Tough love for the beginner? Or a dose of common sense and compassion?

beginner /bəˈɡinər/- noun:  A person just starting to learn a skill or take part in an activity.


A couple of days ago, I had the Honore of being a guest on another podcast, "The Aquarium Guy Podcast"- a great, funny group of guys- you should check them out. My episode airs in a week or so, I'll let you know when it does so you can check it out! 

Among the many questions they had for me was, "Is it possible for a beginner to start with a 'tannin tank'?" (I guess that's popular vernacular for "botanical-style aquarium" or "blackwater aquarium"- I hear this term used a lot lately...).

And it's funny...I actually had to sort of think about it a bit. In fact, you might say I struggled a bit to give a definitive answer! 

It's a good question.

I mean, I've often touted how I feel that, once these systems are established, they are remarkably stable, relatively easy-to-maintain aquariums. Of course, there are some real qualifiers here.

The first being, "After the system is established."

Establishing a botanical-style aquarium, blackwater, brackish, or otherwise- certainly requires some basic understanding of the principles of aquarium management. Specifically, the nitrogen cycle, an understanding of water quality assessment and management, and stocking.

Some things you can't really "teach"- like patience. You need, well- a shitload of the aquarium hobby in general, yet especially in the natural, botanical-style aquarium sector. And the patience part? We feel that it's seminal. Foundational.


I don't think you can "teach" it. 

And you have to have some basic understanding of the nitrogen cycle, aquarium husbandry, and a little bit of awareness of water chemistry basics. I don't think that you can "wing it" with these kinds of tanks...Nor any type of aquarium system, really. To jump into any aquarium- botanical-filled or otherwise- without having basic knowledge about stuff like the nitrogen cycle, fish stocking protocols, and husbandry techniques- is flat-out stupid, IMHO.

I remember I kept stressing this; I kept sort of putting pressure on the outright beginner to do a bit of research and self-educate before opening up his/her purse/wallet and plunking down cash for aquarium stuff and fish. You can go online and research this, pick up a magazine, or these amazing things called "books." You should try them sometime! And you can talk to other hobbyists, or go to the local fish store and have a chat with a knowledgable employee.

Seriously, there are so many resources for aquarium basics out there that it's simply inexcusable to jump first without doing some basic research. I get downright disturbed when somebody who's never kept fishes before approaches me to start a blackwater aquarium and has no clue whatsoever about what ammonia or nitrite is, or how or why to test pH in the aquarium, what the benefits of water exchanges are, etc.

I mean, shit.

You don't know what the nitrogen cycle is, and you want to start a blackwater aquarium? Really?

It's like, "I want to fly a Boeing 787, but I've never taken a flying lesson in a Cessna 152. How do I get started?"

It's audacious and frankly, kind of dumb.

Now, sure, that's a small percentage of people that are so ignorant, but there are more than you think. And sure, I get it.."It takes a village" and we all have a responsibility to help out beginners, which I gladly accept. To a point. How can I explain the merits of biofilm and the idea of fungal growth on decomposing botanicals as part of a possible "food web" to someone who doesn't even understand how to do a water exchange?

It's just as irresponsible of me to try to push someone into that. A certain amount of self-education and responsibility is a requirement for all of us.

We want an Instagram-ready tank without acquiring the foundational knowledge required to get there. I mean, sure, if you just want a tank- hire one of the many talented professional aquarium services to set up and maintain it for you. No problem there. However, if this is going to be a hobby for you- make the damn effort to LEARN.



So, how do we help the beginner nowadays?

Maybe one solution is to make things more "digestible" to an evolving audience. Maybe not everyone wants to deep-dive into obscure research papers, or even a simple aquarium reference book.

Perhaps it's in the presentation. 

The information hasn't changed all that much in the last few decades, right?

Now, I realize that there is plenty of material out there on "how to start an aquarium" or whatever- but I think it needs refreshing, updating in order to reach a new generation of hobbyists who are getting the bulk of their information from Facebook forums, Instagram feeds, and YouTube shorts. Smaller, faster, more digestible stuff (not a characteristic of this damn blog, of course! 😆).

It's important for the future of the hobby. It will assure more people get in- and STAY in the hobby. We need to evolve how we present the concepts as much as we need to evolve the concepts themselves.

Sadly, it has to be reinforced constantly.

I can't tell you how many times a week I answer questions like, "I just received my Enigma Pack! Can I just add this stuff to my 5-gallon tank? I'm new to the hobby. What do I need to do..?" 

It both fascinates and freaks me out at the same time. Like, how did Tannin come up in a search for basic aquarium information?

Yet, some people are experienced and ask these same questions...and that drives me nuts, too.

I mean, I have a freakin' website with gigabytes of stuff on this very topic and other related topics, accumulated over years! And we're evolving this too. I had to check my ego a bit, and accept that not everyone likes to read a daily blog, so I started a podcast version. I get it.

Getting some of the fundamental messages across requires us as vendors and more established hobbyists to adapt and evolve if we want to help beginners start- and remain- in the hobby.

We've spent a lot of money and time on creating a botanical preparation infographic, lots of blogs, instagram live sessions, and podcasts on the topic, etc.- because it's an adaptation to how people consume information nowadays. We all need to evolve. More succinctly, we need to preach the underlying fundamental stuff...but in an evolved way. 

Part of the reason we've spent so much time over the past few years in this blog chatting about the processes, the pitfalls, and the expectations you should have when establishing the systems we advocate is to give everyone a very clear picture of what's involved.

Makes sense, right?

We are literally asking you to dump dead plant materials into your aquarium; to NOT touch on all of this fundamental stuff and discuss the potential issues would have been irresponsible at every level.

So, yeah- getting back to the initial point of this whole thing- you certainly CAN start with a botanical-style natural aquarium for your first project, but you absolutely need to familiarize yourself with the fundamentals of aquarium practice. And you CAN be successful.

As those of us in this game already know, it's a process.

A journey. A learning curve.

A fun one, however...if you make it that way and love the process as much as I do.

IMHO, success with botanical-style aquairums is entirely achievable for those who make the effort to study, familiarize themselves with the basics.   If you don't, the botanical-style aquarium is almost guaranteed to kick the shit out of you if you leap without learning.

Simple as that.

And that shouldn't surprise anyone.

It doesn't matter if you're an innocent neophyte, unfamiliar with this stuff - or even a seasoned hobbyist with decades of experience. You CAN be a "beginner"- and one who's quite successful. We, as a community just need to do some of the "heavy lifting" to help everyone along! 

Advancing the state of the art of the hobby- and updating the existing practices-is a process that everyone can and should contribute to.

Let's all do our part.

You just can't delude beginners into thinking that it's a simple matter of tossing leaves and twigs into a tank, filling it up, and BAM! "Instant Borneo" or whatever. Like, the nitrogen cycle, formation of biofilms, environmental stability, etc. don't apply to you? (Yeah, there is a shockingly large number of neophyte hobbyists- end experienced ones, for that matter-who harbor such beliefs! I've talked to quite a few over the years...)

Let's educate and inspire...and let's share what the natural aquatic habitats we love so much really look and function like. THAT might help get our unique philosophy of aquarium management across more easily.

 So, the answer to the question posed at the beginning of this blog is...


If everyone- the hobby community, vendors- and the beginner him/herself plays a part in the process.

Let's all do our part.

Stay  curious. Stay empathetic. Stay aware. Stay realistic. Stay educated. Stay excited. Stay inspirational...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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