The world of botanical-style aquariums is really starting to gain wider exposure and acceptance in the aquarium world. Although, as we've said for years, it's not something that is necessarily "new", or was "invented" by any one hobbyist or company. No one can "claim" the "idea" that Nature has perfected over eons. However, I think it's a concept that is getting a fresh- or even a first- look by many hobbyists.
And yes, it's a "concept"- or really, a "methodology", with its own set of practices, techniques, and expectations. And it's important to go beyond just looking at the use of botanicals as "hardscape pieces" to accent our aquascapes. what we have come to call "functional aesthetics" looms large in the world we operate in.
If you've started working with botanicals in your aquariums over the past few months, you've probably gained an awareness that, although these are unique and aesthetically beautiful aquariums, like any other methodology, they are not "set and forget" systems. Because of the very nature of botanicals and how they interact with their environment, you need to regularly observe, evaluate, "scrub", or even replace them as needed. You'll need to understand the progression of things that happen as your tank establishes itself. And, perhaps most important, you'll need to make some mental "adjustments" to accept and appreciate this different aesthetic.
We've talked on numerous occasions about the various "stages" through which a botanical-style (somewhere along the line, I referred to them as "New Botanical-style" aquairums) aquarium progresses as it matures and settles in, which includes recruitment of biofilm, algae, and the physical "softening" and eventual breakdown of the botanicals themselves. We have all come to understand that the materials will interact the aquatic environment directly, imparting tannins, humic substances, and other organics into the water. We like to characterize botanicals as "dynamic" materials, as they are hardly "static" or "inert" in nature!
All of this adds up to a system that requires observation and management...Which, really, is no different, no more challenging, and probably even less mentally taxing than say, a "high tech" planted system or a specialized breeding setup for fishes like Discus or Angelfish. Like any system, the botanical-style aquarium requires some specific observation and maintenance practices in order to keep it performing at an optimum level for its inhabitants.
Is there a real "timetable" for how one of these tanks progresses? Well, more or less. At the very least, there is a somewhat predictable set of expectations we can work with, and practices to engage in:
Startup-first 3 weeks: Observe botanicals to make sure that they are remaining "negatively buoyant" (i.e.; waterlogged!). Remove any which appear to be floating or present a putrid, "rotten egg-like" smell. (yeah, some will on occasion). Depending upon your water chemistry, the quantity of botanicals being used, and the filtration media employed, you'll start to see the water "tint" after a few days, reaching its maximum after about 2-3 weeks. Now, despite our love of the color, it's important to perform regular water changes and other maintenance like you would on any other aquarium during this time.
One month- two months: This is when you'll likely see the maximum growth of biofilms and fungal growth on the botanicals. This is a part of the "game" where we can separate the hobbyists who understand this process and those who have not done their homework, so to speak. As we've discussed numerous times, biofilms are a completely natural and expected part of utilizing dried botanical materials in an aquarium. The "aesthetics" of this process is not everyone's idea of "beautiful"- and that's understandable.
However, it's a normal, natural, part of the game.
Biofilms will always be present to some extent during the lifetime of your botanical-style aquarium. We need to accept this. During the initial phases, you have several options. You can physically scrub the biofilms off of the botanicals as needed (accepting the fact that they will likely reappear), or employ "biological controls" (such as ornamental shrimp, snails, or even Otocinculus catfish) to help with this process. In fact, many fishes will forage upon biofilms as part of their diet. Although they are efficient, you shouldn't expect the animals to get everything. You can assist with the removal of any offensive materials or...wait it out.
Two months-four months: By this time, your aquarium has no doubt settled into a comfortable, stable situation, and hopefully you've come to appreciate the more natural appearance of your system. Some of the softer, more "transient" botanicals, such as leaves, will likely have broken down significantly at this point, and no doubt need replacement. That's another point...as in Nature, to keep a consistent environment, you'll need to replenish leaves and botanicals as they decompose.
You need to employ regular maintenance practices, such as water exchanges, filter cleaning/media replacement, etc., and monitor water chemistry parameters like you would in any other tank. By this time, you'll come to recognize what is "normal" for your system, and any deviations from the norm will become more obvious to you.
As a "side note" on maintenance- you can "condition" your replacement water for water changes by soaking some prepared Catappa leaves in the storage containers for several days prior to use. This creates a certain degree of consistency, and of course, adds that "tint" to the water.
Evaluate your tank periodically and decide if you want to exchange or simply add some new botanicals to your system. There is no exact "science" to this; like with so many things we do in aquariums, it will require you to "go with your gut" and make decisions based upon what your goals are, and what by now you consider "normal" for your system.
After a few months, it's likely that you'll either just love this style of aquarium, or you'll decide it's not for you. Perhaps the tinted water, decomposing materials, and earthy appearance are something that speaks to you...I hope so!
Obviously, this is not a comprehensive treatise on the management of a botanical-style system. It is, however, meant to serve as a very rough guide as to what typically happens during the early life, and what to expect with such an aquarium. Your experience may vary slightly, but these observations were made based upon my own experiences and others who have worked with these types of aquariums for years.
It's intended to serve as a "cue card" for you to understand the various phases of your aquarium, and what may be expected. Depending upon many factors, such as your base water chemistry, maintenance practices, filtration, etc., the timeline may be longer or shorter, but the "markers" are typically the same.
In the end, one conclusion you can draw from this brief review is that these types of aquariums are by no means difficult to create or maintain; and in fact, once established and stable, may prove to be some of the more simple systems you've worked with! You just need to learn the "rules" as Nature has established them, and to manage expectations based on this knowledge.
Probably the biggest adjustments you need to make are mental ones. You need to accept that this type of tank will look and function fundamentally different than other types of systems you've maintained. Obviously, the tint of the water is the most obvious. This can be managed, to a certain degree, by employing activated carbon, Purigen, or other chemical filtration to remove some or all of the "tint" as desired.
Also, you'll have to get used to a certain amount of material decomposing in your tank. It's natural, and part of the aesthetic. Accepting the fact that you'll see biofilms and even some algae in your system is something that many aquarists have a difficult time with.
This is not an excuse to develop or accept lax maintenance practices. It's simply a "call to awareness" that there is probably nothing wrong with your system when you see this stuff. It's quite contrary to the way we've been "acculturated" to evaluate the aesthetics of a typical aquarium.
Observe underwater videos and photos of environments such as the Amazonian region, etc. and you'll see that your tank is a much closer aesthetic approximation of nature than almost any other system you've worked with before! And, to your comfort, you'll find that these systems are as "chemically clean" as any other if you follow regular maintenance and common sense.
The realization that it's perfectly natural and entirely consistent with the nature of these environments to have some of this stuff present is likely little comfort to you if you just can't handle looking at a field of "yuck" on your botanicals. I can't stress enough the need to make that "mental shift." As we discussed, management of this stuff is entirely up to you and what you can tolerate. Generally, the biofilms and algae are self-limiting, ultimately disappearing over time as the compounds that fuel them diminish or attain levels that are not sufficient for their growth, or as a result of animals consuming them- or a combination of both.
The decomposition of "transient" materials like leaves and softer pods, etc. is simply part of the natural dynamic, and will continue as long as you choose to employ these materials in your aquascape. If you observe carefully, you may note spawning and other "grazing" behaviors in your fishes, and note that they are spending significant time foraging though the broken-down matter, much like in nature.
Ultimately, the decision to create a "botanical-style aquarium is as much a philosophical one as it is a practical one. To accept nature, rather than to fight it, is a bit at odds with the mindset many of us have with regards to aquarium keeping. As you begin to understand and evaluate your own aquarium, you'll gain a greater appreciation for the wonders of nature, and the processes that have occurred for eons.
Stay open-minded. Stay adventurous. Stay curious. Stay diligent...
And stay wet.