The limits to what we can do...


As you know, I tend to push the limits quite a bit.

Maybe not with stunning, earth-shattering developments, like being the first hobbyist to breed the Glass Knifefish or something. Rather, I push the limits in terms of re-evaluating the prevailing "way we do stuff" in our hobby. I tend to look at things from a slightly different perspective. Like, "That's what goes on in Nature, so why do we always do it a different way in the aquarium?"

I mean, sure, there are many things that we do in the hobby which are a result of us working with little 40 liter glass boxes, as opposed to 378 kilometer stretches of tropical river, but the governing principles of how they work are the same, right? To put it simply, I can't create exactly the same dynamic that occurs in an open, wild habitat- but I can replicate various aspects of its function- and form.


As I speak to more and more new customers and newcomers to the idea of truly natural-style aquariums, I'm learning a lot about the hobby and the way we perceive the world. I'm finding that there is a definite hunger for not only inspiration from Nature, but a lot of questioning about why we have been so hesitant in the hobby to follow her lead in some areas for so long.

I think that the reasons why we have developed guidelines, rules, and even habits in aquarium "culture" for the past century or so is because they created boundries, of sorts, which gave the widest variety of aquarists the best possible chances at success. 

It makes sense. 

Yeah, it IS cool to toss in leaves and seed pods and soil and such, and allow them to break down in an aquarium- but that doesn't lead to an easy path to success for a lot of people. It's reproducible- but only to those who practice more careful, consistent husbandry, observation, and possess- or acquire- extreme patience. 

Not everyone who enters the hobby has such attributes in abundance, so it makes sense that rules and norms like, "Water should be crystal clear", "One inch of  fish per gallon of water" (gulp), or "Siphon out all detritus from the substrate", or "Don't feed more than your fishes can consume in 5 minutes" and such have stuck around so long.

These are typically fundamental, reproducible techniques and principles which, as suggested above- typically give the largest number of hobbyists the best chances for success if they adhere to them.

So along comes a group of "outliers" like our community, pushing the outer edges of what is considered "best practices" in the hobby, and it sort of shakes things up a bit. Like with most movements that question or poke around the status quo, practitioners of natural, botanical-style aquariums will typically find that it sort of plays out in the following "phases":

PHASE ONE: Immediate admonishment from the "establishment" of the hobby. People wonder "Why would you do such a thing?" or remind you that "You can't do that because___________ ." You know, as if to say, "Turn around! You're headed for the washed-out bridge up ahead!" I mean, what you're doing pushes against what is common practice and therefore, it must be dangerous somehow. Typically, the warnings are justified by bringing up the idea that the old "bogeyman" is out there, just waiting for the foolhardy hobbyist who dares challenge the status quo.


And hey, sometimes, they ARE right. Not every "rule" or "best practice" in our hobby is overly rigid, restricitve, or based upon assumptions. The nitrogen cycle, for example. It's like the speed of light: A "speed limit" imposed by Nature that you can't really circumvent without incurring some sort of penalty. Those who attempt, usually meet with the inevitable spanking from Nature.

On the other hand, when you question something that is more "opinion-based", the opportunity to advance the hobby is open. Like, you know, the idea of throwing in seed pods, leaves, and other materials into your tank with the intention that they serve not only as aesthetic components, but functional, biological compliments to your aquarium ecosystem.

Then, it gets interesting. If you respect Nature's rules, and apply some of the "conventional aquarium" wisdom about bioload, water quality management, and husbandry within the context of your "experiment", something amazing happens:

It works.

You achieve a biological-functional, ecologically diverse, surpsingky stable, and altogether aesthetically unique aquarium. Fishes not only "survive", but thrive, and even reproduce. Maintenance procedures don't become some difficult task- they simply evolve to fit the process you've embarked on. You develop a mindset and practical procedures. The mindset, which tells you that what you are doing not only looks different- it functions differently, too...and that it is another approach to keeping aquariums...And a successful, reproducible one, at that!

PHASE TWO: This is an interesting time. Those who persevere with this botanical-style approach, endure the questions and criticisms of fellow hobbyists, and achieve success, share their work on social media and elsewhere. The hushed whispers and stronger assertions about the dubious nature of your work that you'd initially hear when you started your grand experiment , suddenly turn to questions. Fellow hobbyists want to see more pics, hear more about how you did this, and what the benefits are. If you take the time to explain and share the "how's and why's" of this approach, you can almost see the metaphoric "lightbulb" go off in their heads!

It requires a definite mental shift. The idea of utilizing materials which decompose, add to the bioload of the aquarium, affect water chemistry, and tint the water brown certainly demands a different outlook and approach. Those of you who have played with this stuff understand this. And interestingly, you learn that the "rules" that apply to this approach are surprisingly similar to those that we've applied in other aspects of aquarium-keeping. Yet, we all find that there is a long way that you can push things and experiment.

Once you've made that "mental shift" that says it's okay to add large amounts of natural materials, experiment with water chemistry and environmental manipulatio n within your aquarium, it becomes a lot more comfortable to experiment further. You'll look at the natural environment with a different perspective- one that asks why it is the way it is- and wondering how we can replicate some of the unique habitats we encounter from a functional standpoint in our aquariums.   

PHASE THREE: The "naysayers" and "armchair critics" will still be there, pontificating and judging your work; calling it a "fad", trend", ) or "sideshow"-yet the broader hobby community starts to engage, ask more questions. They're enamored with the "look" and the idea that it can give them a greater chance for success with the fishes they work with.  The "critics" find that they really don't have the personal, practical experience with this approach to levy anything more than an "internet enabled", third-party-referenced ("I knew a guy who tried that and his tank crashed....") assault. The reality that this "fad" is actually not all that different from what we've done for decades, other than the fact that it typically looks different, and sounds a bit "contrarian." 

Suddenly, more people give it a shot. Some do their homework, plan carefully, and execute, applying time-honored aquarium husbandry techniques, and they achieve success. They'll literally help "write the book" of "best practices" for the natural, botanical-style approach. Others will fall to the "...just add a pinch of this and your fish will thrive!" mindset that has prevailed in some corners of the hobby for decades, attempt to circumvent some of Nature's "rules" concerning aquarium management, fail to deploy patience, and utterly fail, killing their fishes in the process.

Those who are looking for a "quick and easy" route to a cool aquarium will continue to fail or experience mediocre results, just as they would with any other approach. Typically, they'll loudly proclaim that the approach doesn't work, and is dangerous. And of course, they will fuel the "critics" in a sort of strange symbiosis.

However, those who realize- even after failing- that this approach requires some different thinking- different application of generally-accepted aquarium husbandry practices (like going slowly, employing regular water exchanges, etc.), and regroup, will eventually find success with this (and other) approaches. And they'll share their experiences with others, helping to add to the body of work that's out there. The critics will still be there, of course. However, their "messages" will become less and less impactful as more and more people succeed, and as long as they continue to regurgitate warnings and misinformation based on other people's experiences, rather than their own.

And yeah, the natural, botanical-style aquarium is an "approach." A way to achieve success with tropical fishes. Not the "best" approach...just one of many approaches that can facilitate success...IF we make the attempt to understand what we're doing and apply common sense and patience.

Here we are, four years into our experience here at Tannin Aquatics, and we've seen this process- these "phases" play out. And sure, we still have a long-way to go in order to master all of the aspects of this approach. We might never truly "master" them. However, with each new hobbyist who tries this; with every successful aquarium that is shared, and with every practice that is developed, studied, and refined- we assure a bright future for our "tinted" outlook on the hobby!

There are certainly some limits to what we can do...but few limits to what we can attempt. It just takes research, discipline, diligence, patience, and work. 

Oh, and a bit of courage. Maybe quite a bit.

How exciting is the future? 

Very! Let's go there! 

Stay diligent. Stay studious. Stay resourceful. Stay brave. Stay open...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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