Documenting the evolution...Patience, persistence, simplicity- and nature, working together.

One of the promises I made to you was that I'd periodically update you on my latest home aquarium build...because we receive a lot of question about it, and because it's fun to share! (and, because by committing to writing about it, I'll stay on top of this stuff, lol). 

As I've worked with with my latest home blackwater aquarium, a 50-U.S. gallon system, I've had the opportunity to look back and see the progress ("evolution") that this tank has made towards realizing the vision I've had for it. It's something I don't do very often, but it's actually fun to look back at the "humble beginnings" of your aquarium and see how it's progressed.

This tank was a real leap of faith for me, particularly because I was using some materials that I had not played with in a pure freshwater aquarium before- mainly mangrove root sections and mangrove leaves. I mean, brackish, yeah...freshwater? Nope.

I knew that the leaves should be okay. I've tested them before in pure freshwater (okay blackwater), but not on a large scale, in terms of being "major aesthetic contributors" to a non-brackish scape! And the wood? I just wasn't 100% certain if there would be any issues with the fishes, in terms of any residual salt or minerals leaching from them. Of course, there was not. No detectible salt or any issues with TDS or anything negative as a result of using several large pieces in my 'scape.

And that was another thing. Of all the blackwater, botanical-style aquariums I've played with before, this one relied on nature the most to really "fill in the blanks" in the 'scape. My inspiration was pics I've seen by my friend, Mike Tuccinardi, and others, of submerged tree trunsk/branches in South American flooded forest areas. Something about them that I find alluring!

I created a wood stack that, at first, literally looked like I was trying to build a campfire! Part of the reason was that I had this vision of a pic of submerged fallen tree trunks, and I decided to utilize some mangrove root pieces which literally looked like logs. And, well, there are only so many ways to stack logs in a glass box, right?

And this is where those of you who are more experienced at the BWBS aquarium game will understand: I fully intended for nature to do some of the "detail work" in making this hardscape come to life. It's a gradual process: You do enough of these tanks, you realize that you'll get some leaching of tannins into the water, a little "patina" of biocover on the wood which sort of "softens" it's appearance; ultimately, a healthier growth of biofilm and a bit of decomposition of the outermost layers of residual bark, which goes the wood an "aged" look that you just can't rush. A look that really makes it appear as though it's been down for a long time!

As I began adding the leaves and botanicals, I could feel it coming together more. Like the whole 'scape was "evolving" both with and without my intervention. You know how that is, right? You just sense that your aquarium is gaining some momentum...sort of "turning on" biologically, and breaking down some of the materials you've placed in it.

This one went through a bit of a "hazy" period (about 3 weeks worth) for two reasons: First, I decided to minimally wash the sand that I selected for the thin substrate layer, which added a bit of turbidity to the water. Why would I do this? Two reasons: 1) I did a lot of research on siltation and the interesting manner in which fine silt contributes to the "biological filtration" in river systems, serving as a sort of "substrate" for bacterial growth, and creating a more "muddy" bottom look.

2) I've seen an interesting optical "sparkling effect" with light reflecting off of super-fine particles which I thought would provide an interesting look under LEDs (I'm brave, right? The stuff I'd do in the name of "experimentation!").  Okay, I did sort of get the "sparkly" look in the water column itself, but the silt never really created a more "muddy-looking" bottom. The takeaway here is that if you want a "muddy/silty-looking" substrate, you need to use...mud or silt! :)

Oh well, next time!

The other reason for the slight "haze" was that I decided to minimally prep the mangrove roots, as opposed to subjecting them to a prolonged submersion before incorporating them into my scape. Since I always use my own systems as a "testbed" for ideas before making recommendations to you, it's sort of necessary to do weird stuff with botanicals and such!

Now, as I suspected, mangrove is kind of "rich" wood, because of the rather porous nature of it's structure, there is some bound-up organics within it's tissues that, upon submersion, will gradually leach out (along with a lot of nice tannins, by the way!). And this material could result in a bloom of bacteria initially. Anyways, the "haze" diminished after a few weeks (which, when you play a patient, "long game" as I do, is nothing, really!), and the water took on the expected tint and that sort of interesting "turbidity" (one of my friends calls it "texture" or "flavor", lol) that botanical-style, blackwater aquariums display as the materials start to break down.

I have always used minimal mechanical filtration (basically, a micron filter sock) to counter the "texture" (lol), while still letting it have a natural look, like you see in so many pics of the igapo flooded forests of South America...

I admit that, very early on, I had a dubious and very short-lived flirtation with some aquatic plants (I wanted to use Anacharis, which is actually found in some of these habitats)...and it looked...well- out of place. Okay, it looked stupid, actually. This is one of those cases where you do those "edits on the fly" to your well-though-out plan, and realize that it was pretty solid to begin with, and didn't need the "edit" at all!

The other noteworthy thing about this tank is the limited "diversity" of leaves and botanicals that I used. This is a recurring theme with me lately...

Although I gradually increased the quantity of materials, regularly (and continuously) adding more specimens, I kept the "diversity" low, and I think it paid off as they began to break down. It sort of created a more "homogenous" if the materials which accumulated in this region of the "flooded forest" were limited mainly to the trees and shrubs "growing" in the immediate vicinity. (even though some of these materials would simply NOT be found there..remember, it's a representation!):

The materials that I used in this aquascape:

*Yellow Mangrove leaves

*Red Mangrove Leaves

*Indian Jackfruit Leaves

*"Terra Sorrindo" Pods

*Fishtail Palm Stems

*Borneo Catappa Bark

Even with just six different botanical items, the "tapestry" of the botanical "bed" within the system is pretty diverse, and once these materials soften and start to break down, formed a very nicely textured feature, filled with lots of nooks and crannies for my fishes to explore and hide amongst. I can't say enough about the Mangrove leaves and Jackfruit leaves, btw.

Not only do they have a really cool "jungle look"- they last a very long time as compared to other leaves, and are a perfect size for what I was trying to achieve! And catappa bark- well...if you're not using it, let's just say that you're missing out on an aesthetic and functional "accessory" that will really enhance your aquascape!

As with all of my aquariums, my maintenance is pretty simple and consistent; that is, 20% weekly water exchanges with straight, non-reconstituted RO/DI water, rinsing of the micron socks, siphoning any "nuisance" decomposing leaves from the substrate/wood as needed, and that's about it. Any algae that I might find (rare) on the glass is scraped regularly. My aquarium has a simple, off-the-shelf auto top-off system the "Smart ATO Micro"), fed by a custom made 7 gallon reservoir. I love auto tops off, because it holds the water chemistry consistent and really keeps pace with the evaporation in this open top aquarium. I highly recommend one! 

The system has matured nicely, and my fish selection has remained simple, yet effective for the setup. Of course, all of these specimens are available from us here at Tannin Live! Thus far, we've added Rummynose Tetras, Ruby Tetras, the ubiquitous Checkerboard Cichlids, Diptail Pencilfishes, Pygmy Corydoras, and Bleeding Heart Tetras. It's a lively, yet peaceful selection of complimentary fishes, which, although largely subtle in coloration, work perfectly with the earthy color palette of a botanical-style blackwater aquarium.

One of the things I love the most about this tank is how some of the photos give you the impression that you're actually snorkeling in an iagpo- something that I love! We've received a number of comments to this effect, and I think that, as an aquarist, no higher compliment could be paid!

There is obviously a ton more I could discuss about this aquarium, as you could about any one that you execute, but I think we've covered enough to give you a nice update for now about this simple, ridiculously achievable system. I haven't really delved into the water chemistry of this tank- that's another topic for another time. However, suffice it to say that it's been remarkably stable and I've had no issues at all with fluctuating pH (6.65) or Dkh.

What I like most about this tank is that it's been a sort of "demonstration" test bed for some of my favorite concepts, techniques, and products. Mainly, it's a good working example of utlizing a range of "off-the-shelf" (LOL) botanicals and equipment and deploy them against an inspiration from nature. 

It's been an example of an "evolving" aquarium, and the way little decisions and deviations in your plan can impact the overall tank. Most important to me, it's been an example of how to deploy patience and common sense husbandry to achieve a very "mature-looking" natural system in just a few months. By not making "knee jerk"-style "corrections" to things, and not worrying about the biofilms, water color, or even cloudiness- and simply "keeping your eyes on the prize", it's never been easier to achieve a stable, easy-to-manage blackwater aquarium.

And next month, we'll be releasing a very professional video on this tank by the wickedly talented 'scaper/photographer, Johnny Ciotti, to give you that "extra" look at this simple, but ever-evolving blackwater microcosm. Look for a lot more video content on a variety of botanical-style aquariums from Tannin in 2018, along with an evolving website and functionality!

Well, that's it for now. I'm following up on my promise to you to "check in" on this tank from time to time. We receive a lot of requests to talk about this one, so I hope it was of some interest (and perhaps, inspiration!) to you!

Stay diligent working your plan. Stay inspired by nature. Stay patient. Stay excited. Stay passionate...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 





Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


2 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

January 19, 2018

Thanks, Garrett! I think it’s important to document some of these things- warts and all- along the way, because that “thing” that wasn’t working right for me might be the exact problem that someone else figured out the workaround for, etc. Or, sometimes, just seeing other people work on the same things we do has lots of impact…it’s all fun to share!


January 18, 2018

Thanks for sharing this very detailed history of this tank! Lots of interesting stuff – I like that you shared not only your successes, but also the failures, there is something to learn from both. That ATO device looks very tempting, if a bit expensive for me right now…

Great end result, and I’m looking forward to seeing this tank continue to evolve!

Leave a comment