Plants are easily the most important feature of a freshwater planted aquarium. They can make an aquascape appear lush and overgrown, wild and chaotic, neat and carefully manicured, simple and open, or diverse and colorful. The types of plants that you select are just as important as placement. Normally, you can look at other aquascapes as a source of inspiration, but when it comes to plant placement that’s practically impossible. Plants will quickly grow upward and obscure the aquascaper’s planting techniques, so it’s hard to tell how the aquascaper created such a gorgeous scene.

We’re going to take a look under the hood, so to speak, by discussing some of the best tips for plant arrangements.

1. Start from the Ground Up

Every plant needs something to grab onto. Most plants use gravel or substrate, but don’t think that you can just dump a bunch of tiny rocks into the bottom of a tank, stick the roots of your plants into them, and create a gorgeous aquascape. Just like every other living organism, plants survive better in some conditions than others. You’ll need to layer the bottom of your aquascape with a special mixture of nutrients, kind of like underwater fertilizer. Creating a nutrient-rich substrate will make the difference between a healthy plant that climbs to the water’s surface and a weak, stubby plant that struggles to stay alive.

2. Brush Up on Your Sewing Skills

Carpet moss doesn’t follow the same rules as rooted plants. If you want to cover a rock or piece of driftwood with pockets of carpet moss, then one of the easiest ways to do that is to sew patches of moss onto the driftwood. You might think that the fishing line would make for an ugly aquascape, but eventually the carpet moss will grow over the string and the string will become invisible.

3. Use the X Pattern

Never arrange your plants in straight rows. The plants will grow in a somewhat symmetrical pattern, kind of like rows of corn. That will make your aquascape look manmade, so unless you specifically want to make your aquascape look like some sort of miniature farmhouse with rows of corn then I suggest using the X pattern.

The X pattern is similar to what you see on dice with 5 pips. This configuration allows you to evenly distribute plants across a very wide area without making the scene look manmade. The plants will eventually grow outward and obscure the X pattern, creating an even carpet of green plant life.

4. Group Like with Like

You might be tempted to spread out all of your plants across the entire aquascape. A few java ferns here… a few clumps of moss there… some sword grass in the corner…

This scattershot approach will make your aquascape look disorganized and kind of ugly. You’re generally better off to clump groups of species together. This creates focal points so that the qualities of the plant can shine. A bunch of leafy plants all in one spot will stick out next to their mossy neighbors and vice-versa. If you’ve got leafy plants and moss everywhere, then the scene will look muddled as the plants visually compete with each other.

This might sound intimidating, but don’t worry! With the right expert guidance, you can spruce up any living space with a beautifully green custom aquascape.