IN the botanical-style aquarium world, our work is largely predicated on the complimentary work that Nature does. She's our ally, our partner. The idea that. an aquarium filled with leaves, twigs, and other botanical materials is not some "alternative" to our "standard practices"- it IS our standard practice!
One of the questions thatr we receive all the time is, "How much of this stuff should I add to my tank? Is there such a thing as too much?"
Well, that's a really good question. Keep in mind that this question, typically- and the context of today's piece, is in regards to converting an existing aquarium to a botanical-style one. If you're starting from scratch, without fishes, you can do things a bit differently, as we have mentioned previously.
And I think that it starts with understanding how to develop a cadence for your tank.
ˈkādns/ noun- The flow or rhythm of events, especially the pattern in which something is experienced.
Remember, anything you add into an aquarium- wood, sand, botanicals, and of course- livestock- is part of the "bioload", and will impact the function and environment of your aquarium. It's about understanding a balance, a quantity, a "cadence" for adding stuff, so that the closed environment of your aquarium can assimilate the new materials, and the bacteria, fungi, and other organisms which serve to break them down can adjust.
Adding botanicals to your tank is as much about how fast as it is about how much.
Rapid, dramatic environmental shifts are never a good thing for any type of aquarium, and a system like we run, with lots of organic material present, is just as susceptible to insults from big moves as any other- perhaps even more.
You certainly can wipe out your aquarium by going to fast and too hard. I've seen it before. In fact, typically, the only "problems" that our customers have reported over the years when using botanicals were caused by violating Nature's "speed limit"- adding too many botanicals to an established aquairum in too short of a length of time.
A recipe for trouble. Or worse.
Again, the key here is that "cadence"- understanding that the material we add needs to be added-and replaced- on a pace that makes sense for your specific system. Those of us who have been maintaining these types of tanks for some time now really get this, and have a great "feel" for how our tanks run in this fashion.
You need to deploy patientence.
The single most important thing you need for a successful raquairum (well, except maybe cash!)- and the thing we celebrate the least, IMHO. And we should celebrate it a lot more.
Because you really can’t skip the process…
There is no "plug and play" formula to follow- only procedure. Only recommendations for how to approach things. We sound a bit like the proverbial "broken record"; however, like so many things in aquarium-keeping, our "best practices" are few, simple and need to be repeated until they simply become habit:
1) Prepare all botanicals prior to adding them to your aquarium.
2) Add botanical materials slowly and gradually, assessing the impact on your aquarium environments and inhabitants.
3) Either remove botanical materials as they break down (if that's your aesthetic preference), or replace them when they reach a point where they are no longer providing the aesthetic and environmental conditions that you desire.
This is pretty logical stuff, right?
If you noticed, the first practice is simply logical. You need to employ it...if there were ever a "hard and fast rule in the botanical/blackwater game, this would be it. We've covered it so many times here that it likely needs little repeating.
Number 2 is all about the cadence...the "secret", if you will, which sort of sets up everything else. By observing and assessing, you'll get a real feel for how botanicals work in your aquarium. What impact they are having on your fishes- and on the environment as a whole.
And Number 3 is the real "finesse" part of the equation...the nuance, the subtle, yet noticeable adjustments and corrections we make to keep things moving along nominally- sort of like pruning in a planted tank, or weeding a garden...it's a process.
This idea of process, cadence, observation, and timing is not something unique to botanical-style aquairums. Nor is it a sort of "recommendation." Rather- it's foundational.
In fact, the entire experience of a botanical-style aquarium boils down to a process and a pace that helps foster the gradual, yet inexorable "evolution" of the aquarium. And let there be no doubt- a botanical-style aquarium does "evolve" over time, regularly and steadily changing and progressing.
As we've mentioned before, it might just be the perfect expression of the Japanese concept of "wabi-sabi", popularized by Takashi Amano, which is the acceptance of transience and imperfection in all things.
It's a dance. A story.
And it's all held together by you- the aquarist, applying as much emotion as you do procedure- all done in the proper time...at the right cadence.
Of course, when you start adding botanical materials to your aquarium, not only are you sort of "buying in" to a different approach to aquarium-keeping- you're "signing up" to accept a completely different look than we are traditionally accustomed to. Yeah, we are "opting in" to techniques which are somewhat contrary to what you've likely embraced before. You're accepting an aesthetic which deviates strongly from the traditional aquarium "look" that we have been accustomed to for generations. And it doesn't stop with the looks of the tank...
It starts with the way we look at Nature.
Once we visit, or look at a photo or video of a natural underwater habitat where tropical fishes live, and remove our hobby-contrived preconceptions of what it should look like from the equation and simply observe it as it is- we have to ask ourselves if this is how we want our tank to look...
That's the first mental shift.
Like, can you handle this stuff?
It's the ultimate "essence" of our philosophy. A way of capturing aspects of Nature in our aquarium in a manner that accepts it as it is, rather than how we want it to be.
And if we say "Yes" to the question, we then need to ask ourselves if we're okay accepting the rather unorthodox thinking and practices that are required of us to get an aquarium to that place.
You know, like adding seed pods, leaves, soils, etc. to an aquarium in an effort to capture the form and function of these natural habitats. To adopt a philosophy that says, "It's time to take inspiration from the reality of Nature, not just its essence."
Accepting the appearance of biofilms, murky water, algae, decomposing botanical materials, and that these things occur in our aquariums, too, and can be managed to take advantage of their benefits. You know, as supplemental food sources, "nurseries" for fry, and as interesting little ways to impart beneficial humic substances and dissolved organics into the water.
Realizing that the very act of adding natural materials like seed pods and leaves fosters the development of biofilms, less-than-crystal-clear water, and detritus...And that this is what you actually WANT.
Another mental shift.
Understanding once and for all and accepting that things are not aesthetically "perfect" in Nature, in the sense of being neat and orderly from a "design" aspect. Understanding that, yeah, in nature, you have branches, rocks and botanical materials scattered about on the bottom of streams in a seemingly random, disorderly pattern. Or..are they? Could it be that current, weather events, and the processes of physical decomposition distribute materials the way they do for a reason?
Now, circling back to the question of if it's possible to add too much botanical materials to your aquarium:
Obviously, the question here is "how much stuff do I start with?" And of course, my answer is...I have no idea. Yeah, what a shocker, right? I realize that's the least satisfying, possibly least helpful answer I could give to this question. Or is it? I mean, taking into account all of the possible variables, ranging from the type of water your starting with, to what kind of substrate material you're using, it would be a shot in the dark, at best.
The best advice is to adapt a more generalized mantra:
Consider the environmental impact of the stuff you add to your established tank.
My advice is to start with conservatively small quantities of stuff...like, maybe a half a dozen leaves for every 15 US gallons (56.78L) of water, and a corresponding amount of seed pods, etc. If you're using water with little to no carbonate hardness, you could see a decrease in pH after adding botanicals. At first, you might not even notice any difference..or you might see a .2 reduction in pH...You have to test.
I recommend a digital pH meter for best accuracy.
If you're getting a sort of feeling that this is hardly a scientific, highly-choreographed, one-size-fits-all process....you're totally right. It's really a matter of (as the great hobbyist/author John Tullock once wrote) "Test and tweak." In other words, see what the hell is going on before making adjustments. Logical and time-tested aquarium procedure for ANY type of tank!
And then you have to consider the biological impact of these additions on your aquarium.
Adding to much botanical material to your tank too quickly could overwhelm the existing bacterial populations in your aquarium, and their ability to handle organics. This could result in an ammonia or nitrite "spike."
Now, there is some good news here amidst all of the cautions!
Pretty much anything that we add to the aquarium contains some biological material (ie. bacteria, fungal or algal spores, etc.), right? And when they hit the water, it begins a process of growth, colonization, and proliferation that won't stop. These processes are so beneficial and important to our systems...
When we have these materials in place, the "microfaunal ecosystem" begins to "ignite" and grow. We often talk about the large influx of "nutrients" present in a new aquarium, and "immature" nutrient export systems in place to handle it. I mean, the tank plays a sort of biological "catch up" during this time, as the bacterial and fungal growths proliferate among the abundant nutrients.
We might rely a bit more on mechanical and chemical filtration during this period. However, ultimately, these natural "nutrient export mechanisms" will take over.
It just takes time.
And a mindset where you're not totally obsessed with removing every bit of "dirt" or material which looks offensive. Allowing the the nitrogen cycle to really establish itself, and natural processes develop, will really "set the tone" for our botanical-style aquariums, IMHO. We shouldn't let some of the initial visual clues, like "cloudiness", biofilms, etc. compel us to whip out the siphon hose and remove every bit of the "offensive"-looking material from our tanks. Otherwise, we end up working agains the very processes that we're trying to foster in a botanical-style aquarium!
It takes patience, understanding, observation- and a vision.
And we are patient.
And we understand that a botanical-style aquarium truly must "evolve" and take time to begin to blossom into a functioning little ecosystem. And we enjoy each and every stage of the "startup" process for what it is: An analog to the processes which occur in the natural habitats we want so badly to emulate. I think one of the mental "games" I've always played with myself during this process is to draw parallels between what I'm doing to prepare my tank and what happens in Nature.
It kind of goes something like this:
A tree falls in the (dry) forest (Really, Fellman's riffing about trees AGAIN? Well, yeah...). Wind and gravity determine its initial resting place (you play around with positioning your wood pieces until you get 'em where you want, and in a position that holds!). A little rain falls (we spray down our hardscapes...), moistening the dry materials that abound in the substrate.
Next, other materials, such as leaves and perhaps a few rocks become entrapped around the fallen tree or its branches (we set a few "anchor" pieces of hardscaping material into the tank). Detritus settles (you know, that damn "sediment" that you get in newly setup tanks...) Then, the heavier rain comes; streams overflow, and the once-dry forest floor becomes inundated (we fill the aquarium with water).
The action of water and rain help "set" the final position of the tree/branches, and wash more materials into the area influenced by the tree (we place more pieces of botanicals, rocks, leaves, etc. into place). The area settles a bit, with occasional influxes of new water from the initial rainfall (we make water chemistry tweaks and maybe a top-off or two, as needed).
Fungi, bacteria, and insects begin to act upon the wood and botanicals which have collected in the water (kind of like what happens in our tanks, huh? Yes- biofilms are beautiful...). Gradually, the first fishes begin to follow the food and populate the area (we add our first fish selections based on our stocking plan...). It continues from there.
Get the picture? Sure, I could go on and on attempting to painfully draw parallels to every little nuance of tank startup and evolution, but I think you know where I'm going with this stuff...
And the thing we must deploy at all times in this process is patience.
And an appreciation for each and every step in the process, and how it will influence the overall "tempo" and ultimate success of the aquarium we are creating. When we take the view that we are not just creating an "aquatic display", but a habitat for a variety of aquatic life forms, we tend to look at it as much more of an evolving process than a step-by-step "procedure" for getting somewhere.
We need to stop looking for shortcuts and cheap ways to do everything in this hobby. I'm not saying just spend tons of money and do everything the hard way. I AM saying that we occasionally have to do things in a more roundabout, more costly way, simply because these are sometimes the best ways to do it. We need to always place the welfare of our animals ahead of our desire to get what we want as quickly and inexpensively as possible.
We must always, ALWAYS preach patience. We need to continue to demonstrate and discuss that these types of aquariums are the result of embracing patience, process, diligence, and self-education.
Go slowly. Don't add too much stuff too your established aquarium too quickly.
Too much IS likely too much!
Stay patient. Stay cautious. Stay observant. Stay determined. Stay curious. Stay grounded..
And Stay Wet.