Evolving with your aquarium on the long road to success

Perhaps this scenario sounds familiar to you:

You set up a tank that started with the best of intentions: It's a really cool idea. You had the right materials to do the job. You even used the correct aquarium for the work. You set the tank up- exactly how you envisioned it..

Yet, after a few weeks of operation, perhaps the tank just isn't where you want it. You find yourself "nitpicking" a lot of stuff about it. Maybe you're not seeing  the aquarium reach a state where you expected it would be at this point...


Been there?

I'll be that you have.

I've had this sort of thing happen many times over my aquarium "career." What do I do when I run into a situation like this with one of my tanks?

You'd think I'd be inclined to just kill it. To tear it down, start over, or do something else.

You'd think that.

Instead, I stay calm.

It's seriously cool and quiet in my head when it comes to this stuff. I'm usually not going to do anything about it...except to wait. I've been down this road hundreds of times. I know enough to understand a fundamental truth about botanical-style aquariums:  

The way the tank is looking right now is NOT how it will look in a few weeks, or months. 

I play a really long game. One which acknowledges that the fact that our botanical-style aquariums evolve over very long periods fo time, not reaching the state that we perhaps envisioned for many months. My actions reflect this mindset. Unless there is some major emergency (which I have yet to encounter, btw), about the only thing that I might do is to add a few more botanicals.

Just sort of "evolving" the aquarium a bit; making up for stuff that might break down.

Minor, small moves, if any.

All the while, I'm keeping in mind that the system will change on its own without any intervention on my part. It will "get where it's going" on its own time. Adding a few botanicals or leaves along the way is simply what you do to keep the process going. And it's extremely analogous to what happens in Nature, as new materials fall into waterways throughout the year, while existing materials are carried off by currents or decompose completely.

Yeah, just like Nature.

We're going to revisit the topic of "getting started" far more often here, following what are turning into "best practices" and tips to get your botanical-style/blackwater aquarium off to a good start as Nature evolves it. It's so important.

I mean, this philosophy makes a lot of sense, because botanical-style tanks, in my opinion, don't even really hit their "stride" for at least 3-6 months. Yet, in the content-driven, Instagram-fueled, postmodern aquarium world, I know that we tend to show new looks fairly often, to give you lots of ideas and inspiration to embark on your own journeys.

And I suppose, that's a very cool thing. Yet, it's likely a "double-edged sword." It might give you the wrong impression. 

Like so many things in the social media universe, the representation of today's aquarium world likely gives the (incorrect) impression that these tanks are sort of "pop-ups", set up for a photography session and broken down quickly. We are, regrettably, likely contributors to some of this misconception. 

Because we play a long game. A really long game. And the tanks we present to you in our images and videos are typically many months along.

I think we, as those "thought leaders", need to do more to share the process of establishing, evolving, and maintaining a botanical-style aquarium over the long term.

To that end, we're going to do a lot more documentation of the entire process in months to come- documenting the journey from "new" to "mature"-sharing the ups, downs, and processes along the way.

Regrettably, the way this work is often presented on social media, it likely enables us to project our human impatience and desires or instant gratification on living ecosystems, which, in my opinion, is sort of the opposite of Nature's "timetable." She does things in a time and manner that are best for Her order; Her process, and Her ultimate "goal" for the habitat.

So, what am I doing in those first few weeks; when perhaps what I'm seeing isn't quite what I was expecting?


I'm holding.

I'm just going to do the "scheduled" tweaks that were in my plan. Add some elements as I intended as the tank breaks in further. But nothing more. No big switches. No radical maneuvers. Why? I mean, now would be the time, if a tank isn't when're you want it, right? Because I have faith in Nature. I know that She'll push things along correctly- because that's what She does.

And I know that to intervene now- to "edit" Her moves-at the time when the tank isn't looking it's "best" to me, yet it's progressing ecologically and biologically- would be a shame. It would be akin to selling off a stock just before it "breaks out", or to unload a property just before the market takes off...

It's be a shame.

Because "as sure as day follows night', if you've laid the correct groundwork to be successful, and if the tank is "checking off" all of the proverbial basic "boxes", the tank WILL get to where you want it.


Sure, as I say all the time, there are no guarantees when working with Nature. She can (and will at times) kick your ass, even when you did everything right! However, there is something else. Something more visceral that you can take comfort in:


And a certain objective realization that things ARE going well with your tank. And that they just need more time in order to fully attain the vision you had...or even exceed it.

And the way it looks now, or at any phase, is largely because of processes taking place as ordained by Nature.

The "look" is a collateral benefit of the function in these types of aquariums. When  we understand that, and realize that our tanks look the way they do for a reason- so much of what we used to think was "ugly" is some how extraordinarily beautiful.

Always, ALWAYS remember that there is so much more to these types of aquariums than just the unique aesthetics.

Patience, as always, is the key ingredient here.

You need to have an understanding that you're creating a dynamic environment, not simply an "aquascape." And it's constantly evolving. It's anything but "static"- sort of like a planted aquarium, but in reverse (rather than plants growing, the botanicals are, for want of a better word "diminishing")! At any given time, you'll have materials like leaves in various states of decomposition, seed pods, slowly softening and recruiting biofilms and a "patina" of algae (sort of like the "aufwuchs" common to the African Rift Lakes, I suppose).

What happens over time?

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. Botanical materials are the very definition of the word "ephemeral." Nothing lasts forever, and botanicals are no exception! Pretty much everything we utilize- from Guava leaves to Melostoma roots- starts to soften and break down over time. Most of these materials should be viewed as"consumables"- meaning that you'll need to replace them over time if you want maintain some environmental consistency.

Part of the art and science of botanical-style aquarium-keeping is the idea of developing consistency, and understanding what to expect over the long term. And yes- one of the most important behavioral characteristics I think we can have in this hobby, besides patience, is consistency.  

Just sort of "goes with the territory" here.

Nothing that I've mentioned here is earth-shattering or revolutionary, from an aquarium husbandry standpoint. However, seeing that for many hobbyists, this is their first experience at managing a botanical-style blackwater aquarium, and with tons of discussion by aquascapers out there stressing ideas like breaking down a tank after a few months, I think it's not a bad idea to review this sort of stuff from time to time!

You're not an aquascaper in the classic sense when you play with these types of systems. Rather, you're a a sort of "superintendent" to Nature, helping Her do what she done for eons. You're not simply an idle passenger, mind you- you play an active role in conceiving, setting up, and maintaining such a system. You need to take some cues from Nature, and that often means simply standing by and observing as she does Her work; goes through Her process.

You learn. You evolve with your aquarium, on a very real level. 


In botanical-style natural aquariums, seldom are big moves or corrections required. Rather, it's really a combination of little things, done consistently over time, which will see your aquarium thrive in the long run. 

Core skills and philosophies which need to acquired and learned. 

Patience. Observation. Consistency. And faith. 

Attributes that we all need to have when "waiting it out" to see our work blossom.

Remember, you're not just crafting a "look" with a botanical-style aquarium. You're growing a living, breathing microcosm. Some of the variables are out of your control. Some of the "work" you must necessarily cede to Nature.. Perhaps that's bit uncomfortable at times. A bit unfamiliar to us as aquarists.

Yet, if you thought your vision for your aquarium through before you started, and executed according to your vision, you have every reason to be calm and confident in this process. You are evolving every bit much as your aquarium is.

Be aware of that.

That alone is reason to say calm, and continue on the path you embarked upon.

Don't give up. Don't make big, radical moves. 

Don't lose faith in Nature. 

She won't lose faith in you...If you stay the course and evolve with Her.

Stay calm. Stay observant. Stay resilient. Stay faithful...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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