I guess it's a "thing" that you can acquire over time...or maybe you're born with it...Not 100% certain, but I know I've gotten way more patient over the years, especially with my aquariums.
I think it's perhaps the most essential trait we need for success with almost any kind of fishy endeavor- yet particularly important in the context of natural-style, botanical-influenced aquariums like we play with around here. These systems take time to "run in", settle, and evolve. You can't rush it.
This is where the "science/Nature" part dominates over the "art" half of the equation. You can create a beautiful hardscape or whatever, yet Nature and biological processes will dictate the way it evolves and becomes a suitable habitat for your fishes.
It's been that way for millennia...Nature calls all the shots. We just need to accept her moves and her pacing...We need to have some faith that stuff will work out, even with minimal intervention-on occasion. It's easier to embrace this when we understand Nature's ways.
There is a word that I think is really important to the work we do with blackwater/botanical-style aquariums.
Stuff takes time to happen. We may want it to happen faster. We may want it to look a bit different, or take on a different direction...But it won't. We can work with Nature, and let her do the heavy lifting...or we can resist and end up with something quite different.
Both can be beautiful. However, to allow Nature to have her way- at least once in a while- opens us up to the possibilities of outcomes beyond what we could have ever imagined!
As we all know, nothing lasts forever.
And it's especially true with our botanicals. They are, most definitely "ephemeral." They don't last indefinitely, and they break down at a pace determined by Nature and the environmental conditions we set up for them.
And when you think about it, there is a real "pace", a process- a cadence to what occurs when they are utilized in our aquariums.
From the minute you prepare a leaf, seed pod, or other botanical for use in the aquarium, it begins to break down.
The processes of hot-water steeping, boiling, or prolonged soaking start to soften the tissues of the leaves or seed pods, release bound-up pollutants, and begin the gradual, but irreversible process of breaking them down, at a pace- or "cadence"-which nature determines.
As our botanical materials break down, more and more compounds (tannins, humic substances, lignin, bound-up organic matter) begin leaching into the water column in your aquarium, influencing the water chemistry and overall aquarium environment. Some, like Catappa leaves, break down within weeks, needing replacement if you wish to maintain the "tint level" you've started to achieve in your aquarium.
Knowing when to replace them is sort of a subjective call, at least initially.
Once you get used to working with them in your aquariums, you may be able to notice pH increases, TDS changes, or other environmental/water chem indicators/phenomena which can clue you in that it's time to replace them. Perhaps one day, more readily-applicable tannin test kits might be helpful. Standards, other than visual cues, will help dictate our replenishment.
On the other hand, many types of seed pods and other botanicals will last much longer periods of time than leaves in most aquariums, yet may not impart their tannins and other substances as quickly as say, leaves, simply because their very structure is different than the softer, thinner leaves. Many will hold their form for a very long period of time, yet may not be releasing quite as much tannins or humic substances as they were initially.
When do you "need" to replace them? Or do you just leave them in your tank indefinitely?
Again, it's sort of a judgement call.
Without the ability to measure the levels of the specific substances that botanical items are imparting into your tank (and, quite frankly, knowing just what they are!), it's really about "nuancing it", isn't it? Like so many other things in this hobby, you sort of have to take a "best guess", or go with your instincts.
Hardly the precise, scientific, "boiler plate" advice some of us might like, but that's the reality of this kind of tank. It's not like, for example, a reef tank, where we have detailed chemical baselines for seawater parameters, and 32-component ICP-OES tests to establish baselines and measure deviations from them, and trace elements to correct all 32 parameters.
Nope. It's a lot less about precision here.
It's about nuance, observation, "feel"... finesse.
Obviously, you need to obey all of the common best practices of aquarium management, in terms of nitrogen cycle management, water quality testing, nutrient export, etc. in a natural, botanical-style aquarium (blackwater or otherwise). However, you have to also apply a healthy dose of the above-referenced "emotional elements" into your regimen as well!
Going with your feelings is not always such crazy notion. Learning to have faith in Nature and her work isn't so bad, either. Nature almost always finds a way, right?
And don't forget- although aquariums are a closed ecosystem, they are still subject to Nature's rules and processes.
Remember, anything you add into an aquarium- wood, sand, botanicals, and of course- livestock- is part of the "bioload", and will impact the function and environment of your aquarium. Even materials like rock and substrate add to the chemical dance occurring in our aquariums and have their own set of impacts.
Nothing we add to our systems has no consequences -either good or bad- attached to it.
Particularly with botanicals, it's about understanding a balance, a quantity, a "cadence" for adding stuff, so that the closed environment of your aquarium can assimilate the new materials, and our friends- the bacteria, fungi, and other organisms which serve to break them down- can adjust.
Rapid, dramatic environmental shifts are never a good thing for any type of aquarium, and a system like we run, with lots of organic material present, is just as susceptible to "insults" from big, poorly thought-out moves as any other. Perhaps even more, because by its very nature, our style of aquarium is based upon lots of natural materials which impact the environment on multiple fronts.
We need to remember this.
We need to observe our systems keenly- test when we can, and always apply common sense to any move we make.
Again, the key here is that "cadence"- understanding that the material we add needs to be added-and replaced- at a pace that makes sense for your specific system. Those of us who have been maintaining these types of tanks for some time now really get this, and have a great "feel" for how our tanks run in this fashion.
Again, there is no "plug and play" formula to follow- only procedure. Only recommendations for how to approach things. Only common sense and the wisdom gained by doing. We sound a bit repetitive at times; however, like so many things in aquarium-keeping, our "best practices" are few, simple and need to be repeated until they simply become habit:
1) Prepare all botanicals prior to adding them to your aquarium.
2) Add botanical materials slowly and gradually, assessing the impact on your aquarium environments and inhabitants.
3) Either remove botanical materials as they break down (if that's your aesthetic preference), or replace them when they reach a point where they are no longer providing the aesthetic and environmental conditions that you desire.
4) Observe your aquarium continuously.
If you noticed, the first practice is simply logical.
You need to employ it...if there were ever a "hard and fast rule" in the botanical/blackwater game, this would be it. Number 2 is all about the cadence...the real "secret", if you will, which sort of sets up everything else.
By observing and assessing, you'll get a real feel for how botanicals work in your aquarium. And #3 is the real "finesse" part of the equation...the nuance, the subtle, yet noticeable adjustments and corrections we make to keep things moving along nominally- sort of like pruning in a planted tank, or weeding a garden...it's a process.
In fact, the entire experience of a blackwater, botanical-style aquarium boils down to a process and a pace that helps foster the gradual, yet inexorable "evolution" of the aquarium. And let there be no doubt- a botanical-style aquarium does "evolve" over time, regularly and steadily changing and progressing. As we've mentioned before, it might be the perfect expression of the Japanese concept of "wabi-sabi", popularized by Takashi Amano, which is the acceptance of transience and imperfection.
This is a huge point; something which everyone who works with blackwater/botanical-style aquariums comes to know and usually accept. We need to have an attitude which doesn't allow us to panic; to make fast, short-term moves in favor of longer-term outcomes. It's a very different philosophy. You need to accept different aesthetics. You need flexibility. You may even have to accept short-term losses for a greater long-term good.
You need to have faith in Nature.
It's a dance. An art form. A process, and an evolution. Sometimes seemingly chaotic, other times maddeningly slow. Always alluring. Always deferring to Nature...
And it's all held together by you- the aquarist, applying as much emotion as you do procedure- all done in the proper time...at the right cadence.
Observe. Study. Learn. Share...Evolve.
Stay focused. Stay in touch. Stay Patient. Stay attuned. Stay observant. Stay faithful..
And Stay Wet.