Active, compelling...changing...

It's certainly no stretch to call our use of botanicals as a form of "active substrate", much like the use of clays, mineral additives, soils, etc. in planted aquariums. Although our emphasis is on creating specific water conditions, fostering the growth of microorganisms and fungi, as well as creating unique aesthetics, versus the "more traditional" substrate materials fostering conditions specifically for plant growth.

I'm of the opinion that decomposing materials act as a sort of "mulch" in the tank. Great for plants, obviously- but also good for fostering biological activity and encouraging the growth of microscopic life forms and perhaps even small crustaceans (like "Scuds" , worms, Gammarus, etc.) if you encourage them.
To some extent, this is a sort of "refugium" mindset I have developed over the decades as a reefer- this desire to foster beneficial biological activity for the good of the aquarium in undisturbed areas of the tank.


And these substrates change over time, in both composition and appearance. What are the implications of this in a botanical-style aquarium?

With the publishing of photos and videos of leave-influenced 'scapes in the past few years, there has been much interest and more questions by hobbyists who have not really considered these items in an aquascape before. This is really cool, because new people with new ideas and approaches are experimenting.  And we're looking at nature as never before.

We're celebrating the real diversity and appearance of natural habitats as they really are...

Some hobbyists have commented that, as their leaves and botanicals break down and the scape as initially presented changes significantly over time. They know it or not, they are grasping the Japanese philosophy of "Wabi-Sabi"...sort of. One must appreciate the beauty at various phases to really grasp the concept and appreciate it. To find little vignettes- little moments- of fleeting beauty that need not be permanent to enjoy.

Is the substrate that we create- and which evolves over time as botanicals break down an example of this philosophy?


Enjoy your aquarium at every phase. Don't like the way it's looking today? No worries, it'll be different tomorrow!

Stay patient. Stay observant. Stay intrigued. Stay curious...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


2 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

March 18, 2019

Well stated, Peter!

And the “evolution” of our underwater microcosms, pushed along by a combination of natural processes, the “work” of our fishes, and the application of patience on our part is incredibly compelling and satisfying! I have always believed- as you do- that Nature, when left to her own devices, finds a way to process nutrients and materials which we as hobbyists have been taught for years to label as “debris” or what not. The beauty of the botanical-style aquarium is that, if we don’t overly intervene, Nature processes these materials beautifully.


Peter Ashby
Peter Ashby

March 18, 2019

It is the same with plants. You set up a tank and put in the plants, necessarily small and 6 months later they look very different. The vals have grown to the extent that their leaves extend across the top of the water, trapping floating plants or floating other things, creating dappled light.

Why therefore shouldn’t the breakdown of plants and other biological materials do the same thing and be assessed and appreciated in the same way? Nature does not just create, it recycles the dead. I’ve now had generations of leaves in my tank and there is now no trace of the original leaves. The gravel is clean, there is no ‘mulch’ and the recent leaves lie deep pretty much as they fell, more in the downstream area as is natural. Leaves which come to rest on plants or bogwood etc will over time work their way down, as they do in nature.

I’ve been feeding the ancistrus cat with parboiled lettuce leaves held down with a lead strip. They disappear too requiring the lead strip to be hunted for. I have the hollow, sculpted remains of half and arch of bogwood which once stretched across the back of the tank sporting a thick growth of java fern on top which the kuhli loaches colonised. The ancistrus cat and time have eaten at it and now it’s a half arch. The dwarf chain loaches, successors of the kuhlis, live under the base of it. There’s now a new much chunkier arch which is also changing as the cat gets to work on it.

Putting a wood eater in the tank will sculpt things for you.

All you have to do is appreciate and enjoy.

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