In april 2017 I was invited by the Aquatic Gardeners Association, Inc. = AGA to be a speaker on their convention in Denver (Colorado). After the convention I gave the same presentation, about Dutch Style Aquarium, in San Francisco, Sacramento (both California) and also in Seatttle (Washington). The AGA organizes every year an aquarium photo contest in some categories that concern the size of the tanks in the Style Aquatic Garden (smaller than 28l, 28-60l, 60-120l, 120-200l, 200-320l, and bigger than 320l), and than they have Biotope Aquascape, Paludarium and finally: Dutch Aquascape. Far most of the participants they have an Aquatic Garden (Nature scape) and there are only a few Dutch Aquascapes. Many of the participants in the Dutch Style category are rejected because their scapes do not meet the Dutch style requirements.
In 2015 I joined the AGA competition and became third with my large Dutch Scape tank. Number 1 was the Dutch champion and number 2 was the Belgian champion. So the third place for me was not a bad result.
After my tour through the USA I received a lot of questions about Dutch style and that’s the reason why I’m writing this article for my website. My website provides a lot of information about all kinds of subjects concerning keeping an aquarium, but my website is mainly in Dutch. I have connected a translation program, but only a part of the translations are correct. I try to write this article in English, for my English speaking friends.
I don’t like to rewright information that you can simply find on the internet. So I steal/copy the texts, referring to the sources where I found the info. I found a very interesting and complete article about Dutch Style Aqua Scape, that I used for my presentation in the USA and that I’m also using now to build on. The article is:
“Dutch Aquarium Aquascape: A style from the 1930s
by Aquascaping Love · December 18, 2013.
The cursive text is the original text and the plain text is the text that I added myself. “Two major aquascaping styles dominate the world of freshwater aquariums: the Nature and the Dutch style. Out of these two, the Dutch Aquarium Aquascape is the oldest, becoming popular during the 1930’s in the Netherlands, with the implementation of the NBAT – the Dutch Society for Aquarists.”
The national Dutch Society for Aquarists is the Nederlandse Bond Aqua Terra, shortened N.B.A.T.
“The Dutch Aquarium style does not imply the use of wood, rocks and other hardscape materials. The main focus is placed upon the growth and arrangement of aquatic plants. Traditionally, Dutch planted aquariums are compared to underwater gardens. However, differentiating from the Nature style, Dutch aquascapes are not meant to resemble a specific biotope. The intricate placement and grouping of plants help create in-depth perspective within the aquarium by complimenting each other in shape and color.”
That The Dutch Aquarium style does not allways imply the use of wood, rocks and other hardscape materials, does not mean that they’re not allowed to be used. On the contrary: Making use of a piece of wood or a rock can be very attractive and might improve the decoration of your tank. But it is preferred to choose for only one kind of material: wood or stone, or artificial decorations. If you choose for one of them, you should use only that stuff. If you have chosen for wood, you should use only wood of the same kind, for instance: only Spiderwood, or driftwood or Manzanita. You can use plants from all over the World, but you only should chose species that share the same demands concerning temperature, light , and water quality. About 60-70 percent of the plants should be all shapes of green and the rest may have other colors, for instant red, or pink, or orange, even yellow. Combine plants with different shapes of the leaves and colors.
“The most important requirement for aquascapers who want to approach the Dutch Aquarium style is to have extensive knowledge regarding aquatic plants. Since they represent the main materials used in Dutch aquascaping, it is very important to know how to plant, group and combine them so that the final art of arrangement would become aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Most magnificent Dutch planted aquariums are characterized by high density, rich contrast and subtile use of color and texture.”
Knowledge of the plants is extremely important to realize a good design of the aquarium. You need to know if a plant is a foreground plant, a middle plant or a background plant. You have to know whether a plant grows quickly or slowly. You need to know whether a plant needs a lot of light or just a little light. In addition, you also need to know whether the plant already has its submerse shape, or has been grown above water (emerse). Is it a marsh plant or a real waterplant?
When you send in photo’s, you have a periode of time that you can improve the tank, make several pictures on different moments and you can select the best photos and send them in. If some of the equipment in the tank was not well hidden, you can make another picture from a different angle or you can just hide the equipment behind some mosses or some ferns, just for the picture, or even permanent.
But when the judge has an appointment with you on Sunday at 14.00hrs PM, then that’s the moment that your tank should be on it’s best. That means that you have to now the “behavior” of all of your plants. You don’t want de topends to be growing through the surface, they should stay a little bit beneath. You dont’t want the different groups to touch eachother, and you don’t want to see bare stems of plants that grew just a little too quickly. The plants should differ here and there in height, so the groups don’t form a straight line. If the judge will be there early in the morning, than you know that some of your plants will not have fully openend their topends. So you change your timer settings and make the lights switch on a few hours earlier. If you think that it’s more beautiful when the topends bow a little to the frontside, than you switch of the tubes at the backside and switch them on just before the judge arrivés, and the plants will show their topends more beautiful. You can also use this trick to make a better picture of your tank.
It happens that I have to correct the length of some plants the evening before the coming of the Judge, because a group had just grown a little too fast. All of the plants should be exactly on width and height as planned. Dead leaves on the surface should be removed, as well as old leaves on plants, or the ones covered with algaes, or discolored leaves. When the judge sits in front of your tank, that’s the moment of truth. Just those few minutes.
During one of my talkes in the USA, someone asked me: “How long, how many days is your tank at it’s best?” I answered: “Only one day !!” and that’s the truth. Some plants that are just beneath the surface today, will have emerged tomorrow.
“The most common technique used when building a Dutch Aquarium style is terracing, because it is the most optimal when it comes to conveying depth using plants. Terracing is very efficient in creating and emphasizing the focal points with the help of the rule of thirds. With the Dutch aquascape, the focal point is usually emphasized by the use of a red or large plant.”
Formerly terraces were made by making real terraces on the bottom by building walls of stone or wood of different heights. Nowadays we use an almost flat bottom that slightly increases from front to back. We do that because we want to be more flexible. Terracing is now suggested by keeping the plant groups on different heights.
“Keeping a sense of harmony and simplicity is crucial, taking into account that Dutch planted aquariums are very dense. More than 70% of the aquarium floor should be planted.”
I do not know a rule that requires 70% of the aquarium floor to be planted. In practice, that is usually the case. But that also applies to many Nature Scape aquariums.
“Contrast is a key element in the Dutch Aquarium style, as it is important when it comes to breaking this density. Plants are grown in groups and contrast is ensured by diligent use of color variation, leaf height and texture. Spaces between plant groups should be used wisely as well, as this creates imaginary streets and pathways, helping out with the in-depth perspective.”
Below are some examples of colorful combinations of plants. Of course only a small selection from the countless possibilities that are available.
This text is very important: ‘Use plants of different color and shape of leaves. Keep space between the plant groups.’ Too often I see plant groups that are too close to each other and that have exactly the same height. Such groups form an impenetrable dense “wall” and counteract the depth effect. Provide wholes in that wall with a views to the back wall. Make sure that the back wall is black (at least dark)so that the depth effect is further enhanced.
“Stem plants are often recommended for the Dutch style setup because they have fast growing rates, a wide range of leaf color and shape. 3 plant species per foot should be enough to ensure good color contrast. Also, due to the fact that aquarium equipment should remain hidden in the back of the tank, cork backing and moss walls are a good option in that area.
Here are some species of plants most commonly used in Dutch style planted aquariums:”
- Saurus cernuus and Lobelia cardinalis – low growing plants which help create the so called ‘dutch street’, a pathway set at the viewing angle, which ascends toward the back of the tank, creating the illusion of depth.
Nowadays there is a much wider range of plants available than ten years ago. I refer to the website of a trader and nursery here in the Netherlands that I know well. You can find almost all species of available plants here.
- Hygrofilia corymbosa and Limnophila aquatica – large stem plants which grow fast and have a strong visual effect.
- Plants of the Cryptocoryne species (lucens, lutea, walkeri, wendtii and becketii) – small aquatic plants used in the first two rows of the aquarium, they provide good contrast due to their dark earthy colors.
- Plants used in Dutch scapes focal points for color highlights (Alternanthera reineckii, Ammania, Rotala) and size (solitary plants like Tiger Lotus or Aponogetons).
- Java moss – often used between plant groups, with the purpose of creating contrast, or on pieces of hardscape, in order to create a focal point.
“The role of fish in the Dutch Aquarium is more of an additional one, but nevertheless, quite important. The three areas of the tank should be filled with fish that emphasize the beauty of each of them. Schools are preferred, and as large as possible, however larger fish like Congo tetras or Angelfish are always a good choice.”
From the point of view of the AGA, the role of the fish in the Dutch-style aquarium may seem a bit subordinate. This is because the aquariums are assessed on the basis of photos. This is quite different from how it is done in the Netherlands. Here is not judged on the basis of photos, but the judge comes to your home. He starts by assessing the first and general impression. Is the aquarium nicely integrated in the room where it is located? In terms of size and color and materials used. Then he judges if the aquarium is biologically correct. Do the fish fit together? Is there fish in the three different water levels?
Are the plants healthy and well developed and do they fit together in terms of biotope requirements?
He measures the values of the water and checks whether they fits the fish and the plants.
A school of fish consists of at least 12 specimens and solitary fish must consist of at least one couple (Male and female, or several females)
Technical tools such as heating, pump, thermometer, pump hoses and surface cleaner must be kept out of sight as much as possible.
When judging on the basis of photos, a number of the Dutch requirements mentioned above do not apply.
The same equipment is used in a Dutch style planted aquarium as in a traditional aquarium:
•Lighting – standard fluorescent lamps are normally used
•Filtration systems – canister filters or sumps
•CO² addition – injected in a range of 15 to 20ppm
•Substrate system – clay or laterite, small sized gravel
•Fertilizers – doses of iron and minerals on a regular basis
The Dutch aquascape is anything but a chaos. At most, it is a controlled chaos. Each plant has its own characteristics and behaves in its own way. As opposed to the Nature style aquascapes, Dutch style planted aquariums require frequent plant trimming, which can become tedious, but if done correctly and skillfully, it can definitely ensure a clean, organized, aesthetically pleasing foreground-background design.”
Maintaining a Dutch Syle Aquarium means quite a lot of work. At least when your tank has a big size. My tank is 3.10mtr 65cm. deep and 50cm. high. That is a large surface and means large plant groups and lots of plants. Some of my plant groups (especially foreground plants) consist of more than 500 plants per group. When I do maintenance, I have to take out a whole group, cut each plant to the right size and put it back with the tweezers.The rules of the N.B.A.T. say that a Dutch Style Aquarium should not contain more than one specie of plant per 1 decimeter front glass. So in my tank, 3.10 mtr., I can have 31 species of plants. That means for me about 26 groups and three to five solitary plants.
You know about “the rule of thirds”
(Wikipedia: The rule of thirds is a “rule of thumb” or guideline which applies to the process of composing visual images such as designs, films, paintings, and photographs. The guideline proposes that an image should be imagined as divided into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines, and that important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections. Proponents of the technique claim that aligning a subject with these points creates more tension, energy and interest in the composition than simply centering the subject.)
The spots where you should place the strikingly colored groups or the solitaires.
“On the downside, Dutch style aquascapes usually look better when viewed from a certain angle, ideally the front, but this is by no means discouraging.”
When the aquarium is situated in the living room, there will be a place from where the aquarium is being watched. This can be from the couch or from a chair or from the dining table. That spot determines the viewing direction to the aquarium. In the case of creating Dutch streets, it is important that these streets are in line with the viewing direction. This is not important in case of a photo contest.
Daily Dutch aquascape maintenance includes: adding liquid fertilizer, checking tank temperature and CO² level, feeding fish and removing floating leaves and other debris. On weekly basis, the following actions are recommended: cleaning the aquarium glass, dislodging accumulated debris by hand waving around plants and substrate, cleaning the filters, pruning and replanting (if necessary).
Do you have a Dutch Style aquarium with many aquarium plants? In particular, keep an eye on the CO2. Your aquarium plants need CO2 to grow well. You can purchase a complete CO2 installation or opt for a cheaper and effective solution such as HS Aqua Flora Carbo.
Key aspects in the Dutch Aquarium judging contest scoring
- the health of aquatic plants, fish and other species
- water parameters (optimal temperature, suitable levels of phosphate and nitrates; hardness)
- selection of plants, use of color and contrast
- selection and compatibility and number of fish in comparison to the size of the aquarium and environmental conditions
- general design and layout
- equipment setup (should be out of view).
Joe Harvey won the AGA contest 2017 in the category Dutch Style.
Joe asked me on Facebook: “Could you give me any advice in how to improve it, like you showed on those tanks in Denver?” So I feel free to add some comments.
When you look at the groups of plants you will see that the biggest group is number 5 Diplis diandra. I would say: Never divide your tank into two parts by placing such a group in the middle of your tank. I don’t know if this is a special variety of Diplis diandra, but in my opinion this plant could be more dark green and have more red coloured tops.
Scott Miller became number three in the AGA contest Dutch Style 2017. He has a very nice tank. But his groups 5 and 11, look al lot like each other. So I would suggest to replace Group 11, Myriophyllum mattogrossense ‘Red’, by a plant wit a totally different leave, for instant Nomaphila stricta, Hygrophila guianensis or Hygrophila corymbosa. The seize of the groups at the back could be more diffrent and he should leave more space between the groups, to create more suggestion of depth.
Then finally I will show you some nice examples of Dutch style aquariums.
I hope this information can be of help for you. If you have any questions, please contact me. If you want me to advice you about the decoration of your tank, send me some pictures of the tank. At least one front picture, one map of the tank and a list of the plants in the tank, referring to your map. My mailadress is: firstname.lastname@example.org