Heading to the bottom...Again!

Time to hit on another of my fave topics regarding botanical method aquariums; one that we've talked about before- yet one that is still new and exciting to many of us, and perhaps clouded at times with a lot of misinformation, too.

We're talking about botanically-supplemented substrates!

For far too long in the aquarium hobby, I think that we've treated aquairum substrates as simply an afterthought. I mean, there are all sorts of sands and gravels on the market today, but I think that we sort of take them for granted- or at the very least, we treat them as a "requirement" when setting up a tank, and move on to other, more "exciting stuff": "Sand added, check. Time to select the wood!"

That sort of thing.

One of the most "liberating" things we've seen in the botanical-method aquarium niche is our practice of utilizing the bottom itself to become a feature aesthetic point in our aquariums, as well as a functional mechanism for the inhabitants.

"Oh, shit, he's talking about that 'functional aesthetic' thing again!"

Yeah. Yes I am. 😎

Because I think that there are a lot of "missed opportunities" to do something cool with substrates in our tanks. Opportunities to make it a much more important part of the aquarium. 

When you look at it from our rather biased perspective, and from a strictly aesthetic sense, the bottom itself becomes a big part of the aesthetic appeal of the aquarium. You may not focus on it, observationally, but it's hugely important. And of course, I see the bottom of the aquarium as more than just sand or whatever. Rather, it's a important component of the aquarium habitat, with the botanical materials placed upon or mixed into the substrate- or, in some cases, becoming the substrate!

These materials form an attractive, texturally varied "microscape" of their own, creating color and interest. In addition to be being comprised of the usual sands and gravels, we can be adding bits of botanicals, root pieces, twigs, leaves, etc. into the mix.


Again, the focus isn't just on aesthetics. 

It's about creating a habitat for the fauna which help "run" our tanks!

Much like in Nature, the materials that we place on the bottom of the aquarium will become an active, integral part of the ecosystem. From a "functional" standpoint, bottoms comprised of supplemented with a variety of botanical materials form a sort of "in-tank refugium", which allows small aquatic crustaceans, fungi, and other microorganisms to multiply and provide supplemental food for the aquarium, as we've touched on before.

So, the idea of creating rich, diverse botanical-influenced substrates for the purpose of infusing tannins, humic substances, and other compounds- as well as creating a "matrix" for the growth and propagation of beneficial micro and microfauna is pretty appealing to me.

Using a botanically-infused substrate to create a unique, ecologically diverse, functional, and aesthetically interesting affect on the aquarium- even one that doesn't have aquatic plants in it- is a sort of different approach.

Functionality. Interest. Aesthetics. Stability. They're all there!


Nature provides no shortage of features which can provide inspiration for unique aquariums.

Think about the materials which accumulate on and in the substrates of natural aquatic habitats, and why they accumulate in the first place. Well, typically, in addition to soils and leaves, you'll see sediments, pieces of plant roots, bits of twigs and bark, and the occasional seed pod. Almost all of this material arrives in these bodies of water from the surrounding terrestrial environment.

Some of it is present on forest floors, and when nearby streams overflow, inundating the once dry floor, these materials become part of the aquatic environment, influencing both the structure and the ecology of the habitat. Other materials, like sediments, are the product of hydrology and erosion- rocks ground down over eons by water; or soils- which find their way into streams during periods of intense rain, with the resulting material distributed over vast distances by current.

The beauty of Nature is that She uses pretty much everything that is thrown at Her. Fishes and other organisms feed directly upon some of this material, or on the other life forms (small crustaceans, insects, fungal growths) which live among it. The bottom of streams and other becomes a vibrant, ecologically diverse habitat, which supports a tremendous amount of life at many levels.

And we just throw bag of aquarium sand or gravel on the bottom of our tanks...and move on!

Shit. Really?

Like, WTF is a matter with us fish geeks? There is HUGE opportunity here! We need to give a lot more thought to what goes on the bottom of our aquariums! Instead of becoming a literal "placeholder" in our tanks, substrate should become the ecological "backbone"- and a (functionally aesthetic) foundation of our miniature aquatic ecosystems- just like it is in Nature!

Now, the first "pushback" we hear from critics of this type of approach in aquariums is that it will result in all sorts of problems- ranging from suppressed pH to high levels of nitrates, or even pockets of hydrogen sulfide and other nasty stuff accumulating.

I think that this is an incredible over-reaction and grounded in not fully thinking through why we are creating substrates like this in the first place.

In Nature, the leaf litter "community" of fishes, insects, fungi, and microorganisms is really important to the overall tropical environment, as it assimilates terrestrial material into the blackwater aquatic system (and, by doing this, acts to reduce the loss of nutrients to the forest which would inevitably occur if all the material which fell into the streams was washed downstream...)

The key point: These materials foster the development of life forms which process it. Stuff is being used by life forms.

It's the same in our aquariums.

And bits of botanical materials and such not only provide a physical substrate upon which these organisms can grow and multiply as they process it- they provide a sort of "on board nutrient processing center" within the aquarium.

If you approach this "substrate enrichment" idea holistically, rather than just from some warped aesthetic mindset, creating and managing such a system is not at all difficult or dangerous. In fact, you don't really need to give it all that much thought in a well-managed aquarium, once it's set up.

I realize that experimenting with these unusual substrates requires not only a sense of adventure, a direction, and some discipline- but a willingness to accept and deal with an entirely different aesthetic than what we know and love. And this also includes pushing into areas and ideas which might make us uncomfortable, not just for the way they look, but for what we are told might be possible risks.

One of the things that many hobbyists ponder when we contemplate creating deep, botanical-heavy substrates, consisting of leaves, sediment, bark, and other botanical materials is the "buildup of hydrogen sulfide", CO2, and other undesirable compounds within the substrate.

Well, sure, I can't entirely "diss" fellow hobbyists for having this fear. It does make sense that if you have a large amount of decomposing material in an aquarium, then some of these compounds are likely to accumulate in heavily-"active" substrates. The big "bogeyman" that we all seem to zero in on in our "sum of all fears" scenarios - the one which keyboard warriors on the forums will pounce on- is an accumulation of deadly hydrogen sulfide, which results from bacterial breakdown of organic matter in the total absence of oxygen.

Let's think about this for just a second.

In a botanical bed with materials placed on the substrate, or loosely mixed into the top layers, will it all really "pack down" enough to the point where there is a complete lack of oxygen and we develop a significant amount of this reviled compound in our tanks? Are we managing tanks in such a way as to encourage no circulation whatsoever?

I think that we're more likely to see some oxygen in this layer of materials, and in fact, I can't help but speculate- and it IS just speculation- that actual de-nitirifcation (nitrate reduction), which lowers nitrates while producing free nitrogen, might actually be able to occur in a "deep botanical" bed.

And it's certainly possible to have denitrification without dangerous hydrogen sulfide levels. As long as even very small amounts of oxygen and nitrates can penetrate into the substrate this will not become an issue for most systems. I have yet to see a botanical-method aquarium where the material has become so "compacted" as to appear to have no circulation whatsoever within the botanical layer.

Now, sure, I'm not a scientist, and I base this on close visual inspection of numerous aquariums, and the basic aquarium-standard chemical tests I've run on my systems under a variety of circumstances. As one who has made it a point to keep my botanical method aquariums in operations for very extended time frames, I think this is significant. The "bad" side effects we're talking about should manifest over these longer time frames...and they just haven't.

Yeah- in my experience, based on literally a lifetime of playing with all sorts of combinations of materials in dozens and dozens of my aquariums' substrates ('cause I've always been into that stuff!), I cannot attribute a single environmental lapse, let alone, a "tank crash", as a result of such additions.

A well-managed substrate, in which uneaten food and fish feces are not allowed to accumulate to excess, and in which regular nutrient export processes are embraced, rather than decimated by constant interference (ie; siphoning) it's not an issue, IMHO. When other good practices of aquarium husbandry (ie; not overcrowding, overfeeding, etc.) are empIoyed, a botanically-"enriched" substrate can enhance- not inhibit- the nutrient processing within your aquarium and help maintain high water quality for extended periods of time.

Like many of you, I have always been a firm believer in some forms of nutrient export being employed in every single tank I maintain. Typically, it's regular water exchanges. Not "when I think about it', or "periodically", mind you.

Nope, it's weekly. 

Now look,  I'm not saying that you can essentially disobey all the common sense husbandry practices we've come to know and love in the hobby (like not overcrowding/overfeeding, etc.) and just change the water weekly and everything's good. And I'm not suggesting that the only way to succeed with adding botanical materials to the substrate is to employ massive effort at nutrient export; the system otherwise teetering on a knife's edge, with disaster on one side and success on the other. 

It's not that binary. 

Our aquariums are more resilient than that. If we set them up to be. Common sense aquarium management, with an eye towards how natural aquatic systems work, is key, IMHO.

Of course, an aquarium is NOT a stream, river, etc. However, the same processes and "rules" imposed by Nature that govern the function of these wild ecosystems apply to our little glass and acrylic boxes. It's simply a matter of nuance in management and understanding how these wild habitats work on a basic level.

I'd love to keep us in the mindset of thinking about our aquariums as little "microcosms", not just "aquatic dioramas."

Think about this: The idea of a substrate "enriched" with botanical materials is completely in line with the practices of a "dirted" planted aquarium. In our case, not only will there be an abundance of material for microorganisms and crustaceans to forage and multiply among, trace elements and essential plant nutrients will also be present in such a substrate. And, of course there will be the constant addition of tannins and humic substances into the water,  which provide many known benefits for fishes as well.

The best of both worlds, I think.

Again, it's not about creating a cool Instagram-ready "look."

It's about trying to create an entire aquatic ecosystem.

Embracing and fostering not just the look, but the very processes and functions which take place in natural aquatic systems. Is it as simple as crushing some leaves, adding some coconut-based material, covering it up with sand and you have an "instant tropical stream?" No, of course not. There is no such "magic bullet!" You need to look at things sort of "holistically"- with an eye towards nutrient export and long-term maintenance. 

For those of you who are adventurous, experimental, diligent, and otherwise engaged with managing and observing your aquariums, I think this process offers amazing possibilities. Not only will you gain some fascinating insights and the benefits of "on-board" nutrient export/environmental "enrichment"- you will also get the aesthetics of a more natural-looking substrate as well. (Let's face it, no matter how "function first" we feel that we are, everyone likes a nice-looking aquarium, right?)


So, the best way to "enrich" (for want of a better term) your substrate is to add the  botanical materials and sediments before you fill the tank up with water. In the case of leaves, bits of botanicals, etc., you'd want to have boiled/steeped them previously, so that they are rid of any surface contaminants, and to assure that their tissues are saturated enough to get them to sink immediately upon submersion.

There is no set "process" for this, other than to mix these materials into the upper layers of substrate as you add them. You will just sort of know when you've achieved the look and texture that pleases you (that's the "aesthetic" part!), and take comfort in knowing that just about any amount of these materials that you're adding to your system will help accomplish the "functional" aspect.

Once your substrate is in place, Nature takes over and the materials develop that lovely "patina" of fugal growth, biofilms and microbial colonization, and start breaking down. Some may be moved about by the grazing activities of resident fishes, or otherwise slowly redistributed around the aquarium.

A literal "active substrate", indeed! Yet, something that is fascinating and beautiful for those who give the idea a shot!

 At this point, I have to admit that there are many hobbyists who will never find any sort of appeal whatsoever in a botanically-enriched substrate, dark and complex, filled with all sorts of "stuff" besides just sand. The so-called "Nature Aquarium" cult crowd, or the truly "artistic" aquascaping people, for example, will likely never approve of this idea, because it looks "dirty" to them, and because some of the aesthetic and management "work" is being "ceded" to Nature. They need to be in control.

I admit, the simple practice of adding "botanical stuff" into our aquariums is not some "high concept thing." However, the impacts on the water chemistry and overall aquatic environment- not to mention, on our fishes- are profound, fascinating, and real!

Being careful and taking the time to clean, prepare, and add botanicals to your aquarium in a measured manner always yields a better outcome. Going slowly also gives you the opportunity to address any issues that you might have before they become critical, especially when you're experimenting with some of these ideas.

It just makes sense to be patient. The rewards are so great.

From a maintenance standpoint, it's pretty straightforward. You monitor your environmental parameters regularly, and conduct routine water exchanges, taking care not to siphon aggressively from the substrate. You simply don't want to disrupt the very processes within the substrate that you're trying to foster. And trust me, your fishes will spend a lot of time foraging among it.

Much like what occurs spontaneously in Nature, the materials that we deliberately place on the bottom of the aquarium will become an active, integral part of the ecosystem

Like so many things we discuss here, I admit that simply don't have all the answers about every aspect of botanically-supplemented substrates. There is a ton to learn! That's part of the joy of this process- sort of figuring out why and how it works as you're enjoying the success!

Playing with ideas like botanically supplemented substrates truly pushes the boundaries between what we do al the time in the hobby, and those outer regions where few have tread before. There will be challenges, discoveries..and rewards for taking this road less travelled.

And that's part of the fun, isn't it?

Stay creative. Stay brave. Stay curious. Stay diligent...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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