Beginning again...

I'm pretty excited.

After what seems like an eternity for a fish geek (almost 2 years!) I'm finally setting up some modest-sized aquariums again at home. And in all of the anticipation and excitement, there is the emergence of those same old feelings. I approach an aquarium startup as almost a reverential process. Yeah, those of you who are lifetime hobbyists can relate to's almost a "sacred" sort of thing,

I mean, you're not just setting up an "enclosure" for fishes- your creating a closed ecosystem.

Any good botanical-method aquarium lover will tell you that the start of a new aquarium is doubly exciting. Why? Well, not only because- ya know- a new tank- but because a botanical-method aquarium is intended from the very start to evolve quite differently from the way it looks and functions when it was originally set up. You get to see an amazing, but radical transformation take place.

A new aquarium- particularly one which follows our philosophy- can often thave an almost "sterile" sort of look, compared to the way it will look once the materials start softening and decomposing after the startup period.


Yikes, I forgot about that stuff...


Seems like, before my 18-month home-remodeling-imposed "sabbatical",  I'd had tanks just kind of "set up" for so long, particularly in our tinted-water-and-decomposing-leaf world, that I've kind of forgotten about the stuff that happens in new tanks for it a bit. That part when all of your good work looks like...well, you get it- as it's covered with that familiar "patina" of biofilms, while the tank goes through its nutrient cycling phase.


The part where every hobbyist, experienced or otherwise, has those lingering doubts; asks questions- goes through the "mental gymnastics" to try to cope: "Do I have enough flow?" "Was my source water quality any good?" "Is it my light?" "When does this shit go away?" "It DOES go away. I know it's just a phase." Right? "Yeah, it goes away?" "When?" "It WILL go away. Right?"

I mean, it's common with every new tank, really. 

The waiting. The "not being able to visualize a fully-stocked tank "thing"...Patience-testing stuff. Stuff which I- "Mr. Tinted-water-biofilms-and-decomposing-leaves-and-botanicals-guy"- am pretty much hardened to by now. Accepting a totally different look. Not worrying about "phases" or the ephemeral nature of some things in my aquarium. 

Yet, like anyone who sets up an aquarium, I admit that I still occasionally get those little doubts in the dim (tinted?) recesses of my mind now and then- the product of decades of doing fish stuff, yet wondering if THIS is the one time when things WON'T work out as expected...

I mean, it's one of those rights of passage that we all go through when we set up aquariums  right? The early doubts. The questioning of ourselves. The reviewing of fundamental procedure and practice. Maybe, the need to reach out to the community to gain reassurance.

It's normal. It's often inevitable. We're social creatures.

The point of this piece is not about algae or nitrites, or biofilms on botanicals, per se. It's about the mind setthat we bring to the table when we experience such things. The "biofilm" phases brings out familiar feelings...Feelings that perhaps make us uncomfortable because we realize that, despite all of our planning and knowledge and forethought- we are not entirely in control.

Nature is.

She calls the shots. These 'phases" in new tanks are hers to execute. We just have to accept, understand, and wait them out patiently- perhaps even learning to appreciate and understand them to the point where they simply become "rungs on a ladder"- trail markers, if you will- on the journey to our aquarium's ultimate destination.

She's done it for eons in the wild, creating beautiful, functional habitats that inspire us beyond anything we could ever hope to achieve. We need to relax and have a little faith that she'll do similar deeds in our little glass boxes- if we allow her to.

And the other question I receive from our community in regards to botanicals is do I leave them in until they completely decompose, or do I remove them?

I leave them in.

Decomposition is something to be embraced in the botanical-style aquarium world.

Decomposition is 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-style system so compelling.

So, what exactly happens in the early days of a botanical method aquarium?

Well, for one thing, the water will usually gradually start to tint up...

Now, I admit that this is perhaps one of the most variable and unpredictable aesthetic aspects of these types of aquariums. Many factors, ranging from what kind (and how much) chemical filtration media you use, what types (and how much again!) of botanical materials you're using, and others, impact this. Recently, I've heard a lot of pretty good observation-based information from experienced plant enthusiasts that some plants take up tannins as they grow. Interesting, huh?

Stuff changes. The botanicals themselves begin to physically break down,

I personally feel that botanical method aquariums always look better after a few weeks, or even months of operation. When they're new, and the leaves and botanicals are crisp, intact, and fresh-looking, it may have a nice "artistic" appearance- but not necessarily "natural" in the sense that it doesn't look established and "alive" in the manner we'd like it to just yet.

But it IS alive- and with more abundance and variety than you might think by casually observing...

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. 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.

The real magic takes place weeks later.

The whole environment of a more established botanical method aquarium looks substantially different after a few weeks. While the water gradually darkens, those biofilms just looks more "earthy", mysterious, and alive.

It's "Wabi-Sabi" again.

Something that's been on my mind a lot lately.

In it's most simplistic and literal form,the Japanese philosophy of "Wabi Sabi" is an acceptance and contemplation of the imperfection, constant flux and impermanence of all things.

This is a very interesting philosophy, one which has been embraced in aquascaping circles by none other than the late, great, Takashi Amano, who proferred that a planted aquarium is in constant flux, and that one needs to contemplate, embrace, and enjoy the sweet sadness of the transience of life.

Many of Amano's greatest works embraced this philosophy, and evolved over time as various plants would alternately thrive, spread and decline, re-working and reconfiguring the aquascape with minimal human intervention. Each phase of the aquascape's existence brought new beauty and joy to those would observe them.

Yet, in today's contest-scape driven, break-down-the-tank-after-the-show world, this philosophy of appreciating change by Nature over time seems to have been tossed aside as we move on to the next 'scape.

We need to relax, take a few deep breaths, and simply observe at this point...Allowing Nature to do Her thing.

Accept that things will shift, become coated with a "bloom" of life, and gradually break down.

Do nothing.

Yeah, nothing.

I am of the opinion that, when we remove partially decomposed botanicals from our systems, we're interrupting a process- denying these beneficial organisms access to their primary food sources. And, as we've discussed over and over, 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. Not just 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 such are simply not permanent additions to our 'scapes, 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.

Another thing that's unique about the botanical-style approach is that we tend to accept the idea of decomposing materials accumulating in and among the substrates within our aquariums. We understand that botanical materials in the substrate act, to a certain extent, as "fuel" for the micro and macrofauna which reside in the aquarium, and that they perform this function as long as they are present in the system.

Don't forget- the substrate plays a huge role in the function of a botanical-style aquarium. Allowing broken-down and decomposed botanical materials to remain "in situ" on/in the substrate is really important. We can create a "facility" with substrate materials which provides not only unique aesthetics- it provides priceless benefits: Production of supplemental nutrition for our fishes, and nutrient processing via a self-generating population of creatures that compliment, indeed, create the biodiversity in our systems on a more-or-less continuous basis.

True "functional aesthetics!"

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 utilizing botanical materials in your aquarium. 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, in those early hours; shortly after our tanks begin their exciting journeys, we can take delight in knowing that they will unfold according to the plan which Nature has created for them.

And we get to enjoy all of it.

Stay excited. Stay bold. Stay enthusiastic. Stay creative...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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