Secrets to Successful Iwagumi Stone Arrangement

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Many new aquarists first getting into aquascaping see the work of accomplished aquascapers and wonder: “how do they do that?” When it comes to Iwagumi (rock-only layouts in an aquascape), many newcomers believe that it is all about the quality of the rock being used – that professional and accomplished aquascapers alike have secret access to stone that blows away anything that they could ever dream of getting.

If this is you, you’ve probably spent hours fiddling around with stones in your aquarium, trying to get the perfect layout. You may have even tried posting pictures of your hardscape for other people to help you giving them your feedback, but no matter what the stone arrangement just kind of seems “forced,” it doesn’t feel “right.”

I was just like you once and had the exact same pattern! I would repeatedly try to get the stones to look “just right” again and again.

However, by the time I mastered my own Iwagumi layouts, I was honored and humbled with feedback from Takashi Amano on this layout:

Frank Wazeter Master Iwagumi Layout

Mr. Amano, evaluating the aquascape asked “how long have you been doing aquascaping?” My reply: “only about 2 or 3 years.” Mr. Amano, looking at it long again replied:

“I am surprised that you were able to create a layout such as this in such a short amount of time practicing. You have a very keen sense of wabi-sabi and the overall layout is incredible for such a small aquarium. I have no advice for further improvement of this layout.”

So how did I do it? I’ve described the process step-by-step below.

Frank’s Iwagumi method:


The first step you must master is to visualize how you want the aquarium to look at the end. Not at the end of the aquascape setup, but after the plants have all grown in. Focus on how the layout will evolve over time and grow into it’s own. What stones will be covered? Which will be most prominent?

Keep the visual aspect firmly in your mind and you’ll eventually achieve it through the arrangement of stone. Don’t just focus on each individual stone but how will they all come together to form a complete picture.

“In other words BEGIN your layout with the END in mind. The number one reason why most layouts fail is because they begin at the beginning, and not at the end. If that doesn’t make sense, imagine yourself shooting free throws in basketball. If there was no basket to shoot at – you wouldn’t have a goal to aim for and score. You would be just throwing a basketball aimlessly in a random direction: how can you hope to succeed like that?”

Your mindset is extremely important for aquascaping. For reference, it should take you no longer than 15 to 20 minutes to complete your layout hardscape. In a small aquarium maybe even less than 5 minutes! Be relaxed, and aquascape with purpose!

When you take longer than 30 minutes or so to scape a small aquarium, in the end the layout feels “forced” and you begin to lose the ability to “see” what’s right and wrong intuitively. In other words, just like writers get writers block, you get “scapers” block. So should this occur, leave the aquarium behind and focus on visualizing how you’d like the scape to look all grown in and come back to it in a few hours or the next day to complete your work.


The second step you must master is a little counter intuitive. Most people focus on the “quality” or “character” of a stone, rather than the appropriate size when it comes to stones. Your first focus must be size. It needs to fit to scale – the secondary focus is character and detail.

Most nano aquariums require that you select a rock you may even think is over sized! Place this stone, the “main stone” at the appropriate part of your layout.

iwagumi main stone first
Place the Iwagumi’s main stone first, in a nano aquarium this should take up almost 1/4-1/3 the size of the aquarium.

In small nano aquariums, it’s perfectly okay to be a little centered because the canvas size is so small. Place the stone at a slight angle, use this angle guide for reference of “impressions” of stone:

Straight: Gives a look of stability

Flat: Stable feeling – the stone isn’t “going anywhere”

45 degree angle – Dramatic. The stone could tilt over any time, but cast’s it’s shadow.

Angled but more straight in appearance: Stable, slightly dramatic.

Angles Closer to 45 degrees: dramatic, slightly stable.

The next part you must move onto is your supporting stones, it’s very important to make sure that texture and color matches, not just stone type. Make sure you select stones that “feel like” they should be part of the same group and aren’t immensely different from one another.


Placement of second iwagumi stone
Place the second largest stone in your Iwagumi next

Notice how the second stone is flat, and forms an opposite angle to the main stone which creates a greater feeling of stability in the layout, but still draws attention straight to the main stone.

Important note: While most people believe the main stone is the most important stone in the layout, it’s usually the second stone that’s most important because it dictates how the rest of the scape will flow and how you plant accordingly.

Adding the third support stone to the iwagumi
Adding the third support stone to the iwagumi

Placing the third stone. This stone will mostly act off of the power of the supporting stone, matching the angle and softening the overall angle that side of the tank. It will be invisible mostly after plants grow in, but it adds texture to the overall layout and the growing patterns of the plant. Some may refer to it as a “sacrificial stone” for this reason.


Completing the Iwagumi layout by adding stones 4 and 5
Completing the Iwagumi layout by adding stones 4 and 5

The 4th and 5th stone (making an odd number of rocks in a classic 5 stone layout) follow the motion of the left side of the main stone and distribute a feeling of “flow” for the aquascape down into the bottom left hand corner where it pleasantly tapers off, but appears as if it could go on and on in the same kind of rock formation. This prevents the eye from wandering unnaturally and forms a single “stone cluster” together, again the idea as if the stones have naturally occurred together.

*Important note* some of the placement here might look odd at first even, and the reason is, is that the END picture of the scape is for the majority of the secondary and tertiary stones to be completely covered by plants. Here’s a great lesson for the necessity of stones, even if you plan on them being covered later on and the necessity for visualizing.


How to Start a Planted Tank – Step 2; The Aquarium Substrate

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How to Start a Planted Tank – Step 2: Getting Started with the Substrate

Previously, we talked about creating balance in the aquarium to sustain the ecosystem, and the quicker that that balance is achieved, the easier it is to be successful with your own planted aquarium. (click here to read Step 1 again)

In order for you to take action on those core principles covered in Step 1 (Bacteria, Water Chemistry and Nutrients), you need systems in place. Systems that set you up for success right away without you having to suffer through tougher-than-necessary learning curves that keep you away from enjoying a beautiful nature aquarium.

Often, we’ll get questions from customers who want to give aqua soil and the ADA substrate system a try and have been using other planted tank substrates like eco-complete, fluorite or the fluval varieties. Usually, the question is something like this:

“I’ve been using a nutrient rich soil, but it just always seems like for the first 6 months I struggle with my setups and plants, and then only after a year or so does the aquarium stabilize and I don’t have as much algae and aquatic plants are growing steadily…why does that happen and will aqua soil make it easier for me to grow those plants?”

Our hobby lends itself to over-thinking most of the time, but the answer is a lot simpler than you might think.

An aquarium that is 6 months to a year in age has simply matured; the ecosystem is intact and nutrients are being properly absorbed by both aquatic plants and beneficial bacteria is thriving to maintain the aquarium. Once the aquascape has reached maturity maintenance becomes easier, algae problems mostly disappear and the only real task left to do is trim the layout into the image you want it to be in.

However, when an aquarium is setup at first, none of this stability exists; plants are newly transplanted, the bacteria system hasn’t become established and nutrients go unused and are in varying amounts, leading to algae blooms and stunted growth.

Therefore, the solution is to more quickly stabilize the planted tank, leading to maturity faster. The primary difference then between ADA Aqua Soil and the ADA Substrate System and other products isn’t just the nutrient balance of aqua soil itself, but the entire lineup that is dedicated to solving the problem of quickly stabilizing the aquarium.

Bacter 100 seeds the aquarium with over a 100 different beneficial bacteria from the get-go directly into the substrate to “jump-start” the maturation process of the soil.

Clear Super provides the pre-seeded bacteria from Bacter 100 with a food supply to thrive.

Tourmaline BC removes excess toxins and waste that accumulates in the substrate, while also adding minerals like iron and manganese to help with aquarium plant growth.

Power Sand becomes the porous, high-surface area material, (similar to biological filtration media in your canister filter) for the bacteria to live and thrive in, while also encouraging root growth in aquatic plants in giving them something to cling to and expand from.

Finally, ADA Aqua Soil Amazonia provides all of the primary necessary nutrition for plants to grow and thrive.

The specialty aspect of these products, is that they are specifically designed not only to jump-start your planted aquarium and reduce ‘growing-pain’ problems in the growth of your nature aquarium, but also they are designed to specifically work together. In other words, by using the system together, you are able to give yourself the best possible chance for success.

That’s all for today, and until next time, stay tuned for Step 3!


Frank Wazeter

How to Start a Planted Tank – Step 1

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“How should I get Started?”

Starting your planted tank requires some key planning and understanding of core concepts.

Most people understand that starting something right the first time is much easier than having to constantly redo the aquascape as it develops. Not starting properly can lead to excess algae and frustration as plants do not grow properly. Mastering the skill of optimally getting your aquarium to quickly get to stability and the growth phase will lead to more beautiful layouts, quicker.


STEP ONE: Bacteria and micro-organisms

Initial setup is the most vulnerable time for your planted tank. Because the beneficial bacteria and ecosystem is not yet established, the aquarium is vulnerable. Not only should you account for nitrogen cycle bacteria (which eliminates ammonia), but also synergistic bacteria that live and thrive on plant roots and in the substrate for plant growth and health.

These microscopic bacteria form a filter inside your aquarium that works for you to eliminate negative elements and waste, while creating positive ones that aid your plants health, vigor and growth while making the environment healthier for fish.

Pro Tip: the quicker these bacteria become established, the faster your aquarium is stable and less algae problems come down the road from an instable system.

STEP TWO: Water Chemistry

Water balance is essential for easy growth. pH and kH contribute to how easy a plant can grow in the system, look below for a quick reference:

Neutral Water has a pH of 7

Alkaline Water has a pH above 7

Acidic Water has a pH below 7

If your water is too acidic, the plants will be “burned,” too much alkalinity and the plants will bleach out. The healthiest ranges for pH in the planted aquarium is about 6.2-6.8 (slightly acidic).

Higher kH and pH values (alkaline) makes it harder for plants to spread their roots and grow efficiently. This happens because the mineral values that create high kH and pH water block the pores and cells in plants, making it more difficult for them to absorb nutrients. While it is still possible to grow plants in a pH above 7.6, it is much more difficult than growing them in a pH closer to 7 or below. A pH that is too low on the other hand, leads to plants buring themselves out (browning), and also indicates that there aren’t enough minerals in the water. These values are typically when the water is 5.4-5.8 or lower (except in rare circumstances).

Pro Tip: the more balanced your pH and kH values are to a pH of 6.8 and kH of 2, the more efficient your plants will grow and your co2 distribution is! This lets plants absorb nutrients optimally!

Watch out for: pH values taken while the co2 is being distributed into the fish aquarium is somewhat inaccurate. Co2 lowers the pH of the aquarium, but does not have a harmful impact on the actual “real” pH of the system. Don’t worry if your pH drops below the listed ranges when Co2 is on. We’re referring mostly to naturally acidic water!

STEP THREE: Nutrients

It would be silly to think that plant’s can’t grow without nutrients. Just imagine how long you can live without food. The nutritional aspect for plants is largely covered by nutrient rich substrates such as Aqua Soil, which cover all of the essential macro nutrients required for plants to grow.

Later on, I’ll show you what nutrients specifically are being provided, but in the mean time just know that Aqua Soil takes care of this for you without the need for you to worry about it. Of course, if you want to create your own substrate that will require more research.

Pro Tip: Investing in the best substrate system you can gives you the best advantages for success. Never short-change your substrate, because otherwise you will have long term issues.

Keep a look out for part 2, where we’ll get started delving deeper into how to start a planted tank!

Frank Wazeter