Changing for the better? Or, just changing..?

As part of our mission to constantly inspire, it occasionally is necessary to move on and try new stuff...And this is almost a contradiction to my mindset as a hobbyist, which has always told me to stay the course with all of my aquariums. Much like I am with my business, I'm pretty patient. I like to have my aquariums set up for extended periods of time; let them "evolve", etc.

So the dichotomy of inconsistency starts tearing at the edges a bit! Like, I only have so much space and time for setting up aquariums with different themes, looks, and ideas...And the way to maximize "idea infiltration" in today's 24/7/365 social media world is to put out as many provocative ideas as possible in a relatively short span of time... Like, that's why I have my window sill "geek lab" in my office, lol.

I mean, I'm the guy who rails on contest 'scapes, which are constructed mainly for a short period of time. It's almost heretical- if not a bit hypocritical- of me to push things hard and fast, lol. Yet, quite often, the hobbyist in me wins out, and certain tanks do stay up longer than just a few months. Let's look at some of the ideas and tanks we've played with in the last few years of Tannin's existence...there might be some lessons to learn...and maybe some inspiration to take from them!

Every aquarium is a unique microcosm, with different looks, goals, and processes that it embraces.

Some have to in order to become what they must.

Like, my brackish water aquarium, which has been up for over a year, really evolving into something exactly like I envisioned...It simply wasn't "there" after a month or two, or even six. Our botanical style tanks, with few exceptions- just don't start looking their best- all "earthy" and "funky" and...established- for a few months, typically.  

To terminate them "mid-evolution" is really a kind of shame!

Of course, there are a few things you could do to sort of "expedite" the "established" look of a botanical-style tank, but they're really just sort of "hacks" (ugh I hate that word!)- and are no substitutes for just letting a tank evolve over time naturally.

What are they, you ask?

Well, you could use some botanicals and partially decomposed leaf litter, substrate, and even water from an established botanical-style tank to give you a bit more of an "evolved" vibe and perhaps some function.

And, if doing this for purely "functional" reasons as opposed to just trying to "hack" the look- I can actually see tremendous merit to this idea. Hell, adding sand or gravel from an established tank to "jump-start" a new one has been standard practice in marine aquariums for decades, and in freshwater as well. Doing this with botanical materials- rich with detritus, biofilms, fungal growth, and beneficial bacteria- is simply the botanical-style version of this time-honored process, right?

Yet, there is no substitute for patience and the passage of time.

Looking back on some of my favorite tanks that I've executed in the past few years, it becomes increasingly obvious to all that these systems really don't hit that "look and feel" that I want until long after they've evolved naturally...however long that is. Stuff needs to acquire a "patina" of biofilm, a "stain" from the tannins, and decomposition of botanical materials needs to really begin before one of these systems turns "functional" as well.

I mean, every new botanical-style tank looks cool from day one...But the long-established ones stand out. After 6 months, that's when things get really special.

I've long held that my fave botanical-style, blackwater aquarium of all was the one I did about 2 years aquarium utilizing mangrove wood, extensive leaf litter, and catappa bark throughout. This is probably the only tank in recent years that I've truly regretted changing and moving on from! 😂 

It literally looked like shit for the first couple of months of it's existence: Slightly tinted water, a contrived-looking "campfire-like" wood stack, bare sand, and mostly intact botanical materials. I had to do a bunch of iterations with the hardscape to get it where I wanted it. It almost looked contrived, but I knew instinctively that if I waited it out, let Nature do her thing- that the potential was huge in this tank.


However, a few months in, biofilms started forming. The wood acquired that "patina" we talk about so much. Leaves and botanicals broke down...And the water took on the most earthy-looking, deeply mysterious color I've seen in a blackwater aquarium.

By some standards, the water in the tank could be described as almost "turbid"- taking on an appearance as though there were fine materials in the water column. Yet, the tank had a real magical appearance with the lighting; the fishes were as colorful, relaxed and happy as any I've ever seen, and the water parameters were spot-on and consistent for as long as the tank was set up.

The essence "wabi-sabi", for sure. Transience, the ephemeral aspects of our botanicals...the wonders of Nature, embraced.

And of course, there are some concepts which have the "broken-in" look from almost day one, simply by virtue of the materials which they utilize. An example was the "pure leaf litter" aquarium which I set up to test the idea of internally-sustainable food production for fishes. The system was set up with about a 2"/5.08cm layer of Texas Live Oak leaves and Yellow Mangrove leaves to comprise the entire "hardscape" of the aquarium.

A shoal of Paracheirodon simulans (the "Green Neon Tetra") formed the perfect "subject" for this concept tank. Once out of quarantine, the fishes were not fed at all in this aquarium, and almost doubled in size in a couple of months! It didn't take all that long for the aquarium to acquire the "look" of a very long-established one, thanks to the capability of the Live Oak leaves to acquire biofilms and some detritus. 

Now, this tank was certainly not one that everyone would find "attractive"- however, to a botanical-style/blackwater aquarium freak like me, this aquarium was more than just a "proof of concept"- it was an example of an unconventional aquarium that was able to sustain its residents for the duration of the experiment. I think that this tank could have ran for an indefinite period of time, with only routine maintenance and replenishment of leaves as necessary.

And then there are aquariums which are simple in concept, look "about right" from day one; and you just need to set them up and sort of "wait it out" until they start looking more "established"- which might only take a few weeks or a month or two at the most. A perfect example is the tank I've affectionately called the "Tucano Tangle"- an aquarium set up to replicate part of the habitat of the Tucano Tetra, Tucanoichthys tucano.

Possibly one of the easiest biotope-inspired aquariums I've ever set up, this one really took on the look I was trying to achieve in seemingly little time at all. It started with a simple "superstructure" of Spider Wood, topped with several specimens of Melastoma Root, to achieve as sort of tangled, earthy, "deep" sort of look. The substrate was a very shallow mix of sand and some very fine claylike materials, topped with a sprinkling of (wait for it) Texas Live Oak leaves.

After an initial settling-in phase, this tank easily shifted out of "new and pristine mode" into "looks like a natural habitat" mode, as I kind of expected that it would!

As the water darkened, and the biofilms and "patina" took over, the tank became a perfect demonstration of the power of simply "executing and waiting" on your tank to "do its thing" and evolve.

And evolve it did, in a relatively short period of time!

Now, other experimental systems I've played with simply take more time to do their thing and come into their own before you'd really move on. However, they actually are intended for "forced iteration"- a deliberate change to their composition or progression. Indeed, after the initial setup, the "evolved" product looks little like what it started out as. Of course, these projects may take many months to evolve as part of the plan.

The best examples of this are what I call my "Urban Igapo" tanks- the Varzea aquarium I'm playing with is perhaps the most evolved one that I have pics of at the moment.

Intended from the outset to demonstrate how an ecosystem changes from "dry season" to "wet season", this tank started out in a "terrestrial mode", with a carefully blend of selected substrate materials, mixed with botanical materials, such as crushed leaves ("Mixed Leaf Media") to form a representation of a forest floor. After a period of time sowing some seeds and bulbs of terrestrial plants, the substrate was quite damp and established.

And of course, when it was time to "inundate", the system took on a completely different look and feel, transforming from a purely terrestrial environment to an aquatic one.

The key ingredients- time and patience, in generous quantities, and having a plan or "track" to run with, create truly interesting outcomes...if, of course, you let them play out!

My true "igapo" aquarium went on a slightly different track...It started it out in "wet" mode- silty, sedimented, and tinted, and then I "drew down" the water level and sowed grass seeds to take advantage of the wet, rich substrate for growth.

It's in "terrestrial mode" at the moment, happy growing Paspalum grass. Months afterwards, we will begin the process again...and run through the "seasonal cycle" once more.

The timetable governing this process can be "manipulated", but the pace at which things happen- growth of the grasses, establishing them, and how long they survive under inundation- are dictated almost entirely by Nature. We're merely facilitating the process and watching! 

And then there are systems which, by virtue of their very concept, capture the essence of a natural habitat in a very specific phase- and can do it almost immediately...

An example of an aquarium that takes on the "established" look literally from the first days would be the "Late Season Igapo" tank that we recently set up. This system is designed to replicate- in form and function (to a certain extent, of course) the habitat which emerges when a flooded forest floor is inundated for several months. After this period of time, much of the terrestrial vegetation goes into a "dormant" phase, and detritus and biofilms over a "matrix" of these materials form the basis of the aquatic "terrain."

And of course, utilizing a mix of sediments, crushed leaves, and plant stems/twigs in the scape encourages the formation of biofilms and the sequestering of detritus and other materials as the basis of your scape will, almost from the beginning, give you an established-looking tank which also happens to function in a manner similar to what you'd find in the natural habitat.

This is an aquarium that- much like the leaf-litter-only system that we talked about above- is providing the bulk of the nutritional needs of its resident fishes (in this case, Neon Tetras) with little to no supplemental feeding. The "changes" to this habitat will simply take place at the pace of Nature.

She'll dictate the direction of this tank for the next few months.

So, what was the point of this rather meandering review at some of the aquariums we've been playing with here? To sort of show that botanical-style aquariums typically require more time to evolve. This process can be "expedited" or manipulated a bit, bit to achieve truly meaningful and beneficial results, you just can't rush stuff! 

When you do, as we've learned, results can be, well- "different" than they would be if you allow things to continue on at their own pace. Not necessarily "bad"- just not as good as what's possible if you relax things a bit!

Patience is our guideline. Nature our inspiration. Experience and execution our teachers. We're on a share the benefits which can be gained by embracing and meeting Nature as She really is.

Botanical-style aquariums are not all that dissimilar from a reef aquarium, or a more typical planted aquarium, in that they simply need time to evolve. Instead of growing plants, we're cultivating bacterial biofilms, fostering decomposition, and allowing these processes to dictate the pace and direction of the aquarium.

Of course, if we need to speed up the process- for "marketing" purposes or others, as I've discussed, the impact on these tanks might simply be that they never hit their full true potential. 

However, if you have the time, patience, and vision to see these tanks through, the sheer inspiration and knowledge that you can derive from them is almost incalculable. The "unlocks" and benefits are very exciting. And the glimpse into the world of Nature as few aquarists get to experience it- unfiltered and unedited- is perhaps the greatest takeaway of all. 

That could certainly be defined as "changing for the better!" 

Stay inspired. Stay motivated. Stay observant. Stay enamored. Stay patient...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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