Aquascaping: Getting Set Up

We get our tank and start planting!

Entering the aquatic world of aquascaping is a bit more complicated than starting container gardening, but hopefully we can guide you through the process as we learn from the masters. In the last article we discussed what aquascaping is, now here are the basics that you need to get started:


This goes without saying, but the very first thing you need is an aquarium or fish tank (or a fish bowl). Fish tanks come in a huge variety of sizes and even shapes, but the most commonly available sizes are 30cm, 45cm, 60cm, 90cm and 120cm. While you may think that it must be easier to start small, bigger tanks are actually easier because larger quantities of water are more stable than smaller ones. We started with a 60cm tank with a water volume of about 55 litres, and we wouldn’t really go any smaller than this unless you are going to be very careful about maintaining your water quality.


If you are going to have livestock (fish, snails or shrimps) in a tank, you really do need filtration to maintain water quality.

There are three types of filtration: biological, chemical and mechanical.

Biological filtration uses beneficial bacteria to break down harmful waste such as ammonia, nitrates and nitrites (if you get really interested in aquascaping we recommend you read up on the nitrogen cycle).

Chemical filtration usually refers to using activated charcoal to remove dissolved waste from the water.

Mechanical filtration is the method of filtration most of us know: passing water through a filter to remove small particles from the water.

There are many different kinds of filters, from little plastic boxes to sponge filters to huge canister filters that sit outside the tank, but we went for a hang-on-back (HOB) filter, in this case a Penn Plax Cascade. It hangs on the outside of the tank and uses a combination of all three types of filtration to keep your water clean and, also important, oxygenated.


Fish and plants have certain temperature requirements, which is why you can’t just walk into a pet shop and buy any fish you think are pretty and throw them together in a tank – they might prefer different water temperatures. For example, goldfish are cold-water fish while most other fish in the pet shop are ‘tropical fish’, needing warmer water. Heaters are fitted with thermostats and allow you to maintain a constant water temperature (although they can’t cool water down, obviously). Heaters come in different wattages, which means power output, and you need to get the correct size for your tank. A rule of thumb is to get a heater of twice as many Watts as the litres in your tank, so for our tank of 55 litres we got a heater of 100W.

You should also get a thermometer to keep an eye on the water temperature.


Just like plants in the garden, aquarium plants need light to photosynthesise and produce food. And just like the garden, you get plants that prefer low light, medium light or high light levels. And just like in the garden, you need to do a bit of research about which plants need what light before you buy them. Unlike in the garden, the light in your tank is created artificially, using a light or lights. These days there is no reason not to buy an LED light: they last almost forever (ours is rated for 50 000 hours), they don’t produce any heat and they use very little electricity. Many are also waterproof – some you can even place under water. You want to buy a light that is almost as long as your tank. This subject can get confusing, so unless you want to grow tricky plants that require intense light, buying an LED light from the pet shop is perfectly adequate.


‘Substrate’ is actually a better term than ‘soil’ for aquascapes, but we thought we’d use a term familiar to all of us. There are so many theories about this one: you can use sand, fine gravel, medium gravel, or you can buy one of the premium organic substrates designed for aquascaping. Aqua Design Amano (ADA) is a Japanese brand that makes premium aquascaping products, including substrates. Their Amazonia aqua soil is one, and it has a high humic and nutrient content that makes growing plants easier. We couldn’t get hold of any Amazonia in time so have used a medium gravel in our aquarium, which we will supplement with fertilisers – but more on that later.


Rocks and driftwood can make your tank beautiful, and also give you some structure to plant around – just like in your garden. Mopani driftwood and spider wood are two common types in the trade, while there are some dramatic types of rocks also used. That said, most rocks are usable as long as they don’t dissolve in your aquarium. We used plastic eggcrate in our tank to distribute the weight of the rocks and prevent the tank from cracking. This is also easy to get at pet shops.


  1. Place the egg crates in the tank, then add the well-rinsed substrate. Don’t dump all the substrate in a flat layer, but sculpt it to be interesting.
  2. Place hardscaping elements. Start with the biggest, in our case a huge piece of mopani driftwood.
  3. Position smaller hardscaping elements, like rocks.
  4. Add more substate where it is needed to balance the hardscape, both physically and aesthetically.
  5. Gently add water to the tank. You can plant your plants before or after adding water, or both.
  6. Plant your plants. Some, like Java fern, need to be ‘planted’ on rocks or wood, not in the substrate. You can jam the rhizome into a gap in wood, tie them on using thread or fishing line, or even superglue them using superglue gel.
  7. Add fertiliser caps to the substrate near the base of plants. Also add a liquid fertiliser to the water.

To come! In the next article we will talk about the plants themselves before moving on to caring for your underwater garden.

The Gardener