Aquascaping 101


I made this build guide and wrote the little article for another site. Thought I'd post it here in case anyone needs some advice or ideas on aquascaping.

The topic of the day is substrate. Why? Because the first question people ask when they see pictures, videos, or see my tanks in real life is "What substrate did you use?" So I thought it fitting to discuss this first.

Plenty of plants will grow in regular gravel or sand, and in fact, most of the plants in this video segment are included in that group. However, I wanted the best possible growth, so for that, we're going to talk about plant substrates.

In this tank, I used a potting soil mix that I cooked up myself. I'm already making a similar mix for the new tank build, and it'll be very similar to the one I used for the tank in this video. Planted tank substrate is actually a lot easier to make than I originally thought; get yourself some mineralized soil and mix it with some clay, gravel, sand, or other inorganic compound, and you'll be just fine.

Step one is to mineralize your potting soil. I use only "certified organic" potting soil in my tanks. Use of non-certified organic soil is, in all likelihood, perfectly acceptable, but I have a thing about putting stuff in my tanks that has potentially been exposed to chemicals like pesticides and herbicides... and anything else I can't account for. To me, organic potting soil is safe.

For the best ease of maintenance, mineralize the soil by spreading it on a trash bag outside, wetting it down with your garden hose, and letting it dry. Repeat. Repeat again. As far as I know, there's no exact number of times you have to meet before putting the soil in your tank (I have two tanks with non-mineralized soil and they're both completely fine, but the soil will break down in those tanks faster than mineralized soil will). Something like peat moss will serve a dual function in a betta tank; it'll absorb and hold nutrients, and it will soften the water. I added a few handfuls of straight peat moss to my soil mix, then tossed in equal parts aquarium sand and gravel, and soaked the mix overnight.

Soaking the soil isn't required either, but it makes setup in the tank a lot easier. Dry soil floats after you wet it, but if it's been soaking for a while, fewer particles will float and that makes less cleanup for you.

If you're not the kind of person who wants to have their hands in dirt for weeks, there are plenty of alternatives to using actual dirt in your tank, commonly sold at aquarium specialty stores. My favorite planted tank substrate is actually a product called EcoComplete, made by CaribSea. I've also heard great things about their Floramax substrate.

Flourite is another type that I've used, and it works quite well for me.

Flourite and Floramax both contain red clay, which is high in Iron. Iron is an important ingredient in your substrate, especially if you want to grow red plants, but keep in mind that if you combine it with potting soil (both of these are acceptable alternatives to mineralize your soil) they can cause Iron toxicity if used improperly, as with all the peat moss and organics in your soil, the soil itself will be really acidic and somehow that releases more iron into the water than some fish can handle.

Lastly, capping: If you use potting soil, you can cap with either sand or gravel (yes you have to cap soil, or it'll float), and in the end, it doesn't matter much which you choose. It's about how you want the tank to look/function. I personally prefer gravel, as it allows fish waste to fall through to the soil and become composted with the other organics there. If you go with a type of aquarium substrate, such as the EcoComplete mentioned above, no cap is required. You can do a plain gravel cap if you like, but sand will eventually fall through the larger particles, so I wouldn't recommend sand for a cap in these situations, or you will end up having to recap the soil eventually.

Here's the video:

The next topic I want to mention is lighting. There are many ways to determine what lighting is appropriate for a planted tank. High light, medium light, and low light plants all have different requirements.

For most beginners, I'd recommend a low light tank, to see if maintenance for plants is even something you want to do. This set-up will have the least demanding plants, no cO2 (which many people inject in high light tanks) and no fertilizers.

The substrate video thread contains a few links of ways to measure PAR, which is one of the more effective and practical ways of knowing how much light a particular bulb/fixture puts out. PAR meters are available on Amazon for reasonable prices if you're interested. You can also estimate watts per gallon (for instance a 10 watt bulb in a 20 gallon tank yields 1wpg - not enough light for any nice plants) however this method of measurement is significantly less accurate, as you can't take watts and pour them into your tank, and magically know what the light distribution will be.

PAR measurements are definitely the way to go if you want to know how much light your plants will actually get in a particular tank with a particular fixture.

^ That is the technical way to do things. There's that, and then there's how I set up my planted tanks. Personally, I get a daylight spectrum lamp (anything in the 5000-8000 kelvin range) that seems appropriately sized to my tank, put in the plants I want to try, and see what grows. I also try to position my tanks where they get some actual daylight, since that's (obviously) the best light plants can get. This has worked for me just fine so far, and I've even been able to grow some of the "finnicky" or "advanced" or "high maintenance" plants in my low light, low tech setups.

A question that I had when I first started in planted aquariums is "what other color plants can I have than green?" Well the answer is you can have mostly green plants in a low light tank, but I've also had lots of success growing a few varieties of red plant. I keep a pink nesaea species in one of my tanks, red nesaea in several of them, and a variety of "I don't knows" in a few other tanks as well.

Some nice, basic low light plants that aren't green: Cryptocoryne WendtiI (bronze, red, florida sunset, etc) and Nymphaea Stellata (aka dwarf aquarium lily). Both of these will grow in most lighting and substrate situations (though crypts will require plant substrate or root tabs) and give your tank a little color. I'm also having luck with red tiger lotus, another type of lily with a very unique look to it.

Some really easy plants that are great for beginners include Java fern, mosses of various sorts, anubias, vallisneria, hygrophila, moneywort, water wisteria, and water sprite. Some of these are illegal in various states, so make sure to check your import laws before buying them from an out of state seller. Usually it's the shipping that's illegal, so import is outlawed. I was able to find several "illegal" species being sold at stores in California, so I'm sure you folks will be able to find what you need.

Now, about your aquascape. Hardscape (i.e. rocks and driftwood, placement and arrangement) is, in my opinion, the key to having a really pretty tank. You want to give the tank depth and create at least one focal point. Place a large rock or piece of driftwood at the back of a taller tank, and smaller pieces nearer to the front to make the tank look 3D (I know it already is, but some tanks don't look it). Use the focal points in the hardscape to highlight your "star" plants, and by all means, make them multi-functional as hiding places for your fish! They'll appreciate it, trust me.

Here's a how-to guide on my method for setting up a really nice planted tank:

A small update. I remembered how much I loved the marimo ball in the last tank I had with this substrate coloration. Also added their chunk of driftwood now that it's waterlogged enough to sink.


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Thanks for posting this junebug!


Great thread June! Thanks for sharing!


Thanks guys I'll do another video and/or picture thingy later when the plants start to fill in a bit more. All the crypt parva in the front should start to fill in soon


Move over Walstad method! The Junebug modus operandI is in!


Haha this is half-walstadish. It does have a layer of fertilized potting material (it doesn't happen to be soil). And the tank I filmed for the substrate video is a true walstad, gets all natural light, dirted, the whole shebang

I just realized I never posted this. Nice job, me.



LOL, thanks for the delayed video!


Thanks Riv. I must have been a derp that day or something lol.

For anyone who cares, I added a large bunch of floating plants recently as well. Though that was not so much for the aquascape as it was for the fish to have more hiding spots and for the male to stop swallowing his young on hatching day.

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