The "end of the beginning..." Where the magic really begins.

There is that point in every botanical-style aquarium where our initial work is done, and it's time for Nature to take over.

It's the point where breaking down of the botanicals begins, allowing a "patina" of biocover and biofilm to cover some of the surfaces, removing the crisp, harsh, "new" feeling.  This is where embracing the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi makes a lot of sense. Accepting the transient nature of things and enjoying the beauty of the changes that occur over time. Botanical-style aquariums are literally the epitome of this idea.

And of course, once the botanicals start "softening" or breaking down, it doesn't mean that your job is done, or that you're just an "observer" from that point on. Nope. It means that you're now in a very cool phase of "actively managing" the aquarium. (And by "managing", I am emphasizing observation more than "intervention!")

Making minor "tweaks" as necessary to keep the aquarium healthy and moving in the direction-aesthetically, functionally, and otherwise- that you want it to.

And it really starts with decomposition.

Decomposition of plant matter-leaves and botanicals- occurs in several stages.

It starts with leaching -soluble carbon compounds are liberated during this process. Another early process is physical breakup or fragmentation of the plant material into smaller pieces, which have greater surface area for colonization by microbes.

And of course, the ultimate "state" to which leaves and other botanical materials "evolve" to is our old friend...detritus.

And of course, that very word- as we've mentioned many times here- has frightened and motivated many hobbyists over the years into removing as much of the stuff as possible from their aquariums whenever and wherever it appears.

Siphoning detritus is a sort of "thing" that we are asked about near constantly. This makes perfect sense, of course, because our aquariums- by virtue of the materials they utilize- produce substantial amounts of this stuff.

Now, the idea of "detritus" takes on different meanings in our botanical-style aquariums...Our "aquarium definition" of "detritus" is typically agreed to be dead particulate matter, including fecal material, dead organisms, mucous, etc.

And bacteria and other microorganisms will colonize this stuff and decompose/remineralize it, essentially "completing" the cycle.

Again, decomposition is so fundamental to our "game" that it deserves mentioning again and again here!

Now, a lot of people may disagree, but I personally feel that THIS phase, when stuff starts to break down, is the most exciting and rewarding part of the whole process! 

And perhaps- one of the most natural...

A phase when you interact with your aquarium on a very different level; a place where you get to play a role in the direction your 'aquarium is going, without constantly interrupting the natural progression taking place within the little microcosm you created!

And of course, this phase in our aquariums has a natural "analog", too.

It mimics, to some extent, the period of time when those initial rains arrive and inundate formerly dry habitats, flooding forests and grasslands, transforming them into aquatic habitats once again. The sort of "pause" between storms gives life a chance to make those adjustments necessary during the transformation.

As botanical materials break down, more and more compounds (tannins, humic substances, lignin, bound-up organic matter) begin leaching into the water column in your aquarium, influencing the water chemistry and overall environment. Some botanicals, like leaves, break down within weeks, needing replacement if you wish to maintain the "tint level" you've started to achieve in your aquarium.

Others last a much longer time.

Knowing when to replace or add to them is sort of a subjective call, at least initially. Once you get used to working with them in your aquariums, you may be able to notice pH increases, TDS changes, or other environmental/water chem indicators/phenomena which can clue you in that it's time to replace or add to them.

On the other hand, many types of seed pods and other botanicals will last much longer periods of time than leaves in most aquariums, yet may not impart their tannins and other substances as quickly as say, leaves, simply because their very structure is different than the softer, thinner leaves. Many will hold their physical form for a very long period of time, yet may not be releasing quite as much tannins or humic substances as they were initially.

Again, it's sort of a judgement call.

As much of an instinct, and "art" as it is a "science." As we've discussed many times before, without the ability to measure the levels of the specific substances that botanical items are imparting into your tank (and, quite frankly, knowing just what they are, and what is considered "normal" for the system!),

it's really about "nuancing it", isn't it? Like so many other things in this hobby, you sort of have to take a "best guess", or go with your instincts.

Yeah, I know- this is hardly the precise, scientific, "boiler plate" advice some of us might like, but that's the reality of this kind of aqaquairum approach at this point in time. It's not like, our example, a reef tank, where we have detailed chemical baselines for seawater parameters, and 32-component ICP-OES tests to establish baselines and measure deviations from them.

Nope. It's about nuance, observation, "feel"... finesse. 

Obviously, you need to obey all of the common "best practices" of aquarium management, in terms of nitrogen cycle management, water quality testing, nutrient export, etc. in a botanical-style blackwater/brackish aquarium. However, you have to also apply a healthy dose of the above-referenced "emotional elements" into your regimen as well!

And you need to keep yourself in check, too. Remember, anything you add into an aquarium- wood, sand, botanicals, and of course- livestock- is part of the "bioload", and will impact the function and environment of your aquarium.

A foundational, important thing to understand.

As is patience. Like, even on a "re-start", you need to employ so much patience, right? Like, why rush things? 

I mean, we tend to do that, right?

I was wondering if it has to do with some inherent impatience that we have as aquarists- or perhaps as humans in general-a desire to see the "finished product" as soon as possible; something like that. And there is nothing at all wrong with that, I suppose. I just kind of wonder what the big rush is? I guess, when we view an aquarium in the same context as a home improvement project, meal preparation, or algebra test, I can see how reaching some semblance of "finished" would take on a greater significance!

On the other hand, if you look at an aquarium as you would a garden- an organic, living, evolving, growing entity- then the need to see the thing "finished" becomes much less important. Suddenly, much like a "road trip", the destination becomes less important than the journey. It's about the experiences gleaned along the way. Enjoyment of the developments, the process. In the 
botanical-style aquarium, it's truly about a dynamic and ever-changing system.

Every stage holds fascination. 

IS there even a "finish line" to an aquarium, other than the ones we impose?

I think not. 

No rush required.


Part of the reason why we celebrate the “evolution” of blackwater/brackish, botanical-style aquariums here at Tannin Aquatics is because the very act of working with one of these tanks IS an evolution. A process. A celebration of sensory delights.

An aquarium has a “cadence” of its own, which we can set up- but we must let Nature dictate the timing and sequencing. To intervene in the process to "speed things up" or "circumvent" a phase is really to deny the opportunity for Nature to do what She does best.

We celebrate the process. The evolution. We savor the time it takes to see a tank mature in this fashion. We love new tanks, just starting the journey, because we know how they progress if they are left to do what Nature wants them to do.

We understand as a community that it takes time. It takes patience. And that the "end of the beginning" is the part of the experience that we can savor most of all…

Because it’s continuous. 

Stay diligent. Stay patient. Stay focused. Stay observant...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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