A Beginner’s Guide to Aquascaping

Aquascaping ticks all the boxes for me: it involves plants, water, creativity, and creating a world of my own. I absolutely love the freedom I have with quite literally making my own world within a glass box. With aquascaping, there is no limit to the wonderful things you can do.

However, getting into aquascaping can be very intimidating for beginners; as with any art-form, there are lots of complex tools and terms to learn. Don’t be alarmed, though, the craft is quite learnable; and there will always be something new to learn, so don’t worry about understanding it all at once. This post will walk you through the basic steps of creating your own beautiful aquascape.

1. Plan the Look of the Tank

Out of all the things you could do for your aquascape, planning it out beforehand is probably the most important and will save you a lot of time.

If you are adept at any other artform such as drawing or painting, consider planning it out in detail through that medium, otherwise, a rough sketch will suffice, like the example sketch I made.

Don’t worry too much about the sketch being super detailed or a high-quality drawing, at this step we mostly want to be worrying about taking the general idea in our head and giving it some form so we can plan accordingly for what we will need.

As you are planning out the look and feel of your tank, there are a couple of general rules to keep in mind:

Do NOT make your aquascape symmetrical.

A symmetrical aquascape is an unnatural aquascape, and our eyes and brain do not like that. Asymmetry is an attribute of nature, and when aquascaping, the goal is to emulate a natural look while giving it a personal touch.

Try to have the back of the aquascape be higher than the front.

By raising the back higher than the front, even by a few inches, it will add a huge layer of depth to your tank and will make it feel more alive.

Another important aspect to planning, beyond just planning the look of your aquascape, is getting an idea for your budget; the bigger the budget, the bigger the tank within which you can work, and the better quality substrate and materials you can get.

2. Get Soil, Sand, Plants, & Hardscape Material

Depending on what you planned for your aquascape, you will need a number of things:

  • Aquasoil
  • Sand
  • Plants
  • Hardscape Materials
  • Other small stones for variety

The hardscape is the solid, unmoving section of your aquascape like big rocks or pieces of wood. The hardscape is incredibly important in your aquascape because it is what will give it life, depth, and shape.

Aquasoil is also incredibly important for your aquascape. There should be soil anywhere you want plants to be. If you planted the plants in just sand or gravel, they may survive, but they will not thrive and grow like it will when planted in soil.

We highly recommend the ADA Amazonia Ver 2 soilOpens in a new tab., as it is not dusty, has the nutrients your plants need, and also comes with some fertilizing root taps.

There are many different varieties of sand you can use, but which ones you use depends on the look you want for your aquascape. Make sure the color of your sand pairs well with the colors of the hardscape.

When choosing plants, we recommend the use of Tropica’s 1-2-Grow! plants. The plants come packaged in a little pot and come with a ton of starters. Just make sure to wash off the nutrition gel before planting, otherwise, the gel can suffocate your plants later on.

Choose plants labeled “Easy” to not have to worry about injecting CO2 into the aquarium and other more advanced maintenance techniques.

3. Prepare the Hardscape

As previously stated, the hardscape is effectively the backbone of the entire aquascape. The hardscape is what gives your aquascape shape and depth.

Hardscapes are traditionally made out of stones or wood. With hardscapes, you can truly sculpt the world you wish to make in your aquarium.

Depending on how you want your hardscape to look, you may need to glue the wood or stones together. For rock and stone, reef epoxy works wonders. Wood can be glued together with superglue or another similar adhesive.

The following video by YouTube channel GreenAqua shows how he prepares his ironwood hardscape by glueing pieces of wood together to make his wooden hardscape.

4. Pour An Initial Layer of Soil

Now that the hardscape is ready to be placed in the tank, put in a small initial layer of soil in the tank.

This initial layer of soil will help the hardscape to remain stable. As you pour more soil later, you will be able to pull the hardscape up if you need it to be higher up.

If you are going to have an area with sand in the foreground, make sure to push the soil back from the area you are going to have sand in. It could be a good idea to use small stones to form a barricade between the sand and the soil.

5. Place the Hardscape

Now that you have your initial layer of soil where you want your hardscape to be, go ahead and put in the hardscape. Make sure it is stable and add a bit more soil around it as needed for the desired look you set out to create.

Remember to not make the aquascape look symmetrical. Symmetrical hardscape is a bad hardscape. Actively try to make the aquascape look asymmetrical.

If the hardscape you are using is made of wood or another buoyant material, it is best to anchor it with rocks or even glue it down. Not anchoring wood hardscape can lead to it floating when the tank is filled, causing plants to be ripped up and the whole aquascape to be ruined.

6. Add Height with Soil

A wonderful way to add some additional height to the aquascape is to pour some additional soil where you want the extra height. The soil also allows you to have some terraces and have plants at different heights to throw some variance into the mix.

GreenAqua has a ton of wonderful aquascaping videos for both beginners and advanced aquascapers alike. In the following video, you can see a great example of them both adding height with soil to give dimension to the aquascape, and using sand where there aren’t plants to add depth to the aquascape.

7. Use Sand or Gravel Where There Will Be No Plants

And conversely, use soil wherever there will be plants.

Sand and gravel look excellent in aquascapes, but they aren’t very good at nourishing plants. Luckily, if there aren’t any plants to worry about, you can use sand and gravel to make some amazing aesthetic touches to your aquascape.

Sand looks excellent in the foreground. A popular and very effective idea is to make a pathway up the back of your aquascape and in between sections of your hardscape. This gives the aquascape an illusion of depth, and looks very good.

8. Wet the Soil Before Planting

Wetting the soil before planting may not seem like an important step, but it makes planting so much easier. The plants go into the soil much better if the soil has been wetted a little.

All it takes to properly pre-wet the soil is a little water. We aren’t giving the soil a bath, just spraying some water on to help the plants take well to the soil.

9. Plant the Plants Deeply in the Soil

When plants are not planted deeply, and I mean deeply, in the soil, they will be pulled up and float to the surface when the tank is filled.

Obviously, this is something that we don’t want to have happen. It can take a long time to plant the plants and get them how you want them to look.

Preventing the plants from floating away is deceptively easy: simply plant them very deep in the soil, to begin with. Plant the plants deep enough so you can just see the leaves, but not so deep that the soil covers the plants.

10.  Add Small Stones for Shape Flow

Now that you have the hardscape in, the plants planted, and the sand where you want it, it is time for the final touches.

Adding in little details will make the whole aquascape seem so much more alive and visually appealing.


One trick that I learned recently is to place small stones in between the sand and larger rock hardscapes. The stones are bigger than the sand but smaller than the hardscape, creating a visual gradient that is very pleasing to the eye.

Aquascaping is such a wonderful and relaxing hobby. There is a beautiful sense of purpose and meaning you can’t get anywhere else. Hopefully, this article helped you to jumpstart your own aquascaping hobby.

For those that want more information on more advanced aquascaping topics, I highly suggest watching more of the videos on GreenAqua’s YouTube channel. Additionally, the Aquascape subreddit Opens in a new tab.has some wonderful resources and is a great place to show off your aquascape designs and get feedback from expert aquascapers.

If you like the article above, here are some other similar articles you should check out!

Aquascaping guide for beginnersOpens in a new tab.

Can Aquarium plants grow in Gravel?Opens in a new tab.

Whats the difference between emersed and submerged aquarium plants?Opens in a new tab.

Are Aquarium plant weights safe?Opens in a new tab.

Rick Kesler

I'm Rick and I've kept freshwater fish for over 5 years now. My main tank now is a 55-gallon tropical freshwater tank and my wife and I both just love watching all of our different fish while they swim around, some schooling and others not. I've also learned a lot about what to do and what not to do to keep our fish healthy and happy.

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