Good, "clean" fun?

One of the most fundamental aspects of botanical-style aquarium keeping is the acceptance of natural processes, and the way that they look in our aquariums...Making mental shifts to understand, embrace, and encourage them. In our aquariums, we see many aspects of Nature, and if we are really thoughtful, we won't "edit" them away in our zeal to appeal to some hobby-centric view of what is "appropriate."

One of these is the concept of "cleanliness."

As aquarium hobbyists, I think that we have a most biased viewpoint when it comes to the topic of aesthetics...particularly those related to the concept of what a "clean" aquarium is. 

For many decades, the idea has been to maintain a tank in an almost pristine, sterile way, with any decomposing material or extraneous debris of any sort. seen as aa sign of "poor husbandry" and sloppy aesthetics.  

There ARE certainly habitats in Nature which would have the sort of pristine look we seem to elevate in the hobby; however, they are definitely not the norm.

So, yeah, you could absolutely keep a perfectly "clean-looking" tank and realistically represent some wild habitats. Of course, that's just one way to ru nan aquarium. Over here, we have a slightly different mindset...

The idea of an aquarium without any "bits and pieces" of "stuff"- and I'm not referring to uneaten food or fish feces here; rather, "stuff" like small bits of leaves, botanicals, java moss strands, roots, etc.- seems almost foreign to my "mindset" of aquarium keeping in the past decade!

Perhaps it's an example of just being in my own "bubble" of sorts for so long, but when I look at many of the pristine, "high concept" so-called "natural" planted aquascapes that are the darlings of the internet world of late, I definitely find them gorgeous- fantastic works of art...But that's exactly how I see them. Works of art. To me, although they have lots of plants and beautiful, highly stylized wood and rock hardscape, they bear as much of a resemblance to Nature as a flower bed does to a mountain meadow. 

I stare at natural underwater habitats and look for stuff that resembles what we have called "natural" for some time now, and few, if any scenes in Nature bear any resemblance...

We touch on it all the time: Nature is anything but spotless, symmetrical, and perfectly organized. The very forces which drive the formation of underwater "landscapes" in the wild- rain, wind, sedimentation, falling trees, and materials from the surrounding terrestrial environment- virtually assure that what Nature does with rocks, wood, and plant materials is completely different than what most of us hobbyists do.

Most of us.

I remember as kid growing up, reading copies of Tropical Fish Hobbyist. They were often filled with articles and photos from the great German hobbyist/photographer/author, Hans-Joachim Richter, who's aquariums were always filled with little bits of "stuff" like bark pieces, fragments of leaves, varying sized substrate materials, botanicals, Java Moss strands, etc.

You could tell a pic was his just by noting these things!

His work inspired me from a young age.  It was very different. It felt...I don't know- just sort of "right."

His aquariums opened up my impressionable young mind to go beyond the "#3 aquarium gravel"/Amazon Sword Plant/Petrified wood aquascaping "vibe" of the late seventies and early eighties that I grew up on.

There was an "it factor" to his tanks that was radically different than anything else you'd see out there.

And they looked so much more natural than the typical aquariums of the day, filled with pristine gravel/sand and crisp, green plants. And when you "correlated" them with images you'd see of natural underwater habitats in places like Southeast Asia, Amazon, and elsewhere, it was impossible not to see a connection to how Nature really looks.


Yeah, they really represented what Nature is actually like- in appearance for sure, and also likely in function.

Now, the point of this is not for me to bring up the fact that what we do with botanical-style natural aquariums is more of a representation of Nature as it is than those other styles- we know this from me beating the shit out of the idea over an over. The point is, I think we should not be obsessive about removing bits and peices of botanical debris and such to keep our aquariums looking almost artificially sterile. 

A recent case is my office brackish-water mangrove-themed aquarium, which we've discussed several times here. The primary "hardscape" of the tank is mangrove root wood. This is a heavy, rather "dirty', bark-covered wood that seems to be incredibly attractive to many fishes and snails, who seem to love to pick and rasp at it.

In the mangrove tank, this incessant picking and rasping by the resident life forms has resulted in a fair amount of mangrove bark "crumbs" littering the sandy substrate at the bottom of the tank. Combined with bits of mangrove leaf litter, which I encourage to break down over time, and there is a near constant accumulation of this stuff on the bottom.

I do tend to siphon the larger aggregations of it weekly with my water exchanges, but it comes right back as fishes and snails continue to do their thing. 

And predictably, despite a significant water movement in the tank provided by an EcoTech Marine Vortech MP10 pump in  short-interval "Nutrient Export" mode, these materials tend to accumulate in the same areas of the tank, making removal of excesses really easy. And quite frankly, the random bits of botanical materials that occur throughout the surface of the substrate don't irritate me in the least. I

If you look at  images of "mangals" (mangrove habitats)- this is exactly what you see.

Water quality has not budged, with undetectable levels of phosphate and nitrate (two of the biological "yardsticks" for measuring water quality, along with ORP/conductivity) since day one. Again, we're not talking about pieces of eaten food, or fish feces- just botanical materials/debris. The is a difference. It is not only part of the natural "aesthetic" of this habitat- it's part of its functional composition, too- supporting, on some level, a little "food web" that support the other life forms in the aquarium.

Natural. Not sterile. Not "dirty", either.

Just different than the aquarium aesthetic interpretation we've been indoctrinated to follow since our earliest days in the hobby.

Still "clean."

Sure, there are some keys to maintaining aquarium filled with materials like decomposing leaves and botanicals. You definitely need to do regular maintenance. You don't want to overstock...I mean, common sense stuff. However, in a tank filled with considerable organic material, "slight overstocking" and poor general husbandry can be problematic. 

So be careful and thoughtful.

That being said, in almost 22 years of playing with blackwater, botanicals filled systems and other natural-style aquariums using leaves and botanicals, I've never had any issues. No "crashes." No pH "dropouts. No tanks turning into mucky messes.

An aquarium can still be "clean" in terms of its environmental parameters, yet have a look which supports the appearance of natural materials on the substrate in a less-than-"orderly" manner.

It's about husbandry and perspective...

And accepting the fact that the leaves and other natural materials are part of the ecology of the tank, and that they will behave as terrestrial materials do when submerged: They'll break down and decompose. They'll form the basis of a surpassingly complex food chain, which includes bacterial biofilms, fungi, and minute crustaceans.

Each one of these life forms supporting, to some extent, those above...including our fishes.

When you think of the botanical materials not so much as "hardscape props", but as dynamic biological components of a closed microcosm, it all makes a bit more sense.

"Clean" takes on a different meaning.

"Abundance" and "utilization" are words that come to mind when thinking about these components of our closed aquatic ecosystems in this manner. Thinking about these materials in the context of them being part of the environment as a whole- contributing to it, rather than detracting from it.

Mental shifts.


Stay observant. Stay thoughtful. Stay enthused. Stay diligent. Stay clean...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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