Staying the course.

The aquarium hobby emphasizes a lot of good, solid practices. However, one of things we hear discussed the least is the mindset of acquiring patience. Yeah, good, old patience. It's the most fundamental of the fundamentals in the aquarium hobby. And perhaps the most difficult thing to acquire. 

People new to our little hobby sector often ask me, "When will my tank start looking more "broken in'?", or, "When can I add more fishes?", or, "When will the tank look more established?"

My answer to these kinds of questions is always the same: It takes a while. Botanical-style tanks, like any other, require biological processes to establish and "mature" the system. This takes more than a week, or two weeks- or even a month. Honestly, if you asked me, you're talking three to four months before any aquarium- especially a botanical-style one- hits that "stride" of stability and the "look" that comes from a more mature, established system.

Three to four months. 

Like, one season.

Can you handle that? 

I mean, it's really not that long, right? Especially when you take into account that you can maintain a botanical-style aquarium continuously for years. 

It just requires patience, a long-term vision, and a focus on the goal of establishing a healthy, naturally-functioning system over the long term. You can't rush stuff. You simply can't. And you really don't want to, anyways. Let it evolve naturally.

Stay the course.

Be patient. 

One day, you'll look at your tank, and think to yourself, "THIS is what I envisioned!" And you might casually glance at the calendar and note that, sure enough- it's been about 3-4 months since you established your tank.

Not all that long, right? 

It was a pretty enjoyable ride along the way, wasn't it? Yeah, when you liberate yourself from some artificially self-imposed timetable about "when" things will look/feel good, it's a lot easier.

And it all comes back to understanding and embracing the fundamentals. 

I firmly believe that understanding and appreciating the fundamentals of the hobby- and the natural world- can yield the same results- or better- than tons of expensive gear and "stuff" when simply "thrown" at the situation without thought as to why..

It requires us to shift our minds to places that might be less comfortable for us...

It just is a lot less sexy than "gearing up" or blindly following someone else's "rules"- it requires us to open our minds up...It requires patience, process and personal observation. It requires eschewing more "instant" result for long-term function, stability, and benefits.

That mental shift is something, isn't it?

I think the pendulum is swinging back a bit. Not "digressing", mind you. Just switching back to a more accepting approach; taking our hands off...just a bit. Once again realizing that Nature knows best. Understanding that we can use technology and technique to work with Nature. 

We're realizing that Nature has been doing this stuff for billions of years longer than we have, and She has some damn good ideas on how to run things!

Rather than fighting processes like decomposition, formation of detritus, and biological diversity, we seem to be spending much more energy setting the stage for natural processes to occur.

And our fishes and other aquatic animals are really benefiting from this. Fish health, appearance, overall vivaciousness, and spawning activity are being positively impacted by the concept of working with Nature in this manner.

Once again, just as aquarists did since the dawn of the modern age of fish keeping,  we've been thinking of an aquarium as a place to grow stuff- and we're looking at the whole aquarium as a "microcosm" of Nature.

A living, breathing, growing entity.


I saw a sort of "compressed" version of this century-long evolution of freshwater aquaristics during the rise of the reef aquarium hobby, which really started to take off in the mid 1980's. My mind has been on this "side of the fence" quite a bit lately, as I'm going to be speaking at a reef club in a few weeks. It got me reflecting about this stuff...

For the longest time, in the reef hobby, we were happy to just keep a box full of fishes and maybe a few tough invertebrates alive. Then, we evolved up to trying to house them long term, and propagate them.

Experiments with new technology and technique resulted in the birth of the modern reef system, with robust filtration, lighting, and studious analysis of water chemistry. The emphasis was on providing a great environment for the corals and inverts, so that they can thrive and reproduce.

And the learning never stops. The techniques and philosophies continue to evolve...

Within the past 10 years in the reef hobby alone, we've went from a doctrine of "You should have undectable nitrates and phosphates in your reef aquarium because natural reefs are virtual nutrient deserts!" to "You need to have a balance between too much and too little."

We've come to understand that reef aquariums- like any type of aquarium- are truly biological "microcosms", which encompass a vast array of life forms, including not just fishes, corals, and invertebrates, but macro algae, benthic animals (like worms, copepods, and amphipods), planktonic life, and more.

Reefers came to understand- as freshwater pioneers did generations before- that just because a reef has "undetectable" levels of phosphates and nitrates in the waters surrounding it, our aquariums don't have to run that way.  The "optimum" environment for our animals might not be exactly what we think it may be on the surface.

The reality in the reef keeping wold is that corals need nutrients and food, and an aquarium is not a natural reef; an open system with uncounted millions of gallons of water passing through it hourly.

We discovered this reality in the coral propagation business, where the long-held aquarium mindset that you need a "nutrient poor" system in order for corals to thrive was not really the whole story. Particularly when we were trying to mass-culture corals on a commercial level.

They needed to eat. Polishing out everything from the water with lots of gear and such was actually detrimental. We allowed some detritus to accumulate in our systems; didn't fear feeding our corals...and they grew.

Like mad.

Reliance on some aspects of Nature is a good thing.

And patience. In droves.

Yet in recent years, with the explosion of gadgets and internet-enabled "hacks", reefkeeping as a hobby has sort of gone a bit the other way- heading into that "technology can do everything" phase that the freshwater world did decades ago, in my opinion. Somehow "saving time" has surpassed applying patience as the underlying "mantra" of that hobby sector.

Yet, I think it's finally starting to break just a bit again. Recently, I've seen some well-known reef keepers having some rather spectacular failures, and I can't help but wonder if at least part of the underlying causes were the hobbyist getting a bit too far away from Nature, and a bit too "cozy" with tech instead! Eschewing patience and measured progress for the promise of instant, tech-provided gratification! 

They'll never admit it. However, I think they know better...

Needlessly (IMHO) complicating things in order to foster the same results that can be achieved by embracing natural processes- with a bit less "certainty", though- seems a bit odd to me. ... Positive, even predictable results generally take longer than if you apply all the gadgets, additives, and tech to the process- but Nature will find the way to get where she wants to go- with or without all the gadgets we employ.

We've sort of figured this out in our sector of the hobby.

It just takes patience. And good equipment. In balance.

And patience is often more economical than gear... And the results far more interesting, IMHO!

In these uncertain, unprecedented times in our world history, there is much uncertainty; much concern about when things will get better, and how to make them that way.

The path to success is to apply common sense, with an equal dose of patience and  yeah,  a certain degree of faith. 

Be patient. 

Stay strong. Stay 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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