Tips and Tricks for Dutch Style Aquascaping

This article explains some of the rules and techniques of traditional Dutch style aquascaping. It’s written with novice to intermediate American aquascapers in mind.

This style can seem old, rigid, and in somewhat inflexible to Nature style fans. And, yes, there are a lot of rules. But these rules are only needed if you plan on entering your tank in aquascaping contests like the one held by the AGA.

It may also help to keep in mind that this form of aquascaping is almost 80 years old and these rules evolved over the decades for a reason – they work!

Following the rules simply gets you a better looking tank.

1. Strict trimming. Sloppy or uneven trimming with stems of uneven height makes for untidy plant bushes.

Example: this is a very poorly trimmed tank. It looks chaotic, busy, messy, overgrown, and would be quickly disqualified from a Dutch category.

2. No U-shaped plant layout (or upside down U). Tall plants on either ends with short plants in the middle. This is a component of Nature Aquarium style pioneered by Takashi Amano. While incredibly beautiful, it is not Dutch. Even if your plant choices and color contrasts are typical of Dutch style, if you create a U-shaped scape, judges will ooh and aah, but eventually disqualify your entry. Asian hobbyists attempting Dutch scaping for the first time fall into this trap. Don’t take it personally.

3. Foreground of just one species. Left to right full tank length of one species. Don’t do it! This is gives a golf course effect. A left wall to right wall carpet of Staurogyne repens or Micranthemum tweedei (Monte Carlo) may look lush, but this does two things that work against visual appeal:
  • It makes the tank lose front to back depth. The midground and background looks like a tall wall. Like you’re on a boat on the ocean coming up on a cliff.
  • It lacks foreground diversity. The sameness doesn't offer anything of variety and interest for your eyes to rest on.

4. Avoid too many red plants.
  • One or two red plants at focal points is enough. Put another way, no more than a quarter of the species should be orange/red/pink.
  • This is a personal weakness. But I enjoy breaking this rule. Many American hobbyists attempting Dutch for the first time have too-much-red-itis. After all, who doesn't like red plants? They look like flowers! It’s hard to resist.
  • Judges typically view this as over-the-top, tacky, and over-emotional. You’re going in with Heavy Metal while the judges are looking for Smooth Jazz.
  • All-red tanks are often called Danish Style tanks.
Example: while generally appealing and healthy, this tank has too many red plants. Hardware is showing. The Dutch plant street is very poorly defined. There is a giant black spot in the top center of the back wall that could use a moss wall. Many plants are too close together and in dire need of a trim.

5. Focal point plants are critical. This gives the eye a place to rest and return. Visually, our eyes start the experience here. Eyes wanders off, but are always peripherally tethered to the focal points. This also prevents symmetry, a kiss of death in this type of styling.
  • Look up Rule of Thirds and Golden Ratio on Google. This will tell you where to place the biggest and brightest look-at-me focal point plants. This will also ensure that you place these plants in places so your tank is not divided down the middle into two equal parts.
  • If you follow the rule of thirds, you will have the option of 4 focal points. Left front, left back, right front, and right back.
  • Do not put a focal point plant in all four – that’ll look really odd.
  • One or two focal points will do. If you do two, go with front left and back right. Or back left and front right.
  • Example: well-trimmed Red lotus in the front left focal point can work well with a bush of Rotala macrandra or Ludwigia inclinata var. Pantanal in the back right. I say ‘well-trimmed lotus’ because that is the ONLY way to keep a Nymphaea species from sending out floating leaves or sore-thumb leaves that stick out ungainly.
  • This also works best with a tank that is 3 times longer than it is tall. Example: a 180 gallon tank that’s 6 feet long and 2 feet high works nicely (front panel is 3 squares). But a 120 gallon tank that’s 4 feet wide and 2 feet tall (front panel is exactly two squares) will require you to work a little extra hard at avoiding symmetry.
Example: focal point plants like Eichhornia azurea are very effective at arresting the eye, but perhaps choose a slightly less illegal species for your tank.

6. Clear distinction between groups of plants. This is tied to proper trimming and floor layout.
  • When you set up a Dutch style tank, know what the floor plan will be. When you execute the floor plan, allow plenty of empty space between groups of plants.
  • An inch or two between groups of plants is good to start with. This will ensure that when the plants are fully grown that you will have a finger width (or two) of empty space between groups.
  • This makes plant groups more distinct. It increases the perception of contrast between groups of plants.
  • Allowing plant species to intermingle is a Nature style technique. Keeping groups separated also allows for better circulation of CO2 rich water in flow deadspots.
Example: what might feel like excessive segregation of plants during trimming will self-correct and become very natural looking with time.


7. Mid-ground plants are critical.
  • Avoid a carpet of foreground plants + a wall of tall background plants.
  • This is tied to the earlier rule about using only one species in foreground, but there is a slightly distinct point to be made: missing midground plants are a chronic problem in beginners’ Dutch tanks.
  • Without midground plants, the tank will lack a feeling of depth.
  • Any plant that is a third to half the height of the tank can make good midground plants.
  • Slow-growing plants make good midground candidates, but if you are willing to trim often, you can use taller and faster growing stem plants as midground candidates.
Example: one of my older tanks before I realized the importance of mid-ground plants.

Moderately slow-growing plants like this Staurogyne spathulata make good candidates for mid-ground species.

8. Height variation is important.
  • If all your foreground plants are 3” tall and all your midground plants are 8” tall and all your background plants are an even 20” tall, it will look weird.
  • Use a short Monte Carlo or Elatine triandra in the foreground along with something taller like Alternantera reineckii Mini or Staurogyne spraguei (Porto Velho).
  • Even taller plants like Blyxa japonica or Cryptocoryne wendtii can be used as both fore and midground plants.
  • Same principles apply to midground plants and background plants.
  • Having a moss or fern wall on the background will help keep background plant bushes of varying height seem smooth.
  • It is possible to have a foreground full of exclusively 3” tall plants if you use Staurogyne repens, Alternanthera reineckii Mini, and Eriocaulon sp Vietnam. That evenness would not look good.
  • How’s this for an idea? Consider showing a hint of foreground gravel in one or two places between plants.
Example: there are 5 red plants in this scape that are all roughly the same height. Not good.

9. Show a little back wall.
  • Contrary to popular belief, Dutch style tanks should not have wall-to-wall dense planting.
  • Allow the viewer to see the back wall of the tank in a small patch of the back wall – this adds to the feeling of depth.
  • If you have a plain back wall it should be visible through a small area between plant groups.
  • The exclusive use of opaque and dense background plants that complete block the back wall will reduce perception of depth.
  • You can make the back wall visible even through a bush. Acmella repens, Lindernia sp., Persicaria sp., Hygrophila salicifolia, Pogostemon quadrifolius do not form dense bushes, so they are good for creating see-through groups in the background.
  • Plants like Limnophila, Pogostemon sp. Kimberley, Ludwigia inclinata Cuba, Hygrophila difformis, and even some Rotala and Ludwigia have the ability to become completely opaque as they get closer to the surface. Keep this in mind.

10. Moss wall or no moss wall? Not having a moss wall is OK, but it’s preferable. Adding moss to the back wall gives the tank a feeling of depth and texture. It makes it look like there is SOMETHING behind the background plants, rather than just emptiness.

11. Don’t forget leaf size variation…
  • Not having leaf size variety reduces contrast and makes the tank look boring.
  • Stem-plant-itis causes this issue with hobbyists who are transitioning from Nature style scapes.
  • Example: don't plant Ludwigia brevipes next to Rotala rotundifolia and that next to Didiplis diandra and Mayaca fluviatilis. That’s simply not enough contrast.
  • You need one plant with BIG leaves. May be an Echinodorus or Aponogeton or Barclaya, Nymphaea, Lagenandra, Anubias, or Nuphar. Even a stem plant like Hygrophila corymbosa can work.
  • If your tank is 6 feet or longer, you may be able to get away with more than one big-leaf plant. But you need at least one.
Example: here, I focused too much on color variation and placed this Ludwigia sp. Red next to the Oldenlandia salzmanii. A mistake.

12. …and leaf SHAPE variation. See point above.
  • Don’t do this: a Bacopa caroliniana next to Acmella repens next to Rotala macrandra Green.
  • Don’t do this: Lindernia rotundifolia next to Lysimachia nummularia.
  • Don’t do this: Persicaria sp. Sao Paulo next to Hygrophila salicofolia, even though there is strong color variation. These two are too similar in leaf shape.
  • Don’t do this: Echinodorus next to Aponogeton.
  • Don’t do this: Anubias next to Bucephalandra.
Example: unusually large-leaved plants like this Nuphar lutea are good to force leaf shape variation.

13. Must have strong contrast between groups. See above. This may be the most important Dutch style rule of all.
  • You need dramatic contrasts.
  • Example:
    • Place a Barclaya longifolia next to Ludwigia inclinata Pantanal.
    • Add Pantanal next Cyperus helferi.
    • Place an Eriocaulon next to Alternanthera reineckii Mini.
  • Strong contrast between groups of plants is one of the most important features of a good Dutch scape.
  • If you have Hygrophila corymbosa, use a red plant with tiny leaves next to it like Rotala wallichii or a short rosette plant.
  • Knowing how tightly and densely to pack each stem in a bush is a skill that can only be mastered through experience. You need time to get to know the likes and dislikes of each species. Some plants like Eriocaulon lineare or E. setaceum melt if crowded and under sub-optimal conditions, while they can handle more crowing under optimal conditions.
  • This is why Dutch scaping is the realm of diehard plant lovers and horticulturists. Hardscaping is gorgeous. But Dutch scaping will force you to learn about plants. No other style teaches you more about plants.
  • Always think of contrast in leaf shape, size, texture, brightness, and height.
  • A bold leaf plant (Persicaria sp Sao Paulo) should be next to a demure soft, fuzzy plant (Mayaca fluviatilis.)
Example: every now and then, I'm happy with the contrasts I end up with...

14. Do the 20-foot Squint Eye Test to find out if you have enough contrast between plant groups. Step back 20 feet and squint your eyes. Does each group of plants stand out? Or do plants in one part of the tank sort of blend together?
  • Another trick is to take black and white pictures and look at it on your computer screen.
  • Take pictures and blur it on purpose on your computer screen. Do you see any areas that are blending into each other?
Example: this scene fails the 20-foot Squint Eye Test. The Lobelia street stands defined, but everything else is cluttered, undefined and lacks visual distinction.

15. Do not use same species in more than one location. This is self-explanatory.

16. One species per 10 cm or 3 species per foot of tank length. This is where most people struggle. It takes planning and restraint to limit number of species. It also takes discipline to stay with this limitation. It is simply too easy to allow species count to creep up. Before you know it, you’ve got too many species. So what’s the problem with this? It makes the tank busy, restless, and crowded.

Example: the tank on top is not Dutch style, but rather a jungle style tank. It is impossible to provide definition and contrast when you have too many species. With too many species, it naturally becomes a Jungle style tank. The top tank has about 28 species. Ideal is 18.

This is the same tank, re-scaped with 19 species. While still far from good, it is starting to feel right.

17. Moss on wall does not count to species count, but moss on log does.

18. Small groups of plants make the tank seem crowded.

19. Stem plants planted too loosely make the tank look messy and lacking cohesion.

20. Nature style scapes with plant streets does not make it Dutch. This is commonly seen with contest entries from Asia.

21. Lots of streets (Barr style) is not Dutch.
  • Tightly trimmed plants in alternating colors, almost resembling a rainbow is now an easily identified aquascaping style.
  • It has its origins in Dutch style, but it is not Dutch.
  • You don't need more than one Dutch plant street.
  • If your tank is longer than 6 feet, then, yes, more than 1 street is fine.
Example: this is a widely-followed (and beautiful) style, but it is not traditional Dutch, but rather inspired by Dutch style.

22. Red-green, red-green, red-green is Fruit Stand style, not Dutch. There is a perception amongst those not closely following Dutch style that alternating streets of green and red plants is the key to Dutch style. It’s not. It’s the fruit section of the grocery store.

Example: alternating streets of red and green do not make it Dutch.

23. Don’t divide the tank with plant street. Streets that go straight back from the substrate near the front glass to the top of the back wall, separates everything in the tank to its left and right. You may be able to get away with this with one species if you have a tank that is 6 feet or longer. More than one of these and your tank will look like a fruit stand.

Example: this is a plant street that goes from the front to the back of the tank. Don't do this.

24. Avoid a sea of light green – need both light green and dark green.
  • This is another personal foible. I often avoid dark green plants because of its reduced contrast against ADA Aquasoil. But it is important to have both light and dark green plants.
  • You can use a variety of mosses, Cryptocoryne, Bucephalandra, and Anubias for dark green. Possibly Echinodorus opacus variants.
  • There is an abundance of light green plants. Don’t overuse them.
  • There are also a few newer plants with cooler greens, like Acmella repens and Eriocaulon lineare that add to color variety. Use the 20 Foot Squint Eye Test. Or a black/white picture. E. lineare is one of the few bluish green plants in the hobby.
Example: use mosses and dark green plants like this Echinodorus to break up bush after bush of light green.

25. Remove hardware. Filter hardware needs to be removed before taking photographs for contest. These cost you points. Remove heater, drop checkers etc.

26. Avoid too many fish. Too many fish makes a tank look busy and hectic. Stock lightly. I have and I continue to make this mistake because I have nowhere else to put my Cardinals.

27. A dozen or so fish of one species is the minimum. Onesies and twosies of random fish lacks the effect provided by a school.

28. Use top level swimmers. Cardinal tetras like to occupy the bottom third of the tank. If your tank has just cardinals, the top layer will look empty. Time to add some top level swimmers.

29. Use bottom level swimmers. A few loaches or Corydoras or dwarf cichlids add to the balance.

30. Avoid symmetry at all cost.
  • This is something you need to force yourself to think about.
  • You should constantly fight against the urge to plant a focal point plant (Nymphaea lotus or Aponogeton boivinianus) or something extraordinarily bright and colorful like Rotala macrandra Variegated or Ludwigia inclinata Pantanal right in the geometric center of the tank.
  • You can still screw this up by placing a big bush or a clearly defined plant right in the middle.

31. Avoid secondary symmetry.
  • This is about avoiding minor mirror effects like equal sized bushes on opoosite sides of the tank or equally bright plants at exactly the same distance from the center.
  • This type of symmetry is a LOT harder to spot and avoid in your own tank. You will spot it much more easily in others’ tanks, so ask a friend if he or she notices secondary symmetry.
  • It is relatively easy not to plant a big showy plant in the middle. Avoiding symmetry does not end there!
  • It’s secondary symmetry that will get you. Winning tanks of the AGA Dutch scaping contests have had this problem in recent years.
Example: this tank belongs to Joe Harvey. He won the 2017 Dutch division contest with this gorgeous tank. Joe and I had discussed the tank offline during the pre-contest preparation. We both noticed central position of the Didiplis bush and he trimmed and moved the Didiplis bush to the left by a few inches...which, BTW is not easy to do. However, neither one of our eyes noticed the numerous secondary symmetries in this tank. There are two mirroring triangles in the foreground. There are two mirroring dark spots to the top left and top right of the Didiplis bush. The Isoetes and Barclaya are equidistant from the central Didiplis bush. We didn't notice any of this until he asked Bart Laurens to comment. Bart pointed out several of these secondary mirror images that once revealed become very obvious. The 2016 winner of the Dutch category had the same issues.

32. No crowding.
  • Give plant groups breathing room.
  • Half inch of space between groups. This is part of trimming and contrast.
  • Giving plants space and elbow room to grow enhances the feeling of contrast.
  • It also allows plants to grow and expand to their best appearance.
Example: give plants room to grow. This will enhance contrast as well.

33. Careful abour dark green plants in corners. Putting dark green plants in both back corners will force attention to the center of the tank and make the tank look smaller. Bright gets looked at more than dark because our eyes are naturally attracted to brigher objects.
  • A dark leaf Cabomba or Echinodorus in the back corners means the that area will get ignored. It’s as though the tank begins where the dark plant ends and a light plant begins.
  • Brighter plants in corners look better.
  • The best place to position dark plants is inbetween or in front of bright ones.

34. Use curtain plants on left and right front if possible. This is not absolutely essential, but is a feature of many classic dutch style tanks.
  • Curtain plants give tanks a sense of depth.
  • Curtain plants are essentially tall, vertical plants in the front left and right corners. Similar to curtains on a theater stage.
  • You can use a variety of plants, but tall Hydrocotyle, tall grasses like Vallisneria, tall Crypts, or even Potamogeton are used for this purpose.
Example: the new and relatively rare Eleocharis elongata makes a fairly good curtain plant.

35. Don’t use two groups of plants of the same width one behind the other. For example, avoid having a 5” wide group of foreground plants right in front of a 5” wide group of midground plants. It looks too contrived. Even though you might feel the entire concept of Dutch style tanks is contrived, the artificial nature of arranging two groups of the same size is overkill.

36. Don’t have a strip of gravel or substrate showing from one end to the other. It’s fine, even recommended to have some substrate visible near the front of the tank. But a runway or landing strip all the way from the left to right end of the tank is, well, odd looking.

37. There is no need for terracing to elevate the substrate in the back of the tank.
  • A slight incline to the back wall is fine but not needed.
  • Use the natural height of plants to imply elevation in the back.

38. Don’t let foreground plant crowd and press up against the front grass.
  • All spreading foreground plants need to be aggressively trimmed and allowed to grow back to the right size before photography or a contest.
  • Foreground plants overgrown and pressed up against the glass is not a good look.
  • Overgrown foreground plants are more off-putting when you use taller plants like Sagittaria or Helanthium species that get to 3-4” tall.

39. The right amount of foreground growth. Let some foreground plants almost touch the front glass while others may stay an inch or two back. This is to prevent a synthetic appearance caused by a runway/landing strip effect from a continuous strip of substrate along the front of the tank.

40. Use some open or empty space in the foreground. Every square inch of substrate does not have to planted. A little empty space gives the tank a more relaxed look.

41. Foreground plants should not be planted perfectly parallel to the front glass. This reduces the perception of depth.

42. Use tanks that are at least 24” front to back. Tanks with 18” or less front to back depth need extra focus on midground to add feeling of depth. 24” depth front to back is a good place to start. 30” makes it even easier to add feeling of depth. However, if you have just 18” then you need to take a lesson from Nature style tanks and add depth using a lot of midground groups and strongly tapering plant streets.

43. Use a mix of stems, grasses, and giant leaf plants. This cannot be overstated.
  • We’ve already discussed variation in left size, shape, and color. But this is a nuanced point that addresses the need for rosette plants. While a judge may not deduct points for not having rosette plants, it is to strongly consider for the sake of increased contrast.
  • The hobby is overrun with stem plants.
  • Grasses, Echinodorus, Cryptocoryne, Eriocaulon, Nymphaea all act as foils to a sea of stem plants.
  • Rosettes Crypts and swords are often considered unhip.
  • If using established, old school plants is a turn off to your hipster sensibilities, keep in mind that there are new species of rosettes being discovered by hobbyists and collectors every year.
  • Balance stem plants with rosettes.
Example: the tendency to use too many stems plants and not enough grasses and rosettes will hurt the final appearance of a tank.

44. Trim and position each stem to give bushes a cohesive and smooth look. This is a skill that takes time and is worth developing. Some scapers get good at this quickly. Others, well, it takes decades.
  • A cohesive and smooth bush that rises and falls without out-of-place runaway stems is important for visual appeal.
  • Most circular or oval bushes need to start smoothly, curve over the top and end smoothly. This is easier said than done. And it takes a LOT of time in the beginning.
  • If you have a bush of 25 plants, you need to know how long to trim each stem and where to insert each of those in the substrate so that a few days or weeks after planting, the bush is ideal.
Example: Ludwigia 'Pantanal' growth is fairly easy to predict after a few months of constant trimming. In the top image, the bush will grow smoothly. However, in the second image, the Syngonanthus and Rotala are poorly trimmed.


45. Do not put bright red plants in corners. Don’t put Alternanthera reineckii Mini or the like in the front left or right corner.
  • This distracts the eye like a shiny object in the periphery.
  • If you take the eye away from focal points by putting a bright plant all the way in the corners, you take the eye away without a smooth return. It ruins visual flow.
  • There is no visual pay off there besides the colorful bright spot.
Example: it didn't feel like a mistake at first, but it was. The bright red plant in the corner does not work. The tank is also sorely behind on trimming.

46. Remove algae along substrate line. This happens to the best of us. Traditional Dutch style tanks are expected to cover the substrate line with their homemade stands. If you choose not to cover it, you are opting for more work.

47. Foreground plants make good candidates for plant streets.
  • Mid-ground plants too, but it takes more work.
  • You can make plant streets out of the fastest growing weeds, but they only look good for a couple of days.
  • It is better to use slower growing plants for streets.
Example: Lobelia cardinalis Mini is a popular foreground plant and makes an excellent candidate for streets.

48. Streets need to disappear behind another group of plants – to enhance feeling of depth.
  • You should not be able to see the end of a street. No cul-de-sacs.
  • The rise and narrowing of the street enhances the feeling of depth and the disappearance of the street behind a bigger group of plants enhances it further.
Examples: here is a partially executed idea. The street of Staurogyne spraguei (Porto Velho) is supposed to disappear behind the Barclaya longofolia, but the Barclaya was just added to the tank and is not grown in. Once grown in, all plants need to be trimmed to 'step away from each other' and give some breathing room - almost all of my scape have failed in this regard.

A couple of weeks later...

From above...but then a couple of other mistakes become apparent - too many purple plants and not enough separation between plant groups.

49. Make streets broad and short in the front (bottom) and taller and narrow in the back…
  • Taper the street so it appears like it has an infinity point.
  • But never show the last plant that forms the infinity stem – hide it behind a taller bush.
  • A street that runs behind a strong focal point plant like red lotus and disappears works well.
Example: Lobelia cardinalis street.

50. …but don’t make the back of the plant street too tall.
  • The back stems of the plant street should be no higher than approximately half the tank height.
  • If the back stems are too tall, it takes away from the implied ‘infinity point’ of the disappearing street.
  • If the end of the street never disappears and is as big and wide as the front of the street, the purpose of the street has failed to deliver on the feeling of depth.
Example: this is a classic failure. I wanted to have a Dutch street of Acmella repens that disappeared behind Aponogeton ulvaceus. It didn't work out as planned. Not to mention the desperate lack of trimming.

51. A small tank with more than one street will look busy. Don’t think about two or more streets unless your tank is 6 to 8 feet long.
  • One street is good. It’s difficult to pull off two streets.
  • A rainbow of streets ends up looking like a fruit stand. ‘It looks fake like a fruit stand,’ is a common critique of Dutch style scaping.
  • If you follow the rules, you will naturally avoid the fruit stand effect.

52. Streets can start anywhere near the center or off-center. However, just off-center seems to work a little better than center. A few street candidates to choose from:
  • Lobelia cardinalis Mini
  • Staurogyne spraguei (Porto Velho)
  • Hydrocotyle tripartita
  • The old Leiden street plant, Saururus cernuus, gets too big for streets in high tech tanks, so skip that one.
  • Penthorum sedoides
  • Bacopa monnieri Compact
  • Lysimachia nummularia
  • Blyxa japonica
Lobelia cardinalis Mini is by far the most popular and common choice for streets. All of these plants have one thing in common – they are relatively slow growing, they tolerate trimming easily, can handle a degree of crowding, can be used as mid-ground plants, and are relatively hardy.

Limnophila sp. Vietnam (and even some small leaved Rotala) can also be used as streets. Limnophila sp. Vietnam is one of my favorite new street candidates. Borrowing a page from Nature style tanks, streets made with Limnophila sp. Vietnam can be mowed or sheared with scissors into the perfect shape. You only need to plant it once and in about a month, you will have a dense bush that can be shaped to your liking. No topping or replanting needed.

Example: Hydrocotyle tripartita is a very good candidate for streets, but it will need to kept in shape with very gentle scissor work to prevent uprooting. Notice the Limnophila sp. Mini Vietnam in the front left, which I think is better for this purpose.

53. Streets with a gentle curve work well. A rigid and staright street can work well too, but looks a little less natural and casual.

54. Use an earthy or brown Cryptocoryne in the midground somewhere.

55. Use small moss-covered wood pieces to separate somewhat similar groups of plants.
  • But don’t do this as a separator tactic between too many groups.
  • Mosses provide much-needed dark green foliage in Dutch tanks.

56. Don’t allow equal amount of floorspace for each foreground plants.
  • If you have a 4-foot tank, do not keep four species of foreground plants, each occupying a foot of length. This looks artificial. Mix it up.
  • It is fine to use 4 species of foreground plants in a 4-foot long tank, but vary the amount of space and face time or floorspace that a species gets.

57. Don’t make background plant bushes of the same width and height. If you had a 4-foot long tank, it’d be very easy to place 5 bushes in the background, each about 8 to 10 inches wide. This sameness will reduce contrast.

58. Don’t over-trim one side of the tank. It will make the other side seem too heavy. This is not a rule, as much as a trimming guideline. The bigger your tank (and busier your schedule), the more likely this issue will occur.

59. Add an element of controlled chaos. A tankful of perfectly trimmed, vertical plants might look like soldiers on display. One or two wild-haired plant can be used to shake up that uptight stiffness. Candidates are:
  • Aponogeton ulvaceus
  • Lagarosiphon madagascariensis
  • Persicaria praetermissa
  • Any of the arched or sideways growing Rotala rotundifolia variants.
  • Juncus repens
  • Murdannia sp. Red
  • Crinum calamistratum
Examples: controlled chaos is like a hair stylist working long and hard to impart a 'messy look.' Lagarophisphon madagascariensis is floppy and messy. And Aponogeton ulvaceus is a beast that does what it wants. So, control the chaos.


60. Don’t put two red plants next to each other. Red plants are usually used as focal points. You cannot, by definition, have two focal points next to each other. Red plants are attention hogs and two red groups next to each other will compete.

Example: Bacopa caroliniana Colorata is a unique pink, but next to the red Rotala macrandra Mini Type 4, it is far less effective.

61. Don’t forget wispy. Bold and large plants are common, but thin, wispy plants offer great contrast and make the tank seem lighter. Perfect candidates are Eriocaulon sp. Feather Duster or Eleocharis elongata.

: Eleocharis elongata (below) and Eriocaulon sp. Feather Duster are good candidates.

62. Don’t put two green stem plants next to each other. This is less important than not putting two red plants next to each other. But putting two green stems next to each other means you won’t have contrast between the two groups.

63. Don’t put two grasses next to each other. Same as above.

64. Don’t even put orange and red next to each other. Same as above.

Examples: both of these images are reduced by the competition between orange and red.

This does not work:

The Ludwigia are too close and competing:

This isn't red vs orange, but the Lagenandra meeboldii red does not work next to the Ludwigia senegalensis.

65. Don’t put two light green plants next to each other. This is not a strict rule, but observing it will improve your contrast level.
  • Most plants are light green. So, by default, you’ll have a lot to choose from.
  • If you have two light green plants next to each other, one could be a stem and the other a grass. Otherwise, put a dark green or red plant group inbetween.

66. Don’t put two plant groups of the same height next to each other. This reduces contrast.

67. Don’t overuse driftwood. Dutch style tanks are about plants. If you do use driftwood, use small pieces of wood and/or stick moss on them.

68. Avoid Iwagumi style rock clusters or hardscaping. Dutch style is about plants.

69. Cover about 80% of the substrate with plants. If you cram plants into every inch of the substrate, it looks suffocating. Too few plants and it looks unfinished. Find a happy medium.

70. Don’t mix two or more species into one group – even if they are subspecies. This is a Nature Aquarium style technique. It reduces contrast between groups.

Example: here in the foreground, Alternanthera reineckii Mini and Variegated and blend in. That does not work well.

71. Choose color of substrate carefully. Traditional Dutch style tanks use inert natural brown gravel. Black blasting sand or dark clay soils like ADA Aquasoil are traditionally not used but will not count against you in a contest unless you have large swaths of substrate exposed.

Thanks to @burr740 for reviewing and suggesting changes.