them that, like sharp gravel. can injure your fish. You can solve the problem by rubbing the sharp edges of one rock against another rock to dull them. Don’t use rocks of unknown composition in your aquarium. lt could spell disaster for the inhabitants of the tank. Some rocks contain substances, such as copper or other elements, that can be harmful to the fish. Limestone, marble and gypsum rocks, for example, would not be good choices for use in an aquarium. There are some exceptions to the general rule, but they usually pertain to African rift lake cichlids that benefit from rocks that make the water harder. Give some thought to where you want to place the rocks, and what purpose they will serve. You may have a particulary large rock that is impressive in appearance and could be the focal point in the tank. Or you may have a number of smaller rocks that could be used to create a cavelike effect. If you plan to do the latter, it’s a good idea to glue the rocks together with aquarium grade silicone cement and to let it cure for at least 24 hours before putting the assemble mass into the tank. Silicone or not, make sure that all the rocks you place in the tank are firmly supported by the substrate or by other stable rocks. You don’t want to have one slip once the tank is filled with water and fish ! If you crack a pane of glass in your aquarium it could leak. If you happen to be away for a prolonged period of time when it happanes, much of the tanks’s water could end up on your living room floor before you return. Also, think about thefact that anything you put into the tank displaces water. This is not as critical in very large tanks, but you may find the fish-carrying capactiy in smaller aquariums significantly reduced by the presence of many rocks in the tank. Because an aquarium of a given size can only be home to so many fish of a  certain size, the more rocks, driftwood and so on that go into the tank, the fewer the number of fish it can safely hold. The proper placement of plants, driftwood and rocks can help to hide or disguise the filter tubes, heaters and other items typically located at the rear of a tank. Rocks and driftwood can also serve as walls to contain stepped (terraced) levels of gravel. Driftwood always creates a nice effect in an aquarium, and is essential when keeping suckermouth catfish, which gnaw on driftwood for specific nutritional needs.

There are several types of driftwood available. Make sure the type you select is suitable for aquatic use. I know it costs more, but try to buy driftwood that naturally sinks. It will give you fewer problems and is well worth the added expense. As with gravel and rocks, you should clean driftwood before placing it in your tank. You can do this by scrubbing it with a stiff-bristled brush to remove any loose dirt and debris. It’s also a good idea to soak the driftwood in a bucket or tub of water for a few hours before introducing it to your tank. This wil help release some of the excessive tannins (astringent compounds sometimes found in wood) that can cause discoloration of the water and perhaps lower the pH over time. You may still have some release of tannins for weeks, but regular partial water changes done each week will minimize this. When it comes to driftwood, be sure of your source. The driftwood sold in aquarium strores can be considered safe, but driftwood picked up outdoors or somewhere else may contain toxins or unwated organisms. If you have any doubt at all about using a particular piece of driftwood, it would be a good idea to boil it in a suitable size pot for a couple of hours.

Among the most attractive and popular aquascaping items are plants, both live and artificial. Live aquatic plants are wonderful to watch grow in your tank, and their cultivation and propagation is an entire segmen of this hobby in and of itself. Here are some things you should think about before you decide to put live plants in your aquarium. They are living things and as such required care, albeit animal. Depending on the types of fish you will be keeping in the aquarium, the likelihood of the plants being uprooted and / or eaten could be great or small. Let’s go back to gravel for a moment. Gravel that is too small will inhibit the ability of a plant’s root system to take hold, so stay with gravel. Live plants will compete for available nutrients (particularly nitrates) in the tank water, which can help reduce or eliminate algae problems. In order to do this, however, plants must have adequate light available to them both intensity and duration. Some plants need more light than others, and some plants are more particular about water chemistry and temperature. Plan on visiting your local pet shops to see what the various plants look like. Ask question and  buy a book about aquatic plants. You will find that different plants have different environmental needs. Also, you will want to make sure that the plants you buy are true aquatic species, not bog or houseplant that will not live for long when fully submerged in an aquarium. Think of any show tanks you’ve seen that impressed you. What plant varieties were used in them, how many plants were there and where were they positioned in the tank ? You want to select live plants whose environmental needs parallel those of your fish, which assumes you have chosen fish that will do well with the chemistry of your tap water. If you decide to use live plants, you should take some precautionary measures before you introduce them to you tank. Be sure to visually inspect each plant for the presence of snails or parasites.

Unwanted snails can multiply at an incredible rate, to the point where your aquarium is totally overrun with them. lf this happens, you will have a difficult time trying to successfully remove them all. Parasites can be introduced into an aquarium if they are attached to the leaves, stems or roots of the plant. A simple way to disinfect plants for a freshwater aquarium is to totally immerse them in a salt solution for 15 to 30 minutes. The salt solution is made by dissolving a cup of noniodized table salt in a 5-gallon bucket of lukewarm water. Any snails present will be killed by the salt, and  freshwater parasites on the plants will also be eliminated. Don‘t soak the plants too long or you could wind up killing the plants as well. When you‘re done soaking the plants, rinse them thoroughly in fresh water to remove any traces of salt. It’s worth the little bit of time and effort it takes up front to save the necessity of having to treat sick fish at a later date. If live plants are not for you, try artificial plants. There are some strikingly realistic looking ones on the market and some others that are considerably less so. You can achieve virtually the same aquascaping effect with the realistic plastic plants as you can with live plants, and for many hobbyists this is absolutely the way to go, especially for beginners. The reason I say this is, as mentioned above, that you will encounter some fish that will consider your live plants a salad bar, quickly reducting them to little stubs as they fill their tummies. There are other fish, cichlids in particular, that will uproot plants either directly or as the resultcof moving gravel around the tank. And, for fish that prefer dimmer lighting, live plants may be difficult or biImpossible to grow. Newcomers to the hobby should try to remove as many aquarium variables as possible, at least in the beginning, so that there will be fewer things to go wrong. There’s nothing wrong with use of plastic plants, and they will allow the budding aquarist to concentrate on the fishkeeping aspect of the hobby first. Just as proper placement of rocks and driftwood can help hide or disguise things like heaters and lift tubes in the tank, so can the proper placement of plants. You can place the plants directly into the substrate in the desired positions or plant them in small clay or plastic flower pots filled with substrate material. In either case, don’t just push the plant roots down into the gravel. Position th plant by pushing it sideways, as well as downward, to give the roots a better chance to take hold.

Some plants are so buoyant they need additional weight to hold them in place. This is usually done with strips of lead wrapped around the base of the plant. These lead strips are readily available in aquarium stores. Some plants are not placed in the substrate at all. There are plants that float and plants that are merely anchored to rocks or driftwood. When it comes to choosing where to put which plants a bit of general guidance is in order. Taller plants should be located behind shorter plants so that the little ones can also be seen. If you take the time to learn a little about how different species grow, you will discover that some plants grow together in bunches, while others need their own separate space. You should locate like plants in your tank, artificial or not, in the very same places to give it a natural appearance. When first setting up your tank, it’s relatively easy to reach in and position rocks, driftwood, or plants. It may be quite another thing to do so once everything has been set up for a while and you have fish in the tank. You should purchase planting tongs, which are basically long wooden or plastic sticks with splayed ends or pliers-like jaws to grasp plants for planting, repositioning or removal. These tongs are also handy for moving small rocks or other items. In the case of live plants, you will probably also want to trim a leaf from time to time or to start new plants cuttings or shoots that may emerge from larger, established planes. A tool that holds a razor blade for such a purpose is also available and can be of great help.

Let’s combine the aquascaping elements addressed so far and use this information to aquascape the tank. Everyone has a different idea about what is pleasing to the eye, so there can be many variations in the completed aquascaping project. Here’s some food for though as you put it all together. If you’re going to create a terraced effect with rocks and gravel, place the higher levels near the back of the tank and step it down from there. Try to put larger rocks, pieces of driftwood and plants at the back and sides of the tank. in addition to looking nicer this way, these items also provide refuge for less aggressive species of fish, and also serve as potential spawning sites. There should be a large clear area in the front of the tank where the fish can swim freely and where they can be easily seen. If the tank is large enough and you want to do so, use one rock or a piece of driftwood or a plant as a focal point in this open area. You want all the elements in your aquascaped scene to complement each other and provide visual balance. Besides being aesthetically pleasing, proper aquascaping will allow you to create miniature biotopes similar to those environments that your fishes would naturally be found in.

A biotope aquarium is one where the general attributes of a fish’s natural habitat are replicated. An important thing to remember here is that if you are going to aquascape a tank to resemble the biotope for particular types of fish, you will have to make sure that all the fishes in your aquarium are suitable for that biotope. To find out what the typical biotope would be for your fishes you will have to do some research. This will be a wonderfully informative experience for you and not drudgery. In fact, the more you learn about the tropical fish you keep, the more you will want to observe the described behavior first hand and confirm previously established facts. Look to the hobby magazines and aquarium books as sources. For example, if you were keeping East African cichlids you would want to have a fairly large size tank (at least 30 gallons) to accommodate your aquascaping materials and allow for the fact that these fish can be very territorial in nature.

Generally speaking, depending on the lake they come from, fishes from this area either live in habitats that have lots of rocks and gravel on the bottom, or live in habitats with large expanses of sand. Some of these fish spawn in caves, whereas others create depressions in the gravel as spawning sites or will need a deep layer of sand in the tank in which they can burrow. Of course, you’ll find certain plants associated with particular biotopes, perhaps sunken logs, and even empty snail shells, which are used for dwellings by some fish. Biotopes change even within the same lake depending on how close to shore or how far out in the depths a particular species of fish lives. Consider too that some of these cichlids can grow quite large, so it becomes critical to know this before you choose a tank to house them in. There are many types of biotopes to duplicate, such as those of Central and South America, as well as Asia. Within the limits inherent to aquariums you have the capability of having a little part of the Amazon, or any other body of water, in your own home.

Yes, there’s more to creating a biotope tank than aquascaping proper lighting, temperature and water movement. When all of these elements are combined, the fish have a home that is second only to the real thing. The great thing about aquascaping is that all of the items involved can be used over and over again. It sa good thing too, because you will soon find that if you have even the smallest measure of success you will want to aquascape more (and larger) aquarturns, as well as improve upon previous efforts. Let the aquascaping begin.