The Aquascaping Design Checklist
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Old 06-15-2012, 08:06 PM   #1
youjettisonme
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Default The Aquascaping Design Checklist

Hello friends,

I wrote this article about aquascaping techniques for another forum. It is geared toward noobs, but I find that even some experienced aquascapers can benefit by some of the points made. Even though I wrote it, I use it myself from time to time, and it has helped me to find some clarity during some of my misadventures.

I made a Noobie Shrimp Keeper Guide that was well received and that some of you may have already read in the invert forums, and this is just a second installment to that, #2 in a series.

Let me preface this article by saying that I've never won an aquascaping contest, and I don't claim to be the Da Vinci of planted tanks. Further, aquascaping does not need to be turned into a contest to be successful. Simply creating your humble but inspiring art in the privacy of your own residence is often all that's required to reap the benefits of our art. That said, I have managed some successful scapes, and I feel like loosely following this checklist may help many aspiring aquascapers to reap the occasionally elusive benefits from our sometimes modest aquascaping subculture.

- Do I have too many varieties of plants?
You see this all the time, and I've certainly been guilty of it. Let's face it. Plants are awesome! Especially if you only have one tank, it's easy to get carried away and want to grow every species of plant in the same tank, even if the flora you plant seems to have no obvious cohesion. If the rise of Iwagumi taught us anything, however, it's that often, less is more, and that you don't require a dozen different varieties of plants to be successful. In fact, you can make a terrific scape sans any flora at all. Don't get me wrong though... I love a well taken care of Dutch scape!

Here is a great example of a very successful minimialist tank.

by George Farmer



- Do I have enough repetition of elements?
Often, I see this really terrific element in a scape, be it rock, branch, or plant, and the author does not bother to repeat this element in other areas to tie it all together. For example, an erios is a beautiful bit of flora. However, one erios in your tank looks contrived. 7 erios in your tank, however, can be a beautiful repeating element. One red plant? Unless it's right on a huge focal point stone or branch, it may look artificial. Repeated many times over, strategically? It can look amazing. No matter what element you've created, think about mimicking that element in your tank several times over to bring out a particular theme. Can you claim that your tank has a theme? If not, you may want to rethink that scape.

Notice the repeating peaks which really set off this scape.

by Peter Kirwan

- Can I identify a real focal point?
Most but not all successful scapes feature a distinct focal point. Is it that huge piece of manzanita in the corner? The rotala forest that's the same height as the manzi? Or is it the huge Maten stone on the opposite side of the tank? If your eye can't easily land in one spot or the other in your scape then there's a fair chance that you haven't created a strong enough focal point.

Here is a terrific example of a simple, but really strong focal point which is accented by similar, but much smaller rocks. Also notice the terrific flow from left to right.

by Josh Sim KH


- Do I have a distinct flow, from one side of the tank to the other?
If, after finishing your scape, you can't identify a direction of flow then you've likely missed this element. Some tanks may feature several directions, but you should be able to feel the flow. Simple techniques like placing the pointy end of hardscape all in similar directions can lend a hand to this narrative.

The flow of the rocks leads the eye distinctly to the left.

by Ngo Truong Thinh

- Does the scape vary in height?
This is a big one. Often, you will see scapes where everything, the wood, the stones, the plants, are all the same height, from one side of the tank to another. You can literally draw an imaginary line and they will all touch that line and not extend past it. It's as if the designer had horizon tunnel visioin while they were placing their flora and hardscape. Height creates depth, but only if you have other distinct elements which will counter-balance that height as well as transitions which lead the eye back and forth between the elements.

Here is a lovely little scape with a caption of "Not Quite There". It has so much going for it, but it suffers from same height syndrome at the moment.


- Have I created depth by playing with the placement of the foreground, midground, and background plants?
Most scapes, even the nicer ones, follow a very distinct aquascaping principal. They use foreground plants in the foreground, midground plants in the midground, and background plants in the background. Absolutely, you can create a stunning scape using these principles. However, if you are willing to step outside the box and break the rules a little bit, you may end up creating something much more dramatic in the end. Ask yourself, for example, how you might highlight a foreground plant in the background or a background plant in the foreground. Once you have answered those riddles successfully, you will likely end up with a layout that features great depth.

Notice the foreground plants in the background, giving depth to the focal point element. Part of the focal point wood creeps right up to the front of the glass.

by Michael G.W. Wong

In this Amano scape, background and midground plants make a splash in the front corners of this tank while the foreground plant is focused on the little hill top in the rear creating an inspiring bit of depth. Notice the limited plant species, the matching rotala on both sides, the repeating elements of the moss on wood. Amano incorporates so many successful elements making this an intriguing scape.


- Is my spacing of elements too uniform?
Too often, new scapers place one element here, one there, one there, one here, etc., with little thought to the distance between each of those elements. They space each element out about the same distance apart and then hope it will all grow together into a cohesive scape. Or worse still, they create a hardscape that looks like Stonehenge. That's not how nature works though, and so this scaping recipe will most often yield lots of artificiality.

Instead, think about bunching elements together like you would a flower bouquet. Stack rocks together. Stack branches together. Stack several species of plants together like you would in a wabi-kusa for example.

Here is a lovely, well grown-out scape that suffers from too many varieties of plants, most of which seem to all have their proper place, spaced out with about the same amount of real estate. In turn, the depth is unfortunately lacking, and the design elements, also lacking in repitition, create no compelling patterns. The foreground plants are in front, the background plants, in back. Where is the focal point? Did I mention that the plants are terrific and healthy? So much potential here.


By contrast, here is a fine wabi kusa, with varying elements seeming to grow out of the same location/foundation. If you contrast this wabi kusa style with negative space in the rest of your scape, your focal element will really pop.

by Aquascapedesign.

And here is a hardscape of stacked rocks that really gets the point across. Even sans flora, this one is already a stunner.

by Piotr Dymowski

- Is this element something I might find in nature?
Some scapes follow all the right rules, but still just miss. Similarly, some scapes seem to break every rule, but they instantly and instinctively captivate us anyway. What do these scapes have that others seem to lack? Sometimes, it can all be found in nature.

Just walking outside can provide us with endless blueprints for creating stimulating aquascapes. Snapping photos of elements you see in nature to use as scaping reference points is a great cheat that many aquascapers employ.

This is a simple scape that's already been drawn for you by mother nature.


Or, for something more elaborate... Saihō-ji (Kyoto) Moss Garden, Japan


A rainbow fish habitat in Australia courtesy of Dave Harasti.


I invite all of you to post both good and bad aquascaping design elements on this thread so long as you are willing to comment about what makes those elements successful or just miss the mark in your estimation. If you are of the "been there, done that", "too cool for school", "aquascapes these days are all so lame" crowd, I am going to thank you in advance for just glancing at but ultimately failing to comment in this thread. I can't even begin to hold a candle to your knowledge or expertise so thanks for your restraint in this case.
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Last edited by youjettisonme; 07-17-2012 at 01:10 AM.. Reason: updates were coming
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