With the emerging interest in the botanical-style natural aquariums (blackwater and otherwise) that we obsess over, it's only natural to assume that some of you want to convert (we like to say, "evolve") an existing aquarium into this type of system. And of course, there are some "best practices" and simple techniques that you can apply to make such a transition easier and more enjoyable for everyone ("Everyone" being you and your fishes, of course!)
Really, it starts with deciding what type of approach you want to play with in this arena. Are you looking to simply incorporate some leaves and other botanicals in order to come up with a cool aesthetic? Are you interested in creating an aquarium that replicates (to some extent) the form and function of specific wild habitats? Or, are you interested in a blackwater aquarium, with a lower pH, deeply tinted water, and lots of decomposing botanicals?
Deciding on any one of these will dictate both the procedures and the pace that you need in order to get moving in the appropriate direction. Now, for the purpose of this blog, and in the interest of not re-writing "War and Peace", we'll keep things sort of generalized and conceptual for now...
If you're simply looking to keep your water chemistry parameters more or less the same as they are now- likely neutral to slightly alkaline- no "tint"-than it's really a simple matter of selecting botanicals that tend to be more durable, preparing them appropriately, and gradually adding them to your tank until you achieve the aesthetic you want. Of course, you'd continue with your good husbandry procedures (ie; water exchanges) and utilizing activated carbon to keep the water "un-tinted."
The key with this approach is to prepare your botanicals carefully, to go slowly to gauge impact on water quality, and to replace them as dictated by your aesthetic preference.
Now, if you're looking to replicate many aspects of the form and function of wild blackwater environments, like the igapo of Brazil, or the peat bogs of Southeast Asia, or Amazonian tributaries- then you will want to incorporate botanicals to not only provide the aesthetics- but to impact the water chemistry and overall aquatic environment. Of course, this requires some research. It requires diligent management of water parameters, water quality, and a game plan!
So, if you're going the route of habitat replication, your process is slightly different. Likely, you've already decided on the specific habitat/environmentla niche/locale that you're attempting to replicate, so the type and quantity of the botanical materials you'll be using is known. Personally, if I were going from "straight-up tap water" conditions to something say, soft and alkaline, I'd begin the process by removing the current inhabitants to a "safe haven" during the process.
Likely, you'll be modifying the water parameters to something significantly different than what you have now, and it's easier to do the change all at once in the display tank without the fishes present, and to carefully acclimate them into the "new" tank when you're ready, than it is to complete the process with everyone present.
Adjusting water parameters is a science and an art. Much has been written about utilizing RO/DI to create water that is an ideal "canvas" for manipulating pH in the tank. IMHO, unless you have soft, acidic tap water, utilizing RO/DO is really the only consistent, reliable option to achieve these conditions in an aquarium.Remember, as we've discussed many time, the botanicals and leaves cannot do the job themselves.
Once you have the correct "base" water conditions, you can 'scape your tank as desired, utilizing the quantity and variety of botanicals you feel you need to achieve the look and function that you want. Again, this is as much an "art" (if not more so, really) as it is a "science", and you simply need to know what works with your vision and is consistent with your goals for your tank. With regards to botanicals, we've made a considerable effort to identify the species and geographic origins of our botanicals, which we hope will help you make some informed decisions, especially if you're trying for more accurate "geographic appropriateness" in your 'scape.
Repatriating your fishes into your tank is a matter of following tried and true technique...It's essentially like buying new fishes and acclimating them into a new tank. There are numerous articles and blogs and references on how to acclimate fishes, by aquarists far more skilled and knowledgable than I on this topic, so please do a little research and utilize these sources.
Now, one thing to remember when you're filling an aquarium with botanicals and leaves is that this stuff constitutes bioload. In other words, it's organic material with which your filtration/bacterial population must contend with to process. Botanical-style aquariums support a significant amount of biological diversity, including the aforementioned bacteria- and including fungal growths, epiphytic algae, and even small crustaceans- all of which can contribute to the nitrogen cycle as they process some of these materials, as well as offer supplemental food to your fishes.
And of course, most botanical materials we use are "ephemeral"- in that they will gradually soften, brake up, and decompose after submersion, so replacement or replenishment is part of the game for us. The degree and extent to which you replace your botanicals is largely subjective. If you're like me, and the decomposing materials do not offend your aesthetic sensibilities- leave 'em in until they fully break down. Or, remove them as you see fit.
What this all means is that it's possible- in fact likely- that your "re-scaped" tank will go through a "cycle" just like a brand new aquarium, and that fish additions must be moderated and due consideration paid to the fact that you might see some ammonia and nitrite during the process. Remember, it's not just an "aesthetic thing"- it's an environmental modification that you're doing!
So, this is literally an overview-from like "30,000 feet", as they say- of the "transition" process" involved when going from a more traditional aquarium to a botanically-influenced one. Sure, there are a lot more "sub-steps" and considerations to work with, but the big ones are outlined here. We can discuss the finer points of such a transition in future blogs, if you're interested!
Remember, the botanical-style aquarium is as much of a "process" as it is a "method" or "style", and that the techniques and practices we employ are evolving constantly. There is no "absolute" set of rules- other than those Nature stipulates for how biological systems operate. These tanks- although remarkable stablehand simple to run once established- require your participation.
As a botanical-style aquarium lover, you'll have no choice but to be more attuned to these "rules" and to appreciate the elegant process by which Nature regulates our closed systems just as She does the wild habitats we admire so much.
Until next time...
Stay curious. Stay bold. Stay diligent. Stay studious. Stay consistent. Stay observant...
And Stay Wet.