Letting go, intentionally?

One of the cool things about being in the aquarium hobby for most of your life is that you can look back at periods of time and consider the relative merits of some of the stuff you've done over the years.

As a lifelong hobbyist, I've personally been through periods of time when I couldn't devote as much time  to my beloved fish tanks...Yet I always had one- fresh, salt, or otherwise. It's just not "home" unless you hear the reassuring popping of bubbles, whirring of pumps, and see the beautiful reflections caused by the interplay of light and moving water.

Of course, there were a number of times that, for one reason or another, I simply let the tanks "run themselves", save an occasional water change or filter media cleaning, and of course, regular feeding (that consisted of tossing in a few flakes or pellets, or whatever was on hand at the time).

You know, Mother Nature in control!

A particularly fond memory of this type of  "practice" comes from my high school years, when I was seriously into breeding killies (in addition to keeping saltwater, cichlids, tetras, and of course, the usual high school pursuits of girls, sports, and socializing). As a junior AKA member, I obtained a group of the classic "beginner's killie", Epiplatys dageti Monroviae, and was determined to breed them. (Not that this was a "difficult" task, but hey, I was like 15...)

Of course, killies in general have a reputation for being just a bit of a challenge, requiring careful care, feeding, and a fair measure of patience. As a busy kid, I had little patience (although more than the average high school guy- after all, I was a fish geek!), so I was delighted to learn that these fishes were thought to fare better in "permanent" and "natural" setups (fish geek code for "set and forget", IMHO).

So of course, I thought that this species was a perfect fish for my busy lifestyle at the time!

I ultimately ended up with a pretty stable population of around 12-15 individuals, in a tank I "maintained" for around 3-4 years. Ironically, the difficulties started when I had the time to really get into "taking care" of the fishes, and took more initiative and control of the breeding. Of course, that's when I was never quite as successful, lol. (More of an indictment of my lack of skill, rather than any inherent issues with the fish!😂)

It's that age-old argument that hobbyists have about hands on vs. hands off approaches.

With our heavy emphasis on utilizing natural botanical materials in our aquairums, I can't help but think about the long-term of their function and health. Specifically, the changes that they go through as they evolve into little microcosms.

Now, we're all about diligent, thoughtful maintenance of our aquariums, right? I mean, we spend a lot of time, money, and energy equipping our tanks with suitable gear, embracing excellent husbandry practices, and just stay on top of everything, in general.

That's part of being an engaged, responsible fish geek, right?

So, what happens to our tanks if we sort of "let them go" a bit? Especially, a botanical-style blackwater aquarium with a "deep leaf litter bed" or lots of botanicals? Let's say that we stop doing weekly water exchanges and slip to say, once a month. Let's say all we're doing is topping off for evaporation during that time period, feeding fishes; that's about it.

What will happen?

Now, think about it...There really is no "right" or "wrong" answer here. It's all about how much you enjoy what happens in Nature versus what you can control in your tank.

Will all of the botanical material continue to break down, keeping the water "tinted?" Will biofilms continue to colonize open surfaces? Will water chemistry swing wildly?  Will phosphate and nitrate accumulate rapidly? Will the aquarium descend into chaos?

How much more will things change by simply delaying water exchanges for several weeks? By not siphoning detritus at all? Will this really become some sort of problem? Or, will the bacteria, fungal growths, and other microorganisms and crustacean life living in our botanical substrates continue to do what they do- break down organic waste and reproduce?

Remember, we talk so much about the idea a botanical-style aquarium acting like a small ecosystem

I can't help but wonder if a botanical-style blackwater aquarium can better handle a period of "benign neglect" than many typical systems...Not that I'd want to do this, mind you... I'm a fairly diligent maintenance guy. I like my weekly water exchanges. But I can't help but share how...nominally these systems act when we let "Nature take it's course" for a while.

Yeah, really. 

In test systems where I intentionally "neglected" them by conducting sporadic water exchanges, once I hit my preferred "population" of botanicals (by building them up gradually), I have never noticed significant phosphate or nitrate increases that could be attributed to their presence. Those biological "yardsticks" for water quality are pretty significant, IMHO.

It's also important to consider that the breakdown of botanical materials, if left in your system, can be utilized by animals and plants. Yep, this is particularly important in the context of planted botanical-style/blackwater aquariums! 

Allowing plants, fishes, shrimp, and bacteria the chance to utilize the decomposing botanicals in their life cycle is an important part of the game, IMHO. Being overly fastidious about siphoning out every speck of dirt or botanical material as it breaks down is "overkill", in my opinion, and can be just as detrimental as under-doing things. 

Nature strikes a balance. Nature thrives on efficiency. When you're adding botanicals to a tank, you're not just doing "aquascaping"- you're laying down the groundwork for the "biological operating system" of your aquarium. As such, you need to think "big picture" here. (That "functional aesthetics" thing again!)

If you think about it, these materials also function as a substrate- a "fuel", of sorts, for the growth of beneficial bacteria, biofilms, and other microorganisms within the aquarium. In my opinion and experience, when added gradually and methodically, you can look at all of this stuff as the biological "power station" for your tank, supporting a population of organisms which serve to break down more toxic compounds and substances via the nitrogen cycle.

I personally think it's sort of analogous to the use of live rock in a reef aquarium. Live rock is considered an essential component of a reef aquarium, because it serves as that aforementioned "biological filtration substrate" for the colonization of billions of nitrifying bacteria. This is something I'd like to see some more serious research on, because I think that there's "something" there.

I have no idea what put me on this course, but I'm still pre-occupied with the idea of tanks run amok...sort of..

I think it's a matter of how you look at it.

To "let things go" to some extent is simply considered "bad technique" or "laziness" on the part of the owner by most hobbyists.

Laziness? In what way? A  plant did so well that it grew to massive proportions, and took over a tank because it was- well, happy. And we call it laziness? Someone did something-provided some means-for the life forms to grow like they did.

I'd say that's doing something right!

Really, I kind of think it's symbolic of success, in some fashion. I mean, you've got a plant- or groups of 'em- that are so happy that they are literally growing into...a "jungle."

Why is this a bad thing? Is it because it's not healthy for the life forms residing in it? Is it bad because we didn't apply some sort of manicuring or "control" to it? Or, is it because we somehow feel it represents a "rejection" of the accepted notion of "how to do things?"

Planted aquariums and botanical-style aquariums have a lot in common, I think. I believe that both types of aquariums are quite capable of "operating themselves" for periods of time. I've been thinking about this a lot lately.

Again, I don't offer up this idea as an invitation to neglect your aquairums. Rather, I share this as a sort of testament to the remarkable elegance and durability of well-thought-out aquariums to function adeptly as miniature closed ecosystems. It's part of my larger philosophy of planning and constructing our aquariums to facilitate natural biological functions...I don't usually say this, but I think taking that mindset is THE best approach to aquarium keeping.

There are many ways to set up an aquarium to operate successfully as a miniature ecosystem. Many planted aquarium hobbyists have knowingly or perhaps unknowingly been doing this for a long time. 

With botanical-style systems, I believe that we can replicate, at least on a basic level, the natural process of the creation of "food webs."

It's an idea that we have played with before on the botanical-style aquarium "front." If you recall, last year, we constructed an aquarium in which the entire "structure" consisted of about a 1.5" (3.81cm) bed of Live Oak leaf litter, a few Oak twigs...and that was it. A fine sprinkling of sand (like .25"/0.635cm) covered the very bottom of the aquarium. I know, I share this tank a lot, because it's such an affirmation of this "biologically rich" approach.
I selected the Live Oak leaf litter because it is one of the more "diverse" leaf products we work with- it contains bits of other terrestrial soils, dried mosses, small twigs, and even other types of small leaves. This makes it a very fertile "media" upon which to build an active, dynamic aquatic ecosystem in the aquarium. You could just as easily use Red Mangrove, Jackfruit, etc. 

Much like in Nature, if properly conceived and populated with an initial population of live food sources, or set up to facilitate the proliferation of these natural food resources, I believe that an aquarium can be configured to create a productive, biologically-sustainable system, requiring little to no supplemental food input on the part of the aquarist to function successfully for extended periods of time.

Of course, it is significantly different than a natural, fully-open system in many ways. And this is not a "revolutionary" statement or pronunciation, or some "breakthrough" in the art of aquarium keeping.


It is just an idea that- like so many we encourage here- replicates some aspects of natural aquatic systems.

The real the key here is that pace- and an understanding that the materials that we add need to be added-and replaced- at a pace that makes sense for your specific system. An understanding that you'll have a front row seat to the natural processes of decomposition, transformation, decay...and accepting that they are part of the beauty of this style of aquarium, just like they are in Nature.


The natural, botanical-style aquarium is so interesting to me because it offers enormous opportunity to execute aquariums based on the function of natural habitats- functions which, although they may look different than anything we've ever done before, may just unlock the keys to many new aquarium discoveries.
And it just takes a little bit of "letting go." Letting go of rigid preconceptions. Letting go of fears about "what if?" scenarios. Letting go of control of every aspect of operating our aquariums...


Incorporating and embracing all of these elements into our botanical-style aquarium "practice" is foundational, IMHO. Yeah, it's indicative of another "mental shift" we have to make, I suppose...one which many of you have already made, no doubt.

Let go. A little.

Stay bold. Stay observant. Stay creative. Stay engaged. Stay relaxed...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 



Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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