The Swell Guide to Aquarium hardscape (2023)

Getting aquarium hardscape right is an essential part of successful aquascaping.

Hardscape is the term aquascapers give to the different kinds of hard decoration they add to a planted aquarium.This could be pieces of rock, Azalea wood, driftwood or stones, used either on their own or in combination with each other in the layout. Aquascaping is any landscaping conducted with water and could be in an aquarium or a pond.

It’s most commonly associated with attractive aquarium plant layouts in aquariums, especially Nature Aquariums - tanks set up to replicate mini underwater landscapes with a distinctively Japanese influence.

But placing any pieces of decoration into an aquarium setup is technically aquascaping too, even if it’s just an ornament, a plastic plant and a treasure chest! An aquascape without plants and just wood or stones is referred to as “hardscape-only.”

Aquascaping can develop into an addiction and many “scapers” enjoy the photography side of aquascaping as much as the artistic and aquatic sides. There’s a big social media following in scaping, and competitions where you can win cash prizes.

The Swell Guide to Aquarium hardscape (1)

How do you hardscape an aquarium?

Add the substrate first, then place the hardscape on top. Start by placing hardscape so that part of it is prominent two thirds across the aquarium, and two thirds up. This area is known by artists as the Golden Ratio, or the rule of two thirds, and it naturally draws the eye.

Mark on the front glass exactly where that area is, using masking tape or washable pen and once you’ve placed the tip of a rock or the end of a piece of driftwood in the golden ratio, your hardscape is halfway there.

(Video) Complete Aquascaping Beginners Guide - Learn ALL The Basics!

Dry, freshly placed wood like driftwood may float when the aquarium is first filled with water. This can ruin a well-planned out aquascape so an experienced scaper may pre-soak wood for weeks beforehand to make sure it is water-logged, or attach rocks to the wood using fishing line to hold them in place until they take on water naturally, and sink.

Pre-soaking bog wood and driftwood will help to remove tannins too, which would otherwise stain the water brown. Tannins are good for forest biotope aquascapes and can create interesting blackwater habitats. Wood is abundant in many freshwaters.

But blackwater is not favoured in a classic Nature Aquarium, which uses perfectly clear water to accentuate the grey stone or rock character, and oxygen bubbles produced by the plants. Driftwood and roots are still heavily used, but carbon is used in the filter to keep the water crystal clear.

Effective aquascaping is about the purity of elements and materials used. Glass and metal are favoured over plastic, with natural rocks, wood, soil, sand and live plants. Add tiny freshwater shrimp to tend your underwater aquatic garden.

A well-chosen piece of driftwood with character, some rocks, roots and live plants bring all the beauty of nature into your living room and help to create a relaxing, green space in your home.

A successful aquascape is all about planning. A seasoned aquascaper may take days or weeks planning their hardscape, either arranging it in the dry, empty tank, or even building a sandbox with the same dimensions as the tank, and practising arranging the hardscape there, in order to achieve the most impactful scape and artistic layout.

(Video) Complete Aquascaping Beginners Guide - Learn ALL The Basics!

How do you aquascape rocks?

If using wood, like driftwood, add the wood first, and place the largest driftwood piece first. Then place rock around the base of the wood to make it look like the remnants of an ancient tree that grew out of a rocky outcrop.

If just using rocks, place the largest rocks first (in size order,) and then add smaller pieces around the bases.Keep the hardscape away from the front, back and sides of the tank as that’s where the aquarium plants will go. It also makes algae scraping and substrate vacuuming easier during maintenance.

Ensure that large, heavy rocks are cushioned by a deep substrate layer. Deep substrates aid angled rock placement and an aquascape with rock as the main focal feature and a low carpet of plants on the substrate is known as an Iwagumi.

Always use odd numbers of rocks, with just three or five carefully placed keystone rocks as the basis of the whole design. Green plants then accentuate and soften the rockwork.

Clever use of tiny plants, carpeting plants and perspective can then be brought into rock designs to make the rock look like distant mountains and the carpeting plants look like meadows.

Using attractive rocks of the same type and where you place them are the details that matter when aquascaping with rock.


Are landscaping rocks safe for aquariums?

In the UK there’s a wide selection of Landscaping rock available, with most of them like slate and river stones being safe for aquariums.

Many scaper’s shopping activity also involves making trips to garden centres to search for interesting rocks for garden landscaping. On the face of it, they may seem like better value for money than aquarium rocks from an aquatic store.

But landscaping rocks may be larger, heavier and more non-descript than aquascaping rocks like Dragon stone, Ryuoh stone or Ohko stone, which are selected for their sizes, weight and attractive texture. They have more detail so are the preferred choice.

Some landscaping rocks are limestone, meaning that they will raise pH and hardness when placed in a aquarium water. Many grey, striated aquarium aquascaping stones like Seiryu and Ryuo are limestone too.

How to test rocks and stones for lime

If you want to test if a rock contains lime, either soak it in RO water and test pH before and after soaking it, or pour some vinegar onto the clean, dry faces of rocks. If the rock surface fizzes, it’s a sign of limestone.

If you can’t test it most grey, weathered-looking aquascaping rock (except slate) contain limestone and most brown rocks, like Dragon stone, don’t. Wood doesn’t harden water, and instead, tannins released by the wood help to soften and acidify it. Driftwood is the same.

(Video) 15 Gallon Hardscape Dry Start Method

How do you make a slope for an aquarium?

Lay out sand, soil or gravel into the aquarium and bank it up so there is more at the back of the unit than the front.A gentle slope may only be 5 cm of substrate at the front and 10 cm at the back of the set up, although dramatic slopes may incline from 2 cm or less at the front to 15 cm or more at the back.

Slopes can also be angled into the rear corners of the aquarium for even more height. And a double slope can help create the effect of mountains in the corners and a valley in the middle of the aquarium.

Sloping substrates are used to form perspective and may help detritus collect at the front of the tank for easy removal. Deep slopes aid plant roots to grow too, but may use far more substrate than a standard aquarium gravel bed. Fine substrates like sand have much greater density so don’t spread as far as coarse ones.

Ensure you buy enough substrate for your aquascaping needs, or bulk up deep substrates with rocks pushed in underneath the soil. Expensive, nutrient-rich soils can be bulked out with cheaper, inert gravel underneath or inert substrates can be used in their entirety, and fertilised later on with a fertiliser tablet.

Where to buy aquascaping materials

The Swell UK online store provides everything for the planted tank in one place from tanks, lights and CO2 to filters, fertilisers, substrates, tools and hardscape. Shop for pest-free, shrimp safe, live aquarium plants, interesting layout materials like roots, rock, stone, driftwood, aquascaping decoration and all your planting essentials.

Subscribe to our newsletter to keep up to date with all the latest offers and new products. Click here to continue shopping and browse the aquascaping, and other aquarium categories. Send email, or ring us for support.

(Video) Beginners Guide to Aquatic Plants: How to Keep Plants in Your Fish Tank


How do you arrange hardscapes in an aquarium? ›

If just using rocks, place the largest rocks first (in size order,) and then add smaller pieces around the bases. Keep the hardscape away from the front, back and sides of the tank as that's where the aquarium plants will go. It also makes algae scraping and substrate vacuuming easier during maintenance.

How do you arrange rocks in an aquarium? ›

The classic way to do this is to simply place three or four large, flat rocks on the bottom of the tank and then place one large slab on top of them like a table. Repeat this sort of structure across the tank to create as many caves as will be required for the fish being kept.

Is CO2 really necessary for planted aquarium? ›

CO2 is arguably the most important element in the planted aquarium. It is required for respiration and growth by all aquatic plants, used in a process called photosynthesis. Plants require a constant supply of CO2 during the light hours, otherwise they can suffer.

Can you aquascape without CO2? ›

Plants definitely grow better with the addition of CO2, but some plants don't need additional CO2 at all. A thriving, healthy planted aquarium can be created without CO2, as long as you choose the right plants, and light it accordingly.

What is the rule of 3 in aquascaping? ›

The Rule of Thirds

In terms of aquascaping, if you divide your tank (or your “canvas”) into three equal vertical and horizontal sections, you end up with a grid divided into nine rectangles.

How do you stack stones in an aquarium? ›

Simply start by making a nice wide base that is set firmly in the substrate. Then add rocks in layers, making sure that each rock is very stable (remember, fish can bump into them and knock them over). I usually try a rock at a certain location and then push on it in all directions.

Should I glue aquarium rocks together? ›

For aquascaping, you will likely want to cement/epoxy several pieces together to make cool overhangs, caves, and to create a stable base. Epoxy and cement work great for this. If you are doing a large aquascaping project, you will probably want to go with cement as tubes of epoxy can be quite expensive.

How deep should the rocks be in an aquarium? ›

Depth is important too. Gravel needs to be at least two inches deep to anchor live or artificial plants, or if covering an undergravel filter. Too deep and the tank loses fish swimming height, and it traps a lot of dirt.

Can you overdose CO2 in aquarium? ›

In conclusion, too much CO2 in a planted tank can lead to a CO2 overdose and serious consequences for the fish and plants. It is crucial to maintain proper CO2 levels in the tank and use high-quality CO2 equipment.

Will an air pump add CO2 to aquarium? ›

An aquarium air pump is a device that injects air into a tank's water. At the top of a tank, oxygen enters the water and carbon dioxide is released with the help of surface agitation.

Can plants have too much CO2 aquarium? ›

The presence of carbon dioxide is not considered a major problem in most aquariums and, in fact, is important for photosynthesis in a planted aquarium. However, high levels can be detrimental because carbon dioxide reduces the ability of a fish's blood to transport oxygen.

What is the cheapest way to add CO2 to an aquarium? ›

Aerosol CO2 sets are perhaps the cheapest and quickest way to add CO2 to a planted aquarium. They consist of a pressurised CO2 can, a hose, and a diffuser. Press the button on the can and the diffuser fills with Carbon dioxide gas.

What plants are good for no CO2 tank? ›

In conclusion, if you're looking for aquarium plants that don't require CO2, there are plenty of options to choose from. Anubias, Java fern, Amazon sword, cryptocoryne, and vallisneria are all great choices for beginners and experienced aquarists alike.

Do aquarium plants use CO2 at night? ›

However, plants can only do this during daylight hours when they undergo photosynthesis from your aquarium lighting. During the day, aquatic plants absorb CO2, producing O2, and during the night they absorb O2 and produce CO2.

What is the golden ratio in aquascaping? ›

It is basically a line segment subdivided at a ratio of approximately 1 to 1.618. The larger part of the line segment and the smaller one are in the same ratio as the entire line segment and its larger part. Since the Antique, this proportion has been considered especially pleasing and harmonious.

Can you have too much substrate in aquarium? ›

Generally speaking, if you unintentionally add a substrate into your aquarium that changes the water, you are going to have a bad time. Using play sand as a substrate, for instance, can introduce silicates into your water, which can then lead to an outbreak of brown algae.

What is the best aquascape size? ›

The width of a tank should be at least half the length, or maybe even a bit more. An example: a tank with a front length of 60 cm should be at least 30 cm wide. Popular aquascaping tanks such as the ADA 60-P meet these requirements. The Scaper's Tanks by Dennerle are especially wide.

What do you put under aquarium stones? ›

Aquarium gravel, or any other material placed on the bottom of the tank, is referred to as substrate. Beneficial bacteria reside in your aquarium's substrate and break down fish waste, leftover food, and plant debris to keep the water conditions healthy.

Can I put yard rocks in my aquarium? ›

The principal danger of using your own outdoor gravel and stones in an aquarium is the possibility that they contain calcium, which can alter the pH of aquarium water. But before testing, make sure to also wash the stones thoroughly to remove all loose grit and contaminants.

What is the best way to glue hardscape? ›

Gel super glue is good for connecting small pieces of hardscape which has good contact with other hardscape piece. It is easy to hide and if the contact is good, can bare quite a bit of weight when left to fully cure.

What is the best glue for rocks in a fish tank? ›

When it comes to gluing down anything in your aquarium – rocks, gravel, plants or decorations – there is just one tube of glue that you need to reach for… What is this? Cyanoacrylate gel… Better known as super glue gel!

What rocks should not be in an aquarium? ›

Avoid using rocks that have a high salt or calcium content, such as limestone, marble, and dolomite. Shells and corals are also not suitable for most freshwater aquariums, except for African cichlid tanks, which prefer higher pH and hardness.

What color gravel looks best for fish tank? ›

A natural brown, tan, or black bottom can make them look significantly more vibrant. Still, if you really enjoy a light tan or white substrate color, using plants and other sources of cover will encourage your aquarium fish to remain vibrant.

Are bare bottom tanks better? ›

By not having any sand, bare bottom fish tanks allow you to have significantly more flow. You can have powerheads at or near the bottom of the aquarium. You can also keep a higher flow without stirring up sand. This increase in water flow can help the health and growth of your SPS corals.

Do Plecos prefer sand or gravel? ›

The ideal substrate for plecos is fine gravel or soft sand because it will allow the pleco to filter through the substrate to find food. The tank should be densely planted, especially with broad-leafed species like Java Fern and Anubias, to ensure that the pleco can feed on algae growing on the surface of the leaves.

Is gravel or pebbles better for fish tanks? ›

Gravel is the best choice of substrate for planted tanks, as it provides a firm anchor point for roots. Also, fish waste will work its way into the gravel, where it provides a natural source of fertilizer for your plants.

Should you stir aquarium sand? ›

Stirring the sand bed regularly will mix in oxygen and prevent anaerobic pockets from forming. I recommend stirring up the sand bed after you vacuum out wastes. Equipment: Gravel vacuum.

Will adding more fish increase CO2? ›

Fish produce CO2 as a byproduct of respiration - so the more fish in a tank, the higher the CO2 produced. Surface agitation increases gaseous exchange, the process of oxygen entering and carbon dioxide exiting the water. If there is not enough surface movement, CO2 remains in the water.

How do I know if my aquarium has enough CO2? ›

The CO2 Indicator Method

A glass bubble normally containing a liquid called Bromothymol blue will be submerged within the tank for 24 hours. If there is an excessive level of carbon dioxide, the solution will turn yellow. Green indicates a well-balanced tank and blue signifies that carbon dioxide levels are too low.

How long should I run CO2 in my aquarium? ›

For most of our tanks, lights and CO2 injection are turned on for a duration of 8 hours per day. For beginners afraid of algae, using a short light cycle such as 6 hours can be helpful. For stable, matured tanks, light duration can be pushed to 10hours+ without adverse effects.

How do I circulate CO2 in my aquarium? ›

Water flow equalizes CO2 concentration

Large aquariums often experience uneven CO2 concentrations. A solution to this problem is to install two separate filter outflow ports on both sides of the tank to create water flow that circulates the entire tank. This will help equalize CO2 concentration in the tank.

Do I need a bubbler if I have a filter? ›

Whether you need an aquarium bubbler entirely depends on your setup. Many people use bubblers when creating a DIY equipment such as sponge filters – the bubbler is used to “drive” the filter, causing it to draw in water. If your water is not circulating or low on oxygen, then a bubbler could be just what you need!

Does CO2 stop algae? ›

CO2 never directly prevents algae from growing? It helps the plants so the plants can prevent the algae from growing. It is an indirect contributor, but one thing makes carbon dioxide one of the best algaecides. One of the effects of carbon dioxide injection in the tank is it turns the tank water slightly acidic.

How do you know if your plants are getting too much CO2? ›

High CO2 levels cause plants to thicken their leaves, which could worsen climate change effects, researchers say. Plant scientists have observed that when levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rise, most plants do something unusual: They thicken their leaves.

Will CO2 lower pH in aquarium? ›

Carbon dioxide reactors provide the aquarium water with a constant flow of CO2, which is vital for your plants to grow. As CO2 is slightly acidic, it can help lower the pH inside your aquarium, as long as you keep a reactor running.

What is the best DIY CO2 for aquarium? ›

Use equal parts of baking soda and citric acid; in one bottle use 1:1 baking soda to water and 1:3 citric acid to water in the other. This reaction causes carbon dioxide to be released and then transferred into the aquarium.

How do I add CO2 to my aquarium naturally? ›

In fact, adding a few fish, shrimp, or snails is highly recommended because it will create a more natural ecosystem with higher CO2 generation. As previously mentioned, fish will exhale CO2, and the plants will turn these molecules into dissolved oxygen, thus creating a win-win situation for the tank.

How often do you add CO2 booster to aquarium? ›

Instructions. Add 1 ml. per 10 gallons of aquarium water. Dose once a day.

What plants fix CO2 more rapidly? ›

This biochemical reaction is the same for all plants, but the faster a plant grows, the more carbon dioxide it will use up per second. By that measure, bamboo might be the best at sucking up CO₂.

What plant stores the most CO2? ›

Yellow Poplar (or Tulip Tree), the top carbon-storer in one New York City study, works hard under rough conditions. Silver Maple can trap nearly 25,000 pounds of CO2 in a 55 year period, according to the Center for Urban Forests.

Which plant is most efficient at converting CO2 to oxygen? ›

Pothos is the best indoor plant for oxygen because of its high rate of conversion. It was able to show a 6.5 percent decreased carbon dioxide in an experiment, where the CO2 content was reduced from 454PPM to 425PPM, resulting in higher oxygen levels.

What are the disadvantages of CO2 in aquariums? ›

CO2 Can Affect Fish Health

However, too much CO2 can be detrimental in the fish keeping hobby. Excessive amounts of CO2 in aquarium water can cause fish to gasp at the surface or ultimately suffocate if the problem is not corrected.

What is the lifespan of aquarium plants? ›

Their lifespan, however, is usually less than 5 years. How do I feed and maintain my aquarium plants? For healthy growth, aquatic plants need feeding just like fish do! This is overlooked by many hobbyists and all-to-often plants are simply repurchased once they've died off after a couple of weeks.

Can too much CO2 cause algae? ›

The good news is, YOU DO NOT have to experience algae in your planted aquarium. Algae normally appears when there is an imbalance in nutrients, CO2, oxygen and light. For example, too much light but too few nutrients and CO2 will cause algae. Poor distribution of CO2 and nutrients is also a common cause of algae.

Where should crypts be placed in an aquarium? ›

Depending on the variety, its placement can be in the foreground or middle of the aquarium for smaller species or the background for larger ones. Simply plant them in a sand or gravel substrate and that's it.

How do you layer gravel in an aquarium? ›

First, you use a layer with good CEC, like peat, soil or clay. Then you use a large grain substrate, 3-7 mm in size, as a sealing substrate, to not let the nutrients escape in the water. Lastly, you top that off with small-size gravel (1-2 mm) or just sand.

What are the different aquascape layout styles? ›

Three major styles emerged in modern aquascaping: Nature Aquarium style, Iwagumi and the Dutch Aquarium. Each style having unique features and characteristics, with one of them – the Nature Aquarium, employing a variety of themes and sub-styles.

Which direction should aquarium face? ›

Best Directions

Ideally, aquariums in Vastu are always placed in the south east of the living room as it improves socialization skills, attracts kin and friendship. Place it in the north, east or north east, if you are looking for financial profits and career growth.

Do crypts need root tabs? ›

Cryptocoryne plants (or crypts), sword plants, bulb plants, carpeting plants, and plants that produce runners all tend to feed from the substrate and will greatly benefit from root tabs.

Do crypts feed from the water column? ›

Most easier species can be grown purely with water column fertilization - this includes many common Swords, Crypts and Lotuses that will grow without special substrate arrangements.

What is the best substrate for crypts? ›

Aqua Soil is a superb substrate high in nutrients and creates an acidic environment for roots that crypts prefer.

What is the best thing to put on the bottom of a fish tank? ›

Gravel is probably the most popular substrate option for many fishkeepers. The variation in shapes, sizes and colours make gravel suitable for a variety of set-ups. If you plan on buying fish tank gravel for your aquarium, it is a good idea to consider the livestock that you are keeping first.

What color aquascape background is best? ›

White backgrounds provide a lot more depth to the aquascape and showcase the plants and fish very well. While a dark background absorbs the colours and generally shrinks the perspective, a white background accentuates the colours well.

What size tank is best for aquascaping? ›

In general, you can't go wrong with a 10-gallon tank, or preferably a 20 gallon+ tank.


1. Low-Tech Planted Tank by Adam Edmond | Scaped by Kuya Boy
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4. Forest Island Part.2 | 9 Basic Tips for Aquascaping
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