Extending boundaries, gaining knowledge...and losing attitudes...Musings on the botanical "frontier..."


I was chatting with a fellow hobbyist the other day, and we were kind of musing on the fact that, despite having very significant quantities of botanicals decaying away in our tanks, our nitrate and phosphate levels were essentially "undetectable" on aquarium hobby-level test kits. This is a phenomenon I've noticed for years and years- ever since I started playing with botanical-style, blackwater aquariums, and it always makes me curious. Hearing similar stories from many others REALLY makes me curious!

It hasn't always been this way, of course.

Over the years, I've had many aquarist friends tell me that I was in the process of creating "anaerobic death traps" and "ticking time bombs" by adding lots of leaves and botanicals to my aquariums, yet I never, ever had any issues over the long term with these types of systems. And when the first biofilms appeared, I remember a few of my fishy friends preparing their "I told you so" statements, not fully grasping what they were seeing in my tanks, and how this was not only natural, but normal and beneficial. Perception is important, too, as we'll discuss later.

Sure, you CAN create all sorts of problems for yourself by adding too many botanicals too fast to an established aquarium. We've visited that stuff before. We've had a few people who were a bit, shall we say,  "enthusiastic" about adding a lot of stuff to their tanks in a very short period of time, and created situations which left fishes gasping at the surface for oxygen while emergency water exchanges were conducted. It's probably the one constant hazard that awaits the neophyte "tinter" who goes too fast...However, you do this once and you won't make the mistake again! Closed biological systems can only handle some much input.

For that matter, there are limitations to what you can do in any closed system.

We are in a very experimental phase in the blackwater/botanical-style aquarium arena, and we will no doubt find out more potential problems as more and more aquarists push the limits further and further. I think the next big "discoveries" will come as more and more adventurous hobbyists begin working with lower pH systems. We'll no doubt find out more about the organisms known as archaea and how they function to "run" the nitrogen cycle in low pH aquariums. For purposes of our community, I describe "low pH systems" as those which operate under 6.0 pH. Yes, I know that in nature, some blackwater systems have pH readings in the mid threes or lower, but 5.2-5.5 is pretty exotic for a lot of us! 

I don't necessarily think that there is anything inherently "scary" or "dangerous" about playing in the lower pH range, if we are meticulous at testing and observation, and understand that there are different reactions and mechanisms in play when the pH levels are lower. I mean, I get that it's scary compared to what we know, and that the lower pH realm is full of many unknowns to the aquarium world- but is operating a low pH aquarium any more scary than say, running a reef tank or speciality Rift Lake cichlid tank, with their specific chemical/pH/alkalinity parameters? Or keeping Asian Arowannas, etc?

No. It's just something we don't have a lot of collective experience with. We need to learn the rules. And to me, it seems like on a macro scale, every time the hobby looks at something like this; something not previously attempted- perhaps even something a bit out of the ordinary- that we have been almost "conditioned" to turn away in fear, and some senior members of our "tribe" often slam the door on even contemplating working in such areas as "dangerous", "reckless", "foolhardy", "bound to fail", etc., etc.  I've seen people on forums get completely pounded for all sorts of "heretical" thinking by "experienced" hobbyists- many who have never been attempted the very thing that is being discussed and criticism levied against. (damn funny, IMHO)

This sucks.

Now, I'd love to call bullshit on my own theory and say that I'm exaggerating this cultural tendency to turn away from some unexplored territories, but 4 decades of seeing this mindset in this hobby gives me the confidence I need to stand by my assertion. To summarize: In my humble opinion, the hobby in general, often tends to flat out dismiss anything which is not consistent with the "tried and true" as being  "wrong."

Now, I know some will disagree, and tell me I'm dwelling on the negative, exaggerating, etc. Yet, I don't think so. I saw and heard this kind of stuff constantly when I was starting out as a reefer back in the mid-eighties, and again when I started Tannin a few years back. Pushing, proferring, and working on ideas that are a little different can be scary for some. But it's so unnecessary! We need to uplift everyone to remove the metaphorical "shackles" of groupthink and close-mindedness so that we can get all sorts of incredibly smart people working together on pushing the boundaries of modern aquaristics!

Okay, I went off on a bit of a rant there about attitude- but this is a very, very important consideration when discussing some of these ideas which seem to dwell out on the "fringes" of the aquarium world. The attitudes we apply- and face from fellow hobbyists-need to be addressed if we are to move beyond what we've known for years and years as "The Way" to do stuff in the aquarium hobby. Mindset shifts are something which our community does very well- and  I think that we'd be advised to "infect" the greater hobby community with our attitudes on this stuff.

Back to the nitrate/phosphate thing- These numbers never seem to deviate much. I hear this from many in our community- so many, in fact, that I think that we've got something here...I think this is something that is actually quite remarkable. I mean, think about it- Many of us have set up systems with really huge amounts of leaves and botanicals from day one, and see no significant levels of these compounds. 

Now, I am sure I'll receive 8 emails the minute this blog goes up, begging to differ, and citing the 50ppm nitrate in their systems or whatever, but I find it very interesting that we don't see long-term trends upwards. Okay, at least many of the people I correspond with regularly don't. The commonality is that we gradually add botanicals, conduct regular water exchanges, don't overcrowd our tanks, and replenish/replace botanicals as needed. The other interesting commonality is that most of us seem to leave the botanicals in our systems until they fully decompose. Is this a key? Not sure, but it was something I noticed that is at least worth investigating.

I think the whole point of this little jaunt today was to get us all to keep exploring how our botanical-style systems operate.To question the results we are getting (good or bad) and to try to work out more and more "best practices" or "recipes" (okay, maybe "roadmaps" is a better term) for other hobbyists to follow to replicate our success with these aquariums. By replicating, verifying, and sharing our discoveries, success, and failures, we can encourage others to experiment and help expand upon the theories and ideas we have. To contribute to the ever-growing body of knowledge about these compelling blackwater, botanical-style aquarium systems.

Stay bold. Stay resolute. Stay humble. Stay diligent. Stay disciplined. Stay enthusiastic!

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


1 Response

Gregg Martin
Gregg Martin

November 07, 2017

Well stated! I learned from that as well. I did not see it as a rant, rather, a slow down, a reaction based on testing and common sense.

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