Aquascaping for Beginners – 10 Steps to Get Started

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Aquascaping is an art that allows you to create unique aquatic sceneries depending on your preferences and possibilities. But it’s also a scientific endeavor because there are specific factors to consider when creating the perfect aquascaping environment.

Today, we will discuss aquascaping for beginners and dissect the main aspects to keep in mind before getting started. Let’s get into it!

Beginner’s Guide to Aquascaping

As a complete novice in the business, aquascaping may sound like a pretty straightforward concept. After all, we’re talking about using some water and plants to create a self-sustainable aquatic ecosystem, right? What could be so difficult about that? As you will soon see, a lot of things can go wrong.

It’s not that aquascaping is difficult, but rather complex since it has a lot of moving parts. So, let’s discuss them one by one.

1. Aquarium

aquarium for aquascaping

The aquarium is the first component you need to get started. The aquarium’s size, material, and shape will dictate how your ecosystem will look and behave. As a beginner, I recommend going for a 40-50-gallon horizontal tank. The horizontal space allows you to create a wider ecosystem and provide you with more ample areas in case you need to add or change anything along the way.

Compared to vertical ones, horizontal tanks are also easier to clean without disturbing the ecosystem too much. Also, go for glass for a clearer view because acrylic tanks aren’t great in terms of visibility quality. However, they are cheaper and less prone to cracking or breaking in some instances. If these final points matter more than the tank’s overall aesthetics, feel free to go for acrylic instead.

Also, consider the possibility of adding fish into the mix at some point. In that case, you need to choose your tank carefully based on the fish’s size and number.

2. Substrate

best substrate for planted aquarium

The substrate is, obviously, one of the vital components of any aquatic ecosystem. It supports the plants, feeds them, and even contributes to the environment’s aesthetic value. This being said, there are numerous types of substrates you can go for, each with their own pluses and minuses.

No matter the type of substrate you might be using, consider the following:

  • Good anchoring potential – The ideal substrate should provide your plants’ roots with proper anchoring. This is especially important in the first phases when you plant your plants and need them to remain stable in the substrate. Some types of substrates, like rocks and gravel, are unfit for the job for obvious reasons. The particles are too large to provide the plants with any anchoring support. Sand, on the other hand, swings toward the other extremity. Due to its small particles, sand is extremely compact and can actually crush and suffocate the roots of more sensitive plants. Choose wisely based on these factors. Also, keep in mind that some plants have longer, stronger, and even wider roots than others, requiring different types of substrates based on these aspects.
  • Proper nutritional potential – Some substrates, like gravel and sand, are considered inert. This means that they hold no nutritional value. To circumvent this problem, you need to rely on root tabs to provide your plants with adequate nutrition.
  • Aesthetic impact – I consider this point as being of secondary importance. There are other aspects that matter more in the grand scheme of things. However, since you’re in the business of aquascaping, you should also consider the substrate’s aesthetical value. Many people combine different types of substrates to beautify their ecosystem. Keep an open mind and stay ready to innovate wherever you can.

If I were to recommend the ideal type of substrate for an aquascaping beginner, it would be aquasoil. This type of substrate is great for all rooted plants for several reasons, such as:

  • Highly nutritious – Aquasoil contains all the vitamins and minerals that plants require to grow fast and reach their full potential. You need minimal, if any, extra nutrients because most plants will be just fine with what aquasoil brings to the table.
  • Lowering pH – Aquasoil has active components that lower the water’s pH. This is a great feature since most plants prefer softer water, as do many fish species, in case you plan to create a fish tank later.
  • The high cation exchange capacity – Aquasoil can suck in nutrients straight from the water column, improving its own nutritional profile and feeding the plants along the way. So, you can use liquid fertilizers occasionally to enrich your aquasoil whenever necessary.
  • It looks great – Not only aquasoil looks natural, but you can also ‘sculpt’ it the way you see fit. This allows you to create different environments based on your vision, plants, and what the aquarium’s space and shape allows you.

3. Hardscape

hardscape aquascaping

The hardscape is nothing more than the heart of your aquascaping project. In laymen’s terms, the hardscape refers to all of the material that creates the ecosystem’s layout, aside from the substrate and plants.

This includes everything from rocks to wood and other decorations that you could use in the process. Contrary to how it may sound, hardscaping is actually quite difficult because few beginners get it right the first time.

There are several impediments to overcome along the way, such as:

  • Choosing the right components – If we’re talking about rocks, you need to make sure that they don’t leak calcium into the water. Live rocks, for instance, alter the water’s pH. Depending on what plants you plan on getting, you may or may not want that. Also, rock type, size, and weight also matter considerably. You don’t want to get excessively large rocks that could break your tank by mistake at some point.
  • Keeping the wood down – Most types of wood tend to float, contrary to what you’re trying to achieve. To keep the wood or bark in place, you should either soak the pieces for a week or 2, weigh them down with heavier components, or simply glue them to your rocks or other elements.
  • Cleaning the tannins (or not) – If you plan on using driftwood, you should consider the amounts of tannins that they can release into the water. Tannins lower the water’s pH and change the water’s color to a more whiskey-like nuance. If that’s something you fancy, tannins are for you. The driftwood will release them gradually into the water. If you don’t want tannins, you should boil the driftwood first, which will release most of them. Whatever tannins are left can be eliminated with the help of an activated carbon-based filtration system.
  • Figuring out the overall layout structure – This refers more to your overall preference. How do you want your aquatic ecosystem to look? You want to consider 2 overarching aspects here: aesthetics and structure safety. You want your ecosystem to look unique and well-built with a great visual punch. But you also want it to be safe and not break down with time. Choose your hardscape elements wisely and secure them in place before pouring the water. Everything should stay put and have virtually no wiggle room. If you can’t get your pieces to remain stable enough, consider weighing them down with heavier elements or even gluing them together for improved stability.

4. Live Plants

aquarium plants for beginners

Naturally, plants make for another core element for your aquascaped ecosystem. The type of plants to go for depends on several aspects like available space, the tank’s shape, the substrate type, etc. Some plants require more vertical space, while others are shorter and bushier, requiring more horizontal room.

Then you need to consider plant compatibility if you plan on using different plant species, as is often the case. For instance, some floating plants like frogbit may not pair well with rooted plants in need of extra light. The frogbit will quickly expand over the entire surface of the water, blocking the environmental light from reaching the tank’s lower regions.

You should always consider the plants’ growth rate and maximum size. Some grow extremely fast and require a lot of nutrients, while others have slow growth rates and are overall less demanding.

5. Lighting

aquarium plants light

Lighting is probably the most basic requirement for a planted tank. Plants use light to process their nutrients and grow, which happens during the process of photosynthesis. Some plants will do just fine with environmental light, while others demand more specific lighting conditions.

Overall, you should consider the following tips:

  • Learn your plants’ requirements – You should always learn what your plants need in terms of lighting. Too much or too little light can cause problems, depending on the plant species present in the ecosystem.
  • Dimmable lights – You should always go for dimmable lights so that you can adjust the intensity. This is great for adapting to your plants’ preferences based on the species, time of day, and other metrics.
  • The danger of too much light – Some plants require more light than others. The problem is that excessive light also promotes algae bloom which can lead to some logistics problems. If you have light-loving plants, make sure you have some algae-deterring strategies in place.
  • The danger of not enough light – If there isn’t enough light available, plants can experience nutrient deprivation and begin to die as a result.
  • Using light intensity to control plant growth and size – Some plants grow larger if there isn’t enough light in their environment. This may sound counterintuitive, but it makes sense. If they don’t get enough light, the plants will grow taller so they can reach areas with higher light intensity. Keeping the light intensity high will also keep the plants smaller since they no longer need to struggle for the amount of light they need.
  • A stable day/night cycle – Your plants require at least 8-10 hours of light per day, followed by 14-16 hours of darkness. This is to support the plants’ physiological functioning. However, consider what that entails for a fish tank. Plants produce oxygen and consume CO2 during the daytime but consume oxygen and produce CO2 during the nighttime. This means that heavily planted aquariums can become a liability at night because the plants consume all of the water’s oxygen. Consider oxygenating the water properly during nighttime to prevent your fish from asphyxiating.
  • Light color – Have red, yellow, and blue lights to support your plants’ nutrient synthesis and growth. While LEDs have no meaningful nutritional value for aquarium plants, so avoid them.

6. CO2

co2 for aquascaping

CO2 is a critical component in plant photosynthesis. Most aquarium plants require CO2 injections to stay healthy and reach their peak coloration and size. You should always invest in a CO2 injection system if your plants are known to consume a lot of CO2.

The good news is that not all plants require CO2 injections, especially in fish tanks. That’s because fish and bacteria produce CO2 naturally, which is often all that your plants require. Always measure your tank’s CO2 content to figure out whether your plants require CO2 injections and how often.

7. Filtration

best filter for small aquarium

The filtration system is just as necessary in a plant-only tank as it is in a fish-filled ecosystem. The filter will cleanse the water of debris, remove floating particles, and improve water oxygenation and circulation significantly. The type of filtration unit to choose depends on your setup and preferences.

Canister filters are the most popular because they take no tank space and deliver great water flow. The problem is that they’re more difficult to clean, especially for a beginner. They’re also more expensive overall and may not be worth it if you have a smaller tank.

HOB filters are cheaper and more approachable in terms of cleaning and maintenance. But they’re not exactly top-tier in terms of water flow and power.

Submerged filters are more fitting for smaller ecosystems. They’re easy to use and clean, but the problem is that they take up underwater space. They may also ruin the tank’s overall aesthetics, so you need to hide them behind the hardscape or plants.

As you can see, there are several filters with their own pros and cons. As overall advice, make sure that your filter of choice can deliver a water flow of 10 times the tank’s total volume.

If you’re setting up a fish tank, other aspects may come into play too. One is the filter’s intake power which can suck the fish in. The intake’s placement also matters since you don’t want the filter to suck in plants or substrate, as this increases the risk of clogging.

8. Maintenance

aquarium cleaning maintenance

The situation gets a tad more complex when it comes to the maintenance process. In short, you have 3 maintenance approaches to consider:

  • Daily maintenance – This is a standard maintenance routine involving feeding the fish, adding plant fertilizer whenever necessary, maybe removing some plant matter floating on the surface, etc. Nothing too time-consuming.
  • Weekly maintenance – This involves changing around 30-50% of the water, depending on your tank’s needs. The water change is necessary to dilute the nitrates, reoxygenate the environment, and keep your plants’ ecosystem clean and fresh. Don’t use plain tap water, at least not without dechlorinating it first, and consider using water conditioners if the new water demands a plus of minerals. Also, consider your fish’s needs. You shouldn’t change too much of the water at once. Fishless tanks can go for 50% weekly water changes, but fish tanks cannot. I recommend 25% water changes for fish tanks in general.
  • Monthly maintenance – This refers to trimming the plants to keep the ecosystem stable, cleaning any algae deposits, including from the tank’s walls, and vacuuming the substrate. I’ve included these activities in the weekly maintenance section, but feel free to adapt them to your ecosystem’s needs. Fast-growing plants require more frequent trimming, and brightly-lit ecosystems may develop algae more often than those with low-light conditions.

9. Fertilizers

aquarium plants need fertilizer

Fertilizers are absolutely necessary in any aquatic ecosystem, whether you have rooted or floating plants. Aquasoil will reduce the need for supplementary fertilization, but only for a while, typically the first 3-4 weeks after setting up the ecosystem. During this time, the aquasoil’s highly nutritional content will be more than enough for your plants.

But these nutrients will deplete over time, and by the 4-week mark, you already need to consider extra fertilization. Liquid fertilizers are the best option in this case, as the nutritious mix will seep into the substrate, which will feed the plants via their root system. You don’t need root tabs unless you’re using a different form of substrate besides aquasoil.

I recommend a complete fertilizing solution to provide your plants with all the necessary minerals in one go. And measure the amount of fertilizer to use carefully since liquid fertilizers are famous for their ability to produce algae.

10. Start-Up

dark start method aquarium

I’ll say it right now, the first 2-3 months after setting up your aquascaped ecosystem are the most unstable of them all. That’s because it takes approximately 3 months for the plants to root properly and for the ecosystem to stabilize and mature. You’ll need to be on top of your maintenance game during this time since you’ll most likely be dealing with a lot of algae along the way.

Also, trim and care for the plants properly by ensuring sufficient light, nutrients, and CO2, if necessary. You know you’re on the right track if the plants grow at a healthy rate and retain their bright colors along the way.


No one claims that aquascaping is an easy hobby, but it’s definitely very rewarding and manageable with the proper knowledge. The topic seems difficult at first, but it gets easier to understand once you take the time to navigate the different notions and concepts.

Fortunately, you now have today’s article to rely on. Make sure you also consider my other articles tackling topics like plant growth and care, fertilization, tank cycle, etc., since all these relate to a good aquascaping experience.

Author Image Fabian
I’m Fabian, aquarium fish breeder and founder of this website. I’ve been keeping fish, since I was a kid. On this blog, I share a lot of information about the aquarium hobby and various fish species that I like. Please leave a comment if you have any question.

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