"Evolving" is a word we tend to use quite a bit here at Tannin.
And it's a word that I think is pretty descriptive of the way we look at blackwater/botanical-style (BWBS) aquariums in general. They are never quite "finished"- nor are they ever at a phase that is "static" and unchanging, in both appearance and physical environment status.
Since the very nature of utilizing materials such as leaves and botanicals will result in them breaking down in water, and not only changing in appearance, but influencing the water chemistry to a varying degree, it makes sense to view every aquarium as an evolving entity.
And, as an evolving entity, a blackwater, botanical-style aquarium requires some understanding and patience, and the passage of time...
We've spoken about this so many times it's probably almost "vomit inducing" to some of you, huh? However, today we're looking at it from another perspective. I've had a few hobbyists contact me lately asking about what botanicals they'd use in an aquarium where they want to sort of have a "base" of durable stuff, and then simply replace either leaves or softer botanical materials.
I understand this logic completely, specifically within the context of a blackwater, botanical-style aquarium. The idea is very simple, and it's more or less how I've managed the vast majority of my botanical-style tanks over the years: You start with a "base" of more durable materials, which, in addition to driftwood and or rocks (if you're using some...remember this blog?), form your "hardscape." Then, you complete the scene with a selection of less durable, more "ephemeral" materials, such as softer botanicals and leaves.
As the aquarium runs in, you'll see the usual phases (biofilm, etc.), and the softening and gradual breakdown/decomposition of the "less durable" botanicals. Replace the softer stuff as needed (or not) to keep the look you like, and leave the more "durable" items in indefinitely. And that's how you not only let your tank evolve naturally- but you can keep the look (and possibly even the environmental effects caused by the botanicals) consistent throughout the "working lifetime" of the tank!
So, when specifically pressed about what materials I'd use for more "permanent" components of my hardscape (and with due regard for the fact that this could easily degenerate into a blatant advertisement for our stuff!), I'd utilize some of the following:
Notice that I said "some"- because I am not of the belief that you should use "one of everything" in your 'scape...I mean, that's just me, but I have found that it just looks a bit better to select 3-4 different botanicals and use multiples of them. And of course, there are lots of other selections besides the ones I list here...These are just the ones on my mind (and in my tanks) at the moment, lol, so there are some notable omissions, of course. You're list of "go-to's" will evolve and change over time, just like mine!
The somewhat "less durable" botanicals I'd use for the hardscape would include:
Of course, with the same caveat that I'd select my fave 2-3 varieties and double down on them. Again, that's my personal aesthetic- a lot of hobbyists and biotope enthusiasts believe a maximum variety is better. Totally up to you. And remember, I'm just referencing the materials in our selection that come to mind...you may have some that you collect, or have acquired elsewhere (Really?! WTF? Just kidding!), and have developed your own "leave in-take-out" protocols, which is totally cool!
Then, of course, come the leaves...
We've revisited them so many times over the years that I"ll limit my comments to some quick thoughts on the frequency of replacement again. If you're like most botanical-style blackwater aquarium hobbyists, you're pretty "active" in the management of your tank, so you're typically replacing/supplementing leaves as a regular part of your maintenance.
You will probably get a feel for how quickly your aquarium "processes" leaves- as well as a definite opinion of what looks best for you, aesthetic-wise. I have come to embrace the more "ragged", softening and decomposing look (I guess you hardcore 'scapers would even call it a "wabi-sabi" look, huh?), and tend to leave my leaves in until they completely break down, and simply add a few leaves every couple of days to add new ones into the mix as older ones break down. Of course, I like dark, soupy water and the "biofilm-on-stuff" kind of look.
I know many others who favor the crisp, colorful look of newer, fresher leaves in their scapes. And that's totally up to you. No real rules here.
Likely, you'll find some "in-between" that suits your tastes and stick with that. My only comment is that you'll possibly even notice the visual effect ("tint") that adding and/or leaving leaves in for extended periods of time has on your water. You may also be a more "quant-driven" aquarist who utilizes TDS or pH or some other measure to determine when to add or remove leaves- the beauty is that it's totally your call!
In the end, managing and embracing the "evolution" of a botanical-style blackwater aquarium is a completely individual thing, based on aesthetics, environmental parameters, and the requirements of your animals. Trust me, your thoughts will change, and your ideas will evolve over time as you take your idea from "concept" to "live"- and realize that there simply is no "finish line" here! It's an evolving, ongoing, adaptable microcosm.
In fact, If you're months in and simple don't like the look or performance or whatever- you can easily change it. It's a lot like catching a continuously-running commuter train or subway line! Huge? Well, part of the beauty of the evolving BWBS aquarium is that you can sort of "pick it up where you are" and "ride it" out for a while or change the "routing" as you desire! Started your tank as an Amazonian habitat but you're suddenly enamored with a more "asian" look? Super easy, right?
Evolution is not only fun to watch. It's fun to manage as well. And it's even more fun to have the option to do either!
Stay creative. Stay involved. Stay observant. Stay diligent. Stay free.
And Stay Wet.