A Brief and Incomplete History of Aquascaping
“I’m guessing Raymond also frowned upon deep sea divers, sunken galleons, and treasure chests too, and with good reason.”
A book published in 1970 entitled The Complete Guide to Freshwater Tropical Fish, edited by Raymond Legge, makes one of the first printed references, that I’ve found, to aquascaping as an actual thing. It devotes several paragraphs to what was then considered its finer principles. ‘Rockwork may be very pleasantly incorporated, particularly in larger aquaria. Natural water-worn limestone and rocks from the seashore are both pleasing and safe…Artificial rocks, arches, caves, and monstrous backgrounds should be treated with caution, and are not recommended’. I’m guessing Raymond also frowned upon deep sea divers, sunken galleons, and treasure chests too, and with good reason.
Detail from a Nature Aquarium, scape by Tim Harrison
So what exactly is aquascaping? That go to online encyclopaedia defines aquascaping as ‘…the craft of arranging aquatic plants, as well as rocks, stone…or driftwood, in an aesthetically pleasing manner within an aquarium — in effect, gardening under water’. And I guess to the uninitiated that seems like a perfectly adequate definition. However, it involves a lot more besides. For a start, aquascaping is more of an art than a craft. It’s also demanding of the natural sciences. Aquascapers also increasingly borrow from the visual arts, especially photography and filmmaking. Further, there are different styles of aquascape; Dutch style, Japanese style or Nature Aquarium style, diorama style, jungle style, and biotope style. Then there are styles which aren’t really aquascapes but fit snuggly within the arts fundamental ethos of bringing a tiny slice of nature indoors - biospheres, paludariums, terrascapes, ripariums, and wabi-kusa etc.
“The whole set up looked more like a contraption for torturing its unfortunate inhabitants, or for making exotic soup…”
However, before we continue to explore the fathomable depths of aquascaping history, I feel compelled to make some reference to the origins of the aquarium, and in particular fish keeping, since the roots of aquascaping are firmly embedded in that side of the hobby. One of my earliest memories of the hobby is from a dogeared book I found in a junk shop; it was published sometime before the First World War. I remember sliding it from a bookcase and turning to the opening section which showed the reader how to build an aquarium from a biscuit tin, a pane of glass and a lump of linseed oil putty. The brief description was accompanied by a Lowry-esque drawing of a Heath Robinson contraption heated with a small methylated spirits burner. It looked more like a device for torturing its unfortunate inhabitants, or for making exotic soup rather than an aquatic showcase for tropical fish and plants. Thankfully, the aquarium has come a long way since then.
Chinese porcelain goldfish bowl
Various sources place the origin of the aquarium somewhere in the distant fog of antiquity, between large Chinese porcelain bowls housing goldfish, and flat sided glass fronted marble tanks, supposedly used by the Romans to keep much cherished sea barbel. But it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that the aquariums we are more familiar with today were first conceived by the keenest of naturalists, and perhaps the most innovative amongst our ancestors, the Victorians.
A particularly brilliant English chemist, Robert Warrington, has been credited with developing the original aquarium concept in 1850. Warrington effectively placed that fundament of life on earth, the oxygen-carbon dioxide cycle, in to a glass box full of water. He conducted an experiment to prove that properly done, an aquarium could become a self-sustaining ecosystem; aquatic plants provide fish with oxygen and the fish in turn provide the plants with carbon dioxide, and on ad infinitum.
Ornate Victorin aquarium
Another Victorian gentleman, and prominent naturalist, Philip Gosse (also an Englishman), coined the term “aquarium” by cleverly combining latin for water, “aqua", with “arium”, latin for a place associated with a specific function. Gosse also catalysed the aquarium craze that subsequently swept through the homes of the Victorian gentry; he created the World's first public aquarium at London Zoo in 1853. This was greatly facilitated by his groundbreaking manual published in 1854, The Aquarium: An Unveiling of the Wonders of the Deep Sea.
London zoo aquarium, 1853
Fast forward a century to the 1950s. Mass production coupled with the invention of plastic shipping bags and airfreight ensured that an aquarium stocked with tropical fish became an affordable and popular addition to the interior of many homes. American entrepreneur, author, publisher, and fish expert, Dr Herbert Axelrod, started Tropical Fish Hobbyist (TFH) Magazine, and founded TFH Publications, one of the largest publishers of aquarium books in the world. He also wrote many books on tropical fish which, in the pre-internet era, became important sources of reference and inspiration. By the 1960s silicon sealant became widely available and another American, Martin Horowitz, used it to construct the first all glass tank. And then in the latter part of the twentieth century a Japanese man began to exert a huge influence on design and innovation within the aquarium industry. His name was Takashi Amano, and he’d eventually become known as the farther of modern aquascaping.
“Flushed with drink and excitement, I poured the five bottles in. Within five minutes air bubbles formed on the leaves.”
At this juncture, it’s perhaps appropriate to mention CO2 fertilisation and the part it’s played in the recent history of aquascaping. It is possible to grow some aquatic plant species without additional CO2 and to create a beautiful planted tank using a low-tech or low-energy method. Perhaps the best known is the Walstad Method, first described by the eponymous American Diana Walstad in her groundbreaking book Ecology of the Planted Aquarium, published in 1999. However, it's not a technique usually associated with aquascaping, which typically relies on pressurised CO2 to grow healthy aquatic plants.
Some of the first references to the use of CO2 fertilisation can be found as far back as the early 1960s. In 1962, Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine published an article describing how members of The Aquarium Club of Copenhagen Denmark used yeast fermentation to produce CO2. The first references to the use of pressurised CO2 start to appear a few years later. And in 1971 a German company, HILENA (which later became Dupla), patented the first pressurised CO2 system.
A book published in 1978 entitled The Complete Aquarium Encyclopaedia, edited by Dutchman Dr. J. D. Van Ramshorst, not only makes reference to pressurised CO2, but also to its importance and growing availability.‘In any aquarium there must be an adequate supply of carbon dioxide: if there is insufficient the plants will be unable to play their full and necessary part in keeping, in turn, the right balance of oxygen. Some very good equipment is now available which gradually diffuse carbon dioxide throughout a tank, using the cartridges sold for soda siphons.’
CO2 injected Nature Aquarium, scape by Tim Harrison
About a year earlier, just before Dr. Van Ramshorst book was published, Takashi Amano had been struggling to grow aquatic plants and strongly suspected that lack of CO2 was to blame. Many aquascapers are familiar with his story, “Five Bottles of Carbonated Water”. Frustrated he struggled on, trying to grow plants without CO2 until, ‘…one night I went to a bar with a friend and a clear bottle of carbonated water caught my eye…I took five bottles home with me. Flushed with drink and excitement, I poured the five bottles in (to my tank). Within five minutes air bubbles formed on the leaves…Every tank I added the soda water to did well…If I hadn’t discovered that carbonated water when I did, I surely would have given up on the whole idea of aquatic plant aquaria’. That's a sobering thought, imagine an aquascaping world without Takashi Amano and Nature Aquarium; all for the want of CO2…
"...IAPLC had to change the judging criteria to favour the more traditional Japanese Nature Aquarium style over its enfant terrible..."
Before we continue with Takashi Amano's story let’s also first consider the point in history where the actual aquascaping journey begin. It’s difficult to determine with any degree of certainty but many reckon the answer can be found somewhere in 1930s Netherlands, when the Dutch style mentioned above was first developed by NBAT, the Dutch Society for Aquarists. This early form of aquascaping probably has much in common with the increasing popularity of fish keeping following the First World War, in that both owe their existence to the increasing availability of mass produced aquarium products. Products like angle iron braced glass tanks, mechanical air pumps, immersion heaters, and the incandescent light bulb. The Dutch style is where aquascaping first started to diverge from the traditional fish keeping aquarium and become a distinct entity in its own right. Where the fish were chosen to complement the planting and no longer the main attraction.
The Dutch style also gave the aquascaping world its first competitions, and as anyone in business will know competition is essential for driving development and growth and perhaps of greater relevance, as far as aquascaping is concerned, change. Inevitably, as competitors tried to outdo their peers in a bid for victory, the Dutch style evolved and perhaps hints of what might become other aquascaping styles may have begun to emerge as a consequence. The need for NBAT to publish general guidelines in 1956 to maintain the purity of the Dutch style would certainly seem to suggest so. A similar phenomenon has occurred in recent years and possibly stands testament to this hypothesis. The worlds premier aquascaping competition IAPLC (The International Aquatic Plants Layout Contest) had to change the judging criteria to favour the more traditional Japanese Nature Aquarium style over its enfant terrible, the Diorama style. More on that later.
The Dutch stye differs from other styles of aquascaping by virtue of the fact that it relies solely on the colours and textures of aquatic plants to create its aesthetic without the compliment of wood and rock hardscape, which characterise the contrasting Japanese styles. Done expertly the overall effect is somewhat akin to the spectacular terrestrial flower gardens created by contemporary designers the ilk of Gertrude Jekyll, and is more contrived than the Japanese styles which aim to mimic nature more closely.
A halfway house between Dutch style and Japanese Nature Aquarium is perhaps the Jungle style. The Jungle style aims to replicate wild and untamed nature and is dominated by course textures and very dense planting. On one hand it’s easy to see how it might have evolved directly from the Dutch style, and eventually morphed in to the Nature Aquarium style. On the other hand some purists might get a bit hot under the collar at the mere suggestion of such heresy and perceive it as stealing the thunder of the Titan who first coined the phrase Nature Aquarium and who also popularised the style back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Of course I’m talking about none other than the farther of modern aquascaping himself, Takashi Amano.
“One who cannot love her smallest creations, cannot claim to stand before nature”.
Takashi Amano, was born in Niigata, Japan in 1954. He grew up to become an international track cyclist and environmental photographer and, crucially for the development of modern aquascaping, a highly successful innovator and entrepreneur. As a child he immersed himself in nature, especially in the wetlands that surrounded his home. Later he would despair as the worlds natural habitats rapidly dwindled in the wake of increasing development, and he resolved to capture what was left of this precious resource on camera. His subsequent photographic exhibitions and books have done much to inspire many generations of conservationists and aquascapers alike.
Frustrated by the paucity of dedicated aquascaping equipment Amano eventually founded the Japanese aquascaping company Aqua Design Amano (ADA) in 1982. His minimalistic designs and innovations have had a significant impact on the aquascaping industry and continue to do so. Takashi Amano also introduced the aquascaping world to Caridina multidentata, subsequently popularised as the Amano shrimp. But perhaps his most influential contribution to aquascaping is Nature Aquarium World, a three-book series on aquascaping, published in 1994 by TFH Publications. Amano used the books to showcase the Nature Aquarium concept that still defines modern aquascaping today.
Nature Aquarium is often thought of as expressing an essentially Japanese ambiance through the traditional aesthetics of wabi-sabi and its harmonious interplay of natural elements, and acceptance of the transience and imperfection of nature. Its fundamental concept originates from the ethos, ‘One who cannot love her smallest creations, cannot claim to stand before nature’. And it aims to recreate the beauty of a natural ecosystem in a “glass”. To bring indoors a slice of nature from outside as an antidote to the pressures and stresses of the modern and increasingly urban world, and to remind us of what we might loose if we don’t cherish the natural world.
Takashi Amano’s crowning glory Nature Aquarium is arguably Forests Underwater in Lisbon Oceanarium Portugal. It’s an astounding aquascape created in a 40 metre long, 160,000 litre aquarium. Unfortunately, Takashi passed away shortly after it was completed in 2015. However, Forests Underwater remains today as a fitting legacy to the Grandmaster’s creative genius. It was originally commissioned as a temporary exhibit but it has proven an enduring success. Accordingly, the Oceanarium has recently announced that Forests Underwater will remain open to the public indefinitely.
Although, the world will probably never see the like of Takashi Amano again many aquascapers have since taken over the mantle and risen to the challenge of promoting aquascaping. And as the popularity of the hobby has grown, more than a handful have seized the opportunity to become professional aquascapers. Some of the best known of these are, Oliver Knott, Jurijs Jutjajevs, Filipe Oliveira, and UK aquascaper George Farmer. I could go on but this article would start to read like a who’s who of aquascaping. So for now I’ll just write a little about our very own George Farmer.
George has a global following, and both his YouTube channel and Instagram page are runaway successes. Like many aquascapers of his generation he was first inspired by Takashi Amano, and has in turn inspired many more to take up the hobby. George didn’t keep his first aquarium until 2003, but soon became obsessed with aquascaping and in just a few short years found himself juggling life in the Royal Air Force with a burgeoning career as a freelance writer and photographer specialising in planted aquariums and aquascaping. In 2013, after a difficult tour in the Middle East as a bomb disposal operative, George left the RAF and begin a new career in the aquatics industry. Around a year later he finally become a fully fledged aquascaping pro.
Aquascaping workshop with George Farmer at Destination Aquatics Milton Keynes
“…it remains one of the best online sources of aquascaping information…and advice in the world…but then I could be biased.”
Amongst his many aquascaping achievements, George is a founding member of the United Kingdom Aquatic Plant Society, or UKAPS for short, an online aquascaping forum which went live in 2007. Contrary to its name it has become a truly international community actively enjoyed by aquascapers from all four corners of the globe; at the time of writing over 15,200 members strong and still growing. In short, it remains one of the best sources of aquascaping information, shared knowledge and advice in the world…but then I could be biased.
Another such forum that has been hugely influential is the Barr Report, founded by Californian Tom Barr. Tom is best known for promoting the idea that inorganic nutrients do not cause algae, and in 2005 along with others developed a method of eutrophic fertiliser dosing called Estimative Index (EI). EI was considered an heretical concept at the time and initially met with much resistance, but it eventually caused a paradigm shift and changed the face of aquascaping. As an aside, Tom also helped set up UKAPS and initially hosted it on the Barr Report where it still has its own section today.
“The Diorama style typically depicts a terrestrial landscape…where the fish sometimes incongruously translate as birds.”
Following in the traditions of the Dutch style, aquascaping competitions have done much to promote the hobby in recent years. The International Aquatic Plants Layout Contest (IAPLC), already mentioned above, is the worlds largest, and considered by many to be the world championships of aquascaping. It was launched in 2001 and is hosted by Takashi Amano’s company, ADA. The inaugural contest attracted a total of 557 entries from 19 countries. Since then its popularity has grown year on year and now it usually gains more than 2,000 entries from over 60 countries across the globe.
It was originally conceived as a way to promote both the hobby and the Nature Aquarium concept. However, as also mentioned above the competition is now dominated by the Southeast Asian Diorama style which many European scapers see as a corruption rather than an evolution of Nature Aquarium. The Diorama style typically depicts a terrestrial landscape like mountains, forests, or open plains, where the fish incongruously translate as birds. As such, the two styles are apples and oranges.
Diorama style “Whisper of the Pines” by Serkan ÇETİNKOL
It’s also a well documented fact that larger scapes tend to do best in the IAPLC. However, there are other competitions where smaller tanks do a lot better. The Aquatic Gardeners Association (AGA) International Aquascaping Contest is perhaps the best known of these. Unlike the IAPLC it has separate categories for some aquascaping styles and aquarium sizes. The AGA contest started in 2000 and like the IAPLC attracts many entrants from across the globe. Both are online contests and competitors have to submit images of their work for judging. Both organisations claim their contests are not photography competitions but a high quality image is key to success.
Live aquascaping contests are popular as well and AGA also present the Aquascaping Live contest as part of Aquatic Experience, a large aquatics convention held in the USA. Similarly, Pet World Trade Show, held in Magdeburg Germany, host The Art of the Planted Aquarium, another live contest. In march 2016 UKAPS also held its own live aquascaping contest as part of its Aquascaping Experience at the Icon Innovation Centre Daventry UK, which was an overwhelming success.
Contestants select hardscape, UKAPS Aquascaping Experience
"Tropica’s approach perhaps highlights the importance of synergy between business and customer..."
Aquascaping has breathed new life in to the aquarium hobby industry. Many traditional manufacturers have realised the market potential of dedicated aquascaping products. This has broken ADA’s monopoly and prices of quality aquascaping merchandise have fallen in recent years. Accordingly, the hobby has become even more accessible, in turn increasing demand, market penetration, and the frequency of new product launches. It’s also seen the development of many fledgling aquascaping businesses.
Some established manufacturers of note are Dennerle, which produce the Scapers range of products. Another is Evolution Aqua, perhaps best known for its range of Aquascaper aquariums which were developed in collaboration with George Farmer. Kessil and Ecco Tech Marine have built upon their saltwater credentials and produce high end intelligent lighting solutions for freshwater aquariums. Relative newcomers from Southeast Asia, Chihiros and TwinStar, have taken the aquascaping market by storm with their algae busting gadgets and reasonably priced LED lights.
Tropica is another big name among the aquascaping community that produces a range of aquascaping products. But it is best known for growing high quality aquatic plants. Tropica is a Danish company founded by Holger Windeløv in 1970. It has done much to support the aquascaping community and accordingly the business has grown and developed in tandem with the increasing popularity of the hobby. Tropica’s approach perhaps highlights the importance of synergy between business and customer, which on the whole typifies the spirit of cooperation and support common throughout the aquascaping community.
Another business worthy of note is CO2 Art. It was originally started in 2013 by Karol Maleska around the corner from where I used to live in Milton Keynes UK. Now located in Germany, it’s a brand with a global presence. It was perhaps the first to develop reasonably priced high quality CO2 regulators and put together complete CO2 systems. In doing so CO2 Art greatly demystified the dark art of CO2 injection and bought it within easy reach of most hobbyists.
“All these bricks and mortar businesses have one thing in common, they are run by hobbyists with a passion for aquascaping…”
At a time when the high street is shrinking perhaps the growing popularity of aquascaping is no more apparent than in the opening of dedicated independent bricks and mortar retail outlets. Stores like Scaped Nature in Norwich, and Riverwood Aquatics in Suffolk. Another is Aquarium Gardens in Huntingdon, set up by Dave and Katie Pierce several years ago. The Aquarium Gardens showroom is the epitome of aquascaping excellence and inspiration with over 10 live aquascapes on display; well worth a visit. Elsewhere in Europe, Hungarian aquascapers Viktor Lantos, Balázs Farkasaii, and Attila Néder have been running Green Aqua, a successful aquascaping business, for many years. Recently, Green Aqua relocated to a purpose built store in Budapest, its architecture inspired by ADA headquarters in Japan.
Filipe Oliveira workshop in the Aquarium Gardens showroom. Credit Tim Harrison
Green Aqua showroom
All these bricks and mortar businesses have one thing in common, they are run by hobbyists with a passion for aquascaping, which means their customers all benefit from a wealth of experience and knowledge. Bricks and mortar stores also give their customers a place to meet and chat about the hobby, try out hardscape and bounce ideas off one another, and to learn from aquascaping workshops.
There has been one significant retail casualty though, and that is James Findley’s Green Machine. Green Machine opened in 2007 and was the UK’s first dedicated aquascaping store. Many aquascapers made the pilgrimage to Wrexham in Wales to view the Nature Aquarium scapes in its showroom. And many a newbie cut their teeth watching James’ instructional scaping videos. Sadly James decided that it was time to retire from the cut and thrust of retail and closed Green Machine’s doors for the last time in 2018. But James remains active and has just brought out a book encapsulating a lifetimes aquascaping wisdom entitled, The Art of Aquascaping.
James Findley working on one of his Nature Aquarium scapes
“The aquascaping community is much more besides, in that it has de facto become an international force for promoting environmental awareness…”
I can’t really call this a history of aquascaping without at least mentioning the growing influence that social media has had on the development of aquascaping. I touched on it above when I mentioned George’s success. But all of those mentioned above have created hugely successful social media stories as well. For businesses it makes commercial sense, but for many of those run by enthusiasts like Aquarium Gardens, and Green Aqua it’s also about being part of a wider global community, just as it is for the rest of us. And it’s a global community that we’ve all helped to create. A community that has united people from disparate cultures and social backgrounds and from all four corners of the globe through shared interest. That in itself is remarkable, but the aquascaping community is much more besides, in that it has de facto become an international force for promoting environmental awareness and instilling greater responsibility toward the natural world.
“Some years later, during the 1990s, it disappeared from the newsagents shelves; I never did find out what happened to it."
Before the social media revolution aquatic magazines and journals held sway. As a child my parents bought me a subscription to a monthly magazine called The Aquarist and Pondkeeper. It had the usual mix of freshwater, marine, and pond articles, but uniquely it also had a section on aquatic plants, which I used to turn to first. Some years later, during the 1990s, it disappeared from the newsagents shelves; I never did find out what happened to it. Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine was always a constant presence as well, but it’s perhaps more familiar to our American cousins; it’s published in the US. Moving forward Practical Fish Keeping became the staple, and with the likes of George Farmer on board and a sympathetic editorial team, it started to print aquascaping articles on a regular basis. In 2012 it even managed an exclusive scoop, publishing an article written by the Grand Master himself, Takashi Amano.
Aquarist and Pondkeeper magazine
Dedicated aquascaping journals have always been a bit thin on the ground but one of the most enduring has to be ADA’s Aqua Journal, first published in 1994. Essentially, the magazine keeps aquascapers up to date with the latest ADA products, news and techniques for creating Nature Aquarium. Nowadays most magazines and journals are also available electronically, which is perhaps the swansong for good old fashioned print. The printed version of ADA’s Aqua Journal is now only available in Japanese. The rest of the world have to view it electronically. Likewise, in 2013 Polish aquascaper Norbert Sabat produced an online aquascaping journal called Liquid Nature. However, as far as I know only two issues were ever published, which is a great shame since it was visually stunning and very well written.
“The need to reconnect with nature, even in some small way, is perhaps more compelling and important now than it’s ever been.”
The global popularity of aquascaping is largely a 21st century phenomenon. It has come a long way from its early 20th century Dutch origins were it gradually gained traction and then momentum. It has grown from a very small niche within the fish keeping hobby, to a size where it’s achieved a critical mass capable of supporting a dedicated industry. Undoubtedly, it owes much to Takashi Amano’s Nature Aquarium concept. But its very recent history has also been written by the collaborative efforts of many aquascapers, magazines like PFK, social media, product manufactures, aquatic plant growers, and forums like UKAPS and the Barr Report. All of which have made an important and influential contribution to the hobby.
The future of aquascaping is bright and its popularity continues to grow apace, perhaps as an antidote to the stresses and strains that modern life inflicts on us all. That, and more and more people are living in cities with high density housing, and becoming increasingly divorced from the natural world. Accordingly, the need to reconnect with nature, even in some small way, is perhaps more compelling and important now than it’s ever been. Aquascaping allows people to do just that…to care for a tiny slice of nature in their home.
A tiny slice of nature in my home. Credit Tim Harrison