For many aquarium hobbyists, one of the main joys of cultivating an aquarium is decorating it. There are many types of aquarium decorations to choose from so you can create nearly any theme you can think of – novelty themes, natural themes, even fantastical themes. The decorations you use in your aquarium can affect not only the way your tank looks but how your fish interact with your tank elements – tank decorations can provide your fish with places to hide as well as areas to claim as their own territory.
This article will serve to provide you with an overview of aquarium decorations, their types and how they can be used. We'll first cover what is included in aquarium decorations and go over some of the most popular types (divided between freshwater aquarium decorations and saltwater decorations). Then we'll foray into the pros and cons of whether to go with manufactured decorations or stick with organic decorations. Finally, we'll leave you with tips on decorating your tank and a list of online sources for you.
What are Aquarium Decorations?
Broadly defined, aquarium decorations include both manufactured (fake) and organic (living or was living at one time) decorations, used in both saltwater and freshwater environments. Aquarium decorations include both the substrate and backgrounds used with tanks. Usually, you'll find that people will use more decorations in freshwater or saltwater tanks that are FO (fish only) or FOWLR (fish only with live rock). With reef tanks, the corals typically serve as their own form of tank decoration. If you are thinking that you do not need any decorations in your tank, consider these facts:
- Many fish use what we call decorations for shelter.
- Live rock, while also decorative, is invaluable in terms of the natural bioorganic filtering that they provide. Live rock isn't actually living rock, but rock that is teeming with bacteria and other microorganisms as well as macro-organisms that help clean the water.
Freshwater Aquarium Decorations
Decorations for freshwater aquariums are extremely variable – not only do you have store-bought options but you can also find natural objects and decorative household objects to use creatively. No matter what decorations you choose it is essential that you clean them well before using them in your tank and make sure there are no sharp edges that might injure your fish. Some of the most popular types of decorations for freshwater aquariums are listed below:
- Manufactured decorations:
- fake plants (plastic or silk)
- fake rocks (plastic or ceramic)
- fake wood (plastic or ceramic)
- novelty items (plastic or ceramic castles, divers, etc.)
- Organic (dead):
- Real rocks
- Substrates (gravel, beach sand, river sand, coral sand, and peat are popular choices)
- Organic (living)
Saltwater Aquarium Decorations
Decorations for saltwater aquariums are often different from decorations for freshwater tanks. For one thing, live plants that you might use in a freshwater tank will not survive in a saltwater environment. You still have plenty of inorganic and novelty items to choose from, however. Below you will find a list of decorations for saltwater aquariums:
- Manufactured decorations
- Rubber / synthetic coral
- novelty items (scuba diver, shells, pirate, mermaid, etc.)
- Organic (dead)
- Organic (living)
PROS & CONS for Manufactured Decorations
Manufactured decorations are a staple in the freshwater aquarium trade because they are inexpensive and easy to come by. Some of the most commonly used manufactured decorations include fake plants, fake rocks and novelty items. As is true of all decorations, manufactured decorations have their associated pros and cons. Below you will find a list of the benefits and drawbacks of these decorations so you can decide if they are the right choice for you. Pros for using manufactured decorations include:
- Fake decorations are long lasting - they won't rot like live plants
- Fake decorations are easier to clean than living decorations
- Fake decorations are not taken from the environment – they don’t affect sustainability
- You'll have more choices as far as colors and sizes if you go with fake decorations.
- Fake decorations can be fun -- it all depends on your personal sense of style.
- Fake decorations should not affect tank chemistry
Here are the cons to using manufactured decorations:
- Fake decorations can look cheesy if they are poorly made or used
- Depending on what you're getting, some fake decorations (manufactured corals or rocks) could actually be more expensive than the real thing
PROS & CONS for Organic Decorations
Organic decorations come from natural objects or organisms – they may be either currently living or no longer living. An example of a living organic decoration is a live plant while an example of a non-living organic decoration might be a rock or piece of driftwood. There are pros and cons to using both living and non-living organic decorations. Below you will find a list of pros and cons for both options. Pros for using organic decorations include:
- Living organic decorations will provide you with the most realistic and possibly interesting results.
- Some decorations (like plants) will help to improve the conditions in your tank (ex: increasing oxygen content)
Here are the cons to using organic decorations:
- Keeping real organic decorations can be expensive - you'll need to replace them when they reach their natural life span.
- Natural organic decorations are harder to care for
- When certain organic (living) decorations die, they may affect the conditions in your tank (they may release toxins or affect water quality)
- Your selection for size, shape and color is more limited than with manufactured decorations
- Some organic decorations can affect water parameters – some substrates may increase pH and driftwood might leech tannins into the water
Tips for Decorating Your Tank like a Pro
Before you set out to decorate your aquarium, you should have some kind of plan in mind – you do not have to have all the details in place but you should have an idea what kind of look you want to cultivate. Think about whether you want your tank to look natural or if you want to go for a novelty theme and choose your decorations accordingly. You also need to think about the size and shape of your tank when picking decorations – your decorations should be proportional in size to the size of your tank.
Another thing you might want to consider is getting some kind of background for your tank. This can be a picture, or just a color such as a graded blue or a simple black. It will help hide equipment you may have in the back of your tank and will also keep anything else in the background hidden from your view. A background often makes the difference between a professional look and an amateur at work.
One last thought I'd like to leave you with is that you don't have to go with ONLY real decorations or manufactured decorations -- have seen plenty of tanks that have successfully combined both. The key is to not go overboard with either option. If you choose to use novelty decorations in your tank, offset them with a few natural elements as well so the tank doesn’t end up looking ridiculous. Try to vary the size of your decorations so you fill the tank space effectively while leaving your fish plenty of room to swim. Remember, the way you decorate your tank is up to you so have fun doing it!