Basics of designing an aquarium for aquascaping

>> Sunday, July 12, 2009

When you are furnishing and planting an aquarium - a pursuit appropriately known as 'aquascaping' - your first considerations must centre around the position of the tank in the room and its size and accessibility.

Viewpoint and site

Most aquariums are viewed from the front and sides only, with the back against a wall. As a variation on this theme, the tank can be let into a wall or partition, with only the front panel exposed. Alternatively, used as a room divider, an aquarium may have the two long sides and one end on show. And to take things to their logical conclusion, an aquarium may well occupy a central position and be viewed from all round. Remember that all these possibilities demand a different approach when it comes to aquascaping and you should tailor the general advice given here to fit your chosen site and position.
When selecting an aquarium, do bear in mind that it will prove difficult to plant up tanks over 60cm (24in) deep by hand.

Essential planning
Before doing anything else, draw up a plan of how you see the finished aquarium in your mind's eye. It is rather like planning a garden, only on a smaller scale. You do not need to be an artist to prepare a simple sketch -ideally in plan and front views. Look up the size and shape of the plants you consider suitable (You will get to know from the following posts) and draw in the areas they will occupy in relation to the 'hard' furnishings in the aquarium.

To help you make a sensible choice, aquarium plants can be classified according to their form, size and growing characteristics into the following categories:

Floating plants: These, as their name suggests, float on or just below the water surface. Many contain spongy air-filled cells that provide the necessary buoyancy. Some have long roots that hang down in the water that serve as spawning sites for fishes and as refuges for the resulting fry. All floating plants afford shade to the other plants and fishes in the aquarium. Some of the floating plants are: Limnobium laevigatum, Pistia stratiotes. Riccia fluitansand Saivinia auriculata.

Bunch plants: So-called because they are best planted in 'bunches' of rootless top cuttings, these plants root in the substrate and grow towards the surface without any definite limit to their spread. They consist of long stems with the leaves arranged in opposition, alternately or in whorls, and they are ideal for planting as a background in the aquarium. Typical bunch plants featured include: Ammannia senegatensis, Bacopa carolmiana. Cabombacaroliniana, Cardamine lyrata, Egeria densa, Gymnocoronis spilanthoides, Heteranthera zosterifolia, Hottoniainflata, Hygrophila polysperma, Limnophila aquatica. Ludwigia mulledii. Myriophyllum hippuroides, Nomaphila stricta, Rotala macrandra, Synnema triflorum and Trichoronis rivularis.

Specimen plants: Normally large and imposing, these species are usually planted in the middleground of the aquarium to create a striking design feature. Most plants used as specimens produce leaves in a rosette formation. They include; Aponogeton crispus, A.madagascariensis. A.ulvaceus, Barclaya longitolia, Echinodorus corditolius, Echinodorus ma/orand Echinodorus paniculatus.

Deep marginal plants: These plants grow from bulbs, corms or tubers, and produce long stems bearing terminal leaves. Some leaves float on the surface; others are completely submerged. Use these plants in the middleground. background or in the back corners of the aquarium. The water lilies Nymphaea maculata and Nymphaeastellata. plus some of the Aponogetons, can be considered as deep marginal plants.

Middleground plants: Generally in the form of rosettes, these plants are similar to but smaller than specimen plants. Many Cryptocorynes fit into this category.

Foreground plants: These small plants for the front of the tank may be miniature rosette-forming species, such as Cryptocoryne nevilliian6 dwarf varieties of Cryptocoryne wendtii or plants with creeping rootstocks such as Lilaeopsis novae-zelandiaeand Marsilea crenata. Other foreground plants include: Anubias nana, Armoracia aquatica, Blyxajaponica, Eieocharis acicularis, Hydrocotyle vulgaris and Samolus parviflorus.

Furnishing the tank

Once you are satisfied with the design of your aquascape and have chosen the plants to be included, the next stage is to assemble all the furnishing materials you will need, such as gravel, rocks, bogwood plus any artificial equivalents. It is also advisable to have some suitable adhesive available, such as silicone aquarium sealant, in order to anchor items firmly in place or build up structures from smaller pieces.

First, clean the glass thoroughly both inside and out, taking particular care to remove finger marks, dust and stray fragments of silicone sealant remaining after manufacture. Next, blank out the non-viewing sides with custom-made backing panels or by applying several coats of a suitable emulsion paint to the outside of the tank.

Before adding the gravel, always wash it in running water. Place a quantity of gravel in a bowl and run in water from a hose until the batch is clean. Repeat the process with further batches until all the gravel has been washed. It is surprising how much gravel you need to provide a respectable looking layer. For the minimum ideal depth of 7.5cm (3in) at the back sloping to 5cm (2in) at the front, you will need 6.4 kilos (14lb) of gravel per 900 cm3 (1 ft) of floor area.

Before putting the gravel in the tank, you may wish to incorporate a suitable growing medium or, substrate. Also consider the installation of any filtration and/or heating systems . Once these arrangements are complete, add the washed gravel carefully to the tank, sloping it as desired.

Planted and left like this, the action of gravity and rooting fishes would soon reduce such a carefully constructed slope into a uniform plain. To prevent this happening, construct a series of terraces to hold the gravel in position. Fix suitable pieces of rockwork, bogwood or simulated furnishings end to end to create the terrace boundaries. You may need to glue small stones or pebbles into any gaps between odd-shaped pieces.

Once the terracing is complete, install custom-made synthetic pieces to hide filters and heaters, and then add other furnishings to complete the 'artistic' elements of your design. Fill the tank three-quarters full (to prevent spillage when planting) and check that all the electrical apparatus is working. This will include checking that the heater raises the water temperature to the correct level to prevent any thermal shock to tropical plants. The tank is now ready for planting. For safety's sake, always disconnect the electricity supply while you are planting the aquarium.

Planting the aquarium

Check new plants carefully for signs of damage, dying back and unwanted visitors, such as beetles and snails. Rinse the plants in clean water, trim back old brown roots to healthy white tissue using a sharp knife and remove any decaying or yellowing leaves.

Start planting the aquarium at the front, gently pushing rootstocks into the gravel with your fingers and firming the gravel around them, Wrap several rootless cuttings together to form natural looking clumps and insert them into the gravel, having first stripped the lower leaves from the stems. Place pebbles around the base to anchor the cuttings and prevent fishes disturbing them. Plant tubers at an angle of 45°, ensuring that the growing tip is just exposed above the gravel.


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