Last year, I shared the first two installments of what I hope to be an evolving, semi-periodic look at the techniques I employ personally with my botanical method aquariums. I mean, we share all of that stuff now in our social media and blogs, but until this little "series" I've never been done it in a really concise manner. Many of you have asked for this type of piece in "The Tint", and, since Ive been creating some new tanks lately, it's time to get back at it!
Today, let's get back to a pretty fundamental look at what I do, and how I start my botanical method aquariums.The processes and practices, in particular. Remember, this is not the "ultimate guide" about how do to all of this stuff...It's a review of what I do with my tanks. It's not just a strict "how to", of course. It's more than that. A look at what goes through my mind. My philosophy, and the principles which guide my work with my aquariums. I hope you find it helpful.
First off, one of the main things that I do- what I believe most aquarists do- is to have a "theme"- an idea- in mind when I start my tanks. A "North Star", if you will. This is an essential thing; having a "track to run on" guides the entire project. It influences your material and equipment selections, your establishment timetables, and of course, your fish population.
Let's look at my most recent botanical method aquarium as an example of my approach.
First off, I had a pretty good idea of the "theme" to begin with: A "wet season" flooded Amazonian forest. Now, I freely admit that I put a lot of thought into getting the characteristics of the environment and ecology down as functionally realistic as possible, but that the fish selection was far more "cosmopolitan"- consisting of characins- my fave fishes- some of which are found in such habitats, and some which are not. It was not intended to be some competition-minded, highly accurate biotope display.
Just a fun way to feature some of my fave fishes!
Since I was kid, I'd always dreamed of a medium-to-large-sized tank, filled with a large number of different Tetras. This tank would essentially be my "grown-up", more evolved version of my childhood "Tetra fantasy tank!"
The most basic of all "how I do it" lessons is to have some idea about what you're trying to accomplish before you start. In our game, since recreating the environment and ecology are paramount, this will impact every other decision you make.
In this aquarium, the main "structure" of the ecosystem is comprised of a literal "hodgepodge" of "scrap" pieces of wood of different types and sizes that I had laying around. Very little thought was given to specific types or shapes. The idea was to create a representation of an inverted root section and tangle of broken branches from a fallen tree on the forest floor, which becomes an underwater feature during the "wet season."
It was simply a matter of assembling a bunch of smaller pieces to create the look of the inverted root that I had in my head. And once they are down and covered in that "patina" of biocover, it's hard to distinguish one from the other. It looks like one piece, really. Sure, it would have been easier to carefully select just one piece to do it all (would it, though?🤔), but it was more practical to "use what I had" and make it work!
So, another "how I do it" lesson is that you don't always have to incorporate a single specific wood type to have an incredible-looking, interesting physical aquascape. No chasing after the latest and creates trendy wood for me.
I use what I have, or what I like.
You should, too.
Since we're more about function than we are about aesthetics exclusively, which type of wood isn't as important as simply having any wood to complete the job. (and by extension, other "aquascaping materials"...)
After I get my wood pieces the way I like them, it's the usual stuff: Make sure that they stay down before you fill the tank all the way, etc. Nothing exotic here.
The next step is to fill the tank up. Again, there is no real magic here, except to note that, since we're often using sedimented substrate and bits of botanicals on the substrate, it's best to do this very slowly. I mean, your water is likely to be turbid for some time; it's what goes with the territory. However, no need to exacerbate it by rushing!
And, after the tank is about 1/3 full, I'll usually add all of my prepared leaves and botanicals. Why? Because I've found over the years, similar to planted tank enthusiasts, that it's much easier to get the leave and botanicals where you want them by working in a partially filled tank.
Another, hardly revolutionary approach, but one which I think makes perfect sense for what we do.
After the tank is fully filled...that's is where the real fun begins, of course...In our world, the "fun" includes a whole lot of watching and waiting...Waiting for the water to clear up (if you use sedimented substrates). Waiting for Nature to start Her work; to act upon the terrestrial materials that we have added to our tank.
And of course, this is the time when you're busy making sure that you did all of the right things to get the tank ready for "first water."
And of course, it's also the part where every hobbyist, experienced or otherwise, has those lingering doubts; asks questions- goes through the "mental gymnastics" to try to cope: "Do I have enough flow?" "Was my source water quality any good?" "Is it my light?"
And then- when the first fungal filaments or biofilms appear, some new to our specialty still doubt: "When does this shit go away?" "It DOES go away. I know it's just a phase." Right? "Yeah, it goes away..." "When?" "It WILL go away. Right?"
And then there is the realization that this is a BOTANICAL METHOD aquairum, and that you expect and WANT that stuff in your tank. And it will likely never fully "go away..."
But you know this. And yet, you still count a bit.
I mean, it's common with every new tank, really. The doubts. The worries....
The waiting. The not-being-able-to-visualize-a-fully-stocked tank "thing"...Patience-testing stuff. Stuff which I- "Mr. Tinted-water-biofilms-and-decomposing-leaves-and-botanicals-guy"- am pretty much hardened to by now. You will be, too. It's about graciously accepting a totally different "look." Not worrying about "phases" or the ephemeral nature of some things in my aquarium.
Yet, like anyone who sets up an aquarium, I admit that I still occasionally get those little doubts in the dim (tinted?) recesses of my mind now and then- the product of decades of doing fish stuff, yet wondering if THIS is the one time when things WON'T work out as expected...
I mean, it's one of those rights of passage that we all go through when we set up aquariums right? The early doubts. The questioning of ourselves. The reviewing of fundamental procedure and practice. Maybe, the need to reach out to the community to gain reassurance.
It's normal. It's often inevitable.
Do I worry about stuff?
Well, yeah. Of course.
However, it's not at the point in my tank's existence when you'd think that I'd worry. It's a bit later. And it's not about the stuff you might think. It's all about the least "natural" part of my aquariums: The equipment.
Usually, for me, this worry manifests itself right around the first water exchange. By that time, you'll likely have learned a lot of the quirks and eccentricities of your new aquarium as it runs. You'll have seen how it functions in daily operation.
And then you do your first deliberate "intervention" in its function. You shut down the pumps for a water exchange.
That's when I clutch. I worry.
I always get a lump in my throat the first time I shut off the main system pump for maintenance. "Will it start right back up? Did I miscalculate the 'drain-down' capacity of the sump? Will this pump lose siphon?"
And so what the fuck if it DOES? You simply...fix the problem. That's what fish geeks do. Chill.
Yet, I worry.
That's literally my biggest personal worry with a new tank, crazy though it might sound. The reality, is that in decades of aquarium-keeping, I've NEVER had a pump not start right back up, or overflowed a sump after shutting down the pump...but I still watch, and worry...and don't feel good until that fateful moment after the first water change when I fire up the pump again, to the reassuring whir of the motor and the lovely gurgle of water once again circulating through my tank.
Okay, perhaps I'm a bit weird, but I'm being totally honest here- and I'm not entirely convinced that I'm the only one who has some of these hangups when dealing with a new tank! I've seen a lot of crazy hobbyists who go into a near depression when something goes wrong with their tanks, so this sort of behavior is really not that unusual, right?
However, our typical "worries" are less "worries" than they are little realizations about how stuff works in these tanks.
In a botanical method aquarium, you need to think more "holistically." You need to realize that these extremely early days are the beginning of an evolution- the start of a living microcosm, which will embrace a variety of natural processes.
But yeah, we know what to expect...We observe.
So, what exactly happens in the earliest days of a botanical method aquarium?
Well, for one thing, the water will gradually start to tint up...
Now, I admit that this is perhaps one of the most variable and unpredictable aesthetic aspects of these types of aquariums- yet one which draws in a lot of new hobbyists to our "tribe." The allure of the tinted water. Many factors, ranging from what kind (and how much) chemical filtration media you use, what types (and how much again!) of botanical materials you're using, and others, impact this. Recently, I've heard a lot of pretty good observation-based information from experienced plant enthusiasts that some plants take up tannins as they grow. Interesting, huh?
Stuff changes. The botanicals themselves begin to physically break down; the speed and the degree to which this happens depends almost entirely on processes and factors largely beyond your control, such as the ability of your microbial population to "process" the materials within your aquarium.
I personally feel that botanical-method aquariums always look better after a few weeks, or even months of operation. When they're new, and the leaves and botanicals are crisp, intact, and fresh-looking, it may have a nice "artistic" appearance- but not necessarily "natural" in the sense that it doesn't look established and alive.
The real magic takes place weeks later.
Things change a bit...
The pristine seed pods and leaves start "softening" a bit. And biofilms and fungal growths make their first appearances.
Mental shifts are required on your part.
Yup, the first mental shift that we have to make as lovers of truly natural style aquariums is an understanding that these tanks will not maintain the crisp, pristine look without significant intervention on our part. And, by "intervention", I mean scrubbing, rinsing, and replacing the leaves and botanicals as needed. I mean, sure- you can do that. I know a bunch of people who do.
They absolutely love super pristine-looking tanks.
Well, to each his own, I suppose. Yet, the whole point of a true botanical method aquarium is to accept the "less than pristine" look and the changes that occur within the system because of natural processes and functions.
I admit, I feel a bit sorry for people who can't make the mental shift to accept the fact that Nature does Her own thing, and that She'll lay down a "patina" on our botanicals, gradually transforming them into something a bit different than when we started.
When we don't accept this process, we sadly get to miss out on Nature guiding our tank towards its ultimate beauty- perhaps better than we even envisioned.
For some, it's really hard to accept this process. To let go of everything they've known before in the hobby. To wait while Nature goes through her growing pains, decomposing, transforming and yeah- evolving our aquascapes from carefully-planned art installations to living, breathing, functioning microcosms.
But, what about all of that decay? That "patina" of biofilm?
If you're struggling with accepting this, just remind yourself regularly that it's okay.
The whole environment of a more established botanical-method aquarium looks substantially different after a few weeks. While the water gradually darkens, those biofilms appear...it just looks more "earthy", mysterious, and alive.
It's a reminder of "Wabi-Sabi" again.
Something that's been on my mind a lot lately.
In it's most simplistic and literal form,the Japanese philosophy of "Wabi Sabi" is an acceptance and contemplation of the imperfection, constant flux and impermanence of all things.
This is a very interesting philosophy, one which was brought to our attention in the aquarium world by none other than the late, great, Takashi Amano, who proferred that a (planted) aquarium is in constant flux; constant transistion- and that one needs to contemplate, embrace, and enjoy the changes, and to relate them to the sweet sadness of the transience of life.
Many of Amano's greatest works embraced this philosophy, and evolved over time as various plants would alternately thrive, spread and decline, re-working and reconfiguring the aquascape with minimal human intervention. Each phase of the aquascape's existence brought new beauty and joy to those would observe them.
Yet, in today's contest-scape driven, break-down-the-tank-after-the-show world, this philosophy of appreciating change by Nature over time seems to have been tossed aside as we move on to the next one.
Sure, this may fit our human lifestyle and interest, but it denies Nature her chance to shine, IMHO. There is something amazing about this process of change; about the way our tanks evolve, and we should enjoy them at every stage.
And then, there is the human desire to "edit" stuff. People ask me all the time if I take stuff out of the system; if I make "edits" and changes to the tank as it breaks in, or as the botanicals start to decompose.
Well, I don't, for reasons we've discussed a lot around here:
Remember, one thing that's unique about the botanical-method approach is that we accept the idea of a microbiome of organisms "working" our botanical materials. We're used to 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.
I have long been one the belief that if you decide to let the botanicals remain in your aquarium to break down and decompose completely, that you shouldn't change course by suddenly removing the material all at once...
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 it's a good one.
You need to 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 amounts and composition of said material.
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 summary- I think the presence of botanicals in our aquariums is multi-faceted, highly influential, and of extreme import for the stability, ecological balance, and efficiency of the tank. As a new system establishes itself, the biological processes adapt to the quantity and types of materials present- the nitrogen cycle and other nutrient-processing capabilities evolve over time as well.
Yes, establishing a botanical method aquarium is as much about making mental shifts and acquiring patience and humility as it is about applying any particular aquarium keeping skills. It's about growing as a hobbyist.
Having faith in yourself, your judgment, and, most important- in the role that Nature Herself plays in our tanks.
In seemingly no time at all, you're looking at a more "broken-in" system that doesn't seem so "clean", and has that wonderful pleasant, earthy smell- and you realize right then that your system is healthy, biologically stable, and functioning as Nature would intend it to. If you don't intervene, or interfere- your system will continue to evolve on a beautiful, natural path.
It's that moment- and the many similar moments that will come later, which makes you remember exactly why you got into the aquarium hobby in the first place: That awesome sense of wonder, awe, excitement, frustration, exasperation, realization, and ultimately, triumph, which are all part of the journey- the personal, deeply emotional journey- towards a successful aquarium- that only a real aquarist understands.
This is how I do it.
Stay excited. Stay bold. Stay observant. Stay brave. Stay curious. Stay patient...
And Stay Wet.