With our interpretations of blackwater and other tropical aquatic habitats careening headlong towards a greater degree of aesthetic realism and function, it's only fitting that we'd "attack" the endeavor from multiple angles.
One of those angles is, of course, the substrate.
And we've talked about the idea not only of creating more "functionally aesthetic" substrates, but the idea of incorporating botanicals into them, as well. One of our favorite "edits" is to include a significant amount of leaf litter into the substrate, as you'd find in the sedimented, leaf-litter-rich, and silt-laden substrates of wild tropical environments.
How would you replicate the form and function in the aquarium? We accomplish this with either the small, yet durable Texas Live Oak leaf litter, or with our "Mixed Leaf Media" product, which is essentially a graded mix of crushed catappa, guava, jackfruit, and bamboo leaves. When steeped or boiled, the stuff goes right to the bottom, and is easily mixed into the substrate material that you're using in your system.
The result, when well mixed in, is a composition which looks and functions much like a real tropical stream or flooded forest floor substrate. The idea that not only will you create an interesting appearing substrate, you'll end upon with one which can impart tannins and humid substances, while serving as a biological support for the production of biofilms and fungal growth.
Now, if you incorporate fishes which feed off of the bottom (perhaps Loricarids and Corydoras catfishes, among others), and fishes which sift or dig, you'll end up with a remarkable foraging area! And, for growing live aquatic plants, you will also be creating a sort of "aquatic mulch" as the material breaks down. The long term implications of such mixes are quite exciting and interesting.
We've executed a similar substrate in our office brackish-water mangrove biotope aquarium. With a fair amount of decomposing Yellow Mangrove leaves (in addition to the ones which naturally fall and are allowed to break down), the result has been a sort of "graded" sediment bed which has resulted in very good growth of the mangroves!
Now, sure, I've heard discussions about "anaerobic conditions" and "anoxic zones" and all sorts of doom-and-gloom predictions about hydrogen sulfide and deadly chemical cocktails being exuded from such substrates, but in decades of playing with rich sand beds in reef aquariums, and similar concepts in freshwater systems, I have never experienced such doomsday scenarios.
Now, sure, Nature is not the same as a closed aquarium, yet the "rules" which govern the biological function of an aquarium are the same ones which govern natural habitats, so it is worth exploring the function and characteristics of these habitats. There is a reason why they are abundant, widespread, and productive features in natural aquatic ecology...
Of course, any time you are carrying a high organic load in an aquarium, it's important to pay due consideration to the possibility that something could go wrong, and to the potential for running a system which is producing large amounts of nitrate and/or phosphate. However, my personal experience in richly-composed, deeply sedimented aquariums has caused little consternation, particularly when diligent maintenance (ie, regular water exchanges, good stocking levels and feeding habitats, and continuous, yet normal monitoring) and husbandry practices are employed.
So, yeah- be careful when experimenting, yet also pay due consideration to the fact that there are many ways you can successfully run an aquariums. It all depends upon following some of the age-old husbandry practices, being patient, careful, and employing a healthy dose of common sense! Yet, approach things with a sense that there is some huge upside to trying a new approach to substrates, and to marring our work with them to the other concepts we play with in the botanical-style aquarium world.
This is about the most cursory discussion I can leave you with on this topic on a Monday morning. However, I think that the concept and execution deserves much more study and practice. In our case, the term "race to the bottom" takes man new meaning! It's time to explore and interpret the once-"forbidden" areas of the natural world for replication in our aquariums. There will be stunning success, dramatic, wrenching failures...and as a result of the work, potential breakthroughs that will propel the hobby forward in ways not previously considered.
Who's down for that?
Stay brave. Stay excited. Stay curious. Stay diligent. Stay undaunted. Stay patient...
And Stay Wet.