And so it begins...

I'm well into that groove of starting a few new aquariums in my home, and it's fun to see them starting to evolve and come alive.

A lot of hobbyists will tell you that he most exciting time with any aquarium is that very beginning, when you're just getting your tank off to a good start.

Once you're through those initial 24 hours after you set it up- you know- that time when the focus is on making sure that everything is up and running fine, things get pretty interesting!  This is  also an "educational" time for you as a hobbyist, when you can sort of familiarize yourself with the way your aquarium operates.

It's a time when you learn to "read" your new recognize every sound the tank know what is a "normal" sound versus one that you don't want to hear. It's a time to make sure that the operating level of the water is optimal. A time to "dial in" your heater, pumps, etc.

You know, making sure everything is running correctly- that tank isn't leaking...A time to make sure that the plumbing connections are tight, light and heater settings are correct, etc. 

But that's just the "mechanics" of your aquarium. The equipment stuff...

Getting those things buttoned up is important...And then the fun really begins. You know, making the tank come alive. Bringing it from a clean, dry,"static display" to a living, breathing microcosm, filled with life.

This, to me is the most exciting part!

And how do we as hobbyists usually start our aquariums?

I mean, for many hobbyists, we've been more or less indoctrinated to clean the sand, age water, add wood, arrange plants, and add fishes. And that works, of course. It's the basic "formula" we've used for over a century.

Yet, I'm surprised how we as a hobby have managed to turn what to me is one of the most inspiring, fascinating, and important parts of our aquarium hobby journey into what is more-or-less a "checklist" to be run through- an "obstacle", really- to our ultimate enjoyment of our aquarium.

When you think about it, setting the stage for life in our aquariums is the SINGLE most important thing that we do. If we utilize a different mind set, and deploy a lot more patience for the process, we start to look at it a bit differently.

I mean, sure, you want to rinse sand as clean as possible. You want make sure that you have a piece of wood that's been soaked for a while, and..

Wait...DO you?

I mean, sure, if you don't rinse your sand carefully, you'll get some cloudy water for days or possibly argument there.

And if you don't clean your driftwood carefully, you're liable to have some soil or other "dirt" get into your system, and more tannins being released, which leads to...well, what does it lead to?

Honestly, have you ever heard of someone's fish dying off in their tank because they didn't thoroughly rinse the sand, or because they maybe didn't completely soak that piece of driftwood for 4 weeks before adding it to their tank? Personally, with maybe one or two exceptions (a piece of chemically contaminated wood, and someone using sand with -wait for it- traces of motor oil in it!), I haven't heard of issues.

Once again, I postulate that some of the "best practices" we've been indoctrinated to follow for generations in the aquarium hobby have more to do with the aesthetics- how things look- than any danger that they pose to our fishes.

I mean, we should know by now that an aquarium is not a "sterile" habitat.

The natural aquatic habits, although comprised of many millions times the volumes of water that we have in our tanks- are typically not "pristine", either- right? I mean, soils from terrestrial geologic activity carry with them decomposing matter, leaves, etc, all of which impact the chemistry, oxygen-carrying capacity, biological activity, and of course, the visual appearance of the water.

And that's kind of what our whole botanical-method aquarium adventure is all about- utilizing the "imperfect"nature of the materials at our disposal, and fostering and appreciating the natural interactions which take place in aquatic habitats.

Understanding that descriptors such as "crystal clear" and "pristine" only apply to some aquatic habitats, and that there is real beauty in all types of aquatic habitats. And remember, aesthetic descriptors are just that- aesthetic descriptors. You can have a habitat which looks anything but "pristine", yet is remarkably "pure" from a chemistry standpoint. Brown water can have a really high conductivity. "Crystal-clear" water can have high levels of ammonia or building nitrate/phosphate.

Indeed, the real "magic", in many instances, occurs in the more murky, turbid, not-so-crystal-clear waters of the world. That's where biological processes play out over time. And if we understand and accept this, we're likely to start our aquariums with a bit less concern over absolute "sterile perfection."

We should embrace the mindset that every leaf, every piece of wood, every bit of substrate in our aquariums is actually a sort of "catalyst" for sparking biodiversity and ecology, and yes- a new view of aesthetics

Nature is a lot less "programmed" than we are, particularly when it cones to how terrestrial materials end up in aquatic habitats. Yet, almost everything we do in the aquarium hobby has a natural analog. Seriously.

It goes something like this:

A tree falls in the (dry) forest.

Wind and gravity determine it's initial resting place (you play around with positioning your wood pieces until you get 'em where you want, and in a position that holds!). Next, other materials, such as leaves and perhaps a few rocks become entrapped around the fallen tree or its branches (we set a few "anchor" pieces of hardscaping material into the tank).


Then, the rain come; streams overflow, and the once-dry forest floor becomes inundated (we fill the aquarium with water).

It starts to evolve. To come alive in a new way.

The action of water and rain help set the final position of the tree/branches, and wash more materials into the area influenced by the tree (we place more pieces of botanicals, leaves, etc. into place). The area settles a bit, with occasional influxes of new water from the initial rainfall (we make water chemistry tweaks as needed).

Fungi, bacteria, and insects begin to act upon the wood and botanicals which have collected in the water (kind of like what happens in our tanks, huh? Biofilms are beautiful...).

Gradually, the first fishes begin to "follow the food" and populate the area (we add our first fish selections based on our stocking plan...).

The aquatic habitat is enriched by the decomposition of leaves, wood, and botanical materials, creating new food supplies, spawning locales, and biological stability.

It continues from there. Get the picture? Sure, I could go on and on drawing parallels to every little nuance of tank evolution, but I think you know where I'm going with this stuff...

Yet, when we think about our aquariums this way, the parallels are striking, aren't they? And yet, in the "mainstream" aquarium world, there is a disconnect. After we add various natural materials to the tank, the urge is to scrub and polish and clean everything...removing what is the very essence of the materials.  We want things super pristine, without a trace of algae or a patina of biocover. When we do this, we're essentially thwarting all of the natural processes, like fungal colonization, formation of biofilms, and decomposition of the materials...why?

Is it because these processes are inherently "unhealthy" for aquariums...or is it simply because they don't look the way our hobby-culture aesthetic sensibilities tell us they should?  I think that it is. This is a big deal, and a real problem. I personally think it's a big reason why some hobbyists have NOT been successful in their more advanced endeavors, like spawning and rearing delicate fishes, etc. I think we've been too busy editing out Nature- and Her processes- because we're told that they don't look "aesthetically pleasing"- and therefore, are somehow detrimental.

It's the opposite, IMHO.

Decomposition, for example, is something that we embrace in the botanical-method aquarium world. It's an amazing process by which Nature processes materials for use by the greater ecosystem. In Nature, it's the first part of the recycling of nutrients that were used by the plant from which the botanical material came from. When a botanical decays, it is broken down and converted into more simple organic forms, which become food for all kinds of organisms at the base of the ecosystem.

This is a dynamic, fascinating process- part of why we find the idea of a natural, botanical-method system so compelling. A tremendous ecology arises around these materials, with little to no intervention required on our part. In fact, it's better to do NOTHING than to start messing with these processes!

Many of the organisms- from microbes to micro crustaceans to fungi- are almost never seen except by the most observant and keen-eyed hobbyist...but they're there- doing what they've done for eons in Nature. They work slowly and methodically over weeks and months, converting the botanical material into forms that are more readily assimilated by themselves and other aquatic organisms.

In the aquarium hobby, allowing materials to decompose has been a "no-no" for generations! We've been urged to siphon out plant material, uneaten food, etc as soon as we see it- lest it somehow cause our water quality to deteriorate rapidly.

Now, look, on the surface, it makes sense. Sure, you don't want large quantities of uneaten fish food, fish waste, and even some fallen leaves from aquatic plants to accumulate. You want to foster good feeding habits ("No more than the fishes can eat in five minutes"- a completely idiotic feeding approach IMHO). You don't want to overstock your tank to the point where massive amounts of fish was are accumulating at levels beyond the capacity of the aquariums biotia to assimilate them. I get that. An aquarium is a closed system, and has a finite capacity.

However, when you allow the organisms which process some of these things- like fungal growths, bacterial biofilms, and small crustaceans- to proliferate in your aquarium, it has the ability to process and assimilate organics which occur as a result. And, as we've mentioned numerous times, these organisms also serve as supplemental food for your fishes. It's the establishment a of a closed-system ecology...If we let it happen, and don't remove every possible food source for the microbiome which supports your aquarium!

I can't help but wonder if the problems that we see some people have, like so-called "tank crashes", "anomalous" pH swings, and algae blooms ,etc., are a direct result of what I call "selective interference"- removing the "stuff" that we don't want to see- and relying exclusively on filters, filter media, and other processes to keep things "in check."  Like, to me, it's like aquariums run in this manner are literally teetering on the edge of disaster- and the slightest imbalance caused by say, forgetting to clean the filter, change the media, or not conducting those infrequent water exchanges, can send them careening towards disaster!

To me, it's a real call for a more "hands-off" approach to starting up an aquarium. Like, yeah- step back, hold your breath, and take a look at it in a few weeks if you must- but don't intervene. Don't scrub the shit out of every piece of wood you place into the aquarium. Let the natural processes of bacterial and fungal colonization occur. Allow leaves to soften and decompose.

I am of the opinion that, when we remove partially decomposed botanicals from our systems because we think that they "look bad", we're interrupting a process- denying beneficial organisms access to their primary food sources. And, as we've discussed before, these organisms also serve as supplemental food sources for our fishes.

In our aquariums, we're just beginning to appreciate the real benefits of using leaves and botanicals. Notjust for cool aesthetics or to "tint" the water- but to create truly natural, ecologically stable aquatic systems for the health and well-being of the fishes we love so much!

It's important to remember that leaves and botanical materials are simply not permanent additions to our aquariums, and if we wish to enjoy them in their more "intact" forms, we will need to replace them as they start to break down. 

This is not a bad thing.

For most of us- those of us who've made that mental shift- we let Nature dictate the evolution of our tanks. We understand that the processes of biofilm recruitment, fungal growth, and decomposition work on a timeline, and in a manner that is not entirely under our control.


So, yeah- there IS a lot to consider when starting an aquairum utilizing botanical materials. It's far, far beyond the idea of just "dumping and praying" that has been an unfortunate "model" for how to utilize them in our aquariums for many years. It's more than just aesthetics alone...the "functional aesthetic" mindset- accepting the look and the biological processes which occur when terrestrial materials are added  to our tanks is a fundamental shift in hobby thinking.

So getting back to the whole "startup" thing-perhaps the most important thing you can do in my mind is to literally do "wait out" the "awkward" times, when your system is trying to establish itself ecologically. It seems a bit counterintuitive, I know, but doing nothing and waiting for Nature to do Her thing is often the best way to go. 

It's not an excuse for abandoning the basics of aquarium husbandry. It's not about avoiding small, regular water exchanges. It's not about "pushing it." Rather, it's about allowing our littlest friends to do what they've done for eons- and to enjoy the success that will follow.

It's about patience. It's about process. It's about observation.

It's how evolution begins.

Stay patient. Stay curious. Stay diligent. Stay steadfast. Stay open-minded. Stay bold...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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