It's almost inevitable that your interests within the aquarium hobby will change, or evolve over time. Perhaps it's because you're exposed to more and more ideas the longer you're active in the hobby. Maybe, you're just tired of the stuff you[ve been doing. Perhaps, you're interested in a new challenge. Or maybe, it's because injecting some new ideas into your existing work seems pretty exciting.
I'm not sure exactly why, but over the past few months, Ive started to develop a tiny, yet burgeoning interest in aquatic plants. Or should I say, utilizing aquatic plants in my aquariums. I'm not entirely certain what has triggered this change off heart. Perhaps it's as simple as the amazing aesthetic contrast which crisp green plants bring to the deep brown water I love so much?
I don't know, really.
The bottom line is that to me, the whole beautify of the natural, botanical-style aquarium is how it serves to facilitate interactions and relationships between a wide variety of life forms, ranging from bacteria to plants, to insects, and of course, our fishes. The relationship between the terrestrial elements and the aquatic habitats we love is utterly fascinating.
I suppose that including plants is becoming more interesting to me simply because it's another example of these interrelationships that makes this type of aquarium so compelling. Now, don't get me wrong here. Although plants look amazing, and there is sheer brilliance that you can achieve from an aesthetic standpoint by utilizing them in your tank, that's not my main focus.
Rather, I'm confident that it's the function part which fascinates me. I spent a little down time over the holidays watching some old videos of Takashi Amano at work, and it sort of "unlocked" some things in my mind. Sure, the man was a brilliant artist and a thought leader in utilizing aquatic plants to spread the message about embracing aspects of Nature in our homes. However, somewhere along the line, I think that the aquarium community got it twisted bit.
The emphasis has been so much on the aesthetics and art that little attention seems to be paid- other than the occasional mentions about how adore Nature- to the function of plants in an aquatic ecosystem, and the benefits they bring...supporting an entire community of organisms of all types. Stuff that Amano wrote about extensively. Rather, it seems to this outsider that it's mostly about the aesthetics and art, and that the term "Nature" has simply been used to describe the interpretation of his style.
When I listen to his words and at his earlier works from a standpoint of creating an aquatic microcosm in the aquarium, facilitating the growth of microorganisms, small crustaceans, and fishes- the whole thing changes...I believe this is what Amano was talking about when he said, "To know Mother Nature is to love her smallest creations..."
However, here's where I piss off a lot of die-hard "Nature Aquarium" fans, but I think I'm right:
I think that, on some level, we as a community have totally misinterpreted the above quote, and have turned his concepts and philosophies into a sort of "cargo cult", just elevating his words without really thinking about what they meant, based more on style and "rules" and aesthetics than on the substance. Celebrating the art, without really considering the "microcosm" aspect that's so much bigger. A lot of people love the quote I just shared, but they simply don't seem to reflect or discuss the importance of this idea in their work.
Now, not everyone takes this shallow interpretation, of course. However, when you look at what is so widely discussed online and elsewhere, it becomes pretty obvious that the "wholistic" philosophy he advocated seems to have gotten a lot less attention.
I think Im sort of with Amano on this one. It's about building a natural system. Nurturing microbial populations to foster a miniature closed ecosystem.
Roundabout approach, but I think that's where I'm at with aquatic plants. I believe that including them in some aquariums can help foster these populations to create such ecosystems. There are many who are true wizards when it comes to their care and husbandry, which is amazing. Again, I can't help but wonder what would happen if we place greater emphasis on the role of aquatic plants in this context.
For those who are offended...Don't be. Simply think about this concept and practice it.
I mean, it's weird, and probably way over-reactionary, I know. And I think that it's partially because we as a hobby have for years tried to "sanitize" Nature, and place a huge emphasis on "form" over function.
There really IS beauty in the silty, decomposing, earthy world of the Amazonian igarape, the Asian peat swamp, Malaysian mangal, African forest stream, etc. There is something graceful about the broken branches, accumulating leaves, and scattered seed pods on the floor of a tropical river.
It's a different mindset, for sure. It's not what we have typically appreciated because of our exposure to a more "artistically interpretive" version of Nature in the aquarium world.
Rather, I think we've spent so much effort distilling, editing, and otherwise sanitizing Nature that we might have actually lost sight of it's true beauty, and about how and why natural systems look and function the way they do. Blasphemy to some, no doubt...However, I think I might be at least partially correct here. Notice that I'm actually also a bit ambivalent to the "legit" biotope aquariums, as I think that some of the classification strategies and rules created in that world are a bit unrealistic and perhaps overreach habit and discourage some.
Amano understood natural aquatic habitats.
He appreciated them for what they were. Now, he loved the use of aquatic plants to represent them. They were sort of his "media" in creating his works. However, he also understood that there are other natural materials which can be utilized for this purpose, and which may be utilized in different ways to express Nature in the aquarium. He understood the importance of facilitating the growth of bacterial populations.
What would Amano think of the "cargo cult"-like reverence which the aquascaping world has bestowed upon him, without evolving his works in any real new direction, or making any attempts to understand his original philosophies about Nature? Oh, sure, he'd appreciate the amazing talent, the beauty, and the effort that we see displayed by hobbyists worldwide. Yet, I can't help but wonder if, in his own way, he'd ask, "Really? Is that all?"
He GOT it. He understood the relationship between Nature and art absolutely. It's there. He saw beauty in all forms of Nature and encouraged us to express these details in our aquariums. In many different ways. However, he also understood the importance of supporting aside variety of organisms in his aquarium systems, despite the heavy emphasis on their appearance,
Please seek it out in his work.
I'm simply and even humbly (really!) asking for us to look at things in a more open, less nuanced way. I'd love to see us aquarists -at least once in a while- venture way outside of our comfort zones and try something a bit different. To not get caught up in names and titles above comprehending the bigger picture. To look long and hard at the aquatic habitats found in Nature. And to see the true beauty that's there before we see fit to "edit."
Ask yourself why things look the way they do in Nature, and observe how the fishes which live there interact with their environment. Consider how these habitats formed, how they function biologically, and how fishes have adapted to their habitat..Think about esoteric stuff, like why the fishes are shaped or colored they way they are. What kinds of foods they might find there. And why aquatic plants grow where they do.
Yeah, let's get back to the "plants" thing again.
I greatly admire those of you who DO understand and work with aquatic plants. I've had more and more contact with fellow vendors who specialize in the plant side of aquascaping, and I'm impressed by their ability to know exactly what type of plant to use in a specific situation.
Now, a lot of the questions I receive are stuff like, "What plants can I use in my blackwater aquarium?"
And of course, I can give you some "textbook-type" answers about which ones have worked for me.
That being said, there ARE some species which are known to come from the habitats and niches that we play with. And again, if you know me, you're also keenly aware by now that I have an annnoying tendency to scan various scientific papers in a sometimes future attempt to glean little kernels of knowledge about the natural world that we can utilize in our aquarium work...
Here's one for you:
Junk and Piedade (1993) identified 388 herbaceous species in the igapós of Rio Negro, notably species of Echinodorus, Nymphea, Cabomba, Utricularia, and Polygonum!
That's significant, because we're talking about plants found in blackwater habitats in the wild. Some are aquatics which we have regular access to in the hobby! In fact, some of which many of us have kept at one time or another, right? If you recall from our past discussions, a couple of years ago I very successfully kept a significant population of Polygonum in my office blackwater, botanical-style "leaf litter" tank!
IAs more and more hobbyists from diverse areas of specialization get into the blackwater/botanical-style aquarium game, we're seeing more and more experimentation with plants.
And I have a sort of theory that, while a lot of plants aren't found in blackwater habitats, many, many species are adaptable to this environment in the aquarium, especially if their lighting and nutrition requirements are met.
In general, there are a few issues we should consider when it comes to aquatic plants in blackwater aquariums..the primary one being that theme we've touched on before:
It's a known fact that light doesn't penetrate as effectively in the tinted water of blackwater environments.That's ONE of the reasons you typically don't see a lot of algae in many blackwater systems. And floating plants, of course, tend to do well-because you don't really have the "light penetration factor" influencing them as much as say, rooted plants. Light penetration is a limiting factor, other things being "more-or-less" equal, right?
Well, yeah...you can compensate with brighter light...the beauty of LEDs, right? And of course, just having light in our tanks isn't enough.
The other big issue to consider when keeping aquatic plants in blackwater aquariums is that, to some extent, the well-trodden opinion that blackwater may be described as more "nutrient poor", and having much lower ionic concentrations of calcium, magnesium, sodium, and potassium than clearwater environments.
So how do you overcome this?
You fertilize your tank- just like you do in a "clearwater" system. You'll probably have to adjust your doses to compensate for the near lack of the above-referenced major ions, but it's pretty much that simple, in my experience. You'll use more fertilizers. And if you're growing plants that rely on rich substrates, like Cryptocoryne, I've found that you really don't have to do all that much differently than you do in a "clearwater" tank.
Like, use rich substrates and fertilize supplementally as required.
Well, in theory, right?
I recently listened to my fave aquatic podcast, "The George Farmer Podcast" (you have to listen to his podcast if you have the slightest interest in aquatic plants and aquascaping. George does a fantastic job at discussing all of the associated concepts. The episode I found most interesting was about substrates. Specifically, how to utilize various substrate materials for healthy aquatic plant growth.
One of the classics that has sort of went this route is a planted aquarium approach called "The Walstad Method." Many of you have already heard of it, so I'll give about the most rudimentary summation of the concept, and you can rely on your fave search engine or whatever to "fill in the blanks" if you need a refresher.
The idea is to provide a closed ecosystem where the plants and fishes work together to provide for each other's needs. Unlike a traditional planted aquarium, this approach utilizes a substrate comprised of rich soil, capped with sand, to keep the plants growing rapidly, and outcompeting nuisance algae, while providing nutrient export and nitrogen cycling via their lush growth.
I immediately found this to be fascinating. As a reef person, you become really attuned to "taking care of the ecosystem" of your aquarium in order for everything else to thrive. Well, either you learn to look at your reef as a little "microcosm"and care for the bacteria and other "lower" life forms in the tank as an important component, or you simply suck as a reefer- and your tank will, too.
I'm being serious...As many of you know, reef tanks are absolutely dependent upon you understanding this concept. Nature will "hand you your ass on a platter" in the form of nuisance algae, dead corals, and sick fishes if you can't figure it out. Period. Full stop.
So, yeah- everything is interrelated.
The things I like best about this method are that you need to really wait a couple of months or so before adding fishes, until the nitrogen cycle stabilizes, and the fact that the technique relies far more on Nature than it does on CO2 systems, additives, and all sorts of other gear. So, yeah- it espouses/requires patience, the learning and embracing of natural processes and "rules", and eschews "gear reliance" in favor of "brain reliance"- how could I NOT love this?
And that "ethos" sounds oddly familiar to our work with botanical-style natural aquariums (blackwater, brackish, and otherwise)- doesn't it? I'll even forgive the awful and insulting moniker of "low tech" that the planted world ascribes to this approach...I mean, is Nature "low tech?" Have you ever read a scholarly article about the nitrogen cycle?
Absorb THAT and try to use the term "low tech" to describe this stuff. Talk to the guys at NASA who have spent decades studying natural nutrient processing to figure out how to build systems for waste management on future spaceships, and get back to me with that thought...
Okay, so, wow...going on an on an on here. Bottom line:
I'm more interested in aquatic plants than ever before. And I think that part of it is because there are so many exciting interactions which occur between plants and organisms in these systems.
You might actually see more snd more aquatic plants in my systems this year.
Good times. Much learning and experimenting ahead.
Are you into this, too?
Let's get after it. Do the work. Execute the experiments. Make the mistakes. Learn the process. Apply patience. Rinse and repeat.
Stay educated. Stay focused. Stay diligent. Stay open-minded...
And Stay Wet.