What corals to choose?


New member
Greetings noble sages,

I'm completely new to the world of reef keeping, no tank set up yet, zip. I have spent the past 5 months reading the top books (thank you Mr. Borneman, Mr. Calfo, Mr. Paletta) and researching online and I think I may be getting to the point where I am ready to start thinking about setting up a system.

One of the things I see over and over from those with great experience is the following:

"Tell us what kind of corals you want to keep first and then we will tell you what kind of lighting/water flow/feeding etc. you should have"

I think the challenge for someone like me is that it would be much easier to answer that question if I had been already keeping corals for years :D

So I totally buy into the sentiment and am trying to figure out how to go about it.

The other impression I am getting from those who know is that "garden" reefs are...challenging...a compromise...not the best possible care for all animals involved.

I get that too and am trying hard to ignore the fact that a large majority of "successful"/"featured"/"dream" systems seem to be squarely in the garden category.

So choose your animals before you build and garden is bad. Cool...I'm in.

So I'm gazing down at "Aquarium Corals - Selection, Husbandry, and Natural History" and thinking "Wow, that's a lot of corals, a lot of different directions to go, where do I start?"

So how does one start? Seems like the vast majority of people start the old fashioned way by just diving in, putting together a garden reef, having lots of failures, lots of death, learning on the fly. I'm not up for that, I don't have the time or money for that kind of thing. I want to do it right from the start. So I'm hoping for maybe a hint or two to get started or perhaps what one of the experts would choose when faced with a new system. Just to help narrow it down I have a few thoughts about what I am looking for out of the system:

1. I want the inhabitants to be beautiful and interesting.
2. I want them to be easy to medium in care requirements (I know this is a pretty subjective statement, I just don't want to flame out with my first coral)
3. I want them to be generally desireable and have resale value (i.e. after I propagate them).
4. I want the system to be practical and a good learning tool (i.e. this isn't in the middle of my living room so aesthetics are secondary to an optimum system for the corals)

Number 3 is because I want the hobby to be as self sustaining as possible and maybe someday in the far flung future even profitable (insert larger scale operation here).

To help narrow down the parameters even further here are some other things I can't, or don't want to easily change:

Tank: Standard undrilled 55 gallon (I already have two of them sitting here empty and can't afford yet another bigger tank right now)
Substrate: Southdown DSB (I have a considerable amount of Southdown already so this just makes sense)
Lighting: NO, Overdriven NO, or VHO (I don't want to deal with trying to produce "insane" amounts of light my first go round, love the idea of overdriven NOs but still deciding if it is workable for real)

Other than this I'm wide open to suggestions. What would you do?

I did thumb through the book I mentioned earlier (for about the 100th time) and I thought maybe I could have a lot of fun just focusing on nicely colored Corallimorphs and Zoanthids. Seems to be a lot of nice Ricordea and Actinodiscus out there that are desireable and could keep me busy. Zoanthids always look fun and it seems like they come up with some new Safecracker Pink Harpy People Eater with Furious Green Trim every other day.

What else then? Or is that more than enough? When does it become a "garden reef"? As soon as you compromise?

So lets say as an example I decide to populate the bottom third of my tank with various Actinodiscus species. How much light does that require? How many bulbs does that equal? Do I have to start talking PAR or can I estimate a little more broadly? If I get the right amount of light to the bottom third then how much light will there be in the top third? What can thrive there? The variables and choices seem almost endless to a beginner like me. Help?
I did thumb through the book I mentioned earlier (for about the 100th time) and I thought maybe I could have a lot of fun just focusing on nicely colored Corallimorphs and Zoanthids. Seems to be a lot of nice Ricordea and Actinodiscus out there that are desireable and could keep me busy. Zoanthids always look fun and it seems like they come up with some new Safecracker Pink Harpy People Eater with Furious Green Trim every other day.

you answered your own question. with the VHO's, zoanthids, shrooms, and other 'soft' corals would do great!!!! you can also look into non-photosynthetic corals, if your willing to feed them daily.

ummm, I dunno what size tank your thinking of-my power compacts light up enough at the bottom of a 24" tank for zoos.
You could get some toadstools for coral with some motion and xenia. If you are wanting to resell coral... I think zoos and xenia are very easy to grow, frag, and trade/sell. They are low light as well. Mushrooms would be great too. Just remember the spending will never end. :)
I don't post here on RC due to hanging out on another board but when I read your post I just add to respond.

First and foremost, I compliment you on taking time to truely research before going out and blowing a small fortune on equipment and livestock!

I use to run a 55g reef and have recently converted it down to a 29 due to equipment choices that I made that were not up to snuff for a 55.

To help you with your questions, lets start with equipment.
There are so many personal choices to make when it comes to equipment that it soon overwhelms you. Yes, you want a skimmer, now is it brand A, Brand B, Downdraft, Beckett...you get the idea.

What I want to offer is a basic design, your personal preferences and amount of money you want to spend will dictate the actual choice of brand, etc.

You say you want to run a 55g due to the fact that you have the tank. The tank is undrilled and you dont want to drill it.
Fine. This is your base to work from.

People are going to tell you along the way that a 55g is a bad choice. There are two main reasons for this. First, the tank is relatively narrow causing dificulty with aquascaping. It is a challenge to get your rockscape to be anything other than a wall. second, due to the tank being narrow, you have to consider that the surface area is small as upposed to the larger 18" or 20" depth tanks. gas exchange is restricted due to the lower surface area. This can be helped by simply adding good surface aggitation to keep from building up the familiar oil slick seen floating on the surface of the tank.

55g tanks are not "Bad", just an added challenge.

Your 55 will be undrilled so a hang on the back (HOB) shimmer is in order. To help stave off the oil slick, make sure your skimmer has a pre skimmer box. simple enough. then have at least one source of circulation causing surface aggitation.
A good product to reference here is the Aqua-C Remora. Good skimmers!

Next. Circulation. This is a BIG topic. The animals / coral you keep are a major player in this one. choices choices choices!
You have allready narrowed this one down.
Zoo's, Shrooms, Softies and some LPS need low to moderate flow.
The trick in flow is that you want to see things sway in the current, not look like they are in a huricane.
The flow itself is a concern, linear flow verses laminar flow. Linear flow is bad. Laminar flow is what you want. A surging or pulse effect is also a plus. Tunze streams and dump buckets both provide good laminar flow along with a surge of flow. The only cons I can see for Tunze are cost, and the fact that the surge of water may be strong enough to blow around your sand. Dump buckets are not asteticaly pleasing and prone to be finicky to keep working. seio pumps are supposed provide a laminar flow, but research these pumps, I can offer no recommendations on there reliability.
What I used was a dump bucket and when it worked, it was awersome. On my 29, I have swithed to a product called the Natural Wave Timmer which is a power strip that can control 3 pumps at varying intervals. I have 1 Maxijet 1200 running on it and like the set up. My tank is BB so sand blowing around is a non issue. But I will attest that a maxijet 1200 will blow around a DSB in a 55g. If you go with a powerhead and wavetimer, maxijet is the preferred powerhead. Just go smaller than the 1200.

A Refugium is a great way to add nutrient removal from your reef. Many topics dwell on refugiums, so in breif, Consider using a HOB like the aquafuge by CPR. You could build one cheaper than what a manufactured one costs if your handy at DIY. I used one and I was a very benificial piece of equipment on my 55.

Lighting, Oh boy, what a topic. Halide, PC, VHO, NO...Ugh.
For the zoos, shrooms, softies, and LPS, Go VHO or Compacts.
Both are great choices. Simply decide which you like the look of better. VHO looks different Than PC lighting so astetics are the final deciding point you will probably land on. Other factors, Cost, Bulb life. PC bulbs are supposed to last longer than VHO as far as usable life time hrs. I will only say that between VHO and PC lighting I like a mix!. My 55 was 55w 10,000k PC with 110w Super actinic VHO and I LOVED the look. My 29 is PC only and I want to convert to the VHO/PC Mix soon. PC actinic blue just doesn't look good to me.
Halides are great BUT, hot! cooling is a VERY big issue and for your setup, not needed. You discuss trying overdriving NO. Don't waste time with it. Yes it works, drives them close to VHO but you go through bulbs faster and the bulbs get hot. Just buy a decent VHO or PC or whatever.

As for your question about corals, Shrooms, LPS, Zoanthids and softies make a great reef display. Just try to diversify your colors. Alot of soft corals are brown. Lps tend to be greens. Your colors really come in to play with the zoanthids and shrooms. Lps like brains add great colors and textures and are easy care corals.
One good softie that is not brown is green toadstool leathers and green nepthia(sp?)

After your tank has been running a while and is stable, I suggest you look into Montipora for a test in the SPS department. Plating Monti, usualy referref to as Monti Cap is a great beginner sps that will grow under vho and PC lighting. It adds a great effect to the textures of the reef.

Hope some of this helps.