There is something truly remarkable about natural processes playing out in our own aquariums, as they have done for eons in the wild.
To a certain extent, every aquarium we work with relies on certain natural processes to occur within it. However, in many "conventional" approaches, hobbyists will make every effort to limit some of the parts of natural processes which they find to be unattractive or "excessive" (a word I hear bandied about on YouTube about "stuff" which offends some people's aesthetic sensibilities, like detritus, fungal growth, tinted water, etc.)- stuff we embrace in our world.
Understanding, accepting, and celebrating "The Bloom" (that explosion of fungal growths, biofilms, and the process of decomposition) 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.
It's like a quiet little "storm" of life.
Starting a new botanical method aquarium is an exciting, fun, and interesting time. And the process of creating your aquarium is shockingly easy, decidedly un-stressful, and extremely engaging.
The main ingredients that you need are vision, a bit of knowledge, and... patience.
Oh, and a bit of a philosophical adjustment- a "mental shift."
Bringing your tank from a clean, dry,"static display" to a living, breathing microcosm, filled with life is an amazing process. This, to me is really the most exciting part of keeping botanical method aquariums.
And how do we usually do it?
I mean, for many hobbyists, we've been more or less indoctrinated to clean the sand, age water, add wood, arrange plants, and add fishes. And that works, of course. It's the basic "formula" we've used for over a century.
Yet, I'm surprised how we as a hobby have managed to turn what to me is one of the most inspiring, fascinating, and important parts of our aquarium hobby journey into what is more-or-less a "checklist" to be run through- an "obstacle", really- to our ultimate enjoyment of our aquarium.
When you think about it, setting the stage for life in our aquariums is the SINGLE most important thing that we do. If we utilize a different mind set, and deploy a lot more patience for the process, we start to look at it a bit differently.
We don't "lose our shit" if our water gets a little bit turbid or there is a bit of botanical detritus accumulating on the substrate. Just wait it out. What's the big rush?
And guess what? We don't have to start a tank with brand new, right-from-the-bag substrate when starting or "remodeling" our tank.
Of course not.
We can utilize some or all of the old substrate from the existing aquarium, or another, well-established tank (we have done this as a hobby for generations for the purpose of "jump starting' bacterial growth) for the purpose of providing a different aesthetic as well.
And, you can/should take it further: Use that slightly biofilm/algae-covered piece of driftwood or rock in your brand new tank, or some fungal-colonized, partially decomposed leaves from the established tank that you have...This helps rapidly foster a habitat more favorable to the continued proliferation of the microorganisms, fungi, and other creatures which comprise an important part of our closed aquarium ecosystems.
In fact, in a botanical-method aquarium, facilitating the rapid growth of such biotia is foundational.
Don't confuse "healthy" with "dirty-looking."
It's okay for your tank to look a bit "worn" right from the start.
In fact, I think most of us actually would prefer that! It's okay to embrace this. From a functional AND aesthetic standpoint. Employ good husbandry, careful observation, and common sense when starting and managing your new aquarium.
But don't obsess over "pristine." Especially in those first hours.
The aquarium still has to clear a few metaphorical "hurdles" in order to be a stable environment for life to thrive.
It's the same when "remodeling" an existing aquarium. I've been in a sort of unusual, restless mindset for much of the second half of the year, and I admit, I've been a bit bored with some of the ideas I've been playing with. It seemed right to start shaking things up to move forward.
And, there was no sense in simply trashing all of my well-established tanks while I iterate new ideas. Yeah- there is no sense in completely tearing a tank apart and starting from a pristine, zero biology point. Just utilize elements of the tank (ie; substrate, leaf litter, wood, etc.) which are appropriate for your new idea, and continue on.
There is, of course, a natural analog to this process!
The idea of keeping your aquarium more-or-less "intact" while moving on to a new iteration is just something most of us do- or should do...
In other words, you're kind of over your Southeast Asian Cryptocoryne biotope, and ready to head West to South America. So, rather than tearing up the entire tank, removing all of the plants, the hardscape, the leaves and botanicals, and the substrate, you opt to remove say, only the plants and the driftwood/rocks from the tank; exchange a good quantity of the water.
Woooah! Crazy! You're a real rebel...
I know. I know. Not really. I mean, this isn't exactly earth-shattering.
On the other hand, in the world of the botanical-method aquarium, the idea of leaving the substrate and leaf litter/botanical "bed" intact as you "remodel" isn't exactly a crazy one. And conceptually, it's sort of replicates what occurs in Nature, doesn't it?
Yeah, think about this for just a second.
As we almost constantly discuss, habitats like flooded forests, meadows, vernal pools, igarape, and swollen streams tend to encompass terrestrial habitats, or go through phases where they are terrestrial habitats for a good part of the year.
In these wild habitats, the leaves, branches, soils, and other botanical materials remain in place, or are added to by dynamic, seasonal processes. For the most part, the soil, branches, and a fair amount of the more "durable" seed pods and such remain present during both phases.
Now, one thing that's unique about the botanical-method approach is that we tend to accept the idea of decomposing materials accumulating in our systems. We understand that they act, to a certain extent, as "fuel" for the micro and macrofauna which reside in the aquarium. The idea of leaving this material in place over the long-term is a crucial component of this approach, IMHO.
As we've discussed repeatedly, just like in Nature, they'll also form the basis of a complex "food chain", which includes bacterial biofilms, fungi, and minute crustaceans. Each one of these life forms supporting, to some extent, those above...including our fishes.
I have long believed that if you decide to let the botanicals remain in your aquarium to break down and decompose completely, you shouldn't change course by suddenly removing the material all at once...Particularly if you're going to a new version of an existing aquarium.
Well, I think my theory is steeped in the mindset that you've created a little ecosystem, and if you start removing a significant source of someone's food (or for that matter, their home!), there is bound to be a net loss of biota...and this could lead to a disruption of the very biological processes that we aim to foster.
Okay, it's a theory...But I think I might be on to something, maybe? So, like here is my theory in more detail:
Simply look at the botanical-method aquarium (like any aquarium, of course) as a little "microcosm", with processes and life forms dependent upon each other for food, shelter, and other aspects of their existence. And, I really believe that the environment of this type of aquarium, because it relies on botanical materials (leaves, seed pods, etc.), is more signficantly influenced by the amount and composition of said material to "operate" successfully over time.
Just like in natural aquatic ecosystems...
The botanical materials are a real "base" for the little microcosm we create.
And of course, by virtue of the fact that they contain other compounds, like tannins, humic substances, lignin, etc., they also serve to influence the water chemistry of the aquarium, the extent to which is dictated by a number of other things, including the "starting point" of the source water used to fill the tank.
So, in short- I think the presence of botanicals in our aquariums is multi-faceted, highly influential, and of extreme importance for the stability, ecological balance, and efficiency of the tank.
Okay, I might just be torturing this simple idea to death- I admit this point that I'm probably not adding much more to the "recipe" here; likely simply being redundant and even a bit vague...However, I think we need to think about how interesting this simple practice is.
Understand and facilitate these natural processes into your aquariums. Keep that in mind when you "iterate" an aquarium.
If you're months into a tank, 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, right?
Part of the beauty of the botanical-method 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?
Keep the "operating system" intact, but change out some elements.
Super easy, right?
It is. If you let it be that way.
Evolution is not only fun to watch, it's a lot of fun to manage as well. And it's even more fun to have the option to do both!
Stay patient. Stay curious. Stay motivated. Stay bold...
And Stay Wet.