Friday, May 30, 2008

Going Dutch

By Robert Paul Hudson
This article appeared in January 08 Freshwater and Marine Aquarium Magazine

For decades the tradition of the Dutch planted aquarium has carried on changing very little. For years I have tried to find information behind the mystique of this tradition and thanks to the internet I was finally able to meet some Dutch masters and learn more details of this very beautiful art form

The traditional Dutch planted aquarium is defined as an underwater garden where plants are arranged in groups that compliment each other to make up an overall composition that shows contrast in color and shape, as well as depth of field. Some people have compared it to an English terrestrial garden, but the Dutch people I spoke to do not give it any such label or influence. To them it is simply the way it is done and has always been done for decades.

When you see the real thing, it is unmistakable. Rich contrast. Subtle color. Pathways that ascend into darkness. This is what has been fine tuned from generations of hobbyists who compete in a national organization called NBAT, (National Bond Aqua-Terra), which consists of 122 local club affiliations that are divided into fifteen districts. People first compete at the local club level. The club winners of five categories, (Freshwater Plants. Biotopes , Saltwater, Paludariums and Terrariums, Ponds) go on to compete against the other club winners within their district. The district winners then compete against each other nationally. At each stage a judge comes to the home to judge the aquarium.

This is serious business! To become an NBAT judge, one must pass an exam and go thru about three years of training!

Judging criteria for the planted aquarium

· Overall layout and composition of the aquascape. No more than one plant specie for every four inches of tank length. Use of color and contrast
· Appropriate number of fish to the size of the aquarium and schooling fish should be at least ten
· Compatibility of fish species and other animals
· Overall health of the fish and plants
· Appropriate water conditions for the needs of the inhabitants
· Optimal temperature
· Appropriate levels of nitrate, phosphate, and hardness
· Gravel or sand should be very low against the front glass
· All equipment should be out of view

Layout techniques

There are some basic rules of thumb to Dutch plant layout design:

It is very important to keep a sense of harmony and simplicity, and for this reason having no more than one plant specie per four inches of tank length is very important. This keeps the groups of plants well defined and not over powering.

Like many artists, the Dutch use the rule of thirds. Divide the tank length into thirds and create a major focal point, (red plant, large plant, wood or rock) at the one third and second third lines. Never, never place a focal point dead center!

Variation in color, leaf structure and height are very important, other wise you end up with one solid wall of indistinctive plants going the length of the aquarium. To better emphasize these contrasts, spaces are left between groups of plants and ascending rows of plants, (streets or pathways) help to add depth of field. Also the creation of “see-thrus”, (sparsely planted groups, or groups of plants with spaces between leaves that allow you to see the background behind the group) give a greater sense of depth. While color and contrast is important, the over use of it is distracting and takes away from the sense of balance and uniformity.

The Dutch plant aquarium does not have a large amount of open floor space. At least 80% of the aquarium floor should be planted.

Traditional Plants

Dutch Streets
There are several traditional plants that are used for specific reasons. The Dutch “street” is a pathway of low growing plants set at the viewing angle and ascends toward the rear creating depth of field. Saurus cernuus and Lobelia cardinalis are most often used for this purpose. When the plants grow too tall they are simply replaced with shorter ones. Some hobbyists keep a grow-out tank of just these two plants to have a ready supply of plants at various heights. In recent years a smaller version of Lobelia cardinalis has been created commercially.

Plant Groups
Hygrophila corymbosa and Limnophila aquatica have been commonly used for decades. They are both large stem plants that have a strong visual effect and grow quickly. By continually topping off the stem when they grow too tall and re-planting the tops, they remain healthy and bushy and the desired look is always retained.

Small Cryptocoryne species including wendtii, becketti, lucens, lutea, and walkeri are all used in groups or rows from the front to the middle. Their dark earthy colors provide a nice contrast and once planted are left alone for years.

For color highlights, Alternanthera reineckii, Ammania, and Rotala species are long time favorites. Ludwigias and Eusteralis stellata, (now known as Pogostemon stellatus) are also sometimes used. Other types of focal points may include various Sword plants, Tiger Lotus, Aponogetons, and other large plants that stand alone as a solitary plant. Rarely will you see more than one full grown large plant in a Dutch aquascape.

Java moss is often used to provide dark contrast between plant groups and sometimes as an actual focal point on a large piece of wood.

The foreground is essential. It should be neat, tidy, and blend into the background. It may consist of contrasting groups, but different species are never mixed together in the same group. Sometimes a foreground group may become or blend into an ascending street. Small grass like plants such as E. tenellus are most often used next to groups of small Cryptocorynes and streets.

New Plants

Plants newer to the hobby are beginning to find their way into traditional aquascapes. I was surprised to see Pogostemon helferi in Fred van Wezel’s aquarium. This plant was discovered in Thailand a few years ago where it is called “Dou noi” meaning “little star”. It has a rather unique leaf shape and when planted in groups like this makes an interesting foreground. Under bright light the plant remains compact and gives off side shoots with new plants. Under weak light it grows more vertical. In it’s natural habitat, the plant grows in iron rich clay and calcium carbonate which makes it ideal for the aquarium and a no brainer for the Dutch aquascaper. Pogostemon helferi is just now becoming available in the USA.


Terracing is a component of Dutch aquascaping but it is done on a simple basis. The substrate is raised in areas most often using only driftwood. Plants are also attached to wood solely for the purpose of creating the illusion of an ascending substrate. In more elaborate layouts plant walls are created against the glass using sheets of cork or even corkbark to attach plants to. Terraces are used for the specific purpose of creating more depth perception and are tied to a viewing angle and “street”. A good Dutch aquascape gives a different special perspective depending on which angle you are viewing it from: the left, the right, or full frontal.


There is an expression used in this country, “Dutch aquarium” which apparently means an aquarium without any filtration, subdued or natural lighting, little or no equipment. I do not know where this term came from. It might have been true at the turn of the previous century, but it is certainly not true today. Hobbyists in the Netherlands pretty much use the same equipment we do even in traditional aquariums. The lighting may be somewhat less intense than American high tech aquariums and standard fluorescents are normally used, but canister filters or sumps are the most common filtration systems and C02 is injected in a range of 15 to 20ppm. Clay or laterite substrates are used and fertilization doses of iron and minerals are done on a regular basis. Some people mix their own stock solutions while others use commercial products.

Willem van Wezel is one of the revered veterans of this tradition that I had the good fortune to speak with. 58 years old, he has been competing since he was 18 years old. He has won several club championships, a few district championships and twice finished second in the national competition. His older brother and two Uncles help tutor him in the hobby, but he quickly developed his own style. He has passed this tradition on to his son Fred who is 33 years old and won championship of his club after only four years in the hobby. Willem is active in a Dutch online forum called Veni Vidi Vissie, where he tries to help educate young people who are interested in the hobby. He also writes for the Dutch magazine, The Aquarium.

The Future

What does the future hold for this tradition? It may be shaky. The majority of the competitors are now over the age of 50. According to Willem and others I talked to the younger generation does not have the patience and time to maintain such an aquarium. One gentleman told me if someone wants to learn this tradition, they shouldn’t expect to become an expert for the first couple decades! Young people today do not seem to think past a couple months never mind a couple decades! Willem is not too concerned. He is having too much fun! “I change my layout around four or five times per year. I really love to change my layout because it is good training for the contests. Working with aquarium plants relaxes me.” He went on to say, “The most beautiful scape you can make is the one that pleases yourself the most. I am the one that has to look at it the whole year through, therefore I am the one that needs to be satisfied.”

More information and photos may be found online at both and . The Dutch forum is located and can be read in English with an online translator. The majority of the people there do speak English and welcome visitors.


nata_boa said...

Hello, Robert. Thank you for your article.I have a question for you/ Tell me please, what is this orange threads (like a rope) at the latest photos. At the wood, on the right side. Is this is a moss?
Thank you for your reply :)

nata_boa said...

"... At the wood, on the right side//. ",-
sorry, on the left side.

Robert Paul Hudson said...

I get asked that fairly often, and I don't know for sure! The gentleman in the Netherlands never gave me that information. I believe it is a type of algae that is intentionaly grown. I will try and find more information.

Mark said...

I know this is a bit late, but the red weird algae thing is called "wolwier" in the netherlands (Nemalion sp)

Lissette said...

I just saw this. Great article, Robert and I didn't know you had Dutch scapes. Beautiful. I will be applying some of the Dutch princples on a nano scale. I always thought the ideas could work very well for smaller aquariums, especially with the many nano plant species that are available now.

Robert Paul Hudson said...

Writing this article meant a great deal to me. I felt so fortunet thanks to the internet to be ab le to talk directly to these people and get first hand information about this tradition.

Toby224 said...

Hi Robert love the artical but i just wanted to make you aware that there is an identical artical on blogspot to yours, did you post it as well?