Aquascape by Piotr Suty

Aquascaping is the craft of arranging aquatic plants, as well as rocks, stones, cavework, or driftwood, in an aesthetically pleasing manner within an aquarium—in effect, gardening under water. Aquascape designs include a number of distinct styles, including the garden-like Dutch style and the Japanese-inspired nature style. Although the primary aim of aquascaping is to create an artful underwater landscape, the technical aspects of aquarium maintenance must also be taken into consideration.

Many factors must be balanced in the closed system to ensure the success of an aquascape, including filtration, maintaining carbon dioxide at levels sufficient to support photosynthesis underwater, substrate and fertilization, lighting, and algae control. Aquascape hobbyists trade plants, conduct contests, and share photographs and information via the internet.

The Dutch style aquarium employs a lush arrangement in which multiple types of plants having diverse leaf colors, sizes, and textures are displayed much as terrestrial plants are shown in a flower garden. This style was developed in the Netherlands starting in the 1930s, as freshwater aquarium equipment became commercially available. It emphasizes plants located on terraces of different heights, and frequently omits rocks and driftwood. Linear rows of plants running left-to-right are referred to as ‘Dutch streets.’ More than 80% of the aquarium floor is covered with plants, and little or no substrate is left visible. Tall growing plants that cover the back glass originally served the purpose of hiding bulky equipment behind the tank.

A contrasting approach is the ‘nature aquarium’ or Japanese style, introduced in the 1990s by Takashi Amano. Amano’s three-volume series, ‘Nature Aquarium World,’ sparked a wave of interest in aquarium gardening, and he has been cited as having ‘set a new standard in aquarium management.’ Amano’s compositions draw on Japanese gardening techniques that attempt to mimic natural landscapes by the asymmetrical arrangement of masses of relatively few species of plants, and carefully selected stones or driftwood. The objective is to evoke a landscape in miniature, rather than a colorful garden. This style draws particularly from the Japanese aesthetic concepts of Wabi-sabi, which focuses on transience and minimalism as sources of beauty, and Iwagumi, which sets rules governing rock placement.

In the Iwagumi system, the Oyaishi, or main stone, is placed slightly off-center in the tank, and Soeishi, or accompanying stones, are grouped near it, while Fukuseki, or secondary stones, are arranged in subordinate positions. The location of the focal point of the display, determined largely by the asymmetric placement of the Oyaishi, is considered important, and follows ratios that reflect Pythagorean tuning. Plants with small leaves, small aquatic ferns, and Java moss are usually emphasized, with more limited colors than in the Dutch style, and the hardscape is not completely covered. Fish or freshwater shrimp are usually selected to complement the plants and control algae.

Some hobbyists also refer to a ‘jungle’ style, separate from either the Dutch or nature styles, and incorporating some of the features of them both. Bold, coarser leaf shapes are used to provide a wild, untamed appearance.

Dutch, Nature, and Jungle style aquascapes combine plant and animal species based on the desired visual impact, without regard to geographic origin. Biotope aquascapes are designed instead to replicate exactly a particular aquatic habitat at a particular geographic location, and not necessarily to provide a garden-like display. Plants and fish need not be present at all, but if they are, they must match what would be found in nature in the habitat being represented, as must any gravel and hardscape, and even the chemical composition of the water.

In a paludarium, part of the aquarium is underwater, and part is above water. Substrate is built up so that some ‘land’ regions are raised above the waterline, and the tank is filled with water only part way. This allows plants, such as bromeliads, to grow emersed, with their roots underwater but their tops in the air, as well as completely submersed. In some configurations, plants that float on the surface of the water can be displayed to full advantage. Unlike other aquarium setups, paludariums are particularly well-suited to keeping amphibians.

Dutch and nature style aquascapes are traditionally freshwater systems. In contrast, relatively few ornamental plants can be grown in a saltwater aquarium. Saltwater aquascaping typically centers, instead, on mimicking a reef. An arrangement of live rock forms the main structure of this aquascape, and it is populated by corals and other marine invertebrates as well as coralline algae, which together serve much the same aesthetic role as freshwater plants. Lighting plays a particularly significant role in the reef aquascape. Many corals, and some clams, contain symbiotic fluorescent algae-like protozoa called zooxanthellae. By providing intense lighting supplemented in the ultraviolet wavelengths, reef aquarists not only support the health of these invertebrates, but also elicit particularly bright colors emitted by the fluorescent microorganisms.

In addition to design, freshwater aquascaping also requires specific methods to maintain healthy plants underwater. Plants are often trimmed to obtain the desired shape, and they can be positioned by tying them in place inconspicuously with thread. Most serious aquascapers use aquarium-safe fertilizers, commonly in liquid or tablet form, to help the plants fill out more rapidly.

It is also necessary to support photosynthesis, by providing light and carbon dioxide. A variety of lighting systems may be used to produce the full spectrum of light, usually at 2–4 watts per gallon. Lights are usually controlled by a timer that allows the plants to be acclimated to a set cycle. Depending on the number of plants and fish, the aquascape may also require carbon dioxide supplementation. This can be accomplished with a simple homemade system, using a soda bottle filled with yeast, warm water, and sugar, and connected to an airstone in the aquarium, or with a pressurized CO2 tank that injects a set amount of carbon dioxide into the aquarium water.

Algae (including cyanobacteria, as well as true algae) is considered distracting and unwanted in aquascaping, and is controlled in several ways. One is the use of animals that consume algae, such as some fish, shrimp, or snails, to clean the algae that collects on the leaves. A second is using adequate light and CO2 to promote rapid growth of desired plants, while controlling nutrient levels, to ensure that the plants utilize all fertilizer without leaving nutrients to support algae.

Although serious aquascapers often use a considerable amount of equipment to provide lighting, filtration, and CO2 supplementation to the tank, some hobbyists choose instead to maintain plants with a minimum of technology, and some have reported success in producing lush plant growth this way. This approach, sometimes called the ‘natural planted tank’ and popularized by Diana Walstad, can include the use of soil in place of aquarium gravel, the elimination of CO2 apparatus and most filtration, and limited lighting. Instead, only a few fish are kept, to limit the quantity of fish waste, and the plants themselves are used to perform the water-cleansing role typically played by aquarium filters, by utilizing what fish waste there is as fertilizer.

Early Dutch hobbyists began the practice of aquascape contests, with over 100 local clubs. Judges had to go through about three years of training and pass examinations in multiple disciplines in order to qualify. This competition continues to be held every year, under the auspices of the National Aquarium Society. In the contest, the focus is not only on composition, but also on the biological well-being of the aquarium’s inhabitants. Most points are, in fact, awarded for such biological criteria as fish health, plant health, and water quality. Unlike contests in other countries, the judges travel to each contestant’s home to evaluate the tank, where they measure the water parameters themselves.

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