This is a call- an appeal- to the greatest aquascapers in the world:

First, a bit of personal experience...

Imagine, if you will, managing your aquarium without having at least some expectations about what will happen as it establishes itself and evolves. You can't, really, right? As aquarists, we learn to "expect the unexpected"- but we also have a very predictable set of expectations, based on decades of experiences from this who came before us.

I have always liked the idea of building a little ecosystem/microcosm from the ground up. I found this appealing as a kid with my first aquarium, and to this day, it guides my aquarium builds- reef, fresh, brackish, whatever. The idea that, even in a little glass/acrylic box of water, we're building a small ecosystem.

This conceptual framework has guided virtually every aspect of my aquarium work; my "tradecraft", if you will.

As it has many of yours.

And taking it further, I suggest that we apply this mindset to our aquascaping.

Every piece of wood, substrate material, leaf, or botanical is a part of a functioning biological system, and although we might more easily appreciate the appearance of the tank, the function of the items within it- and indeed, the overall system- is vitally important. The best-looking aquarium that is not biologically "friendly" will never achieve good results, right?

And yes, the aesthetic and design component is important too..Don't get me wrong. But it's amazing how the aesthetic just sort of "comes together" when you think about the function of the ecosystem you're creating in your aquarium. So much has been written about finding the perfect piece of wood, rock, plant, etc., and so much attention has been paid to the "art" component of the equation by world class-aquascapers attempting to "replicate nature" in some sort of...formula.

And that's okay, but I often wish the same incredible talent and energy could be applied to creating more "holistic" aquariums. Imagine the long-term functional results! 

I can't help but wonder if even more incredible, yet more functional aquascapes/aquatic habitats could be created by looking more closely at nature, and the way life colonizes physical structures- indeed- creates them (as in reefs, for example) and attempting to develop an aquascape from the ground up.

Yes, literally building up an aquascape, starting with substrate designed to foster beneficial microfauna and serve as a microhabitat for them, and to create niche habitats for fishes as well. To some extent, planted aquarists do this already with substrate additives designed for aquatic plants, adding layers of specific nutrient-laden materials. I love that idea, and I think it should be carried further taking its account the needs of small crustaceans, worms, and fauna..a sort of different type of "active substrate!" 

The implications for aquascapers is the ability to create a more realistic representation of nature as it is, and to understand how life arises around the physical structures and accumulations of materials. To a certain extent, an approach like this allows the aquarium to sort of dictate  how the aquascape will look and evolve.

Just like in nature.

You could take it further and manipulate water flow patterns and such to allow botanical materials to accumulate in certain areas, or allow stands of certain types of plants to grow in specific locations within the aquarium. Understanding (or at least, observing) how physical barriers, like wood and rocks are oriented by water currents, local geology, and even weather, and also impact the movement of water in a given area, could help you create some interesting scapes.

Rather than relying on inspiration from someone else's work for why they oriented their driftwood a certain way, you could embrace a certain degree of "rebelliousness", and let the flow of your water dictate placement and orientation of the wood and rocks..and even the distribution/depth/composition of the substrate! Of course, you can just look at any natural body of water, such as a stream or creek, and see exactly how nature does a "layout"- and be assured of something that will work!

I mean, many already do...but based on the number of Fantasy Forest diorama 'scapes in contests, I'd say that more than a few 'scapers are spending too much time in "Middle Earth."


Lately, it's been all the rage among competitive 'scapers to "break the waterline" with wood. And it's cool. I like it.  It has a neat look. Yet, I have to admit, albeit a bit sheepishly- that after seeing several hundred pics of tanks with driftwood heading out of the water (and having done some myself), I can't help but think it's become too much of a "formula":  "Assemble group of rare aquascaping rocks, insert manzanita branches in vertical orientation with respect to 'Golden Ratio' and break water line. Done."


What about approaching this from the standpoint of how and why this would happen in Nature?

I mean, ask yourself under what circumstances would a piece of wood break the waterline? If you study streams and other bodies of water, the reasons are relatively few, but fairly apparent. Likely, one of a few scenarios: 1) A big branch falls into shallow water, with part of it sticking up out of the water.  2) A fallen branch, limb, trunk, or entire tree is covered by water when seasonal inundation submerges the forest floor 3) A tree or shrub growing along an actively-flowing river or stream becomes partially submerged by a large seasonal influx of rain or tidal increase.

It's the same for rocks, and the distribution of substrate materials, botanicals, and leaves. If we ask ourselves how and why these materials accumulate the way they do in nature, the answers create many interesting and inspiring situations for aquascaping.  Making the study of natural structures in aquatic habitats part of our inspiration "lookbook" and incorporating them into our "tradecraft" has, IMHO, always yielded more interesting, long term functional aquariums.

Now look, I'm not trying to rain on anyone's parade and state that every tank with wood sticking out sucks- I can see the hate email coming already from certain corners. I suppose to some, it seems like every time I approach this subject, it becomes a critique on the art of aquascaping.  I suppose that, to some extent, it is, because even the so-called "aquascaping elite" needs a little kick in the ass now and again. I hear from many in the "natural camp" that we're a part of, who tell me about getting soundly thrashed by "serious" (LOL) aquascapers, and I get a bit pertrubed, I guess. A very unkind attack leveled recently at a member of our community inspired this little rant today.

I mean, have your fun the way you want, but don't knock the work of those who are pursing a different path (see yesterday's blog). We all love aquariums, right?

I'm just saying that, in addition to these purely artistic interpretations, (which are beautiful for the most part-I'll give you that) even more amazing, more functionally aesthetic and realistic aquariums can be created by simply looking at what caused these scenes to form in nature, and assembling the components based upon that.

Pretty much every time I've seen a world-class aquascaper try to take the approach of replicating something from an aquatic environment in nature (as opposed to looking at a mountain or some non-aquatic part of the landscape, or even last year's big contest winner, or whatever) and utilize it as the inspiration for his/her 'scape- the result has been astounding. 

So the talent is there. And it's really cool when the attitude isn't. 😆

We as a hobby have to get out of the "comfort zone" of creating perfectly artistic interpretations of stylized natural settings. Most so-called "natural" aquascapes are to real aquatic habitats what "concept cars" are to your family sedan: Hot-looking, idealized representations, with some features from nature- but not really accurate portrayals of nature as it is.

Again: I LOVE these types of tanks. I admire them and my friends with the talent who create them.

Yet, we can't forget: Nature is a random, "dirty", and often chaotic place. Stuff happens in nature for a reason. And that makes it every bit as compelling as a highly stylized, conceptual 'scape, IMHO.

And there is actually a more important reason to portray nature as it really appears: Because that's the environment/habitat in which  our fishes have evolved. And with more and more of these incalculably priceless natural habitats disappearing every year because of man's impact on the environment- now more than ever it's important to create some more realistic replications of these habitats. It will help us understand them, appreciate them, and preserve them. And, as has been proven throughout history, mankind protects what he/she admires.

In my opinion, last years world champion "fantasy forest" aquascape- beautiful as it may be- might inspire a few people- but it will never have the impact- and lasting educational value- of an aquarium which attempts to replicate the form and function of a truly natural setting.

Meet nature where it is. Accept it, and be inspired by it. Execute an aquarium now and again that follows Nature's formula. That should be part of your "tradecraft."

All of you great ones out there: Please- keep doing what you're doing- pushing and inspiring the world...but please keep an open mind, a kind heart, and push in a few different directions now and then. 

You might just change the world.

Stay bold. Stay active. Stay humble. Stay empathetic. Stay curious. Stay inspirational...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 




Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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