The really long game...

As you know, I spend a lot of time talking very critically about the short term mindset that seems to be pervasive in the hobby, seemingly enabled by the frenetic pace of tank "do-overs" in the aquascaping world. I think that it's because we're driven by social media and the need to constantly show new stuff to the world. It's almost obligatory for many.

In addition to finding it a bit sad that hobbyists feel compelled to "churn" a ton of work all the time, I sometimes worry if the art of long-term maintenance- or even the idea of keeping an aquarium set up over the long term- like- years versus, ya know- a few months (or a "contest period!")- is a reality that most newer hobbyists have thought of.

Like, believing that the entire point of the hobby is to continuously setup, break-down, and re-set-up tanks. Never understanding that the real magic with aquariums and fishes is to recreate an ecology- an environment- in the aquarium- and allowing it to emerge and evolve over longer time spans.

Yeah, it's a long game, in my book.

In our botanical method aquarium game, we talk a lot about establishing more natural-functioning/appearing systems, and many of the nuances associated with getting them up and running. However, we seem to spend a relatively small amount of time talking about what actually happens in these tanks over the very long term and how to manage them, right?

With so many hobbyists getting into this style of aquarium for the first time, it's worth another look!

Like every great story, this one starts at...the beginning.

There's nothing quite like a brand new aquarium; one filled with promise and potential. In the botanical-method aquarium, the aquarium looks quite a bit different than it will ultimately appear down the line- the botanicals are clean and untouched by biofilms, the leaves appear crisp and largely intact, and the wood and substrate are typically sharp and free of that "patina" of growth that occurs over time.

Crisp. "Fresh." Clean-looking.

And that's nice, I suppose. I mean, it IS.

Yet, it's not really all that "natural", IMHO.

Sure, it meets the hobby's broadest "expectations" of just how an aquarium should look. At least, from a "neatness" standpoint, right? Many hobbyists- and I'm convinced, many more- would totally embrace the botanical-method aquarium approach  more wholeheartedly if they could keep their systems sort of "frozen" in time at that point.

Many do this, and take great pleasure in the process.

Yet, to many of us, the real "allure" of the botanical-method aquarium is what takes place after those first glistening weeks- the time period when the aquarium starts to evolve, take on an even more natural look, and becomes more of an ecosystem, as opposed to a primarily aesthetic display.

There are some characteristics of these types of tanks which require a fair amount of continued management that keep them functioning effectively-most notably, the continuous addition of more botanical items to replace those which break down, be they leaves, wood, or seed pods and the like- in order to maintain not only the visual "tint", but the beneficial humic substances and other organics contained in these materials. 

Over time, many of these compounds are dissolved into the water column, and these botanical materials will no doubt lose some of their efficacy as "environmental enhancers."

And obviously, this sort of "active management" not only creates a more stable environment for your fishes, it provides an opportunity to continuously engage with your aquatic environment on a very regular basis. Continuously replacing and adding more botanical materials over time  is one of the most important aspects of managing this type of aquarium, and is especially critical in an environment in which the very structure of the ecosystem itself evolves and changes over time!

Now, unlike other tanks I've managed over the years, such as reef aquariums, planted tanks, etc., where you need to sort of change or evolve your husbandry tasks as the tank ages (i.e.; pruning, revising fertilization schemes, etc.), the botanical-method natural aquarium seems to benefit from the same types of maintenance tasks throughout its functional lifetime.

Some hobbyists choose to let their botanical items remain in the system until fully decomposed; others prefer to remove items just as soon as they lose the "pristine show look." Regardless of how you handle the "botanical breakdown", you're more-or-less following the same practices over a long term. 

Consistency. Our old friend.

And of course, water exchanges are as important a part of the management of our systems as any other. The dissolution of organics and "reset" that water exchanges provide are one of the "cornerstone" practices in aquarium husbandry, and will help continuously hold your environmental parameters. 

As any aquarium ages, it's essential to at least have a handle on what is happening chemically. In the botanical-style, natural aquarium, it's nice to conduct basic water parameter tests early on in the tank's existence, to establish a reference "baseline" of the tanks typical "operating parameters".

In a typical tank, you may see a gradual reduction in pH over time.  This may be caused by acids forming from accumulated nitrate and other nitrogenous compounds and over time, as they overwhelm the buffering capacity of the tank. This seems to be much more common in higher pH systems, such as African cichlid tanks, reef aquaria, etc.

You will likely find, as I have, that with the consistent management of your natural-style botanical method aquariums, very little in the way of "parameter shift" appears to occur. I've seldom noticed any sort of appreciable pH decline over time in these tanks (probably because you're starting out with lower pH!), and nitrate and/or phosphate levels tend not to vary significantly at all with consistent botanical replacements and water exchanges.

I'm curious what YOUR experience has been in this respect.

I also tend to monitor TDS a lot in botanical tank. Now, IMHO, TDS is probably the least useful measure that we use in aquarium management, despite the near obsession that some aquarists have about this. I mean, it's not all that useful, because it is literally what its name implies- a measure of total dissolved solids. That could literally be anything, ranging from minerals to KoolAid, for that matter!  It doesn't tell you what, exactly, the dissolved solids are.

It's main importance, iMHO, is when you're measuring the output of your RO/DI should read zero, or very close to zero.

 Curiously,  I've found that I will see a "range" of 2-3 ppm at the most, in which the parameters seem to stay throughout the lifetime of the tank. Any deviation from this should be something that you should investigate. Not necessarily a "bad" thing, again, as TDS can be just about anything...yet I suppose it best it does function as a sort of "yardstick" for environmental consistency.

Ah..consistency over time again.

One physical maintenance task that I have found to be continuous and necessary with botanical method aquariums is the cleaning of filter intakes, mechanical filter media, and water pumps. With a constantly-decomposing array of botanical materials, biofilms, and fungal threads streaming into the water column, lots of small debris tend to get sucked into filter intakes, pumps, and of course, mechanical filter media. These need to be cleaned/replaced on a regular basis; perhaps even more frequently than other maintenance tasks.

It's simply part of the game when working with a botanical-method aquarium!

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 blackwater aquarium, and with tons of information out there stressing concepts like breaking down a tank after a few months, I think it's not a bad idea to review this sort of stuff from time to time!

In natural-style aquariums, seldom are big moves or corrections required. Rather, it's really a combination of little things, done consistently over time, which will see your aquarium thrive in the long run. 

Yeah, over time.

The thing that's perhaps most 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.

So, when you're contemplating and executing your "evolutions" 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-style 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.

I am a fanatical observer of my aquariums, particularly the botanical-style ones I run (oh, all of them...), and I do the same things over and over and over again; specifically, weekly small water exchanges. I don't overcrowd my tanks. I don't add tons of fishes at one time. I don't overfeed my fishes. I don't add a large batch of botanicals at one time to "remodeled" or existing aquariums. I'm annoyingly patient. I don't freak out over things taking a while.

I embrace "detritus" ( at least the kind that is caused by mineralization of botanical materials) as "fuel" for the biological "operating system"- not as something to be afraid of. 

And, like many of you, I don't see a need to rush to some version of "finished." 

Personally, I don't think that botanical-style aquariums are ever "finished." They simply continue to evolveover extended periods of time, just like the wild habitats that we attempt to replicate in our tanks do...

And the botanicals in the aquarium? Well. they'll keep breaking down, "enriching" the aquarium habitat. Imparting humic substances, lignin, etc. Compounds which have a material impact on the ecology, biology, and chemistry of the aquarium.

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? There's always an opportunity to go somewhere new. You just have to jump on.

Part of the beauty of the botanical-style 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. Don't feel compelled to "siphon out all of the detritus" or whatever the B.S. that you hear regurgitated when people talk about tank makeovers. Unless you're tearing apart the tank because it's a smelly, stinky, mismanaged, toxic pile of shit that's killing your fishes, keep the biological "fuel" intact for your new iteration! (and vow to take better care of your tank this time!)

Super easy, right?

It is. If you let it be that way.

Evolution in our aquariums 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 either!

Evolving and managing a botanical method aquarium is really something that we should take to easily. It is actually a pretty effortless process. Setting up an aquarium in this fashion also provides us with the opportunity to literally "operate" our botanical-style aquariums; that is, to manage their evolution over time through deliberate steps and practices.

This is not entirely unknown to us as aquarium hobbyists.

It's not at all unlike what we do with planted aquarium or reef aquarium. In fact, the closest analog to this approach is the so-called "dry start" approach to planted aquariums, except we're trying to grow bacteria and other organisms instead of plants.

Yes, it's an evolution.

Simply, a step forward out of the artificially-induced restraints of "this is how it's always been done"- even in our own "methodology"- yet another exploration into what the natural environment is REALLY like, how it evolves, and how it works- and understanding, embracing and appreciating its aesthetics, functionality, and richness.  

Earth-shattering? Not likely.

Educational? For sure.

Thought provoking and fun? Absolutely.

Just realize that it's a long game. Not a quick, "instant aquarium" process. 

We can let things decline. Or, we can take charge and attempt to stave off the inevitable. Botanical-method aquariums offer numerous opportunities for making changes- or not.

How we as humans choose to accept this progression and change is purely based on our own tastes.

The reality is that these things will continue despite any interventions we perform on our tanks. We can "resist" them, performing "maintenance" takes on our tanks, like trimming plants, fragging corals, scraping algae, stirring the top layers of substrate, etc.- but these are merely serving to counteract or stave off the inevitable changes that occur in an aquarium as it establishes itself, begins to thrive, and runs at a stable pace for extended periods of time.

Some tanks decline over time.


Of course, in many cases, the "decline" is so gradual, so subtle, that the outsider hardly notices.  In the case fo a botanical-method aquarium, with its abundance of seed pods, leaves, and other materials, you'd be hard-pressed to really call it a "decline." It's more like an evolution, really.

You, the aquarist, ever keen on anything that occurs in your tank, will notice- and often perform subtle (or not-so-subtle) interventions to counteract this process, lest it descend into some sort of chaos, right? 

Yet, isn't "chaos" sort of a human-ascribed thing? I mean, we're talking about changes in the aquatic habitat which evolve the look and perhaps the biological "operating system" of the aquarium. This is absolutely analogous to what happens in natural aquatic systems.

Stuff breaks down, and different types of organisms flourish and reproduce as a result. Nothing goes to waste in Nature...and that includes the "nature" which is found in our aquariums, too..If we allow it to happen.

It's entirely possible, in my humble opinion, that we, as aquarists actually sabotage the essential natural processes which help our tanks run when we attempt to "intervene" through excessive maintenance.

The ebb and flow of life in a natural, botanical-method aquarium is much like a garden. You can and should perform regular maintenance, conducting water exchanges, filter media replacement, etc.- like you do in any other tank. However, you need to conduct these maintenance sessions not with the idea of "THIS will take care of those biofilms", but an attitude of. "This will continue to facilitate change over time..."

Yeah, it requires a certain attitude.

And a willingness to look at Nature as she actually is- and to appreciate the beauty in the details of Her processes.

A willingness to accept.

An acceptance that Nature will plot the right course for your tank. And, you need a degree of patience and yeah-faith- that things will unfold in ways you may not even have begun to appreciate. Like any other aquatic endeavour, you can make it easier and more enjoyable by being aware of what is going on, and accepting the way Nature works Her magic.

It simply takes time.

And patience.

Perhaps a hands-off approach- "passive management", if you will- is not always a bad thing.

I sometimes wonder what our aquariums would evolve into over the course of a couple of years if we merely performed basic maintenance tasks, such as water changes, equipment maintenance, feeding, scraping the viewing panels, etc., and did little else. No animal replacement. No trimming of plants, fragging of corals, or removal of fish fry. No rearranging of the aquascape. 

What would you end up with?

Of course, the answer depends upon what the "end point" is. For that matter- does there have to be one?

It seems that in recent years, I've executed more aquariums in a shorter period of time than ever in my aquatic career. Unusual for me, because, as you might imagine- I'm kind of a "leave the tank be" kind-of-guy.

I'm typically not a fan of big "edits" on my tanks, once they're settled in.

Nature doesn't "edit." She evolves.

Could you resist "editing" your aquarium for a period of time? Would you want to? Is rearranging stuff and re-working things as much part of the hobby as just looking into the tank and enjoying it? 

For some it is.

And if you went completely "hands-off" with your tank, what would happen?

I don't think all that much, in the case of botanical method tanks. I think you have to possess a basic understanding of the environmental processes and conditions within your aquarium. This will give you a lot more confidence in how your tank can evolve and run with minimal intervention. Sure, you might rework the "aquascape" part from time to time, but if you leave the essential biological components of your aquarium more-or-less "intact" for an indefinite period of time, it'll likely just keep on plugging along. This idea of an "eternal aquirium"  is really compelling.

So, what would happen if you went full "hands-off?"

Would anarchy reign, or would a different sort of system ultimately evolve? Would it succeed on some level that you wouldn't have considered previously? What would come to dominate, and what would fade away?

How would Nature work with what you gave her in your little glass or acrylic world called "an aquarium?"

Likely, none of the horrifying outcomes dancing around in our heads would occur. Rather, if left to Her own devices, Nature will find a way to create a consistent ecology.

It's what She's done for eons...She plays a really "long game."

You should, too.

Stay patient. Stay observant. Stay dedicated. Stay confident...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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