A gift from The Master..

There is something neat about "ritual" in aquarium keeping. By ritual, I'm not talking about some religious service- I mean, ritual, in the sense that we engage in certain practices over and over on a repetitive basis.

In the botanical-style aquarium, we certainly do engage in many ritualistic behaviors, including replenishing our botanical "bed" in our aquairums as the materials break down and decompose.  

The continuous replacement and supplementation of leaves and botanicals as they start to break down is a sort of process- okay, maybe even a habit- which many of us who play with botanical-style aquariums engage in on a regular basis.  

And there are reasons for it: This practice not only creates a continuously evolving aesthetic, it helps maintain the biological diversity and helps ensure that environmental parameters within the aquarium are held in the cherished "tight range".

I know a few "tinters" who make significant replacements of leaf and botanical items and replace them with fresh materials simultaneously, and this is conducted on a regular basis.

Like, big, wholesale exchanges of old and new materials.

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.

Embracing and understanding this philosophy is a true gift from Nature. It offers the aquarist a chance to both experience natural processes, as well as to impact the evolution of his/her own closed microcosm in profound ways. 

Now, one thing that's unique about the botanical-style approach is that we tend to accept the idea of decomposing materials accumulating in our systems. We understand that they act, to a certain extent, as "fuel" for the micro and macrofauna which reside in the aquarium. The idea of leaving this material in place over the long-term is a crucial component of this approach, IMHO.

As we've discussed repeatedly, just like in Nature, these materials also form the basis of a  complex "food chain", which includes bacterial biofilms, fungi, and minute crustaceans. Each one of these life forms supporting, to some extent, those above...including our fishes.

I have long believed that if you decide to let the botanicals remain in your aquarium to break down and decompose completely, you shouldn't change course by suddenly removing the material all at once...Particularly if you're going to a new version of an existing aquarium.


Well, I think my theory is steeped in the mindset that you've created a little ecosystem, and if you start removing a significant source of someone's food (or for that matter, their home!), there is bound to be a net loss of biota...and this could lead to a disruption of the very biological processes that we aim to foster.

Okay, it's a theory...But I think I might be on to something, maybe? So, like here is my theory in more detail:

Simply look at the botanical-style aquarium (like any aquarium, of course) as a little "microcosm", with processes and life forms dependent upon each other for food, shelter, and other aspects of their existence. And, I really believe that the environment of this type of aquarium, because it relies on botanical materials (leaves, seed pods, etc.), is more signficantly influenced by the amount and composition of said material to "operate" successfully over time.

Just like in natural aquatic ecosystems...

Yeah, there is a natural "prototype" for this process:

As we talked about many times before, removing old materials and replacing them with new stuff does sort of mimic what happens in many streams and rivers on a seasonal basis: Older materials are swept downstream as the watercourses swell, and are replaced by new ones that arrive to replace them.

And of course, in the aquarium, performing a "sozo haishoku"-type replacement of materials can significantly change the aesthetic of the aquascape because the botanicals are replaced with different ones after the previous ones are removed. In Nature, the underwater "topography" is significantly affected by these events, removing old feats and replacing them with new ones.

On the "downside", it can also create significantly different environmental parameters when we do big "change-ups" of materials in a short span of time; the impacts on our fishes may be positive or negative, depending upon the conditions which existed prior to the move. 

Now, personally- I'm a fan of less "radical" moves, and in the interest of a good "offense", I favor regular, more measured additions to the botanical "set" in my aquariums. I tend not to remove any decomposing botanical material, unless it becomes an aesthetic detraction because it's blowing all over the place or something like that.

The "Urban Igapo" idea that I've been touting for a good part of the year is a very deliberate execution of this iterative process, and it's taught me quite a bit about how these habitats function in Nature, and what kinds of benefits they bring to the aquarium. It's also taught me about the relentlessness of change and how habitats evolve over time.

We've talked about the idea of "flooding" an aquarium setup designed to replicate an Amazonian forest before. You know, sort of attempting to simulate some of the processes which happen seasonally in Nature. With the technology, materials, and information available to us today, the capability of creating a true "year-round" habitat simulation in the confines of an aquarium/vivarium setup has never been more attainable!

We've been testing the idea for a long time, and have been formulating some soils which attempt to replicate some of the attributes of those found in these habitats during the "dry" season. When flooded, you get an effect that's similar to what happens in the igapo. The debut of these "sedimented substrates", called "Nature Base", is just weeks away now. We think that they'll have a big impact on some of you.

And they will carry with them their own set of expectations: Sure, the water gets cloudy for a bit. The water is tinted, turbid, and sediment-laden. Eventually, it settles out. If you planted grasses and plants which are able to tolerate submersion for some period off their life cycle, they'll "hang on" for a while- until the waters recede.

Just like in Nature.

And you can go through multiple "wet and dry seasonal cycles" with the same substrate and perhaps only a slight addition of materials to replenish those which have broken down, but the result is a sort of "continuous aquarium"- one which can stay more-or-less intact over a long period of time and iterations, despite it's changes in appearance.

Some months back, did a slight "makeover" to my brackish water mangrove tank in my home office, which has accumulated a significant amount of decomposing mangrove leaf litter over the year it has been in operation. I wanted to add a lighter-colored, fine sandy substrate to be more consistent with some of the brackish-water Mangrove habitats I've studied. So what did I do? Well, I literally placed the sand on top of the accumulated leaf litter detritus... A pretty radical move for me!

And really, what happens is that, through the power of the current and the activities of my fishes, some of it rises up to the surface once again! And the water parameters have been unaffected by this move. With the understanding that we are attempting to foster multiple "levels" of life forms in our tanks, NOT removing all of the decomposing materials is a good move, IMHO.

Think about food chains, microbial growth, and environmental stability in our aquariums. Fostering these requires us to embrace, rather than fear- some of these processes as they happen in our tanks. 

And of course, Nature provides examples of similar processes!

Of course, I have no illusions that open, natural aquatic systems operate differently from our aquariums, but the "concept" is essentially the same... Study this pic by our friend, Tai Strietman taken in the Amazon...Leaves being covered by sand...interesting!

Nature really provides a "prototype" for everything, huh?

Having studied many images of Amazonian igapo, it is very obvious that, although some materials are swept away by currents, etc., many do remain in place until they fully decompose, adding to the richness and complexity of the habitat, and that we can mimic this process in our aquariums to some advantage.

And, when coupled with good husbandry technique (ie; water exchanges, population management, feeding, and use/replacement of chemical filtration media) an eye for aesthetics, patience, and a focus on creating as complete-functioning a microcosm as possible in our tanks, long-term success is virtually a "given" in botanical-style aquariums.

Okay, emphasis on "virtually." Nothing is a complete "given" in this hobby!

Now, far be it from me to say that one of these systems won't test your patience, diligence, and perseverance- but to those who do endure and hold steady, the rewards are there. Facing, accepting, and dealing with some of the early "aesthetic challenges" in botanical-style aquariums, like the appearance and proliferation of biofilms, fungal growth, and the breakdown of botanicals is a fundamental step in building our "skill set" in this speciality.

It's simply a fact that terrestrial materials, which exposed to water, will decompose, recruit fungal and biofilm growths, and substantially impact the aquatic environment and the physical appearance of our tanks. Exactly like in Nature! And how we manage this stuff, both mentally and practically, will impact the state of the art in truly "natural" aquariums for years to come.

We need to evolve just like our tanks do.

For decades, the hobby focus has been all about removing pretty much everything as soon as it breaks down. Clinical "cleanliness" of sorts. I beg us to reconsider this long-held belief, and to think about the potential benefits of leaving botanical materials in until they completely break down.

So, if you're tempted to remove some decomposing leaves or broken-down botanicals to preserve some aesthetic you have in your head...think twice, okay? Preserve at least some of the old materials. Think about the long-term impacts of such short term moves. Do think about the ability of the life-forms in our tank to process and utilize these materials if left undisturbed.

Yes, consider the concept of "Sozo Haishoku", the transient nature of botanicals, and the evolution of your aquarium over time.

You might change the course of your aquarium- and you will almost certainly change the course of the hobby as a whole.

Embrace the gift from the Master- "sozo haishoku"- on a scale that makes sense for you and your aquariums inhabitants. 

Stay patient. Stay curious. Stay thoughtful. Stay consistent. Stay observant...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 



Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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