What’s Your Aquascaping Rock of Choice?

There are a number of choices when it comes to the rock you use for aquascaping, my personal favorite is live rock

There are a number of choices when it comes to the rock you use for aquascaping, my personal favorite is live rock

Today’s marine aquarists have more options than ever before when it comes to the types of rock used to aquascape their tanks—from live rocks, whether aquacultured or wild-harvested, to all manner of dry rocks and even natural-looking man-made rocks. Each type has its advantages and drawbacks, and the choice that’s best for any given hobbyist depends on, among other factors, his or her aquascaping goals, budget, risk tolerance, and desired level of control over the system’s biodiversity.

Call me old-school (or Lord Admiral Jeff of the Universe—whichever you prefer), but my aquascaping material of choice has always been live rock, whether comprising the rockwork entirely or at least a major portion of it. Here’s why:

Fascinating biodiversity

Live rocks come loaded with organisms that emerge or hatch out for many weeks and months—even years—after they’re added to a tank. Various “pods,” fan worms, sponges, tunicates, mollusks, worms, coral colonies, macroalgae, and coralline algae are just a sampling of what might appear. And this process/progression is truly amazing to observe.

I’ve never tried it, but I think it would be fascinating to set up a live-rock-only (LRO?) tank, with no fish or intentionally introduced invertebrates, and just sit back and watch what pops out of the rocks over time. This could even make for an intriguing and educational classroom project!

Even nasty hitchhikers are interesting!

Of course, right now many of you are probably thinking, “What about all those potentially nasty critters, like Aiptasia, bristleworms, crabs, and mantis shrimps, that sometimes stow away on live rock?” This may sound heretical, but even they fascinate me.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw a particularly long bristleworm come wriggling out a piece of live rock in my tank. The sight elicited in me a strange combination of revulsion and wonderment. I also recall being surprised—I guess you could say “pleasantly”—when I shined a flashlight into my first reef tank and discovered that a stowaway crab (don’t ask me the species, but I recollect it had striking red eyes) had been residing in there undetected for months.

Now, don’t get me wrong; some live rock stowaways can become really problematic in a closed aquarium system under the right circumstances, and I’m not advocating taking a dismissive approach to their appearance. However, over the years, I’ve encountered quite a few of these critters, and more often than not, they’re no cause for panic and can be managed effectively with a little patience and persistence.

So, I guess what I’m saying is, enjoy those hitchhikers for their adaptability and, yes, even their unique beauty (remember, it’s in the eye of the beholder!) while you work at controlling or eradicating them. After all, they’re part of the natural reef, too!

Superior cycling for new systems

Last but not least, as I’ve written many times here at SWS, introducing live rock is the easiest, most straightforward way to cycle a new marine aquarium. Among the diverse micro- and macro-organisms encrusting live rock are colonies of the nitrifying bacteria that convert deadly ammonia to nitrite and then to nitrate. Also, when the rock is newly introduced, you can expect a small percentage of the encrusting organisms to die off, producing the ammonia necessary to fuel those bacterial colonies and get the cycle established.

So, in a nutshell, live rock comes with all the ingredients necessary for cycling. All you have to do is provide the appropriate water conditions and monitor the process.

What’s your preference?
So, fellow salties, do you prefer to aquascape with live rock, dry rock, man-made rock or some combination thereof? Please let us know what you use and why in the comment section below.


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About Jeff Kurtz

Jeff Kurtz is the Co-founder/Editor of Saltwater Smarts, former Senior Consulting Editor for Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, and the aquarist formerly known as “The Salt Creep.” He has been an aquarium hobbyist for over 30 years and is an avid scuba diver.


  1. As Jeff said, I also don’t mind hitchhikers because if you truly want the good, interesting stuff, you may also have to get some of the stuff you may not want. I have never had a hitchhiker in my tank that I didn’t find interesting and virtually none of them ever did anything that crashed or almost crashed my tank. “Most” of that stuff disappears on it’s own as it can’t reproduce forever in a tank.
    As for rock, my favorite system is real rock right from the sea along with DIY rock. I say this because real rock holds those interesting creatures as well as the bacteria we need in a tank. But real rock is collected and thrown up on barges so all the interesting protrusions break off and we are left with roundish, boring rocks. Over the years I replaced almost all of my real rock with DIY rock because I can custom build it to hold a favorite piece of coral or span an area to make a large cavern. The rock I build is also hollow and I prefer that because of the added area for bacteria. I can also build it any size for pennies and it looks better than real rock.

    • Dave Davis says

      That sounds great. How do you make your DIY rock? I followed the recipes I found and just wound up with rock that leaches phosphate and has to be treated to stabilize it.

  2. Les Melling says

    Back in the day you were lucky to have 3 choices to aquascape your tank consisting of, Live rock, Tufa rock or dead coral skeletons. You could always put in a sunken galleon it you preferred.but I will pass on that one.
    I like live rock for all the reasons given above. I also like to draw out my reefscape on paper then purchase my rock to best make the reefscape become a reality based on my drawn out design. There are many interesting, and of course natural pieces of living rock to be had, plating boulder and branching. With the use of acrylic, plastic tube or fibreglass rods lots of interesting shapes can be achieved. There is no end of reefscapes you can come up with using the various types of love rock only limited by your imagination.

  3. When I started my tank I acquired rock the easy way. If I traveled somewhere like Hawaii of the Caribbean, I collected a bunch of rock and carried it home in my lap on the plane. Now if you do that, they shoot you. But that is how I got all of my original rock. I have never bought any rock and I gave away almost all the real rock I collected for the reasons I stated. I just needed the real rock for the diversity and bacteria, now I like the look of the rock I build. I wrote about it here on Salt water Smarts and there is a chapter on it in my book. https://www.saltwatersmarts.com/diy-rock-marine-aquarium-3019/

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