Talking "dirty..."

Recently, we did an informal poll on our Facebook community page, asking our community members if they leave their botanicals and leaves in their aquariums until they completely break down, or if they remove them as soon as they start to decompose. The results showed that an astounding 93% of hobbyists tend to leave them in until they completely break down!

This is an extraordinary example of a mind-set shift in the way aquarists think about how we manage our aquariums- and even more important- in what we view as aesthetically and biologically acceptable. 

For many, many years in the hobby- and for a fairly long time in my personal hobby "practice", I was a big fan of "pristine, sparkling, and spotless" aquariums. I am not sure how this came about, except perhaps because we were indoctrinated from the earliest days in our hobby, and throughout the decades that an aquarium must be maintained in a nearly "sterile" condition. Photos of many aquascaping compositions were almost always of spotless aquariums, perfectly manicured. Beautiful, but not all that realistic in many cases.

In my opinion, the only time you'd see a more "realistic-looking" aquarium was when you'd see a biotope aquarium, representing a specific niche. Now, these are often highly researched, rigorously disciplined systems, but perhaps the high level of authenticity which many biotope enthusiasts hold themselves to makes working with the even "too thorough" for many hobbyists to want to play with. 

And there is a sort of "happy medium" out there, isn't there? A middle ground between the typical "sanitized" aquarium and the higher-concept biotope aquarium...

I sort of evolved my own view of this after many years of researching and observing the natural aquatic habitats, then reconciling between them and what I hoped to accomplish in the aquariums I created.

With the advent of our blackwater/brackish, botanical-style aquariums, we're seeing an acceptance of the appearance and the value of this approach. The idea of some leaves and botanicals breaking down in our aquariums doesn't really seem "dirty"...rather, we prefer to classify it as "natural."

And that's what it's really all about, right? More completely embracing and replicating nature in ways not previously considered "acceptable" to many hobbyists. 

And then, there are those "functional" aspects...

One of the things that I have personally noticed in every botanical-style aquarium which I have managed is the they run with essentially undetectable levels of nitrate and phosphate (the two most commonly accepted measures of water quality for most hobbyists) during their entire existence.

This is interesting, because, after all, we're talking about aquariums filled with decomposing leaves and other botanical materials. You'd think, by "aquarium parlance", that this would constitute "dirty" conditions, right? How could it be, then, that myself and others experience such high water quality in these types of systems?

Well, sure, some of it could be attributed to the typical tenants of good aquarium husbandry: Application of regular water exchanges, appropriate stocking levels, and careful feeding. Yet, I theorize that the greater contributor to high water quality in these botanical-style systems is the population of bacteria, fungi, and other beneficial microorganisms, which benefit from an available "carbon source" (i.e.; leaves and such) and, through their normal processes, reduce the levels of detrimental substances in the closed ecosystem of an aquarium.

Much in the way plastic polymer "bio-pellets" have been employed by some in the reef aquarium word to foster the growth and function of beneficial bacteria- I think our use of botanicals accomplishes the same thing in our aquariums. Indeed, when I reflect on the numerous (expensive) products, like substrate additives and bacterial products, which many planted aquarium enthusiasts employ to foster good conditions for aquatic plants, I can't help but think that we're doing much the same- perhaps unintentionally, and with more of a "shotgun approach"-when we allow botanicals to completely break down and mineralize in our substrates.

Now, I think that a lot of the reactions and such are "above my pay grade", in terms of describing the specific biochemical processes which are occurring...I'm not a biochemist, so much of my theorizing here would be better confirmed by those with the appropriate background. My experiences, however, lead me to believe that something interesting is happening that benefits our aquariums, and is worthy of further research.

So, what we consider "dirty", in terms of aesthetics and appearance, might just be the most beautiful aquariums we've ever seen.

Something to think about on a Wednesday...

Stay curious. Stay bold. Stay excited. Stay thoughtful...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


1 Response

Christopher Autterson
Christopher Autterson

May 10, 2018

Very interesting. I’ve been using leaf litter in my 10 gallon with 7 small fish, and too many Bloody Mary shrimp (crazy amount of babies) .. time to re-home some more. The shrimp love the leaves. I did get a nitrate spike, so have been water changes every other day. I tend to believe it’s from the Bacteria AE I’ve been feeding, as I probably feed too much, albiet per the instructions. I’m feeding much less now. Nitrates ate about 30-40, and still need to be lower. But I don’t believe it’s the leaves .. I only use one large Indian Almond leave at a time. I add a new one when the old ones start “skeletotizing”. I typically don’t remove the old ones that look like sticks. At any rate .. I agree that it’s really good maintainance that matters, and the leaves only make the environment more natural for the inhabitants of the aquarium. Thanks for your insight on this!

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