Aquascaping Designs – Hardscape Diorama Style

by Apr 12, 202014 comments

Now that you already determined the ideal location and dimensions of your tank, it is time to think about your planted aquarium style. This article will discuss the different aquascaping designs to unleash the inner artist in you, specifically the Hardscape Diorama style.

Aquascaping is the art of arranging aquatic plants, driftwood, rocks, stones, and even the substrate in an aesthetically pleasing and natural manner.

You probably searched on the internet and was overwhelmed by tons of aquascaping images and still cannot decide. So in this article: the main characteristics, what tank to use, light, substrate, if you need CO2, what filter, fertilizer, hardscape, what fish and plants will be discussed to help you in your decisions.

Table of Contents

Hardscape Diorama Style
What Tank to Use?
What Light to Use?
What Substrate?
Do I Need to Inject CO2?
Filtration
Do I Need to Dose Fertilizers?
Hardscape
What Fish?
Plants Selection
Conclusion
Closing Remarks

Why is it so important to know the different aquascaping designs?

These are no strict rules, and there is nothing that will hinder you from getting out of a particular design’s theme and combine it with other styles.

However, you’ll probably can create a much more appealing result if you are following a particular style.

So without further ado, here are the most common styles/designs you’ll see in planted aquariums.

Dutch Style

This style is characterized by many different assortments of plants and leaf types. Carefully planning and designing a multitude of textures, shapes, and plants’ colors is the main focus. It is much like the terrestrial plants that are displayed in flower gardens. It commonly employs raised layers, or terraces, known as “Dutch streets” that taper towards the rear to convey the perspective of depth.

Aquascaped by Jay-R Huelar Philippines

Nature Style

This style re-creates various terrestrial landscapes like hills, valleys, mountains, rain forests, even a half-submerged ecosystem. This design has limitless potential for beauty and creativity. The Nature aquascape or Ryoboku Style encompasses the same core principles of Japanese gardening techniques.

Aquascaped by Fritz Rabaya Philippines

Iwagumi Style

It is a style that is characterized by its daring stone formations, elegance, simplicity of open space with carpeting plants only, and dedication to conveying a natural and tranquil setting. The style features a series of stones arranged according to the Golden Ratio, or Rule of Thirds. There should always be an odd number of stones to prevent the layout from balancing.

Aquascaped by Monnette Arañas Philippines

Jungle Style

The Jungle Style encompasses the wild, untamed look. It is the complete opposite of the Dutch style, more organized and looks like a conventional tulips garden. The Jungle style overlaps with the core elements of the Nature Style except that the Jungle Style has little to no visible hardscape and limited open space due to the overgrown plants. The plants are even allowed to reach the surface and beyond.

Aquascaped by Franco Chester Pongco Philippines

Hardscape Diorama Style - You Are Here

The Hardscape Diorama Style is still a subset of the Nature Style. The only differences are emphasizing using a lot of hardscapes and building complex nature-like structures such as forest, caves, bonsai trees, canyons, or even fantasy worlds. Dynamic skills should be mainly displayed here to create an illusion of depth, scale, and proportions.

Aquascaped by Michael Yap Philippines

Paludariums

A Paludarium is a type of vivarium that contains water and land in the same environment or encasement. The design can simulate natural habitats such as rainforests, jungles, streams, riverbanks, and bogs. In a Paludarium, part of the aquarium is underwater, and part is above water.

Aquascaped by Yuno Cyan Philippines

Taiwanese Style

The Taiwanese Style of Aquascaping combines the elements of Nature, Iwagumi, or Dutch styles, but the most bizarre feature is using figurines, toys, etc. in the tank to create a sense of life. The style isn’t ubiquitous anymore, but there are still many hobbyists quite fascinated by this style.

Aquascaped by Ian Garrido Philippines

Biotopes

The biotope style seeks to perfectly imitate a particular aquatic habitat at a specific geographic location. From the fish to plants, the rocks, substrate, driftwood, water current, and even the water parameters of a certain aquatic habitat must be the basis of trying to recreate the natural environment, and not necessarily convey like a garden-like display.

Aquascaped by Lao Ricci Philippines

The Walstad Method

The Walstad Method choose to grow plants using very minimum technology as possible. This approach, which is sometimes called “The Natural Planted Tank” and is made popular by Diana Walstad, suggested using soil as a cheap replacement to the aquasoil or aquarium gravel, sometimes with no filtration, no CO2 injection, and limited lighting.

Aquascaped by Mark Ivan Suarez Philippines

Aquascaping Designs

Hardscape Diorama Style

The Hardscape Diorama Style is still a subset of the Nature Style. The only differences are emphasizing using a lot of hardscapes and building complex nature-like structures such as forest, caves, bonsai trees, canyons, or even fantasy worlds (think Avatar 2009 movie). Building just the structures takes days, weeks, or even a month before even planting.

Dynamic skills should be mainly displayed here to create an illusion of depth, scale, and proportions.

Hardscape Diorama Style Aquascaped by Matthew Manes Philippines

Hardscape Diorama Style Aquascaped by Matthew Manes Philippines

What Tank to Use?

We recommend 10 to 20 gallons long (standard sizes). Tanks with additional depth=width and less height are ideal for Hardscape Diorama as the cost for hardscapes needed to fill much larger tanks will be soaring high.

Nature Style Fritz Rabaya Philippines

Hardscape Diorama Style 15 Gallons Aquascaped by Fritz Rabaya Philippines

What Light to Use?

Most hobbyists that do try the Hardscape Diorama scape are very intricate and complex. It may block your light. So choose lighting with a good spread, T5 arrays, or use dual-LED fixtures. I will still recommend having a dimmer on your lighting or choose lighting with a built-in dimmer so you can adjust your light intensity lower when algae started to show up.

The only ways you can adjust the intensity of a T5 array are by subtracting or adding tubes or adjusting the height higher or lower. Please keep that in mind.

Aquatic plants most used in a Hardscape Diorama are the hardier ones to save expensive lighting costs and even don’t require CO2 injection.

Hardscape Diorama Style Aquascaped by Edrian Corpuz Espiritu Philippines

Hardscape Diorama Style Aquascaped by Edrian Corpuz Espiritu Philippines

If you know electronics and building skills, you can even DIY/experiment with your light fixture with LED bulbs, high powered LED beads. Some had success with LED floodlights, even 5730, 5630, 5050, and 3528 LED strips. I personally DIYed a 5630 LED strips lighting fixture, with warm white, cool white, red and blue LEDs, and a generic 3rd party dimmer.

Whichever route you choose for your planted aquarium lighting, the most important thing is you should be able to control/adjust the intensity (which can be done with 3rd party dimmers for LEDs, or if dimmers are not possible, you should be able to adjust the height of your lighting fixture.

Hardscape Diorama Style Bonsai Aquascaped by Carlo P. Reyes

Hardscape Diorama Style Bonsai Aquascaped by Carlo P. Reyes Philippines

What Substrate?

Some designs of Hardscape Diorama require minimal to no aquasoil at all and only use Epiphyte plants such as aquatic mosses, Anubias sp, Hygrophila Pinnatifida, and Bucephalandras sp. It depends on your design, as you can see from many example pictures here in this article.

Some designs still need to use soil, so Aquasoil is still the main choice for your plants. You can sprinkle the soil carefully between the hardscapes’ crevices.

If you ever need a substrate, we still recommend aquasoil as the ideal substrate for the plants that need to be planted in a substrate. You can also use inert fine sand when simulating pathways, for example.

Click Gallery to Enlarge and See the Captions

Do I Need to Inject CO2?

Aquatic plants mostly used in a Hardscape Diorama are the hardier ones to save expensive lighting and don’t require CO2 injection. However, you can still choose to do so, so the perspective you want to convey can be achieved faster.

Most carpeting and red plants require CO2 injection, though if you like to use them for finer details and some contrast.

Filtration

As the complex hardscape structure may block the flow from your filtration, you can deploy mini submersible pumps to aid with the circulation and distribute the nutrients and CO2 (if you choose to have one) across the whole tank. Your filter, aside from filtration, should provide surface water agitation needed for good gaseous exchange with the atmosphere.

Aim for x5 to x10 water turn-over rate. For example, if you have 20 gallons tank, you should choose a filter that turns over the water at the rate of 100 gallons per hour (gph x5) to 200 gallons per hour (gph x10).

Click Gallery to Enlarge and See the Captions

Do I Need to Dose Fertilizers?

You should dose fertilizers leaner when using undemanding plants, no high-light, and no CO2 injection.

You can insert Osmocote capsules/beads (a slow-release fertilizer) deep into the substrate to fertilize the substrate. Most carpeting plants benefit from this to spread faster and get thicker. This also works on your hungry stem plants by inserting beads of Osmocote near the plants’ roots.

Even aqua soils deplete its nutrients over time, and you can insert Osmocote into your substrate every 6 months.

Hardscape Diorama Style Aquascaped by Jan Lander De Guzman Philippines

Hardscape Diorama Style Aquascaped by Jan Lander De Guzman Philippines

Hardscape

Many selections of rocks and driftwood that vary in sizes so you can achieve the finest details in your scape are required in this style. Please see the many hardscape images below. Hardscape structures can be built outside the tank before transferring it. This is possible by measuring the tank’s inside dimensions then building a box made of plywood, styropor, or carton with the same inside dimensions as the tank. Like the first image below:

For raising the scape at the rear, it can be done by piling up rocks. This is also double purpose. The rocks will support the slope of the aquasoil. Cheap, plain, and lighter weight lava or pumice rocks in a mesh or any inert rocks can be piled up below, then well-textured centerpiece rocks will be on the surface.

Click Gallery to Enlarge and See the Captions

Raising the Aquascape by using Pumice Rocks on Mesh Bags by Pitch Gerald Gingco Loyola Philippines
Raising the Aquascape by using Pumice Rocks on Mesh Bags In Progress by Pitch Gerald Gingco Loyola Philippines
Raising the Aquascape by using Pumice Rocks on Mesh Bags Hardscape Done by Pitch Gerald Gingco Loyola Philippines

Raising the Aquascape by using Pumice Rocks on Mesh Bags by Pitch Gerald Gingco Loyola Philippines

Piling up Black Lava Rocks to Raise the Hardscape in a Diorama by Matthew Manes Philippines

Piling up Black Lava Rocks to Raise the Hardscape in a Diorama by Matthew Manes Philippines

Piling up Black Lava Rocks to Raise the Hardscape in a Paludarium by Matthew Manes Philippines

Piling up Black Lava Rocks to Raise the Hardscape in a Paludarium by Matthew Manes Philippines

This is How Christian Pontiano from the Philippines Made His Hardscape Structure Using Dragon Stones, Cyanoacrylate, Tissue Paper, and Crushed Dragon Stone to Cover up the Tissue and to Look More Natural

Step by Step Planting by Matthew Manes Philippines

What Fish?

Schooling and hardy nano fishes are ideal for preserving the illusion of scale and depth you are trying to exhibit, such as Guppies, Cardinal tetras, Chili Rasboras, and Harlequin Rasboras, Ember or Glowlight Tetras, White Cloud Mountain Minnows, Rummynose Tetras, etc.

Hardscape Diorama Style Rummynose Tetras Aquascaped by Rennier Katigbak Philippines

Hardscape Diorama Style Rummynose Tetras Aquascaped by Rennier Katigbak Philippines

You can also add invertebrates such as snails and shrimps to the nano fish species mentioned above. Some hobbyists only keep snails and shrimps with no fish at all. For snails, we recommend Nerite and Ramshorn Snails. For Ramshorn snails, though, be mindful that their reproduction rate is proportional to the amount of food inside the aquarium (so don’t overfeed). Freshwater snails feast on organic matter (dead plant leaves, even dead fish, etc.), uneaten fish food, some types of algae. They can even clean your glass but not really efficient.

As for shrimps, we recommend Amano Shrimps, Red Cherry Shrimps (RCS), and other color morphs (Neocaridina sp.) and Caridina sp. (though more sensitive to your water parameters than Neocaridinas). Do not keep shrimps, though, if you have medium to large omnivorous fish. Always follow this rule: If you think the shrimp fits in their mouth, they will probably get eaten eventually.

I personally witnessed my two White Skirt Tetras hunting one of my juvenile RCS before to death. I personally saw my juvenile Angel chasing one of my adult RCS. The nano fish species I mentioned above are safe on shrimps.

Hardscape Diorama Style Aquascaped by Matthew Manes Philippines One

Hardscape Diorama Style Aquascaped by Matthew Manes Philippines 

Plants Selection

Choose different plants that blend well rather than differ-strikingly. Choose smaller/finer leaf plants so that they will not detract from your scape’s established scale. For example, an Amazon Sword looks out of place in a Hardscape Diorama as the leaves are big. You can also use finer leaf stem plants in the background as well.

Carpeting Plants for Finer Details (grasses and small-leaf carpets can mix well)

Click Gallery to Enlarge and See the Captions

Epiphyte Plants (choose the small-leaf varieties, if there is any):

Click Gallery to Enlarge and See the Captions

Small Leaf Stem Plants in the Background:

Click Gallery to Enlarge and See the Captions

Small to Medium Leaf Bucephalandra Species for details

Small to Medium Leaf Bucephalandra Species for details

Bucephalandra Species Tied to a Black Lava Rock Using a Sewing Thread

Bucephalandra Species Tied to a Black Lava Rock Using a Sewing Thread

Micranthemum Monte Carlo Carpet After Planting

Micranthemum Monte Carlo Carpet After Planting. MC can be tied/inserted to crevices of your hardscape for very fine details.

Micranthemum Monte Carlo Tied to a Lava Rock

Micranthemum Monte Carlo Tied to a Lava Rock

Hardscape Diorama Style Aquascaped by San Mig Chad Philippines One

Hardscape Diorama Style Aquascaped by San Mig Chad Philippines 

Hardscape Diorama Style Aquascaped by Kristopher Gagarin Philippines

Hardscape Diorama Style Aquascaped by Kristopher Gagarin Philippines

Hardscape Diorama Style Aquascaped by Edrian Corpuz Espiritu Philippines

Hardscape Diorama Style Aquascaped by Edrian Corpuz Espiritu Philippines

Conclusion:

The Hardscape Diorama style focuses on building nature-like structures using a lot of hardscape materials (rocks and driftwood).

This style will require an aquascaper to have the dynamic skills to be able to convey the illusion of depth, scale, and proportions to make the scape look larger and farther away.

Closing Remarks

I hope you enjoyed this article and if ever you have additional questions or want to share your experiences with Hardscape Diorama Style Aquariums, please leave a comment below.

Next, we will be discussing the Paludarium Style. It is different from the previous styles that we discussed because it incorporates land parts on the scape.

14 Comments

  1. James

    Hi Lem, these underwater worlds look amazing! I think aquariums are so relaxing to look at. You have provided a lot of information here on how to design a tank. I have a question though about maintenance. Even with no fantasy landscaping, there is usually some maintenance involved in keeping the tank clean. Are there extra maintenance issues with having these great underwater fantasy worlds?

    Reply
    • Lemuel Sacop

      Hi James thank you that you find these creative works of my friends amazing. Quick answer is no, there are no additional maintenance needed to be done aside from the occasional trimming of plants, and water change weekly 25 % once your tank is established and stable.

      Reply
  2. Don Herman

    Wow. Those aquascapes are amazing! I had no idea how far along things had come. I’m still from the “under-gravel filter” old school and didn’t know you could even manage a healthy aquarium without rock on the bottom. And the plant selection in your photos is great, too. The tiny-leafed plants really give you the impression of a miniature world. 

    I always found if I could keep my tank far from any natural light – from a window or door – it really helped control the algae. But now that the lighting systems have dimmers, that can help too. That was always a scourge! Ugh.

    But I am wondering about cleaning these tanks. What is the process for that, and how can you do it without destroying your lovely aquasape?

    Reply
    • Lemuel Sacop

      Hi Don,

      Thank you for sharing your experiences to us. As for your question there are really no additional maintenance needed to be done aside from weekly 25% to 50% water change and occasional plant trimmings once your planted tank is stable.

      Reply
  3. Meg

    I wasn’t aware aquascaping exists.  The tanks are absolutely amazing and this article is a great lesson . Now i know where to come to guide myself from when i’ll decide to purchase one . It looks like a exquisite thing to have in your house . Thank you for that and keep up the good work. 

    Reply
  4. Riley

    Thank you for this amazing post. I have always loved to construct a hardscape aquarium as this. Even if I won’t construct it for personal use yet, I would want to suggest a kind of aquarium as this for my organization. My boss would definitely love it. The structured provided information on how to construct an aquarium as this would help me to supervise and even lecture my boss on how to construct this. I believe a hardscape aquarium will attract the attention of people more than enough. Nice piece.

    Reply
  5. JJ

    Yes you are right. I have checked the internet for information on aquascaping and almost forgot about my efforts to come up with designs. This article answers a lot of the questions I had about maintenance, the need for Co2, the type of plants and the actual layout and design. I specially like that design by Michael Yap with the red plants which add so much . I will be looking into this some more . Thank you for the information and the images.

    Reply
  6. edward

    Great article with in depth information about Aquascaping; Very easy to understand even for people like me who are new to Aquascaping. I never knew such thing existed until I came across this article. I enjoyed reading this article and i should say my interest in Aquascaping has really gone high.

    Great content

    Reply
  7. Sean Sorath

    Great article of Aquascaping design-Hardscape Diorama ! I love this article and I will order in case I have money for design the garden or other place in my house. When I see, it make me more comfortable and fresh when see the art of the designation.

    Thanks for your share the beautiful article for us. Honestly I like to much- With Regard, Sorath

    Reply
  8. Smoochi

    This is a very informative article and i would be glad to have one of this in my house. the beauty that one of these can bring is awesome. just so awesome.

    i have one concern though. i wonder how the plants are treated. dont they grow? how do we manage their growth and stability.

    Reply
    • Lemuel Sacop

      Hi Smoochi thank you for coming back! The plants will grow that’s for sure, you can do it! All you have to do is trim them when they are getting taller or overgrown. The plants will grow back and will have side shoots and they will become more bushy overtime. The rate of their growth depends on how strong your lighting is, if you are injecting CO2, and dosing fertilizers. But like I said, due to the complexity of the Hardscape Diorama style, most hobbyist only used hardy plants, low to moderate lighting, no CO2 injection, and dosing lean of fertilizers and sometimes not at all, means less frequent trimming. 

      Reply
  9. Kirkman

    The hard doriama style is an exquisite style and with the clarity that you have shown, it is difficult not to notice the beauty of the aquarium. i knew little about what subtrates are but i am glad that i finally got a clear and explicit explanation.

    you have given great examples with nice pictures. thank you very much

    Reply
  10. Alex

    Thank you for the tips. I’m a big fan of this style, but struggle when trying to design our aquarium. I never thought to build it outside of the aquarium first to try and get it right.

    Reply
    • Lemuel Sacop

      Hi Alex,

      Thank you for the appreciation about this article. Yes, the hardscape can be done outside the tank, just measure the inside dimensions of your tank and create a mold from that.

      Reply

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