Question everything?

We straddle a line in the botanical-style aquarium world. It involves tradeoffs, understanding, and accepting different ideas than we've previously done. 

And, as I've discussed many times here, it's about making those mental shifts to accept both the benefits and beauty of some of the processes which Nature utilizes to manage its ecosystems. Like decomposition, additions of materials, and exchanges of water. 

It's about questioning why some things in the hobby are "taboo", and others aren't.

Some of the processes and products of the processes, specifically, have been, IMHO, unfairly vilified by the hobby for many years.

Like our old friend, detritus.

I think detritus has been so maligned as a “bad” thing in the hobby, that we have collectively overlooked its benefits to the organisms and overall closed ecosystems we create.

We need to question our attitude about this stuff.

And of course, we have those age-old "rules" of the aquarium hobby; guidelines and "best practices" passed on by our hobby forefathers. Time-honored traditions of aquarium management.

Conduct regular water exchanges. Stock your aquarium carefully. Feed precisely. Observe. Be habitual about these things. They're hammered into our heads from day one. 

Now, these are not necessarily bad things at all.

In fact, they're concepts which form the fundamentals of our hobby practices. Over the years, we've seen lots of hobbyists trying to develop workarounds to try to avoid stuff like water exchanges, etc., clearly trying to defy Nature- and we don't question these things all that much, right?

I think that rather than just trying to avoid the "rules" of aquarium keeping, we should question why they exist, what factors make them important, and how we can embrace some of the things Nature already does to accomplish them same things we work so hard to do- or avoid- by other means.

And further, we almost never see discussions about how Nature, if allowed to do some of its own "work", will help us manage and evolve systems with tremendous success. 

It's fine line that we need to walk. A line that straddles pushing against some natural processes while embracing others. 

Why doesn't it seem almost like an act of insurrection when we question stuff in the hobby that we've taken as "gospel" for generations?

Maybe it's because we haven't really thought much about this stuff, in terms of how it is actually beneficial, as opposed to detrimental. And how, despite it not being the most attractive thing in the world, that some of these things are beautiful, natural, and incredibly important to the function of our closed systems if we give them a chance.

It seems that we spend so much time resisting the appearance of some of this stuff based on how it looks, that it's not given a chance to display its "good side" for us. For those of us who play with botanical-style aquariums, resistance, as they say, is futile.

Let's face it:

As everyone knows, when you put terrestrial materials in water, one of four things seems to happen:

1) Nothing.

2) It starts to break down and decompose.

3) It gets covered in a gooey slime of algae, fungal growth, and "biofilm."

4) Both 2 and 3

Why is the appearance of this stuff "bad?" What has caused the mainstream of the hobby to freak out about these things for so long?

Yeah, seriously. We need to step back and question why.

Like biofilms, fungal growth, aufwuchs, and decomposition- is this stuff that is inevitable, natural- perhaps even beneficial in our aquariums? Is it something that we should learn to embrace and appreciate? All part of a natural process and yes- aesthetic- that we have to understand to appreciate? Have you ever tried rearing fry in a tank filled with decomposing leaves and biofilms?

Try it. Question it. Work with it. But try it. Don't just dismiss these things outright. Ask yourself why it for answers. There is a lot there. 

Let's think more on our "number one" mental shift subject: Biofilms.

Biofilms form when bacteria adhere to surfaces in some form of watery environment and begin to excrete a slimy, gluelike substance, consisting of sugars and other substances, that can stick to all kinds of materials, such as- well- in our case, botanicals.

It starts with a few bacteria, taking advantage of the abundant and comfy surface area that leaves, seed pods, and even driftwood offer. The "early adapters" put out the "welcome mat" for other bacteria by providing more diverse adhesion sites, such as a matrix of sugars that holds the biofilm together.

Since some bacteria species are incapable of attaching to a surface on their own, they often anchor themselves to the matrix, or directly to their friends who arrived at the party first.

Sorta sounds like Facebook, huh?

(The above graphic from a scholarly article illustrates just how these guys roll.)

And we could go on and on all day telling you that this is a completely natural occurrence; bacteria and other microorganisms taking advantage of a perfect substrate upon which to grow and reproduce, just like in the wild. Freshly added botanicals offer a "mother load"of organic material for these biofilms to propagate, and that's occasionally what happens - just like in Nature.  

Yet it does, so we will! :)

The real positive takeaway here: Biofilms are really a sign that things are working right in your aquarium! A "visual indicator" that natural processes are at work.

Yet, understandably, it may not make some of you feel good.

However, it should.

Push Research. There is a shockingly large amount of scholarly information out there on these very topics...way more, and way more detailed than what we provide here in "The Tint." It's a bit harder to digest, I admit...but the information is there for the gleaning, if you want to.

And I believe that, once you ask these questions, and make those mental shifts to accepting stuff that formerly frightened or repulsed you- it opens you up to a world of possibilities in this hobby.

The botanical-style aquarium that we play with is perhaps the first of it's kind in the hobby to really say, "Hey, this is just like Nature! It's not that bad!" And to make us think, "Perhaps there is a benefit to all of this?"

I think we're starting to see a new emergence of a more "holistic" approach to aquarium keeping...a realization that we've done amazing things so far, keeping fishes and plants in a glass or acrylic box with applied technique and superior husbandry...but that there is always room to experiment and push the boundaries even further, by understanding and applying our knowledge of what happens in the  natural environment. 

You're making mental shifts...replicating Nature in our aquariums by achieving a greater understanding of Nature...

Keep making them.

You're laying down the groundwork for the next great phase of aquatic husbandry innovation and breakthrough.

Keep innovating.

And all starts with questioning...everything.

Stay curious. Stay innovative. Stay bold. Stay observant...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


3 Responses


March 23, 2020

That does indeed help :) Thank you

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

March 23, 2020

Hi Josh,

Thanks for stopping by. Good question! As we’ve discussed many times here, decomposing botanical materials DO add to the “bioload” or amount of nutrients in the aquarium that are available for use by the fishes, other aquatic organisms, and of course, algae which might be in the tank. Coupled with CO2, and yeah, there is definitely some “fuel” there. Algae, of course, requires two things, really- light and nutrients. And it will proliferate in a habitat where either one of these is “out of whack.” SO, excess nutrients and a lot of light, without an abundance of higher plants to assimilate the nutrients will certainly result in soem algal blooms.

Now, that being said, in a system which balances botanicals, fishes, and plants (if you’re into them) and appropriate light, you can run a near algae-free system, as many of our community do. The secret is balancing nutrient input and export! So, water exchanges, careful feeding, use of chemical filtration media- and common sense stocking. I think you’re right on with your observation based on your 5.5. If you can provide enough of what your plants need to grow, they’ll likely out-compete the nuisance algal growth commensurately. It’s a bit of a balance, like most any planted aquarium is.

In summary, IME, botanical-style tanks tend to accrue only minor algal growth, largely because we typically have tinted water and limited, if any aquatic plants requiring lots of light present. Tweak any one of those factors and you could end up with an excess somewhere.It’s all about balance, observation, husbandry, and good-old commons sense!

Hope this helps!




March 21, 2020

Hi there! This post happens to tie in rather well with a question I have…do botanicals encourage algae problems in tanks? I am currently setting up a planted tank, hopefully with CO2 injection, and was curious whether I could use them. My 5.5 gallon blackwater (which I tore down a few months ago) had substantial green dust algae growth, but that might have had more to do with the very limited fertilization that tank got. Thanks :)

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