The "endless dance..."


Is there such thing as a "finished" aquarium? 

I think not. 

Yet, the aquarium hobby- a good percentage of it- is obsessed with the concept of "finished."

Part of the pleasure is working with Nature; being challenged by Her.. adjusting, pivoting, waiting. And that's what makes stuff fun!  There is no "finished." I mean, when there is nothing more to do but change water, tweak a few gadgets, and feed, is that "finished?" I don't think so.

Have you EVER gotten a tank to that stage? Where you're simply observing it and nothing else? What's that like?

Because I've never been there.

It doesn't exist, IMHO.

An aquatic display is not a static entity, and will continue to encompass life, death, and everything in between for as long as it's in existence. 

Does it ever reach "finished?" Does Nature? Of course not! Rather, it's continuous evolution, in which there might be some competition between fishes, plants, or corals that results in one or more species dominating all of the rest. Maybe. Or, perhaps diversity continues to win, with lots of different life forms eaking out an existence in your artificial microcosm, just as they have managed to do for eons in Nature?

We don't have all of the answers.

And that's okay. However, we should enjoy those times when our tanks are doing their thing...evolving...

Which is... every single day.

Yet, there is an apparent disconnect in the general aquarium hobby. A desire to get to "finished"- whatever that actually IS- as quickly and easily as possible. Like, why are we in such a goddam rush? What's the point of trying to quickly get through all of the amazing stages of aquarium development, en route to some strange and seemingly enigmatic destination called "finished?"


I was wondering if it had 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 "finished" would take on a greater significance!

But an aquarium..? I mean, that's supposed to be a fun thing!

And the journey- the evolution of the aquarium- is a big portion of the fun.

Yet, I see tons of queries on forums and on Facebook groups, etc., asking about such-and-such-a technique to accelerate or circumvent the "cycling" phase of a new aquarium. Some people will spend all sorts of money and try just about anything in order to get to some more advanced phase of their aquariums' existence as soon as possible! 

In the botanical-style aquarium world, we talk so much about the need to be patient, and to just enjoy your tank wherever it may be on its"evolutionary path." This is sort of fundamental to what we do. 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" or somehow "farther along", 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.

Since the very nature of utilizing materials such as leaves and botanicals will result in them gradually decomposing in water, and not only changing in appearance, but influencing the water chemistry and physical environment of the aquarium to a varying degree, we as lovers of botanical-style aquariums view every aquarium as an evolving entity.

And, as an evolving entity, a botanical-style aquarium requires some understanding and patience, and the passage of time...

You can't rush this process and expect good results.

As I've mentioned before, when I am establishing a new aquarium, I'm doing my best to facilitate the growth of the microbiome.

A "microbiome", by definition, is defined as "...a community of microorganisms (such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses) that inhabit a particular environment." (according to Merriam-Webster)

Now, sure, every aquarium has a microbiome to a certain extent.

You may not see the organisms which comprise your aquarium's microbiome- at least, not all of them. However, you can rest assured that they are present in almost every aquarium...Especially our natural, botanical-style aquariums.

It's important to at least understand this concept as it can relate to aquariums. It's worth doing a bit of research and pondering. It'll educate you, challenge you, and make you a better overall aquarist. In this little blog, we can't possibly cover every aspect of this- but we can touch on a few points that are really fascinating and impactful.

Many of us are even moving beyond just the pretty look of the botanical-style aquarium, and moving into a deeper stage of understanding how our aquariums function as miniature ecosystems.

Now, one thing that's unique about the botanical-style approach is that we tend to accept the idea of decomposing materials accumulating and remaining in our systems. We understand that they act, to a certain extent, as "fuel" for the micro and macrofauna which reside in the aquarium, and that they perform this function as long as they are present in the system.

When you understand- really understand- this concept, a whole new world opens up to you. Shortcuts and ways to "accelerate" the development of your aquarium have little value to you, because they literally deny you the opportunity to watch your tank evolve.


Aquarium hobbyists have (by and large) collectively spent the better part of the century trying to create "workarounds" or "hacks", or to work on ways to circumvent what we perceive as "unattractive", "uninteresting", or "detrimental." And I think that many of these things- these processes- that we try to "edit", "polish", or skip altogether, are often the most important and foundational aspects of botanical-style aquarium keeping!

It's why we literally pound it into your head over and over here that you not only shouldn't try to circumvent these processes and occurrences- you should embrace them and attempt to understand exactly what they mean for the fishes that we keep.

They're a key part of the functionality.

I've always been fanatical about NOT taking shortcuts in the hobby. In fact, I've probably avoided shortcuts- to the point of making things more difficult for myself at times! Over the years, I have thought a lot about how we as botanical-style aquarium enthusiasts gradually build up our systems, and how the entire approach is about creating a biome-Just like what Nature does.

It works exactly the same in an aquarium...If we let Nature do her work without excessive intervention.

Just be patient. Really patient.

I guess it's tough to be patient sometimes, but I'm really having trouble grasping exactly what the problem is with this approach.

Patience. Again.

Sure, it takes an obscene amount of patience to wait for our tanks to settle in, establish themselves, and be "just right" for fishes.  

So, just let your aquarium settle in for a while- many weeks, if you can- to develop this community of organisms to assist you. Observe what's occurring in your "empty" tank...When you see all of the decomposition, the fungal growth, etc, you can be certain that SOMETHING is going on there. Your tank is coming alive.


I'm telling you, I have just as much fun looking at my "empty" tanks as I do my long-established, fully-stocked ones!

Worrying about the nitrogen cycling process is really kind of foolish, in my opinion. Trying to conceive ways to circumvent natural processes is absurd...Again, ask yourself why this is necessary. Is it because you want to have your tank all ready for "the 'gram?" Because you want to join the "cool kids?"

Resist this hesitation. Enjoy the process. Understand that the nitrogen cycle is not just a "phase"- it's a process- an ongoing one that will function along as your aquairum is in operation. As long as you don't mess with it, or attempt to "circumvent" it. Stop viewing the initial "break-in" or establishment of an aquarium as some sort of barrier be broken on route to something more "interesting." 

Ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate…arghhh! Chemistry. Science. Black and White. Yikes.

Why add chemicals and such to try to speed up this process?

Why not just add organisms to build to your microbiome?

You can add bacteria, however. In fact, this is where our bacterial inoculant, "Culture", can excel. It is comprised of the hardy, incredibly versatile Purple Non-Sulphur Bacteria (PNSB), Rhodopseudomonas palustris.

Like nitrifying bacteria, PNSB metabolize ammonium and nitrite and nitrate. And they're not just important to the nitrogen cycle. They're also capable of aerobic organoheterotrophy - a process of removing dissolved organics from the water column- just like other microbes!

PNSB are useful for their ability to carry out a particularly unusual mode of metabolism: anaerobic photoheterotrophy. In this process, they consume organic wastes while inhabiting moderately illuminated and poorly oxygenated microhabitats (patches of detritus, leaf litter beds, shallow depths of substrate, deeper pores of expanded clay media, etc.).

By competing with other anaerobes and sulfate-reducing bacteria for food, these voracious "sludge-eaters" significantly reduce the production of toxic byproducts such as methane and hydrogen sulfide. Most important- they form a key component of your aquarium's microbiome.

So, yeah, I love these guys as a key part of our little aquarium ecosystems.

Small organisms do HUGE things in our tanks.

It’s important to understand that your best allies in the cause of establishing a new aquarium are bacteria and fungi, as we’ve talked about repeatedly.

Bacteria will arrive in your aquarium naturally through a number of means- on leaves and seed pods, in substrate (particularly if you’re using material from an established one), wood, etc. The nitrifying bacteria that we admire so much are present in almost every aquatic system- even a brand new aquarium. However, there simply aren’t enough of them in a new aquarium to process the waste produced by a significant fish population.  And of course, to grow the population of these beneficial bacteria, you need to supply then with their major energy source- ammonia.

So, what does it mean?

During the so-called cycling process, ammonia levels will build and then suddenly decline as the nitrite-forming bacteria multiply in the system. Because nitrate-forming bacteria don't appear until nitrite is available in sufficient quantities to sustain them, nitrite levels climb dramatically as the ammonia is converted, and keep rising as the constantly-available ammonia is converted to nitrite. Once the nitrate-forming bacteria multiply in sufficient numbers, nitrite levels decrease dramatically, nitrate levels rise, and the tank is considered “fully cycled.”

(A schematic of the nitrogen cycle by one of my favorite mentors, the late, great Bob Fenner!)

So, in summary, you could correctly label your system “fully cycled” as soon as nitrates are detectible (if they are, right?), and when ammonia and nitrite levels are undetectable. This usually takes anywhere from 10 days to as many as 4-6 weeks, depending on a number of factors. Hint- in tanks with a lot of botanical materials in them, this process occurs very quickly. 

Again, what's the rush? You still have your cool, nicely-'scaped tank, filled with botanicals and such, and a developing microbiome. A lot to look at and enjoy...even before fishes arrive in the picture!

Confession: I can't remember the last time I tested for ammonia or nitrite in a new tank. Why? Because the enjoyment of my tank is not predicated upon "getting through" this initial cycle and getting fishes in there as quickly as possible!

So, for arguments sake, let's say you've been dutifully monitoring ammonia and nitrite for the first few weeks in your tank, You saw a little peak and now it's all "clear" to add fishes. We have at least, for purposes of this discussion, established what we mean in aquarium vernacular by the term “fully cycled.” 

Now what?

I mean, is your tank ready to stock with a ton of fishes. Is it"done?" Or is it just on a continuing evolutionary path- one which will result in changes over time, incremental changes in the ecosystem you've established- but one which will keep right on evolving slowly until you either get overzealous with cleaning one day and decimate it, or decide to tear down the tank for some reason.

 Yes, the evolution of your aquarium is a slow, continuous process.  There is no "finish line"- so we need not impose one on ourselves.

In my opinion, the aquarium hobby has created this artificial barrier about the establishment of aquariums. Yes, we have correctly emphasized the importance of establishing the nitrogen cycle in our tanks. However, we have also made it a "barrier" to be broken at all costs, so that we

Add fishes? Sure. But is that the "ultimate" part of establishing an aquairum? Or just one of many enjoyable milestones along the way?

I suggest that you embrace this period of time when your tank is "finding its way" ecologically, and just enjoy the process. Enjoy watching the life forms establish themselves in your little ecosystem. Celebrate the explosion of life which occurs in all new aquariums. Don't take shortcuts to try to circumvent this process. To do so not only risks failure- it denies you a front row seat to one of Nature's true wonders.

Yes, it's a slow, continuous process- an "endless dance"- one that should savored at every opportunity!

Stay patient. Stay observant. Stay curious. Stay educated...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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