How to Decorate Your Tank Aquascaping Ultimate Guide

How to Decorate Fish Tank Aquascaping Ultimate Guide

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Aquascaping is a fancy word that means decorating your aquarium with different types of rock, wood, plants, and substrate.

Arranging the gravel, sand, and other aquarium floor coverings can be a lot of fun and gives you a good chance to show off your personal creative talents. Your fish will appreciate a proper setup as well.

Designing the inside of your tank can be one of the most enjoyable aspects of the aquarium hobby. Your aquarium is your own little personal aquatic world that is waiting to be shaped into an amazing underwater scene by your creativity.

But certain types of substrates, rocks, and wood are suitable only for specific aquarium setups. You need to know what to buy before you begin throwing things into your aquarium.

This article can help you make good choices that will keep your fish happy and healthy.

  • Discovering what aquascaping is all about
  • Understanding substrates
  • Working with rocks and wood
  • Adding the oddities
  • Other aquarium decorations

How to Start Aquascaping

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Aquarium Decoration

The first thing to do when aquascaping any aquarium is to take a close look at the native environment of the fish you’re planning to keep in your tank.

For example, freshwater fish are much happier in an aquarium full of plants, driftwood, and rock than they are in one with coral and shells — which you generally use in a marine setup.

Different types of systems have different aquascaping elements.We find that it often helps to sit down and draw out a plan on paper before adding any substrate or decorations to a tank.

That way you get a better feel for the layout you want. Just plot out a simple schematic for where you want to place everything and adjust it as you go along. Save your final schematic in case you ever have to completely break down the tank for moving or other reasons.

The following list gives you a few good ideas about which substrates and decorations are most often used in different types of systems:


  •  Freshwater tank: Pebbles, igneous and shale rocks, live plants, artificial plants, driftwood, with sand and standard fish shop gravel for substrate.
  • Brackish water tank: Pebbles, shale, stratified rocks, plants, driftwood, pea gravel, and small amounts of coral sand for substrate.
  • Marine tank: Live rock (rock that has invertebrates attached), tufa rock, and dolomite with coral sand and live sand (pre-cultured sand that contains biological organisms for filtration) for substrate


Aquarium Substrates

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Substrates come in many different shapes and sizes to suit the needs of each type of aquarium.

You can find substrates in grades from fine to coarse and in different shapes such as smooth or chipped. The actual size of substrates can often vary from vendor to vendor


Manufactured gravel is usually the best bet for a freshwater or brackish tank.

It is easily cleaned and widely available in pet stores and super centers by the bag or the pound. Gravel also comes in many different colors and levels of shininess. As you will learn, some gravels are better choices than others.Most manufactured gravel is lime-free (so it doesn’t change the water chemistry by raising the pH and hardening the aquarium water) and very inexpensive.

Substrates and pH

Putting the right substrate in an aquarium setup is as important as providing the correct water conditions.

Some substrates can affect the pH of your aquarium water, so make sure to buy the correct type for the species that you own.Many live plants also have requirements in gravel size, so check with your dealer to find out what is right for the species you plan on putting in your tank.

Substrates to avoid

No matter which substrate you choose for your aquarium, make sure that it’s safe for all the fish in your tank. Sharp edges on gravel can damage your fish’s body. Jagged surfaces can be especially injurious to bottom-dwelling species that continually dig in the substrate.

If your bottom dwellers look like dartboards, check your substrate and remove any pieces that look like they have sharp edges.

Gravel Size and the perils of sand

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Choose the size of your gravel carefully to avoid water fouling.

Avoid the larger-shaped materials because they allow food and waste to fall between the pieces, where they can cause serious water problems in a short time.

They are hard to vacuum out and reduce water flow. If you use an undergravel filter (you can read all about them in Aquarium Equipment. Ultimate Beginner Guide 101), choose a medium-size substrate (the size of regular bagged aquarium gravels) so that the plastic plates don’t get clogged with gravel that is too fine.

If using sand, a hang-on-tank powerfilter would be a better choice.Gravel with a particle size of 1 ⁄8 inch works best for most setups.If you can’t find the right size of substrate at your local pet store, either order some on Amazon or wait until it becomes available from your dealer. A little bit of patience can definitely save you many headaches in the future.

How to Add Substrate to Your Aquarium

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Before adding gravel to a freshwater system, clean it by rinsing it under fresh water. As you clean, carefully check for and remove defects such as extremely large clumps, foreign matter, and sharp pieces in the gravel.

The amount of substrate required for a freshwater tank varies not only with the size of the aquarium, but with the type of filtration used as well:

  • If you have an undergravel filter, you need a 2- to 3-inch layer of substrate to create a proper bacterial bed.
  • If you’re not using an undergravel filter, use only an inch of substrate to cover the bottom of the tank.
  • If you are using live plants you may need to add a bit more substrate to make sure that the plants stay anchored and do not float up to the top of the tank.

Rocks, Wood, and Artificial Plants

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Rocks and Artificial Plants

Using rocks, wood, and artificial plants is a great way to add a natural-looking environment to your aquarium. Normal, everyday rocks that come from a quarry are generally used for freshwater setups.

Rocks and hardwoods also provide hiding and spawning areas for your fish. If you add artificial plastic or silk plants you will have that realistic touch to your aquarium

Rocks for freshwater aquarium tanks

Rocks can help break up the total bottom space into individual territories.

Establishing territories often prevents fighting among fish. Squabbles often break out during spawning or feeding times. Some individual fish may also be more aggressive than others, so it’s better to have a few rocks in your aquarium that can provide shelter if needed.

When adding rocks to your tank, make sure that you try to distribute them throughout the substrate. While adding rock is rarely a problem, your glass can become stressed and prone to cracks if you pile a very heavy load of rocks on one side of the tank.

Natural riverbeds have small rocks strewn around the bottom and small clusters of larger rocks on the sides.

Wood for a freshwater aquarium tank

Wood is a wonderful way to add a natural look to your home aquarium. Although driftwood is very beautiful and helps create interesting scenes in your aquarium, it can be very expensive if you buy the stuff from the retail store.

Safetly sealing wood

If you’re not sure how a particular piece or type of wood will affect your aquarium conditions, the safest thing to do is to seal it with polyurethane varnish. Use at least three coats of this sealer, allowing each coat to dry before applying the next.

The varnish keeps wood from releasing any products that can affect your water conditions.

Plastic plants

The appearance and variety of artificial aquarium plants have really improved in the last ten years. You can find plastic plants in all different colors and sizes to suit your aquarium size and layout.

If you don’t want to crowd the appearance of your tank, buy small plants for the front of thetank and larger plants for the back.

Other Aquarium Decorations

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Other Aquarium Decorations

We have been tempted once or twice to take a few frog statues, oversized rocks, and other decorations out of our yard and put them in an aquarium. But this isn’t really a good practice.

Unsafe decorations

Stuff from your yard often contains all sorts of parasites and other nasty things that can cause disease in your tank and foul the water.

And it may not be safe to use non-aquarium rocks, wood, plastic sunflowers for standard aquarium use because many contain harmful dyes and paints or fall apart once they sit in water.

Despite the fact that the small rotting wagon wheel would make a great centerpiece in your 250-gallon cichlid tank, it’s not worth the trouble.

Plastic divers dead pirates and others

Plastic divers, dead pirates, bobbing turtles, treasure chests, mermaids, sunken ships that bubble, castles, nasty looking skeletons, and mutant oysters may be fine and safety, but you need to exercise a little control when buying these items or your aquarium may end up looking like a scene from Toy Story.

Learn more in  12 Aquascaping tips and tricks

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