I make it no secret that the botanical method aquarium is unlike almost any other approach to aquarium keeping currently practiced. Not better. Not the "coolest" (well, possibly...)- just different. To parse all of the many reasons why this approach is so different could literally take years...Oh, wait, it HAS..like 8 years, to be exact!
If you take this approach, you simply, literally- need to clear your mind of any preconceived notions that you have about what an aquarium should look like. The aesthetics are unlike anything that you've seen before in the hobby.
And, over the many years that I've been playing with botanicals, my approaches and processes have changed and evolved, based on my own experiences, and those of our community. The way I approach botanical method aquariums today is definitely a bit different than I have approached them previously.
And that's pretty cool..It's the by-product of years of playing with this stuff; modifying techniques, philosophies, and approaches based upon actual practice.
My practices are constantly changing...Persistently evolving.
Here are a few examples of the evolution of my practices and approaches over the years.
As a regular consumer of our content, you likely know of my obsession with varying substrate compositions and what I call "enhancement" of the substrate- you know, adding mixes of various materials to create different aesthetics and function.
Over the years, I've developed a healthy interest in replicating the function and form of substrates found in the wild aquatic habitats of the world. What we had to work with in years past in the hobby was simply based upon what the manufacturers had available. I felt that, although these materials are overall great, there was a lot of room for improvement- and some evolution based upon what types of materials are found in actual wild aquatic habitats.
My evolution was based upon really studying the wild habitats and asking myself how I can replicate their function in my tanks. A big chunk of this understanding came from studying how substrate materials in the wild aggregate and accumulate; where they come from, and what they do for the overall aquatic ecosystem.
I'm fascinated with this stuff partly because substrates and the materials which comprise them are so intimately tied to the overall ecology of the aquatic environments in which they are found. Terrestrial materials, like soils, leaves, and bits of decomposing botanical materials become an important component of the substrate, and add to the biological function and diversity.
Now, there is a whole science around aquatic substrates and their morphology, formation, and accumulation- I don't pretend to know an iota about it other than skimming Marine biology/hydrology books and papers from time to time. However, merely exploring the information available on the tropical aquatic habitats we love so much- even just looking long and hard at some good underwater pics of them- can give us some good ideas!
How do these materials find their way into aquatic ecosystems?
In some areas- particularly streams which run through rain forests and such, the substrates are often simply a soil of some sort. A finer, darker-colored sediment or soil is not uncommon. These materials can profoundly influence water chemistry, based on the ionic, mineral, and physical concentrations of materials that are dissolved into the water. And it varies based on water velocities and such.
Meandering lowland rivers maintain their sediment loads by continually re-suspending and depositing materials within their channels- a key point when we consider how these materials arrive-and stay- in the aquatic ecosystems.
Forest floors...Fascinating ecosystems in their own right, yet even more compelling when they're flooded.
And what accumulates on dry forest floors?
Branches, stems, and other materials from trees and shrubs. When the waters return, these formerly terrestrial materials become an integral part of the (now) aquatic environment. This is a really, really important thing to think of when we aquascape or contemplate who we will use botanical materials like the aforementioned stems and branches. They impact both function and aesthetics of an aquarium...Yes, what we call "functional aesthetics" rears its head again!
There is no real rhyme or reason as to why stuff orients itself the way it does. I mean, branches fall off the trees, a process initiated by either rain or wind, and just land "wherever." Which means that we as hobbyists would be perfectly okay just sort of tossing materials in and walking away! Now, I know this is actually aquascaping heresy- Not one serious 'scaper would ever do that...right?
I'm not so sure why they wouldn't. Look at Nature...
I mean, what's wrong with sort of randomly scattering stems, twigs, and branches in your aquascape? It's a near-perfect replication of what happens in Nature. Now, I realize that a glass or acrylic box of water is NOT nature, and there are things like "scale" and "ratio" and all of that "gobbldeygook" that hardcore 'scaping snobs will hit you over the head with...
But Nature doesn't give a shit about some competition aquascaper's "rules"- and Nature is pretty damn inspiring, right? There is a beauty in the brutal reality of randomness. I mean, sure, the position of stones in an "Iwagumi" is beautiful...but it's hardly what I'd describe as "natural."
We talk a lot about "microhabitats" in Nature; little areas of tropical habitats where unique physical, environmental and biological characteristics converge based on a set of factors found in the locale. Factors which determine not only how they look, but how they function, as well.
The complexity and additional "microhabitats" they create are compelling and interesting. And they are very useful for shelltering baby fishes, breeding Apistogramma, Poecilocharax, catfishes, Dicosssus, an other small, shy fishes which are common in these habitats.
Small root bundles and twigs are not traditionally items you can find at the local fish store or online. I mean, youcan, but there hasn't been a huge amount of demand for them in the aquascaping world lately...although my 'scape scene contacts tell me that twigs are becoming more and more popular with serious aquascapers for "detailed work"...so this bodes well for those of us with less artistic, more functional intentions!
Except we don't glue shit together.
When I see aquascapers glue wood together, it makes me want to vomit. I know, I'm an asshole for feeling that way, but it's incredibly lame IMHO. Just fit the shit together with leverage and gravity, like your grandparents did, or keep looking for that perfect piece. Seriously! You don't need to glue to make wood look "cool."
You're not a reefer gluing coral frags to rock. There is no "need" to do this.
Relax and just put it together as best as Nature will allow.
Okay, micro rant over!
Let's get back to discussing natural materials and how we've come to include them in our tanks just a bit more...
In flooded forests, roots are generally found in the very top layers of the soil, where the most minerals are. In fact, in some areas, studies indicated that as much as 99% of the root mass in these habitats was in the top 20cm of substrate! Low nutrient availability in the Amazonian forests is partially the reason for this. And since much of that root mass becomes submerged during seasonal inundation, it becomes obvious that this is a unique habitat.
So, ecological reasons aside, what are some things we as hobbyists can take away from this?
We can embrace the fact that most of these finer materials will function in our aquairums as they do in Nature, sequestering sediments, retaining substrate, and recruiting epiphytic materials which fishes will forage, hide, and spawn among.
And let's talk about preparation a bit.
I'm at a phase in my aquarium "career" with regards to botanicals in which I feel it is less and less necessary to worry about extensively preparing my botanical materials for use in my tanks. In essence, my main preparation "technique" is to rinse the items briefly in freshwater, followed by a boil until they are saturated and stay submerged.
It's less and less about "cleaning them" and more and more about getting them to stay down in my aquairums. And to be perfectly honest, if the materials would actually sink immediately and stay down, I think my "preparation" would simply consist of a good rinse!
What's the reason for this "evolution" of my preparation technique? Well, part of it is because I've started to realize that virtually every botanical item which I use in my work is essentially "clean"- that is, not polluted or otherwise contaminated. Generally, most of the items I use may simply have some "dirt" on their surfaces. I typically will not use botanical items which have bird droppings, insect eggs, or other obvious contaminants present.
The reality is that, in over 20 years of playing with botanicals, I simply cannot attribute a single fish death to the use of improperly prepared botanical materials!
It's really more about the sourcing, to me.
Naturally collected materials, air or sun-dried over time are just not an issue. However, when you obtain materials from unvetted sources, you cannot be sure what her original intended use was. For years, the "hack" I've seen was hobbyists purchasing dried botanical materials from craft stores...And these are the people I've seen the most issues with.
The problem is that materials intended to be used in craft projects are typically chemically preserved or treated with varnishes or other materials...and these are simply deadly to aquatic life.
Feel free to experiment with all sorts of carefully collected natural materials, but I would simply avoid purchasing them from sources which you cannot thoroughly vet. The price of such "hacks" may be the deaths of your fishes.
Another reason I'm less "anal" about preparation of my botanicals and wood and such is that these materials contain a lot of organic materials which are likely "catalysts" for ecological processes. I know, that's vague and oddly unscientific, but it makes sense, when you think about it.
"Organics" are simply incorporated into the aqueous environment, and help foster the growth of a variety of organisms, from fungi to bacterial biofilms and more. IMHO, they are helpful to create an underwater ecology in your aquirium. It's no longer a concern of mine that botanicals being added to my aquairums need to be essentially "sterile."
Ecology is the primary motivation for me when it comes to adding botanicals to my tanks- specifically, helping to foster an underwater ecology which will provide the inhabitants with supplemental food and nutrient processing. So, trying to keep things impeccably clean when setting up an ecology first, botanical method aquarium is downright counterproductive, IMHO.
And I have a hunch that a lot of our fear of introducing extraneous "stuff" into our tanks via botanicals was as a result of my excessive paranoia back in 2015, in our earliest days- when I was very concerned about some hobbyist simply dumping a bunch of our fresh botanicals into his/her tank and ending up with...well, what?
A tank with a little bid of turbidity? Darkly tinted water? Some fungal and biofilm-encrusted seed pods and leaves? Detritus from their tissues?
All things that we've come to not only accept, but to expect and to even celebrate as a normal part of our practice. I mean, man, there is literally an explosion of hashtags used on instagram weekly celebrating shit that I used to have to beat you over the head about to convince you that these things were normal: "Detritus Thursday", "Fungal Friday", etc.
And, isn't this what you see in wild aquatic habitats?
None of these things are "bad." We're beyond these concerns that were partially rooted in fear, and the other part in our desire to fit in with the mainstream hobby crowd's aesthetic preferences. We've finally accepted that our "normal" is very different from almost every other hobby specialty's view of "normal."
My development, use, and marketing of our NatureBase line of sedimented substrates reflected another big step in my growing confidence about what is "normal: in our world. These substrates are filled with materials which will make your water turbid for a while...and we absolutely DON'T recommend any sort of preparation before using them.
Your tank WILL get cloudy for a few days...Absolutely part of the process. I remember a lot of sleepless nights, discussions with Johnny Citotti and Jake Adams before launching the product, and just convincing myself that it was okay to convince fellow hobbyists to...relax bit about this stuff and embrace it, in exchange for the manifold benefits of utilizing more truly natural substrate materials.
The entire botanical method aquarium movement has been, and likely will continue to be- an exercise in stepping out of our hobby "comfort zones" on a regular basis. Trying out ideas which have long been contrary to mainstream aquairum hobby practice and philosophy. Ideas and practices which question and challenge the "status quo", and seem to go against a century of aquarium work, in favor of embracing the way Nature has done things for eons.
It's a big "ask", but you keep accepting it...and we've all grown together as a result.
Another seismic shift (in my head, anyways...) is my acceptance that... leaves are leaves. Yeah, seriously. Wether they come from the rainforest of Borneo or the mountains of West Virginia, leaves are essentially similar to each other. Sure, soem look different, or perhaps might have different concentrations of compounds within their tissues...yet they're all fundamentally the same. They perform the same function for the tree, and "behave" similarly when submerged in water.
A Catappa leaf from Malaysia, Jackfruit leaf from India, or a Live Oak leaf from Southern California are more alike than they are dissimilar. Other than having slightly different concentrations of tannins (and even that is possibly minimal), a leaf is a leaf. To convene ourselves otherwise is kind of funny, actually.
I did for a long time. I was 100% convinced that the leaves I was painstakingly sourcing from remote corners of the globe were somehow better than our Native Magnolia or Live Oak or whatever. The reality is that, other than some exotic sounding names, a morphology that might be different, or a good story about where they come from, the "advantages" of most "exotic" leaves over "domestically sourced" leaves ( or leaves from wherever you come from) are really minimal at best.
Trust me- no Catappa leaves find their way into tributaries of the Orinoco river. It's Ficus, Havea leaves, various palms, etc.
But not Catappa, Guava, or Jackfruit.
And if they did, they likely impact the water chemistry or ecology no differently.
Leaves are leaves. In fact, ecologically, they all essentially do the same thing, just on a different "timetable." Trees in tropical deciduous forests lose their leaves in the dry season and regrow them in the rainy season, whereas, temperate deciduous forests, trees lose their leaves in the fall and regrow them in the spring.
In the moist forests close to the equator, the climate is warm and there is plenty of rainfall all year round. In this environment there is no reason for the trees to drop their leaves at any particular time of year, so the forest stays green year round.
Trees from temperate climate zones lose leaves regularly during certain times of the year and then regrow them., and must take a fairly precise cue from their environment. In the mid and high latitudes, if trees put the leaves out too early in the year, these may be damaged by frost and valuable nutrients lost, because the tree cannot easily reclaim nutrients from a frost-bitten leaf.
Yeah, leaves...They perform similar functions for their trees, regardless of where they come from.
The morphological differences are often subtle, and sometimes inconsistent:
It has long been recognized by science that tropical forests are dominated by evergreen trees that have leaves with "complete" margins, whereas trees of temperate forests tend to have deciduous leaves with toothed or lobed margins.
Maybe leaves from different habitats and environments look a bit different, and fall at different times...but that's really about it...
I'm sure that this is not an "absolute" sure- there ARE trees which have leaves with higher concentrations of tannins, etc than others...However, by and large, there are not all that many compelling arguments to favor "exotic" leaves from faraway places over the ones you can source locally!
Sure, soem botanist somewhere could school my on over-generalizing this, but in the aquairum world, I'm not certain one could successfully prove that you MUST use "Pango Pango leaves" from Cameroon to be successful with botanical method aquariums. Now, could one argue that there are some subtle chemical ben efiots to fishes from these regions by using "local" botanicals in their tanks? Maybe. But by and large, I just don't think so anymore.
So,as a hobbyist and vendor, I'm not completely engrossed by chasing every exotic sounding leaf out there anymore.
I may offer limited quantities of the "big three" in the future, but I feel less and less compelled to do so. Trying to be the aquarium world's "catalogue" of tropical leaves for aquariums long ago lost its luster, among the realities of supply chain issues, tariffs, and unreliable producers. Let other vendors chase the dollars. I'm going to chase my ideas...and use whatever materials I see fit for purpose- regardless of their origin.
Constantly changing. Persistently Evolving.
We're in an amazing time right now. For the first time in years, I personally feel that the idea of botanical method aquariums has moved out of it's obscure, "fringe-culture-like" parking spot in the fish world, and into the light of the mainstream.
And it's all because of YOU! Sure, many of you were playing with "blackwater" tanks before, but if your experience was anything like mine, you were sort of viewed as a mildly eccentric hobbyist playing with a little "side thing"- a passing fancy that you'd eventually "get over.."
Well, I think that is changing a lot now. We're seeing a community of what was once widely scattered hobbyists starting to come together and share ideas, technique, pictures, inspiration with other equally as obsessed hobbyists. This is an amazing thing to me, and to be able to witness it firsthand is incredible! It's been a renaissance of sorts for this once-neglected aspect of the hobby.
Another think that I think is interesting is that we, as a community, are viewing our aquariums as "habitats" more than ever before. We seem to have broken through the mindset of creating aquariums only based on an aesthetic WE like, and fitting the fishes into it, as opposed to creating aquariums with specialized habitats for specific fishes.
And we're not afraid to make little detours- small changes. And, not all of them need be intentional. Things happening in unexpected ways are what can propel the hobby forward.
Everything doesn't have to follow a plan.
A detour can be amazing.
However, if your looking for a specific result and go too far in a different direction, it's often a recipe for frustration for those of us not prepared of it. Sure, many of us can simply "go with the flow" and accept the changes we made as part of the process, but the aquarist with a very pure vision and course will work through such self-created deviations until he or she gets to the destination.
Many find this completely frustrating.
Others find this a compelling part of the creative process.
Pretty much every major breakthrough I've encountered in my hobby "practice" has been the result of me "breaking pattern" and trying something fairly radically new...You know, a big remake of an aquarium....Trying a new manipulation of the environment, etc.
And of course, the thing which maintains the "breakthrough?"
I've always had this thing about repetition and doing the same stuff over and over agin in my aquarium practice. It's one of the real "truisms", to me, about fish keeping: Once you've gotten in a groove, in terms of husbandry routines, it's great to just do the same thing over and over again.
Yes, I beat the shit out of that idea fairly regularly, right?
Now, notice that I'm not talking about doing the same thing over and over when it comes to ideas...Nope. I'm of the opinion that you should do all sorts of crazy things when it comes to concepts and experiments.
One thing that was sort of "experimental" for many years in my world was the idea of NOT removing decomposing botanical materials from my tanks. You know, flat-out siphoning stuff out, lest it do "something" to the water quality in my aquariums.
It was a big deal about 20 years ago...People thought I was crazy for talking about leaving leaves and botnaicals in the tank until they fully decomposed. I was told that if I didn't remove this stuff, all sorts of horrifying outcomes would ensue. Yet, in the back of my mind, I thought to myself, "If the whole idea of botanical method aquariums is to facilitate an ecosystem within the tank, wouldn't removing a significant source of the ecology (ie; decomposing leaves and botanical detritus) be MORE negative than leaving iot in the tank to be "worked" by the resident life forms at various levels?
So I left the stuff in...
Never had any "bad" results...
It really wasn't that surprising, in actuality.
I figured that this would actually be beneficial to the aquairum...My theory was steeped in the mindset that you've created a little ecosystem, and if you start removing a significant source of someone's food (or for that matter, their home!), there is bound to be a net loss of biota...and this could lead to a disruption of the very biological processes that we aim to foster.
Okay, it was a theory...But I think I am on to something, maybe? So, like here is my "theory" in more detail:
Simply look at the botanical-method aquarium (like any aquarium, of course) as a little "microcosm", with processes and life forms dependent upon each other for food, shelter, and other aspects of their existence. And, I really believe that the environment of this type of aquarium, because it relies on botanical materials (leaves, seed pods, etc.), is more signficantly influenced by the amount and composition of said material to "operate" successfully over time.
Just like in natural aquatic ecosystems...
Detritus...the nemesis of the hobby...not all that bad, really..
It's all about not simply accepting the generally held hobby "truisms" as "gospel" in EVERY situation. Experimenting and considering stuff in context is important.
Change and variation is inevitable and important in the hobby. Being open minded about things is vital.
The processes of evolution, change and disruption which occur in natural aquatic habitats- and in our aquariums- are important on many levels. They encourage ecological diversity, create new niches, and revitalize the biome. Changes can be viewed as frightening, damaging events...Or, we can consider them necessary processes which contribute to the very survival of aquatic ecosystems.
Think about that the next time you hesitate to experiment with that new idea, or play a hunch that you might have. Remember that there is always a bit of discomfort, trepidation, and risk when you make changes or conduct bold experiments.
Goes with the territory, really.
However, once you get out of that comfort zone, you're really living...and the fear will give way to exhilaration and maybe even triumph! Because in the aquarium hobby, the bleeding edge is when you're constantly changing, and patiently evolving.
Stay Brave. Stay persistent. Stay curious. Stay thoughtful. Stay creative...
And Stay Wet.