I have some strong words and opinions about stuff I the aquarium world. And I am not afraid to share them with you on many days.
Today is one of those days. I needed to clarify, explain, and share some ideas.
Someone asked me the other day, rather innocently, I might add- how we "invented the idea of using botanicals in the aquarium." And, as I often do, after I cringed, I strongly and immediately corrected her, and explained that there is no single hobbyist or vendor who "invented" the idea. As long as people have been playing with aquariums, they've been throwing twigs and leaves and such into them- for various reasons and with various goals.
Nevertheless, it's not some "new practice" that Tannin Aquatics "invented."
I don't know why we as hobbyists need to assign a "creator" or "inventor" to everything. It's a bit weird. Now, if you want to give us "credit" for something, you can consider this:
The term "botanicals" didn't even exist as a contextual descriptor for this stuff in aquariums until about, oh, say 2015...when started Tannin and used the term to describe them. I appropriated this term, because the hobby needed a good descriptor of what this stuff was- especially if- as was my goal- we intended to make the practice of using them to create specific environmental effects in our tanks more "mainstream" in the hobby. I don't claim many things in the aquarium hobby, but I will claim this one.
Developing terminology and process are important parts of elevating hobby practices.Yeah, I suppose I'm acting rather boorishly about this because hobby "history" is important to me, and I want to set the history straight, because the "botanical-style" aquarium is still evolving, and we need to understand the difference between a more disciplined approach, and simply tossing some seed pods and such into a tank (as hobbyists HAVE been doing for many years.).
I'll say it again- WE DID NOT INVENT THE IDEA. No one did.
"Well, if you didn't "invent" the stuff, what the hell DID you do?" (as if it really even matters, BTW)
What we did do was to source, test, research, and refine the practices involved in utilizing botanical materials safely and more predictably in aquariums. And taking this stuff to a more serious level required not only the aforementioned work- it required some descriptors and definitions.
And of course, while we're on the subject of definitions: Botanicals are simply natural plant materials (generally leaves, bark, wood, and seed pods) that are used for both decorative and environmental enrichment purposes in our aquariums. "Scott, you sell twigs and nuts!" as one of my reef-keeping friends profoundly declared! I suppose he wasn't too far off, although I think that was a bit over-generalized, lol.
Now, the interesting thing is that, as hobbyists often do, we had to fight off the most "superficial" aspects of the description of our practice. We had to overcome the perception that utilizing botanicals was just some form of "aquascaping." I mean, sure, there is a large and significant aesthetic component to what we do. However, the most important aspect of utilizing botanicals in the aquarium is that they have the ability to influence the closed environment of the aquarium in a number of ways.
Many fishes (particularly South American fishes like Tetras, Cichlids and catfishes), as well as numerous African and Southeast Asian species (Gouramis, Bettas, etc.) benefit from the tannic acids and humic substances released by these materials into the water.
It has long been understood that there are actually some antifungal and possibly even antibacterial benefits to the properties inherent to "blackwater", resulting in healthier fishes and more viable spawns. And of course, botanical materials can help us recreate, to some extent, these conditions in the aquarium. And of course, it's not just environmental benefits that we see: Some animals, such as Plecos and even ornamental shrimp, derive supplemental nutrition from grazing on these materials.
And there are the expectations of what happens when we put these botanical materials into aquariums. We HAVE to consider these things. Not only because they impact our fishes' lives- but because they require us as hobbyists to make mental shifts to accept the function and appearance of these aquariums. This is perhaps different than almost any other aquarium approach out there at the moment. This is what we've spent a decade prior to starting Tannin, and the five years since we commenced business helping to flesh out, define, and explain.
Do you want a perfectly predictable sequence of occurrences and expectations for your botanical-style aquarium? Don't waste your time...Don't even think about it. Perfect predictability is just not a "thing" with these tanks. That being said, over the decades, we have noticed a specific group of phenomenon that occur with some regularity in botanical-style aquariums. Our experience positions us perfectly to help disseminate this information.
And THAT is the crux of why we spend SO much time and space discussing this stuff. We want expectations and experiences to be realistic and appropriate. That's our contribution to this game.
One of the things that we all experience with these types of systems is an initial burst of tannins, which likely will provide a significant amount of visible color to the water. If you're not using activated carbon or some other filtration media, this tint will be more pronounced and likely last longer than if you're actively removing it with these materials!
You might also experience a bit of initial "cloudiness" in your water. This could either be physical dust or other materials released from the tissues botanicals, or even a burst of bacteria/microorganisms. Not really sure, but it usually passes quickly with minimal, if any intervention on your part. Oh, and interestingly enough- not everyone experiences this...often this is a phenomenon which seems to happen in brand new tanks...so it might not even be directly attributable to the presence of the botanicals (well, at least not 100%). It might be other materials. It could be the sand, or dust/dirt from the other hardscape materials or the tank itself.
Of course, for those of you who will experiment with our NatureBase "Varzea" and "Igapo" substrates when they debut, you WILL experience cloudiness, turbidity, and tint as just part of the game. You'll either love it or hate it. But you will experience it! How much of a mental shift can you make to accept this as "normal" for your aquarium? That's the big question.
If you can't, our recommendation is that you don't even THINK about purchasing these substrates. Just don't.
As with so many things in our practice of botanical-style aquarium keeping, we need to turn to Nature for a "prototype" of how these habitats are SUPPOSED to look and function.
This is aquarium keeping at its most raw, elemental, and yeah- natural. In a strange way, it's actually "cutting edge"- and that means that the "expectation set" is new, different, and unlike anything we've been indoctrinated to accept in the hobby before. It will challenge you. Test you. Perhaps it'll even piss you off- because it's not "Nature Aquarium" sterile artistic beauty. It's hard for many hobbyists to accept. And that's understandable and okay.
If this shit bothers you...just don't even think about setting up one of these types of tanks.
So, that being said...what happens next in a typical botanical-style aquarium as it evolves?
Well, typically, as most of you who've played with this stuff know, the botanicals will begin to soften and break down over a period of several weeks. As we've discussed ad nauseum, you have the option to leave 'em in as they break down, or remove them (whatever your aesthetic sensibilities tell you to do!). Many "Tinters" have been leaving their botanicals in until completely decomposed, utilizing them as almost some sort of botanical "mulch", particularly in planted aquariums, and have reported excellent results.
Sure, the stuff will go through that biofilm phase before ultimately breaking down, and you'll have many opportunities to remove it...or in the case of most hobbyists these days- enjoy it for the food and biodiversity it brings to your system. And you will likely add new materials as the old ones break down...completely analogous to "leaf drop" which occurs in the wild aquatic habitats we seek to replicate.
I have never had any negative side effects that we could attribute to leaving botanicals to completely break down in an otherwise healthy aquarium. Many, many users (present company included) see no detectable increases in nitrate or phosphate as a result of this process. Of course, this has prompted me to postulate that perhaps they form a sort of natural biological filtration media and actually foster some dentritifcation, etc. I have no scientific evidence to back up this theory, of course (like most of my theories, lol), but I think there might be a grain of truth here!
We're going to introduce some products later in the Summer/Fall which will address the biological "operating system" of botanical-style aquariums in ways not previously done. Suffice it to say, they'll require not only mental shifts on your part, but some observation, experimentation, education, and dedication. Not into that? Don't even think about trying them. Really. It's okay.
Oh, speaking of expectations- one of the "givens" of botanical aquarium keeping is that you will likely have to clean/replace prefilters, micron socks, and filter pads more frequently. Just like in Nature, as the botanicals (leaves, in particular) begin to break down, you'll see some of the material suspended in the water column from time to time, and the bits and pieces which get pulled into your filter will definitely slow down the flow over time. Stuff breaks down, and you can't stop it. Well, not unless you're standing by with a siphon hose by your tank 24/7/365.
The best solution, IMHO, is to simply change prefilters frequently and clean pumps/powerheads regularly as part of your weekly maintenance regimen.
Not into that? Well, you know what I'm going to say...
And of course...this is the elegant segue into the part about your "weekly maintenance regimen", right?
Well, here's my simple thoughts on this: Do "whatever floats your boat", as they say. If you're a bi-weekly-type of tank maintenance person, do that. If you're a once-a-month kind of person...Well, you might want to re-examine that! LOL. Botanical-style blackwater tanks, although remarkably stable and easy-going once up and running, really aren't true "set-and-forget" systems, IMHO.
You want to at least take a weekly or bi-weekly assessment on their performance and overall condition. Now, far be it from me to tell YOU- the experienced aquarist-how to run your tanks. However, I'm just sort of giving you a broad-based recommendation based upon my experiences, and those of many others over the years with these types of systems. You need to decide what works best for you and your animals, of course...
Now, remember, you're dealing with a tank filled with decomposing botanical materials. I mean, what do you THINK is going to be "normal" for a tank like this? Good overall husbandry is necessary to keep your tank stable and healthy- and that includes the dreaded (by many, that is) regular water exchanges. As we pointed out, at the very least, you'll likely be cleaning and/or replacing pre filter media as part of your routine, and that's typically a weekly-to bi-weekly thing.
Just sort of goes with the territory here. Because, ya' know- leaves.
Oh, and during water exchanges, I typically will siphon out any debris which have lodged where I don't want 'em (like on the leaves of that nice Amazon Sword Plant right up front, or whatever). However, for the most part, I'm merely siphoning water from down low in the water column.
I'm a sort of "leave 'em alone as they decompose" kind of guy. And I'm not going to go into all the nuances of water preparation, etc. You have your ways and they work for you. If you want to hear my way some time, just DM me on Facebook or Instagram or whatever and we can discuss. It's not really rocket science or anything, but everyone has their own techniques.
And of course, regular water testing is important.
So, your testing regimen should include things like pH, TDS, alkalinity, and if you're so inclined, nitrate and phosphate. Logging this information over time will give us all some good data upon which to develop our expectations and best practices for water quality management.
Not just for the information you'll gain about your own aquarium and it's trends. It's important because we as proponents of the botanical-style aquarium movement need to log and share information about our systems, so we can develop a model for baseline performance of these systems, and continue to develop and refine "standards" for techniques, practices, and expectations about these tanks. You're a pioneer of sorts, regardless of if you perceive yourself to be one or not!
Don't like that aspect? Well, don't even think about setting up one of these tanks.
Ouch. I'm hitting hard this morning!
I am, because you need to understand that playing with botanical-style aquariums is more than just a "style" of aquascaping. It's not just about then look. In fact, the function- the very nature of what we do and want to achieve with these tanks is what dictates the "look." It's about process.
"Setting the stage" for the process to take its course is only the beginning. Then comes the part about letting goa bit. Allowing Nature to evolve our work. We can look on in awe, and take delight in what is happening.
To find little vignettes- little moments- of fleeting beauty that need not be permanent to enjoy.
And the changes...those earthy, perhaps inevitable changes which occur when terrestrial materials are submerged in water for an extended period of time? They're elegant- yet untamed...and not everyone's idea of "beautiful." Why? Largely because we don't control every aspect of the process; because we don't impose excessive amounts of order or influence to it.
We cede some of it to Nature...And that includes accepting the "look" as well.
Really hard for many.
Some people just "don't get it", and proffer that this is simply sloppy, not thought-out, and seemingly random. I recall vividly one critic on a Facebook forum, who, observing a recent botanical-inspired aquascape created by another hobbyist, commented that the 'scape looked like "...someone just threw in some pods and leaves in a random fashion.."
Yeah, this guy actually described the aesthetic to a certain (although unsophisticated) degree...but he couldn't get past the look, and therefore concluded it was, "...haphazard, sloppy, and not thought out."
I think if he glanced at a natural habitat and then looked at the tank again, he'd gain a new appreciation. Or at least, a sort of understanding.
But on the other hand, that was the charm and beauty of such a conceptual work. The seemingly random, transient nature of such an aquascape, with leaves deposited as in Nature by currents, tidal flows, etc., settling in unlikely areas within the hardscape.
Allowing Her some of that control.
Not everyone likes this nor appreciates it. And that's perfectly fine. It's not the "best" way to run a tank. Just "a way."
With so many people worldwide starting to play seriously with blackwater, botanical-style tanks, we're seeing more and more common trends, questions, ideas, issues, and ways to manage them...a necessary evolution, and one which we can all contribute to!
Yet, if you're not into this...If you think setting up one of these tanks is just gonna be a cool "look" for your fish room, requiring little effort. If you're just trying to jump on someone sort of "trend"...Please- I beg you...Don't even think about it.
Help evolve the hobby.
Stay bold. Stay strong. Stay observant. Stay thoughtful. Stay diligent. Stay open-minded. Stay adventurous...
And Stay Wet.