It's okay to question things...

There is a certain "mental buy-in" that we all have to make when we start a botanical-style aquarium. A certain willingness to try different things, accept different aesthetics, and to willingly cede a little control to Nature.

It's a fundamental part of what we do. An acceptance that what we have been told for generations is the "correct" way to do stuff in the hobby may not be the ONLY way- or for that matter, the best way. Once we overcome our natural fears and resistance to things which we've been told are "undesirable", "unwise", or even "bad", the barriers start breaking down between what we know, and where we want to be.

Now, sure, even with this sort of "rebellious" mindset, you still have to follow the basic rules and tenants of aquarium husbandry and discipline. Just because we're playing with a different system and embracing a different look and function in our tanks doesn't mean that you can "blow off" every husbandry principle we've developed in the hobby for the past century. You can't try to circumvent natural processes or "hack" the basics of stocking; stuff like that.

If you do, it's likely that bad shit will happen.

Nature can be a rather unforgiving place.

We've discussed this many times, in regards to our hobby. Like, how if you flaunt Nature and blow off her "rules" and proceed forward without due regard for her processes, you'll get your ass handed to you. We've seen it tens of thousands of times over the years in this hobby; we'll likely see it thousands of times more in the future, too. 

And it's not all bad, really.

Sometimes, the lessons learned from these misadventures- and the surprisingly easy ways to resolve them- can yield some practical, transformative results!


It's not always about doing radical stuff, mind you. Sometimes, it's about NOT doing stuff.

And, quite frankly, I've been surprised over the decades by just how many so-called "problems" can be solved in aquariums by simply NOT doing some radical moves. In fact, I've been surprised by how many things that we label as "problems" aren't really problems!

For example, by enduring what we feel are the "ugly" phases of a tank, by waiting out the "nasty biofilm stage" and understanding/appreciating them, by persevering in an algal bloom (after educating oneself as to what caused it to happen in the first place), etc. rather than adding all kinds of disruptive chemicals, constantly scraping it out, etc. Knowing that these processes- decomposition, colonization, etc.- are fundamental to Nature- snd the aquarium.

Adjusting our tolerances to how much we can handle, and for how long. And assessing what, if any, long-term impact there will be by either taking action or simply waiting it out.


Now sure, some stuff needs immediate action: Disease outbreaks, heater malfunctions, aggressive fishes, etc. Other things require something not every hobbyists has in his or her "toolkit"- the ability to look beyond the immediate and understand what could have caused the situation, and to understand that the simple passage of time is a great "fix" for many things.


And a little faith.

That's really important.

A case in point is some of the early experiments with my "Urban Igapo" idea that  I've shared with you over the past couple of years. This was stuff that I had been working on for years before that, and it reached the point where I just taught myself to expect certain things to happen, and to understand that they almost always will pass or change over time if I leave things alone.

It was about looking at things differently and not letting my biases or the 'burden" of past experiences and "rules" taint my outlook...Knowing that, just because something is far different than what we're used to, it's not "bad."

For example, the substrate formulations I've developed for "Nature Base Igapo" and "Nature Base Varzea", btw)  were designed to be part of a "process"- perhaps even a "technique", of taking a tank through various phases: A dry "terrestrial phase", then a gradual inundation period, then a fully aquatic phase, and then a drying phase again. It's a different way of doing a tank- and a different set of characteristics and expectations accompany it.


And, as a result of accepting the way it behaved and understanding that this was part of the "process", I knew exactly what to expect-The good, the bad, and the ugly. And it has tempered my tolerances and ideas for how to use it accordingly.Made it easier to explain to you- the consumer, what this stuff will do, and how- despite the "unorthodox" appearances it creates- it performs remarkably. I've been very confident in releasing these sedimented substrate formulations for sale, because we've used the stuff repeatedly. For a long time.

If you ask me about NatureBase sedimented substrates, I'll tell you that the most important thing you'll need when you use the stuff is understanding... A mental "buy-in" to a process which goes against most of what we expect from aquarium products. That doesn't come with a bag of dirt, no matter how col the packaging is- trust me.

When you initially wet a substrate consisting of soil, clays, and sediments, you realize that you're going to get horrifically turbid, cloudy water.

It can last for a week or more.

And that's okay..

Because that's what happens in Nature, too.

Because you need to go into working with this material understanding that it's not intended to look or function like a normal aquarium sand. That's not what it's about. You don't rinse the stuff. You don't fill the tank 100% from day one out of the package. I mean, you could. A lot of our customers DO! And they're delighted with it. Because they know whet they're getting into when they do!

It involves process. Patience. And the passage of time.

Typically, you gradually, slowly saturate it, sprout terrestrial plant seeds, and then begin a slow process of raising the water level. You don't direct filter returns into it (if you're using one at all), or it will make the water even cloudier! At this phase, you're likely not to even use it on a large tank, because it's easier to control in a smaller tank.  

Hell, you're simply not going to use the stuff to create a "typical" aquarium in the first place!  Yet, that's what makes the process so damn fun! It's so important to understand the "how and why's" of specialized aquariums- and what to expect from them- when we embark on these journeys. 


And there are always unknowns when you go against the grain in the aquarium hobby... And outcomes you may never have expected. And that's not a bad thing!

The point of discussing this concept and our expertness with NatureBase is that it's an example of a "process" that requires not only a different outlook, but a mental "buy-in" to a system of doing things for a reason. Sure, you could skirt the "rules", fill a tank with water 100% from day one, and have a "supercloud" of sediments and mud for untold weeks or months. Nature will simply adjust the initial outcome. And it's perfectly okay to do that.

Either you'll "fix" it somehow, or you'll leave it alone and let Nature "sort it out" herself! I recommend that you do.

Either way, Nature eventually sorts it out.

Again, this mindset of "zen-like patience" and confidence in Nature "figuring shit out" is but one way of looking at and managing things- and it's not for everyone. Control freaks and obsessive "tinkerers" need not apply.

And, quite honestly, it's not really necessary all the time. The "workaround" is to understand what you're doing, what could happen, WHY it happens, and what the upside/downside of rapidly "correcting it" can be. The key, typically, as with most things in the aquarium world, is to simply be patient. 

Despite our best efforts to "fix" stuff- Nature almost always "sorts it out"- and does it way better than we can. She's been doing it for eons!

A great example of this? Think about the bane of most hobbyists' existence- So-called "nuisance algae."

It's a "nuisance" to us because it looks like shit. It derails our dreams of a pristine aquarium filled with spotless plants, rocks, coral, etc. Despite all of the knowledge we have about algae being fundamental for life on earth, it bothers the shit out of us because it looks "bad." 

And collectively as hobbyists, we freak the fuck out about it when it appears. We panic; do stupid things to get rid of it as quickly as possible. We address its appearance in our tanks. Seldom do we make the effort to understand why it appeared in the first place and to address the circumstances which caused it. And of course, in our haste to rid our tanks of it, we often fail to take into account how it actually grows. And, perhaps, what its actual benefits are...

Algae will ultimately exhaust the available excess nutrients which caused it to appear in the first place, if you take steps to eliminate "re-supplying" them, and if you wait for it to literally "run its course" after these issues have been addressed.

We've seen this in the reef aquarium world for a generation now. It almost always passes- once we address the root cause and allow it to play out on Nature's time frame.

Of course, as hobbyists, we want stuff to happen fast, so hundreds of products, ranging from additives to filter media, and exotic techniques, such as dosing chemicals, etc. have been developed to destroy algae. We throw lots of money and product at this "problem", when the real key would have been to address what causes it in the first place, and to work with that.

And yeah, the irony is that algae is the basis of all life. In a reef tank (or freshwater tank) it's a necessary component of the ecosystem. And reefers will often choose the quick fix, to eradicate it instead of looking at the typical root causes- low quality source water (which would require investing in an RO/DI unit to solve), excess nutrients caused by overfeeding/overcrowding, or poor husbandry (all of which need to be addressed to be successful in the hobby, always...), or simply the influx of a large quantity of life forms (like fresh "live rock", corals, fishes, etc...) into a brand new tank with insufficient biological nutrient export mechanisms evolve to handle it.

And often, a "quick kill" upsets the biological balance of the tank, throwing it into a further round of chaos which takes...longer to sort itself out! Works the same in botanical-style aquariums as well.

Once these things are understood, and the root causes addressed, the best and most successful way to resolve the algae issue long-term is often to simply be patient and wait it out.

Wait for Nature to adjust on her terms. On her time frame.

She seeks a balance.

Rapid, dramatic environmental shifts are never a good thing for any type of aquarium, and a system like we run, with lots of organic material present, is just as susceptible to "insults" from big, poorly thought-out moves as any other. Perhaps even more, because by its very nature, our style of aquarium is based upon lots of natural materials which impact the environment on multiple fronts. 

We need to remember this.

We need to observe our systems keenly- test when we can, and always apply common sense to any move we make.

With botanical-style aquariums, the key here is often that "cadence"- understanding that the material we add needs to be added-or replaced, if you want- at a pace that makes sense for your specific system- is supremely important. Those of us who have been maintaining these types of tanks for some time now really get this, and have a great "feel" for how our tanks run in this fashion.

It's a dance. An art form. A process, and an evolution. Sometimes seemingly chaotic, other times maddeningly slow. Always alluring. Always deferring to Nature...

And it's all held together by you- the aquarist, applying as much emotion as you do procedure- all done in the proper time. Questioning things when we're unsure, snd accepting things when we feel it's right...or, "just because."

This is a huge point; something which everyone who works with botanical-style aquariums comes to know and usually accept.

We need to have an attitude which doesn't allow us to panic; to make fast, short-term moves in favor of longer-term outcomes. To accept things that seem uncomfortable. To question what we've been told is the "ONLY" way to do stuff. It's a very different philosophy. You need to accept different aesthetics. You need flexibility. You may even have to accept short-term losses for a greater long-term good.

You need to have faith in Nature.

She won't steer you wrong. Unless you try to best Her.

Stay patient. Stay open-minded. Stay brave. Stay curious. Stay observant...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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