Going long. Really long.

How long do you keep your botanical-style aquariums up and running?

A few months? A year? Several years?

As self-appointed "thought leaders" of the botanical-style natural aquarium movement, we spend an enormous amount of time talking about how to select botanicals, prepare them, and utilize them in aquariums. We talk about what happens when you place these terrestrial materials in water, and how botanical-style aquariums "evolve" over time...

All well and good...

However, we've probably talked a lot less about the idea of keeping these aquariums over the very  long term.

And, I'd define "very long-term" as a year or more.

I mean, this 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."

Like so many things in the social media 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. 

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 desire or instant gratification on living creatures, which, in my opinion, is sort of the opposite of Nature's "timetable." She does things in a time and manner that are best suited for the creatures who reside in the natural world. There is no need or reason to conform to our timetable to get the aquarium cycled and stable "this weekend."

Besides, if the goal is to keep an aquarium functioning for the longest period of time, what's the rush to get it stabilized?

Patience, as always, is the key ingredient here.

Like with most types of aquariums, I don't think that there is an "upper limit" to how long you can keep a botanical-style aquarium up and running. It's predicated upon our ability to stick to a mindset...

The longest I've personally maintained such a system continuously has been about 5.5 years, and the only reason I broke down that aquarium was because of a home remodel that required the removal of everything from the space in which the aquarium was located. I set it up again shortly after the work was completed, keeping the substrate intact during the "move."

The reality, though, is that I could have kept this system going indefinitely. 

As most of you who work with these aquariums know, the key to long-term success with them is to go slowly, deploying massive amounts of patience, common-sense husbandry, monitoring of environmental parameters, and careful stocking management. Not really much different from what you'd need to do to successfully maintain ANY type of aquarium for the long haul.

As we've discussed many times, for the longest time, there seemed to have been a perception among the mainstream aquarium hobby that botanical-style blackwater aquariums were delicate, tricky-to-maintain systems, fraught with potential disaster; a soft-water, acidic environment which could slip precipitously into some sort of environmental "free fall" without warning.

And there was the matter of that "dark brown water..."

The very "look" of our tanks no doubt did much to help support this negative narrative...Yet, there is so much more to it than just the unique aesthetics.

You need to first have an understanding that you're creating a dynamic environment and aquascape. 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 things 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. 

Oh, and sure, botanicals  will go through that "biofilm phase" before ultimately breaking down, and you'll have many opportunities to remove them...Or, in the case of most hobbyists these days- add new materials as the old ones break down...completely analogous to natural "leaf drop!"

Now, this idea of "leaving stuff in" always seems to get people "riled up!"

I personally have never had any negative side effects that we could attribute to leaving botanicals to completely break down in an otherwise healthy, well-managed aquarium. Yeah, it will produce pieces broken-down botanical materials and...detritus. 

Well, you know how I feel about detritus. 

Many, many users (present company included) see no detectable increases in nitrate or phosphate as a result of this practice. Of course, this has prompted me to postulate that perhaps they form a sort of natural "biological filtration media" and actually foster some dentritifcation, etc. I have no scientific evidence to back up this theory, of course (like most of my theories, lol), other than my results, but I think there might be a grain of truth here!


Now, of course, you are dealing with a tank filled with decomposing botanical materials, so you need to stay on top of stuff.  Our embrace of natural processes aren't about simply abandoning all well-established aquarium husbandry practices. Botanical-style aquarium aren't just "set and forget." Good overall husbandry is necessary to keep your tank stable and healthy- and that includes the dreaded (by many, that is) regular water exchanges.

As we pointed out, at the very least, you'll likely be cleaning and/or replacing pre filter media as part of your routine, and that's typically a weekly-to bi-weekly thing. 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, as outlined above. 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 we'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 information out there stressing concepts 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!

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. 

Although there are likely exceptions, many of the beautiful aquariums you see splashed all over the internet aren't typically left up long enough for Nature to really do her thing. It's not about a few weeks- or even a few months..It's about processes which take many months or even years. 

I suppose the time frame makes it hard for many to appreciate the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, as professed by Takashi Amano himself. In many ways...We're not used to looking at things in our aquariums over long periods of time, the way Nature organizes, evolves, and operates.

Now, when we talk about the use of natural materials in our aquatic hardscape, such as the use of leaves and softer aquatic botanicals, which begin to degrade after a few weeks submerged, one can really understand the practicalities of this philosophy. It could be argued, perhaps, that the use of botanicals in an aquarium is the very essence of what "Wabi Sabi" is about.

I'll say it for like  the fourteen-thousandth time: The whole idea of a botanical-style backwater aquarium isn't just about a new aesthetic approach. Sure, that's the most obvious part- it's highly visual.

There is so much more.

This is where those who don't understand these types of aquariums get it all wrong and really "short-sell" this stuff... It's about understanding and processing what's happening in the little aquatic ecosystem you've created. It's about asking questions, modifying technique, and, yeah, playing hunches- all skills that we as hobbyists have practiced for generations.

When you distill it all- we're still just "keeping an aquarium"- yet, one that I feel is a far more natural, dynamic, and potentially game-changing style for the hobby.

One that we need no longer be afraid of.


We, as experienced hobbyists, need to explain that, although we can force things to move faster, the results over the long term are often compromised, requiring painful and expensive "do-overs" down the line to correct mistakes made while rushing to get the aquarium "done" (and what is "done", anyways?). In fact, you can sort of "makeover" an aquarium without fully breaking it down, to a different "botanical theme" if/when you get "bored" with your tank's current iteration. I've done this many times.

Yeah, that's another topic for another blog real soon!

So, yeah, we'll do more to share the idea of keeping these aquariums over the long haul...

Thinking long term, as opposed to short-term, also plays better to the critics of our hobby, who feel that we are simply consumers- "taking" from Nature without regard for consequence.

In my personal opinion, this type of lack of understanding of the true nature of the hobby has lead to misconceptions, criticism, and the popularization of the aquarium hobby as wasteful, environmentally insensitive, and unaware, which is farther from the truth than most of those confused souls who applaud vapid  animated films like (Insert absurd movie title here) as "educational" would have the general public believe.

When we encourage people to rush through stuff and think only of some personal "end game", without regard for the consequences to the life forms they intend to keep, we encourage the very thought that fuels the unwarranted criticism of our hobby by the uninformed public.

I commit to Tannin doing more to tell the entire story even better than we have to date. Everyone will benefit as a result!

We need to demonstrate that "getting there" is truly more than half of the fun! That to many, the journey itself is one of the most-if not THE most- enjoyable parts of the hobby.

And it starts with an understanding of Nature.

Realizing that the wild aquatic habitats of the world provide us so many ideas- so much inspiration- and so many lessons.

Yeah, there are so many more cool things to learn.

It starts with the basics that we all know, and applying some of that experience and knowledge to what, for many of you, is an entirely new style of aquarium.

The surest path to success with botanical-style, natural aquariums, as we've stressed repeatedly, is to move slowly and incrementally.

Sure, once you gain experience, you'll know how far you can "push it", but, quite frankly- Nature doesn't really care about your "experience"- if the conditions aren't right and the bacteria in your system cannot accommodate a rapid, significant increase in bioload, she'll kick your ass like a personal trainer!

It's important to take a really long-term view here.

Respect Nature. Learn from her. "Go long..."

Stay patient. Stay inquisitive. Stay humble. Stay diligent. Stay creative...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


2 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

December 21, 2019

Hey Kris!

Thanks for sharing your experience! I’d love to see that killie setup! I love that you have a sort of “mixed bed” substrate, including the twigs..I think that this kind of setup has real “legs” for long-term operations. I can’t help but ponder about many of the long-term tanks that people experience in their own homes seem to have these types of “rich” substrates and such…

Love it!


Kris Haggblom
Kris Haggblom

December 20, 2019

Hey Scott -
I have always been interested in stable “natural” systems. I had a self-sustaining reef tank (water changes of course) for 17 years – only because I was managing a store known for salt water. Many might consider that reef to have been cheating – the tank was 55 gallons; the sump filter system was 2 125 gallon tanks, 1 filled with base rock.
My own interests ran to plants and killies, and while I mostly had the stereotypical killie breeder set-up – multiple small tanks, air systems, tubs and live food systems – my favorite tank was a 15 gallon low (looked like a 30 breeder, only half the depth) that I called my swamp. Emergent plants, a deep clay, sand and peat substrate (I’d say about 3"), some small twigs and beech leaves. A population of bluefin killies (Lucania goodei) kept going in that tank for 12 years. The laziest of water changes (maybe 10% every 3 months), top off evaporation with rainwater. The only reason that tank ended was the tank began to leak from the seams. I wish I still had my notes from those days. It was the most stable system I ever had.
Looking forward to see where you go with “time.” ;)

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