I was staring at pics of what I feel are some of my fave botanical-style aquariums that I've executed over the past few years, and they all seemed to have a commonality of sorts:
Most of them had wood of some sort as an integral part of the 'scape. Most, not all, of course!
Seems like virtually every freshwater aquarium utilizes some form of wood or rock as part of the aquascaping composition, doesn't it?
Would it be possible to do an interesting aquascape completely devoid of driftwood and rocks of some sort...or even plants?
When we assemble our aquascapes, the supporting cast of materials such as seed pods, wood, rocks, and leaves can make a difference between a subtle, relaxed look and a busy, perhaps even chaotic one. It's easy to add "too much" stuff, right? I mean, we have so many amazing materials to choose from these days, it is possible to have literally dozens of different materials in our aquascapes!
However, if the idea is to make the "supporting cast" the "stars" of the whole show, does this change the way we look at things?
Yet, I think that there is more "power" if we limit the number of materials in our botanical-style displays to just a few at a time. I know, that seems a bit odd coming from a guy who owns a company that sells all of this stuff, right? Yet, hear me out...
When we look to Nature for our cues (which we should), we often see a surprisingly homogenous mix of leaves and such in watercourses. You often don't see 50 different types of materials accumulating on the bottom. It's more like a dozen or less, in varying states of decomposition, I might add!
And this sort of makes sense, right? Especially when we take into account the fact that what you'll typically find in a leaf litter bed in a tropical stream, for example, is limited to the botanical materials from the trees and plants that are adjacent to the waterline.
So I've always been a big fan of creating an interesting botanical component with a few (maybe 6 or so) different materials at the most, to avoid an overly "jumbled" look that's not that realistic. What's really interesting about leaves, for example (oh, here I go again!) is that, even within the context of a single variety (Catappa, for example), you see tremendous variation in color and texture. The natural "imperfection" of leaves is what makes them so...perfect!
As leaves break down, you're also getting both a different "look" out of them in addition to changing benefits (visual tint, rising microorganism populations, etc.) And, if you're on top of things, "topping off" your leaf litter as it breaks down and decomposes, you'll have a continuously varying 'scape, yet the underlying "theme" remains consistent...just like in nature, actually, where new materials are constantly falling from the trees or being swept by wind into waterways to "do their thing."
And of course, leaves are most ephemeral- breaking down fairly rapidly in the underwater environment.
This is why we recommend mixing some more "permanent" elements, such as the durable botanical materials into your leaf litter zone. The use of materials of intermediate durability, provides the underlying "consistency" in the aquascape as the leaves slowly break down. By providing what I like to call "selective aesthetic diversity", you can create the "backbone" of a more-or-less permanent 'scape, comprised largely of "transient" materials!
I admit, probably the most compelling aquarium concept I've executed recently was done by creating an aquarium where the leaf litter formed the entire 'scape. I think that it was not only unique-looking, but one of the best-functioning botanical-style tanks I've managed in decades of playing with this stuff!
A "scaled-up" version of the small tank I created based on this idea will be one of my next projects, for sure. And I don't think it will necessarily be "lacking" anything, like substantial vertical elements.
Because I think by throwing in a few more durable materials, including the aforementioned botanicals, and perhaps a few pieces of driftwood, bark pieces, or branches, oriented in various configurations- that it's entirely possible to create enough variation to keep it interesting for even the most jaded observers.
On the other hand, when I look back on the tank as it was- there was no lack of interest, even with its completely unorthodox aesthetics. The fishes positively glowed in the tank!
It was, if nothing else, a "proof of concept" of the power of "selective aesthetics..."
Yeah, I think that by limiting the number of elements in our botanical-style aquariums, not only do we create a more realistic interpretation of the natural habitats we admire so much- we create a more sustainable scape. What do I mean? Well, if you have that "perfect" balance (aesthetically or otherwise) using two or three botanical materials, it's a lot easier to maintain that than in a system with 14 of 'em, right?
Well, maybe, lol.
I think so!
And quite frankly, Nature seems to do this so effortlessly...and I think there's a lesson for us there! Restraint is never a bad thing...
And there is another thing that we touch on it all the time here: Nature is anything but spotless, symmetrical, and perfectly organized. The very forces which drive the formation of underwater "landscapes" in the wild- rain, wind, sedimentation, falling trees, and materials from the surrounding terrestrial environment- virtually assure that what Nature does with rocks, wood, and plant materials is completely different than what most of us hobbyists do in our tanks.
There is much to take away from observing Nature in its "unfiltered" state. It exists- looks- as it does for a reason.
It is not only part of the natural "aesthetic" of this habitat- it's (more important) part of its functional composition, too- supporting, on some level, a little "food web" that support the other life forms in the aquarium.
Natural. Not sterile. Not "dirty", either.
Just different than the aquarium aesthetic interpretation we've been indoctrinated to follow since our earliest days in the hobby.
Sure, there are some keys to maintaining aquarium filled with materials like decomposing leaves and botanicals. You definitely need to do regular maintenance. You don't want to overstock...I mean, common sense stuff. However, in a tank filled with considerable organic material, "slight overstocking" and poor general husbandry can be problematic.
That being said, in almost 22 years of playing with blackwater, botanical-filled systems and other natural-style aquariums using leaves and botanicals, I've never had any issues. No "crashes." No pH "dropouts. No tanks turning into mucky messes.
It's not difficult to maintain a botanical-style aquarium over the long term.
An aquarium can still be "clean" in terms of its environmental parameters, yet have a look which supports the appearance of natural materials on the substrate in a less-than-"orderly" manner.
It's about husbandry and perspective...
And accepting the fact that the leaves and other natural materials are part of the ecology of the tank, and that they will behave as terrestrial materials do when submerged: They'll break down and decompose.
They'll form the basis of a surprisingly complex food chain, which includes bacterial biofilms, fungi, and minute crustaceans. Each one of these life forms supporting, to some extent, those above...including our fishes.
When you think of the botanical materials not so much as "hardscape props", but as dynamic biological components of a closed microcosm, it all makes a bit more sense...
And when you exercise a little bit of restraint in your 'scaping with botanicals, it can be remarkable how beautiful the aquarium can be. The idea of "selective aesthetic diversity" has more to it than just the "aesthetic" part, I think!
Stay creative. Stay adventurous. Stay bold...Stay fascinated. Stay disciplined...
And Stay Wet.