Aquascaping Tips and Tricks for a Beginner

Aquascaping Tips and Tricks for a Beginner

  • Author JLAquatics
  • Creation date
Greetings, fellow fishkeepers. Ever seen those images on Google of stunning aquascapes that look almost impossible for anyone to recreate? Think again! As a beginner aquascaper myself, I can tell you that it is possible for any newbie to create that perfect looking aquascape for you and your fish to enjoy! All we need are some supplies and a good set of eyes. I will use my first planted tank as a guide throughout this article to give a good idea how I thought through this process.

You can start with your substrate of choice (do research before picking the proper substrate) as well as your hardscape elements, which can be rocks or wood (should be rinsed and treated for aquarium use). Your hardscape creates the backbone of your design and allows for plants to be meticulously placed within that design. There are a few styles of placing hardscape, and each can make effective displays. They are Island, Convex, Rectangular and Triangle styles. I have included some prototype hardscape examples for each type below using seiryu stone and a Spider wood piece. Note: Didn't have a lot of substrate to work with in regards to the demo tanks.

The Island style focuses on the middle section and is low on the sides.


In this image, the main focus is the Spider wood. Despite being in the center of the tank, this design is not completely even, making it effective. You would place tall plants directly behind the design and midground plants in front in between the rocks. shorter plants could be placed to either side of this design.

Convex style is the opposite, high on the sides and low in the middle.


The main focus is again, the spider wood, but it is towards the side more. This is where the rule of thirds comes into play. However, tall plants should be placed on the side of this design with short plants directly in front. midground plants could be placed in the groves of the rocks or placed in the front, behind the short plants. This is the design I chose for my first tank, and you will see what that looks like below.

Triangle Style is high on one side of the tank and low on the other


The main focus is you-guessed-it, the spider wood. Triangle styles work the best with corner tanks. Tall plants would be placed in the right back corner, and plants in general would shorten as you make you way to the left side on the tank. Midground plants could be used in between the rocks and create a sloping effect between the background and foregrounds.

Rectangular style is high all throughout the scape


Rectangular styles are unique as there is not really a focal point within. The trick here is to just make sure everything blends together here. Dutch aquascapes predominantly use just plants, and still manage to look great even without a hardscape. However, you can still use hardscape elements for a rectangular style. In this rock cliff formation, you could place tall plants all across the back of the tank and midground plants on the side. Foreground plants can be used in front of the cliff for a seamless design.

It is important to consider that nothing is symmetrical in nature, which has a big part in making a great looking hardscape no matter which style you want to use. The rule of thirds (linvisible lines that split your tank into 9 equal sections) is a great way to begin visualizing that perfect setup, especially for Convex and Triangle styles. The focal point of your scape should take up 2 of these intersection points. In my first tank, a Convex style, I used both spider wood and dragon stone for my hardscape elements. The large stone off center to the right would be considered the focal point in my tank. Notice how it is not completely in the dead center of the tank and that this stone and the supporting wood and rockwork take up two of the intersection points. Also notice how the rocks on the left side are not as big, so it makes an asymmetrical yet pleasing design. Another trick is adding depth to your hardscape. This creates an illusion that your aquarium is much larger than It really is. Place larger stones in front and proceed to add smaller ones towards the back of the tank in an asymmetrical pattern. This creates a pleasing looking effect. Sloping your substrate up also helps to bring depth, which also has the same effect as the stones and brings the tank together.

Beginning 29 gallon.jpg
Hardscape of my tank

After you place your awesome hardscape down, it is time to do the fun part, live aquarium plants! Plants come in all shapes and sizes and it can be hard for a beginner to decide which to use in their aquascape. It is not as hard as it sounds. Aquarium plants can be broken down into three types (foreground, midground, and background). Each type has it’s own purpose for filling your aquascape.

Background plants are Stem plants, bulb plants or Rosette plants that get really tall and wide. They should only be used in the back of the tank as they can obscure your view if placed elsewhere. In my setup, I used Water Wisteria and Aponogeton Ulvaceus for the background. Other good examples of good background plants include Amazon Swords, any Vallisneria, or any tall stem plant like Bacopa Caroliniana. These plants also help your fish as it allows them to hide if they feel threatened or scared.

image of Water Wisteria in my tank

Midground plants are often eye catching plants that pull the seams of your background and foreground together. Plants such as Java Fern or Anubias Barteri for a larger tank and Cryptocoryne species for smaller tanks work well for this purpose. In my tank, I used Anubias Barteri in the midground to make the hardscape blend in with the background and foreground more, making a more natural look as a result. Without the Anubias, my own tank would look too harsh with thick growth in the back and front with the hardscape completely visible.

Image of Anubias Barteri in my tank

Foreground plants are plants often called carpets for their ability to spread horizontally to create a thick mass of green. They are one of the most aesthetically pleasing aspects of your aquascape. Many carpeting species are more difficult to care for, but some of the easier ones include Dwarf Sagittaria and Staurogyne Repens. These plants will fill in the front and not grow too tall allowing your fish to have an open area to swim. In my tank, I have a thick S Repens carpet to bring my aquascape together.

Image of S. Repens in my tank

Here is an image of the completed tank. Here you can see three shades representing each plant type in my tank. Red is background, Yellow is midground, and Cyan is foreground. Using all three types can make an impressive display.

Foreground Midground Background.jpg

To conclude, it is not rocket science to create a great display for you and your fish to enjoy! Just follow these tips and tricks I used as well as further research of the care requirements for the plants and fish and you will be creating a thriving eco-system in no time!

JL's 29 gallon low tech aquascape .jpg

- JLAquatics, formerly known as CheeseHoarder
First release
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super helpful!
  • Catappa
  • 5.00 star(s)
Well-written, good photos and very informative. Thank you!
Thank you for referring me to this guide. Terrific advice and being a visual learner a most helpful guide. Now, I have some rescaping to do.
Thanks for writing this article! You broke down some complicated topics into an easy to understand way.
A great article for someone like me who wants to provide their fish with a comfortable home. It describes different placements and orientations of decorations to make the scape look more natural.
Really helpful article! I really liked how you separated out different kinds of plants. I'll be trying out and using advice from here to help me in setting up my new tank. Thank you so much for your contribution.
  • gms38
  • 5.00 star(s)
Thanks so much! This helped simplify the process, much appreciated.
  • betta06
  • 5.00 star(s)
thanks for the great article I am exited to try some of your suggestions!
Great article and lovely tank!
Nice scape! Good info for beginner aquascapers
Thank you! I am still learning myself, but that is what this forum is for!
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