Beautiful saltwater coral reef aquarium tank

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” are two axioms that apply to the subject of aquarium décor. First, consider who is to be the judge of the décor. Is it the creator or the person who assembled all the elements and brought them together? Perhaps, in a home, the judging is done by the family as a whole—everyone gets to put in their two cents worth. Maybe the judges are your friends or relatives who only get to see the display when they are there for a visit. 

I suggest considering another option—the one I usually went with when I had a fish hatchery. The ultimate judges of your aquarium décor are the live inhabitants. If the fish don’t like it, they are not going to be happy. Unhappy fish always lead to problems, which all aquarium owners try to avoid. The key to building an impressive fish tank is to please the fish first and everyone else second. It’s a daunting challenge.

You’re an expert (hopefully) because you own a pet shop or aquatic store. Your ideas and recommendations are the driving force behind what the decorated aquariums in your business look like. Customers will judge your store using a number of criteria, but beautiful display aquariums are at the top of the list. People will patronize your business if you have a great selection of fish that are offered in environments conducive to making the fish feel comfortable.

If you are able to accomplish this, it will help you sell more livestock and décor items. As far as the trade is concerned, there are many excellent things you can use to decorate your tanks that can be sourced from purveyors outside the industry. This is where you get to make the choice. Do you stay strictly in the confines of the normal supply chain or do you venture outside the safe harbor of the established brands?


Designing Outside the Box

Aquarium décor takes a lot of imagination, and some people have that in short supply. In your business, you should always lead by example. But what if decorating is not your strong suit? And not only that, time is a consideration as well. You may be the best aquatic decorator at your store, but if you are the owner, do you really have the time to decorate every single tank you have set up? Probably not.

Personally build a few awesome displays that are also functional and challenge your employees to match your skill. People willing to step up and do their best should always be applauded for their efforts. Maybe you will discover a diamond in the rough: a person you can trust to set up additional displays and free up some of your valuable time for other business-related efforts.

In your store, you should set up beautifully decorated tanks for a couple reasons:

• They look good and customers will appreciate that

• The fish will look better and feel more comfortable

• You will sell more fish and décor items

However, you can’t sell décor items unless you have a wide selection setting on your shelves. I prefer to locate my décor pieces directly above the tanks where they are being used. This is not always possible, so always try to display décor items as close to functioning aquariums as possible. In this case, I am speaking of those items that are manufactured, typically plastic or resin. There are also two other major categories of aquarium décor. Both of these come from nature so they are not man-made.


Rock On

Rocks and gravel are basics that virtually every single decorated aquarium must contain. While artificial gravel made from plastic has some good points (lightweight, available in a variety of colors, free from potentially dangerous materials), most fish that frequent the substrate do not particularly appreciate the “feel” of it. 

Real gravel—if there is such a thing in the trade—usually comes from large rocks that are crushed to a specific grain size. You would be hard pressed to find gravel in nature that is all uniform in size and chemical composition, so it is NOT a good idea to go out in the wild and search for a source of natural gravel. Guaranteed, you would be taking from someone’s property and it might just belong to the state or even the federal government.

What about sand? There is certainly enough sand in nature, especially if it is of marine origin. You can walk into any hardware store and find bags of so-called construction sand. Using this material almost always results in disaster. Then there’s sandbox sand, which is also a no-no. If you are going to carry sand and gravel, it is always safer to sell a brand specifically made for the aquarium hobby. This is an inviolate rule that never has a happy ending when breached. 

When it comes to rocks, the rules change a bit. If you are or know a good geologist, you can probably get away with selling rocks from nature. Truthfully, I never did it myself, but I certainly used many “wild-collected” rocks in the breeding tanks in my fish hatchery. I sourced rocks from the East Coast, Florida, Georgia, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

My favorite type of rock for an aquarium is petrified wood, and most of it comes from the far Western part of the U.S. There are companies willing to sell this type of rock to the pet trade, so search them out if you are interested. Another favorite rock of mine is called tufa. It is petrified ocean sediment laid down millions of years ago when the Mississippi River was a large marine embayment, well past Missouri.

The sources for tufa are usually quarries along the river that dig up the rock as filler for construction projects. People with farms along the Mississippi River have been digging it out of their fields for over a century. Back in the 1970s, if you were taking back roads near the river, you could see stacks of tufa piled up on the edge of the cultivated fields. 

The farmers did not know what to do with it, but they needed it out of their fields. I can tell you this, however—it’s perfect for marine tanks and Rift Lake cichlid environments. Its best feature is that it’s light in weight, so it does not displace much water. Large chunks of coral rock sourced from long dead reefs are quite heavy, so they displace a significant amount of water and are rather nondescript.

There are many types of rock that are perfectly safe for aquatic environments, but there are even more types of rock that are very dangerous. If you have a curiosity about rocks, you should do some personal research online to illuminate the subject. 

Driftwood, however, is a different matter. Personally, I love driftwood in aquariums, especially those that are awash with live plants. Envision the perfect Amazon environment, full of plants that are green and red, short and tall, with every shape of leaf imaginable. Throw in a few appropriate rocks, a nice multi-colored (but natural) gravel and—as the star attraction—a magnificent piece of driftwood with wide sweeping arms (or curves) that reach from the substrate to the surface. 

On this piece of driftwood, you can attach several different species of aquatic ferns, such as Java fern, lace fern, African fern and many others. In time, the driftwood will become almost completely covered in ferns, and no one will be able to distinguish the environment as being man-made versus existing in nature. A well-designed and -executed display aquarium is a piece of art: each one is unique.


Getting Creative

Now, if you have your business located in a metropolitan area large enough to have a club dedicated to creating and showing so-called “aquascaped” environments, you may be able to convince one or more of the experts to come in and set up a display for you. 

Let’s face it, most hobbyists have more free time to work on their home tanks than you have to work on your store tanks. In the process, you may be able to build up a clientele base that frequents your store for both products and ideas. It never hurts to know what is going on out there in the real world. Besides COVID, of course.

Speaking of COVID, which I hate to do but I feel obligated to do as part of my job, what happens next? If this new vaccine really works and people can go outside and kiss and hug all their family and friends, will it impact the aquatic industry negatively? Well, lots of people have been buying equipment and livestock like there is no tomorrow. 

Hopefully, the new and improved tomorrow is just around the corner, but we shall see. In the meantime, keep on chooglin’ (courtesy of CCR) and embrace whatever comes next in this industry. My personal belief is that there will be good times ahead and people will stick with their home tanks. 

I have been writing this column for almost 28 years and keeping fish for 55 years, and I still have about 15 tanks set up in my home and my old garage/fish-breeding area. If I have not gotten tired of it, no one else should. What you need to remember is that your store is the heart and soul of the aquatic business in your area. It’s not those big box or chain stores that could care less about the industry or the hobby. 

You have been open for business during COVID because at least some of what you sell has been designated as essential. Once COVID is over, you need to remain essential and dedicated to all those customers who have supported you through the difficult year of 2020.

So, give people something inspirational, uplifting and joyous to see when they come to your business for products. Give them beautifully decorated tanks. Even if you only do this for “display” tanks, it should be something that customers can appreciate. And, if they like what they see and you and your employees show them a “happy face,” they will return because your business has now become part of their family.  PB


Edward C. Taylor has been in the pet industry for more than 40 years as a retailer, live fish importer and wholesaler, and fish-hatchery manager.