I've written and spoken about this idea before, as no doubt many of you have: Pre-colonizing your aquarium with beneficial life forms BEFORE you ever think of adding fishes to it, and establishing a "functional" hardscape environment at the same time. A way to sort of get the system "broken in", with a functioning little food web and nutrient export crew in place. A chance for the life forms that would otherwise likely fall prey to the fishes to get a "foothold" and multiply.
Now, this is not a totally alien concept to me; I've done it several times with reef aquariums with great results. Earlier this decade, I maintained a seagrass biotope aquarium, complete with Pipefishes, Dragonets, and other rather touchy fishes, and I was committed to getting the system "populated" with amphipods, copepods, and other small crustaceans, to help serve as supplemental food sources for these rather difficult-to-feed fishes. It was a very, very successful tank for a number of years!
The same idea works great in a blackwater, botanical-influenced aquarium. It's very much along the lines of some of the ideas we've talked about lately. You set up your aquarium, complete with some botanicals, leaves, and wood, and add cultures of animals like Gammarus, Daphnia, etc., and let them go to work on the decomposing leaves, etc. The hard party is....waiting. Yeah, waiting to add ANY fishes for around a month or so, to really give the animals present a chance to settle in and reproduce. Trust me, it's not as easy as you might think. You've spent all of this money on a cool idea for an aquarium; you're ready to go...and then you're looking at a dark tank with the occasional Daphnia sighting.
Wow. Crazy. Okay, I hear the groaning already...
It's that hardcore a thing. Not easy, but totally doable if you're the patient type. And the rewards are supplemental foods galore for your more delicate fishes! And, on top of that, you have an aquarium habitat that is "richer", more complete than one in which you simply toss in the fish after cycling.
I am also a firm believer in the idea of utilizing pieces of wood, rocks, even substrate from established, healthy aquariums in new tanks. Always have been. Again, for the same reason- you're taking what amounts to a sterile box and tossing in "dry ingredients", and then some fishes...so where is the biodiversity?
Remember, we're not just about an aesthetic here! Where is the food web? Where is the "functionality" of the system? These things form over time, but from day one, you have a box filled with rocks, sand. leaves, and wood. We can do better, right?
As we talked about previously, the idea of "starting" your aquarium before you actually start the aquarium is a pretty good methodology. And it need not be a long, boring process. Getting the tank "set" and "primed" for fishes can be as exciting and dynamic as any other point in the process. Getting the stage set for microbial, fungal, and crustacean life forms is actually pretty interesting.And it's sort of an "intro" to the whole "lifetime management" of this type of aquarium, anyways! Remember, botanical-style, blackwater aquariums are dynamic, actively-manageable systems that are remarkable in their "evolutionary processes."
And, one could conceivably stock the aquarium with botanicals in a sort of progressive manner, too. What do I mean? Well, for instance, you could start your botanical tank with a rich soil-and-botanical-influecned substrate material, gradually increase the water level over a few days, add a piece of driftwood, and some of the more durable seed pods and other botanicals you intend to add (i.e.; "Savu Pods", "Jungle Pods", Lampada Pods, "Ceu Fruta", etc.). Let them sort of "age" for a week, and then add some of the less durable pods, like "Rio Fruta", "Coco Curls", "Terra Sorrindo", etc. This is where I'd add the various small crustaceans, if you have access to them.
Wait another week. Add your leaves- the less durable ones first, over the course of that third week. So your sequence would look something like this: Catappa, Loquat, Guava, Jackfruit, Magnolia. The ones that are starting to soften and impart their tannins to the water will be supplemented by the longer lasting Magnolia and Guava leaves. And you're cycling your tank via whatever your other favored method is at this point.
So, before you've ever even added single fish to the system, it's "tinted", the pH is more or less stabilized within a range, there are some crustaceans "in play", biofilms have started forming, and the system acquires a more "aged" look, from an aesthetic standpoint. And, you can "edit" as you see fit, adding more leaves, removing or adding botanicals, etc.- just generally beginning the process of "operating" your botanical-style, blackwater aquarium. Its a dynamic, ever changing, constantly-evolving aquarium system.
Now, this sequence-this "dance"- isn't for everyone. In fact, most of you will not do this. Many of you will say, "Why bother?" And that's okay; you run your system in a manner that works for YOU. However, if you're the supremely patient type, and want to really study and observe and relish every aspect of the startup of your aquarium, a sequence similar to the one presented above is pretty cool! The opportunity to learn and advance the state of the art by doing this is almost irresistible to some of us!
And you can throw all sorts of variations into the mix, once your tank gets going, if you want: "Seasons", created by light and water level/flow manipulations, "leaf surges" (adding a larger quantity of one type of leaf in a shorter period of time, or a smaller quantity for a protracted length of time, to simulate seasonal "leaf drop" from forest trees), food surges, stepped-up water changes, nice-oriented fish-stocking sequences, slightly increasing substrate depth and varying its composition, etc.
All of these processes rather elegantly (or crudely, I suppose one could say) mimic some of the things that happen in nature as the "rainy season" or "dry season", as the case may be- progress. You could conceivably start your tank in the igarape/igapo "dry season"- or vice versa- and progress it from there! Each one of these manipulations has multiple implications, benefits, consequences, influences, and lessons to be learned. Any one of them can be a key factor in the successful husbandry of a number of fishes...we just need to try!
Nature gives us all of the ideas and inspiration we need. We just have to look at it and think beyond what we typically do in managing the "startup" and operation of the aquarium.
Managing a botanical aquarium at every phase offers opportunities, challenges, and educational experiences that we can use to push the state of the art of botanical, blackwater aquariums- and to add to the growing body of aquarium knowledge about managing these unique systems over the long term. And sharing your experiences- good and bad- will provide those who follow with more confidence to follow in your footsteps, creating their own aquariums, pushing the limits in their own way- and growing the global "tint community"- and aquarium hobby in general- through their efforts.
All good. And it all starts with a carefully thought out, well-orchestrated "opening act."
Get started. Enjoy the process. At every stage.
Stay focused. Stay engaged. Stay excited. Stay enthusiastic.
And Stay Wet.