Aquascaping Tips (Don’t Make These Mistakes)

by Kevin

Aquascaping tips for beginners.

Don’t Buy Difficult Aquarium Plants

Hygrophila pinnatifida, an aquarium plants that does best with CO2 and strong light.
Hygrophila pinnatifida (likes CO2 and strong light).

If you are new to aquascaping, you might be tempted to buy the largest and most interesting aquatic plants you can find.

Well, that usually doesn’t end well because a large number of aquarium plants are finicky and tend to die within a couple weeks without the right setup.

One of the best tips for those just getting started with aquascaping is to use aquarium plants that can tolerate low light and don’t require CO2 for optimal growth.

Plants like Anubias, Java Fern, and Java Moss tolerate are slow growers, but tolerate low light conditions, and don’t require CO2, making them ideal for beginner aquascapes.

If you want to learn more about easy to grow aquarium plants, check out my article on the best plants for a betta fish tank.

Position Hardscape Off-Center

Aquascaping stones arranged off-center.
Note: the main stone is positioned to the left of center.

Whether its driftwood or rocks, placing your hardscape away from the center of the tank improves the aesthetics of your aquascape.

The reason that hardscape looks better when placed to the right or left of center is best explained by aesthetic concepts of the rule of thirds and the golden ratio.

Both of these compositional rules are based principles of math, but thankfully we don’t need to do any math to achieve a design that follows these rules.

For aquascaping, all you need to remember is to avoid placing the focal point of your aquarium in the center of the tank.

By following this simple rule, you aquascapes will look balanced and compositionally pleasing to the eye.

Arrange Plants By Height

Plants arranged in an aquascape by height.

Planting shorter plants at the front of the tank and taller plants at the back might seem like obvious advice, but it’s not uncommon for new aquascapers to overcrowd the front of the tank with seemingly small plants that quickly grow into tall plants (like Vallisneria).

If you want your aquascape to look balanced, be sure to plant carpeting plants (like Micranthemum) at the front of the tank, slightly larger plants, like Cryptocorynes, in the middle of the tank, and tall and broadleaved plants (like Amazon Swords) at the back of the tank.

If you are setting up a low-light, low-maintenance aquascape, I suggest using only substrate at the front of your tank, as most carpeting plants need CO2 to grow adequately into a carpet.

Understand the Difference Between Emersed and Immersed Plants

Emersed vs immersed plants for aquariums.

If you are new to aquascaping or growling live plants in aquariums you may be wondering why some plants are grown “immersed” while others are grown “emmersed.”

According to Collins’s Dictionary, something is immersed when “someone puts it into the liquid so that it is completely covered.”

This definition makes sense because, in the context of aquarium plants, immersed plants are ones that are grown below the surface of the water.

And, emersed plants are those grown above the surface of the water, but often with their roots remaining underwater.

The reason that aquatic plant suppliers often prefer to grow their plants emersed (this includes tissue cultures) is that many aquatic plants grow faster above water (due to the greater availability of CO2), algae problems are nearly eliminated, and plants grown emersed have higher survival rates when shipped.

For aquascaping purposes, it’s important to know if the plants you ordered/purchased were grown completely underwater or partially out of water because plants that were grown emersed often lose leaves and experience “melt,” which looks as though your plant is dissolving.

Trimming the dying/melting leaves and performing regular water changes will help keep your water conditions stable during the transition from emersed to immersed, and the plant will soon produce smaller leaves intended for underwater growth.

But it will take time for the plant to look as good as it did when you bought it.

So, if want don’t want to deal with melting plants, buy immersed plants, otherwise be prepared for your plants to look a little ragged before becoming beautiful again.

Be Prepared for Algae

Algae growing on aquarium stones.

Algae is always in your aquarium, waiting for the right conditions to explode and cover your tanks in a thin green mat.

Knowing how to monitor and adjust your water parameters is vital to keeping algae under control.

If you tank has high concentration of nutrients, or receives intense light for long periods of time, then you are going to face some annoying algae problems.

Having algae eaters like amano shrimp, nerite snails, and otocinclus are an excellent way to keep algae problems under control.

But, don’t ignore your aquarium’s water chemistry, which is a significant contributor to how quickly algae can multiply.

Test your water regularly and perform extra water changes if you suspect that algae is beginning to get a foot hold.

Decide if CO2 is For You

Glass diffuser emitting carbondioxide bubbles in a planted tank.
Glass diffuser emitting carbon dioxide bubbles.

Unlike plants grown on land, aquatic plants have much less CO2 available for use in photosynthesis.

And, without adequate CO2, aquatic plants grow slower and, depending on the species of plant, are much harder to keep alive.

Adding CO2 to your aquarium will helps boost plant growth and allow you to keep more challenging species.

The downside of CO2 is having to fill and refill a clunky CO2 tank.

Providing CO2 for your aquarium is also not cheap.

The cost of a CO2 tank, regulator, and diffuser adds up quickly.

There are DIY methods for producing CO2 that are much cheaper but CO2 output from DIY system is often inconsistent and messy.

Before you pick out your plants, make sure you make a decision about whether you plan on using CO2 in your tank.

Use Aquascaping Tools

Aquascaping forceps for arranging aquarium plants.

Aquascaping tweezers and scissors make the experience of planting and maintaining your tank so much more enjoyable.

Tweezers are great for getting pushing roots down into the substrate without uprooting nearby plants.

And long-handled aquascaping scissors make trimming your plants a relaxing weekend activity.

Other aquascaping tools are great two, but make sure you have a pair of long tweezers, long-handled scissors, and a pair of forceps.

Get Inspiration from Other Aquascapers

Inspirational aquascape.

Seeing what other aquascapers have built is an excellent way to learn how to build different types of aquascapes, and also get idea for how to set up certain elements, like arranging rocks to form a cave.

I also enjoy learning about the different tools and pieces of equipment that other aquascapers use to make the experience of building an aquascape more enjoyable.

Trying searching for aquascaping contests on YouTube if you want to see what the top aquascapers are capable of creating.

Instagram, and Pinterest are also great channels for getting inspiration for your next build.

Use A Strong Light

Use strong aquarium light for aquascapes and planted tanks.

An aquarium light that produces adequate photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) is crucial for maintaining a vibrant aquascape.

Photosynthetically active radiation refers to the amount of light available to plants for photosynthesis, which is how plants produce food and energy for themselves.

Many aquarium lights, especially kit lights, do not produce enough photosynthetically active radiation for most aquatic plants to thrive.

Making sure you have a strong light, with the proper colors (400-700 nanometer wavelengths) will help ensure that your plants have enough light to grow.

If you want to learn more about affordable lights for growing aquatic plants, check out my article on the best LED lights for planted tanks.

Create a Slope

Example of a slope in an aquascape.

Having a slope, or hill, in your tank instantly makes the aquascape look more interesting.

In my own aquascapes, I often build a hill at the back of the tank and allow the substrate to slope downward toward the front of the tank.

Slopes angled toward the left or right of the tank also look great.

I use aquarium filter bags filled with substrate, or gravel, as the base of the hills, but rocks or pieces of plastic (glued to the bottom) can also be used to keep the majority of your substrate away from the front of the tank.

Having a super thin layer of substrate at the front of the tank, and a large mound at the back, gives the tank a sense of depth and perspective.

Aquascapes with substrate distributed evenly across the bottom of the tank still have a place, and can look stunning, but in general, creating a slope in your tank will add aesthetic interest and a sense of realism.

Take Pictures Of Your Aquascape

Tree style aquascape.

Taking pictures can help if something goes wrong and you want to rebuild the scape later (maybe your first tank springs a leak or shatters).

Filming the process of setting up an aquascape is also great for reviewing later, but taking pictures may be more enjoyable for those who don’t want to be fiddling with a camera and building an aquascape at the same time.

Pick a Place for the Heater/Filter Before You Start Scaping

Hardscape hiding a heater and filter in a planted aquarium.

A heater and filter do not add to the aesthetics of an aquascape but they necessary for comfortably keeping many types of tropical fish and invertebrates.

Placing a heater or filter in your aquascape after it’s complete is not ideal because you may need to move pieces of rocks or plants, or simply disrupt part of the aesthetic beauty of your aquascape.

The better solution is to pick a place for your heater and filter before you add plants and hardscape to the tank.

Strategically placed rocks and wood can help hide a heater or filter, at least from the front of the tank.

Tall background plants (even fake ones) are also great for concealing aquarium equipment.

Preselecting a place for the heater and/or filter is especially important in smaller tanks (like a 5-gallon), where space is severely limited.


Aquascaping can be intimidating.

But, like other art, there isn’t one way to do it.

Focus on creating a design that interests you and the process of creating an aquatic ecosystem.

For me, aquascaping is not about achieving the most realistic design (although that can be a fun challenge), it’s about creating something I enjoy looking at and maintaining.

If you’ve never created an quascape before, I highly recommend starting with a small tank (3-5 gallons) because fewer pieces of wood and rock are needed to create a captivating design.

And, fewer plants are needed to make the aquascape look complete.

If you want to learn about aquascaping and setting up planted aquariums, check out my article on planted aquariums.

I look forward to seeing what you create.

As always, stay zen.