Avoiding shiny objects...

It had to happen eventually: Someone asked me on a forum a few days back if I could provide some sort of "hack" to get their new botanical tank "looking like the one you shared on ________ more quickly."

And if you read my stuff, you kind of know where I stand on "hacks", right?

(Oh- and your tank should look like...your tank- no need to try to duplicate the exact work of someone else, right? Different rant for another time, lol)

With all of the cool stuff going on in our little "tinted" corner of the aquatic world, and all of the cool blackwater/botanical tanks starting to show up in forums and social media worldwide, it's easy to lose sight of the "now" and go off looking for the "stairway to heaven" that's going to propel your tank to a "mature" state rapidly like the crazy cool ones you see being shared all over. We know that there are no shortcuts in this hobby, yet we find ourselves tempted at times. It's a classic crossroads we find ourselves in with the botanical/blackwater world- a lot of cool inspiration and a desire of many to share in the fun. 

And it's great that you are! But you need to enjoy each step of the journey and savor the unique experience of a blackwater tank without being distracted by a quick jaunt over to the perceived "finish line." Every phase is very fun, actually. And you're contributing to a state of the art and body of knowledge that's going to benefit hobbyists all over the world-even when your two-week-old botanical tank is growing craploads of biofilm and such.


I think with a blackwater aquarium, you end up playing a different sort of game than you do with many other types of systems, with the possible exception of maybe planted tanks or reef aquariums. These tanks require time and patience, in addition to vision. Vision to see how each stage of the journey is intriguing and fascinating in its own right, and the "mature" phase is merely the next stop on a long journey- not the "destination." The key here is that you can't make radical, quick moves. It's one thing to "finesse" changes to say, the water chemistry, amount or type of botanicals, or your fish population. However, it's quite a different thing to go clear off in another direction because your tank isn't looking like an Amazonian igarape in three weeks. 

Now, we've discussed the "mental shifts" many times here, and botanical aquarium fans know that you simply don't "freak" and yank every pod and leaf out of the tank as soon as biofilms and fungal growth and decomposition start appearing. That reflects not only a lack of understanding of how a botanical-influenced aquarium works, but more important- it reflects a lack of patience that can undermine your aquarium's success!

You're way better than that.

The key point here is that there is no "magic bullet" to get you to the perfectly natural, "broken-in", enriched look. You need to allow the botanicals to settle in, recruit microbial growth, begin to decompose, and soften up a bit first. You need to allow the tank to progress through these stages, and understand that a great botanical aquarium- like a great reef tank or planted tank- evolves. Nature dictates the pace, the look, and the extent.

The tank will have a significantly more "aged" look after a couple of months, with both the water darkening from the tannins as the botanicals break down. If you take pics of your tank when it first starts out, with all of the botanicals "crisp" and "fresh-looking", and contrast it with the look of the tank after say, two months, you'll be blown away at the difference! And you don't have to do a whole lot to get it  there...other than to stay on task, and not be distracted by those tempting "shiny objects"- you know, thoughts of "shortcuts" and quick fixes...There are none.

As the aquarist, your "job" is to set the basic 'scape and look the way you want it, place the bulk of your botanicals where you want them to remain, and add the more "ephemeral" leaves last, knowing that they will decompose more rapidly, and possibly be distributed in other places throughout the tank at some point. You just need to monitor the water quality, follow a regular maintenance schedule, observe the health of the fishes...and relax and enjoy the progression; the evolution- of your little underwater microcosm. 

There is no hard and fast formula here...only some guidelines for setting the stage, and an admonition to relax and enjoy the ride all the way. Botanicals will soften. Leaves will decompose. Water will darken.

All in time.

Nature is your "pilot." Patience is your traveling companion. Time is your ally. 

Enjoy all of them.

Stay patient. Stay observant. Stay calm.

And Stay Wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


2 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

January 15, 2017

Good to hear, Alex…You’ve made the “mental shift!”

I think when we take into context what is happening in our tanks during their “evolution”, it’s really no big deal. The thing that freaks out most hobbyists is…“OMG, what IS this stuff? Why is this happening to ME?” Will it ever go away?" And they panic and do some crazy move to try to remedy things and end up either making it worse, starting the whole process again, only to arrive at the same place in a few weeks, or worse yet- out of the game. And those who drop out tell everyone how hard blackwater/botanical systems are and that they are “algae farms”, etc.

This like you who take the time to understand what is happening, and more important- WHY- and realize that this is what happens in nature, thrive. The term “nature aquarium” is, IMHO, used sort of out of context in popular hobby discussions to describe what are basically highly stylized, extremely tightly-managed “garden-like” planted aquariums. Now, they’re beautiful, and the people who do them have insane talent, but other than managing plants, I see little in them that really resembles the natural habitats that fishes come from. SO when people say that botanical-style tanks are difficult to manage or otherwise problematic because you have stuff like algae, biofilms, tinted water, etc., it’s more of a lack of understanding of what nature is really like than anything else.

You’ve made the mental shift to understanding what really occurs in your tank, and how it resembles very closely what happens in nature. When you see those wild Amazonian underwater shots showing biofilms, etc. in the streams…it all makes sense! I could go on an on forever, but you and I get this, lol




January 14, 2017

Love this post! My tank is going through the biofilm now and I was surprised at how little it freaked me out. In previous tanks, the slightest algae was aggressively sought out and terminated by any means necessary.

This one I am enjoying watching it come together. I look at videos online of the blackwater rivers and remind myself that this is the natural state of things.

Thanks for helping with the “mental shift”.

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