Our world of botanical-style aquariums has been, for want of a better world- evolving- and rapidly.
We have experienced a large influx of hobbyists into our specialty niche in the hobby- a remarkable trend that has started to bring out the idea of botanical-style aquariums from the shadows and into the mainstream.
And we receive lots and lots of questions from hobbyists new to our world; our way of thinking...And, as a proponent of the botanical-style aquarium approach, I think we still need to communicate our philosophies, the practices...the expectations to those interested in playing with this stuff.
Perhaps you- our regular reader/listener- doesn't need this "pep talk"; however, maybe someone you know is considering venturing into this area, and you want to give them a little dose of "reality" before they take the plunge?
There's still a lot of confusing and, quite frankly- outdated- information out there.
Hopefully, this little piece (in addition to referring them to our hundreds of blog posts on every aspect of this stuff! 😆) will give you a sort of "track" to run on when discussing botanical-style aquarium keeping with a fellow hobbyist who's contemplating such an aquarium.
And to you, the hobbyist considering who's jumping in to the "tinted" world, and who hasn't quite "pulled the trigger"- there is a starting point:
It starts with questions for yourself!
I suppose, if I were asked- and I am- the question about whether or not a hobbyist should try a botanical-style aquarium, I'd basically start with a single question:
Are you up to the task?
I know, it seriously sounds weird; even challenging or "off-putting." Kind of like I'm being an asshole, huh? That's certainly not the intent here.
However, it's an important question-a fundamental question to ask ourselves when contemplating setting up a botanical-style aquarium.
Because, when you start adding botanical materials to your aquarium, not only are you sort of "buying in" to a very different approach to aquarium-keeping than what you've been exposed to in the past- you're "signing up" to accept a completely different aesthetic than we are traditionally accustomed to as well.
Yeah, we are "opting in" to techniques which are somewhat contrary to what you've likely embraced before. You're accepting an aesthetic which deviates strongly from the traditional aquarium "look" that we have been accustomed to for generations. And it doesn't stop with the looks of the tank...
It starts with the way we look at Nature.
Once we visit, or look at a photo or video of a natural underwater habitat where tropical fishes live, and remove our hobby-contrived preconceptions of what it should look like from the equation and simply observe it as it is- we have to ask ourselves if this is how we want our tank to look...
That's the first mental shift.
Like, can you handle this stuff?
It's the ultimate "essence" of our philosophy. A way of capturing aspects of Nature in our aquarium in a manner that accepts it as it is, rather than how we want it to be.
And if we say "Yes" to the question, we then need to ask ourselves if we're okay accepting the rather unorthodox thinking and practices that are required of us to get an aquarium to that place.
You know, like adding seed pods, leaves, soils, etc. to an aquarium in an effort to capture the form and function of these natural habitats. To facilitate and embrace biofilms, fungal growth, detritus, and decomposition...To adopt a philosophy that says, "It's time to take inspiration from the reality of Nature, not just its essence."
It's about accepting the appearance of biofilms, murky water, algae, decomposing botanical materials, and acknowledging that these things occur in our aquariums, too, and can be managed to take advantage of their benefits. You know- to provide supplemental food sources, "nurseries" for fry, and as interesting little ways to impart beneficial humic substances and dissolved organic compounds into the water.
Just like in Nature.
Realizing that the very act of adding natural materials like seed pods and leaves fosters the development of biofilms, less-than-crystal-clear water, and detritus...
And that this is what you actually WANT.
Another mental shift.
Understanding once and for all accept that things are not aesthetically "perfect" in Nature, in the sense of being neat and orderly from a "design" aspect.
Understanding that, yeah, in nature, you have branches, rocks and botanical materials scattered about on the bottom of streams in a seemingly random, disorderly pattern. Or..are they? Could it be that current, weather events, and the processes of physical decomposition distribute materials the way they do for a reason?
Could we benefit from replicating this dynamic in our aquariums?
And, is there not incredible beauty in that apparent "randomness?"
I think so.
On a practical level, there are some things that you need to accept:
-You have to prepare all of the botanical materials you intend to add to your aquarium.
-You need to add them slowly, gauging the impact of their additions as you go.
-Your water may have a slight "haze" to it. This is likely caused by "fines" from the surface tissues of the botanicals after submersion, and possibly- from a "bloom" of bacteria resulting from their addition to the aquarium.
-The botanicals and leaves will start to develop stringy biofilms of bacteria on their surfaces. These will be present for much of the time that they are in the aquarium.
-The water will tint up slowly, and to a degree determined by the type and quantity of materials you add, as well as a number of other factors.
-You must be very patient as the aquarium breaks in.
-The materials that you added to the aquarium will begin to soften and break down after a few weeks, ultimately decomposing slowly. They should be replenished regularly.
-Detritus will begin to accumulate in your aquarium as the botanicals break down. You might want to keep it in your system.
-You need to accept a different definition of what a "clean" aquarium is, aesthetic-wise.
-The look of your aquarium will evolve over time as the botanical materials break down and are moved about by the fishes in the aquarium.
Can you handle all of that?
Yeah, it's different.
Well, a lot of it is, anyways. But not all of it.
Although botanical-style aquariums are not "set-and-forget" systems, they don't require maintenance or husbandry practices that are so much complex than what we do with any other systems. It's about water exchanges, cleaning and replacing filter media, monitoring water parameters, and observation.
The nitrogen cycle is the nitrogen cycle. No escaping that. And yes, our aquariums are not "open" natural systems- but they do respond and adapt to many of the same changes and inputs and influences that natural habitats do.
Some of this IS stuff we all know how to do and work with already.
It's a matter of marrying this stuff with a new mindset.
Yes, most of the adjustments and shifts we have to make are mental ones. The techniques we use are simply contextually-adapted versions of the same stuff we've been doing for generations in the aquarium hobby.
Ceding some of the "heavy lifting" to Nature is an uncomfortable, perhaps even scary thing for many hobbyists. It's not what we've been taught to do over generations in the aquarium hobby. We're taught to manage, control, dictate- not to accept.
As we've discussed before, a botanical-style aquarium has a “cadence” of its own, which we can set up- but we must let Nature dictate the timing and sequencing after that.
You kind of know the sequence here already, right? The sensory expectations and processes...
It starts with an empty tank. Then, there's lush fragrance exuded by crisp botanicals during preparation. The excitement of the initial “placement" of the botanicals within the tank. Taking it all in. The gradual “tinting” of the aquarium water.
The softening of the botanicals.
The gradual development of biofilms and algae “patinas.” Perhaps, even a bit of cloudiness from time to time because of microbial growth.
Ultimately, there's the decomposition.
All part of a process which can’t be “hacked” or rushed. We can change some of the physical aspects of our tanks (equipment, hardscape, etc.), but Mother Nature is in control of the "big picture stuff."
She "calls the shots" here.
And I think that's perhaps the most important lesson that we can learn from our aquariums. As aquarists, we can do a lot- we can change the equipment, correct initial mistakes or shortcomings the system might have had from the beginning. Stuff like that.
However, it's all about creating conditions for optimized function and evolution in our aquariums...
We "set the stage", so to speak.
Nature does the rest.
Much of the success and enjoyment that you will derive from a botanical-style aquarium is based on accepting and allowing Nature to do what She does, and continuing to embrace and appreciate her work in your tank.
Yeah, mental shifts abound in this hobby specialty; they're "foundational"- they're a huge part of what we need to accept in order to be successful with it. It's not "difficult" to create one of these tanks...once you've made those mental shifts.
If you're about to decide on creating a botanical-style aquarium, ask yourself the most basic question:
Are you up to the challenge? Will you answer Nature's call?
I hope that you are. We certainly could use you in our world.
Stay open-minded. Stay curious. Stay diligent. Stay creative. Stay observant. Stay undaunted...
And Stay Wet.