We don’t show enough of our tanks from the other side of the Atlantic so I thought I would show my own little project from the UK – this 200 liter/52 gallon soft coral-dominated lagoon tank. It was devised over two years ago during the first Covid Lockdown and I’ve got to say I’m still enjoying its fluffy inhabitants today. During Covid, my work and income got cut right back for the best part of 100 days, and apart from supermarkets, the only stores allowed to open were pet stores so when I wasn’t gardening or doing DIY (like the pallet wall behind the tank,) I was, of course, reefkeeping.
I’ve always liked shallow tanks for their ease of maintenance yet large footprint available for aquascaping. When it comes to reaching, I’ve got arms like a T-Rex so although it’s 36” long by 24” wide, it’s only 14” high, offering super easy algae wiping along with nice side and top-down views too.
Initial set up
I designed the tank to my own specs with top and bottom scavenging corner weir, Herbie pipework, and Opti White Glass. The precision gate valve was a prerequisite and I modified a small second-hand sump to my specifications, to take a roller filter. I went small on the sump because I need at least 12” on the right-hand side of the cabinet to store all the electrics, something I think all cabinets should accommodate.
For the hardscape, I started with dry Marco rock and used KZ aragonite sand, which is coarse, doesn’t get blown around in strong water flow, yet is easy to gravel vacuum, something I do on a weekly basis. I wanted the rockwork to compliment and accentuate the shape and dimensions of the tank while still providing caves and shelters for the fish. I stuck it together with epoxy putty while dry, let it cure, and filled the tank.
I lit the tank from then until now with two AI Prime 16HD. They did a brilliant job, grew the corals you see now, and I didn’t suffer from either dinoflagellates, diatoms, or cyanobacteria, despite the tank starting from sterile. I put this down to two things – as soon as I saw any color forming on the white rocks I introduced an army of three species of snails, reef-safe hermit crabs, and Mollies, the latter of which constantly grazed the rocks preventing anything from building up.
The second thing I did was to deliberately introduce the first soft corals on chunks of live rock. Live rock is few and far between these days but if you buy wild-collected soft corals or zoa rocks, the small piece of rock they are attached to is about as live as you can get, never being dried out or killed off because of the coral attached to it. The result is instant microbial populations and doing it the Reef Builders way, I placed corals in as soon as the water was at temperature and before any other livestock. The above measures meant I didn’t get any ugly phase or months of hair (algae,) pulling and the tank remains very clean and algae-free to this day.
The last thing I was going to do in an uncertain world was to spend big on corals but that was fine because I had other plans for this tank. I was involved in coral wholesale and retail pre-covid and was surrounded by luscious hard corals for nine hours a day. For my own tank I wanted to show the soft corals some love, definitely the second-class citizens of the coral world amongst the LPS and SPS elite so I started collecting tiny frags of finger corals, toadstools, and GSP that had fallen through the egg crate and these tiny unloved coral snippets were costing either a couple of pounds each or were being given to me for free, such was their insignificance.
Reef tanks change slowly when you watch them too much so I deliberately added invasive, weedlike corals that would quickly cover the rocks and make the tank look more mature than it was. I added pulsing Xenia, (classic form, not Unomia,) the Antichrist among most experienced reefers, but this one was particularly fluffy and pumped like a demon, so I added it as a space filler until other corals grew in. I’d add tiny Sarcophyton, Lobophyton, and sprigs of Litophyton and Nepthea. If no one wanted it, I wanted it to create my budget soft coral garden.
The intention was to go soft coral only but I admit to straying on occasion, adding an elegance coral frag, a walling hammer frag, some blastos, and a toxic-colored candy cane. The softies soon did what I wanted, however, covering the rocks, growing into each other, and making for an effective but super cheap, super easy to care for display. There were no expensive Torch or Goni gardens but I didn’t mind one bit as I got my hard coral fix by day, and my soft coral satisfaction by night. Flow was managed by a single Sicce SDC propellor pump. Skimming, a second-hand Bubble Magus C3.5.
I’d forgotten just how little carbonates soft corals consume and despite rapid overgrowth the tank needed no dosing and has been maintained solely with a single 10% weekly water change. Only in the past week have I installed a doser, after first installing a pH probe which was registering nighttime lows of 7.8. The soft corals didn’t mind one bit but with the few hard corals in there I wanted to add some buffer. I added a monti cap frag and a stylo frag to further consume carbonates in order to raise system consumption.
My own personal plan was to treat the tank very much like a nano tank as far as livestock goes. For two years it had just one fish, a Plectranthias inermis, followed recently by some young Pearleye clownfish, sold in the UK as Eyelash clowns. Despite being populated with frags I’ve been keen to omit any frag racks and having one pump has made it easy to blend into the background. The Litophyton regularly jettison branches which I either plant somewhere else or let them find their own place in the tank and naturally self-seed.
There is fighting of course with the Rhodactis and ancora having their own localized kill zones. I prune the Xenia back with scissors but find that aggressive coral species like A.pachysepta can be placed straight down on a thick mat of Pachyclavularia where they produce their own space. As they’ve grown the corals have started to self-shade to the point where some were three corals deep and not receiving any light from the single Prime pucks. I treated myself to some G6 radion XR15 Pro which, as the launch suggests, provides a wide blanket of light that my six feet square coral needs as it continues to fill out. So don’t write off cheap soft corals as trash. I quickly got nearly 100% coverage for the minimum of expenditure and when they’re all puffed up, polyped-up, and fluffy, they are well deserving of a place in any reef tank.