A word to the (Un) wise...

As growth in interest in the botanical-style aquarium (blackwater, brackish, clearwater, or otherwise) has exploded and continues to grow worldwide, I am both satisfied and alternatively amused, fascinated, and one in while, frightened at what I see!

Yeah, you heard me- frightened.

What frightens me is the occasional newcomer to the idea of this type of aquarium who, for want of a better word, applies incomplete thinking- or NO thinking- to the process. The aquarist who figures that you simply dump all of the botanicals into the tank on day one, and you end up with an aquatic display like the hundreds our community shares every day. Like, it's effortless, breezy, and carefree. A new thing. A shortcut to success...The "hack"- whatever.

No. NO!!!

And periodically, that compels me to look at what's going down and shout out, "Slow your roll!" to the aquarium world. To dish out some tough love...

THINK about what you're doing here. READ. For heaven's sake, learn some fundamentals about how aquariums work before jumping into the "hot trend."

Look at this "holistically" and from an objective perspective. 

Since the very nature of utilizing materials such as leaves and botanicals will result in them breaking down in water, and not only changing in appearance, but influencing the water chemistry to a varying degree, it makes sense to view every aquarium as an evolving entity. A brand new tank, or one that you've just begun adding botanicals to, fits this description absolutely.

As the aquarium runs in, you'll see the breakdown/decomposition of the "less durable" botanicals. It's particularly noticible in leaves and materials with harder external surfaces, like Cariniana Pods, Sterculia Pods, etc. That "brand new look" of clean and sharp colors gives way to the more subtle, muted, and earthy colors of materials being affected by submersion. A "patina" begins to build. This is a great sign; the beginning of a very "earthy-looking" phase.

Those of us who play in this arena know this by now.

It's different than what you're used to in more "traditional aquarium approaches. It requires all of us to make a sort of "mental shift" and understand that accepting these natural processes and not freaking the f--- out and tearing down your tank the minute biofilms appear or something unusual happens is part of the game. Think about what you're doing, what happens, and what the impact is. 

You need to educate yourself before you "hop on this train", or you will likely fail.


But it's true.

When I first started playing with this type of tank almost two decades ago, I know I had to make a mental shift and understand what was going on. I had to accept stuff that in the past would have made be shudder. I didn't "selectively edit" parts that freaked me out.

I went "all in" on Nature, aesthetic differences be damned. You should, too.

And the caveat here is that I didn't just "give myself permission" to neglect tanks or avoid basic husbandry...no, that wasn't the point. The point is to accept that materials breaking down in our aquariums can provide "fuel" for the biological processes which create long-term stability in a closed system. 

WORD TO THE WISE: Try to understand the basics of aquarium biology before you even contemplate playing with botanicals.  There is a TON Of material about aquarium ecology out there on the internet, in books, etc. Don't relay on botanicals or anything else to just "do the job" so you don't have to think. These are not "products" with dosages, predictable outcomes for everything we do, etc. You're working with Nature, and it's her game to control.

Like any other type of aquarium, a botanical-style system relies on time-honored practices of maintenance, nutrient export, and attention from the aquarist. However, one thing that we have that a lot of types of systems don't is an abundance of potential food sources for a myriad of organisms which reside in our tanks. We are very much creating a little microcosm, and it needs to respect the "checks and balances" which Nature imposes.

Set your expectations- and mindset- accordingly, and you'll be rewarded.

And of course, we can't ever lose sight of the fact that we are creating and adding to a closed aquatic ecosystem, and that our actions in how we manage our tanks must map to our ambitions, tastes, and the "regulations" that Nature imposes upon us. I'll say it here: If you simply toss in some botanicals into your tank and wait for some sort of spontaneous miracle to happen, you're just being absurd. Nature doesn't suffer fools, has no patience for your "want list", or making stuff work in a manner that YOU choose.

She'll kick your ass if you don't pay attention.

Go slowly. Read about the nitrogen cycle, the wild habitats we emulate, and the way these systems are managed. I have personally written over 600 articles on as many aspects of this stuff as I can think of...Maybe not the "de facto" guide on everything - but a damn good first step in sharing the unique dynamics, operations, management, and mindset of these unique aquariums. Others far more educated than I have written of these things, too. 

Botanical-style tanks are amazing. But you can't go from zero to 100 in a week.

They take time to mature, like any other tank.

Yeah, there is a certain “Something” to a mature aquarium…A smell, a look, a lack of excess in either “good” or “bad” animals.  Hardly scientific, I know- but true, right? In my opinion, a “mature” tank is one in which you don’t have to freak out every time you miss a water change, forget to feed, fall behind on algae scraping, top-offs, etc. Aquariums that are environmentally stable allow the aquarist a certain degree of latitude in maintenance and overall husbandry. But that doesn’t mean you can kick back, of course.

With a botanical-style aquarium, you're typically adding and removing leaves and pods and such regularly; I pretty much do this during every water exchange. In addition to the obvious aesthetic "refresh", you get a new bump of humic substances and tannins from the freshly-prepared botanicals you're adding. And of course, adding anything to your aquarium that breaks down is "bioload", and you need to continuously observe your aquarium and test the water regularly to detect and follow any "trends" in the chemistry that could prove to be a source of concern.

Tanks are not the wild habitats. We know this. And they are potentially subject to accumulations of nutrients (specifically nitrogenous waste and phosphates) over time, some of which can reach a detrimental concentration unless regular maintenance is conducted to combat their accumulation.

Regular, though not obsessive- water parameter monitoring is also always advisable to ascertain just what is going on in the aquarium. The need to monitor  parameters like ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate is obvious, but you also need to look at pH. When you're dealing with a lower ph, low carbonate hardness system, TDS may ultimately prove a more useful "yardstick" than pH in the long run, but for many of us, a good pH meter can provide an accurate assessment of the pH of the system regularly.

We’ve talked previously about establishing “baseline” operating parameters for your tank, and trying to stay within that baseline for the life of the aquarium.

In other words, even with regular maintenance practices and monitoring in place, you can’t truly set the tank “on autopilot” and let it run itself. There is a constant “war” between good and bad chemical concentrations going on in your system, and you need to be on top of things in order to assure that the “bad” doesn’t outweigh the “good.” 

Nothing really new here, except to say that with intentionally decomposing botanicals in the aquarium, the need to be on top of things is simply a more obvious priority. This type of aquarium is truly a constantly evolving microcosm, very similar in many respect to a natural stream or river. 

In our botanical aquarium, common sense husbandry, attention to what's happening in the aquarium, and learning what's "baseline" for the system have always given me stable, low-nutrient systems.

Patience. Attention to detail. Common sense. Observation.

Common threads that work for any aquarium. 

I have long theorized (completely anecdotally, of course) that the botanicals in our systems offer a significant "media" for beneficial microorganisms to thrive among, which serve to break down organics very effectively. Sort of the way a "deep sand bed" functions in a reef tank. Maybe even some denitrification occurring, in addition to fungal and microbial growth?

An interesting idea that is worth more serious research, IMHO!

The bottom line is that a botanical-style aquarium, being a closed system like any other, will demonstrate some characteristics that are easily identifiable when it’s “mature” and stable, yet you still need to address consistency through aspects of husbandry and maintenance throughout its existence.

This is nothing new.

Much like a garden, a botanical-style aquarium could “run wild” if left to its own devices, and the outcome for many fishes and plants in residence could potentially  be negative- or at least, significantly different than what you intended to create!

No one said that working with specialty aquariums is super easy, but it’s not difficult, either- as long as you have a basic understanding of the environmental processes and conditions within your aquarium; what to expect, and deploy patience.

So much to learn here, isn't there? Yeah, but you know a lot of it already, right?

A tough talk. Yet, an affirmation from Nature to the wise, who embrace Her ways, and a warning to the unwise, who tempt to bypass Her.

Stay educated. Stay smart. Stay vigilant. Stay observant. Stay relentless.

And Stay wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


Leave a comment