The waiting game...part of the journey.

Every aquarium is a unique microcosm, with different looks, goals, and processes that it embraces. These things depend upon a variety of environmental inputs, internal processes, and external and internal influences- such as the organisms within the system. They take time to evolve, stabilize, and flourish. We talk about this incessantly, I know...but it's the whole game when it comes to botanical-style aquariums!

Botanical style aquariums are not "static diorama" aquascapes...They're not "all done"  or "ready for judging" (gulp) as soon as the last seed pod is placed. In fact, that's just the very beginning of a long and continuous process.

They are systems which evolve.

They have to in order to become what they must. And this doesn't happen immediately. These tanks simply need time. They need to "breathe" (metaphorically speaking) and be left to do what Nature intends for them to do.

A recent example is my brackish water aquarium, which took over a year, really to evolve into something exactly like I envisioned...It simply wasn't "there" after a month or two, or even six. Our botanical-style tanks, with few exceptions- just don't start looking their best- all "earthy" and "funky" and...established- for a few months, typically.  

To terminate them "mid-evolution" because they don't look the way you want them to is really a kind of shame! And it overlooks the very important part: Botanical-style aquariums are not an "aquascaping style"- they are a methodology which embraces natural materials and processes to "finish" what we start- to not only help create and enrich the ecosystem- but to change the aesthetics as it does.

Of course, there are a few things you could do to sort of "expedite" the "established" look of a botanical-style tank, but they're really just sort of "hacks" (ugh I hate that word!)- and are no substitutes for just letting a tank evolve over time naturally.

"Well, what are they, Fellman?" 

So you could use some botanicals and partially decomposed leaf litter, substrate, and even water from an established botanical-style tank to give you a bit more of an "evolved" vibe and definitely some microbial populations and therefor, some function.

And, if doing this for purely "functional" reasons as opposed to just trying to "hack" the "look"- I can actually see tremendous merit to this idea. Hell, adding sand or gravel from an established tank to "jump-start" a new one has been standard practice in marine aquariums for decades, and in freshwater as well.

Doing this with botanical materials- rich with detritus, biofilms, fungal growth, and beneficial bacteria- is simply the botanical-style version of this time-honored process, right? And it makes perfect sense.

Yet, there is no substitute for patience and the passage of time.

Looking back on some of my favorite tanks that I've executed in the past few years, it becomes increasingly obvious to all that these systems really don't hit that "look and feel" that we expect until long after they have evolved naturally...however long that is.

Stuff needs to acquire a "patina" of biofilm, a "stain" from the tannins, and decomposition of botanical materials needs to really begin before one of these systems turns "functional" as well.

I mean, every new botanical-style tank looks cool from day one...A lot of people love the clean and fresh-looking leaves, and seed pods that are squeaky clean. But the long-established systems are the ones that stand out.

After 6 months, that's when things get really special.

That's when the bulk of the "settling in" is done. The bacterial, fungal, and microorganism populations have increased, and nutrient imports and exports have balanced out and stabilized. The tank looks great, smells earthy and pleasant, and the fishes take on a very relaxed demeanor.

I've long held that my fave botanical-style, blackwater aquarium of all was the one I did about 3 years aquarium utilizing mangrove wood, extensive leaf litter, and catappa bark throughout. This is probably the only tank in recent years that I've truly regretted changing and moving on from! 😂 

And it wasn't all sexy and dark and established-looking from the get-go.


It literally looked like shit for the first couple of months of it's existence: Slightly tinted water, a contrived-looking "campfire-like" wood stack, bare sand, and mostly intact botanical materials. I had to do a bunch of iterations with the hardscape to get it where I wanted it. It almost looked contrived, but I knew from experience that if I waited it out, let Nature do Her thing- that the potential was huge in this tank.


However, a few months in, biofilms started forming. The wood acquired that "patina" we talk about so much. Leaves and botanicals broke down...And the water took on the most earthy-looking, deeply mysterious color I've seen in a blackwater aquarium. A very slight "turbidity" or "flavor" as one of my friends called it- that was as compelling as it was beautiful.

Yeah, by some standards, the water in the tank could be described as almost "turbid"- taking on an appearance as though there were fine materials in the water column. Yet, the tank had a real magical appearance with the LED lighting; the fishes were as colorful, relaxed and happy as any I've ever seen, and the water parameters were spot-on and consistent for as long as the tank was set up. IN fact, I had three spawns of Rummy Nose Tetras in that tank!

This tank had a certain "something":

The essence "wabi-sabi", for sure. Transience, the ephemeral aspects of our botanicals...the wonders of Nature, embraced.

Now sure, there are some concepts which have the "broken-in" look from almost day one, simply by virtue of the materials which they utilize. An example was the "pure leaf litter" aquarium which I set up to test the idea of internally-sustainable food production for fishes. The system was set up with about a 2"/5.08cm layer of Live Oak Leaf Litter and Yellow Mangrove Leaves  to comprise the entire "hardscape" of the aquarium.

Yeah, it was essentially "finished" from day one- at least, aesthetic-wise. And yet, it only improved over time in ways I can't really explain.

A shoal of Paracheirodon simulans (the "Green Neon Tetra") formed the perfect "subject" for this concept tank. Once out of quarantine, the fishes were not fed at all in this aquarium, and almost doubled in size in a couple of months! It didn't take all that long for the aquarium to acquire the "look" of a very long-established one, thanks to the capability of the Live Oak leaf litter to acquire biofilms and some detritus. 

Now, this tank was certainly not one that everyone would find "attractive"- however, to a botanical-style/blackwater aquarium freak like me, this aquarium was more than just a "proof of concept"- it was an example of an unconventional aquarium that was able to sustain its residents for the duration of the experiment. Oh, and they spawned! Twice! I think that this tank could have ran for an indefinite period of time, with only routine maintenance and replenishment of leaves as necessary.

There was a certain beauty to that "no scape", as one of my reefkeeping friends called it. And yet, it took a bit of time to REALLY get the perfect look. A "waiting game" of sorts. 

Some botanical-style aquariums are simple in concept, look "about right" from day one; and you just need to set them up and sort of "wait it out" until they start looking more "established"- which might only take a few weeks or a month or two at the most. A perfect example is the tank I've affectionately called the "Tucano Tangle"- an aquarium set up to replicate part of the habitat of the Tucano Tetra, Tucanoichthys tucano.

Possibly one of the easiest biotope-inspired aquariums I've ever set up, this one really took on the "look" I was trying to achieve in seemingly little time at all. It started with a simple "superstructure" of Spider Wood, topped with several specimens of Melastoma Root (don't worry, we have more coming in a few weeks....) to achieve as sort of tangled, earthy, "deep" sort of look. The substrate was a very shallow mix of sand and some very fine claylike materials, topped with a sprinkling of (wait for it) Live Oak leaf litter.

After an initial settling-in phase, this tank easily shifted out of "new and pristine mode" into "looks like a natural habitat" mode, as I kind of expected that it would!

As the water darkened, and the biofilms and "patina" took over, the tank became a perfect demonstration of the power of simply "executing and waiting" on your tank to "do its thing" and evolve.

And evolve it did, in a relatively short period of time!

Now, other experimental systems I've played with simply take more time to do their thing and come into their own before you'd really move on.

However, they actually are intended for "forced iteration"- a deliberate change to their composition or progression. Indeed, after the initial setup, the "evolved" product looks little like what it started out as. Of course, these projects may take many months to evolve as part of the plan. The "Urban Igapo" tanks I've shared with you are good examples of this.

These tanks are what you could call "continuously evolving" systems. They change from terrestrial to aquatic and back over time. You just sort of keep them going by inundating them, emptying them, and repeating the process.

I know. I know. This isn't exactly earth-shattering. 

On the other hand, in the world of the botanical-style 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, it DOES.

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.

The formerly terrestrial physical environment is now transformed into an earthy, twisted, incredibly rich aquatic habitat, which fishes have evolved over eons to live in and utilize for food, protection, and complex, protected spawning areas. 

All of the botanical material-shrubs, grasses, fallen leaves, branches, seed pods, and such, is suddenly submerged; often, currents re-distribute the leaves and seed pods and branches into little pockets and "stands", affecting the (now underwater) "topography" of the landscape.

Leaves begin to accumulate. Detritus settles.

Soils dissolve their chemical constituents- tannins, and humic acids- into the water, enriching it. Fungi and micororganisms begin to feed on and break down the materials. Biofilms form, crustaceans multiply rapidly. Fishes are able to find new food sources; new hiding areas to spawn.

Life flourishes.

And it is part of a sequence. A pattern...A journey. Perhaps what could best be called an evolution- which Nature has carefully set up and managed over eons. 

In our own aquarium work, we can replicate this sequence and's not that hard to do. The really difficult part is the waiting. Acquiring the patience that we must deploy as we watch our aquariums evolve, uninterrupted- under the steady hand of Nature.

That's the magic.

It's a process- the part of the journey which every botanical-style aquarist needs to embrace and understand.

Of course, an aquarium which utilizes botanicals as a good part of its hardscape follows a set of phases, too. And I've found that once a botanical-style aquarium (blackwater or brackish) hits that sort of "stable mode", it's just that- stable. You won't see wildly fluctuating pH levels, increasing nitrates, phosphates, etc. To a certain degree, the aquarium has achieved some sort of "biological equilibrium."

Now, one thing that's unique about the botanical-style 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.

When we do that- when we make those mental shifts and accept that our aquariums aren't really "finished" in 5 days- or 50- we have suddenly begun to understand this whole "botanical-style aquarium thing."

It's a dynamic that needs to be understood, embraced, and celebrated. It's what separates the work we do and the tanks that we love from the rest of what's common in the hobby. It's a challenge, of course. Yet, it's perhaps its one of the the most rewarding ones we can take on in the aquarium hobby.

It starts with patience, and continues with a "waiting game." Yet, an enjoyable one, nonetheless.

Stay patient. Stay studious. Stay grounded. Stay diligent...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 




Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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