Aquascaping Ideas That Don’t Suck (Which Style is Right for You?)

by Kevin

Small tank Aquascape with small fish and shrimp

Easy Aquascaping Ideas

Whether you are new to aquascaping, or looking for inspiration, this article will provide an overview of popular aquascaping styles, as well as step-by-step video tutorials of simple, small tank aquascapes.

But, before we dive in, let’s define what we mean by “aquascaping.”

What is Aquascaping?

Aquascape example.

Aquascaping is the process of arranging aquatic plants and hardscape (wood and rocks) in an aesthetically pleasing way, often replicating a scene in nature.

Some styles of aquascaping attempt to precisely mimic natural environments (like river beds), while other styles focus on being aesthetically pleasing through use of colors and shapes.

Understanding which types of stones, plants, and driftwood work best together is a crucial part of setting up a stunning aquascape.

And this article will help you understand how those elements, or building blocks, are used to create designs that fall into a style.

Styles of Aquascaping

To the untrained eye, all aquascapes might seem to be a collection of randomly arranged sticks, plants, and stones.

But, if you look closer, aquascaping is actually about organization and making precise choices about tiny details.

It’s kind of like landscaping, but underwater and in a confined container.

Aquascaping, like other hobbies, has evolved (and continues to evolve) into different “styles” or ways of arranging sticks, stones, and aquatic plants.

Below are examples of the most popular styles of aquascaping, and I’m sure many others will emerge as more aquarists discover the peaceful joy of building and maintaining a thriving underwater garden.

Iwagumi Aquascape

Iwagumi aquascape example

What is an Iwagumi style aquascape?

Popularized by the world renowned aquascaper and photographer, Takashi Amano, Iwagumi style aquascapes typically use odd numbers of stones (often Seiryu stones) arranged in a rule of thirds format, creating a pleasing design reminiscent of peaks or cliffs.

Generally, one large stone serves as the focal point, and smaller stones are arranged to give it a sense of immensity.

As for plants, Iwagumi aquascapes often use carpeting plants, like Montecarlo (Micranthemum), to create a green mat of leaves from which mountain-like stones jut up.

Plants with larger leaves are avoided because they compete with the majestic quality of the stones, making them look small and ordinary.

Small schooling fish, like rasboras, and bright red shrimp, like cherry shrimp, are popular inhabitants in Iwagumi style aquascapes.

These residents add interest to the scape but do not take away from the majestic stones that are the hallmark of this aquascaping style.

If you want to learn more about setting up an Iwagumi style aquascape, check out this helpful video by one of my favorite aquascapers on YouTube:

Dutch Style Aquascape

Dutch style aquascape example

What is a Dutch Style Aquascape?

Dutch Style Aquascaping primarily relies on aquatic plants to create an aesthetically pleasing arrangement.

Dutch Style Aquascapes do not attempt to mimic a biotope, or scene from nature.

Instead, Dutch Style Aquascapes create beauty by juxtaposing colors, leaf textures, and differences in height of various aquatic plants.

Instead of using a large stone or piece of driftwood as the focal point, Dutch Aquascapes often use a large aquatic plant, or cluster of plants, as a centerpiece.

Dutch Style Aquascaping was popularized by the Dutch Society for Aquarists, also known as the Nederlandse Bond Aqua Terra (NBAT).

According to competitive Dutch Aquascaper Bart Laurens, Dutch style aquascapes are not known for using hardscape, but that does not mean hardscape is prohibited.

In fact, Laurens explains that the use of driftwood or stones can add beauty to a Dutch Aquascape, but such uses should be limited to a single material (either wood or stone), and only one type of wood or stone.

For example, if spiderwood is used in the aquascape, then all the wood in that aquascape should be spiderwood (mixing different wood types is not recommended).

Detailed knowledge about aquatic plants is also needed for Dutch aquascaping.

Dutch style aquascape with red and green plants.
Dutch Style Aquascape Layout

At a basic level, a Dutch aquascaper needs to know if a plant is a foreground, midground, or background plant.

How fast a specific plant grows is also valuable knowledge, and will help the aquascaper predict which parts of the aquarium will become overgrown first, and how much maintenance the aquascape will require over time.

Knowing whether the plants you purchased were grown emersed (out of water) or whether they were cultivated submersed (underwater) is also important.

This distinction matters because plants grown out of water will shed their leaves when placed underwater and produce new submersed growth, the leaves of which tend to be smaller.

When choosing aquatic plants for a Dutch aquascape, Laurens recommends sticking with a selection of plants that complement each other.

For example, Laurens suggests using:

1. Ludwigia inclinata verticillata var. Cuba,

2. Hygrophila difformis,

3. Lobelia cardinalis,

4. Nymphaea lotus “red”,

5. Rotala macrandra mini

6. Cryptocoryne wendti brown.

This list ensures that your Dutch aquascape will have contrasting leaf shapes, colors, and sizes of plants.

If you want to read more which plants Laurens recommends for a Dutch aquascape, take a look at his article, “Dutch Style Aquarium.”

And if you want to learn more about setting up a Dutch style aquascape, check out this helpful video:

Nature Aquarium

Nature aquarium aquascape example

What’s a Nature Aquarium?

“Nature Aquarium” refers to a style of aquascaping where the goal is to mimic a natural environment.

Pioneered by Takashi Amano, nature aquariums are aquascapes inspired by scenes present in nature.

Unlike biotope aquascaping (described below), which seeks to mimic a habitat, nature aquariums merely seek to invoke the beauty and aesthetic of a landscape, or environment.

In fact, Takashi Amano drew inspiration from landscape photographs that he would take himself.

He used one type of art (photography) to enhance another (aquascaping).

An almost infinite number of aesthetically pleasing scenes exist in nature, providing an endless repository of ideas for nature style aquascapes.

Some of my favorite varieties of nature aquariums are listed below:

Cave Aquascapes

There is something about a cave that invokes a sense of mystery and intrigue, and building an aquascape that captures that aesthetic is challenging and a true joy.

If you want to learn about how to set up a cave aquascape in a small tank, check out my video on building a cave aquascape in a 5 gallon tank:

Biotope Aquascape

Biotope aquascapes are fascinating because they are meant to replicate a habitat in nature where aquarium fish live.

Many of these habitats are tropical, and so creating an accurate biotope aquascape requires research. Visiting the location is also ideal, if possible.

But, mimicking the look of a local river or lake is also rewarding and often more meaningful.

If you want to learn about creating a river biotope aquascape, check out this video tutorial:

Jungle Style Aquascape

Jungle style aquascape example

Jungle style aquascapes are meant to resemble the densely packed and lush habitat of a tropical jungle.

Unlike other styles, jungle style aquascapes are defined by the wildness, and somewhat chaoatic placement of hardscape and plants.

Driftwood is often positioned to look like trees, and aquatic mosses, like Java Moss, are glued or tied to the hardscape to give the entire scene a distinctly overgrown look.

For those new to aquascaping, Jungle style designs are great because packing a tank with hardscape and plants is easier than maintaining the negative space needed in other aquascape styles.

Island Style Aquascape

An “island aquascape” typically refers to a design that uses stones and driftwood in a central pile, or off to one side, with aquatic plants emerging from the hardscape, and a flat bed of fine, white substrate.

This raised bed of rocks and wood surrounded by sand-like substrate gives the aquascape a tropical feel, despite being a freshwater aquarium.

Island style aquascapes can be created with almost any type of wood and stone combination, making this style especially fun to experiment with.

If you want to see how to set up an island style aquascape using spiderwood, check out my video below:

Plant Selection for Nature Aquariums

Anubias plant in an aquascape.
Anubias Being Used As a Foreground Plant

Because “Nature Aquarium” refers to a wide array of aquascaping styles that draw inspiration from nature, picking the right plants depends on what type of design you are aiming to create.

If you use a decent light and CO2 in your tank, a wider variety of plants become easier to grow.

But, if you are hoping to build a low-tech, low maintenance aquascape, then selecting slower growing plants is a better choice.

Hi-tech or low-tech, I have a few favorite plants that I include in almost all my nature aquarium builds because they are tolerant of a variety of water conditions and easy to care for.

One of those plants is Anubias.

Anubias plants are available in a variety of sizes, and have rhizomic roots, which means they can be attached to rocks and wood, and do not need to be planted in substrate.

They make it into almost all my aquascapes because they look great and are low maintenance.

Low Light, Low-tech Aquascapes

Some of the most impressive aquascapes use high powered lights, CO2, and generous doses of aquarium plant fertilizer.

For someone just getting started with aquascaping, the costs of setting up a high-tech aquascape are unjustifiable, they may not even know whether they like maintaining an aquarium with live plants.

For those dipping their toes into the hobby of aquascaping, I recommend starting with a low light, low-tech, aquascape.

The low light aquascapes that I design use aquatic plants—like Java fern and Java moss—that thrive in more dimly lit environments, and without CO2.

Plant growth will not be as robust under these conditions but less maintenance is needed for these aquascapes.

Check out this low-tech dragon stone aquascape if you need some inspiration:

Setting Up a Shrimp Aquascape

Aquascaping a tank for freshwater shrimp is far more rewarding than many realize.

Shrimp can be kept safely and ethically, in much smaller tanks than aquarium fish because shrimp minuscule amounts of waste.

This makes small tank shrimp aquascapes ideal for apartments, and desk aquariums.

Another great thing about freshwater shrimp, like cherry shrimp, is that they love feasting on algae.

And as your tank matures, algae will try to takeover, covering plants, rocks, and the glass walls of your tank.

Your shrimp will help you maintain your aquascape by eating the algae.

If you want to learn more about shrimp aquascapes, check out my video on building one in a jar:

Finding Your Own Style

One of the most enjoyable and enriching aspects of aquascaping is that you can create your own style.

Whether that’s a new type of jungle style aquascape, or perhaps an artificial plant aquascape, the possibilities for what to design are nearly limitless.

For example, this hobbit house betta tank instantly reminds us of the shire, while also conveying natural beauty through the use of a live aquatic carpeting plant:

I hope this article provided you with some ideas and inspiration to create your own aquascape.

If you want to learn more about which fish to keep in your newly aquascaped aquarium, check out my articles on selecting the best fish for a 10 gallon tank and a 5 gallon tank.

As always, stay zen.