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Aquascaping Your Reef Aquarium Like A Pro!

by Brian Dunleavy
Aquascaping Your Reef Aquarium Like A Pro!

How many times have you walked into someone’s home or your local fish store, and spent hours scrolling through Instagram and Pinterest to find your dream reef tank set-up?

Aquascaping is a lot at the beginning of your reefing journey, but trust me, it is worth it! This is the one chance for you to create the perfect mini-ocean look for your aquarium.


What Is Aquascaping?

Starfish sat on rock aquascape inside aquarium

Aquascaping is the art of underwater gardening. It involves arranging rocks, plants, driftwood, and other underwater decor in an aesthetically pleasing manner. 

Not only does aquascaping make your reef tank look beautiful, but it is important for anchoring your corals, and it dictates the water flow, hitting your coral’s sweet spot!

The great thing is, aquascaping can be modified, as nothing is truly permanent, so if you have a change of heart, you can always make changes later on. There are various ways and types of saltwater aquascapes. Some incorporate a more ‘artistic flair’, while others focus more on function than appearance. 

Now, I’m sure you are eager to get started, so let’s dive in and look at how to aquascape your aquarium like a pro!

Types Of Aquascapes

There are many different ways you can structure rock work inside your aquarium. A few popular designs include:

  • Rock walls
  • Three pillars
  • Single-arch
  • Dual trenches
  • Bommies
  • Arches and towers
  • Two islands and a trench
  • Minimalist lagoons

Live Rock Vs Dry Rock

Rock aquascape inside aquarium

Rock is an essential part of your aquascape. Rocks provide a home for fish and an area to anchor corals. Before you add any rocks to your aquarium, you need to decide if you want live or dry rock. 

Typically, live rock collected from tropical oceans is used in saltwater aquariums, but the downside of live rock is the teeny-tiny hitchhikers that can cause havoc inside aquariums. Live rock also needs to be kept wet and alive, therefore you have a time limit to create your masterpiece before it dries up. 

Dry rock gives you more time to arrange the best aquascape while the tank hasn’t been filled. This means you can take days or weeks to make your visions a reality. 

Dry scaping also means you can use glue or reef-safe putty to create arches or awesome gravity-defying overhangs that your fish will appreciate. The problem with dry rock is the lack of beneficial bacteria, so you will need to cycle your tank and slowly build up livestock over a couple of weeks or even months. 

Assembling Your Rocks

Once you have selected what type of rock to use, now is the exciting part, creating epic rock displays!

Most hobbyists go for a sloping pile of rocks, placed up against the back of the reef tank. While we also agree this creates a great display, it does require a lot of rock work which is costly, and over time debris will build up. 

Therefore, we recommend leaving a small border (approx. 2 inches) around your rock work to siphon debris and allow water to circulate the aquarium. Circulation is important to supply your corals and fish with oxygen, flush away waste, and circulate food

How To Stack Rocks?

Some of the best displays start by building smaller rocks on the bottom and gluing larger ones on top. Just like Jenga, it takes some practice to place the rocks stable, so it is best to build your rock structure outside the aquarium to prevent damaging the tank. 

You also need to remember not to stack your rocks too high, otherwise, you will have no room for decorating them with corals. Remember to also research the type of corals before securing them, as some like the Bali Slimer have an impressive growth rate!

How To Glue Rocks Together?

Our go-to is reef-safe putty! It can be applied underwater, and it is more effective than trying to glue rock. When sticking your rocks together, apply enough pressure and ensure the rocks are supported so that they do not move while the putty solidifies. Reef-putty usually takes 24 hours to be solid. 

Once you get the hang of it, you will quickly be able to create an impactful-looking reef structure over a standard rock pile. 

SuperGlue Gel (Cyanoacrylate) is also safe to use inside aquariums. Glue gel is popular for fixing coral frags and plugs to rock work and driftwood, however, it is ‘super’ sticky, so watch your crafting hands in the process. 

SuperGlue can also be used underwater, and it is a much faster sticking method than putty. 

Lastly, you can use reef-safe concrete to bond rocks together. This is a more permanent method because the rocks are less likely to crush the concrete with the added weight. 

When mixing concrete, it is essential to wear gloves because the bonding process only takes a few seconds. The downside is making mistakes because once the concrete has bonded to the rocks, you will have to start over again. But, don’t let that put you off, as concrete does create spectacular results inside reef aquariums. 

Avoiding Symmetry: The Rule Of Thirds

Completed aquascape with fish and rock structures inside aquarium

If you are a photographer or artist, then you are probably already familiar with the “rule of thirds”. 

The rule of thirds splits up an area into nine equally sized squares with four intersecting points where the lines cross. When aquascaping, elements like rocks should be placed along the lines or their intersections to create focal points. Focal points are what give your aquarium the real “wow factor”. 

Even if you are not a mathematician, the rule of thirds is an easy way to scale your aquascape, and it works on any size or shaped reef tank.

Aquascape Equipment

Now you know how to create your aquascape, what do you need to build it?

  • Tank - the obvious one!
  • Hardscape (Stones, Wood, etc.)
  • Softscape (Ground plants, background plants, etc.)
  • Aquascaping tool set (scissors, tweezers, etc.)


After reading this article, you should be well on your way to becoming an aquascaping pro! Remember, less is more when it comes to creating an epic reef aquarium display, so try not to get too carried away. 

If you need help with your aquarium set-up or reefing supplies, or you are looking for some new coral frags, contact the Reefco team

by Brian Dunleavy