Cichlid Tank Ideas: Hardscape Options, Plants & More

Posted by Miles Harrison on 1/16/2023

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Cichlid tanks are some of the most fascinating in the freshwater aquarium hobby. As a hobbyist, you have various options for designing and maintaining one of these unique aquariums.

While there are some aquatic plant limitations you should be aware of before designing your aquascape, with proper planning you can create a beautiful aquarium that your inhabitants will enjoy. In this post, we’re going to discuss tank ideas for African Cichlids, Dwarf Cichlids, and New World Cichlids

Cichlid Aquariums

If you’re considering housing cichlids, you may have learned that their care requirements differ between species. While you should always research a specific species, hobbyists have classified cichlids into three groups: African cichlids, New World cichlids (from Central and South America), and Dwarf cichlids.

These fish come from different parts of the world, where their environments differ. Below are some recommendations for each grouping of cichlids.

Image of a cichlid with a fern
A cichlid swims as a java fern grows in the background

African Cichlids

African Cichlids are quite limited when it comes to aquatic plants.

These fish are known to pick at and move around sand, which can lead to plants being uprooted. While some hobbyists choose to not include plants in their tanks, certain species can coexist with these groups of cichlids.

Aquascape Ideas

In the wild, African cichlids live in high-pH environments that are abundant with rocks. To recreate this natural habitat in an aquarium, it is important to use rocks and a sand substrate.

Image of a cichlid and sand
Mathee Suwannarak/
An African cichlid tank with a sand substrate

Seiryu Stone

Known as one of the most popular types of stones, made famous by Takashi Amano , Seiryu stone aquascapes look excellent with African cichlids. However, you should be aware that these stones will make your aquarium water more alkaline over time.

Seiryu stones make a great addition to an African cichlid tank, and the light gray coloration of seiryu stones contrasts nicely with darker-colored African cichlid species, such as the Demasoni cichlid.

Texas Holey Rock (Honeycomb Limestone)

Texas Holey Rock , commonly referred to as Honeycomb Limestone, is another popular option for an African Cichlid tank. These rocks have plenty of small holes, which can serve as small hiding spots for your African cichlids.

Since it’s Limestone, you’ll see your pH levels raise over time, so be sure to monitor your pH and perform water changes as necessary to maintain a consistent pH level.

Compatible Plants

You’ll want to add plants that anchor above the substrate when keeping African cichlids. Generally, plants with thicker leaves tend to do better than plants with fragile leaves. The following plants are excellent options.

Anubias Barteri

The Anubias genus is highly popular in the aquarium hobby due to its durability and ease of care. This plant has roots that remain exposed in the water column and it is commonly attached to hardscape using a fishing line or an adhesive. This makes it a great choice for cichlid tanks as it can withstand any potential attacks from the fish.

Anubias Frazeri

This plant is an attractive anubias species that differs slightly in appearance from anubias barteri. Anubias Frazeri is easy to care for, and has narrow leaves compared to the more rounded leaves seen in Anubias Barteri.

Java Fern

Java Fern is often recommended to beginners new to the planted tank hobby for its ease of care and durability. While this plant may suffer melting if not kept properly, given the proper conditions it can thrive in an African cichlid tank.


One of the most beautiful foreground and midground plants in the planted tank hobby is the bucephalandra plant. While it tends to be a bit more expensive and less common compared to some of the other plants we’ve mentioned, it rewards hobbyists with its stunning appearance. African cichlids can co-exist well with bucephalandra plants, as long the plants have been tied to a piece of hardscape.

Image of Holey Rock
Frantisek Czanner/
A cichlid aquarium with Texas Holey Rock

New World Cichlids

New World cichlids tend to live in more acidic waters, which opens up more opportunities when it comes to keeping certain types of plants. pH-neutral hardscapes will also be beneficial, as high levels of pH can be dangerous for most new world species.

Aquascaping Ideas

Natural-looking tanks are the way to go with new world cichlids. Here are some of our favorite hardscape additions.


There are a few popular types of driftwood in the aquarium hobby. Mopani, Cholla, and Malaysian are some of our favorites, and the colors of these woods look excellent in a new world cichlid tank.

Malaysian driftwood tends to be the most expensive, but if you can get a large piece of driftwood to be used as a centerpiece, it can be well worth the cost.

Colorado River Rock

Colorado river rocks are pH-neutral and come in unique shades of grays and light blues. One of the best parts about these rocks is that they’re completely smooth to the touch.

If you have a cichlid species that could be sensitive to hard corners, then the colorado river rock is a perfect choice.

Compatible Plants

Planted aquascapes look great with new world cichlids, but plant options are largely species-dependent. Larger cichlids, such as the Electric Blue Jack Dempsey will dig and uproot most plants, but smaller cichlids, such as certain species of Rams, can co-exist with most plants. Since these fish tend to be a bit larger compared to their dwarf-cichlid counterparts, we recommend going with larger, broad-leaved plants.

Cryptocoryne Spiralis

Crypts are a favorite in the planted tank hobby. These slow-growing plants have long leaves and can do well with certain new world species.

These plants can be difficult to find for sale at times, and it’s also common for crypts to go through an initial phase, known as crypt melt, while they transition to a new aquarium environment.

Amazon Sword

The Amazon Sword plant is known for its strong roots, which allow it to securely anchor itself to the substrate.

These plants grow vertically and can get quite tall, making for an excellent backdrop in a new world cichlid tank.

Dwarf Cichlids

Some of the brightest and most unique-looking cichlids in the hobby are dwarf cichlids, and hobbyists will be happy to know that they’re compatible with the majority of aquatic plants in the hobby.

The size of dwarf cichlids opens up interesting possibilities, as they’ll live comfortably in a nano-tank environment.

Image of a planted tank with a dwarf cichlid
A Dwarf Cichlid swims in a planted tank

Aquascaping Ideas

Similar to their cichlid relatives, dwarf cichlids are still territorial, so if you plan on housing these fish you’ll want to have a tank filled with plenty of caves and plants for them to claim as their own.

Luckily there aren’t many restrictions when it comes to keeping dwarf cichlids, which is why you see them occasionally in award-winning aquascapes.


Iwagumi-scapes reflect a minimalist design. A carpeting plant, typically Hemianthus Callitrichoides, or Dwarf Hairgrass makes up the foreground, while stones are scattered to create a unique sense of scale.

This can be accomplished in a dwarf cichlid tank, but you’ll need to carefully monitor PH. Stones frequently used in these aquascapes will raise pH, but you can balance the raise in pH by injecting CO2 and performing water changes.

Dutch Style

Dutch-style aquascapes are heavily-planted aquariums that are known for their wide variety of plants with little hardscape.

The large volume of plants looks fantastic with smaller species, and with proper trimming, a unique sense of scale can be achieved. Dwarf cichlids do well in these tanks, as the large volume of plants creates plenty of hiding spots. As with any heavily planted tank, you’ll want to keep your pH levels as stable as possible for your dwarf cichlids.

Compatible Plants

While there are many compatible plant options for dwarf cichlids, there are some plants that are more highly pursued than others.

The plants you choose will largely depend on what kind of aquascape you’re looking to build, but you can’t go wrong with some of these staples.

Hygrophila Salicifolia

Hygrophila Salicifolia, often simply referred to as Hygro, is a unique-looking plant that will give your dwarf cichlid tank a wild look. This plant has long tall stems that branch off every few inches.

When clumped together, multiple stems of Hygrophila can create a small oasis for your dwarf cichlids to hide in.

Taiwan Lilies

Also referred to as Taiwan Lilies, Nymphoides Hydrophylla is an excellent option for planted tanks with dwarf cichlids.

This plant produces large lily pads that will grow towards the surface, creating a shaded environment below the leaves that tank inhabitants will enjoy.


As you can see, African, new world, and dwarf cichlids all have subtle restrictions that you’ll need to be aware of when planning an aquascape. No matter which type of cichlid you own or plan on owning, you’ll have plenty of exciting options when it comes to building out your dream aquarium.

Now that we’ve summarized a few different tank ideas, what type of aquascape do you plan on creating? Let us know by commenting below, and be sure to check out our marketplace and community forum where you can connect with other hobbyists.

Image of Miles Harrison

Miles Harrison

With over a decade of aquarium experience, Miles can be found writing about saltwater and freshwater aquariums. When he’s not writing about fish, you can find him going for a run or building websites, such as this one!