Add extra planting/living areas to your tank - go vertical..!
Why settle for just one planted area in your aquarium when you could have more than one? Think of every well-planted aquarium you've ever seen it's just one horizontal zone above another, isn't it? At the bottom we have a thick layer of substrate, liberally set with big tall plants at the back, medium growth ones in the middle, grading down to short grasses and mosses at the front... Do it right and it can look great! But if you like an occasional rock, pieces of bogwood, or need a cave or two, that base level can become a bit clogged-up with 'stuff'. Above this we have the basically empty free-swimming zone, and then the surface, where top dwellers and floating plants hang out.
Isn't that blank wall of glass at the rear of your aquarium wasted space? OK, it looks all right with a pretty backing picture fixed to the outside, and you can grow taller background plants in front of it, but it is still pretty much a dead zone for most aquatic life other than snails. As are the two sides, if you can't or don't want to look through them.
Why leave all those vertical aspects out of the equation? You don't have to. Go vertical and open up your tank to make it more like a real environment found in the wild.
Most fish species and nearly all the shrimps we keep in tanks would appreciate and benefit from an extra dimension to their world... In nature, the majority of water life clusters around the fringes of their domain, where liquid shallows to meet dry land. This is where nutrients arrive, and temperatures and light levels go up. In contrast, open water and the deeper bottom regions are much less well populated.
And then there are plants to consider. Life is tougher for them. Animal life can go up and down at will, but plants are stuck where we put them. Sometimes a deep base substrate is not ideal. Some of those that do not flourish at the bottom of your (albeit shallow) tank may well thrive in the brighter light found nearer the surface, or even slightly above it. Going vertical gives a variety of depths where the ideal spot for different plants can be established.
There are no blank glass walls in nature. Any creature willing to swim or crawl far enough will find an interesting, living, growing, food-filled barrier to mark the end of open water. We can provide them with this if we decorate the back and even sides of our aquariums, as well as that O-so-busy substrate level.
How can we do this? There is no planting medium on the bare vertical glass of a fish tank but there can be.
The answer is glue by which I mean a 'safe' aquarium sealant. It does not just hold the five basic sheets of glass together to make a tank, it can also be used to 'glue' other materials to the inner back and side walls. These in turn become the extra homes for plants and animals. Many of the plants we favour grow better with their roots attached to rocks or bogwood. These anchorage points don't have to occupy valuable space on an already over-crowded base substrate.
What materials can be used? What do you want..? Something safe, obviously, and 'natural' would be nice [not a big fan of plastics..!] If you can produce a flat surface or even just a flat rim to match the smooth glass, aquarium sealant will hold it in place just about forever.
My two favourites are cork bark and tufa rock, for the following reasons...
1. They are both light in weight, and so do not add substantially to the overall weight of the aquarium as slate or other rock would.
2. They are cheap to buy. Sold by weight, you will get a huge chunk of cork or a large tufa rock for the same price as a much smaller piece of slate.
3. They do not rot.
4. Their rough surface is natural looking, and perfect for tiny roots to gain a foothold.
5. Being concave on the inner side, cork bark forms a natural tube, providing nice little hidey-holes for shrimps and other creatures that enjoy a measure of privacy.
6. Both cork and tufa are soft enough to cut with an ordinary saw, or rub a flat on with sandpaper.
7. You can gouge out large or small hollows in the back with a penknife. With a hole in the front, you make a cave with a hole in the top, you get a planting pocket. Lots of room for experimentation here...
8. A piece of cork bark half-in and half-out of the water makes an ideal place to grow star moss, or one of those other exotic mosses that have died on you in the past. At or just above the water line they just might thrive, when they were not at all happy fully submerged.
You can also try bogwood, Mangrove root, slate shelves, live rock for a marine set up, or even old terracotta flowerpots and drilled half coconut shells if you need larger breeding caves. These materials are much harder to cut and almost impossible to shape, so are best used 'as is' once you have cut a flat surface for attachment to the glass... Some of them can look a bit raw or artificial to begin with, but add a few strands of Java moss and a month or two down the line they will all start to blend in.
Remember two things: bogwood and tufa rock can affect water parameters, so bear this in mind when choosing the livestock for your own particular set up. Do the research first as with all things.
AND don't go crazy with the glue-gun too early you may need to leave gaps for internal filters, heaters and other essential equipment. (Sounds too obvious to even mention, but it was my one first big mistake!) After that, it's all down to your own wild imagination...