The beauty of co-creating with nature
Building an Aquascape, and then watching that creation come to life, is an incredibly beautiful and rewarding experience. You feel like for once you’re not just an observer of nature, but a co-creator in something magical and beautiful that will, with each passing day, teach you something new about itself.
It’s truly an amazing hobby. Which is why normal people like you and I go from being regular ol’ folk, to suddenly and feverishly watching YouTube tutorials on “How to propagate moss” or “Shrimp breeding for beginners” in a matter of weeks – much to the confusion of our wives and friends.
Aquascaping, despite its incredible beauty and draw, can however, be daunting. The first reason is usually the costs involved (and it can be expensive at times). Number two is the learning curve involved. Which is why we’ve put together this awesome little tutorial on how you can create something small but awesome for your home or office, without breaking the bank or making things too complicated.
With just some entry level equipment, rocks, wood and plants you can make something unique and beautiful that will bless whatever room it’s in for the rest of its lifetime. Let’s jump in.
Design, Planning & Equipment
Substrate & Rock Supports
Filling & Cycling
What I used to build this Aquascape
Equipment & Hardware
- Aquael Nano Tank – 25cm x 25cm x 30cm
- Base of tank – Yoga Mat
- Wooden Cabinet – Builders Warehouse DIY
- Aquael LED Light
- Aquael Pat Mini Filter
- Aquael Mini Heater
- Plug Timer – Builders Warehouse
- Spray Bottle for mist
- Epic Aquatics Hardscape Glue
- Epic Aquatics Plant Glue
- Aquascaping Tweezers
- Water Test Kit
- Dark Dragon Stone
- Bucephelandra “Brownie Ghost” (I treated myself on this one. It’s expensive)
- Bucephelandra “Mini Coin”
- Christmas Moss – Vesicularia montagnei
- Creeping Moss – Callicostella prabaktiana
Substrate & Additives
- Substrate – ADA La Plata sand
- ADA Bacter 100 / Seachem Stability
- ADA Chlor-Off
- DOOA Sukei Liquid
Step 1: Design, Planning & Equipment
For this Aquascape I had a basic concept that I wanted to achieve, which was an emerging tropical beach on a volcano island vibe, with winding roots creeping out of the rocks. I knew it would also only have epiphyte plants and moss, and wanted to keep it ‘low tech’.
Low tech = No strong lighting. No Co2 injection. No high maintenance. No Mr fancy-pants.
What I did
A neat trick I discovered is that before you add your rocks and start messing around, it’s a really good idea to line the inside of your tank with something like thin cardboard, just to make sure you don’t accidentally scratch your new shiny glass with the rocks while you play Jenga with them. Obviously leave the front glass open so you can see what you’re doing.
Once the cardboard was in place, I played around with the dark dragon rocks for a few hours until I was happy. Next I added the Spiderwood pieces in order from biggest to smallest, making sure that it flowed nicely. Another nice thing to try during this phase is to either activate your tank light for a minute, or shine a torch/flashlight from directly above, to see how the shadows in the tank will be cast. Shadows make for great depth, so keep that in mind when shaping your hardscape layout.
Once I was settled with the general concept I hit pause on the tank and started preparing all my equipment. I also bought a neat little DIY cabinet and reinforced it using cheap shelf brackets, as well as cleared up a corner in my living room for the new scape to live in.
I did some plant-planning by using this really cool website called scape-it.io, which lets you create a virtual scape using a drag and drop system. So I recreated my hardscape, then played around with some similar plants until I was happy with the balance and placements.
Concept & Design approaches
Consider the type of scape you want to create based on natural environments in the wild. Is it tropical? Mountainous? A deep forest? Or is it simply a slice of a river bank underwater from a particular place in the world?
There are two ways that people tend to approach their Aquascape design process. They either design it first, and then find the right pieces of the puzzle to make it happen; or they buy awesome looking pieces of hardscape (rocks/wood), and put them together on the fly to see what they can come up with. You can choose whichever path suits you best. Sometimes you are inspired by a landscape and plan a scape that’s inspired by it. Other times you find a piece of hardscape that’s so damn cool the rest of the design just emerges around it.
Enjoy this part and dream big. It’s awesome.
Make sure that you know what equipment you will need before you get started, and preferably buy everything before attempting the build.
It can be tempting to get started without everything on hand, but you can quickly find yourself stuck with a time-bomb situation and lose some of your fish / shrimp / plants before you know it (Speaking out of personal experience on this one). Make sure you also plan for a nice strong tank stand, cabinet or desk spot where your tank will live. If it’s not strong enough, then reinforce it yourself with shelf support brackets, wood or whatever else you need to make sure it won’t budge!
Adding foam to the underside
In case your new tank didn’t come with a base underneath the bottom, I’d recommend you add one yourself. The foam layer helps to evenly distribute the weight and pressure of the tank and make it more stable overall. You can buy a yoga mat from a sports retailer, and simply cut it to size and glue it to the bottom of your tank before starting with the actual scape build. If your tank came with polystyrene at the bottom, I would personally cut that off and add my own just to make it look nicer. We don’t want anything drawing our eyes away from the main stage.
Step 2: Substrate & Rock Supports
I chose to use ADA La Plata sand as the substrate for this scape because I wanted to create a very easy ‘beach’ look at the bottom. Another reason is because I planned to only use epiphyte plants (plants that attach to things, rather than send roots down for nutrients), so I didn’t necessarily need an active soil for any rooting plants.
What I did
I cut some egg crate into the rough shapes and sizes of the rocks at the bottom of the scape – where it was going to rest on the bottom of the tank – and then lightly glued them in place. I then filled the bottom of the tank with ADA La Plata sand and used a small brush to sweep it level. I chose to only use ADA La Plata sand for this scape because I wanted to create a very easy ‘beach’ look at the bottom. Another reason is because I planned to only use epiphyte plants (plants that attach to things, rather than send roots down for nutrients), so I didn’t need an active soil for any rooting plants. However, it is known that even if you are just using epiphyte plants, having an active soil like ADA Aquasoil, it’s actually all round good for plant and tank health in the long run.
I chose to use ADA La Plata sand for its unique beach-sand colouration and texture. Choosing a substrate for your Aquascape is a fairly big decision for most people, so I would recommend checking out the differences between Aqua Soil and the Inert options available before you buy, as it will affect the growth factors going forward depending on the plants you want to grow.
Supporting rocks using egg crate
If you’re using a lot of rock in your scape, like I did, it’s a really good idea to support the pressure points where rock meets glass using some egg crate. As you can imagine in bigger tanks, with heavier rocks, the kilograms of pressure on these points can be massive. These neat little plastic crates help spread the weight evenly over an area, and are usually nice and cheap too. I also used tiny cuts of the yoga mat foam as small barriers between the sides of the rocks and the glass to avoid scratches and extra pressure points.
Step 3: Hardscape & Detailing
All the Dark Dragon stone I used for this scape was provided by Easyscape, and is gorgeously detailed up close and under water. Once I got the whole mini-mountain setup going, as well as all the spiderwood in place, I went about carefully gluing all the pieces together using folded pieces of tissue paper and Epic Aquatics hardscape glue.
What I did
All the Dark Dragon stone I used for this scape was provided by Easyscape, and is gorgeously detailed up close and under water. Once I got the whole mini-mountain setup going, as well as all the Spiderwood in place, I went about carefully gluing all the pieces together using folded pieces of tissue paper and Epic Aquatics hardscape glue. Dusting the wet glue with crushed up rock dust is a super effective way to instantly camouflage all the connection points. Gluing all the hardscape together is something I now strongly recommend after previous lessons learned, where the scape started to slowly fall apart once filled, and became a very precarious house of cards situation. Never again I tell you.
I chose Dark Dragon stone for this scape, knowing it would be perfect for the tropical beach look I was after. You’ll find a cool assortment of rocks out there when hunting for your hardscape. I do recommend getting rocks from a pet shop, rather than in nature, unless you know what you’re doing and know how to test for the right things. The wrong kind of rock can release too much calcium into your water and cause all kinds of complications. Pet shop rocks are usually safe and clean.
I think detailing any scape is actually my favourite part. It’s the time when the abstract shapes start looking like real miniature worlds and take on real depth and character. Detailing is simply done by adding smaller and smaller pieces of either rock or wood, until you get something that looks more realistic. A very easy way is to take some extra rock and break it, using a hammer under some cloth, into smaller rocks and stones. You surround the edges of your rocks with smaller and smaller pieces, trying to imagine how nature would haphazardly do it. Next thing you know, your bunch of rocks looks like a real little mountainside. The same can be done with wood, using smaller and smaller pieces of wood to create a natural growth effect. If you need some inspiration here, just Google some nice landscape photos similar to your scape biome and you’ll see what I mean.
I chose Spiderwood for this design. And I actually landed up digging through a small pile of cut-offs at the pet shop because I wanted some super small and bendy pieces that would look like roots climbing out of the rocks. There are fewer types of wood out there compared to rocks. The most popular being Spiderwood, because it’s got awesome curves and shapes, and at scale easily replicates trees and roots. The other option is ‘drift wood’ or iron wood, which tends to be made of thicker, darker pieces, and can also look really cool when used correctly. If you happen to find any kind of other wood out there, do yourself a favour and quickly Google something like: “[name of wood] for aquascaping”, and see what comes up. The results should very quickly tell you what you need to know.
Two important notes on wood choice
Firstly, don’t try to use wood from nature unless you really know what you’re doing. I’m a bit of a herblore fan myself, and you would be surprised at just how many wild plants and trees are used traditionally as fish poison. The second part to that caution is, that unless the wood is hard and heavy enough, it will deteriorate and actually rot inside your tank and make a giant mess. I did this in my previous tank after buying some cheap “spider Vine” from a local nursery, and paid dearly for it.
The second point on wood is to make sure to, unless you firmly glue it to some decently heavy rocks, soak the wood in water for up to 3 weeks to make sure it sinks. Another reason to do this, especially for larger pieces of wood, is that wood seeps tannins into the water for a long time once submerged. Tannins affect the water hardness (sometimes in a good way), but more noticeably make your water a brown/yellow colour that can be there for months unless you get it all out first.
You can speed this process up by slowly boiling the wood for a few hours in a large pot, while trying to explain to your spouse / family why there is wood boiling on the stove, and why the house smells weird.
Step 4: Planting
This scape concept was always going to be based around Bucephelandra “Buce” plants, and moss. The Bucephelandra “Mini Coin” landed up being the star of the whole show because it’s so tiny that it really made the whole scape look much bigger than it is!
What I did
With my handy spray bottle at the ready, and excited like a little kid, I finally started adding plants to the little mountain scape. Planting epiphyte plants is actually really easy and quite fun. Using some plant glue (which is like the hardscape glue, but in gel form, so it’s not runny) I carefully added little running blobs, and then gently put the plants in place, holding them down for a few seconds to set. You will quickly learn how much or how little to use based on the plant or moss at hand. Also make sure that the plants you’ve already added don’t dry out while you’re busy on the rest. Mist them with your spray bottle every now and then, just to keep them happy, and keep misting the tank until you fill it with water.
This scape was always based around epiphyte plants, such as Bucephelandra “Buce” and moss, which attach directly to rock or wood, and don’t need their roots in soil to grow. I treated myself to some rather pricey Bucephelandra “Brownie Ghost”, which can turn a beautiful iridescent purple-blue colour when it’s healthy. I also got some Bucephelandra “Mini Coin”, which actually landed up being the star of the whole show because it’s so tiny that it really made the whole scape look much bigger than it is! The subwassertang plant – which looks kind of like a cool floating seaweed, is a cool and very handy for filling up random spaces in your tank sometimes.
I absolutely love moss. I love moss more than I could love a person. Just kidding, but it’s really awesome and I want it everywhere. I chose to use Creeping moss and Christmas moss for good reasons on this scape. Creeping moss is known to grow (creep) over hardscape and hang down off the edges. Christmas moss is similar, but tends to grow little more bushy. So the plan was to add Creeping moss on the top layers so that it grows over and down. And Christmas moss on some of the bottom layers, to grow thick and up so that I have both vertical directions growing at once.
Step 5: Filling & Cycling
Now that the scape is built and planted, it’s finally time to fill it up and bring it to life! However if you’re new to this, there are some important steps ahead like Cycling your filter, so make sure you do your research.
What I did
After getting my tank safe and snug on the new wooden cabinet, I started getting all the equipment around me ready, as well as the additives I would be needing in the coming steps. Note: If you have a bigger tank, you will likely need to scape and fill the tank in the spot where the tank is going to live because you may not have the opportunity to move it once everything is ready, like I did this time around.
I got a watering can ready with cold tap water, and added a dosage of ADA Chlor-Off to remove any chlorine or chloramine from the water (standard practice with all water additions by the way). I then carefully placed a plastic bag into the tank at the bottom, to make sure that while filling the tank the water doesn’t mess up my newly detailed beach and substrate.
I very slowly filled the tank with the dechlorinated water, making sure to not disturb any of the plants and substrate, until it was nearly to the top. I then activated the LED light, filter and heater. Lastly I made sure that the LED light was plugged into the plug timer, and set to 8 hours of light per day, in the hours that I would most likely be in the area and would be able to appreciate and enjoy the new scape.
Starting on the first day, I started adding dosed amounts of Seachem Stability, which is a liquid bacteria starter culture that gets the bacteria colony going in your tank. You upkeep the dosage for the first 7 days, then once a week or with each water change until the tank is cycled and ready for livestock.
See notes on the Nitrogen Cycling Process below!
The (Nitrogen) Cycling Process
The nitrogen cycle of a tank is essential to the health and life of an Aquascape tank, and is certainly the most important part of the process from the moment you fill your new tank until it’s maturity in a few weeks time. If you’ve never heard the concept of “cycling” a filter or tank, I strongly recommend doing your research on this topic until you understand it clearly and know what to do and expect, and when.
Fish, Shrimp and Snail Choices
I always planned to add some Red Crystal Shrimp (RCS) Neocaridina shrimp to this scape. However that has to wait until the tank is cycled and it’s safe for the little critters to go about their endless busy-busy little lives. I will likely also add some snails to help with the janitorial work.
Adding some living creatures to your scape not only makes it come alive, but some of the cool critters, like shrimps and snails, actually help to keep the place nice and clean. Do some research on the different kinds of fish and shrimp that you can keep in your tank, and what will suit your setup.
Step 6: Maintenance
Aquascape tanks are quite literally living, breathing ecosystems that need some basic maintenance in order to stay alive and running happy. Luckily, performing these little tasks usually has the same calming effect as working on a Zen garden or bonsai tree.
Common Aquascaping Maintenance tasks:
- Add liquid Fertilizer once per week like DOOA Sukei Liquid
- 30-50% water change at least once per week using new (dechlorinated) water.
- Trim your plants, and remove dead/dying leaves.
- Feed your shrimp/fish if you have any.
- Rinse your filter media/sponge.
- Clean the glass
- Stare into it for hours on end
- Try not to immediately want to build 3 more tanks
- Build 3 more tanks