Arguably the most enjoyable task (at least before you fill your reef tank with corals and fish) is aquascaping your saltwater tank, as you are only limited by your imagination. Aquascaping your reef tank aquarium is a form of art, your art! Careful planning up front will help ensure you enjoy your reef aquarium for years to come. More importantly, taking your time aquascaping could avoid tearing down your tank later on.

So, What’s the Best Way to Aquascape Your Nano Reef Tank? Before you begin, keep these thoughts in mind:

• Decide on how much live rock is required
• Determine the amount of sand to use
• Preplan your design/layout if possible
• Choose to install rock or sand first
• Will you use glue on your rock or not?
• Are you going to use the backwall to build your structure?

How Much Rock Do I Need?

The size of your mini reef aquarium will determine how much live rock is required to aquascape your tank. A general rule of thumb is 1-2 pounds of live rock per gallon. The important point here, is to make sure you leave enough room for your fish and corals, as well as room to perform much needed maintenance.
Aquascaping your nano reef aquarium typically does not require a huge investment in rock. Therefore, I would lean towards using live rock vs. a combination of base/live rock. There are several benefits to use live rock including quicker cycling, biodiversity, stability, and aesthetics. Having said that, base rock is great for building your foundation. Keep the quality rock for the mid to top half of your aquascape while keeping the base rock on the bottom.

How Much Sand Can I Use for My Reef Tank?

To some degree, you can be flexible with the amount of sand to use. However, the general rule is approximately 1 ½ lbs. of sand per gallon of tank water. Live sand is a great choice, however, its more expensive than dry sand. A popular choice is CaribSea’s Aragonite. This is a cost-effective choice to help create a natural biological balance that will promote healthy fish and invertebrates. When adding the sand limiting the depth to approx. ½” to 2” should be ideal.

Should You Place Rock Before Adding Sand?

Placing your rock before adding sand may be a good idea for the following reasons. First, placing rock on a flat surface will help ensure the foundation is level and stable. If placing rock on top of sand, the rock can move as the sand settles. Also, the “clean-up crew” will inevitably dig and move the substrate potentially weakening the structure and causing rock to move or fall as well. Also, when performing water changes if you siphon the sand, inevitably pockets will be created adding another possibility for rock movement.

Layout the Aquascape Prior to Placing Rock in Your Reef Tank

You can save yourself some time by laying out your aquascape prior to placing the rock in your tank. Several design flaws and advantages can be vetted in advance. The best designs include plenty of space around the perimeter of your tank that allow for ease of cleaning. Personally, I avoid stacking rock up against the back wall, again to allow for better water flow and cleaning.
When building your aquascape you may be faced with a decision to bind the rock together. An option for securing your rocks includes zip ties. Although using zip ties can be cumbersome, they work. If your situation requires a method to secure your rocks, and you don’t want to use glue, zip ties may be the answer.

Many reef keeping enthusiasts, prefer to glue the rocks in place. There are good reasons for using glue, the most important is the ability to lock your design in place. However, keep in mind, once glued you are “stuck” with the design. Situations down the road may require you to remove portions of your aquascape. Let’s say you purchased a “prized” coral that requires more or less water flow. If your live rock is not glued, you can easily rearrange your aquascape as needed.

Always be conscious of the position of your powerheads. When placing rock into your tank, take note of the water flow of your powerheads. It’s easy to unintentionally block water flow and create “dead spots” where water cannot adequately flow. This will inevitably lead to unwanted algae growth.

The perfect design should include leaving enough space between the rock and the glass of your aquarium. There are a few reasons for this. First, leaving space between the rock and the glass will allow for ease of maintenance. Not only for cleaning the glass from algae, but also allowing you to siphon the water without concern of bumping into your aquascape. The next reason is to allow for your corals to grow. And more importantly, leave room for that impulse purchase at your local fish store. Further, your fish will appreciate the added space!

What About Egg Crates Under Live Rock?

It is common to use egg crates under the rock/foundation of your aquascape, however, it is not necessary for a nano reef tank. Arguably, the most important benefit of using egg crates for your reef tank, is to avoid scratching the bottom of your tank. In my opinion, if you are careful placing your rock, you should not worry too much about scratching the bottom. Many nano reef tanks are made of acrylic. Acrylic is tough and will not crack easily. You may also improve water flow under your rock, however, I believe this would be hard to measure. Your sea critters may not like this setup as they will have a hard time moving about the sand.

Should You Place Your Rock Against the Back Wall of Your Mini Reef Tank?

Rock stacked up against the back drop of your reef tank can create an incredible effect. Also, by utilizing the back wall you can in essence create more open space in the front of the tank. Several corals and invertebrates could benefit with extra space in the front of your tank. If you choose to lean rock against the back wall, an additional power-head may be needed to avoid potential dead spots. If you do not have sufficient water flow, you could inadvertently create unwanted algae growth. To make matters worse, if you glued your rock together, you may have a bigger challenge in controlling algae.

There are however, some reasons why you should consider not leaning rock up against the back of your tank. The most obvious is the added benefit of water flow, and the ability to clean the backdrop during your routine maintenance. Also, creating space between your aquascape and the back wall can provide an attractive side view of your aquarium.

While aquascaping your mini reef tank part of the design should include a couple of “flat” shelf areas. This will be useful for setting frags in the future. Of-course making sure your structure is stable it important.