Neil Frank's "Stages of the aquatic gardener" inspired me to think further as a scaping viewpoint.
Differentiating from the plant _gardener_, the plant aquascaper has a much longer, and less frustrating path in development. "Gardening" involves the growing aspects of aquatic horticulture. This includes the physiology, ecology, pruning, aquarium maintenance and mastering the ability to use the "colors"... the plants themselves.
I started off aquascaping with rock, next came coral and marine tanks, then driftwood and finally to plants both Marine and Freshwater. The "Aquascaper" uses the colors(the plants) to paint their design. Aquascaping involves all aspects of design and layout. This extends beyond the confines of the tank itself as a well placed tank in a home, office or or other dwelling will greatly enhance the over look and impact. One can be a great aquascaper yet a poor gardener, but most are good gardeners first then later develop their artistic abilities with more focus on the design.
Some wish to dissect the elements of the aquascape, immerse themselves in the artistic elements of space, design and layout. Some wish to focus on techniques such as attaching moss to wood for a natural effect. Some, like perhaps the majority of folks, wish simply to have a tank full of plants without algae and to have their choice of plants to grow. Most discussions about aquarium plants revolve around how to keep plants rather than design.
This trend is changing as the horticultural methods are becoming demystified.
Many people start off choosing plants that are not easy to grow for the beginner and change their design plans. Later, after a period of algae woes, they simply want to keep the tank free of algae. Many folks feel they need to work more on algae control and growing the plants than the aquascape. Some folks stay true to their original design. Other folks let the tank evolve on it's own. These stages are not in any sort of _definite order_ since many folks may jump from one area to another unlike many aspects of the mechanical/biological "gardening/horticulture". Nor is this all inclusive nor exhaustive listing.
Stage one: "Hey!, It's growing, I saw a new leaf today! I see pearling! It's Alive!(with a Dr. Frankenstein tone)". This stage is fun, but often the only goal is growing the plants but adding any plants to an aquarium is a design choice. Often, it's just what will grow in their tank and added anywhere. Many folks start off like this and later develop design interest.
Stage two: How much of the tank do I want to use for plants? Many folks start off with the goal to plant only a part of the tank or sparingly. This is not surprising since most folks are comfortable with rock and/or wood already. Seldom do folks jump right into a planted without other aquarium experiences so this allows them to "stick their big toe into the water" without fully committing to a full blown planted tank which might seem a bit too intimidating initially. These tanks can look very nice depending on the layout and the aquarist design and ideas and is perhaps a sub area of design versus a fully planted tank. Many aquarist want the fish to be the main focus and the plants to be a secondary consideration. Floating plants only can be added to most all freshwater aquariums and can be included in this stage. These tanks can be done to a very level of design and impact.
Stage three: The psychological disease known as "Collectoritus". This person wants every new plant that comes along (which includes most of us). This is a good exercise, though not at first glance. Since plants are the colors, learning how to grow each one of them is very helpful to execute later designs. You need the "colors" to "paint". It also helps the aquarist to get to know and understand each plant on a personal level and realize it's long term potential for placement in the tank design. Many plants may grow too fast for placement in a design for example while other may grow too slow to maintain the design choice without a great deal of work. Collectoritis is somewhat like a zoo, a few species here and there, mixed in, seldom looking like a natural design. But one of the most interesting of all tanks is the one that has many rare and interesting plants with a good design as well. This can be very challenging.
Stage four: "Darn, I can grow plants well, now I have to design something?" Many folks slowly increase the groups of plants they keep over the years. They start off with a little bit of Riccia in one corner. A couple of years later, they have added it as most of the foreground or the entire tank. Many folks are torn between having more species and having a large field of one to few species. But the overall impact can be seen in many aquarium of the large groupings of a single species. Nowhere has this been shown to be true than in Amano's book one with the Glossotigma. But the emphasis on the groupings impact becomes increasingly important and the aquarist is more willing to try larger grouping designs to see how the tank looks. This involves reducing other species which many aquarist have difficulty with. A good way around that: the plants will be there later when you want to redesign the tank, nothing is permanent. The tank grows and evolves, so does the aquascaper. Think of it as "renting" a few plants for awhile. If you change your mind, you can always go back and use the other plants, after all, planted tanks are anything but static, they are constantly changing.
Stage five: The technique freak. Using java fern attached to wood was the first real planted goal I had when I first decided to get serious about a fully planted tank. I thought that the Aponogeton bulbs I bought were Java fern and proceed to crush them into the wood cracks. Two out of the 20 lived. This stage involves some very gratifying work. It is somewhat like using the plant "colors" as it gives three dimensionality to many designs with a minimum of a maintenance. Moss looks very impressive on thin crooked branches stuffed into a group of rocks. Everyone loves Riccia rocks and branches. Using cotton thread, thin (but not too thin!), glues, like silicone folks can attach plants to rocks, driftwood or cork the back of the tank's wall(e.g. cork wall tanks). Folks that are interested in design and execution using these techniques often will make this the central theme and leave much of the remainder of tank more subdued.
Stage six: The sloper. The Sloper realizes that the tank's look and impact can be radically changed by adding hills and valleys to gravel/substrate. Sloping the gravel can create three dimensionality. Many aquascapers try to use the plants and trimming techniques to do this. This make the tank more labor intensive and often results in "flat tank syndrome" with overgrown plants most of the time. Sloping also opens a tank up more and keeps a sense of order and design in the tank.
Stage seven: The micro grouper. No, it's not a small Grouper fish. These folks will get a nice looking groups within a tank and try to add them together in an over all design. Sort of a collage of different micro scenes.
Stage eight: The external aquascaper. These folks often work outside of the tank with a nice cabinet design, lighting, house plants near by, nice location in the house, some put waterfalls, garden style rooms around their tank. Anything to do with the external tank designs.
Stage nine: The imitator. These folks see a design and try to emulate it. A good work study for folks. Although many are often too hard on themselves for not getting exact details down, later more seasoned folks realize that close to the same design with a different plant, or slightly differing rock arrangement, driftwood etc, does not ruin the design but actually gives each and every work it's own personality and uniqueness.A sub group here worth mentioning is the Canvasser. This aquarist uses a backdrop of a single plant, such as Glosstigm or Riccia are the background for design and then added color and texture to the tank. They can remove the plants and build or layer on the "plant canvas" and rearrange designs quickly without disturbing the tank or the general layout too much.
Stage ten: The Dutch aquarist. The focus is on design elements of the Dutch European style, gardens. Lots of pruning, generally easier plants are kept.
Stage eleven: The Natural aquarist: Design inspiration from natural scenes.
Stage twelve: The innovator: Makes their own style and techniques and attempts to break the conventions associated with aquascaping with a stunning impact.
Many of these stages are interwoven, intermingled and interconnected. Some folks start off with great designs, others take many years to find interest in this area. Some may never find much interest in this topic. But I think everyone is awed by a spectacularly designed tank. But folks need to take the risk and try out their ideas, there's no limit to the creativity if this hobby. A new person with a good interesting design will win out over the best grower in the world for an aquascaping competition. So try it!
Regards, Tom Barr