Our approach to aquarium keeping is as much a "mindset" as it is a practice. And, although the practical techniques are relatively easy to grasp and execute, the philosophical components can be confusing and seem a bit contradictory at times.
We preach radical patience, yet completely embrace the idea of dramatically changing things within the greater "mindset."
Yeah, you should just do what feels right to you.
And sometimes, that means creating an aquarium which doesn't look anything like you'd want it to until long after it's been established. Other times, it means tearing stuff apart immediately and "re-directing" your tank based on a different vision.
Yet, I always urge you to take a slightly longer view of what''s going on in your tank. Not to rush to completely tear your aquarium apart just because it doesn't seem to be getting to where you want it to go right after you set it up.
Stuff takes time.
Looking back on some of my favorite tanks that I've executed in the past few years, it becomes increasingly obvious to me that these systems really didn't completely hit that "look and feel" that I want until long after they'd evolved naturally...however long that took. It seems that , in the botanical-method aquarium, stuff needs to acquire a "patina" of biofilm, a "stain" from the tannins, and decomposition of botanical materials needs to really begin before one of these systems turns "functional" as well.
That's part of why using aesthetics only as an evaluation criteria for a successful botanical-method aquairum falls a bit short, IMHO.
I mean, every new botanical-method tank likely looks cool to a broader swatch of the aquarium world from day one, if you're just using superficial aesthetics as your metric...But the long-established ones stand out for what they really are. After 4-6 months, that's when things get really special. After Nature has done a lot of the real "work" on the tank.
The decomposition of materials in water impacts our aesthetics greatly, as we all know by now. And that is what's so intriguing. The crisp leaves and dry, lifeless twigs that you submerge will evolve into a dynamic, ever-changing microcosm.
Every tank can get there.
Simply by exercisng patience, and letting your aquarium be.
I've long held that perhaps my fave botanical-method aquarium of all was the one I did about 3 years ago..an aquarium utilizing mangrove wood, extensive leaf litter, and catappa bark throughout. This is probably the only tank in recent years that I've truly regretted changing and moving on from! 😂
I knew what it was I wanted from the tank at the start, but it didn't look like much at first...It would have tested a lot of people's faith if they saw it in it's early stages!
It literally looked like shit for the first couple of months of it's existence: Slightly tinted water, a contrived-looking "campfire-like" wood stack, bare sand, and mostly intact botanical materials. I had to do a bunch of "iterations" with the hardscape to get it where I wanted it. It looked quite "contrived" at points, but I knew instinctively that if I waited it out, let Nature do Her thing- that the potential was huge in this tank.
Sure enough, a few months in, biofilms started forming. The wood acquired that "patina" we talk about so much. Leaves and botanicals broke down...And the water took on perhaps the most earthy-looking, deeply mysterious color I've seen in a botanical-influenced blackwater aquarium.
By some standards, the water in the tank could be described as almost "turbid"- taking on an appearance as though there were fine materials in the water column. Yet, the tank had a real magical appearance with the lighting; the fishes were as colorful, relaxed and happy as any I've ever seen, and the water parameters were spot-on and consistent for as long as the tank was set up.
The essence of "wabi-sabi", for sure. Transience, the ephemeral aspects of our botanicals...the wonders of Nature, embraced.
It just took a little time.
I could have "intervened" at a number of junctures- trying to "circumvent" these aesthetic "deviations" while the tank was evolving. However, I knew not to. I knew that the long-term gains from letting this system evolve would far exceed any "relief" I'd gain from siphoning out the biofilms, removing decomposing leaves, and clearing the water.
And, as usual- Nature delivered...because I didn't get in Her way.
We've done this numerous times with similar results. Inauspicious starts.
Botanical-method aquariums typically require more time to evolve than more "conventional" aquariums do. They are dependent upon the development of a specialized ecology, which includes fostering organisms like fungal growths and biofilms.This process can be "expedited" or manipulated a bit, but to achieve truly meaningful and beneficial results, you just can't rush stuff!
You can't interrupt it, either.
When you do, as we've learned, results can be, well- "different" than they would be if you allow things to continue on at their own pace. Not necessarily always "bad"- just not as good as what's possible if you relax and let Nature run Her course without interruption. Following a plan is never a bad idea; it can lead to some exciting destinations.
However, the ability to "pivot" and "go with the flow" is really important, too.
It's not always a bad idea to switch things around if you're suddenly inspired to do so. What I hate to see is when hobbyists attempt to "intervene" on the processes which are occurring in the tank- like the recruitment of biofilms and fungal growths, the breakdown of leaves, etc. THAT'S a problem, imho. You can change the "overall theme" without irrevocably interrupting Nature's processes.
Yeah, there IS a certain kind of "intervention" which I occasionally embrace myself. As I've previously discussed here, on occasion, I'll start to execute on an idea I've had, and very early (or sometimes, not so early) in the process, I'll completely lose interest in it for whatever reason (it can be anything from "not feeling it!" to "I hate that I can't hide that heater!"), and the desire to abort and move on to something else on my "to do list" beckons.
In general, however, I play a really long game.
One which acknowledges that the fact that our botanical-method aquariums evolve over very long periods fo time, not reaching the state that we perhaps envisioned for many months. My actions reflect this mindset. Unless there is some major emergency, about the only thing that I might do is to add a few more botanicals, re-arrange some wood, or just wait it out.
Of course, if you really are "not feeling it" (it happens!), does it mean tearing the whole thing apart and starting over?
You can change the "look" or aesthetic direction of an aquairum- fairly significantly- without disrupting its function.
One of the things I've done a lot in recent years when making big changes to aquariums is to keep the substrate layers from my existing tanks and "build on them." It makes a ton of sense, really. Why waste this goodness, just because the "theme" of the "new" tank is different than the existing one?
Your South American-themed tank won't be that much different if you change up the "hardscape" to turn it into s Southeast Asian-themed tank, while leaving the substrate layer intact, right?
In other words, I'm taking advantage of the well-established substrate layers, complete with their sediments, decomposing leaves and bits of botanicals, and simply building upon them with some additional substrate and leaves. I've done this many times over the years- and I'm sure a lot of you have, too-it's hardly a "game-changing" practice, but it's something not everyone talks about.
I believe that preserving and building upon an existing substrate layer provides not only some biological stability (ie; the nitrogen cycle), but it has the added benefit of maintaining some of the ecological diversity and richness created by the beneficial fuana and the materials present within the substrate.
I know many 'hobby old timers" might question the safety- or the merits-of this practice, mentioning things like "disturbing the bacterial activity" or "releasing toxic gasses", etc. A lot of 'em would rather have you simply remove this stuff altogether. It's "all or nothing" for them! I'm not sure how leaving the substrate layer intact is problematic. It doesn't "die." I believe that particular belief is steeped in "aquarium mythology", conflates a lot of different ideas and topics, and has generally been misapplied and misunderstood over the years.
I simply have never experienced any issues of this nature from this practice. Well maintained systems generally are robust and capable of evolving from such disturbances. And we're not really "disturbing" the substrate when we preserve it, are we? Moving around a few pieces of wood or rock might cloud the water a bit, but it's not wholesale disturbance of the substrate.
I see way more benefits to this practice than I do any potential issues.
Since I tend to manage the water quality of my aquariums well, if I say so myself, I have never had any issues, such as ammonia or nitrite spikes, by doing this- in fresh or saltwater systems. It's a logical way of maintaining stability and continuity- even in an arguably disruptive and destabilizing time!
This idea of a "perpetual substrate"- keeping the same substrate layer "going" in successive aquarium iterations- is just one of those things I believe that we can do to replicate Nature in an additional way.
Well, think about it for just a second. In Nature, the substrate layer in rivers, streams, and yeah, flooded forests and pools tends to not completely wash away during wet/dry or seasonal cycles.
Oh sure, some of the material comprising the substrate layer may get carried away by currents or other weather dynamics, but for the most part, a good percentage of the material- and the life forms within it- remains when the water recedes. Wind and weather add additional materials to the now terrestrial environment, which become part of the aquatic habitat when the waters return.
So, by preserving the substrate from the previous iteration of your aquarium, and perhaps "refreshing" it a bit with some new materials (ie; sand, sediment, gravel, leaves, and botanicals), you're essentially mimicking some aspects of the way Nature functions in these wild habitats!
And, from an aquarium management perspective, consider the substrate layer a living organism (or "collective" of living organisms, as it were), and you're sure to look at things a bit differently next time you "re-do" a tank!
I suppose, one could view the process of "perpetuating" the substrate almost like persuing "eternal youth"- it's not entirely possible to achieve, but you can easily embrace the idea of renewal and continuity within your aquarium. It's a very natural process. Perhaps it's even beneficial in some way over the long term?
Things change in Nature, some things are utilized elsewhere, and other things are preserved in situ. Nothing goes to waste.
Rather, stuff gets "folded" into the changing ecosystem. Leaves on the forest floor become a lush ecological niche for fungal growth and bacteria, and a grazing substrate for fishes when submerged. Tree branches become "attachment points" for epiphytic plants, sponges, and other aquatic life forms.
Nature is very efficient. We should take a cue from Her! "Disruption" is often a form of renewal and evolution in Nature.
Patience, as always, is the key ingredient here. Of course, this is a hobby, and it should be fun...and you should feel free to change stuff up if it's not. However, make it a point to consider your actions in the "big picture", and it takes on a greater significance.
You need to have an understanding that you're creating a dynamic environment, not simply an "aquascape." And it's constantly evolving- even when you're not ripping it apart! It's anything but "static"-sort of like a planted aquarium, but in reverse (rather than plants growing, the botanicals are, for want of a better word "diminishing")! At any given time, you'll have materials like leaves in various states of decomposition, seed pods, slowly softening, breaking down, and recruiting biofilms and a "patina" of fungal growth.
It begs the most fundamental of questions about our botanical method practice:
What happens over time in a botanical method aquarium? What changes occur along the way?
Well, typically, at its simplest, as most of you who've played with this stuff know, the botanicals will begin to soften and break down. Botanical materials are the very definition of the word "ephemeral." Nothing lasts forever, and botanicals are no exception! Pretty much everything we utilize- from Guava leaves to oak twigs- starts to soften and break down over time.
Most of these materials should be viewed as"consumables"- meaning that you'll need to replace them over time if you want maintain some environmental consistency. Again, perfectly analogous to what occurs in Nature.
You're not an "aquascaper" in the classic hobby sense when you play with these types of systems. Rather, you're a a sort of "superintendent" to Nature, helping Her do what she has done for eons. You're not simply an idle "passenger," either- you play an active role in conceiving, setting up, and maintaining such a system. You need to take some cues from Nature, and that often means simply standing by and observing as she does Her work and goes through Her process.
You learn. You evolve with your aquarium, on a very real level.
Sometimes, it requires intervention on your part- at least in your own mind, perhaps. Other times, it simply involves sitting back, letting things unfold, and observing patiently.
Watching a display aquarium evolve and sort of "find itself" naturally over time is proving to be one of the most enjoyable discoveries I've made in the hobby in decades. It's a mindset that I actually had in my youth- by necessity, because I had very limited resources except for time- yet lost as I grew into adulthood and "evolved" in the hobby. With more skills and economic resources, I could "do more"- but the reality is that it wasn't always the right thing.
It took me a few decades after hitting so-called "advanced" hobbyist status before it really hit me that, by simply studying the function of natural ecosystems, all of the answers I needed to be successful as an aquarist were right there! I just needed to figure out which questions to ask.
I'm still deep in that process, decades later!
By understanding that my aquariums are governed by the same "laws" which apply to natural aquatic ecosystems, and developing and following simple practices and husbandry routines to embrace this, and monitoring what's occurring in the tank (as opposed to constantly trying to intervene to "pre-empt" what we in the hobby have commonly perceived to be problems), I've personally had more beautiful, healthy and stable aquariums, and...more success than ever before.
Accepting that there is most definitely an elegant, yet complex ecological "dance" in our aquariums, and becoming an "active monitor" instead of an "active intervener" has added an enjoyable and rewarding aspect to my love of the hobby.
I think that this approach to the "dance" not only makes you a more engaged hobbyist, it gives you a remarkable appreciation for the long term evolution of an aquarium; an appreciation for the pace by which Nature operates, and the direction in which your aquarium ultimately goes.
By doing this, you get the enjoyment of seeing the "evolution" every day! Observing and enjoying the subtle nuances of your aquarium at every stage of its existence. With my "go slow" mindset and practice, the differences are subtle in the short term- the "payoffs" really more apparent over the longer term.
Again, it's okay to make changes- even significant ones- to the "theme" of your aquarium. However, it's simply not good practice to interfere with the processes which allow it to become what Nature ( and YOU, too, if you're honest with yourself) wants it to become.
I know, it does feel a bit "yin" and "yang"- like I'm pulling from both sides- telling you, on one hand, that it's okay to make significant changes to a tank, while simultaneously urging you to deploy extreme patience and an almost "sit back and relax" approach...These seemingly diametrically opposite actions actually work really well together when you have the "common denominator" of good intentions, vision, careful actions, and an appreciation for what Nature can do if we let Her.
This philosophy, like so many things I ask you to consider here- doesn't always seem to make any sense.
Until it does.
Be kind to yourself- and to Nature.
Trust that She'll guide your aquarium effectively along the way to its ultimate potential. She won't let you down. Even if you take a slight detour now and again.
Stay confident. Stay observant. Stay curious. Stay patient....
And Stay Wet.