10 Tips to Achieve a Perfect Planted Aquascape

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Plated fish tanks are also more demanding in terms of overall logistics, preparation, and short and long-term care and maintenance.

They’re also clearly more beautiful and rewarding, but you need to know what you’re doing before getting started.

A lot of things can go wrong, causing ecosystem instability and even causing your fish and plants to die off.

But we’re not even going to discuss that today. In this article, we will look further into the matter with a perfectionist’s eyes. 

10 Things to Consider to Achieve a Perfect Aquascape

In short, I present to you the 10 perfect tips for a perfect planted aquascape that you can set in motion today.

1. Aquarium Size

This may seem like a no-brainer. I mean, what even is so difficult about it?

You simply settle on the right tank, the one that matches your expectations in terms of size, and go for it, right? Well, wrong.

In reality, you have a variety of things to consider in terms of tank size. Let me explain:

  • The type of fish you’re getting – We’re not only talking about the fish’s size but their temperament and overall behavior as well. Some fish require more space than others of similar size simply due to being more active, aggressive, or territorial. Other species are small but grow fast, quickly outgrowing their habitat, at which point you need to upgrade your tank. And then you have peaceful fish that will get very aggressive during spawning, destabilizing the entire community. These situations show that the more space you have, the better.
  • The plants you’re using – Whatever applies to fish also applies to plants, albeit at different intensities. Many aquatic plants are considered invasive due to their accelerated growth rate and spread. Frogbit, fanwort, hydrilla, watermilfoil, Brazilian waterweed, and the notorious hyacinth make for some relevant examples in this sense. Hyacinth, for instance, can double its population within 2 weeks. So, some extra space is always necessary to give you time for proper trimming and prevent the plants from outgrowing their habitat.
  • The aquascaping vision – Your exact aquascaping vision may not be compatible with the tank size you’re aiming for. Always make sure you have sufficient room for all the plants, wood, and other aquatic decorations (some of which are mandatory) you plan on getting.
  • The potential for fish population upgrades – Many people start off with a small guppy population, let’s say, then plan on upgrading to a community setup. The problem is that their current tank size doesn’t allow for that. So, they need to reinvest in a larger tank and spend more time and money in the process.

All of these points may sound like I’m advocating for investing in a larger tank, as large as possible. But this isn’t entirely true.

Some fish species also require small tanks, as they can get stressed in larger environments. So, you should choose the right tank size based on all these factors.

2. Substrate

The substrate is important for both fish and plants. For instance, substrate sifters like catfish or substrate burrowers like African cichlids and other species require a fine substrate, preferably sand.

But sand isn’t exactly optimal for live plants.

That’s because sand is very compact due to the smaller constituent particles, which can suffocate the plant’s roots.

They also offer little anchoring capabilities and have zero nutritional value. So, you need to rely heavily on root tabs to keep your plants well-fed.

Sand can also create anaerobic pockets filled with ammonia, which can become environmental hazards over time.

Gravel looks nice, but it’s not right for all fish. Some species, bottom feeders especially, can swallow smaller rocks and choke on them.

Then, just like sand, gravel holds no nutritional value, so additional supplementation is necessary to keep your live plants in good health.

Enriched soil, on the other hand, is good for plants but not that great for fish. Especially bottom dwellers that need softer and finer substrates for feeding and burying purposes.

You should also manage the substrate’s depth based on your fish’ and plants’ needs. I recommend going for a minimum of 3 inches, preferably more for plants with deeper root systems.

3. Plant Types

This is another important point, given that some plants are fit for some habitats but not others. Plants also differ in terms of physiology and requirements.

Some do great in low-light conditions, while others prefer brightly lit environments.

Some demand vertical instead of horizontal tanks, while others need more space and trimming due to their accelerated growth rate.

Then you have to settle between the various plant types available, depending on your aquascaping goals.

In this sense, we have:

  • Sword plants – These can grow tall with long leaves, capable of reaching and even exceeding your tank’s vertical boundaries. You need a lot of vertical space to accommodate them. These plants work best as background decorations; their long and tall leaves can block the view if you plant them in front of the tank.
  • Mosses – Great decorative plants for both small and large ecosystems. These species cover the substrate and create a more natural-looking habitat, perfect for small fish species, fry, and shrimps.
  • Floating plants – These plants only have basic root systems that they use to suck nutrients from the water column. Some will attach to various aquatic decorations, but most of them will float at the water’s surface. Floating plants are great for plant-eating fish, small top dwellers who need hiding, and fish fry that require shelter to increase their survivability. With this in mind, floating plants are also notoriously eager to spread and will cut the light levels reaching the tank’s lower levels.

You also have bulb, stem, and carpet plants to consider, among several other species with their own unique requirements and profiles.

The type of plant that fits your ecosystem depends on your goals, environmental conditions, fish species, and numerous other factors.

4. Driftwood

Driftwood is a great element to have in pretty much any aquatic setup. This comes with several benefits, including buffering the water pH and providing your fish with food and shelter.

Plecos, specifically, use driftwood as a good food source by grazing its surface for detritus, algae, and various micro-life worms that may inhabit it.

Then you have the tannins to consider. Driftwood tannins are awesome for the environment as they:

  • Lower water pH creates an acidic environment that destroys most bacteria and fungi
  • Increase the fish’s metabolic rates and immune system
  • Counteract dissolved metals in the aquarium water, keeping the habitat cleaner and safer
  • Supports aquatic biodiversity by promoting the emergence of pods that regulate the water’s biochemistry
  • Tannins change the water’s coloring to a whiskey/cognac tint which looks awesome depending on the setup.

There are no downsides to using driftwood in your tank, except if you don’t like it changing the water’s color.

And, even then, you have some tools at your disposal to circumvent the issue. Boiling the driftwood is the most reliable way of removing much of the tannin so that they won’t seep into the tank water anymore.

You can even use activated carbon to extract some of the residual tannins that may still reach the water.

Another downside would be the pH buffering which may not be ideal for some fish species. Species that require high pH levels can’t have driftwood in their habitat.

5. Filtration System

This is a complex topic, given that filtration systems come in many sizes and types and have different environmental effects. But I’ll try to keep it short.

As a general outline, filtration systems are necessary for any aquatic ecosystem because:

  • They improve water oxygenation which is especially important in heavily planted tanks; plants consume oxygen and produce CO2 during nighttime, and the filter will counteract that
  • Remove floating residues like dead plant matter, food leftovers, fish waste, etc.
  • Stabilize water chemistry in the case of chemical filters
  • Ensure optimal breeding ground for denitrifying bacteria to keep ammonia and nitrites in check
  • Produce adjustable (preferably) water currents which help fish breathe better

There’s pretty much no reason not to use filters. A good and optimal filtration system will reduce the need for frequent tank cleaning and maintenance and even make the cleaning job easier.

For instance, you can scrape algae off of the tank walls and other hard surfaces and allow the filter to suck the floating particles out of the water.

When it comes to getting the right filtration unit, consider the tank’s size and the fish’s predilections. Some fish enjoy strong water currents, while others – not so much. Also, pay attention to the filter’s positioning.

Don’t place it too close to the substrate or plants, and keep it out of your fish’s dwelling area.

If your fish are small enough that they can get sucked into the filter, secure the filter’s intake with a sponge or a piece of material.

This will reduce the water flow and prevent the fish from getting in.

6. Lighting

The lighting factor is another defining aspect in terms of creating a sustainable and balanced ecosystem.

Keep in mind that most fish do just fine in dim conditions and don’t need too much light.

Most aquarists use bright lights only for aesthetic purposes, simply because the aquarium looks better.

So, it’s really the plants that are the main light consumers. However, the situation isn’t any clearer here either because some plants require more light than others.

We do, however, have some basic facts about aquarium lights that you should consider, such as:

  • All plants require 10-12 hours of light per day, followed by 12-14 hours of darkness
  • Some plants grow taller in low-light conditions simply because they’re trying to reach areas with higher light intensities
  • Excessive lighting causes algae bloom since algae also function based on photosynthesis
  • The blue/red light spectrum is considered optimal for plant growth and coloration boost
  • LED lights have no nutritional value for aquarium plants or plants in general

Then, you should also consider the importance of optimal aquascaping. You can’t pair surface floating plants with substrate ones.

Floating plants grow and spread fast and will cover the water’s surface, preventing the light from reaching the tank’s lower regions. This can cause the deeper plants to die off due to nutrient deficiency.

Then there’s the aspect of controlling light levels to control the plant’s growth rate and overall size. As you can see, there’s a lot of information to go through.

7. CO2 Injection

CO2 injections are necessary for some plant species as they will boost their growth rate and coloring.

The problem is that this is a sensitive topic requiring more in-depth knowledge of CO2’s effects on the aquatic environment.

For one, fish have no use for CO2, and the more CO2 they have, the more they will be at risk of experiencing asphyxiation.

Then you have the problem of pH stability, as CO2 lowers the water’s pH. This makes CO2 injections dangerous when housing high-pH-loving fish.

These are some of the core reasons why most aquarists use CO2 injections in high-tech aquariums only.

High-tech aquariums are plant-based ecosystems only with high-light conditions and numerous plant species sharing the same habitat.

There are no fish in the ecosystem, which gives the aquarist more freedom in how to use their CO2 injections.

You can also use CO2 supplementation in fish tanks, but only moderately, if you’ve decided that your plants need it.

Fortunately, in most cases, they won’t.

8. Water Changes

Water changes are a vital part of the tank maintenance process as they replace the natural water movement present in open ecosystems.

The purpose of a water change is primarily to dilute the excess nitrates, eventually suffocating the fish’s habitat. But that’s not the only benefit.

Water changes also remove excess ammonia and nitrites, reoxygenate the environment, and eliminate some of the floating residues that the filtration system missed.

It’s important to also vacuum the substrate and clean algae deposits before performing a water change for better results.

The frequency of your water changes depends on how stocked the environment is, the tank’s size, and the type of fish you’re housing.

Some fish are messier than others and require more frequent water changes. Others are more sensitive to poor water conditions, so they fall in the same category.

Always learn as much as you can about your fish and monitor their ecosystem to determine when a water change is necessary.

As general tips in this sense, consider:

  • Investing in a water tester kit to keep an eye on the water’s chemistry
  • Only change approximately 15-25% of the total water volume (anything above that can dilute water minerals excessively, which isn’t ideal)
  • Don’t use tap water during the process unless you’ve dechlorinated it first; you can do that via boiling and cooling the water or using a professional dechlorinating solution
  • If you’re using RO/DI water to perform your water change, use a water conditioner to re-mineralize the water since these water types are inert

9. Fish Types

This is probably the most complex topic on today’s list, so there’s no way we can dissect it entirely here.

Instead, we will highlight the core fundamentals to consider when choosing your fish:

– Mind the fish’s tank size requirements

Every fish species requires a specific tank size. For instance, guppies only need 2 gallons of water per fish, but you need to keep them in groups of at least 5-6 specimens.

So, a guppy group needs at least 10-15 gallons. On the other hand, African cichlids demand at least 55 gallons, up to 100 gallons, if you plan on breeding them.

These fish also like to live in large and crowded communities, so they don’t mind being overstocked.

Then you have specimens like Oscars, who require 75 gallons per fish due to their size (up to 15 inches or even more.) Or Red Tail Sharks who need 55 gallons or more, despite only being up to 6 inches in size.

Keeping your fish overcrowded or in uncharacteristically small ecosystems can hinder their growth and lower their quality of life and lifespan.

This is why matching the tank’s size with your fish’s preferences is one of the building blocks of a thriving and sustainable aquascaping experience.

– Fish Size Difference

You should never pair large and small fish, not even when the 2 species are generally peaceful and easy-going.

In nature, the larger fish will always consume the smaller ones, and this won’t change in the aquarium either.

Your fish should be of similar size or, at least, close enough so that they don’t prey upon each other.

– Fish Compatibility

Some fish species are simply not compatible, despite their size and environmental requirement similarities. This is a complex topic, given that it’s not always easy to determine which fish are compatible and which are not.

It may sound counterintuitive to consider the pea puffer as the main aggressor in any ecosystem, given its cute look and tiny size (below 1 inch), yet here we are.

Pea puffers are notoriously aggressive and territorial and will bully and attack pretty much all of their companions, including the large-finned ones.

The notion of fish compatibility encompasses several aspects, such as:

  • Feeding behavior – You can’t pair slow eaters with fast eaters because the former will starve as a result.
  • Temperament – You can’t pair slow swimmers with fast swimmers because the former will get stressed and, most likely, bullied
  • Appearance – Some fish get aggressive towards similarly-looking tankmates. The clownfish is a good example in this sense. Clownfish males are notoriously violent towards each other, and any other clownfish type present in their habitat. They will also snap at similarly-looking fish, so this is a good factor to consider when choosing your fish.
  • Water requirements – Not all fish meet the same requirements, as all fish differ in terms of water temperature, pH, lighting conditions, and even overall layout. Some fish prefer sand substrates, others don’t care, others need caves and lots of plants, and so on. When choosing your fish, make sure you understand their needs and check if all your fish species are compatible in this sense.

Another factor to consider includes bullying behavior aimed at specific species.

Zebra danios, for instance, are known fin nippers, so it’s not advisable to pair them with large-finned fish like bettas or guppies.

10. Patience

Patience is a virtue, especially in the aquascaping sector. The ecosystem you’re putting together needs time to settle and mature.

This includes the plants, species, the water’s chemistry, etc. The nitrogen cycle alone can last between 2 and 6 weeks, depending on the cycling approach.

Fish also take some time to accommodate to their new setting. During this time, they may spend more time in hiding, eat less, and showcase signs of stress for a while.

They should overcome these problems shortly once they get more accustomed to their habitat.

Finally, you have plants to worry about as well. It’s normal for plants to melt when first being introduced to a new habitat.

That’s because they need time to properly adjust to the water parameters and grow their root system.

All these factors show that if you wish to succeed in your endeavors, you need patience above all else.

Conclusion

The aquascaping field is complex and may seem overwhelming to a newcomer. Fortunately, complexity isn’t the same as being complicated.

You can get into the business with minimal knowledge and build your way up, acquiring more insight along the way.

I hope today’s article can serve as starting guide in this sense.

avatar 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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