"Permission" to evolve?

I don't know about you, but I've had this unwritten rule about keeping an aquarium for an indefinite period of time without breaking it down. Like, "You have to keep a tank going as long as possible..." Like, if I broke down a tank after less than a couple of years, it was considered a shameful act of failure!

I've always worn this "stick to it" attitude as a sort of "badge of honor"- you know, this idea that I'm some how cool because I resist the temptation to break down my tanks after a few months or whatever.  I would laugh at those famous aquascaping people that seemed to tear down their tanks after just a few months.

"I was Above the fray", right?

What a dummy I was!

And of course, after starting Tannin Aquatics in 2015, I realized that, in order to "spread the gospel" about this emerging botanical method thing, I needed to show a lot of tanks. And of course, that means one of three things: Either I needed to set up a lot of new aquariums myself, recruit a lot of fellow hobbyists to create and share botanical method aquariums, or...I could "iterate" my existing tanks more frequently.


Now, of course, all three are pretty good ways to help accomplish this.  Fortunately, a lot of excited and dedicated fellow hobbyists- you guys- have shared their work on these very pages over the years. Yet, the third idea- frequently changing up my existing tanks- ends up being a very practical (and let's face it, fun) way to show a lot of new looks and share some ideas. 

And the cool thing is that there are actually a number of really cool ways to "evolve" existing tanks and to keep the "ecology" intact while changing up the "look and feel."

And, think about it: This isn't all that different than what happens when a stream overflows and forms a new small tributary. Some of the materials from the established aquatic ecosystem flow into the newly-inundated area, bringing with them their "on-board" population of microorganisms, fungi, and insects.

Nothing's ever wasted, right?

This isn't exactly earth-shattering, I know, but it's worth thinking about vis-a vis our aquarium work. 

And, as we've discussed many times, the same sort of concept applies when you're "remodeling" an existing aquarium; perhaps switching up from say, a "South American theme" to an "African theme", or whatever.

So yeah, I'll literally transfer a fair percentage of the "software" from an existing tank into the new one. The rationale is exactly the same as the rationale for using sand from an established tank which has been practiced for generations in the hobby. And, as you probably recall, fungal growths and bacterial biofilms are also extremely valuable as food sources for life forms at many levels, including fishes.

The growth of these organisms is powered by...decomposing leaf litter! 

And the idea of adding "pre-colonized" materials from existing tanks to help "jump start" a new tank is simply a logical and economical practice. Having a big chunk of completely-established ecology transferred from one tank to another is almost too easy a process not to take advantage of!

This is similar to the Japanese aquascaping practice of "sozo haishoku" espoused by the "Master" of this in aquariums, the late Takashi Amano. This is the processs of removing of as much old substrate material as possible along with the plants it contains in an aquarium, and replacing them with new materials.

It preserves the overall "composition" of the layout, but the "softscape" (botanicals and leaves, in our case) could change dramatically. In our botanical method aquariums, it's a little different, but the idea behind it is essentially the same.


Yeah, in the world of the botanical-method aquarium, the idea of leaving the substrate and leaf litter/botanical "bed" intact as you "remodel" isn't exactly a crazy one. It's about preserving ecology over time, and despite changes.

And conceptually, once again, it sort of replicates what occurs in Nature, doesn't it?

Yeah, think about this for just a second.

As we almost constantly discuss, habitats like flooded forests, meadows, vernal pools, igarape, and swollen streams tend to encompass terrestrial habitats, or go through phases where they are terrestrial habitats for a good part of the year.

In these wild habitats, the leaves, branches, soils, and other botanical materials remain in place, or are added to by dynamic, seasonal processes. For the most part, the soil, branches, and a fair amount of the more "durable" seed pods and such remain present during both phases. 

Materials are utilized in the habitat continuously.

As the waters return, the formerly terrestrial physical environment is now transformed into an earthy, twisted, incredibly rich aquatic habitat, which fishes have evolved over eons to live in and utilize for food, protection, and complex, protected spawning areas. 

All of the botanical material-shrubs, grasses, fallen leaves, branches, seed pods, and such, is suddenly submerged; often, currents re-distribute the leaves and seed pods and branches into little pockets and "stands", affecting the (now underwater) "topography" of the landscape.

It's all an elaborate dance, choreographed by Nature, encompassing numerous organisms, each filling a specialized role in the aquatic environment.

So yeah, you can embrace this natural process and attempt to embrace it by evolving your tanks by leaving some of the stuff intact.

Now, this doesn't mean that I guarantee a perfect, "cycle-free" process for you.  I'd be a complete asshole if I asserted that! Every system is different. There are numerous factors which impact the unique functions of a specific tank.

And you can't simply expect instant results, right?

Transferring a good compliment of material to an otherwise brand-new tank isn't going to fool Nature.

On the other hand, in an existing tank, by leaving the bulk of the substrate material and botanicals intact, and continuing to provide "fuel" for the extant biotia by leaving in and adding to the botanicals present in the aquarium, this lack of a "new" cycle makes a lot of sense.


Botanical-method systems are, in my opinion, more robust than they are vulnerable.

I believe that our botanical-method systems, with their diverse and dynamic biology, rebound quickly from disruptions and changes. And I also believe that, because of our approach and it's reliance on biological processes, they establish themselves to a more "stable" state far more quickly than "typical" aquariums do.

Much like the natural systems they purport to represent!

And I also took advantage of the way botanical method aquariums lend themselves so well to this process- evolving them from one "version" to another with relative ease.

It's not a bad idea to evolve existing tanks.

That being said, the biggest hurdle to me has always been the psychological one. The "shame" that I assigned in my own mind if I simply broke down tanks and "recycled" them time and time again. That being said, I slowly (yeah, emphasis on slowly) came around to the idea that this is an effective way to demonstrate new ideas to our growing community.

And I believed then- and still do now- that the value of sharing new ideas, techniques, and information is far more important than any insecurities that I felt about succumbing to what seems like "impatience."

I've finally gotten myself to a more comfortable place after decades...



It's about technique, and evolving it.

And, by preserving the substrate and "refreshing" it a bit with some new materials (ie; sand, sediment, gravel, leaves, and botanicals), you're essentially mimicking some aspects of the way Nature functions in many wild habitats. And, from an aquarium "management" perspective, consider the substrate layer a living organism (or "collective" of living organisms, as it were), and you're sure to look at things a bit differently next time you "re-do" a tank!

Of course, perpetuating the substrate is almost like persuing "eternal youth"- it's not entirely possible to achieve, but you can embrace the idea of renewal and continuity within your aquarium.

The "mental stretches" that we talk about incessantly here are still occurring for me, years into this game. With each pic I see of the natural habitats we want to emulate, and every beautiful aquarium that I see come to life from our community, it's inspiring, interesting, and engaging. I'm seeing and experiencing new things, coming up with new ideas, and trying to understand and embrace the processes and aesthetics in a whole new light.

I am happy to see many of you doing the same. Evolving.

What do you have up next?

Stay motivated. Stay excited. Stay curious. Stay creative...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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