From "idea mode" to the long term..

I'm in a very interesting phase in my personal part of the hobby. Autumn is right here...the official start (IMHO, anyways) of "aquarium season!"- time to start a bunch of new tanks!

It's also time to reflect on the way I ideate and manage aquariums for the long run.Oh, did you catch that? "Long term."  When thinking of the ideas for our new tanks, I think we should focus on setting them up to run effectively for a very long time. Not just to "...get the pic for the 'Gram..."

Fuck that shit.

I've recently moved into my new home, and I'm in that "Evaluate where you are and figure out how many tanks you want to set up" mode. (Seriously, there IS a mode for that). I've been staring at the room where my home office and aquarium will be, thinking about all of those important (to a fish geek) factors, like, where the electrical outlets are, how much room here is for various sized aquariums, where on the walls they'll be located, etc.

Of course, the most important (and fun) part is trying to figure out what "themes" I'm going to be exploring with my new tanks. I think that some of the ideas of been playing with are starting to coalesce a bit in my head. I mean, there will definitely be an igapo and a varzea setup- no questions there. Smaller (like 3-5 U.S. gallon) tanks. And likely, one or two really "out there" ideas (in terms of exploring new ecological niches), and then of course, a brackish tank and a moderately-sized (50 gallon or so) "classic" blackwater aquarium.

For me, it's always important to play with the materials that we offer our customers- before we release them for sale, of course!

Now, one of the things I've done a lot in recent years is to keep the substrate layers from my existing tanks and "build on them." 

In other words, I'm taking advantage of the well-established substrate layers, complete with their sediments, decomposing leaves and bits of botanicals, and simply building upon them with some additional substrate and leaves. I've done this many times over the years- it's hardly a "game-changing" practice, but it's something not everyone recommends or does.

I believe that preserving and building upon an existing substrate layer provides not only some biological stability (ie; the nitrogen cycle), but it has the added benefit of maintaining some of the ecological diversity and richness created by the beneficial fuana and the materials present within the substrate.  I know many 'hobby old timers" might question the safety- or the merits-of this practice, mentioning things like "disturbing" the bacterial activity" or "releasing toxic gasses", etc. I simply have never experienced any issues of this nature from this practice. Well maintained systems generally are robust and capable of evolving from such disturbances. 

I see way more benefits to this practice than I do any potential issues.

Since I tend to manage the water quality of my aquariums well, I have never had any issues, such as ammonia or nitrite spikes, by doing this- in fresh or saltwater systems. It's a way of maintaining stability- even in an arguably disruptive and destabilizing time!

This idea of "perpetual substrate"- keeping the same substrate layer "going" in successive aquarium iterations- is just one of those things I believe that we can do to replicate Nature in an additional way. Huh? Well, think about it for just a second. In Nature, the substrate layer in rivers, streams, and yeah, flooded forests and pools tends to not completely wash away during wet/dry or seasonal cycles.

Oh sure, some of the material comprising the substrate layer may get carried away by currents or other weather dynamics, but for the most part, a good percentage of the material- and the life forms within it- remains when the water recedes.

So, by preserving the substrate from pre-existing aquairums, and "refreshing" it a bit with some new materials (ie; sand, sediment, gravel, leaves, and botanicals), you're essentially mimicking some aspects of the way Nature functions in these wild habitats.

And, from an aquarium management perspective, consider the substrate layer a living organism (or "collective" of living organisms, as it were), and you're sure to look at things a bit differently next time you re-do a tank!

Of course, perpetuating the substrate is almost like persuing "eternal youth"- it's not entirely possible to achieve, but you can easily embrace the idea of renewal and continuity within your aquarium.

Things change in Nature, but other things are also preserved. Nothing goes to waste.

And yet, as alluded to above, the one concept about botanical-style aquariums that I can't seem to bring up enough is the idea that many of the habitats we like to represent in our tanks- and the materials which we utilize to 'scape them, are ephemeral. Typically, they are not "permanent" features, in the same way a rock or a piece of wood is-instead, breaking down and decomposing following long-term submersion.


 It's about the long term, for sure. Well, long term, in terms of keeping the "lifetime" of an aquarium.

How long do you keep your botanical-style aquariums up and running?

A few months? A year? Several years?

As self-appointed "thought leaders" of the botanical-style natural aquarium movement, we spend an enormous amount of time talking about how to select botanicals, prepare them, and utilize them in aquariums. We talk about what happens when you place these terrestrial materials in water, and how botanical-style aquariums "evolve" over time...

All well and good...

However, we've probably talked a lot less about the idea of keeping these aquariums over the very  long term.

And, I'd define "very long-term" as a year or more.

I mean, this makes a lot of sense, because botanical-style tanks, in my opinion, don't even really hit their "stride" for at least 3-6 months. Yet, in the content-driven, Instagram-fueled, postmodern aquarium world, I know that  we tend to show new looks fairly often, to give you lots of ideas and inspiration to embark on your own journeys.

And I suppose, that's a very cool thing. Yet, it's likely a "double-edged sword."

Like so many things in the social media representation of today's aquarium world likely gives the (incorrect) impression that these tanks are sort of "pop-ups", set up for a photography session and broken down quickly.

We at Tannin are, regrettably, likely contributors to some of this misconception!

I think we, as those "thought leaders", need to do more to share the process of establishing, evolving, and maintaining a botanical-style aquarium over the long term. To that end, we're going to do a lot more documentation of the entire process in months to come- documenting the journey from "new" to "mature"-sharing the ups, downs, and processes along the way.

Now seems like a a perfect time for me to really act on this! 

The surest path to success with botanical-style, natural aquariums, as we've stressed repeatedly, is to move slowly and incrementally.

Sure, once you gain experience, you'll know how far you can "push it", but, quite frankly- Nature doesn't really care about your "experience"- if the conditions aren't right and the bacteria in your system cannot accommodate a rapid, significant increase in bioload, she'll kick your ass like a personal trainer!

It's important to take a really long-term view here.

Do that right from "idea mode", and I think you'll be good.

Stay thoughtful. Stay curious. Stay bold. Stay resourceful...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman 

Tannin Aquatics



Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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