Exercises in functionality...Making a "mess?" Or building a microcosm?

One of the great things about playing with natural botanical materials in our aquariums is that, for many years, there has been no specific set of "rules" about how to do stuff. Nature enforces Her own rules- the processes by which nutrients are utilized, the growth of beneficial bacteria and fungi, the nitrogen cycle, food webs, etc. These are constructs that we cannot circumvent. 

Aquarium hobbyists have (by and large) collectively spent the better part of the century trying to create "workarounds" or "hacks", or to work on ways to circumvent what we perceive as "unattractive", "uninteresting", or "detrimental." And I have a theory that many of these things- these processes- that we try to "edit", "polish", or skip altogether, are often the most important and foundational aspects of botanical-style aquarium keeping!

It's why we literally pound it into your head over and over here that you not only shouldn't try to circumvent these processes and occurrences- you should embrace them and attempt to understand exactly what they mean for the fishes that we keep. They're a key part of the functionality.

Now, I've had a sort of approach to creating and managing botanical-style aquariums that has drawn from a lifetime of experience in my other aquarium hobby  "disciplines", such as reef keeping, breeding killifish and other more "conventional" hobby  areas of interest. And my approach has always been a bit of an extension of the stuff I've learned in those areas.

I've always been fanatical about NOT taking shortcuts in the hobby. In fact, I've probably avoided shortcuts- to the point of making things more difficult for myself at times! Over the years, I have thought a lot about how we as botanical-style aquarium enthusiasts gradually build up our systems, and how the entire approach is about creating a biome- a little closed ecosystem, which requires us to support the organisms which comprise it at every level.

Just like what Nature does.


My current little projects are just the latest iterations of my desire to recreate many of the processes which occur in Nature in our own aquariums, by letting her "do her thing.."

My wife and I are doing extensive renovations on our new home, which means that it'll be several months before we can fully move in, necessitating that most of our stuff is in storage until the work is complete. And that includes, of course, my home aquariums! 😱 I just have a few of my "nano-sized" tanks here- not the larger aquariums. So, what better use of my "down time" at home while waiting to set up the larger tanks than to try some new and unorthodox stuff with these little tanks?

So, what exactly am I working on?

Well, obviously, I have a few versions of my "Urban Igapo" tanks in play, experimenting with "wet" and dry season modes in an "igapo" display and a "varzea" display.

These are doing quite well, and are living up to their promise in every conceivable way! I've been fortunate enough to keep and spawn the interesting South American annual killifish, Notholebias minimus "Campo Grande" for two "seasons" now, and had the adults spawn in the tank for about 5 months before slowly drying it out (obviously, I removed the adults before doing this...😱)

This was my 12th "seasonal cycle" with this same aquarium- and the only real "edits" I've made were removing some bamboo seedlings that I didn't really like in there. I stayed with the marginal plant, Acorus, for the sole plant in this tank. These plants are now over three years old. They do beautifully transitioning between wet and dry phases...and when the killie eggs hatch out, it's always a real treat!

( I know, bad iPhone shot..but hey- this is the 2nd generation of annual killies I've hatched out and reared in this one "varzea" aquairum!)

I believe that the "Urban Igapo" approach that (I dear say) we created and have been playing with for about two years now is a truly unique and utterly practical approach to creating a truly functional aquatic ecosystem.

The idea of creating a terrestrial environment, filled with sedimented soil, botanical materials, and immersion-tolerant plants and grasses, and then slowly flooding it over time to recreate the flooded forest floors of South America, for example, is not only simple to do, it literally forces us as hobbyists to make mental shifts towards patience, observation, and accepting an entirely new set of aesthetics.

It's certainly not for everyone.

However, the idea of executing an aquarium by creating the entire environment, terrestrial and aquatic- is just too irresistible not to try at least once in your botanical-style aquarium "career"- so you really need to! With the release of NatureBase "Igapo" and "Varzea" substrates now only weeks away (damn, I've said that enough times, huh? I mean it this time! We're in the final stretch!), it'll be easier than ever to flood your own forest!


I actually think that I will ultimately start all of my tanks via this format. I really think that there is something very interesting with this approach, and I believe that it's going to continue to yield very interesting results as the years go by.

Okay, commercial teases aside, I've been giving a lot of thought to the way that I start my aquariums. The "down time" I have at home with these small tanks has go even me the opportunity to try stuff that I wouldn't usually in larger tanks. This is a really great thing for me, because even I have to get out of my "comfort zone" now and again!

Staring at natural aquatic habitats and trying to understand how they formed, why the formed, and what factors influence their ecology keep me constantly inspired. Studying the igapo of South America has given me real inspiration and ideas to try in order to create more unique, highly functional aquarium systems.

Here's the other idea I've been playing with not only at the moment, but for some time now:

In situ "curing" of wood and botanicals. Something that indeed, goes against our "typical" practice, and certainly is different than my more "conventional" approach of boiling leaves and pods, and curing wood in a separate container of water. Rather, just "rinse and drop!" Hardly precise. And rather at odds with even our own "conventions" and practices that we've touted here!

Yet, playing with this approach has given me some of my favorite tanks ever!

It takes time, and a willingness to wait and observe and open yourself up to a bit of a "mess" at the beginning- at least in the "conventional" aquarium sense. To me, it seems like by doing this, you're actually letting Nature do Her thing!

It's not revolutionary...However, it is "evolutionary" for me, in that it more completely embraces my philosophy of building up a microcosm from scratch in an aquarium. This approach might be the ultimate expression of that. Think about this: Why do we "cure" wood outside of our display aquariums?

Well, typically, it's because we don't want the silt, sediment, biofilms and fungal growth which inevitably appears on wood when we submerge it for the first time, in our tanks. We want leaves and botanicals to sink right to the bottom. Also, not everyone is fond of the tannins released during this process, too. And the other materials, which we (present company include) have historically referred to as "organic pollutants", are seen as "undesirable." 

So, why?

Yeah, when you really think about it, all of these materials and compounds are food to various organisms, right? And when we remove this stuff, we're essentially depriving someone along the food chain their sustenance, right?

Yeah, the growth and proliferation of organisms of all types will contribute not only to the biological stability of the system over the long haul, I believe that it'll form the basis of a literal "food web" in the aquarium. Allowing this to happen, despite our human impatience- or even our initial aversion to the looks of the process- enables us to truly embrace the function of Nature.

In Nature, terrestrial materials covered by water are the basis for almost every aquatic ecosystem. The processes of decomposition and colonization- and utilization- of these materials by an enormous variety of organisms- is truly what "powers" these ecosystems. 

It works exactly the same in an aquarium...If we let Nature do her work without excessive intervention.

I'm really having trouble grasping exactly what the problem is with this approach- other than the obscene amount of patience we have to deploy as hobbyists waiting for our tanks to settle in and be "just right" for fishes.  Is it just the look? Is it because we've always been told NOT to start aquariums this way? Maybe? I mean, the aquariums that we play with own our world are not exactly "conventional", right? So what should the way we establish them be?

Sure, you might want to monitor ammonia and nitrite during the early phases, but since you're not in any real hurry, this might be more for informational purposes, rather than an indicator of "when to start adding fishes."

Secret: I've seen the fastest, least scary "cycling times" occur in tanks when I've utilized this approach. I mean, you COULD add fishes as soon as your ammonia and nitrite are undetectable...usually a week or less, in my experience! You just might not see your fishes very often in those early days in that morass of murky water , biofilms, and "stuff!"

And of course, all of this process DOES take some time.  No escaping that.

Like, on the order of around 3-4 weeks or more before you'd likely want to add fishes. And, I get it. Many hobbyists would rather get their displays up and running and "populated" with fishes and such pretty quickly. A tank full of biofilms, fungal growth, and "stuff" from the wood and leaves is not going to get you there quickly.

Ahh...but that's the interesting part to me!

Sort of doing your "scape" dry, and filling the tank up with conditioned water, and allowing the biofilm growth and dirt and all of that good stuff to sort of "brew"  creates a veritable "soup" of biological possibilities. Of course, you can't add fishes anytime soon, right? 

However, what you end up with in this little chaotic, murky, and rather disorderly-looking display is the beginnings of a microcosm, which will "sort itself out" as time goes by. About the only thing you need to do is maybe exchange some water after a week or two, and then get on a regular small water exchange schedule., like you would with any aquarium.

Now, it's not totally "seat of the pants"..I do assist things just a bit.

I add bacteria, in the form of Purple Non Sulphur bacteria (PNS) via our product, "Culture", as these highly adaptable bacteria not only "work" with the nutrients and compounds present in the aquarium via the materials- they will help "kick start" the nitrogen cycle as well.

This is exactly what we envisioned this product to do- To compliment the botanical-style aquarium approach and facilitate the development of a rich microbiome with natural processes.

The reality of this approach to creating a botanical-style aquarium is that it is allowing Nature to do what She does best- to efficiently use what's available to Her- to assemble and maintain an ecosystem.

These are, in my mind, exercises in functionality. Doing things in a fundamentally different way, in order to create a more robust, diverse, and rich ecosystem within the aquarium.

I think that we'll continue to work on some of these approaches more; perhaps refine the process into more definable "steps" so that others can try to validate or improve upon my "techniques" with this stuff.

Remember, it's okay to make a mess sometimes. Something amazing and beautiful might just come of it!

Stay bold. Stay open minded. Stay experimental. Stay observant. Stay enthralled...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


Leave a comment