Stuff that used to scare the @#$% out of me, but doesn't anymore!

Okay, I know I put out a lot of posts talking about what we've learned in the botanical/blackwater game, and an equal number with my conservative admonitions to do this or that before using botanicals in your tanks.

Most of this stuff is still just that- conservative. However, it's based on years of my experimenting with what worked and what didn't, in regards to adding botanicals to aquariums. Despite some pretty radical experimentation- perhaps even bordering on "reckless" with this stuff- I've personally only had one or two incidents that actually resulted in the loss of life of fish, and one of them may be partially attributable to circumstances other than use of botanicals.

I don't claim to have even a tenth of the answers about every aspect of using botanicals in aquariums, but I do have a lot of experience putting them through their paces in ways that I wouldn't, in all good conscience recommend to others. When I finally decided to take the Tannin "concept" to market, it was after I was more than confident that the bulk of people who use our products wouldn't "nuke" their tanks if they followed some conservative guidelines concerning use, preparation, and addition of them to their tanks.

It's been a constant refining process, with everyone learning more and more usable information that contributes to the body of knowledge of the benefits of the botanical-style blackwater tank. It's an ongoing process. And with some of the biggest and most respected names in the hobby playing with botanical-style aquariums, there is a lot more inspiration and information emerging daily!

When we first started, my biggest concerns were not things like, "Is this stuff toxic by nature to fishes?" It was, "Would anyone even have an interest in this stuff? Brown tanks and murky water? Decomposing leaves?  I mean, the aesthetics alone aren't for everyone. I recall reading numerous pleas for help in aquascaping forums from despondent hobbyists desperate to get out the "tint from the tannins" caused by their new piece of driftwood! And here I was, encouraging blackwater and decomposing leaves to form both an aesthetic and functional alternative to the crystal clear tanks splashed all over the internet?

I mean, selling off my share of one of the top coral propagation firms in the U.S. to persue this "murky" vision that has become Tannin Aquatics? about a leap of faith!  I really believed in this first, I'd figure we'd simply rally a few "outliers" in the hobby who already loved this stuff.  I mean, we didn't "invent" the idea..Rather, we amassed information, inspiration, and made the materials more widely available to the hobby. And now, it looks like we're attracting attention from all corners, with hobbyists, clubs, aquarium magazines and bloggers worldwide taking more than a casual glance at the idea of blackwater tanks again. And curating, studying, testing, and marketing these botanicals took some time. It has been a rather lengthy "vetting process", determining what works and what doesn't, and I take it very seriously. We won'tsell you anything to put in your tank that we wouldn't use in our own.

I used to be really scared about the preparation process; getting it down, and making sure our customers did, too. Worried that people wouldn't listen. Although it doesn't scare me as much as it used to, it's still one of my biggest concerns with regards to our customers using our botanicals.

Every now and then I'll get an email from a customer asking why his pods "aren't sinking", or why the fishes are acting "weird", or what not, and in almost every case, they didn't follow our preparation or "stocking" instructions. We take this process very seriously. And, if you visit our site, you can see the warnings and instructions to prepare everything before use. We went so far as to make an "Aquatic Botanical Preparation" page to describe the prep process for every item we sell. If you don't follow these instructions, you really are taking unnecessary risks, IMHO. It's not just about getting stuff to sink! It's about getting some of the dirt, organics, and possible pollutants bound up in the outer layers of the botanicals out. There is no reason to take shortcuts here.

Although some of my processes have "evolved" a bit, I must tell you that I never recommend skipping the preparation process, with the possible exception of an "abbreviated" form of preparation for some leaves. Many of my experienced friends will take issue with my call to steep leaves for several hours, or overnight, but I am not really comfortable recommending much in the way of shortcuts. Others tell me it's a waste to discard the preparation water, but I maintain that I wouldn't want this stuff in my tank, so I wouldn't recommend it to my customers. There is much to understand about the long-term maintenance of these systems and how preparation influences it.

I'm not as afraid as I used to be about how much stuff to put in one's aquarium, and how quickly, because I think that, in the course of 17 months of operations here and over 500 blogs, thousands of social media posts, and numerous emails and phone calls, we've helped spread the word that common sense about adding anything to your aquarium needs to be enacted by the individual hobbyist. Actually, we've beat you senseless with it, right? We tell you to "go slow" because adding botanical materials that can and will decompose-some more quickly than others- adds to the biological load of the tank, and your beneficial bacteria population needs to be able to step up and handle it.

With regards to "how much", we've made a concerted effort not to say "X" number of "whatever" per gallon in almost every case, with a very few exceptions- because there are so many potential variables. Every tank is different. It would be downright irresponsible of us to suggest "5 ____ pods per liter of water will lower the pH by 0.5" or something like that. I cringe when I see some of those sites that make recommendations like this with regards to leaves and such. Yikes! You need to consider your starting pH, alkalinity, fish population, how long the tank has been established, what you're trying to accomplish, etc. We've talked a lot about the "clear water" botanical tank versus creating "blackwater", and the fundamentally different approaches involved. It's absolutely possible to negate many of the water tinting aspects, and some of the pH-adffecting characteristics of many botanicals with due attention paid to filtration media, husbandry, preparation, substrate, etc., etc.

I used to worry a lot about how other hobbyists would react when they saw biofilms appear on their botanicals, and see them showing signs of breaking down, etc. We have written extensively about this process here in the tint from both a practical and philosophical standpoint. We keep emphasizing the "mental shift" that we as lovers of the "New Botanical-Style" aquarium need to embrace. These are not the pristine "diorama" tanks of international aquascaping contest lore. Rather, they are a true embodiment of the natural processes which occur when botanical materials fall into waterways...And that involves biofilms, algae, decomposition.

To maintain a "NewBo" style tank requires you to understand that this is normal, natural, generally harmless, and actually a sign that your system is functioning in a healthy manner. And we have discussed numerous ways to manage or "deal with" the appearance of these processes if you aesthetics and patience can only handle so much for so long..

And really, most of the few things that used to really scare me and don't (as much) now are simply human-related factors, like patience, understanding what's happening, getting our heads around the whole philosophy of these tanks, and thinking through possible "problems" that may arise. Transparency about the pros, cons, and possible pitfalls has been crucial to our goal of making as many hobbyists as possible comfortable with this stuff.

As those of you who have traveled with us on this journey since the beginning can attest, the "New Botanical Movement" is as much based on long-established philosophies of aquarium husbandry as it is on some new ways of looking at things. Sure, there will be mistakes. There will be some failures. That's part of trying anything a little new. There are no guarantees of success. Yet, the skills and experiences that brought us this far will continue to serve us well as we push outward into (literally) uncharted waters. There is so much to learn- so much research, practical experience, philosophizing, and discussion yet to take place in this fascinating little "tributary" of the aquarium hobby.

For those of you just getting underway- welcome aboard! There's a fair amount of information to catch up on- and an equal amount yet to be uncovered. And YOU are a part of the discovery process! 

Everyone plays a part here.

Stay excited. Stay intrigued. Stay with us...

And Stay Wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 



Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


2 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

October 25, 2016

Hey Cullen…Thanks for the kind words! Yeah, the "botanical/blackwater realm is really a “ground floor” opportunity for hobbyists to participate in an emerging and fascinating niche within the hobby…and it’s a lot of fun! And, yeah- it IS exciting stuff…people are really genuinely “moved” by blackwater tanks…Hope to work with you soon!


October 25, 2016

Great story! Makes me want to delve into your realm, I only recently have experience with almond leaves…. I have mopani wood and have dosed black water before but this… You guys… I’m kinda excited! Hope to one day have the extra cash to do an order :) thank you for sharing!

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