First, what the heck is Aquascaping?
It is the art or craft of arranging substrate materials like rocks stone, driftwood, etc., and the living sessile (fixed, non-moving) components like corals and plants in an aesthetically pleasing manner within an aquarium. It can also be added ” so that it emulates the natural environment the tank inhabitants are found in.” Think of it as underwater gardening.

Why do I need to know about this?
Because you want to give your tank inhabitant a supporting environment while providing you a pleasing place to rest your eye and mind. You also want to make maintenance of your tank as easy as possible. In other words, the 5 P’s – Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance.

Plan the Design

Really take some time to think about what you want to your reef world to end up being.

  • What kind of reef community do I want? What kind of corals? If you are adding fish then what do they need in terms of structure?Planning should include:

Graphic of typical coral reef zones; NOAA

  • Looking at videos and pictures of reefs can help you find what areas of the reef appeal to you most. Coral reefs have distinctive horizontal and vertical zones defined differences in depth, wave action, current, light, temperature and sediment. All reefs have a fore reef or reef face- that part that faces seaward and the back reef which is the side closest to shore. In between these is the reef crest.
  • Take note the animals that live in these area and the conditions they live in. What do they need in terms of lighting and current to thrive? What kind of neighbors they will make to the other residents you want? How big will they get?
  • Research their requirements and think about how you are going to provide these and how that plays into your layout. A tank with tiny reef fish, invertebrates and corals works with a mound, terrace or wall design. A tank with large fish will need large, open swimming areas and a column or two of rock may work best. Here are some basic layouts to get you started:
  • While designing don’t forget how the tank will be viewed: From how many sides? From up close or far away? From above, at eye level or below. You also need to consider where you are placing equipment. You want to hide it but also be able to easily service it
  • Consider creating a reef tank of corals, fish and live rock all coming from the same ocean. They are used to living together and it is more likely to be a better approximation of the geography and reef section you are looking to emulate.
  • Try to resist becoming “the kid in the candy store” adding every new and different coral you find. Keep your overall visual goal in mind and avoid the underwater fruit stand look. (unless that is what you want, of course)

Execute the Plan

With your plan in hand decide what materials you will need

Which substrate, if any will you use.
The type of rock – live, dry or a combination of both and amount you will need.
Are you are creating any nooks, caves, pillars, or overhangs.
How are you securing your pieces together.

Your structure needs to be stable so it won’t be knocked down by the mobile inhabitants of the tank or an accidental bump to the aquarium itself.  Look at rock pieces from all angles and how they can fit and work together. You can choose to use rock shapes and carefully wedge them into each other or you can use epoxy glues, cable / zip ties, or peg them together. Don’t be overly concerned as the coralline algae will cover any exposed epoxy, ties, and PVC will disappear into the background.

The rock available to you may bee too small or too large, or just the wrong shape for your needs. There are several options for reshaping your stone: a small stone chisel, using masonry drills, diamond bladed saws. The rocks porous nature makes it easy to manipulate. Pieces that are too small can be combined using cable / zip ties or waterproof glues and epoxies. Pieces can also be combined or structural stability enhanced by drilling holes into adjoining pieces of rock and then connect together with a rigid piece of tubing which you can then also glue in place if desired.

You can build your structures directly on the aquarium floor, on the substrate itself or elevate it above the substrate. There are pros and cons to each however, the common consensus seems to recommend elevating your rock slightly above the substrate allows for better water flow and circulation around structure, allows tank janitors and sifters to help keep accumulating detritus and organic matter in check and prevents them from knocking over structures while burrowing. Two options for building structure supports:

  • Use cut pieces of 1/2 to 3/4 inch diameter gray schedule 80 PVC  (blends better into aquascape than white will) to put the rocks on. The height of the supports should be equal to the depth of your substrate bed – i.e. cut 1.5″ supports if you are planning a 1.5″ deep substrate.
  • You can build square or rectangular shaped PVC boxes, racks or frames to support and stack the rocks on. structures. 1/2 or 3/4 inch gray schedule 80 PVC pipe is used. There is a large variety of fittings available for these size pipe to create the good support structure. Generally the pieces are just firmly hammered into each other allowing for reconfiguration. Small holes are drilled in the pipes to reduce detritus accumulation and anaerobic areas from forming. The structures can be laid out on cardboard cut to the tank size and following your diagram to test your design. Using PVC frames also reduces the amount of rock you need for the aquascape which can be beneficial when setting up large tanks.

Do the majority of your arranging and rearranging (because you will) before putting animals in. Study your executed plant for a couple of days, imagining where corals will go and where and how any fish will move about the tank. Make any needed changes or improvements and then observe for a couple of more days. Repeat until you really like what you see and are confident it will provide a home your chosen livestock can thrive and be successful in!

Sources and references

Fundamentals of Live Rock in Aquascaping by Mike Paletta
Live Rock Aquascapes for the Reef Tank – The same 12 pieces of rock are used to create 6 different reef rock habitats.
How to Aquascape a Saltwater Reef Tank -Video showing using the same rock pieces to  create several different habitats.

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