Our world of botanical-style aquariums is evolving rapidly. Techniques are being refined, ideas are being executed, and exciting results are becoming commonplace.
We receive a lot of questions about what sort of ongoing maintenance procedures are necessary, and what sort of challenges you face, longer-term, with these tanks...We could probably write many blog posts about this interesting topic (and we will!), but an initial "quick hit" today will hopefully jump-start the discussion! (oh, and maybe answer some questions along the way!)
As we've talked about before, for the longest time, there seemed to have been a perception among the mainstream hobby that blackwater aquariums were delicate, tricky-to-maintain systems, fraught with potential disaster; a soft-water, acidic environment which could slip precipitously into some sort of environmental "free fall" without warning.
And there was the matter of that "dark brown water..."
Not only was the tinted water considered "the whole distinction" between these types of systems and more "conventional" aquariums, it was cause for fear, misunderstanding, and "myths."
Happily, this perception seems to be eroding, as a new generation of aquarists (hey, that's YOU guys!) has taken the torch and ran with it, taking a slightly different approach- and a vastly different attitude- and is perfecting the techniques required to maintain blackwater/botanical-style aquariums for the long term.
And the "long term" is where my interest lies.
The longest I've personally maintained such a system has been about 5.5 years, and the only reason I broke down that aquarium was because of a home remodel that required the removal of everything from the space in which the aquarium was located. I set it up again shortly after the work was completed. The reality, though, is that I could have kept this system going indefinitely.
As most of you who work with these aquariums know, the key to long-term success with them is to go slowly, deploying massive amounts of patience, consistent, common-sense husbandry, monitoring of environmental parameters, and careful stocking management. Not really much different from what you'd need to do to successfully maintain ANY type of aquarium for the long haul.
Yeah, real "news flash" there, right?
Consistency above almost all else. And not taking shortcuts.
Now, with the release of "Culture", our Purple Non Sulfur Bacterial inoculant, we've received a lot of questions from fellow hobbyists, many of whom were asking about how this product will...wait for it...help them avoid water exchanges!
Are you fucking kidding me? Really?
Have we taught you nothing?
Nothing- no product, additive, gadget- will make up for consistent, thoughtful maintenance practices in your aquarium...and that includes regular water exchanges.
Although "Culture" is a remarkable product- a culture of the very hardworking Rhodopseudomonas palustris, it won't eliminate the need for regular water exchanges or other maintenance activities in your aquarium. These little bacterium- capable and remarkable as they are- can't do it alone.
They consume organic wastes while inhabiting moderately illuminated and poorly oxygenated microhabitats (patches of detritus, leaf litter beds, shallow depths of substrate, deeper pores of expanded clay filter media, etc.). However, they don't eliminate the need for regular water exchanges or other husbandry tasks. Period. They're not a "miracle elixir" or "additive" that can do everything.
So, get that shit out of your head right now, okay?
Seriously, beyond my initial scolding of you for even thinking about stuff like that, I have to implore you to deploy absurd amounts of patience and to employ "radical cal consistency" in your maintenance efforts. "Radical" in the sense that you simply have to become fanatical. Consistency meaning you do it regularly. Not sometimes, or when it feels right- but regularlary. Always.
Consistent habits create consistent environmental parameters, without a doubt.
As you've heard me mention ad nauseum here, natural rivers, lakes, and streams, although subject to seasonal variations and such, are typically remarkably stable physical environments, and fishes and plants, although capable of adapting to surprisingly rapid environmental changes, have really evolved over eons to grow in consistent, stable conditions.
In the botanical-influenced, low alkalinity/low pH blackwater environment, consistency is really important. Although these tanks are surprisingly easy to manage and run over the long haul, consistency is a huge part of what keeps these speciality systems running healthily and happily for extended periods of time. It wouldn't take too much beginning neglect or even a little sloppiness in husbandry to start a march towards increasing nitrate, phosphate, and their associated problems, like nuisance algae growth, etc.
Consistency. Regular maintenance. Scheduled water changes. The usual stuff. Nothing magic here. Nothing that a sexy $24.00 bottle of bacterial culture is going to replace.
Nothing that you, as an experienced hobby don't already know. Right?
Just looking at your tank and its inhabitants will be enough to tell you if something is amiss. More than one advanced aquarist has only half-jokingly told me that he or she can tell if something is amiss with his/her tank simply by the "smelI!" get it- excesses of biological activities do often create conditions that are detectible by scent!
It's as much about consistency-consistency in practices and procedures- as it is about hitting those "target numbers" of pH, nitrate, etc. If you ask a lot of successful aquarists how they accomplish this-or-that, they'll usually point towards a few things, like regular water changes, good food, and adhering to the same practices over and over again.
Consistency = Stability.
Sure, there might be times you deliberately manipulate the environment fairly rapidly, like a temperature change to stimulate spawning, etc., but for the most part, the successful aquarist plays a consistent game. Most fishes come from environments that vary only slightly during he course of a day, and many only seasonally, so stability is at the heart of "best practice" for aquarists.
So, without further beating the shit out of this, I think we can successfully make the argument that consistency in all manner of aquarium-keeping endeavors can only help your animals. Keeping a stable environment is not only humane- it's playing into the very strength of our animals, by minimizing the stress of constantly having to adapt to a fluctuating environment. As one of our local reef hobbyists likes to say, "Stability promotes success."
Who could argue with that?
I'm sure that you can think of tons of ways that consistency in our fish-keeping habits can help promote more healthy, stable aquariums. Don't obsess over this stuff, but do give some thought to the discussion here; think about consistency, and how it applies to your animals, and what you do each day to keep a consistent environment in your systems.
And don't be fucking lazy.
Don't look for magic potions, shortcuts, or hacks. Good stuff takes time to achieve.
Stay observant. Stay methodical. Stay diligent. Stay grounded. Stay consistent...
And Stay Wet.