Tinting the sterile box...

Have you ever thought about the sort of "sequence" we go through when we turn a sterile glass or plastic box into a living, functioning microcosm of aquatic life, and how it sort of "evolves" depending upon how we manage it...and look at it? 

Yeah, this concept crossed my mind recently when I was in the process of setting up a new aquarium. It's like we start with the most basic stuff: A tank, water, and some ideas...And then it progresses from there. As a "tinter", we have a unique position, in that we can give a "let" to a few things which our friends, the "clearwater" enthusiasts find uniquely troublesome! More on that shortly.

So, there is that period of time, after you fill your aquarium, wash the substrate, and introduce the rocks and perhaps the wood into the tank, where it's sort of "sterile", right? Now, obviously not "sterile" in the scientific sense, because of course, there are bacteria, algal spores, etc. attached to the wood, rocks, and substrate. Yet, "sterile" in the sense that there is no "spark" to it. It's more or less clean, bright, and...well...clean and bright.


So, what happens next is up to us. It's he most enjoyable part, actually: Bringing the sterile box to life, aesthetically and biologically. And, if you step back for a second from the "checklist" mentality that many of us apply to this process, and consider it in sort of a "biologically evolutionary" way, it's pretty fascinating!

Let's start with the substrate- literally from "the bottom up!" Most of us use some form of sand or gravel, and planted enthusiasts of course utilize various nutritive substrate additives and materials, like soils, which, I believe, we should also be looking at as blackwater/botanical-style aquarium enthusiasts, if only for the fact that many of them also impart humic substances to the water in addition to giving you the option for live plants!

Substrates, in both the natural "igapo" habitats we've looked at, and in our own aquariums, have been sadly overlooked as a very important component of even non-planted aquariums. Flooded forest habitats, where many of our fishes come from in nature, are rich, complex, and dynamic, and we need to be looking that them more and more as possible "models" for replicating in our aquaria, from both an aesthetic and, increasingly- a functional- perspective. There are a LOT of "takeaways" there!

The cliched expression, "biological richness" in the context of our aquaria really takes on a different meaning with botanical-style systems, as their very nature and "configuration" is an expression of this idea. Much of the work in the future on blackwater, botanical-style systems, will, in my opinion, be focused on this aspect...And many of the benefits that we'll discover from these systems will be a direct result of this.

More and more of us are experimenting with mixing botanical materials directly into the substrate- Stuff like leaves and bits of leaves, coconut based materials, like our "Fundo Tropical", even Spanish Moss and smaller botanicals, like "Heart Pods", "Lampada Pods", etc. The idea is to create a rich, mixed bed of materials, which not only provide the tannins and tunic substances that our crowd loves, but the biological "substrate" to encourage the growth and reproduction of supplemental food sources, in the form of small crustaceans like Gammarus, Cyclops, Daphnia, and even worms. Incorporating an assortment of materials into the substrate which break down and "enrich" the aquatic environment produces a truly "active" substrate and microhabitat that, if properly maintained, can benefit the entire aquarium for the duration of its existence.

And then the wood...Ah, we love wood. Many of us prepare it weeks or even months in advance of the aquarium build, to make sure that it's waterlogged and "broken in." Now, this is where I think some of us are a bit "different." In years past, when I wasn't as into keeping my water nice and brown, I was obsessed with pre-soaking my wood pieces to get them to sink, but more so to release some of the bound-up tannins in the wood. You know, 'cause that's what we all do, right?

These days, I really couldn't care less if it adds some tint to the water as it ages, and I'm sure that many of you agree! Now, of course I worry about some pollutants, and do a little pre-soaking or rinsing for that purpose, but I'm happy to have the little "kick start" that the release of tannins from wood delivers, aren't you? And yes, I admit that I DO take a bit of evil delight in reading the frantic forum posts by hobbyists freaking the @#$& out about what to do about the "tannins staining my water!"  I often wonder if they could ever adopt our mindset and understand what a "gift" the wood has given them! 

I Like to get my leaves and botanicals in as soon as possible after that initial "haze", which inevitably arises from a newly set-up tank and not-perfectly-washed substrate, clears. We've talked a lot about this before on social and in this blog, but I"m not nearly as conservative in adding the botanicals all at once in an "uninhabited" aquarium. You're not really looking at getting fishes in there any time soon, so why not take advantage the delicious luxury that a "vacant" aquarium affords us as enthusiastic "tinters?" 

Add as much stuff as you feel you need, in order to get the "look" you want! You can always "edit" as you go. This is probably like the only time in our aquarium's existence when we can be so utterly cavalier about making quick edits. so enjoy the process! It's like the initial "install" of botanicals and leaves seems to really set the tone for the aquarium, both in the color of the tint it provides, as well as the simple aesthetics of "being", so take the time to get it the way you like it in this "consequence free" environment!

And of course, the impact on water chemistry is so much less of a concern without fishes in there. You can adjust and tweak as needed, taking the time to get it exactly how you want it, without concern over killing your fishes!

Your aquarium is coming to life.

If you are the truly patient type, you can take a "pause" of a few weeks to really let stuff start to settle in, make some adjustments, and start seeing some of your leaves and botanicals begin to soften and recruit some biofilms.  Cycle per your favorite technique. Add some of the aforementioned animals to help foster a little "food web" in the tank, and when testing dictates, add your first fishes.

Okay, this is not exactly aquaristically groundbreaking stuff, but I think if we look at the processes that we almost take for granted when setting up our tanks as part of a larger "evolution", we end up looking at our aquariums as dynamic, constantly-changing closed microcosms, with infinite possibilities and benefits for the animals which reside within it.

And it all starts with a sterile box.

Cool, right?

Stay curious. Stay excited. Stay patient. And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 




Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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