There are many styles of aquarium design, from barren rockscapes to heavily and diversely planted "Dutch-style" aquariums. You could be inspired by such designs or simply use your own, but in either case it is important to stick to a single style within one aquarium. When using rocks, select one or two types and use them in various sizes, rather than mix several different types of rocks and individual pieces. The same applies to wood; it is usually better to use one type than many.
Plant species, on the other hand, can be used either singly, in small groups, or in large groups. A stunning aquarium can be created using one species, two species, or 30 species. A simple "lawn" aquarium can be created with only one or two plants, such as the pygmy chain sword (Echinodorus tenellus) or hairgrass
Below: Not all plants are restricted to the substrate. Plants that root on rocks or wood, such as this Anubias barteri, can become a focal point in the aquarium and add welcome variety to the display.
(Eleocharis spj, which can be used to cover most of the aquarium floor. You can also add one or two pieces of bogwood with Java fern (Microsorium pteropus), Java moss (Vesicularia dubyana), or dwarf anubias (Anubias barteri var. nana) attached to them. Although simple in design, such an aquarium can provide a stunning display.
Individual plant species all have a place in the aquarium. Taller stem plants and large-leaved species work well as background plants, while smaller plants can be used in the midground, with low-growing species in the foreground. However, there are no set rules for what constitutes a foreground or background plant and it is often better to mix up the areas a little. Generally speaking, a larger plant should be placed behind a
Above: An aquascape should be suited to the fish that inhabit the aquarium. These harlequins, gouramis, and kuhii loaches will all appreciate this heavily planted design.
smaller plant for obvious reasons, but plants can be grouped and placed in a number of different ways to create an interesting design. Although it is tempting to use many different species, it is often a lot easier and more effective to use a limited number of species in larger groupings.
Background planting The plants along the back of the aquarium should all be tall-growing species, and groups often look better than individual plants. In the larger aquarium, big-leaved plants, such as many of the larger Echinodorus species, can be used either singly or in well-spaced groups. As they can look quite imposing and often do not mix well with smaller-leaved stem plants, it may be better to complement them with large pieces of rock or wood. On the other hand, bushy stem plants, such as Cabomba, Limnophila, or Myriophyllum species, make good background plants when grouped together and combine well with adjacent, tall but small-leaved stem plants such as Rotala, Egeria, Bacopa, or Ludwigia species.
In areas of water flow, such as those near the filter outlet, the best background plants are those with long, narrow leaves. They are suited to the constant disturbance and create an element of movement in the aquarium. Vallisneria and Crinum species are ideal. Background planting can be extended around the sides of the aquarium to create a more enclosed environment and a "border" for the display.
Midground planting The "midground" is an undefined area - simply a mixing of the foreground and background. Plants that can be trimmed to variable heights are ideal here. Creating a "street" grouping of one particular plant, with taller specimens in the background, and others gradually becoming shorter toward the foreground is a very effective and visually appealing method of blending areas together. Stem plants with many large or long leaves are excellent for this purpose and include Alternanthera, Bacopa, Heteranthera, Hygrophila, and Lysimachia species. Plants that grow on wood and porous rocks also work well in the midground. Anubias, Bolbitis, Fontinalis, Microsorium, and Vesicularia can all be used in this way. "Specimen" plants can also look at home in the midground, providing they have sufficient space. In most average-sized aquariums, it is only practical to have a few specimen plants.
The midground is also the ideal spot for using decor other than plants. Rocks and wood can be used to create a divider between areas, but do not be tempted to make dividers throughout the aquarium display.
Foreground planting The foreground of the aquarium provides an open swimming area. So that it does not become an underwater jungle, it should occupy at least a third to half of the available space, assuming that the midground is an undefined area. Depending on the size of the aquarium, one or two "carpet-forming" species can cover an open substrate area without intruding on the swimming space. (You could use more in a larger tank.) Plant groups of Cryptocoryne parva, C. willisii, Echinodorus tenellus, and Eleocharis species here, leaving at least 3-4 in (7.5-10 cm) between plants for growth. The counterbalance rule can be applied here; create one large group of a particular plant and complement it with a smaller group elsewhere.
The foreground of the aquarium is a good site for individual specimen plants, either in their own space or among the
Below: The foreground, midground, and background plants are clearly defined in this attractive and carefully designed aquascape. The use of different and contrasting leaf shapes, along with sparingly used rockwork, help to define each area of the display.
"carpet-forming" species. Small pieces of bogwood or small stones and pebbles add interest to the foreground.
Raised areas We have seen how to create "streets" of plants graded in height from the taller background to the smaller mid-foreground specimens. A similar effect can be achieved using raised areas of substrate. Place large flat rocks upright in the substrate and build up substrate behind them to create a raised area. This allows you to use smaller plants toward the mid and background areas and helps to define plants in the foreground, in front of the rock. This "terrace" effect can be created a number of times in the same aquarium, providing there is sufficient space. The deeper substrate should consist of a mixture of various-sized cobbles, topped with the same substrate used elsewhere in the aquarium. The cobbles in the lower layers should help to prevent any major compaction and anaerobic conditions.
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