Clearing space in front of main focal
hardscape pieces maintains their solid
grounding as a focal point, though low
planting in front will help establish the
piece naturally with the surrounding
planting. Alternatively, placing smaller
(but, again, matching) stone or wood pieces
in front of a larger piece with touches of
shorter foreground planting among the
arrangement will look natural and tie the
cluster of hardscape and planting together.
Extending the smaller clusters of rock
rubble and finer branches out and away
from the larger sections of hardscape along
with the foreground plant species will
further maintain a natural feel for the entire
Planting can also be used to cover sharp
wood or stone. A common tactic is to attach
an aquatic moss, which looks natural and
dramatic growing on arches of twig and
over large stones. Rough or sharp ends,
such as the cut end of a driftwood branch,
can be hidden equally well among stands of
plants by tucking them into dense thickets
or by growing epiphytes over them.
Natural cotton thread is my preferred
option to secure mosses to hardscape, as it
is nontoxic and generally decomposes over
time, after the plant has naturally attached.
Use just enough thread to secure your moss
clump or epiphyte rhizome and tease out
the moss fronds or leaves up or down the
branch or stone for a natural look.
The best candidates for this purpose are
larger-leaved epiphytes, such as Anubias
spp., Java fern (Microsorum spp.), and
Bolbitis heudelotii. Any mosses can work, as
can the flat ornamental fern gametophyte,
subwassertang. In time, these planted
sections will look spectacular and are
generally easy to trim.
Hardscape can also be strategically used
to conceal the base of larger plants, such
as large Amazon swords (Echinodorus spp.)
or Aponogeton spp. The taller leaves are
left growing above as a focal point or
tall backdrop for mid- and foreground
aquascaping, with rock and wood pieces
placed to conceal lower sections and
contrast the planting in front, as well as
conceal any less attractive bare stems and
collected mulm below. This also provides
a nice sense of depth when large plants are
at the rear and makes for a tidy appearance
with large plants at the front of the tank.
Hardscape can also conceal planted pots
if you wish to use them for containing large
root systems, providing localized special
substrate conditions, or controlling the
spread of stem plant thickets or plants
on runners, which can otherwise become
invasive in the aquascape. Smaller plants
can then be used in front of the concealing
hardscape, making for a nice layering effect.
Ornaments can also be planted out for
a fun or unusual effect. Just like wood or
stone, they make great focal points. Creative
planting around ornaments using clusters of
plants near the base or attaching epiphytes
to the sides or top surface can turn almost
any piece into an ancient ruin or sunken,
forgotten piece of treasure.
Ceramics and stoneware can also provide
great surface area for nitrifying bacteria to
colonize, particularly unglazed terracotta,
which can discolor to a green from small
algae and mosses in an attractive, natural
way some may enjoy. This is also a good way
to incorporate structures such as breeding
caves into aquascapes. Your livestock will
appreciate the extra cover, and it may
encourage some to use the site for breeding.
Fry may also relish the hardscape-and-plant
cover for refuge and as a source of first foods
as they browse the leaves for microorganisms.
Inspiration from Nature
Whatever hardscaping layout you choose,
plant it out by observing how plants tend
to take over similar hardscape materials in
nature. With some observation, you will
find inspiration and ideas to match and
complement your layout. By combining the
hard and soft, neutral and vibrant, inorganic
and alive, you can create a beautifully balanced
aquascape that will impress onlookers and be
loved by your aquarium’s inhabitants.
Happy planting! D
A cherry shrimp alights upon a small stone with an epiphytic “trident” Java fern tucked
behind it in one of the author’s planted setups.
The author’s jungle-style aquascape features smaller plants in front, epiphytic Anubias and
Java fern on the wood and stones in midground, and large plants in the rear partially
concealed by rockwork.