One of the more common questions we receive here at Tannin, and via our social media accounts, is, "How do you maintain one of these (botanical method) aquariums?"
It really is a great question, because, although we've talked about it quite a bit over the last several years, it's a very fundamental item which we haven't talked about in detail recently... So, why not revisit it today?
As we've talked about before, for the longest time, there seemed to have been a perception among the mainstream aquarium hobby that tanks with lots of botanical materials were delicate, tricky-to-maintain systems, fraught with potential disaster; a soft-water, acidic environment which could slip precipitously into some sort of environmental "free fall" without warning. And there was the matter of that "dark brown water..."
And the aquairum hobby has, for decades, equated brown water with "dirty", "dangerous", and "non-sustainable..."
Perceptions which require a bit of examination and understanding of before we can successfully navigate the world of botanical method aquairums.
Yeah, like so many things in our little hobby speciality, it's a matter of understanding exactly what you're getting into. I think that the most difficult aspect of a botanical method aquarium is to understand exactly what it is, why it's set up the way it is, and how it actually works. The fundamentals are everything here.
So, how do we keep these aquariums running for extended periods of time? Through continuous, regular maintenance, of course! Let's talk about some of the "best practices" that we engage in to keep these tanks running and looking their best.
It starts with the way you set up your botanical method aquarium, and how it relies on natural processes to function.
If you're "converting" an existing aquarium, start slowly, gradually building up your quantities of botanical materials over a period of weeks, or even months, until you reach a level that you like aesthetically, and which provides the type of manageable environmental parameters you and your fishes are comfortable with. This is essential, because how we start our aquariums dictates how they will run over the longer term.
And of course, you'll need to understand the progression of things that happen as your tank establishes itself. And, perhaps most important, you'll need to make some mental "adjustments" to accept and appreciate this different function and aesthetic.
Also, you'll have to get used to a certain amount of material breaking down in your tank. It's natural, and part of the function... and the aesthetic. Accepting the fact that you'll see biofilms, fungal growth, detritus, and even some algae in your system is something that many aquarists have a difficult time with. As we've discussed numerous times here, it goes against our "aesthetic upbringing" with regards to what an "attractive, healthy-looking tank" is!
We have learned to understand and appreciate this stuff, and that accepting these things is not an excuse to develop or accept lax maintenance practices! It's understanding that this is part of the normal function of Nature. It's a "call to awareness" that there is probably nothing wrong with your system when you see this stuff. It's quite contrary to the way we've been "trained" to evaluate the aesthetics of a typical aquarium.
Okay, let's talk aesthetics, one more time...Watch some underwater videos and study photos of environments such as the Amazonian region, etc., and you'll see that your tank is a much closer aesthetic approximation of Nature than almost any other type of system you've worked with before, in both form and function.
This is a significant thing, really!
And, to your comfort, you'll find that botanical method aquariums are as stable as any other if you follow regular maintenance and good old common sense.
So, what are we talking about, in regards to regular maintenance?
Well, for one thing, water exchanges. Because the topic is so well discussed in the aquarium world, I'll keep it relatively brief on this topic:
What’s a good water-exchanging regimen?
I’d love to see you employ 10% per week...It’s what I’ve done for decades, and it’s served me- and my animals- very well! Regardless of how frequently you exchange your water, or how much of it you exchange- just do them consistently. And of course, as previously discussed, don't go crazy siphoning every bit of detritus out during the process.
Remember, that in an aquarium which encourages the growth of bacteria, fungi, copepods, etc., the organic material contained in detritus becomes part of the "food web." And everybody up the food chain can benefit from the stuff.
So, by going "full ham" and siphoning every last speck of detritus in your tank, you're essentially breaking this chain, and denying organisms at multiple levels the chance to benefit from it! Yeah, over-zealously siphoning this material from your tank effectively destroys an established community of microorganisms which serve to maintain high water quality in the closed environment of an aquarium!
This is a super-important point to remember!
In an ironic twist, I believe that it's far more common for those "anomalous" ammonia spikes and such that aquarists report periodically, to have their origin in over-zealous cleaning of aquariums and filter media, as opposed to the accumulation of detritus itself. So, yeah-taking out all of the "fish shit" is actually removing a complex microbiome that's keeping your tank healthy!
Even something as seemingly "mundane" as the way we maintain our botanical-method aquariums requires us to make some "mental shifts" to appreciate our methodology more thoroughly, doesn't it?
Now, during water exchanges, it's almost inevitable that some stuff gets shifted around. Leaves and seed pods are pretty lightweight materials, and as they decompose, they're even more lightweight and "mobile."
And that's not necessarily a bad thing. Don't get stressed if you stir some stuff up. Your tank will be fine.
Think about the natural leaf litter beds, and the processes which influence their composition, structure and resilience. Many litter beds are long-term "static" features in their natural habitats. Almost like reefs in the ocean, actually. Yet, there is a fair amount of material being shifted around constantly by current, rain, flooding, and the activities of fishes.
Yeah, stuff does get disturbed and redistributed.
The organisms which reside in these systems deal with these dynamics effectively. They have for eons.
The benthic microfauna which our fishes tend to feed on also are affected by this phenomenon, and as mentioned above, the fishes tend to "follow the food", making this a case of the fishes learning (?) to adapt to a changing environment.
And perhaps...maybe...the idea of fishes sort of having to constantly adjust to a changing physical (note I didn't say "chemical") environment could be some sort of "trigger", hidden deep in their genetic code, that perhaps stimulates overall health, immunity or spawning?
Something in their "programing" that says, "You're at home...the season has changed, because there's an influx of new water...leaves are rolling around..." Perhaps not as "specific", but something like that, which can trigger specific adaptive behaviors?
I find this possibility fascinating, because we can learn more about our fishes' behaviors, and create really interesting habitats for them, simply by adding botanicals to our aquariums and allowing them to "do their own thing"- to break apart as they decompose, move about as we change water or conduct maintenance activities, or to be added to from time to time.
Well, I mentioned the whole "breaking down" part about botanicals here, so I should say a little about that.
As we have discussed for years, botanical materials break down and start decomposing as soon as they are added to your aquarium. It's normal. It's natural. It's to be expected. Some materials, like the harder seed pods, last a very long time- almost indefinitely- before they finally are broken down by biological activity. Other stuff, like softer seed pods and leaves, tend to break down much more quickly.
Yeah, leaves should be considered the most "temporary" or ephemeral items we utilizing in our botanical method tanks, requiring replacement regularly. Those seed pods and stems tend to last longer and it's personal preference to leave them in, or remove as desired.
So, DO you remove the botanical materials from your aquarium as they break down?
For reasons I've touched on numerous time here in "The Tint", I personally like to leave all of these materials in the aquarium until they completely break down, which I believe facilitates the very ecological processes which help the ecosystem of our aquariums run. And, leaving the material "in situ" while it breaks down does NOT "pollute" the aquarium, if it's otherwise well managed (ie; if you conduct regular water exchanges, filter media replacements, feed carefully, and stock sensibly, etc.).
I think that we need to look beyond the simple "aesthetic" of the leaves and other botanicals in our tanks, and consider them more than just hardscape "props." Rather, they are functional materials, which perform biological, environmental, and physical/structural roles in the aquarium- just as they do in Nature.
The same processes and functions which govern what happens to these materials in the wild occur in our aquariums. And, if we reject our initial instinct to "edit" what Nature does, the aquarium takes on a look and vibrancy that only She can create. It's that simple. "For best results, don't fuck with it!"
I wouldn't get too carried away with trying to remove any of it, really.
Remember, most of this "stuff"- the broken-down botanical and the resulting detritus and such- is utilized by organisms throughout the food chain in your tank...and as such, is a "fuel" for the biological processes we are so interested in.
No sense disrupting them, right?
What goes down...doesn't always have to come up.
Take care of your tank by taking care of the enormous microcosm which supports its form and function. And that means, not removing all of this material as it decomposes. I know, I've said it several times already in this one piece, and countless times in "The Tint" and elsewhere, but it's really a fundamental part of the botanical method of aquarium keeping.
One physical maintenance task that I have found to be continuous and necessary is the cleaning of filter intakes, mechanical filter media, and water pumps. With a constantly-decomposing array of botanical materials streaming into the water column, lots of small debris tend to get sucked into filter intakes, pumps, and of course, mechanical filter media. These need to be cleaned/replaced on a regular basis; perhaps even more frequently than other maintenance tasks.
It's simply part of the game when working with a botanical-method aquarium!
There are other "tricks" to maintaining environmental consistency in botanical method aquariums, which we can re-visit in future installments. The bottom line here, though, is that these aquariums are no more difficult to maintain than any other type of system we work with in the hobby. They simply require a basic understanding of ecological/biological processes, and how they play out in our tanks. It requires patience, consistency, and execution- attributes which are ideal for any hobbyist to possess.
Our idea of what a beautiful, healthy aquarium is may vary substantially from the "mainstream" aesthetically- but you won't be able to make that argument from a functional perspective when you employ common, well-known aquarium maintenance practices.
Just remember that the long term success of botanical method aquariums requires a mix of knowledge and action...nothing all that different from what you've already come to understand in the aquarium hobby.
Stay persistent. Stay observant. Stay curious. Stay thoughtful. Stay patient...
And Stay Wet.