The importance of doing...nothing.

As most of you know by now, I'm in a most exciting phase in my hobby. After more than 18 months without a permanent home aquarium, I'm in the process of setting up several. It's a wonderful burst of creativity and ideation. Yet, it also gives me a chance to double-down on my philosophies about establishing a botanical method aquarium.

I've come to realize that one of the most powerful things that we can do as aquarists who embrace the botanical method is to back off from tweaking our tanks after we get them set up. Now, sure, I'm not talking about adjusting improperly functioning filters, pumps, or adjusting temperature,  lighting schedules, etc.  I'm referring to the ecosystem of the aquarium itself.

Like, my philosophy is surprisingly "hands-off."

"But Scott, my tank is really cloudy. Its obvious that there is a lot of botanical material in there and it's causing some kind of bacterial bloom or something..."

So, let it bloom!

Seriously. This is not an issue. It's not a sign of the apocalypse for your tank.

It's a wonderful period of time in a tank's young life, when the bacteria begin flourishing, the biofilms emerge, and your tank starts coming alive. 

"The Bloom"- a most appropriate term, and one that conjures up a beautiful image of Nature unfolding in our aquariums- your miniature aquatic ecosystem blossoming before your very eyes!

The real positive takeaway here: The emergence of slightly hazy water and visible biofilms are really a sign that things are working right in your aquarium! A visual indicator that natural processes are at work, helping forge your tank's ecosystem.

I recall a discussion with our friend, Alex Franqui. His beautiful, "contest-proven" igarape-themed aquarium pictured above, was starting to "bloom", with the biofilms and sediments working together to create a stunning, very natural look. It was fun to see this, because Alex had made that "mental shift" we discuss so much. He had an intimate understanding that the process he was witnessing in his tank was natural, beneficial, and exciting.

Nature celebrates "The Bloom", too. It's an explosion of life, fueled by an accumulation of terrestrial materials in the aquatic environment.

Why is this viewed as a "bad" thing in the aquarium hobby?

We're talking about materials being colonized by communities of microorganisms which act to decompose or remineralize them.

It's the establishment of the ecology within our aquariums. The materials which we employed in our tank are becoming part of an ecosystem.

It's being processed. Utilized.

What do these microorganisms do? They eat it...They render it inert. And in the process, they contribute to the biological diversity- and arguably even the stability- of the system. Some of them are utilized as food by other creatures. Some create detritus as a by-product of their activities.

Important in a closed system, I believe. 

This is really important. Detritus is part of the biological "operating system" of our aquariums. It's largely inert.

It's not all bad, right?

I think we should embrace this. Especially in a botanical-method aquarium, which essentially "runs" on the decomposition of materials.

In the flooded forest floors we find in Nature, the leaf litter "community" of fishes, insects, fungi, and microorganisms is really important to the overall tropical environment, as it assimilates terrestrial material into the blackwater aquatic system, and acts to reduce the loss of nutrients to the forest which would inevitably occur if all the material which fell into the streams was washed downstream!

Stuff is being used by a myriad of life forms.

Is there a lesson from Nature here that we can incorporate into our aquarium work?

Yeah, there is: The development of an ecology based on botanical materials is foundational to the successful function of our aquariums- even if it looks a bit "unusual" to us!

There is something truly remarkable about natural processes playing out in our own aquariums, as they have done for eons in the wild.

Remember, it's all part of the game with a botanical-influenced aquarium. Understanding, accepting, and celebrating "The Bloom" is all part of that "mental shift" towards accepting and appreciating a more truly natural-looking, natural-functioning aquarium. The "price of admission", if you will- along with the tinted water, decomposing leaves, etc., the metaphorical "dues" you pay, which ultimately go hand-in-hand with the envious "ohhs and ahhs" of other hobbyists who admire your completed aquarium when they see it for the first time.


The reality to us as "armchair biologists" is that the presence of these organisms in our aquariums is beautiful to us for so many reasons. It's not only a sign that our closed microcosms are functioning well, but that they are, in their own way, providing for the well- being of the inhabitants! 

An abundance, created by "The Bloom." 

Stay the course. Don't be afraid. Open your mind.

Study what is happening. Draw parallels to the natural aquatic ecosystems of the world. Look at this "evolution" process with wonder, awe, and courage. And know that the pile of decomposing goo that you're looking at now is just a metaphorical "stepping stone" on the journey to an aquarium which will embrace Nature in every conceivable way.

So, accepting the appearance of our aquariums during the establishment of their operational life cycle is vitally important. Don't feel compelled to reach for the siphon hose, conduct a massive water exchange, or scrape stuff away just because it doesn't square with the popularly accepted concept of what a "healthy aquarium" looks like.

These small, seemingly "annoying" end products of biological processes like decomposition, and the life forms that accompany/produce them are actually the most beautiful, elegant, beneficial friends that we can have in the aquarium...

We just need to embrace them. Understand what role they play in Nature- and in our tanks.

Tell yourself over and over again that it's a mental shift.

A perspective of open-minded curiosity...and a willingness to look at things a bit differently and go beyond the usual and generally accepted hobby ideas on "stuff." It's not always pretty. 

Literally "waiting it out" is, IMHO, one of the most underrated "practices" which we as aquarists can employ to help our aquariums evolve in a manner which will ensure long-term success. Yeah, literally- doing nothing. When we make "knee-jerk" reactions and siphon stuff out, or conduct massive water exchanges, we often end up disrupting the establishment of an organized and effective ecological system.

By staying patient, we're giving the populations of microorganisms, fungal growths, and biofilms the opportunity to grow and multiply and manage the decomposition of the botanical materials in the system, driving its ecology.

So, yeah, you might see some bacterial cloudiness in your newly established botanical method aquarium. You might see a significant amount of biofilms and fungal growth in those early days. It's likely not what you anticipated your aquarium would look like...or was it?

Once again, if we consider how the types of natural ecosystems that we model our aquariums after, this isn't much of a surprise. In fact, it is something we should come to expect! If we take a look at many wild aquatic ecosystems, this is exactly what we see- decomposing leaves, seed pods, etc.

Nothing we've mentioned here is earth-shattering or revolutionary, from an aquarium husbandry standpoint. However, seeing that for many hobbyists, this is their first experience at managing a botanical-method aquarium, and with tons of information out there stressing concepts like massive water exchanges to "correct problems", etc. it's important to review not only the idea- but the mindset which you as a hobbyist need to deploy to successfully enjoy and manage such a system.

We just work with it instead of against it. In stead of trying to sanitize, edit, or otherwise "redirect" Nature, we understand that it will follow its own path, sometimes going through phases that we may not appreciate.


And guess what? It never stops.

So the big takeaway here? In the first few days and weeks in the life of your aquarium, its not always a bad idea to do...nothing.

Stay thoughtful. Stay curious. Stay educated. Stay diligent. Stay observant...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 





Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


Leave a comment