We've had a lot of requests lately to discuss how we start up our botanical method aquariums. Now sure, we've covered this topic before over the years; yet, as our practices have evolved, so has our understanding about why we do things the way that we do- and why it works.
Establishing a new botanical method aquarium is an exciting, fun, and interesting time. And the process of creating your aquarium is shockingly easy, decidedly un-stressful, and extremely engaging.
The main ingredients that you need are vision, a bit of knowledge, and... patience.
Bringing your tank from a clean, dry,"static display" to a living, breathing microcosm, filled with life is an amazing process. This, to me is really the most exciting part of keeping botanical method aquariums.
And how do we usually do it? I mean, for many hobbyists, we've been more or less indoctrinated to clean the sand, age water, add wood, arrange plants, and add fishes. And that works, of course. It's the basic "formula" we've used for over a century.
Yet, I'm surprised how we as a hobby have managed to turn what to me is one of the most inspiring, fascinating, and important parts of our aquarium hobby journey into what is more-or-less a "checklist" to be run through- an "obstacle", really- to our ultimate enjoyment of our aquarium.
When you think about it, setting the stage for life in our aquariums is the SINGLE most important thing that we do. If we utilize a different mind set, and deploy a lot more patience for the process, we start to look at it a bit differently.
I mean, sure, you want to rinse sand as clean as possible. You want make sure that you have a piece of wood that's been soaked for a while, and..
Wait, DO you?
I mean, sure, if you don't rinse your sand carefully, you'll get some cloudy water for weeks...no argument there.
And if you don't clean your driftwood carefully, you're liable to have some soil or other "dirt" get into your system, and more tannins being released, which leads to...well, what does it lead to?
I mean, an aquarium is not a "sterile" habitat. Let's not fool ourselves.
The natural aquatic habits which we attempt to emulate, although comprised of many millions of times the volumes of water volume and throughput that we have in our tanks- are typically not "pristine"- right? I mean, soils from the surrounding terrestrial environment carry with them decomposing matter, leaves, etc, all of which impact the chemistry, oxygen-carrying capacity, biological activity, and of course, the visual appearance of the water.
And that's kind of what our whole botanical-method aquarium adventure is all about- utilizing the "imperfect" nature of the materials at our disposal, and fostering and appreciating the natural interactions between the terrestrial and aquatic realms which occur.
Of course, much like Nature, our botanical-method aquariums make use of the "ingredients" found in the abundant materials which comprise the environment. And the "infusion" of these materials into the water, and the resulting biological processes which occur, are what literally make our tanks come alive.
And yeah, it all starts with the nitrogen cycle...
We can embrace the mindset that every leaf, every piece of wood, every bit of substrate in our aquariums is actually a sort of "catalyst" for sparking biodiversity, function, and yes- a new view of aesthetics in our aquariums.
I'm not saying that we should NOT rinse sand, or soak wood before adding it to our tanks. What I AM suggesting is that we don't "lose our shit" if our water gets a little bit turbid or there is a bit of botanical detritus accumulating on the substrate. And guess what? We don't have to start a tank with brand new, right-from-the-bag substrate.
Of course not.
We can utilize some old substrate from another tank (we have done this as a hobby for decades for the purpose of "jump starting" bacterial growth) which also has the side benefit of providing a different aesthetic as well!
And, you can/should take it further: Use that slightly algal-covered piece of driftwood or rock in our brand new tank...This gives a more "broken-in look", and helps foster a habitat more favorable to the growth of the microorganisms, fungi, and other creatures which comprise an important part of our closed aquarium ecosystems.
In fact, in a botanical-method aquarium, facilitating the rapid growth of such biotia is foundational.
It's perfectly okay for your tank to look a bit "worn" right from the start. Functional aesthetics once again! the look results from the function.
In fact, I think most of us actually would prefer that! It's okay to embrace this. From a functional AND aesthetic standpoint. Employ good husbandry, careful observation, and common sense when starting and managing your new aquarium.
So don't obsess over "pristine." Especially in those first hours.
The aquarium still has to clear a few metaphorical "hurdles" in order to be a stable environment for life to thrive.
I am operating on the assumption (gulp) that most of us have a basic understanding of the nitrogen cycle and how it impacts our aquariums. However, maybe we don’t all have that understanding. My ramblings have been labeled as “moronic” by at least one “critic” before, however, so it’s no biggie for me as said “moron” to give a very over-simplified review of the “cycling” process in an aquarium, so let’s touch on that for just a moment!
During the "cycling" process, ammonia levels will build and then suddenly decline as the nitrite-forming bacteria multiply in the system. Because nitrate-forming bacteria don't appear until nitrite is available in sufficient quantities to sustain them, nitrite levels climb dramatically as the ammonia is converted, and keep rising as the constantly-available ammonia is converted to nitrite.
Once the nitrate-forming bacteria multiply in sufficient numbers, nitrite levels decrease dramatically, nitrate levels rise, and the tank is considered “fully cycled.”
And of course, the process of creating and establishing your aquariums ecology doesn't end there.
With a stabilized nitrogen cycle in place, the real "evolution" of the aquarium begins. This process is constant, and the actions of Nature in our aquariums facilitate changes.
And our botanical-method systems change constantly.
They change over time in very noticeable ways, as the leaves and botanicals break down and change shape and form. The water will darken. Often, there may be an almost "patina" or haziness to the water along with the tint- the result of dissolving botanical material and perhaps a "bloom" of microorganisms which consume them.
This is perfectly analogous to what you see in the natural habitats of the fishes that we love so much. As the materials present in the flooded forests, ponds, and streams break down, they alter it biologically, chemically, and even physically.
It's something that we as aquarists have to accept in our tanks, which is not always easy for us, right? Decomposition, detritus, biofilms- all that stuff looks, well- different than what we've been told over the years is "proper" for an aquarium. And, it's as much a perception issue as it is a husbandry one. I mean, we're talking about materials from decomposing botanicals and wood, as opposed to uneaten food, fish waste, and such.
What's really cool about this is that, in our community, we aren't seeing hobbyists freak out over some of the aesthetics previously associated with "dirty!"
It's seen as a fundamental part of the evolution of the tank.
And soon, you'll see the emergence of elegant, yet simple life forms, such as bacterial biofilms and fungal growths. We've long maintained that the appearance of biofilms and fungi on your botanicals and wood are to be celebrated- not feared. They represent a burgeoning emergence of life -albeit in one of its lowest and (to some) most unpleasant-looking forms- and that's a really big deal.
Biofilms, as we've discussed ad nauseam here, form when bacteria adhere to surfaces in some form of watery environment and begin to excrete a slimy, gluelike substance, consisting of sugars and other substances, that can stick to all kinds of materials, such as- well- in our case, botanicals. It starts with a few bacteria, taking advantage of the abundant and comfy surface area that leaves, seed pods, and even driftwood offer.
The "early adapters" put out the "welcome mat" for other bacteria by providing more diverse adhesion sites, such as a matrix of sugars that holds the biofilm together. Since some bacteria species are incapable of attaching to a surface on their own, they often anchor themselves to the matrix or directly to their friends who arrived at the party first.
Tannin's creative Director, Johnny Ciotti, calls this period of time when the biofilms emerge, and your tank starts coming alive "The Bloom"- a most appropriate term, and one that conjures up a beautiful image of Nature unfolding in our aquariums- your miniature aquatic ecosystem blossoming before your very eyes!
The real positive takeaway here:
Biofilms and fungal growths are really a sign that things are working right in your aquarium! A visual indicator that natural processes are at work, helping forge your tank's ecosystem.
About a year ago, had a discussion with our friend, Alex Franqui. His beautiful Igarape-themed aquarium pictured above, "bloomed" beautifully, with the biofilms, fungal growths, and sediments working together to create a stunning, very natural functioning- and appearing-ecosystem. He was not repulsed at all. Rather, he was awed and fascinated...He celebrated what was occurring in his tan. He has an innate understanding of the ecological process, and replaced "fear and loathing" with excitement.
Alex is a hardcore aquascaper, and to see him marveling and rejoicing in the "bloom" of biofilms in his tank is remarkable.
He gets it.
And it turns out that our love of biofilms is truly shared by some people who really appreciate them as food...Shrimp hobbyists! Yup, these people (you know who you are!) go out of their way to cultivate and embrace biofilms and fungi as a food source for their shrimp.
They get it.
And this makes perfect sense, because they are abundant in Nature, particularly in habitats where shrimp naturally occur, which are typically filled with botanical materials, fallen tree trunks, and decomposing leaves...a perfect haunt for biofilm and fungal growth!
Nature celebrates "The Bloom", too.
There is something truly remarkable about natural processes playing out in our own aquariums, as they have done for eons in the wild.
Time for a little thought experiment...
You're a fish.
Seriously. Make yourself a fish...for a second. (I think I'd be a Black Ghost Knife, FYI. What, you thought I'd be a Cardinal Tetra or something? Really? Sheesh!)
Your main goals in life are avoiding predators, finding food, and reproducing. The "finding food" part is what we're focusing on in this experiment.
Now, back to being you for a second.
Would you like to move into a house which didn’t have a refrigerator full of food? I wouldn’t, for sure. Unlike humans, fishes seem to have not lost their "genetic programming" for grazing and hunting for food. Let’s face it—most of the waking hours of aquatic animals are devoted to acquiring food and reproducing. They need to have some food sources available to "hunt and graze" for.
So why not help accommodate our your animals’ needs by supplementing their prepared diet with some “pre-stocked” natural foods in their new home? You know, slow down, get things "going" a bit, and then add the fishes?
I’m not talking about tossing in a few frozen brine shrimp hours before the first fishes go in the tank—I’m talking about a deliberate, systematic attempt to cultivate some living food sources within the system before a fish ever hits the water! Imagine a “new” system offering numerous foraging opportunities for its new inhabitants!
in our world, that might mean allowing some breakdown of the botanicals, or time for wood or other botanicals to recruit some biofilms, fungi- even turf algae on their surfaces before adding the fishes to the aquarium.
“Scott. You’re being impractical here! It could take months to accomplish this. I’ve just spent tons of money and time setting up this tank and you want me to deliberately keep this tank devoid of fishes while the biofilms form and Daphnia reproduce?”
I am a bit crazy. I’ll give you that.
Yet, with my last few systems, this is exactly what I did.
Well, for one thing, it creates a habitat for sighs which is uniquely suited to their needs in a different way.
Think abut the way most fishes live. They spend a large part of their existence foraging for food. Even in the cozy, comfortable confines of the aquarium.
So, why not create conditions for them which help accommodate this instinctive behavior, and provide opportunities for supplemental (or primary!) nutrition to be available to them by foraging.
Now, I have no illusions about this idea of "pre-stocking" being a bit challenging to execute.
I’m no genius, trust me. I don’t have half the skills many of you do but I have succeeded with many delicate “hard-to-feed” fishes over my hobby “career.”
Any "secret" to this?
None at all. I'm simply really fucking patient.
Success in this arena is simply a result of deploying..."radical patience." The practice of just moving really slowly and carefully when adding fishes to new tanks.
A really simple concept.
I mean, to some extent, we already deploy this practice with our botanical-method tanks, right? The very process of creating a botanical-method aquarium lends itself to this "on board supplemental food production" concept. A concept that's pretty analogous to what occurs in Nature, right?
And one of the most important functions of many botanically-influenced wild habitats is the support of food webs. As we've discussed before in this blog, the leaf litter zones in tropical waters are home to a remarkable diversity of life, ranging from microbial to fungal, as well as crustaceans and insects...oh, and fishes, too! These life forms are the basis of complex and dynamic food webs, which are one key to the productivity of these habitats.
You can do this. You can foster such a "food web"- or the basis for one- in your aquarium!
Wait a minimum of three weeks—and even up to a month or two if you can stand it, and you will have a surprisingly large population of micro and macro fauna upon which your fishes can forage between feedings.
Having a “pre-stocked” system helps reduce a considerable amount of stress for new inhabitants, particularly for wild fishes, or fishes that have reputations as “delicate” feeders.
And think about it for a second.
This is really a natural analog of sorts. Fishes that live in inundated forest floors (yeah, the igapo again!) return to these areas to "follow the food" once they flood. In fact, other than the physical flooding itself, this pursuit of food sources is the key factor in the migration of fishes into these habitats.
So, what would some candidate organisms be for "pre-stocking" a botanical-style aquarium?
How about starting with (okay, sounding a bit commercial, I know, but...) the versatile Purple Non Sulphur Bacteria (PNSB), Rhodopseudomonas palustris- the species which forms our product, "Culture." PNSB are useful for their ability to carry out a particularly unusual mode of metabolism: "anaerobic photoheterotrophy."
In this process, they consume organic wastes while inhabiting moderately illuminated and poorly oxygenated microhabitats (patches of detritus, leaf litter beds, shallow depths of substrate, deeper pores of expanded clay media, etc.). In addition to helping to maintain an ecologically stable microhabitat, "Culture" provides a nutritious live food source for zooplankton as well as soil mesofauna.
Yeah, these guys form the "foundation" of your food chain! (And yeah, we'll have "Culture" back in stock soon...we're re-thinking the packaging to make the product more affordable!)
Next, perhaps some "starter cultures" of organisms like Paramecium, Euglena, etc. You know, "infusoria" from the old school aquarium literature. And then, small crustaceans like Daphnia, and copepods of various types.
Pure cultures of all of these organisms are available online from various biological supply houses. They're a fantastic source of biodiversity for your aquarium!
Of course, the more daring among you may want to introduce various worms, like "Black Worms" or Tubifex worms, if you can find clean cultures of them. For that matter, even "blood worms", which are actually the larval phase of the midge.
Some organisms, such as nematodes and chironomids ("Bloodworms!") will dig into the leaf structures and feed on the tissues themselves, as well as the fungi and bacteria found in and among them. These organisms, in turn, become part of the diet for many fishes.
These organisms, in turn, become part of the diet for many fishes.
And the resulting detritus (here we go again!) produced by the "processed" and decomposing plant matter is considered by many aquatic ecologists to be an extremely significant food source for many fishes, especially in areas such as Amazonia and Southeast Asia, where the detritus is considered an essential factor in the food webs of these habitats.
It performs the same function in an aquarium- if we allow it to.
And of course, if you observe the behavior of many of your fishes in the aquarium, such as characins, cyprinids, Loricariids, and others, you'll see that, in between feedings, they'll spend an awful lot of time picking at "stuff" on the bottom of the tank. In a botanical method aquarium, this is a pretty common occurrence, and I believe an important benefit of this type of system.
When you start seeing your fishes "graze" casually on the materials that pop up on your driftwood and botanicals, you start realizing that, although it might not look like the aesthetics we have had in mind in years past, it is a beautiful thing to our fishes!
You can do this.
Remember, it's all part of the game with a botanical-influenced aquarium. Understanding, accepting, and celebrating "The Bloom" is all part of that "mental shift" towards accepting and appreciating a more truly natural-looking, natural-functioning aquarium.
The "price of admission", if you will- along with the tinted water, decomposing leaves, etc., the metaphorical "dues" you pay, which ultimately go hand-in-hand with the envious "ohhs and ahhs" of other hobbyists who admire your completed aquarium when they see it for the first time.
Stay studious. Stay diligent. Stay observant. Stay patient...
And Stay Wet.