The cerebral side of botanical-style aquarium keeping...

We talk often here about the mental part of aquarium keeping. I think that's important, really, because there are literally thousands and thousands of articles on every "how to" aspect of aquarium keeping out there, but shockingly few about the mindset and philosophies behind the work that we do.

So, of course, this "white space" is where I like to operate from time to time, because there are days when you don't need another discussion on how to fill your tank with leaves and stuff...

Okay, let’s be honest…Creating a botanical-style aquarium is supposed to be fun, but it can be a daunting task at times, especially if your expectations are greater than your experience level - or even if you have lots of experience and are looking for specific "amazing results' right out of the gate.

It can really f-ck with your mind- if you let it...

And, with so many hobbyists trying their hand at blackwater, botanical-style aquariums for the first time, it's important to understand what to expect and how to "mentally" approach them.

We receive many questions from hobbyists who have certain expectations or preconceptions about exactly how things are "supposed" to be, progress, or play out in our speciality aquarium world, and when something doesn't hit their expectations exactly, they immediately think that they're doing something wrong.

I think that we as a community can help manage these expectations and help fellow hobbyists who are just joining our world manage their expectations in a way that will ensure long-term success.

There is a certain hardened mindset which you need to accept...

In the "mainstream" aquarium world, there is no shortage of examples of expectations among hobbyists we can draw upon...

A common aquarium experience is to make the “jump” from a basic "community tank" system to a larger, more "specialized" setup  as part of a “fish career transition.” Maybe you're embarking on a new and exciting phase in your hobby journey after being "on the inside" for many years. You want something more focused and completely different after years of simple, yet satisfying setups.

Totally understandable. I feel you.

However, it seems to me that there are an increasing number of people who start their hobby journeys in more specialized aquariums right out of the gate- like with biotope systems, dedicated Discus or African Cichlid systems, planted tanks, etc. A different shift. I postulate that it's largely because of the increased amount of good information that's available online. This is a profound shift in the hobby, IMHO.

Lets call these people “geeky”, inspired, and educated- and lets love them for it! 

Regardless of how your journey begins, the following guidelines can help you start on the right foot and avoid some of the most common "mental mistakes" with botanical-style aquariums  Now, of course, these tips do not constitute "the gospel" or whatever on this kind of aquarium keeping.

However, they are time-tested pieces of advice from a guy who's spilled a few hundred gallons of water (tinted and otherwise!) on the floor during his career, so they might be useful to you...

In no particular order:

1) Appreciate the advice you receive from fellow aquarists, but take a look at their aquarium! It’s not uncommon to receive many offers for help from other hobbyist when you’re just starting out. That guidance can come from a friend you know, a local fish store person, a hobbyist on a forum, or some kook writing a column (hmm..). It’s all part of the wonderful culture of aquarium keeping- and it leads to one truism: Most hobbyists love to help!

MY two cents is to just take any and all information on specialized aquarium keeping with a grain of salt, and do a little checking on your “mentor”, especially if their advice starts with the words, “You need to…” or “You should”. Worse, “I haven’t tried this, but you should do…”


Personally, I’d like to see “This is what I do” or “I’ve always done this…” followed with a picture of their beautiful, successful tank that’s been running for a while while utilizing the technique, materials, or product recommended. Unfortunately, the internet has created a lot of “false prophet” aquarists who can easily throw out “advice” to others with an air of undisputed authority, despite any overt evidence that they've ever successfully ran with, or even attempted what they're preaching about. We've see this a lot in our speciality, unfortunately. Lots of warnings about how this type of aquarium is "dangerous", or how certain practices "can't work", etc...

Before you take their "advice", just see how their results have been. For all of these loud "experts" with dubious experience, there are dozens of 'doers", who have great firsthand experience- trust me.  People who actually do will happily share their results with you!

Fortunately, in the blackwater/botanical-style aquarium movement, we are a community that helps manage expectations by "baking in" the  practices, concepts, and expectations of what exactly what you need to do, and what happens when you start a botanical-style aquarium.

Stuff like:

* You need to prepare botanicals before adding them to your aquarium...

* You may or may not see the water "tint up" right away. It's often a slower process...

* Botanicals will begin to accrue biofilms and decompose when placed in the aquarium...

* Botanicals should be added to your aquarium slowly, and results studied along the way...


2) Find a few LFS’s and online vendors and support them fervently- if they meet your expectations for quality and service.  Stores and vendors are your partners in your speciality aquarium journey- it's an important relationship! Find a good fit! There are tons of local fish stores and online vendors for equipment, livestock, and other things related to the hobby, many of which are quite good, run by honest people who understand both the business- and-most important- the needs of the hobbyist. When you're engaging in specialized aquarium journey, it helps to work with vendors and stores who have experience in the specific area of interest in which you're embarking upon.

(Shamless plug...)

However, there are also quite a few who are not so good, and who will not honor “guarantees” without major hassles, provide little in the way of support, and generally just sell you stuff and that's that. These are not companies that you want to do business with. Look for vendors that are consistent, have great reviews online from fellow aquarists who you are familiar with (not “fake ones”, cut and pasted from forum to forum, in the same curiously crappy grammatical style of the sketchy vendors who post on forums as themselves..It will be obvious over time. I've seen this in the reef world many times over..You'll know how to ferret this B.S. out quickly! ).

Work with people and/or companies that have good stuff, good policies, and real reputations for service and communications-and support of the hobby community. You’ll get used to their practices and offerings, and what’s more- they’ll get used to your needs and interests to help serve you better. 

3) Read the fine print: Unfortunately, like any other endeavor, botanical-style aquarium keeping has started to accrue its share of fads, trends, “new techniques”, etc. And that’s all good and fine. Technique evolves over time. However, be sure to take a good hard look at what is being proffered out there. We see it in reef aquarium keeping circles all the time: Just because some guy is dosing vodka for nutrient reduction, or using lanthanum chloride to lower phoshates, for example, is super-effective for some reefers, it won’t necessarily be the right move for you.

It's the same in freshwater aquariums of course. Your experience level, lifestyle, ecomonics- and interest- might necessitate a more basic, but equally effective approach to nutrient control, like water changes. And if done correctly and consistently, you'll find the many of the most basic aquarium management techniques will do wonders for a botanical-style aquarium, just like they have for more familiar setups for generations of hobbyists. It's about understanding what you're doing, observing things carefully, and applying common sense and effort.

I mean, just because “all of the cool kids are doing it” is not a valid reason for you to embrace some exotic, complicated practice. Keep things simple and do things that work for YOU and your animals. Don’t be a “joiner” just because…Think about why you would want to do it, and weigh the benefits against the "costs". See if what you are contemplating is a viable long-term solution for your aquarium, or just a “knee jerk” reaction to a short-term problem.

Sometimes, the quick reaction is not the right one, right?

Yes, doing this or that will take care of your algae problem, but wouldn’t just staying the course with regular water changes do the same thing, albeit more slowly? Or simply making the necessary "mental shifts" which make you appreciate-rather than fear- some of the things that happen in your blackwater/botanical-style aquarium that you might have been freaked out about before!

Think about it…


4) Make your aquarium your own. Come to the realization that, even if you use the same technique, equipment, and animals as “Joe from Cleveland”, you’ll likely get a different result. Your tank will not be exactly like the other aquarist’s tank. And that’s a good thing! It’s one thing to emulate good work from others, but always remember that there are an infinite number of unknown variables in the equation that will result in your tank bing different from his or hers. I mean, why would you want a carbon copy of someone else's aquarium anyways?

Okay- well, I can see why you might from an aesthetic standpoint- but the point is that you should always judge your results by what works for YOU- not by how closely your tank resembles that of another hobbyist.

Be yourself, and let your display reflect who YOU are and what YOU do as an aquarist. That’s the fun part! There is no “one size fits all” way to run a tank, so don’t just mimic. You may see great results in someone else's build, but until you understand why they did it that way, and how they integrated it into their life, it may not make make as much sense to you. Rather, take elements out of various successful tanks that you have seen, and incorporate them into your own. 

Better yet- look to Nature for your inspiration...

Seems like common sense, but do a quick scan of your Instagram feed, and look at the rather surprisingly large amount of "lookalike" aquariums out'll all make sense in that context, believe me.

5) Don’t let emotions get the best of you- or your aquarium. I sometimes think that the number one problem most hobbyists face at some point is the "panic reaction", as alluded to in tip number 3 above. Don’t tear your whole Amazon biotope tank apart because you find a snail on a Swordplant...Don't declare your tank a failure because the water isn't a crystal-clear, deep brown tone... Don't take radical, aggressive steps which take you off of your plan to quickly "fix" things.

They might not be broken.

When you make bad decisions based on the “crisis of the day” instead of focusing on the bigger picture and long-term goals of your system, that’s when you get into trouble.  I've seen so many blackwater/brackish, botanical-style tanks with huge potential-essentially sabotaged- ruined-by "reacting" to a short-term circumstance without considering the long-term implications of the "corrective measures."

Combat this "panic instinct" by creating a mental "checklist" of things to look at every day in your aquarium, parameters to measure regularly, and have in place the things you need to deal with the most common emergencies, such as spare parts, filter pads, extra botanicals, backup pumps, etc.

Okay, so there are just a few things that you need to consider to stay happy and enjoy your botanical-style aquarium experience.

And you know what?

You don’t have to be a "newbie" for them to apply to you. We all make mistakes…We need to learn from them, and to share our solutions with fellow hobbyists in an honest, open way that can add to the body of knowledge of this great hobby of ours.

And most of you know this stuff already...However, on occasion, it's good to think about this stuff in our context, right?

I’m positive that there are dozens more mistakes to avoid….expectations to manage, and mindset shifts to employ.

What are some of your thoughts? Let ‘em out, so that fellow aquarists can benefit!

Until next time…

Stay thoughtful. Stay calm. Stay curious. Stay original. Stay diligent. Stay focused...

And Stay Wet.

Scott Fellman
Tannin Aquatics

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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