An interesting question I received recently concerned wether or not I think it's a good idea for a full-on beginner to the aquarium hobby to start with a botanical-style aquarium. Or, perhaps more salient to what we do- a natural-style aquarium utilizing botanicals.
It's a good question.
I mean, I've often touted how I feel that, once these systems are established, they are remarkably stable, relatively easy-to-maintain aquariums. Of course, there are some real qualifiers here.
The first being, "After the system is established."
Establishing a botanical-style aquarium, blackwater, brackish, or otherwise- certainly requires some basic understanding of the principles of aquarium management. Specifically, the nitrogen cycle, an understanding of water quality assessment and management, and stocking.
Some things you can't really "teach"- like patience. You need, well- a shitload of it...in the aquarium hobby in general, yet especially in the natural, botanical-style aquarium sector. And the patience part? We feel that it's seminal. Foundational.
I don't think you can "teach" it.
I mean, perhaps you can be taught about why patience is so important. We can provide some expectations and explanations of how these systems establish, appear, and operate over time. We can offer guidelines about "best practices" and procedures.
However, the best teacher, as with so many things- is experience. You have to dive in and do it.
Perhaps some things might be easier to an outright beginner; someone who has no preconceived notions about how an aquarium is "supposed to look", or what is considered "natural", "beautiful", etc. There is a beautiful, almost innocent objectivity that we bring to the game when we are flat-out beginners, right? We have little basis for comparison, other than our own observations and personal tastes.
And that's actually an advantage, in some respects, IMHO.
In my opinion, the hobby has been- for better or worse- influenced by schools of thought which seem too dogmatically dictate what is "good", "bad", and "correct." And, in a strange sort of way, hobbyists who stray off of the generally accepted, well-trodden paths established by our hobby forefathers are often greeted with skepticism, cynicism, and sometimes, outright disdain!
Yet, there is also something rather disconcerting to this salty old hobbyist; a trend in recent years, fueled by social media, showing the "finished product" of gorgeous aquascaped tanks, with maybe just a little sampling of "construction" pics, but little mention of the actual process; the challenges, the "ugly" parts- the work- of establishing one of these aquariums. The result of this superficial ("dumbed down") presentation of aquariums conveys the message that it's just all about artfully arranging some materials and POW! Finished awesome tank.
Sure, the fundamentals of aquarium keeping and the mindset behind establishing successful systems isn't as "sexy" or 'Gram-ready as pics of the finished product, but to operate from the position that everyone who sees these tanks has that underlying knowledge already is at best "glossing over" the realities, and at worst, downright irresponsible.
To jump into any aquarium- botanical-filled or otherwise- without having basic knowledge about stuff like the nitrogen cycle, fish stocking protocols, and husbandry techniques- is flat-out stupid, IMHO.
I challenge all of my fellow hobbyists who are influential in this social-media-powered world to commit to touching on some of these underlying themes, challenges, and expectations on occasion when featuring your amazing work. Just taking a few seconds to explain this stuff; one pic in your feed showing a tank cycling, or with the plants not looking perfect, or the water not crystal clear- can go a long, long way to gently give a dose of reality and expectation management in the splashy world of aquascaped aquariums.
Now, I realize that there is plenty of material out there on "how to start an aquarium" or whatever- but I think it needs refreshing, updating, FEATURING- for a new generation of hobbyists who are getting the bulk of their information from Facebook forums, Instagram feeds, and YouTube shorts. It's important for the future of the hobby. It will assure more people get in- and STAY in the hobby. We need to evolve how we present the concepts as much as we need to evolve the concepts themselves.
Sadly, it has to be reinforced constantly.
I can't tell you how many times a week I answer questions like, "I just received my Enigma Pack! Can I just add this stuff to my 5-gallon tank? What do I need to do..?" And I have a freakin' website with gigabytes of stuff on this very topic and other related topics, accumulated over years! And we're evolving this too. I had to check my ego a bit, and accept that not everyone likes to read a daily blog.
Getting some of the fundamental messages across required us to adapt.
We've spent a lot of money and time on an upcoming botanical preparation infographic, hours filming new videos, and soon, new upscale packaging that will feature the prep infographic- because it's an adaptation to how people consume information nowadays. We all need to evolve. More succinctly, we need to preach the underlying fundamental stuff...but in an evolved way.
Part of the reason we've spent so much time over the past few years in this blog chatting about the processes, the pitfalls, and the expectations you should have when establishing the systems we advocate is to give everyone a very clear picture of what's involved.
Makes sense. We are literally asking you to dump dead plant materials into your aquarium; to NOT touch on all of this fundamental stuff and discuss the potential issues would have been irresponsible at every level.
So, yeah- getting back to the initial point of this whole thing- you certainly CAN start with a botanical-style natural aquarium for your first project, but you absolutely need to familiarize yourself with the fundamentals of aquarium practice. And you CAN be successful.
You just can't delude yourself into thinking that it's a simple matter of tossing leaves and twigs into a tank, filling it up, and BAM! "Instant Borneo" or whatever. Like, the nitrogen cycle, formation of biofilms, environmental stability, etc. don't apply to you... (Yeah, there are a LOT of neophyte hobbyists- end experienced ones, for that matter-who harbor such beliefs! I've talked to quite a few over the years...)
As those of us in this game already know, it's a process.
A journey. A learning curve.
One that acknowledges that success is entirely achievable for those who make the effort to study, familiarize themselves with the basics; one that is almost guaranteed to kick the shit out of you if you leap without learning.
It doesn't matter if you're an innocent neophyte, unfamiliar with this stuff - or even a seasoned hobbyist with decades of experience. You CAN be a "beginner"- and one who's quite successful. We, as a community just need to do some of the "heavy lifting" to help everyone along!
Advancing the state of the art of the hobby- and updating the existing practices-is a process that everyone can and should contribute to.
Let's all do our part.
Stay empathetic. Stay aware. Stay realistic. Stay educated. Stay excited. Stay inspirational...
And Stay Wet.