Short-term lapses...long-term successes!

Every once in a while, my thoughts wander towards the idea of how a botanical-style aquarium would run in the absence of completely diligent care. Like, if you let it sort of "run on autopilot" just a bit.

What would happen?

We're all about diligent, thoughtful, regular  maintenance of our aquariums, right?

I mean, we spend a lot of time, money, and energy equipping our tanks with suitable gear, embracing excellent practices, and just stay on top of everything in general. Making sure that they run perfectly, and don't degenerate into some perceived "swamp of death" or something similar.

So, really- what happens to our botanical-style blackwater aquarium with a "deep leaf litter bed" or a significant assemblage of botanicals? Let's say that we stop doing weekly water exchanges and slip to say, once a month. Let's say all we're doing is topping off for evaporation during that time period, feeding fishes; that's about it.

What do you think will happen?

Will all of the botanical material simply continue to break down, keeping the water "tinted?"

Will biofilms continue to colonize open surfaces? Will water chemistry swing wildly?  Will nitrate and phosphate rise off the charts? Will the aquarium descend into utter chaos? 


I mean, I think I have some opinions on the matter, based on a tank or two I let run like that in tests...

And guess what?  It was literally "no big deal."

The tanks didn't miss a beat.

Of course, one could easily argue that was me and just two tests...

However, a well-run botanical-style aquarium that is properly stocked, diligently maintained, and otherwise in good condition has no reason to simply descend rapidly into chaos, right? 

I don't think any of us operate our tanks on such a "razor's edge" between success and disaster that the slightest deviation will create dire consequences, right?

Yeah. If they do- you're likely doing something wrong. Really. These systems aren't that "fragile."

And you have to consider how botanical-style tanks operate in general, right?

I mean, when you think about it, the botanical-style blackwater aquarium is sort of set up to replicate a natural habitat where all of this stuff is taking place already.

Decomposition, enrichment, nutrient import/export...

So, yeah- they're set up from day one to function in a natural way; to process and assimilate nutrients from a variety of sources.

How much more will things change by simply delaying water exchanges for several weeks? Will nitrate and phosphate accumulate?

Or, will the bacteria, fungal growths, and other microorganisms and crustacean life living in our botanical substrates continue to do what they do- break down organic waste, utilize the compounds available to them in the system, and continue to reproduce?

Is a sort of "denitrification" taking place in the botanical bed you've created? (A theory that I would love to explore more in the future)

I can't help but wonder if a botanical-style blackwater aquarium can better handle a period of "benign neglect" than many typical aquarium systems can...Again, by virtue of the fact that in their normal, everyday function, they simply are "configured" to process and assimilate nutrients in a very efficient manner.

So, by letting the aquarium just sort of do it's thing- perhaps backing off of regular water exchanges for some period of time-I can't help but think that you'd see some continued stability for a while before things start deteriorating more significantly.

Not that I'd want to do this, mind you... 

Yet, with a well-maintained, well-configured could.

So, what kinds of things can we do to give ourselves a bit of "breathing room" in our botanical-style aquariums; to create stable systems which can handle periods of "benign neglect" when our lives get a bit busy?

As most of you who work with these aquariums know, the key to long-term success with them is to go slowly, deploying massive amounts of patience, common-sense husbandry, monitoring of environmental parameters, and careful stocking management. Not really much different from what you'd need to do to successfully maintain ANY type of aquarium for the long haul.

Yeah, real "news flash" there, right?

So, it all starts with the way these tanks "run in", and that will sort of "set the tone" for the care and long-term maintenance involved.

First off, one of the things that we all experience with these types of systems is an initial burst of tannins, which likely will provide a significant amount of visible "tint" to the water. If you're not using activated carbon or some other filtration media, this tint will be more pronounced and likely last longer than if you're actively removing it with these materials!

And, if you use too much carbon, you'll be one of those people who emails me with a starting line like, "...and I added an entire package of catappa leaves and my water is barely tinted..."

You might also experience a bit of initial cloudiness or turbidity...this could either be physical dust or other materials released from the tissues botanicals, or even a burst of bacteria/microorganisms. Not really sure, but it usually passes quickly with minimal, if any intervention on your part. Oh, and not everyone experiences this...often this is a phenomenon which seems to happen in brand new it might not even be directly attributable to the presence of the botanicals (well, at least not 100%). Could be the sand, or other dust/dirt from the other hardscape materials or the tank itself.

Oh, and the reality is that in a tank with lots of botanical materials, the water may not always be "crystal clear." I mean, sure it'll be clear- as in, you can see across it- but it might have a sort of "soupy" look to it. This is for the very reasons stated above.

Mental shifts required...

So, that being said...what happens next?

Well, typically, as most of you who've played with this stuff know, the botanicals will begin to soften and break down over a period of several weeks. Botanical materials are the very definition of the word "ephemeral." Nothing lasts forever, and botanicals are no exception! Pretty much everything we utilize- from Guava leaves to Melostoma roots- starts to soften and break down over time.

Most botanical materials should be viewed as "consumables"- meaning that you'll need to replace them over time.

As we've discussed ad nauseum, you have the option to leave 'em in as they break down, or remove them (whatever your aesthetic sensibilities tell you to do!). Many "Tinters" have been leaving their botanicals in until completely decomposed, utilizing them as almost some sort of botanical "mulch", particularly in planted aquariums, and have reported excellent results. As we work more and more on substrates, I think we will see more and more hobbyists leaving the materials in to fully decompose.

Understanding what's going on- expecting the biofilms, decomposition, etc. is only part of the process- that "mental shift" we talk about so much. The rest is observation of your animals and their reactions, behaviors, and overall health. How are they eating, coloring up, behaving? Have you noticed any changes- positive OR negative- since starting your blackwater adventure? Are they spawning? Have they stopped spawning? Have they started dying?

I mean, shit-it's that basic.

And THAT important.

Yeah, one of the most important behavioral characteristics I think we can have in this hobby, besides patience, is consistency.

Like, doing the same thing on a regular, continuous basis.


It's not exactly a revolutionary concept in the aquarium world, but it's a very "foundational" practice/principle, isn't it? I mean, if you're trying to create and maintain a consistent set of environmental conditions, it's pretty damn important!

Now, we receive a lot of emails from hobbyists who ask us how to keep their blackwater tanks consistent (in regards to the "visual tint"), but likely the environmental parameters, as well. Sure, this may seem almost ridiculously intuitive to most hobbyists, but it's such a common concern with hobbyists, that I can't help but consider that we might be overthinking it just a bit.

I mean, environmental consistency is not too difficult to achieve, even in an aquarium with lots of botanical materials.

You just have to remember a few things.

There is a continuous and dynamic "evolution" that occurs throughout the existence of these aquariums, and the direction it goes is absolutely influenced by the degree to which we as hobbyists are involved.

A more 'holistic" approach is warranted.

As we have discussed for years here (in fact- RIGHT HERE in this blog, lol), botanicals are "ephemeral" in nature, and tend to break down and decompose over time after submersion. In order to maintain "consistency" and stability of the environment, we need to regularly replenish/replace them.

So, think about it this way:

The act of replacing the decomposing leaves and botanicals not only mimics the processes which happen in nature (new materials being deposited into the waters), but it serves to continuously "refresh" or perpetuate the conditions within the aquarium. A sort of "mandatory husbandry process" that just happens to be the best way to maintain ANY type of aquarium for the long term, IMHO!

It all boils down, IMHO, to a sort of "checklist" of "best practices" to set up your tank for long-term success...and resiliency when you're less-than-fanatical about weekly husbandry:

1) Start slowly, gradually building up your quantities of botanical materials over a period of weeks or months, until you reach a level that you like aesthetically, and which provides the type of manageable environmental parameters you are comfortable with.

2) Employ basic, common-sense husbandry protocols, like weekly small water changes, careful feeding, use and replacement of chemical filtration media.

3) Stock your aquarium with fishes gradually, over a period of months, preferably with smaller fishes that can "grow with the aquarium" and produce less metabolic waste during the critical first few months as your system establishes itself.

4) Regularly monitor basic water parameters over the first couple of months to establish a "baseline" of how your aquarium functions and runs chemically. Continue this practice throughout the lifetime of the aquarium.

5) Regularly remove and/or replace decomposing botanicals (or NOT- depending upon your preference) with new ones, to help keep the same visual "tint" and consistent TDS/pH parameters.

6) Note any trends or deviations from the "baseline" over time and adjust as needed to stay within a fairly tight range.

7) Stay calm, move slowly, and make adjustments with finesse.

So, yeah, I'm a fairly obsessive husbandry guy. I love my weekly water exchanges. However, I don't get too upset or freaked out if, for whatever reason, I miss a water exchange or two from time to time.

Because I configure my botanical-style aquariums for the long term.

It's an interesting question...and perhaps an interesting experiment for the intrepid hobbyist. Don't ask me why this was on my mind this morning...I mean, I did my water exchanges over the weekend, really!

Really!!! I mean it! 

Until next time...Relax a bit.

Stay calm. Stay cool. Stay observant. Stay habitual. Stay informed. Stay diligent...

And Stay Wet.


Scot Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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