Iwagumi Design, 4 part article
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Old 05-11-2009, 01:41 PM   #1
Francis Xavier
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Iwagumi Design, 4 part article


I've noticed one thing is for certain about this particular style, and that is the lack of information on the topic. Or more specifically, the information that is available on the style is either the same paragraph of information just rephrased or comes from sources that are ambiguous in their language at best for whatever reason. It is my hope that I can shed some light on the topic, and further my learning on this particular area, I consider Iwagumi to be my area of interest, and thus it is of high importance to me to continue a quest to fully understand the style. This quest for knowledge has certainly had many, many doors to go through, half the time each new door being contradictory to the last one, taking jumps from the highly philosophical to the extreme simple.

First and foremost, Iwagumi was not something created or invented by Mr. Amano (although he is rightfully credited for introducing the style into the aquascaping world). Iwagumi is a style that's just about as age old as you can get. Iwagumi (also pronounced ishigumi at times, as far as I know, there is no significant difference between the two pronunciations) in japanese is written as 石組 the first character here means "rock" and the second character essentially means composition, layout, organization, etc, etc. So, an Iwagumi, at it's most basic, basic level is a "rock layout" and nothing more. At the same time, this means both a layout of only stones to create an image or impression, and the method to which stones are placed. So an Iwagumi in aquascaping is a layout composed of only stones, while if you had driftwood in the setup, the stones could be laid out according to "Iwagumi" principles, but wouldn't be an "Iwagumi" lay out as it's come to be known. Essentially it is a style of it's own as well as a subset style part of other 'styles' at the same time. If you ever learn the japanese language, it is choked with contradictory sentiments and words (when viewed from an english native point of view at least) that can add all sorts of fancifully fun confusion (like the word kami that at the same time means hair and god, and the only way (in speech) to distinguish the meaning between the two is the context they're presented in).

Iwagumi is a design principle seen extensively in japanese gardens (which, it really does makes sense that it found its way into planted aquaria), and is probably most readily apparent in karesansui ("zen" rock gardens). The use of Iwagumi in karesansui is probably most likely where the 'classic' iwagumi principles in aquaria resound from (meaning the use of rocks and only one carpet and a single foreground plant), Karesansui incorporates sand instead of water (a very very important concept in japanese garden), using sand to give the impression of water, and has large stones arranged in a specific manner to give certain impressions on the viewer. Contrary to popular belief, sometimes Karesansui's are planted. Albeit typically only with low growing mosses on the rocks themselves (see any parallels here?).

This leads us into the concept of the sanzon iwagumi - sanzon being written like 三尊 where the first character is "three" and the second means revered, valuable, precious, noble, exalted, etc etc, and is often used in compound words that have something to do with the buddha, etc. The idea here is that one main stone is flanked by subordinate stones that 'bow' (literally or figuratively, in the figurative sense they are smaller stones that emphasize the existence of the main stone by 'leading' the eye to the main stone) down to the greatness of the main stone that can come to represent the buddha, god, etc. A sanzon iwagumi can either stand alone in a layout as just 3 stones setup in accordance with this principle, or exist as part of a larger layout (i.e. groups of 3).

Don't think we're done talking about the stones - because we're not through yet! Intrinsic to stone layouts, is also the concept of suiseki 水石 (which uses the kanji's for water and stone). What this is, is basically an art form of appreciation for stones. Stones are positioned accordingly to give certain impressions or create likenesses of something else in the eye of the beholder (an animal, a mountain, a person, etc). The object here is to create a connection with the viewer with the physical object in some manner by reminding them of something / giving a certain impression. What really sends off lightbulbs here is one particular quality - the way in which stones are aesthetically judged here. Deeper colors are more valuable (you know, those deep blacks and grays seen in Seiryu?), deep blacks, reds, greens, etc are all prized. The art here is supposed to be very subtle, impressions are given by very small details of the rocks, its characteristics, things like whether or not a small plant is growing out of a crevice, etc. Signifiers of age are also important (like, quartz veins in the rock). So looking at an entire setup you would end up at the macro level the Iwagumi principles of positioning and creating a layout out of multiple rocks, and then at a micro level the judging of the individual rocks in accordance to suiseki principles. It is not hard to see the multitudes of overlap that occurs in both of these concepts.

Moving on.

An important principle about the individual rock layouts is simply the way the rock is put down. There are supposed to be 10 different views of a single rock that can be obtained by simply turning the rock over on it's side, angling it vertically, etc. Instead of inundating this post with lots of pictures illustrating this idea, i'll simply provide you a link. Why is this important? Well it works into how to properly utilize your stones to give the impression you want. I commonly hear from people making Iwagumi's that their rocks "suck," which while it can't be said that all stones are equal in appearance, you can improve their appearance by simply tinkering with the rocks position and placement.

A lot of people ask whether or not you have to use a stone like Seiryu or Shou, or Manten to create an Iwagumi layout - this is false. These are only popular stones to be used, in part because of their aesthetic appeal to the japanese. Any kind of stone can be used to create an Iwagumi - you just need to make sure the rocks are the same type or look similar enough in texture, appearance and coloration to appear as to be the same kind. You can easily make an Iwagumi using river rock, pebbles, metamorphic rock, Seiryu, lava rock, etc. In fact, you could apply Iwagumi design principles and layouts to not only freshwater aquaria, but also saltwater and terrarium / vivariums!

The type of stone you pick however, is very important. The type of stone you choose will decide the entire manner of the layout, as well as what plants work better with them and accentuate the stone. Remember the key point here is to accentuate, and emphasis the effect of the stones. This makes stone type, layout and plant selection incredibly important. For example - the texture of hairgrass and hc works extremely well with Shou stone (shou stone is a very vertical and fine type of stone, and the character traits of hairgrass are nearly identical to this, plus the shades of green that hairgrass takes on meshes very well with the texture and coloration of shou stone), however the shape of glosso doesn't really emphasize the stone the same way as it does, say, Seiryu. So not only are we talking about the texture, color, shape and size of the rock, but also the same traits in the plants we choose to plant around the stones!

Sheesh, that was a lot of writing, and I'm probably as tired of writing right now as you are of reading, so I feel this is a good breaking point. I will continue this train of thought later and delve into the actual laying out of the stones, the planting, and all those fun little details.

Last edited by Francis Xavier; 12-12-2009 at 06:20 AM..
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Old 05-11-2009, 06:43 PM   #2
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Good read. I look forward to the next installment as this type of layout is my favorite too. Great insight and research.
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Old 05-11-2009, 08:39 PM   #3
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Good information, but it will get to the desired audience better if it is moved to the aquascaping forum.
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Old 05-11-2009, 11:55 PM   #4
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I wouldn't be opposed to it being moved to the aquascaping forum.
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Old 05-12-2009, 06:48 PM   #5
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Great post. I have noticed that most people get very caught up in the type of rock and the plants, only to have a kind of haphazard layout. I can't be critical because I have never done it but it is sad to see people going with full ADA setups, for example, and skipping on the actual design.
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Old 05-12-2009, 11:25 PM   #6
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Quote:
Originally Posted by talontsiawd View Post
Great post. I have noticed that most people get very caught up in the type of rock and the plants, only to have a kind of haphazard layout. I can't be critical because I have never done it but it is sad to see people going with full ADA setups, for example, and skipping on the actual design.

But ADA is a product line as is Do Aqua, Rena, Marineland, Perfecto, etc... ADA isn't a design just a product. Just as Amano is a person. He scapes many different styles not just Iwagumi. He also does some nice Nature scapes also.

The type of rock isn't important but certain rocks give a certain feel as Francis points out in this post.

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Old 05-12-2009, 11:39 PM   #7
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Originally Posted by Craigthor View Post
But ADA is a product line as is Do Aqua, Rena, Marineland, Perfecto, etc... ADA isn't a design just a product. Just as Amano is a person. He scapes many different styles not just Iwagumi. He also does some nice Nature scapes also.

The type of rock isn't important but certain rocks give a certain feel as Francis points out in this post.

Craig
Oh, I know. I see alot of ADA products, Do Aqua, and nice Iwagumi tanks at AF in SF probably monthly. I just am saying that this post is great after seeing tanks that more often than not tend to have alot of money invested but just not quite right. I'm not saying ADA or Amano, etc = Iwagumi.
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Old 05-27-2009, 02:15 AM   #8
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While in the midst of being away on a trip the whim to write the parts that I left unfinished struck me. Maybe it's because today is a particularly boring day by comparison (no delving into the rain forest or climbing mountains and nearly losing a shoe off a waterfall today). I left off last time at the beginning of describing layout mechanics, so undoubtedly there will probably be some overlap. Where to begin here is not an easy task, there's so much to go into, to evaluate and explain, and most assuredly something will end up getting left out. Maybe I can start off with a myth-bust. Sure, that sounds cool.

Often times it seems as if a rock layout is no longer deemed an Iwagumi due to the presence of stems, anubias or generally taller growing plants. An Iwagumi being thought of something as just a single carpet plant and a single background plant is fairly typical. Most likely this is because the first iwagumi's were like this and people kind of took off and ran with the idea. However, I think the main idea of the iwagumi is lost to technical terms in this classic iwagumi style.

Like the so many gateways I've passed through on this quest of knowledge aforementioned in the first post, this most recent one has resulted in my opinion that the classic iwagumi is a work left unfinished. It seems like an experiment made to see if there was any merit what-so-ever to the application of the idea to aquascaping. As time passes I believe there will be more and more deviations from the classic Iwagumi. This can be good and bad. Good if the neo iwagumi design maintains the core concepts of the classic - subtlety creating beauty. Bad if it these concepts are lost. In any case, I believe the classic iwagumi was set up in that fashion to experiment and express the basic ideas. Lets keep things simple. A single carpet, a single background, if any, this way it is much easier to accentuate the existence of the stones without overshadowing them. It is very easy to make a stone look bigger with only a carpet of HC, but the effect would be lost / contrasted should an improper plant of epicly huge proportion was right next to the rock diminishing it.

Now that I think about it, perhaps the best way to go about this would be to explain in detail the classic Iwagumi and why it's important to understand these cornerstone concepts.

A Classic Iwagumi

Classic Iwagumi's suffer from the problem that at the end of the day, after spouting about how pretty simplicity and subtlety is, they can be extremely boring. Why? because your main rock is so vitally crucial to the appeal that messing it up is not unlike if da Vinci had painted the mona lisa without a face (although, like a bad Iwagumi, people would have still probably gathered some mystical appeal behind the Mona Lisa).

Including your main stone - an odd number must be used. Why? because, even numbers are 'unnatural' they appear to be constructs of man in the same sense as perfectly straight and perpendicular lines are. However, this rule kind of breaks down depending on the sheer number of stones that are being used and how they're covered with soil. It's easier to get away with using 10 stones than it is 2 stones or 4 stones (actually you should never see 4 stones in a classic iwagumi as 4 is unlucky since the pronunciation of "shi" is the same as "shinu" meaning death (and to nip any ne'er do wells in the bud from debating my point on the pronunciation of 4 in japanese, yes I am fully aware that "yon" is also used, however this is typically in cases of 4 after the first 10 digits (14, 24, etc) where the 'shi' pronunciation is never used past just being 4 to my knowledge, another number that shares this trait is 7.), since undoubtedly by the time you reach the 10th, 12th, whatever stone they should be fairly small in size and by that point serve as support stones in between support stones (more on that later).

The Main Stone

Assuredly, the main stone needs to be larger than the other stones. Why? because this is the area where your main focal point will fall, and it carries with it the whole feeling of the tank. Is the formation supposed to look like a rocky shore? a mountain chain? a valley? etc etc.

Personally, as of right now I'm a fan of big and imposing main stones, for a couple of reasons: a) they create dramatic impressions b) they're easy to plant with (they can be made to look even -bigger- with the same small plants used to make small stones look big, and also are harder to obscure with taller/bigger plants) c) depending on how you work the soil and place the rock they can easily make a variety of scapes d) stones that are too small leave too much open space that contribute to the "boring" feeling of the tank (open space is important but too much, as is commonly the fault with undersized rocks make the tank appear much more empty than it actually is).

I've talked a lot about impressions but this may be hard to understand without some kind of visual aid, so I'll use a couple examples of my layouts to illustrate my point as well as flaws (I'm not even going to claim that any of these are perfect or near-so).

First, single stone Iwagumis. These rely -entirely- on the main stone to make the whole impression of the tank, which makes the main stone's positioning and layout that much more important. Without any support stones it has to be like spider-man or neo; a single guy that can take out or equal the combined forces of their enemies. Funny enough if you pick out a main stone that is good enough to be the hardscape by itself - you've also picked probably the best candidate to work with as a normal main stone in an Iwagumi.



This is an initial setup picture of my latest idea - ignoring the other aspects behind it for the time being, you can see here how the only stone intended to be seen (there are other rocks to hold down the riccia that will eventually be overgrown) makes out the entire layout of the tanks scape. It's a very large stone (it takes up nearly 1/4-1/3 of the tank) and sits at about the 1/3 line. This is actually probably a very extreme example - as there is no soil or anything else. All there is is the plants and the main rock, where the plants here are intended to grow out in mounds. This stone's positioning is also not at any angles - that is to say it is laying at ease. This gives the stone an impression as if it's been there forever and will continue to be there, it is very stable. Normally this could become boring but because of the myriad of little enclaves and kinks that contribute to the stones characterisitics, makes it very able to support plant growth in and around it (i.e. the anubias in the cracks), which all add up to making the stone powerful enough to compensate for the lack of support stones.



This was an older scape that was part of a rough draft that never came to fruition, however you can see here some flaws. The main rock definately has character- but most of it ends up being lost or will be lost by plant growth around the main stone. However, this could work out for a very 'old' or aged setup in which mosses were growing everywhere, that kind of ancient mountain side that has slowly broken and fallen apart over the years. In general though, the stone here just really wasn't big enough at that angle or placement to make a powerful enough impression for what I wanted out of that tank.

I'll leave off here for now, as I have found something that has distracted me enough as to force me to continue later!
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Old 05-27-2009, 04:00 AM   #9
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A good read with lots of information.

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Originally Posted by Francis Xavier View Post
If you ever learn the japanese language, it is choked with contradictory sentiments and words (when viewed from an english native point of view at least) that can add all sorts of fancifully fun confusion (like the word kami that at the same time means hair and god, and the only way (in speech) to distinguish the meaning between the two is the context they're presented in).
Don't forget that kami can also mean: paper, up, and protect Also, kami = hair and kami = God can be differentiated based on tone (but kami = hair and kami = paper have the same intonation...)
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Old 06-27-2009, 12:45 AM   #10
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Francis back to work I need you to finish this.

PS could you send me some pics of that single stone you are using as an example? Also where did you find that nice thing. I'm on a new adventure but looking for the right rock to work with.

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Old 06-27-2009, 12:51 AM   #11
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How is that bare bottom tank coming?
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Old 06-27-2009, 01:38 AM   #12
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Hah, I had almost come under the notion that this thread was lost to the annals of the forum database. I'm in the midst of re-evaluating everything I "know" (more accurately, what I -think- I know) about design in the midst of preparing for my move across country. But I can give a continuation. This whole thread will probably turn into more of a laissez faire type of informative.

clwatkins, well the bare-bottom is -growing- at least. Riccia does superbly for me when I completely neglect it, and does poorly when I give it everything it needs to survive. Riccia that i had in a plastic bag in complete darkness for 2-3 months was in better shape than the riccia in my Mini L which gets ample light, nutrients, and co2.

craig, I've been collecting Seiryu from random sources for the past 10 months or so. That stone was one of the stones AFA shipped me. Most of the other stones came from either the UK, private sellers or landscaping companies, still others I picked up while I was in Japan (all of which required a decent amount of research to at least get an ID similar enough to convince myself it was the same type of stone). I'm always on the look out for a good deal on hardscape materials (I think i'm shipping something like 135lbs of rock to Seattle), since well, they're usually a PITA to obtain, never seem to have what you need when you need it. I can pm you some more angles of that stone later on.
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Old 06-27-2009, 02:06 AM   #13
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To Continue in reference to Classic Iwagumi's:

So, single stone iwagumi's are kind of difficult to pull off, as I alluded to earlier. I'm not even sure if they would work well in larger tanks, they seem to almost be completely limited to small nano tanks. Mostly because the issue becomes that with -so- much focus on a single point, the layout tends to become a little boring (and relies heavily on plant selection and placement, but this is a trait shared by all Iwagumi's in my opinion). This doesn't mean that they don't look cool or aren't appealing, but, as of right now it is at least beyond my abilities to get a "wow" out of a single stone Iwagumi without some kind of other gimmick going on.

Classic 3 Stone Iwagumi, or Sanzon Iwagumi:

I find myself having some difficulty explaining this type, because I feel like I'm kicking a dead horse here with all the elements that go into an Iwagumi. Essentially here, you are having a main stone, with all of the pre-requisite main stone requirements, and two supporting stones. In essence this serves as a foundational explanation for all Iwagumi's that have more stones - the rules and the concepts all stay the same, except for a few outliers (such as the complex mountainscape Iwagumi's that've become increasingly popular in competitions in the past year or so).

In an ideal world, the main stone is your largest, the primary support stone is your second largest, and so on and so forth. Also, ideally the main stone is placed first and then the rest are laid out in accordance with where the main stone is in in the layout, what it's angle is, and what the overall impression is going to be. However, in practice placement of the main stone doesn't always happen first (usually due to how the scape is setup, where placement of the primary stone first becomes impossible) and in this instance it is important to have a mental picture of where and how you want the mainstone to be placed so you can lay down your support structures and work from there.

At the moment my muse escapes me, and I will probably want to redress this later, but for now, I feel a picture is worth a thousand words. Here is an example of how just a simple adjustment in the impression of the main stone can completely change the feeling of your layout.

Here is my layout of a 3 stone iwagumi in my mini S prior to having to take it down to the move:



Now here's a layout in the same tank, with the exact same stones. Albeit if I were to use this layout there would be more soil covering the rock under the main stone so that 'bridge' of stone would be invisible:



The second picture takes a little bit of imagination to imagine plants, etc there, but you get the idea.

Edit- as a preview for my plans on the next part, I'm going to digress from the design aspect and explore common flaws in different types of stones I see commonly used, and what plants mesh well with them (from my experience). This is as much a learning process for me as it is anyone!
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Old 06-28-2009, 08:38 PM   #14
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Common Rocks:

Zebra Stone

Zebra stone tends to be almost jet black, commonly with lots of what appear to be quartz deposits that tend to go across the rock in in lines. Sometimes, although more rarely ends of this rock are covered in almost a sandy white sediment/quartz build up, that appropriately placed would make the stone look like a snow capped mountain. The stone also, more often than not tends to be broken in slate-like thin pieces that are 'piercing' although more higher priced or higher valued versions of the stone are broken in such a manner that they don't appear this way.

A lot of common errors I see with Zebra stone is that it's constantly jutting out in random 'spikes' that are kind of like spearheads going in every which direction. Care has to be taken to avoid making the scape appear this way, so it's advisable to find (or take care to break) stones that are fatter and larger in general, as these 'slate' breaks tend to lack sufficient height, character and substance. Also, take care that too many quartz veins in the stone can detract from the scape a bit, although properly utilized these traits can be a good thing.

Foreground plants that work well with Zebra stone, are typically darker green in color, light green's not so much. Although it can be used in 'grassy' setups, I believe zebra stone works better with a more manicured look. HC, Mini-microsword, and glosso work pretty good with these stones, as well as deep red plants in general.

Shou Stone:

I both love and hate shou stone (in all reality, it's one of my favorites to scape with). Shou stone has great coloration in my opinion it is a light gray, that often times gets tinted to a green hue in a unique way when algae sets in, and has darkish orange tints to it at random that are wonderful for focal points and accents. Shou stone is a very very vertical stone, in fact, that's where it's name was derived from. This stone is almost designed to go -straight- up, although I personally would avoid doing that in most circumstances. This stone is very much like slate in that it pretty much always breaks and chips away in lines. Most of the time the stone is very flat and this presents an interesting design challenge, but can be gotten around with a skillful utilization of soil and placement. Unlike Zebra rock though, Shou stone tends to show more character to it's surface, most probably due to the nature of how it breaks, and the orange accenting colors. Thin and vertical is the name of the game here.

Although aquascapes using Shou stone are kind of rare, speaking from experience a lot of the issues that revolve around using Shou as your hardscape are around, again, the fact that it's vertical and flat. It takes extra care to avoid your hardscape looking atrocious. It's very easy to eliminate the illusion of depth in this manner. The prescription here is heavy and skillful soil work and taking extra care to angle and support the stones to eliminate this feeling, although without care to slowly fill the tank and create higher than necessary soil levels, the slopes will settle and you'll have a lot of flat to work with!

Shou stone, due to it's light gray-green coloration and orange accent, plus vertical lines and fine, thin, appearance, works WONDERFUL with hair grasses. In fact as of right now I'm convinced that shou stone is the stone to use for hair grass setups. The textures and characteristics, and coloration of hair grass just mesh perfectly with shou stone. Alternatively, UG would work really well (just about as good as hair grass - imagine shou stone + aggressive sloping with UG sloping down the hill!), as well as probably mini-microsword, although the thicker the plant the more you kind of veer away from keeping in tandem with the rocks traits. For some reason I don't see reds working very well with this rock, but i'm sure someone will prove me (or has proven) me wrong, this is mostly due to the orange hints in the stone, I feel like adding powerful reds to the setup would detract from the stones natural color appeal. Although bronzing blyxa would probably look spectacular appropriately utilized here.

Seiryu & Ryuo Stone:

These stones are similar enough in appearance that it warrants just lumping them together. However, Seiryu appears (and I may be wrong) to usually have more quartz in it, though as opposed to zebra stone usually the quartz veins are in random clumps of deposits as opposed to going the whole length of the rock. These stones are dark gray in coloration (sometimes Seiryu will give off a hue of very dark blue under water but be gray out of water, I have a couple stones that have this trait that are Seiryu, i've also had a couple that were nearly white in appearance), but they -do- tend to vary when placed underwater (you can usually get hints of this while they're dry) in coloration, so it's important that you not only select your stones, but also select the stones that are similar in appearance while wet, because of this range of hue in the dark grays, otherwise you may end up with a rockscape that looks like it has multiple types of rock in it, while it really only has one type. Seiryu tends to be more squat-like in appearance compared to say, Shou. It's usually got a lot more bulk to it, and a lot of character. Seiryu is notorious for having crevices and being spackled with small imperfections that add tons of character to the stone.

However, sometimes Seiryu stone can have too much character to it. A lot of common flaws (and i'm just as guilty as anyone else), seem to revolve around having quite a few stones that have a lot of character to them, but are haphazardly placed because the aquascaper doesn't know what to do with the stones to both maximize the stones traits and the flow of the layout. So, with Seiryu, don't be afraid to have the support stones lose a little character to perform the function they need to perform - that is in accenting the main rock and bringing flow to the tank.

Seiryu, tends to be a fat stone, with varying grays in color and lots of character. So it seems to me that thin, whispy plants like hair-grass just simply get overpowered by the impact of Seiryu. Plants like HC and glosso though, work really well with Seiryu. When these plants hug the ground and grow in tight they make the stone look bigger, and don't cover up key traits in the stone like hair grass or taller plants like that might. Seiryu also works really well with mixed carpets, if not being one of the best to use with a mixed carpet. It also works well with thicker, vertical background plants like vivipara, so long as they aren't blocking the stone or over-powering the layout. UG can also work well if there are good slops in the aquascape. Mini microsword and e-tennellus have a tendancy to work pretty good with Seiryu too, acting as a de facto grassy segment to the area, as well as any darker green plants (i've seen a few pretty cool scapes that had Ryuo stone and basically divided up a marimo ball clump as the plants). Depending on the shade of gray your ryuo stone has, will influence what shades of red will work better from light to dark gray I'd say light to dark reds. Using a dark red with a light gray would probably overpower the light gray.

That's it for now. Also Bear-in-mind that this isn't by any means an end all be all list of what plants you can or can't use with X type of rock. This is just my observation on what plants have worked well with these types of rock from my experience as well as others. This is more of an attempt to sit down and think "what really works best with the character traits of this stone, what -really- brings the rock out?" And of course, that may just be my personal tastes, yours may be completely different.
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Old 06-29-2009, 03:52 AM   #15
Ugly Genius
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Great thread!
I'm just saying something here so as to have it show up in my subscriptions and to say what I said in my first sentence.
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