A Fine "Mess..."

Okay, we need to talk about something...again.

There is this mindset in the hobby that aquariums which embrace the use of natural materials like leaves and seed pods are..."messy" or "dirty." This is not only a completely incorrect assertion- it's just sort of stupid. As we have pointed out for 7 years now, Nature is anything but a clean, organized place.

Yet, for some reason, those not in the know seem to love inferring that aquariums set up with large amounts of botanical materials (intended to be colonized by biofilms and fu gal growths prior to decomposing) are "messy."

This is understandable, I suppose; but to those of us familiar with this methodology, this assertion is kind of laughable.

As you know by now, I am pretty much near-obsessed with the idea of allowing a botanical-style aquarium to "evolve" with little interference on the part of the aquarist. With botanical-method aquariums, I personally believe that they can better handle evolving on their own more so than many typical systems...Not that I'd want to just "let a tank go", mind you...

I'm a fairly diligent/borderline obsessive maintenance guy. I love my weekly water exchanges. However, I think it's very important to understand the reason why we create aquariums like this. What is the goal? What are we trying to accomplish? If we make an effort to understand the way the natural habitats we are enamored with function, it becomes way easier to manage them in a more confident manner.

Hobbyists unfamiliar with our processes and ideas will call this a mess.

We call it "natural."

I mean, when you think about it, the natural, botanical-method aquarium is deliberately set up to replicate a wild aquatic habitat where all of this stuff is taking place already. Leaves, seed pods, etc. are more-or-less ephemeral in nature, and are constantly breaking down in these environments.

Colonization by biofilms and fu gal growths, as well as fragmentation and decomposition of botanical materials is continuous. 

I love the fact that this approach is still seen as somewhat "contrarian" to the more conventional aquarium interpretation of a "natural" aquarium, despite the growing global popularity. I'm fascinated by the "mental adjustments" that we need to make to accept the aesthetic and the processes of natural decay, fungal growth, the appearance of biofilms, and how these affect what's occurring in the aquarium.

So, when I hear our aquariums criticized as "messy" by the (let's call them what they are) uninformed, I sort of laugh. They literally have no idea what they're talking about. 


This is not only a completely incorrect assertion- it's just sort of stupid. As we have pointed out for 7 years now, Nature is anything but a clean, organized place.


 And really, the idea of "doing it like Nature does" has led to an idea which I've been playing with not only at the moment, but for some time now:

In situ "curing" of wood and botanicals.

Something that indeed, goes against our "typical" practice, and certainly is different than my more "conventional" approach of boiling leaves and pods, and curing wood in a separate container of water. Rather, just "rinse and drop!" Hardly precise. And rather at odds with even our own"conventions" and practices that we've touted here!

Yet, playing with this approach has given me some of my favorite tanks ever!

It takes time, and a willingness to wait and observe and open yourself up to a bit of a "mess" at the beginning- at least in the "conventional" aquarium sense. To me, it seems like by doing this, you're actually letting Nature do Her thing!

It's not revolutionary...However, it is "evolutionary" for me, in that it more completely embraces my philosophy of building up a microcosm from scratch in an aquarium. This approach might be the ultimate expression of that. Think about this: Why do we "cure" wood outside of our display aquariums?

Well, typically, it's because we don't want the silt, sediment, biofilms and fungal growth which inevitably appears on wood when we submerge it for the first time, in our tanks.  I get that. And we want leaves and botanicals to sink right to the bottom. Also, not everyone is fond of the tannins released during this process, too. And the other materials, which we (present company include) have historically referred to as "organic pollutants", are seen as "undesirable." 

I get all of those.

Yet, if we give these materials a good rinse, maybe a scrub, or even a light boil, and then let 'em settle into the tank...is there any harm?

My experience tells me that there isn't. 

Yeah, when you really think about it, all of these materials and compounds exuded by wood and botanicals are food to various organisms, right? And when we remove this stuff, we're essentially depriving someone along the food chain their sustenance, right?

So, maybe there is some value to curing stuff "in situ" under carefully monitored circumstances. What will likely happen?

Well, you'll recruit a lot of biofilm and fungal growth initial. Maybe get some cloudy water for a bit as materials leach out and either settle, or are consumed by a growing population of microorganisms within the tank.

Yeah, the growth and proliferation of organisms of all types will contribute not only to the biological stability of the system over the long haul, I believe that it'll form the basis of a literal "food web" in the aquarium. Allowing this to happen, despite our human impatience- or even our initial aversion to the looks of the process- enables us to truly embrace the function of Nature.

In Nature, terrestrial materials covered by water are the basis for almost every aquatic ecosystem. The processes of decomposition and colonization- and utilization- of these materials by an enormous variety of organisms- is truly what "powers" these ecosystems. 

It works exactly the same in an aquarium...If we let Nature do her work without excessive intervention.

Yeah, let it be. Literally.

It'll take a while before it's "ready" for fishes. Is that a downside? I don't think so.

Now, sure, I realize that an aquarium is not an open, natural aquatic system, and that there are different inputs and export mechanisms, but in principle, an aquarium is subject to natural "laws" and functions like many other natural aquatic systems, right?

I'm really having trouble grasping exactly what the problem is with this approach- other than the obscene amount of patience we have to deploy as hobbyists waiting for our tanks to settle in and be "just right" for fishes. "Messy?"  Is it just the look? Is it because we've always been told NOT to start aquariums this way? Maybe? I mean, the aquariums that we play with own our world are not exactly "conventional", right?

So what should the way we establish them be?

It just takes longer, that's all.

Aquarium hobbyists have (by and large) collectively spent the better part of the century trying to create "workarounds" or "hacks", or to work on ways to circumvent what we perceive as "unattractive", "uninteresting", or "detrimental." And I have a theory that many of these things- these processes- that we try to "edit", "polish", or skip altogether, are often the most important and foundational aspects of botanical-style aquarium keeping!

It's why we literally pound it into your head over and over here that you not only shouldn't try to circumvent these processes and occurrences- you should embrace them and attempt to understand exactly what they mean for the fishes that we keep.

They're a key part of the functionality.

Now, I've had a sort of approach to creating and managing botanical-style aquariums that has drawn from a lifetime of experience in my other aquarium hobby  "disciplines", such as reef keeping, breeding killifish and other more "conventional" hobby  areas of interest. And my approach has always been a bit of an extension of the stuff I've learned in those areas.

I've always been fanatical about NOT taking shortcuts in the hobby. In fact, I've probably avoided shortcuts- to the point of making things more difficult for myself at times! Over the years, I have thought a lot about how we as botanical-method aquarium enthusiasts gradually build up our systems, and how the entire approach is about creating a biome- a functional little closed ecosystem, which requires us to support the organisms which comprise it at every level.

Just like what Nature does.

It takes a little bit of mental shifting, a little bit of courage, a bunch of attitude, and the ability to overlook some aesthetics which you've been programmed by the hobby to be freaked out about.

You up for that? 

Oh, and for those who think that what we do is "messy?" Chew on this thought:

It's perfectly okay to make a little "mess" sometimes. It can lead to something beautiful. THAT is a fine "mess", indeed.

Stay brave. Stay open-minded. Stay creative. Stay patient. Stay engaged...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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