Aquarium Aquascaping Design Ideas

Updated August 12, 2019
Author: Mike - FishLore Admin
Social Media: FishLore on Social Media

For many fish tank hobbyists, aquascaping or aquarium aquascape design can be one of the most enjoyable parts about setting up a fish tank. Decorating your aquarium can be quite fun, but coming up with a good aquarium aquascape is not just about making the tank look nice. You really should take into account the tank's future inhabitants when figuring out what you need to do. This is where you get to exercise both sides of your brain to try and come up with something that is not only nice to look at but something that is functional as well.

Research Fish and Animals First

Ideally, you should research and decide on the fish and any other animals you want to keep before you even buy a tank. Many freshwater hobbyists think the common pleco is a cool fish to have and indeed it is. But, the common pleco really has no place in a tank smaller than 55 gallons as adults.

Many saltwater hobbyists are really taken by many of the tangs (surgeonfish). Without research, they have no clue that tangs really need a large tank for adequate swimming space. Dottybacks are another popular species and one that needs hiding spaces to feel secure. Creating hiding places for your dottyback is an important consideration in your aquarium aquascaping plans.

For the future reef tank keepers out there, some corals need intense aquarium lighting whereas others prefer less lighting. Figuring out which corals you would like to keep may dictate your aquarium aquascape and the arrangement of the saltwater live rock in your tank. For instance, if you want to keep some light loving corals you may need to build up the rockwork so that you could place these corals with the intense lighting requirements higher in the tank.

Hopefully you can start to see the importance of figuring out what you want to keep before you buy your first piece of fish tank equipment.

Keep Aquarium Maintenance In Mind

You've got your tank setup and your aquascape looks fantastic! Everyone compliments you on how nice it looks and you're feeling really good. However, a week or two goes by and it's time for some routine fish tank maintenance tasks. Namely, scraping the tank glass to get rid of some unsightly algae that is starting to grow on the front viewing panel of the tank. But wait, aah man, I've put the rock too close to the front glass and I can't get the scraper in between the rock and the glass. Doh!

Another favorite task of many aquarists is gravel vacuuming. Yeah! Don't you just love vacuuming the gravel? Just kidding. However, what must be done, must be done. It's time for another - doh! I've grouped too many of these plants together and it's going to be darn near impossible to effectively clean the gravel in that part of the tank. Looks like the beginnings of a small nitrate factory in the making, which may be a big headache down the road.

The point here is that you want to aquascape effectively. Arrange the fish tank so that future tank maintenance tasks remain as easy and efficient as possible.

Freshwater Tank Decorations

Aquarium ornaments

Roman columns, the Parthenon, funny signs, the classic treasure chest or underwater diver that does double duty as a bubbler, small replica bridges, sunken ships, replica battleships, you name it. The amount of available aquarium decor is vast. Kids almost unanimously get that small underwater diver in their first tank. You know the one. It has a red diving suit and the bubble mask that is waving hello. It's almost like a right of passage of some sort.


Often seen in live plant setups, a nice piece of driftwood can be a great centerpiece of the aquascape in a freshwater tank. Don't just pick any old piece of wood and place it into your tank. Get some from you local fish store and ask questions about the curing process. To be on the safe side, you really need to monitor any wood in a separate quarantine tank and use your aquarium test kit to test the water parameters in the quarantine tank for several weeks or months before you can assume that it's safe to add to your main tank.


Just like driftwood, rocks can make nice additions to freshwater tanks. You sometimes see larger flat shaped rocks that can form ledges that provide hiding places for your fish. A lot of African cichlid lovers really like Texas Holey rock because it contains limestone that slowly dissolves in the tank water increasing the buffering capacity. Just like the driftwood, you will want to thoroughly clean any rock and quarantine it for several weeks/months before putting it into a display tank.

Fake Plants

The nice thing about fake plants is the ease of cleaning them. The bad thing about fake plants is that, well, they sometimes look really fake - especially when the base of the artificial plant pokes out of the substrate. These can sometimes detract from the aquascape... but if done right, you can pull it off.

Live Plants

Live aquarium plants provide functionality as well as beauty. Nitrate removal, oxygenation, shelter and breeding sites are just some of the wonderful benefits of keeping live aquarium plants. Live plants kept properly can help create some truly breathtaking, realistic looking aquarium scenes. There are many live aquarium plants available each having differing lighting and supplement requirements. Research any live plants that you're interested in beforehand is the key.

Saltwater Tank Decorations

Fake Coral or Dead Coral

Fake or Dead Coral will look nice (depends on who you ask) for a very short period of time in your aquascape and can be a major pain in the butt to clean and will make you wish you never shelled out the money for it. Try the more natural route (live rock - see below) and avoid fake corals and dead coral skeletons altogether.

Live Corals

The ultimate aquarium decoration that is actually a living animal! Corals are not for the beginner and should be thoroughly researched beforehand because of their often hefty price tag and demanding water, lighting and feeding requirements.

Live Rock

The great part about live rock, aside from the biological importance of using it, is that you can use aquarium silicon sealant to shape the rocks into any type of design you desire for your aquascape. We now have a new term - "rockscaping". You can also use a drill to create small holes in the rock and use pvc pipes to hold them together to make columns or archways. The rockscaping possibilities are endless. Another thing you'll probably need to do is place the rock directly on the tank bottom and not on top of the sand. Sand burrowing species could get injured or worse if you place the rock on top of the sand.

Here are some typical saltwater live rock layouts to help kick-start your creative genius.

Front View of Island Aquascape Design
Live Rock Island Aquascape

Front View of Slope Aquascape Design
Live Rock Slope Aquascape

Front View of Cove Aquascape
Live Rock Cove Aquascape

Aquarium Background

The tank's background can sometimes really set off the aquascaping in a tank. You have many options here. There are tons of ready-made tank backgrounds that are of picturesque nature scenes, coral reefs, etc. Choose one that you like and one that won't clash with what's going to be in the tank.

Another option is to paint the outside back glass of the tank a solid color such as black, dark green, deep blue, slate blue, etc. Appliance spray paint sticks to the glass well. Many hobbyists like painting the outside back glass better than using a tank background because you don't have to worry about water getting in between the background and the back glass. Believe me, it will happen and then it can be a pain to clean it. It's not as big a problem for freshwater tanks as it is for saltwater tanks. In marine tanks, salt creep will eventually make its way in between the background and the glass causing unsightly salt creep on the glass.

More Cool Ideas

For more ideas and to get those creative juices flowing, it can be really helpful to check out what other hobbyists are doing. Check out the fish tanks in the FishLore fish and aquarium picture gallery and the Your Fish Tank pages to get some ideas. Once you get your tank set up, show it off by signing up to become a FishLore member (completely FREE) and you can then upload photos of your masterpiece. Have Fun!

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