If there is one thing that we bring up over and over and over again with our community regarding botanical-style aquariums, it's the need to go slowly. Like so many things that we do in the aquarium world, it's so important to make cautious, measured moves.
Pretty much every week, we receive a few emails from customers and members of our community asking about how much and how quickly they should add botanical materials to their aquariums.
I am also frequently approached by hobbyists who, in their zeal to get a cool blackwater, botanical-style tank up and running, are always looking for some "shortcut" that will help them get a more "finished look" and tint more quickly.
This always makes me cringe just a bit, because I hate fucking shortcuts! I think it's a direct by-product of our 24/7/365 social media cycle of sharing all of the cool stuff we're doing. We seem to only share the finished products.
We see those shots of natural habitats, and we want so badly to replicate them in our own tanks.
To achieve a stable, long-lasting display, you need to give the botanicals time to break down, soften, and decompose. All botanical items do this at a pace that is unique to them and their composition and structure, and sure, we can hasten the process a bit by boiling, but the real "magic" is done by Nature- over time.
With zero exceptions, you should never simply drop any of our botanicals right into your aquarium without any sort of preparation process. Yeah, "preparation" in our parlance means cleaning with a light rinse, followed by either boiling them in freshwater, followed by a prolonged "soak" in clean fresh water, or just the prolonged soak. The reasons for the soaking and boiling process are many, far beyond the simple fact that boiling breaks down the structures of many botanicals to the point where they can absorb water and sink easily.
Common sense and patience are hugely important when adding these materials to you established aquarium!
A large quantity of botanicals added to a stable, established aquarium can potentially affect the general water chemistry of your tank in a rapid manner, including the pH- driving it down quickly in some instances, profoundly affect the fishes and even plants, which may not cope well with rapid environmental changes.
Just be cautious and use common sense here. I mean, yeah, to a certain extent, this is "Aquatics 101"- you simply don't want to do anything to your aquarium that results in rapid, significant environmental changes, and using aquatic botanicals is no exception.
BONUS EXTRA STEP: Soaking your botanicals overnight in cool fresh water after boiling is super advantageous, because- let's face it- the minute you add botanicals to water, they'll start to break down! Soaking helps leach out a little of the organic materials from the tissues of the botanicals which were released during boiling into an external holding vessel- instead of your aquarium-this is never a bad thing!
Many hobbyists and self-appointed "experts" will call such an extra step "unecessary"; good for them. However, for the most conservative approach, we can't recommend this enough. I've been working with botanical materials in my aquariums for almost 3 decades, and I've never had an issue by embracing this process. Waiting the extra period of time before placing them in your tank is well worth it, IMHO.
Materials like leaves will break down over the course of 3-4 weeks or so, whereas many of the more "durable" botanicals, like seed pods, etc., will break down over many months. Some of the harder pods, like Sterculia Pods and "Monkey Pots", have lasted for several years for me! Depending on your water chemistry and the degree to which your fishes and inverts (I'm referring to guys like Plecos and ornamental shrimp) "graze" upon the botanicals will directly impact how long they last.
Go slowly. Establish a regular pace, adding materials gradually, assessing along the way the impact of your additions. Sure, you might see the water tint up after the first 24 hours...or not. This is only one indicator that things are "happening." And you should really evaluate and assess on say, a weekly basis, to see how you system is doing. Check basic water parameters and note deviations of changes.
"Trend spotting", in this instance, is potentially life saving.
And don't lock yourself into some sort of timetable for achieving a certain "look" or environmental conditions. I mean, I get it, you might be gunning for a contest deadline, a club event, etc., but as we've said so many times before, Nature doesn't give a shit about your damn timetable. Sorry, it's true! She dictates the pace. Rather than be frustrated that your tank is not at some arbitrary "benchmark" by a specific date, enjoy it for where it's at. Savor the changes, the aesthetics, the function.
Enjoy the process.
If you look at an aquarium as you would a garden- an organic, living, evolving, growingentity- then the need to see the thing "finished" becomes much less important. Suddenly, much like a "road trip", the destination becomes less important than the journey. It's about the experiences gleaned along the way. Enjoyment of the developments, the process. In the botanical-style aquarium, it's truly about a dynamic and ever-changing system. Every stage holds fascination.
You're not only making rapid changes to the aquatic environment, but you're releasing significant quantities of organic materials into a stable environment that may not have the biological "capacity" to handle it...In theory, setting up the possibility for actually polluting your tank as the beneficial bacteria race to multiply fast enough to assimilate all of the influx of organics caused by a big load of botanicals! This is one of the reason why we developed "Culture", our Purple Non-Sulphur (PNS) bacteria additive. Having a developing microbiome helps your aquarium to handle the increase in organics more efficiently.
Again, common sense is the key. Botanicals are dynamic, because they're releasing substances into the water, as well as providing forage for micro and microfauna, all of which contribute to the bioload of your system. These materials are not "tank decoration" and should never be viewed as such.
And, as every experienced hobbyist knows, nothing good ever happens quickly in an aquarium- only the bad stuff! So, we urge you yet again to go slowly in an existing tank, letting your animals, plants and microfauna make the adjustment to a new and beneficial environment.
The two key ingredients- patience and common sense- will help any aquarist safely appreciate the joys of using botanicals in the aquarium.
Nature sets the pace. We simply need to listen to Her, and follow Her lead.
Stay disciplined. Stay chill. Stay focused. Stay observant. Stay diligent. Stay patient...
And Stay Wet.