"Plug and Play?" No Way!

With so much going on in our botanical-style aquarium world, it's nice to continue to revisit some of the important concepts that will yield success for the widest variety of hobbyists.

Now, let's be clear: There is no "plug and play" formula to follow- only "procedure." Only recommendations for how to approach things. We sound a bit like the proverbial "broken record"; however, like so many things in aquarium-keeping, our "best practices" are few, simple and need to be repeated until they simply become habit:

1) Prepare all botanicals prior to adding them to your aquarium. 

2) Add botanical materials slowly and gradually, assessing the impact on your aquarium environments and inhabitants.

3) Either remove botanical materials as they break down (if that's your aesthetic preference), or replace them when they reach a point where they are no longer providing the aesthetic and environmental conditions that you desire.

4) Observe your aquarium continuously.

By observing and assessing on a continuous basis, you'll get a real feel for how botanicals work in your aquarium.  Point #3 is the real "finesse" part of the equation...the nuance, the subtle, yet noticeable adjustments and corrections we make to keep things moving along nominally- sort of like pruning in a planted tank, or weeding a garden...it's a process.

In fact, the entire experience of a blackwater, botanical-style aquarium boils down to a process and a pace that helps foster the gradual, yet inexorable "evolution" of the aquarium. And let there be no doubt- a botanical-style aquarium does "evolve" over time, regularly and steadily changing and progressing. As we've mentioned before, it might be the perfect expression of the Japanese concept of "wabi-sabi", popularized by Takashi Amano, which is the acceptance of transience and imperfection.

And the patience to allow your system to evolve. It's absolutely the most essential skill to have if you're going to work with botanical-style aquariums. Period. There are no shortcuts, major "hacks", or ways to dramatically speed up nature. Why would you want to? 

If you're into tropical fish keeping, it's almost a necessity to have this sort of patience, isn't it? I mean, sure, some of us are anxious to get that aquascape done, get the fishes in there, fire up the plumbing in the fish room, etc. However, we all seem to understand that to get truly good results- satisfying, legitimate results- things just take time.

I'm sure that you know this already, however. I hate using myself as an example, but I think perhaps reflecting upon how I adopted this mindset might be helpful.

I know that this mindset of crazy patience came to me over time. It was an evolving thing. I think that in my case, it might have come about because, when you’re a kid, you have a 10-gallon tank and like $5.67 in change that you’ve painstakingly saved for months to spend. You need to be absolutely sure of your purchases.

I was. I had no choice but to be very thorough! No sense in rushing things.

This mindset has stayed with me for decades.

I'm not looking for instant gratification.

I know that good stuff often takes time to happen. I'm certainly not afraid to wait for results. Well, not to "just sit around" in the literal sense, mind you. However, I'm not expecting instant results from stuff. Rather, I am okay with doing the necessary groundwork, nurturing the project along, and seeing the results happen over time.

A "long game." 

That's what we play here.

And understanding that what we do in the blackwater, botanical-style aquarium world requires these skills above almost anything else. I mean, look at what we do: We add leaves and seed pods to our aquariums, for the expressed purpose of having them break down.

We all know that aquariums with high quantities of organic materials breaking down in the water column add to the biological load of the tank, requiring diligent management. This is not shocking news. Frankly, I find it rather amusing when someone tells me that what we do as a community is "reckless", and that our tanks look "dirty." 

As if we don't see that or understand why...

Mental shifts are required from everyone who plays in this arena.

Now, of course, an aquarium is not an open, natural system, yet if well-managed, it can function beautifully for years and years, like any other approach.

For some reason, when we first started touting this approach (NO, we did not "invent" it- and will never claim that! NO ONE did.)

There are really two huge factors that have been touted as the reason for not doing what we are doing over the years: One is based on the prevailing mindset of what the hobby thinks a tank should look like, and the is other based on a perception that there is a negative the environmental impact on a "carefully constructed aquarium environment." Both are valid points, I suppose- although the comical part to me is the automatic assumption that we're not working with "carefully constructed aquatic environments" here.

Why? Because the water is...brown? Because we throw leaves and twigs and botanicals into our tanks and sort of eschew the artificially rigid style that is so many people's perception of what aquascaping is?


After years of experimenting with leaves, botanicals, and other natural materials in aquariums, and with a growing global community of hobbyists doing the same daily, the mental roadblocks to this approach arestarting to fall. We're seeing all sorts of tanks being created by all sorts of hobbyists, which in years past would garner far more hushed whispers and criticisms than any gasps of envy.

And again, it boils down to observing many basic tenants of aquarium keeping.

Now, the moniker "organics" that we have used as a metaphoric "red flag" to discourage throwing this stuff into tanks in years past is still important to understand. Sure, organics can accumulate and even be problematic- if you don't have necessary control and export processes in place to deal with them. What would these processes be?

Well, to start with: Decent water movement and filtration, to physically remove any debris. Use of some chemical filtration media, such as organic scavenger resins, which tend not to remove the "tint", but act upon specific compounds, like nitrate, phosphate, etc.

And of course, water exchanges. Yeah, the centuries old, tried-and-true process of exchanging water is probably the single most important aspect of nutrient control and export for any system, traditional, botanical, etc. There is no substitute for diluting organic impurities through regularly-scheduled water changes, IMHO.

This isn't some revelation.

I'll say it yet again: In my experience, there is nothing inherently more challenging or more dangerous about these types of tanks than there is with any other speciality system. The fact that the water is brown doesn't mean that a well-managed tank is any closer to disaster than any well-managed clear water system.

There's no magic here.

We simply need to do the work necessary to keep our aquariums operating in a healthy state. Nope, nothing new here. In my opinion, NO aquarium of ANY type is "set and forget"; do that and you'll be in for a rude awakening with a blackwater, botanical-style tank- or any tank. You can't really take that approach in this hobby, IMHO.

That being said, I commend many of you for forging ahead with new ideas and this approach that might not be familiar to you. Moving from the theoretical to the functional takes some courage, imagination, and most of all..impulse. When it comes to trying out exotic new concept aquariums, guys like me (as you all know by now) just need to get the damn thing started and stop musing on about it.

Others go full speed ahead...damn the torpedoes! Regardless, self-awareness is important! I think it's in my nature to get a bit too deep into the planning. The challenge for me is not to get so bogged down in an endless cycle of "analysis paralysis" that I never get projects off of the drawing board!

Don't get into this rut, okay? Understand what's involved, what's required of you as a hobbyist, and move forward. Just remember a few things:

It's not a "plug-and-play" proposition. It requires some effort, thought, observation, and patience...

So, yeah...I'm glad you're here. Glad you made that mental shift...and have the courage to try something that might be new for you!

Enjoy. Learn. Practice. Explore. Share.

Stay bold. Stay creative. Stay relentless. Stay undeterred. Stay dedicated...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


Leave a comment