Knowing when to say "when."

The natural aquatic world is full of inspiration. It's all over.

Everywhere you look in Nature, there is an idea that you can explore, study, and replicate in your aquarium.

I see it as part of my responsibility to you- our community- to inspire and give you ideas for how to incorporate different facets of natural aquatic habitats into your aquariums.

Like most of you, hardly a day goes by when some weird idea doesn't pop into my head!

I am constantly looking at images or researching facts about interesting aspects of wild aquatic habitats that would perhaps take us out of our collective comfort zones!

And this is what is funny...

As I've mentioned a bunch of times, I'm one of those aquarists who likes to set up a tank and run it indefinitely. I hate "messing with stuff." Which is great for my personal hobby "practice." Yet, as an industry person who really does want to inspire fellow geeks with as many new ideas as possible, I realize it's necessary to move faster and show more "looks" to our growing global audience.

And of course, that means setting up more tanks.

More often.

And since I only have so much time, space, and resources, I can only set up so many at one time...Add to this "mix" the fact that I am a firm believer in allowing botanical-style aquariums the "runway" they need to establish themselves and evolve into more mature microcosms, and the "speed" at which new stuff rolls out is, by necessity, slower.

The solution?

More f---ing tanks in our office! And at home!

Well, that's kind of cool, actually.

So, yeah..

Following even while my "prime directive" of letting tanks run for a while, I find myself  getting ready to play with more and more ideas in more and more aquariums! Now, this is hardly a bad thing for a lifelong fish geek. I have a strong inner voice and mind set. However, accomplishing my goal of more looks more often also necessitates a sort of compromise- creating a "schedule" of establishing tanks, letting them run, and then breaking them down and doing new ones on a regular, more frequent basis.

Sort of like a farmer rotating crops, I suppose!

Now, we have all sorts of ideas of our own to run with- and we will. Yesterday, my crew and I discussed no less than 11 different concepts that you'll see over the next few months- crazy! However, I think I'd also like to see what kinds of things you'd like to see from us. (Oh, and yeah, because some of you asked- you'll might even see a new reef tank in late 2020- but from our own perspective, of course. No cliche bullshit here!) 😆

Is there some interesting niche that you'd like to see us play with? Some habitat or environment that needs some love? One that would fit our niche and area of expertise? 

Okay, don't suggest a thermal hot spring biotope for Pupfish or something totally ridiculous (trust me, I've actually thought about that one before; maybe it ISN'T, So, yeah..I'm open to suggestions.

Ideas are cool. However, where the "rubber hits the road" and you executer on them is what counts.

Yeah, even though I have all of these ideas for executing cool tanks; all of these thoughts about helping inspire members of our community, I have a very real "affliction" in which I have to fight off a voice in my head which says, "You're not THAT good..."

It sort of messes with me.

I don't think I'm a lousy aquascaper, mind you. Don't get me wrong. I can "turn 'em out"...occasionally. I might hit on a few points I wanted...but historically, I'm my own worst enemy. I'll often do something that "sabotages" a great idea by making "one more tweak."

And,  I just can't nail every single one, like so many great 'scapers can.

I like to look at aquascapes. Love to play with them. Love to talk about the concepts behind them...but I feel that I'm just not that "all time great" at executing them.

However, I don't let that handicap me like I used to for years.

It's actually not a big deal.

I've learned to be proud of everything I do; to give it my best, and to be humble (well, and feel good about sharing and contributing to the hobby in some small way. This was a big hobby/life revelation for me...Just doing stuff and not worrying about what everyone thinks. I think there is a lesson in here that we can all benefit from.

Of course, I'm not putting myself up on a pedestal just because it's "quiet" inside my I bring this up because, not only am I about to embark on some more 'scraping work, but I've received a few curiously timed emails from members of our community expressing some dismay over what they feel are their lack of skills.

I hate hearing that. We all have skills, and we shouldn't beat ourselves up. Yet, there are at least a few takeaways from the pros that we can utilize in our own work; ideas that might instill a bit more confidence if you're a bit down on yourself lately...

Let's just revisit them a bit, okay?

Now, I seriously stand in awe of the skills of guys like George Farmer, Johnny Ciotti,  Cory Hopkins, Mitch Mazur, Jeff Senske, Luis Navarro...these people have serious "game"- and this ability to adapt the idea that they have floating around in their head at the moment into reality, as well as the seemingly otherworldly ability to "see" the completed scape as they work.

But they'll be the first to tell you that they're not "ninjas." They just work at it, gain confidence from DOING, and learn from their mistakes...

And they innately know to STOP at some let the scape "breathe" a bit.

We'll come back to that point in a bit.

You ask some of these guys, they'll literally tell you that the components they're using-the rock, the wood, the plants- sort of "talk to them.." And they listen.


They have that ability to visualize and execute where something should go; how it should be placed- and how much of it-because they evaluate just what kind of "contribution" a certain element will make to the overall design.

They don't fight it. They listen.

Shit, that's deep, huh?

And they'll tell you that we ALL can do this.

We all have the ability.

And when you really think about it- they're right.

We ALL can. 

Now, some people have different training or backgrounds, which you might think  give them certain advantages over a guy like me, for example...

Some people have a background in design and art. They understand ratios and such...but they almost never tell you that these things are the main reason they are good at what they do. Rather, they'll tell you it's because they developed an innate understanding of the process, and the ability to heed an inner voice.


These guys- like all aquascapers- you and I included- are really deep.

Very philosophical. You can have awesome discussions with them. In our podcast versions of "The Tint", I've had discussions with some of these people that could have easily stretched into hours just on the philosophical ramifications of aquascaping. The main difference between "them" and "us" is that these guys listen really intently to that inner voice and don't "fight it off..."

We ALL have this ability.

We just need to overcome a few tendencies, in my opinion. We all have greatness within ourselves. 

(Takashi Amano, perhaps the greatest of all, understood the value of belief, harmony, and awe when creating aquascapes.)

Over the years, I've learned a few things about the mindset of the majority of aquascapers, which seem to come up all the time:

*We are typically our own worst critics

*We tend to place too much value in what other people think of our efforts.    

*We're almost never "finished" with a scape. We keep going when it's done.

*Our work is almost always better than we think it is.

Honestly, I think I'm spot on with these points.

Don't believe me?

Check out almost any forum where someone is showing off their latest work. It's almost guaranteed you'll see the creator preface her work with stuff like, "I know it needs some work, but..." or "Please be gentle, it's my first effort..." or "I just can't seem to get my rocks arranged as good as ________ can..."

Oh sure, every once in a while, you'll actually see a comment like, "Im pretty happy with this one. I think I nailed it."


Yet, in the aquascaping world, that seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

We're too damn self-critical; too damn modest, even.

Not everyone, of course, but many of us.

And look, I'm not espousing that you go on Facebook with a pic of your tank and proclaim to the world that you're the "second-fucking-coming of Takashi Amano..." Arrogance is never fashionable. What I am espousing is that you take a second to realize that you're pretty damn good at this stuff.

Really damn good.

Especially when it comes to this botanical-style stuff; really working in tune with Nature. And the work you're sharing is pretty incredible!


Believe it or not- and I think that my "A List" aquascaping friends will vouch for me here-  every single aquascape that is put out to the world has amazing merits that inspire everyone.


Ask your local aquascaping superstar.

They'll tell you that they can glean something from every single scape they look at...Whether it's a brilliant placement of a branch, a use of color or texture that they simply hadn't seen before, or even- just occasionally- a reinforcement of why they don't want to do something a certain way...And that's okay, too. The key is, they always get something out of every single 'scape they see.

(Luis Navarro- adapting, studying, improvising...creating)


Nothing is ever wasted when you share in the aquarium world.  

I say this constantly, don't I?

Because it's true.

A tank can always serve as an example of what NOT to do for someone. And again...notice I said for "someone." And that's not a negative. Maybe the other person realizes, after seeing your scape, that she really doesn't like using leaves and seed pods in her tanks. It's just not her thing. That's a huge win for her, and for the hobby, which will benefit from her sharing a pure version of HER.

A win. Why?

Because every 'scape has it's merits, and should satisfy the one person who really counts- its creator. And, perhaps most important: We can't be afraid to put ourselves out there for fear of some anonymous "critic" taking us down. Don't let that happen. It's complete bullshit to let that happen.

Hell, the reason I write blogs and share my ideas and do the podcast every day is because I believe in what I'm doing, and I feel good about sharing it with others...maybe inspiring a few people..At least, entertaining them.

I really don't give a $%#@ what anyone thinks...I put out what feels good. What's honest and a reflection of ME.

And that works. Took me a while to get there, but it really works well.

(George Farmer has a deep respect for nature, design, and listening to his own voice. And it shows in everything he does...)

And, I think, behind the philosophy,  I've been able to zero in on what I feel is the most important "technical" lesson to learn about aquascaping:

Did you see my earlier point about not being "finished" with our 'scapes? 

It's a tough one to overcome. I admit!

I used to have this problem...I always needed to place one more rock, one more iteration of the finishing piece of last plant. It was hard to stop sometimes. I had to battle myself.  I couldn't stop "iterating" or, more colloquially, "tweaking" the goddam thing...

Part of it was probably this "tug of war" in my head that told me, "It's good. Just stop..." and, "...If you'd just move that piece of wood over a few more!" 

Yeah, that was a distraction for sure. I'm 100% certain that I ruined a lot of scapes with that thinking, too!

And there are always distractions in our head when we executer aquascapes and aquariums, regardless of if they are "top of mind", or just occupying a space somewhere in our heads...

I think one of those "distractions" is the fact that all of those cool 'scapes that we see online in pics from aquascaping competitions are "evolved" or "finished" products, either ones which are the result of many "iterations" by the 'scape, or ones that are long-established- which a human started and Nature took over.


Yet we don't see that from the pics. We don't see the struggle; the work...We see this "finished product" and think to ourselves, "Keep going."

Sometimes, it's actually best to tell ourselves, "Walk away."

Sometimes, it's about nailing the concept in your head, and simply having the confidence to acknowledge that you arrived...and that you don't need to do any more to the tank. This was never more evident than when I went "hardscape negative" and executed leaf-litter-only aquariums. These tanks really test your commitment to the idea. As an aquarist, your instinct is to tweak. As a lover of the habitat, you know that you need to just walk away!

You're finished.

I know that my best aquascapes have always come from a place of being "done"- whether or not the scape could have used one more piece is not the point. The point is to put yourself in the state of mind that says, "Okay- let it breathe a bit. Bring life to it as it is, and see how it goes." Rather than the more common, "If I just tweak the direction of this stone a little bit to the left..."

Let it simply "breathe" a bit.

Restraint, like effort- is very important.

Yet, it's often overlooked in our quest to seek "perfection." Noble, but actually a form of self-sabotage, IMHO.

We need to learn to walk away. To know when to say "when."

(Johnny Ciotti. Heading his inner voice.)

The realization that the very best aquascapes are ones that start with a solid "foundation" of a good design, but require time, growth, and other natural processes to allow them to reach their full potential. This is a HUGE thing in our speciality niche of the hobby, isn't it?

Nature has been doing this for billions of years. Our intervention might be appreciated, but it's seldom "necessary" when it comes to aquascaping. The botanical systems that we love so much are the absolute embodiment of this...As soon as we finish, Nature takes the reins and completes the job. 

Yes, Nature does a lot of the real "heavy lifting" in our world...

What we have to do is set the stage. Giving Nature a platform to work with. Let it breathe. We're getting this. And it's leading to really interesting things, isn't it?

I think we're now starting to see a more realistic interpretation of Nature in our aquariums than ever before. A desire to represent Nature as it really is, not just as we idealize it. This, in my opinion, has "leveled the playing field" just a bit. I believe that it's entirely possible for a so-called "average" aquascaper (sigh...) with a work ethic, a deep understanding of his/her subject, access to proper materials, and a "prototype" in mind, to create a 'scape that both inspires and enthralls, while working with Nature to the fullest extent possible.

The rise of what I call the "soul scaper"- a hobbyist who sees the world as it is and brings it to life accordingly, will add yet another element of achievement to the state of the art of aquasaping. I think that, once contest judges and those who seem to be the "guardians of style" in the aquascaping contest world recognize that interpreting nature realistically and letting it breathe-knowing "when to say when"- requires as much talent and work as it does to create fanciful, highly stylized takes on the natural world, then we'll see the next evolution in aquascaping.

Now, I'm not talking about militant, "100% authentically-biotope-perfect" aquariums, either...I'm talking about systems that represent the natural world both functionally and aesthetically, without the obsession that every stick or grain of sand be absolutely tied to a specific locale we're representing.

Everyone will win. Most important, the natural world. 

Because we'll be looking at it in a different way. An authentic way.

We'll be trying to understand as hobbyists, just why Nature looks the way it does. How it functions. What processes occur to keep it functioning. We'll see subtleties. We'll understand the external influences, and environmental pressures which man has placed upon the fragile and priceless aquatic ecosystems of the world.

The old adage about people "protecting what they love" will take on an even greater significance. Embracing aquascapes as functional AND aesthetic representations of the real aquatic habitats of the world will give us a greater appreciation for them, and an even greater desire to protect them and share the challenges they face with those not familiar with our hobby.

Truly a win for all.

And, as for you- the aquascaper simply wanting to do great work, have fun and share with others?

Where does this leave you?

It leaves you in a position to bring beauty into the world in ways never thought possible before in the hobby.

And, if you feel "stuck?"

Thinking you need one more wood or leaves, or whatever?

Walk away for a bit; let Nature have at it.

She'll do what's right, just as surely as the sun rises or the tide returns. When you work with Nature instead of trying to circumvent her, the results are more amazing than you could have ever envisioned...

Learn this. Embrace this. 

I think you'll be a happier, more fulfilled aquascaper/aquarist as a result. Call it "wabi sabi", "evolution", or "transience"- whatever.

But embrace it. 

And savor your work. The experience. The process. The satisfaction. Listen to your own voice...and interpret Nature's lessons.

See where they take you.

You might just like it.

You've got this.

Stay passionate. Stay hungry. Stay inspired. Stay strong. Stay creative...

And Stay Wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics




Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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