It's nice to reflect upon the journeys we take as hobbyists now and then, to gain a little perspective. Our office aquaria, which is over a year old now, has been a real "testbed" for a lot of our crazy ideas...we deliberately pushed it hard to sort of "demonstrate" all of the stuff that happens along the way from startup to maturity, and how none of the 'problems" are as bad as we make them. When people contact me and are concerned because of biofilms, algae, or whatever, I just reflect upon this tank.
The aquarium was set up with the intention of allowing the tannins and such contained in the wood and botanicals to be released "in their own time", and in as natural a fashion as possible. I also made the "command decision" to "cure" my Manzanita wood inside the display aquarium rather than in an external vessel of some sort- something I have always been hesitant to do in years past. This set the pace for the aquarium, so to speak.
Why? Because the wood will release a lot of bound-up organic material, in addition to tannins and other chemicals, not to mention good old fashion detritus and such- bound up on and within its structure. This has a direct impact in the water in a number of ways- not the least of which is the "bloom" of bacteria which arise as the wood becomes saturated.Natural consequences of a deliberate action on my part.
Couple this with the breakdown of a significant number of other botanicals as well, and the result was about 3 weeks of pretty cloudy water, which is never a fun thing to deal with. Yet, for this aquarium, I decided to stick it out, to demonstrate first hand that you can get through all of these things with time, patience, and a few "tweaks"- not big moves or panic.
With patience, frequent small water changes with prepared RO/DI water, and the use of modest amounts of chemical filtration media (I love SeaChem Purigen), I "endured" this cloudiness and began to see the wonderful brown color, clarity and richness that I've come to expect from a blackwater system.
Yes, I had to endure the "yucky biofilm phase" with my botanicals, just like many of you do. I had to remove a few pieces that got that nasty, hydrogen sulfide smell. I did some "aesthetic edits", removing what I felt were pieces that either detracted from the appearance I was trying to achieve, or were otherwise incongruous with the rest of the 'scape.
What I never did- in fact, what I never DO- is to make knee-jerk "panic decisions" and take extraordinary measures to "correct" what appear to be "problems" in the system. It pays to reevaluate and analyize just what made these "problems" arise in the first place, so you can decide what, if any- action you SHOULD take. In my case, I knew what I was in for: Cloudiness caused by my decision to "cure" the wood in the aquarium proper, and the biofilms and such that you see from using large quantities of aquatic botanicals in the system from the outset.
Rather than panic, I did water testing, which revealed no detectible nitrite, phosphate, or ammonia during this period. The pH was stable and the fishes that were present were perfectly fine. I decided to embrace all of the process that were occurring within my system, and understood that the aquatic environment was evolving.
That being said, did I enjoy the "yucky biofilm phase" or cloudy water? Of course not. However, I DID understand why they were occurring, and appreciated the natural processes, helped by my regular maintenance procedures (standard weekly 10% water changes) that were letting the system "do its thing." Perhaps that patience, borne from decades of reef keeping, where you simply have to let things evolve if you want long-term success- has become the key ingredient in my aquarium management philosophy with botanical-style aquariums.
And the "evolution" doesn't take as long as you think...
About five weeks after the aquarium was set up, things had truly "evolved" past what I call the "Initial Phase" (where everything is still kinda new and sterile) and evolved into the "Living Phase", when an aquarium starts to literally take on a life of its own, becoming less dependent upon the "management" of its owner to overcome issues like nuisance algae, cloudiness, etc. You started seeing the richness of the aquatic environment starting to emerge: The botanicals softened and saturated, the wood had a minimal coverage of biofilm or nuisance algae of any kind, and the water had that clarity and clean, "earthy" smell of a healthy aquarium. Environmental parameters were stable. And of course, the "tint" caused by the release of tannins was increasingly evident!
The fish population increased gradually (I'm a FISH GEEK, for goodness sake!), and with it, the biological demand on the system. However, I've learned a thing or two over the years, like most of you- the most important lesson being to be patient and add fishes slowly. In a "New Botanical Style" system, with little or no higher plants to help uptake the nutrients released into the system by the botanicals, wood, and fishes, it's more important than ever to go slowly and take that "it's a Marathon, not a sprint" mentality of tank management. And dealing with the occasional "bumps" in the road...even ones we caused through our own decisions- by just enduring them as part of the journey makes it so much easier.
This embracing of what is happening in the aquarium, and taking it all into consideration as part of the evolution of this ecosystem, has made the experience of starting this tank more enjoyable than virtually any freshwater or reef system I've set up previously, despite me deliberately "pushing the envelope" in a few areas. As I see and hear from more and more of you working with this "New Botanical Style" system, I realize that we are actually at a sort of interesting time in the hobby: We have all of these amazing technical advantages, yet we are at a point where we can sit back, embrace, and appreciate all of the amazing work that nature does.
So, don't sweat the small stuff...enjoy the journey. A message and theme you will continue to hear from us.
Stay calm. Stay fascinated.
And Stay Wet.