Returning to the beginning...

As you know, I've talked a lot about how in the past year or so, I've burned through various iterations of my aquariums.

Sometimes, after a few months, I find myself "over" an idea. Like, not into it any more...ready to move on. And this is a far different approach than I've taken in the past, driven as much by "commercial necessity" (ie; showing a lot of new looks...) as anything else.

So, instead of breaking the whole damn thing down and scrubbing the tank sterile like I've done in years past...I just remove the stuff I don't want and go from there. Often, the "reset" begins with just a layer of leaves left to "do their thing" on the bottom for a while before adding anything else.

Of course, "going from there" means coming up with a new idea and likely, a new group of botanical materials...

And of course, it's time to reconsider all of those steps and processes that we engage in when we move forward with new iterations. And that gives us the opportunity to reflect and work from our base of experience.

Now, as part of this process, we have to familiarize ourselves with the appearance, effects, and processes which take place in our aquariums when we utilize botanicals. We've written so much about the unique aesthetics, and the "mental shift" to embracing a more "earthy" tank with decomposing materials, tinted water, and biofilms that you'd pretty much have to be "living under a rock" (okay, THAT'S extreme, but you get the idea...) to not expect this kind of stuff with these materials.

And of course, one of the "core principles" we need to think about when we contemplate adding botanical materials into our aquariums is to consider how much and how many different varieties and sizes of materials would work. 

I mean, this DOES seem pretty basic; however, adding the right materials can really "make or break" the look of the aquascape. 

Did you catch the part about "size" in the earlier paragraph? 

Yup, the physical size of the aquarium is, in my opinion, a very important consideration in botanical selection. It's something that we don't talk about much around here...and it's worth bringing up from time to time, IMHO.

Larger leaves, for example- "medium" catappa- look great in medium to larger-sized aquariums. However, in a 5 or 10 gallon (20-40L) tank, or smaller, the "scale" of these items is, well..."off", in my opinion. 

A far better choice in this context would be "Nano" Catappa or Mangrove leaves, which are, for the most part, considerably smaller than medium-sized Catappa leaves. 

Now, there are some situations where you might want larger leaves in a small space. Perhaps you're trying to recreate a specific niche- for example, a forest stream, where larger, old-growth trees might be dropping leaves to the forest floor, and this would be an appropriate setting for them. 

Or maybe you just like larger leaves! Like, Bamboo....

That being said, the same concept works for botanicals.

If you're working with a very small tank, it just looks kind of weird, IMHO, to add a bunch of larger materials, such as "Afzelia Pods", which really are "out of scale" for most smaller tanks.

I mean, at least from my point of view, smaller botanicals just seem to look a bit better in smaller tanks...And larger ones, too! Again, it's really about scale and context.

Smaller botanicals are more impactful in smaller tanks, obviously, and when used in groups or aggregations. I think that's part of the fun and "art" of playing with botanicals, isn't it?

So, perhaps we're making a BIG deal about a tiny aspect of a small subject- the concept of "scale" in utilizing botanicals in an aquarium- yet the impact of using "appropriately sized" botanicals will have a terrific aesthetic impact on your overall aquascape.

In the end, there are no hard and fast aesthetic "rules" when contemplating the use of botanicals in our aquariums. However, the important considerations are to think about the use of botanicals- and everything- in context.

 And of course, once things "get underway", it's time to do some observations...

Maybe it's just me, but I think that it's important, after your initial "work" is completed- to simply sit back and take in what you did...

I have this thing about creating what I feel is a good start to my botanical-style aquariums, then reaching a point where I leave them alone to "evolve." It's like a fundamental practice of mine- perhaps even a "cornerstone" of the work I do.

There is a point when you're like, "Oh, I really like this hardscape"- and you set in your initial botanicals...and then you sort of just "walk away" and let it evolve for a bit. 

I call this "reaching the point."

A "jumping-off" stage, where our initial work is done, and Nature takes over for a while, breaking down the botanicals, allowing a "patina" of biocover and biofilm to cover some of the surfaces, removing the crisp, harsh, "new" feeling.  This is where Amano's concept of embracing the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi takes over. Accepting the transient nature of things and enjoying the beauty of the changes that occur over time.

And of course, once stuff starts "softening" or breaking down, it doesn't mean that your job is done, or that you're just an observer from that point on. Nope. It means that you're now in a cool phase of "actively managing" (and by "managing", I am emphasizing observation more than "intervening!") the aquarium.

Making minor "tweaks" as necessary to keep the aquarium healthy and moving in the direction-aesthetically, functionally, and otherwise- that you want it to.

A lot of people may disagree, but I personally feel that THIS phase is the most exciting and rewarding part of the whole process!  And perhaps- one of the most natural...

A phase when you interact with your aquarium on a very different level; a place where you get to play a role in the direction your 'scape is going, without constantly interrupting the natural progression taking place within the little microcosm you created!

And of course, the natural "analog" of this phase is when those initial rains arrive and inundate formerly dry habitats, flooding forests and grasslands, transforming them into aquatic habitats once again. The sort of "pause" between storms gives life a chance to make those adjustments necessary during the transformation.

As botanical materials break down, more and more compounds (tannins, humic substances, lignin, bound-up organic matter) begin leaching into the water column in your aquarium, influencing the water chemistry and overall environment. Some botanicals, like leaves, break down within weeks, needing replacement if you wish to maintain the "tint level" you've started to achieve in your aquarium.

Others last a much longer time.

Knowing when to replace or add to them is sort of a subjective call, at least initially. Once you get used to working with them in your aquariums, you may be able to notice pH increases, TDS changes, or other environmental/water chem indicators/phenomena which can clue you in that it's time to replace them.

On the other hand, many types of seed pods and other botanicals will last much longer periods of time than leaves in most aquariums, yet may not impart their tannins and other substances as quickly as say, leaves, simply because their very structure is different than the softer, thinner leaves. Many will hold their form for a very long period of time, yet may not be releasing quite as much tannins or humic substances as they were initially.

Again, it's sort of a judgement call. As much of an instinct and "art" as it is a "science." As we've discussed many times before, without the ability to measure the levels of the specific substances that botanical items are imparting into your tank (and, quite frankly, knowing just what they are, and what is considered "normal" for the system!), it's really about "nuancing it", isn't it? Like so many other things in this hobby, you sort of have to take a "best guess", or go with your instincts.

Yeah, I know- it's hardly the precise, scientific, "boiler plate" advice some of us might like, but that's the reality of this kind of tank at this point in time. It's not like, our example, a reef tank, where we have detailed chemical baselines for seawater parameters, and 32-component ICP-OES tests to establish baselines and measure deviations from them.

Nope. It's about nuance, observation, "feel"... finesse. 

Obviously, you need to obey all of the common "best practices" of aquarium management, in terms of nitrogen cycle management, water quality testing, nutrient export, etc. in a botanical-style blackwater/brackish aquarium. However, you have to also apply a healthy dose of the above-referenced "emotional elements" into your regimen as well!

And you need to keep yourself in check, too. Remember, anything you add into an aquarium- wood, sand, botanicals, and of course- livestock- is part of the "bioload", and will impact the function and environment of your aquarium.

A foundational, important thing to understand.

As is patience. Like, even on a "re-start", you need to employ so much patience, right? Like, why rush things? 

I mean, we tend to do that, right?

I was wondering if it has to do with some inherent impatience that we have as aquarists- or perhaps as humans in general-a desire to see the "finished product" as soon as possible; something like that. And there is nothing at all wrong with that, I suppose. I just kind of wonder what the big rush is? I guess, when we view an aquarium in the same context as a home improvement project, meal preparation, or algebra test, I can see how reaching some semblance of "finished" would take on a greater significance!

On the other hand, if you look at an aquarium as you would a garden- an organic, living, evolving, growing entity- then the need to see the thing "finished" becomes much less important. Suddenly, much like a "road trip", the destination becomes less important than the journey. It's about the experiences gleaned along the way. Enjoyment of the developments, the process. In the 
botanical-style aquarium, it's truly about a dynamic and ever-changing system.

Every stage holds fascination. 

IS there even a "finish line" to an aquarium, other than the ones we impose?

I think not. 

And if we DO decide that our aquarium is "complete"- and if that motivates us to do something different, that's perfectly okay...

Because we can always return to the beginning.

Stay creative. Stay diligent. Stay excited. Stay bold...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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