If you're like me, you're obsessed with the aesthetics, function, and benefits of the botanical-style, blackwater aquarium. And many of you have been working with botanicals for as long as we've been offering them for sale (would you believe 2 years in August?!), and have probably already developed your own set of favorites, along with some cool techniques and such along the way!
Now, before I get into the "meat" of today's piece, I must qualify it and state firmly that there is simply no such thing as a "maintenance free" aquarium, blackwater or otherwise. We've already established that, even in our world of decomposing leaves, biofilms, and brown water, there are necessary practices that you need to engage in to keep your aquarium functioning and thriving in top condition. Make no mistake- these tanks require some work. Nonetheless, those of us who have played with botanicals in blackwater aquariums for a while have developed some "hacks" to at least make some of the necessary ongoing maintenance tasks easier.
And it's not always about "maintenance" in this context. Nope. Sometimes, it simply about setting up your aquarium a certain way, or utilizing materials in such a way as to give you longer-term functional/aesthetic benefits with less effort, as you'll see here.
Here are two easy, time-honored "hacks" that can make your life as a botanical-style blackwater aquarium hobbyist a bit more easy.
1) LEAVES FOR LONGEVITY
A great combination of leaves, in my opinion, would be Guava and Magnolia. Why, you might ask? Well, for one thing, both of these leaves tend to last a lot longer than say, Catappa. Magnolia leaves not only have a very "exotic" look when they're submerged, but as many of our "power users", like JT Martin will tell you, they hold their shape and colors for extended periods of time. They may recruit a little more biofilm on their surfacesthan some other leaves during their "tenure" in your aquarium, but they will more than compensate with their "endurance" and aesthetics...Oh, and they can add a very attractive tint to the tank as well!
The other half of this "dynamic duo" of leaves, Guava, is the perfect compliment. It also has an "exotic" look, with its distinctive shape and ribbed structure. Guava lasts a surprisingly long time when submerged (I've had specimens last 2 months or more before starting to break down significantly) retains it's good looks, and imparts a more gentle golden tint to the water.
Of course, if you keep organisms like shrimp, they'll take 'em down in short order (shrimp just seem to LOVE Guava leaves!), so you'll need to replace them more often. In my opinion, Guava leaves are one of the great "unsung heroes" of the botanical/blackwater aquarium, and don't seem to get the credit they deserve versus the uber-popular Catappa leaves!
So, the takeaway here: Both of these leaf types look awesome, last a long time, and tend to hold together without breaking up as easily as other leaves, making them excellent choices for a more easy-maintenance botanical-style/blackwater aquarium.
2) "TINT HACKING"
Many of you probably already do this, but maybe not...When you prepare your water for water changes, it's typically down a few days to a week in advance, so why not use this time to your advantage and "pre-tint" the water by steeping some leaves in it? Not only will it keep the "aesthetics" of your water ( can you believe we're even talking about "the aesthetics of water?") consistent (i.e.; tinted), it will already have humic substances and tannins dissolved into it, helping you keep a more stable system. Obviously, you'd still check your pH and other parameters, but the addition of leaves to your replacement water is a great little hack that you should take advantage of.
It's also a really good way to get the "look" and some of the benefits of blackwater for your system from the outset. If you're just setting up a new aquarium, and have some water set aside for the tank, why not use the time it's aging to "pre-tint" it a bit, so you can have a nice look from day one? It's also great if you're setting up a tank for an aquascaping contest or other same-day club event that would make it advantageous to have a tinted tank immediately.
I must confess that one of the more common questions we receive here from hobbyists is "how can I get the tint" in my tank more quickly- and this is definitely one way!
3) "WOOD YOU BELEIVE..?"
Here's another stupidly simple "hack" to get not only a "quick start" on tinting your water, but to help with the ongoing maintenance of the color with a minimal amount of intervention. I must admit, it's actually so basic that it's kind of like "cheating"- but hey, it's all about "hacking" today, right?
The inspiration for this "technique" (I'm kind of embarrassed to call it a "technique", really) is the numerous frantic posts from distraught hobbyists that you see on aquascaping/planted tank forums who freak out because they just set up their "natural" planted aquarium and the piece of wood they used is "...leaching tannins into the tank and coloring the water brown!"
Okay, I shouldn't make fun of these hapless souls who just loose their shit and simply haven't figured out that tint is cool...but the beautiful takeaway here for us is that you can use your wood (oh, that totally came out wrong...) to your advantage as a botanical/blackwater aquarium fan. (that still sounded bad!)
When life gives you lemons (or in this case, tannins)...
Most aquatic woods like my personal fave, Mopani, as well as Spider Wood, "traditional" driftwood, and as you'll soon discover, Mangrove- impart significant amounts of tannins into the water, which is why those clear-water-loving weirdos (heh, heh) like to soak their wood pieces for weeks before setting up their tank, and use heavy amounts of activated carbon and other chemical filtration media indefinitely to remove as much of the tint-producing tannins as possible.
So, simply give your driftwood enough of a "presoak" (or not) as required to get it to sink and stay down on its own, and perhaps to leach out some initial impurities, like surface dirt, dust, etc.- and than place it in your tank, and let it release its tannin goodness into the water. Sure, if it's too dark even for your sophisticated taste, you can always moderate it with some activated carbon or repetitive water changes until you get the "tint level" you like. And, as every "natural" aquarium fan knows, the wood will continue leaching tannins for a pretty long time...
This is perfect for those who love the tint but perhaps dislike the idea of lots of leaves in their tank; maybe those who just like the more durable, but less-tannin-imparting botanicals. Easy. Embarrassingly easy. And insanely obvious, too. Many of us simply didn't really consider it, because we got all caught up in using our leaves and botanicals to do the "heavy lifting", right? Yet aquatic wood is the perfect "secret" that's literally been right in front of our collective eyes for a century or more of aquarium practice! Use what ya'got, right?
Okay, on that note...
Let's cut this one off here, although I'm certain you have many more interesting, creative, and "legit" techniques (okay, "hacks") for working with your botanical-style/blackwater aquariums. Let's hear 'em!
Until next time,
Stay clever. Stay innovative. Stay creative...
And Stay Wet.