Freshwater Aquascaping Techniques for Beginners

Have you been thinking of getting into the world of aquascaping?

Confused on where to start?

In this post, I will try to go over all the different aquascaping techniques from the very beginner to the more advanced with the hopes that after reading this post, you will be able to find one that fits your style and experience the best.

No matter your chosen technique, the most popular aquascaping principle is to put short plants in the foreground and tall ones in the background.

Non Planted Tanks

First, we’ll look over the different techniques of aquascaping that do not have any live plants.

Hey, I did mention that I was going to go through them from the absolute beginner, didn’t I?

Artificial Plants

One of the easiest versions of Aquascaping is the use of artificial plants. These are great for beginners because they do not require certain light or water parameters.

Artificial plants can look good too. Photo: Jack Clerk

They are also easy to clean by using an algae brush or spraying them with water with a shower or sink faucet. This will wash the algae and detritus (dirt) off.

Some may say that using artificial plants isn’t really considered aquascaping, but I think it’s great for beginners.

They can concentrate on keeping the water parameters healthy for their fish with fewer variables to disturb the ecosystem. Once, they’ve got their basics right they can start experimenting with live plants.

Read: 5 Reasons Why Artificial Plants Are Better Than Live Plants

As for the more advanced, using plastic plants is also great to practice your composition, positioning, and other aquascaping design principles.

Most local pet stores have a wide array of plastic plants or you could get them online on Amazon or That Fish Place.


The next aquascaping technique that does not use live plants is called a hardscape.

This technique involves using rocks, driftwood or even resin sculptures from the aquatics section of your local pet store.

A hardscape tank, with a few mosses here and there.

Many hardscape aquarists use the one-third design where they split the aquarium into thirds top to bottom and left to right where the one upper and the opposite lower end make a plus + sign is where they will put a high rock or piece of driftwood and a smaller one at the opposite end of the tank.

Other ways involve driftwood with thin branches in the center or sides and medium smooth rocks around the base.

Planted Tanks

Intermediate aquascaping includes the use of live plants and this is called a planted tank.

There are many types of plants with specific needs such as high or low light and high or low carbon dioxide. Many also require fertilizers or nutrients added to the aquarium. Each requires a different “recipe” for it to survive and flourish.

The Enchanted Garden by Shay Fertig

The basic aquascaping design principle for a planted tank is to offset the focal point to one side.

Also having a short foreground, medium midground and tall background plants make the aquarium look full but gives a great area for aquarium fish to swim.

Low Tech Planted Tank

Firstly, we will talk about low tech aquariums with live plants, which are great for live plant beginners.

A low-tech tank would allow you to have plants that can withstand low light. The plants also grow slower and do not need as much fertilizer, which will create less pruning time. Perfect for people who have busy lifestyles.

The only downside to low-tech aquariums is that some plants that need strong light or carbon dioxide will not survive. This limits the variety of plants that you can use in your tank.

Low-light aquascapes are generally about 1.5 to 2 watts per gallon. Common low light plants would include Java Moss, Java Fern, Anubias, and Cryptocoryne’s.

Most plants like a sandy or small gravel substrate (base), and so do your bottom-dwelling fish such as corydoras. A mechanical or biological filter would be ideal for this type of setup.

Fertilized Aquascape

Getting a little more complex, the fertilized planted tank are bit more challenging for beginners.

One of the easiest ways to fertilize an aquarium is by using small tablets that you push into the substrate next to the plant’s root base. There are liquid fertilizers that you can add too. Be sure to read the label for the correct measurements.

The use of fertilizers is a bit of a step up so I would recommend that you start reading up before beginning a fertilizer regime on your aquarium.

Non-CO2 Planted Tank

If you were sleeping in science class, CO2 is Carbon Dioxide that plants need to survive. However, you can actually have a planted tank aquascape with no additional CO2.

Fish do give off some carbon dioxide but it isn’t enough for all plant species; this is where you would need to go into advanced aquascaping with CO2.

Low light plants will grow in an aquarium with no additional CO2 but will grow even slower. Many plants require high light to flourish in an aquarium and again, it is recommended that you read up as these do require higher maintenance than your ordinary tank.

To get very bright lighting, you can use metal halide, but caution they can be very hot. Alternatively, you could use T5 fluorescent bulbs smaller than the original fluorescents and can distribute light better and evenly.

The plants that require high light are normally red-leafed or like Moneywort and Hornwort.

Injected CO2 Planted Tank

The most advanced type of aquascaping is the injected CO2. This phase of aquascaping requires high maintenance and is something you can dabble with once you are more experienced.

This set-up will require additional equipment such as CO2 bottles, regulators, diffusers, and a bubble counter among others. This obviously comes with a cost, but a simple search online will show many different DIY CO2 setups.

You will have to check and ensure you are not giving too much CO2 to your tank so you don’t kill off your fish. The plants will also grow fast and will need to be trimmed often.

You also have to check the pressure on your CO2 and replace tanks when they run empty. That’s on top of other regular aquarium maintenance that you’ll still have to do, mind you.

However, as with everything else in this hobby, patience and practice does come a long way. The result of your hard work is often rewarded with beautiful plants.

Biotope Tank

A biotope-style aquascape is a remake of the natural habitat of certain fish and plant species in different parts of the world. Some of the popular biotope aquariums are:-

  • Amazon Blackwater
  • New Guinea River
  • Asian Swamp
  • Central American River

When doing a biotope, the fish species must match the plants and surroundings of the aquarium so it looks and acts like it would in a real-world setup. This in theory is makes things easier as the plants and fish would require the same pH balance, hardness and temperature.

However, replicating the natural environment isn’t the easiest thing to do. It requires a lot of meticulous research and planning. This aquascaping technique is usually done by the more advanced aquascapers and are often a second or third set in their collection.

Natural Aquarium Aquascape

There is an advanced design of aquascape that many aquarists try to replicate; these are the ones that you’ll often see in competitions. Made famous by Takashi Amano of Japan and his company Aqua Design Amano (ADA).

He has published four books, three in a series named “Nature Aquarium World” and the fourth “Aquarium Plant Paradise”.

He discovered a species of small freshwater shrimp that eat a large number of algae, which are named after him as “Amano Shrimp”.

His aquascapes are normally one large piece of rock or driftwood with a “mat” of low foreground plant and a few large plants with a large school of one to three fish species.

There are many other different aquascaping styles such as the Dutch Style, Iwagumi, and Zen Gardening style.

I will be writing a follow-up post on the different aquascaping styles (this post only covers the different techniques), so be sure to sign up to the newsletter if you don’t want to miss it.


So there you have it folks, a full list of different aquascaping techniques from the very beginner to the more advanced.

I hope I’ve covered most of the aquascaping techniques out there. Did any of the techniques above hit the spot for you? Let all of us know in the comment section below.

And if you think I’ve missed out on other styles or techniques, feel free to let me know in the comments section.

Just remember, the key to a great aquascape is greater imagination! Happy Aquascaping!


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