Mentally shifted.

Lately, I've been sharing a lot of pics of some of our more esoteric, unconventional aquariums on our social media feeds.

Interestingly, the response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive; like, almost every response is kind of "Cool, I love that!" or, "I really want to do a tank like that!" These responses are so different from what we would see a few years back, when the typical response to a pic like that was literally, "That tank looks dirty." or (my fave) "Is that the before shot of a re-scape?"

Yet, there is still some concern, hesitation- or whatever you want to call it, about setting up an aquarium with a huge amount of leaves and seed pods and stuff. I totally understand why; Adding all sorts of biological material to an aquarium requires a population of organisms in place to process it.

We've talked extensively about what happens in Nature (and in our tanks, really) when leaves and botanicals are added to water. However, no amount of me explaining that a community of life forms will process them (if you let them) will make some people feel comfortable about the idea.

The biggest mental shift that we have to make in this hobby specialty is to understand that the leaves, seed pods, etc. are not just aquascaping "set pieces", put in play to achieve a "look." Rather, that they are a functional part of the aquarium's environment, hosting a myriad of life forms which drive the ecology of the tank. In essence, they're part of the "operating system" that is essential for successful long-term function of the botanical-style aquarium.

It's tough to get this point across sometimes. We're so immediately attracted to the look of these aquariums that we can easily lose sight of the fact that the look is the by-product of the function. I receive so many emails and DM's from hobbyists new to the botanical "game", asking if they should "scrape off" the "gunk" that is showing up on their leaves and seed pods that I think this is a real "thing" that we as a community need to discuss again and again and again.

The idea is NOT to remove this stuff. It's NOT to siphon out the decomposing materials. It's about letting Nature take some of the control. It's about understanding what these things are, and when they mean to your aquarium's ecosystem.

The interactions between water and land are something we've thought about and discussed fairly often here in "The Tint", and it's a topic which continues to hold my fascination. A lot of the research I did before I started my brackish water aquarium centered upon this land/water interaction and the flora and fauna that exist there. 

I promise that I won't get into the intimate details of biofilm and fungal growth again! However, I want to stress that these are the organisms that you want! In fact, the whole point of a botanical-style approach is to recruit a population of microorganisms to support the aquarium ecosystem that you've created.

This is a dynamic, fascinating process- part of why we find the idea of a natural, botanical-style system so compelling.

Many of the organisms- from microbes to micro crustaceans to fungi- are almost never seen except by the most observant and keen-eyed hobbyist...but they're there- doing what they've done for eons. They work slowly and methodically over weeks and months, converting the botanical material into forms that are more readily assimilated by themselves and other aquatic organisms.

When I start a botanical-style aquarium, I goin knowing that's going to be a while before I see the first fishes swimming around in there. The idea is- always- to create the "microbiome" and "jump start" the ecology of the aquarium before adding any higher organisms to the tank.

Part of the process is creating a rich substrate, as we've touched upon previously. To me, the substrate is where all the action is! A lot goes on down there, all of which benefits the aquarium in many ways: Chemically, biologically, and physically. 

I almost always use (okay, this is going to sound like a sales pitch for "NatureBase" sedimented be it...) sedimented substrates, either exclusively, or as a significant percentage of- my "standard go-to" substrates (Usually CaribSea "Sunset Gold" or "Torpedo Beach" sand), along with small leaves, or bits of leaves, and some of the tiniest "Bits and Pieces" (roots and twigs)- the really small ones that you guys complain about when we send them, btw😆. 


This process literally "spikes" the substrate with all sorts of beneficial life forms, and enables fungal growth and bacterial biofilms to really get going early on. A lot of hobbyists will ask me how my 2 to 3 day old tanks look so "broken in"-I tell them that it's because of this process.

Life flourishes very quickly- if you let it!


Now, the idea of mixing in bits of leaves and other materials which can decompose into the substrate flat-out scares the shit out of many hobbyists. I get it. We've been told to keep squeaky-clean substrates for generations. However, I think that's in the context of feeding, stocking, and general maintenance. There is a difference when the whole goal of deliberately adding stuff to the substrates is to facilitate a growth in beneficial microfauna populations!

In my experience, and in the reported experiences from numerous fellow aquarists who stock and allow botanical materials tp break down in and on their aquariums' substrates, undetectable nitrate and phosphate levels are typical for this kind of system. When combined with good overall husbandry, it makes for incredibly stable systems.


And then there's that who part about running an aquarium without fishes for a period of time. This is tough for a lot of people. I think the tolerance for this- the patience- is an absolute by-product of my approach to reef aquarium keeping. It's sort of like "fishes cycling", but with the added goal and collateral benefit of helping develop the aquarium's ecology simultaneously. 

By the time the fishes are added to the new tank, it's a stable, well-developed little ecosystem. Sure, it will continue to evolve over time, and you need to add fishes slowly and engage in all of the usual new-tank protocols and husbandry details, but it's surprisingly easy to do.

The hard part is being patient.

Making that mental shift which allows you to wait a month before adding fishes is challenging for many. Yet, during that time, you're able to watch a progression of life forms developing and flourishing, and the whole ecosystem literally coming alive.

There is something incredibly gratifying about this process.

Always remember, the aquarium itself is an ecosystem of sorts, with various inputs, trophic levels, and export mechanisms. When we set up our aquariums from "day one" to evolve as functional ecosystems, rather than just for pure aesthetics, a whole new world opens up!

Replicating the function of Nature creates some unorthodox aesthetics. However, the beauty in the details of these wild habitats is readily apparent when we make the effort to understand them on a deeper level.

And the whole "It starts at the Bottom!" mantra that I keep preaching here is really important! Just tell yourself over and over again that substrate is not just a "thing" you toss on the bottom of the tank, or some strictly decorative product. Rather, it's a habitat- a place where the extraordinary organisms which comprise the microbiome of our aquariums- reside and multiply. 

Now, one thing that's unique about the botanical-style approach is that we tend to accept the idea of decomposing materials accumulating in and among the substrates within our aquariums.

We understand that botanical materials in the substrate act, to a certain extent, as "fuel" for the micro and macrofauna which reside in the aquarium, and that they perform this function as long as they are present in the system.


So, yeah, in summary- the aquarium substrate itself- just liek in Nature- plays a huge role in the function of a botanical-style aquarium. We can create a "facility" with substrate materials which provides not only unique aesthetics- it provides priceless benefits: Production of supplemental nutrition for our fishes, and nutrient processing via a self-generating population of creatures that compliment, indeed, create the biodiversity in our systems on a more-or-less continuous basis.

True "functional aesthetics!"

Are you ready to start a new tank? Can you wait a bit before adding fishes? Are you "mentally shifted?"

I'll bet that you are!

Stay motivated. Stay inspired. Stay observant. Stay patient...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 




Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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