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A bubbling fountain created from a stone and black river rocks create a modern, natural and relaxing back landscape. The third tank was entered in the AGA international competition in 2008 as a Tanganyika Biotope.While initially impressive from a rockwork technique point of view, I have to agree with the judges, who found this tank oppressive and much too bare. In contrast, let us compare these three tanks with the natural rock structures at Otter Point, Lake Malawi, shown in the photograph below. The third reason is that when we examine the aesthetics of the sand and rock combination, nothing really beats it. As it is unlikely that you will find rocks that show water-worn characteristics in your local fish store or at the landscapers, you will need to collect your rocks from areas where you are most likely find the right kind of stone. The reason your rocks should not have sharp edges is that sometimes your fish may need to scratch on the rocks because of the presence of protozoans in their skin and gills. Make your way slowly along your riverbed, stream, or rocky beach and keep your eyes open for suitable rocks for the three main features. Watch out for any rocks with a vein that seems metallic in colour (like rusty iron) They may have a metal content that can leach out in your tank and poison your fish. As suggested in my hardscaping article, begin by preparing a workspace on a table where you will not be disturbed. The last crucial consideration must once again be how the habitat you build will benefit the fish you are going to keep in it, because it will automatically influence how you are going to put together your rock structures. The second way is by placing the rockwork on the bare bottom of the tank, but cushioning it on a cut-to-shape sheet of Styrofoam. The last way is to secure the rockwork to the bottom of the tank with either dabs of silicone, or dots of the two-part epoxy aquarium cement that hardens underwater. Even so, we should not really totally depend on silicone, or cement for stability: a stable rock always sits steady on three points. By NOT stacking your rocks too tightly, you make it easier to later remove any  detritus that collects between the rocks, or at their base.
Only glue or putty your rocks together when you are completely convinced that you will stick with your design.
When you have completed your aquascape design, all glue or putty has cured and dried, and you have cut the Styrofoam sheets or egg-crate you will need to place under your rocks, it is time to transfer your aquascape into the tank, element by element and piece by piece.
As I said before, if you wish your rocks to cover with algae, which are what cichlids partially feed on in their natural habitat, you need good strong lighting and a couple of days, but preferably one or two weeks of cycling.
But here’s the rub – and this month’s rant about people who take xeriscaping to the extreme – hardscaping does not mean that you tear out every living blade of grass, and kill (intentionally or unintentionally) every root of every living plant in your yard. You can use rocks quite effectively in a xeric landscape, along with other natural elements. This large xeric garden has pavers lining the outside, but a natural rock wall along the inside. You don’t have to water rocks, and they can fill or delineate spaces or offset and draw attention to xeric plants.
After making any change that replaces turf or plants with hardscaping, be sure to modify drainage and sprinkler systems to avoid wasting water. The problem stems from a lack of knowledge of what the species requires for its well-being and then a lack of knowledge about how to construct rocks into a beautiful habitat.
This is why I urge you at least read my article on hardscaping, as it contains a myriad of useful tips and tricks.
The Malawian rock dwelling cichlids (mbuna),  their Victorian counterparts and the Tropheus genus from lake Tanganyika,  are classic examples. Also try to find matching rocks with a more pyramidical shape, because these can help you to break up the flat base of the aquarium box, as well as help wedge groups of rounder rocks into holding their place. The wider the base is, in proportion to its height, the more stable the rock will be once placed in the tank.

If you plan to have a well-lit tank, the colours of the rocks do not really matter as much as the shape, because they will soon be covered with algae. It helps if you think of your rock-work as building a step-staggered apartment block, with marvellous modern curves leading in and out throughout the whole horizontal plane of the structure, designed to give all  its residents views as well as privacy!
Once these three ‘elements’  are complete, be they groupings of rocks or not,  stand back and see how they work in terms of placement according to the rule of thirds. Discordant rocks, haphazard arrangement, non-functional for a cichlid habitat – and the top three quarters of the tank is not just under-utilised, it is totally empty!
However, the rocks are too densely packed, there is almost no sand and there is very little free swimming space. Although the rocks are not typical of what you would find in Lake Malawi, the formations look natural, as if they simply naturally spilled onto the sandy floor.The tilt and strata lines are correctly used. This way you prevent damage to the glass edge, and the rock can be handled completely by yourself. They might have gotten pulled in another spot, but they look so good contrasted against these large rocks.
I use the term “natural hardscaping” because if you use found elements from nature, you spend less money and maintain the sort of natural look that many xeric landscapes feature so well. It’s easier to walk on than larger rock gravel and can serve as mulch for plants that need little water and plenty of heat.
You might find rocks or leftover flagstone pieces large enough to bury for stepping stones.
Burying a large rock a few inches down, and even slightly askew, looks much better than just setting it on top of the ground. It is called “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” and can be found under the Aquascaping drop-down menu, where you also found this article. The Hardscape is well done, and the rocks are algae covered as they should be, but for me this tank lacks that certain ‘oomph’! Perhaps what bothers me most is that the proverbial aquarium ‘box of glass’ has travelled no further than transforming into a ‘box of rock face’. So, say you want to create a Lake Malawi biotope, or a mini biotope that can be found inLake Malawi, you would have to study from what areas the species you want to keep come, whether they inhabit rocky shores or live closer to the sand, or whether they come from areas closer to river estuaries. They use the huge rocks to eat algae from, together with the invertebrates or crustaceans that live in it. Not only must your tank stand and house floor be able to bear the weight of the rock arrangement, substrate and water, but you must also pick up and get the stones to your car and then repeat this process to get them into your home! The reason I draw your attention to them here is that you should think in terms of creating groups of stones when you go out to collect rock.
You should also collect flatter rocks, thinking along the line of ledges, bases and spawning places. You can always stuff a few smalls in later if you think you will need them to fill in gaps or stabilize larger rocks. A rough rule of thumb is never to exceed more than half the weight of rock as litres of water in your tank, provided that your tank has been braced and you have a solid board as well as a Styrofoam layer underneath it. They will keep on moving their sand where they want it to be, and under-dig rocks with a tenacity that can last over weeks, sand grain by sand grain,  in an attempt to move, or topple your rocks  to a more favourable place for them, irrespective of how many times you put those same rocks back in place.
Then build upon the base, alternately wedging and glueing in your pre-prepared caves and more rocks. Use your creativity to create a scene that is not static like a wall; curve in and out, create valleys and canyons,  run a slope down into the (future) substrate toward the front, use flat rocks to create spawning places that can simultaneously be ‘roofs’ for caves.
The rockwork in this example is much too dense to be suited to a cichlid tank, and there is no sand — but it’s the shape of the scape I want you to see. Hopefully you have kept a couple of small stones that you can now add on top of the sand, close to the bases of the bigger rocks.

Make sure to count your fish and inspect all parts of your tank when you do water changes, to make sure there are no skeletons hidden and no rocks being under-dug by your fish! Add some hardscaping, or built and paved areas, and you’ve got interest and function, a palette for the plants’ colors and textures. From a practical standpoint, you can use rocks to help well or shore up areas to control drainage, which is a great xeriscaping strategy. Tim placed a large, nearly flat rock under our faucet as a sort of foundation and splash guard. This is important, because it will determine how and where and how you are going to place your rocks. And because it is made up of the essentials for the species, it automatically creates the impression that this is a miniature of the natural lake.  Sand and rocks, dear Cichlid lover,  is all African cichlids from the Rift Lakes will ever need! If you are going to build a very large hardscape, you may want to consider using some artificial rocks in addition to real ones, at least for the bulkier parts of your scape. Later, when you come to use a rock with a tapering pyramidal shape in your aquascaping project, you’ll completely mask all its lower corners and edges with your substrate, so that it will rise like the tip of a giant boulder that is all but buried in the sand and small cobbles of the floor. Many species prefer to spawn on flat rocks and will dig for them if you do not make enough such spaces available.Right at the end you may even want to half-bury some flat pieces for your fish to find! However, it is the idea of the layout I want you to analyse and study: The way elements have been placed, the way the rocks are stretched out and fill the tank from side to side.
Use your aquarium to its fullest, leaving some swimming space above the rocks, but a lot more swimming space closer to the front, so that you can enjoy your fish as they move about. Check that everything is truly steady and every rock rests securely on the base of your tank. But I believe they have limited, specific uses, and it’s more fun to add some found elements, such as interesting rocks to your garden.
In fact, try combining your good pyramid rocks with a second pyramid so that there’s a narrow cleft separating them.
The alternative is to use hollow artificial rock to provide your bulk and then camouflage it with your natural rock.
It is cumbersome and sometimes the rock may break, especially if any air is trapped in a hidden cavity.
This avoids dead spots, as staying away from tank walls allow for better water circulation around the rocks, and gives you more space for maintenance, as well room for your fish to get by them. From a design point of view, the addition of just two more rocks could have made all the difference to this tank! I strongly recommend that you switch on your lights and cycle your tank for some time before you put any fish in the tank, for the simple reason that this will allow an algae growth to begin on your rocks.
Keeping Cichlids in any environment other than rocks and sand  is by definition already “unnatural”.
If I am convinced that the sand and rocks are dangerously dirty, I prefer chemical disinfection with Hydrogen Peroxide (H202) because it turns into harmless water and oxygen after 24 hours in contact with water.
Substrate diggers love them and are amazingly adept at finding these hidden pieces when they are looking for a flat rock on which to spawn.
Larger flat rocks with rounded corners may also come in handy as bases or to build terraces for species that dislike substrate.

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