Okay, a seriously negative sounding title...but it did get your attention, right? And this IS kind of a serious topic! Yet, I will punctuate it with a little touch of sarcasm...Of course!
People ask me if anything about our business keeps me awake at night. Other than shipments being lost, and the other usual minutiae of running any business, I'd have to say that the possibility of someone "nuking" their tank is the one thing I worry about most.
We've been working with botanicals for a few years now, and offering them to customers for just over a year now (can you believe that?), and with an ever-growing global customer base, the possibility of someone screwing up big-time and killing all of their fishes because they didn't follow our instructions is more of a possibility than before, I'm afraid..You know, it's kind of a "numbers" game, I suppose...
Surpisingly, we've only had maybe one or two incidents of someone having a serious problem, and they were both caused by the aquarist failing to heed our advice about preparation and adding materials slowly to an established aquarium...
And you know, we've always been about being up front, honest, and helpful for you. The key to success with the "New Botanical" approach to aquarium keeping is to follow just a few basic guidelines regarding preparation, stocking, and monitoring. The rest is all about whatever approach you want to take.
So, really, how does one go about possibly wiping out his or her aquarium with botanicals? Here are a two "excellent" ways, in my opinion:
1) Add your botanicals directly to your established aquarium without any preparation whatsoever- After all, even though the package says "preparation required" and to consult our website for instructions, you're just talking about some seed pods and stuff..I mean, "natural products", right?
Well, yes, they are natural; however, they still need to be prepared for aquarium use. Remember, seed pods and such have been exposed to all sorts of stuff prior to arriving at your door. They are harvested or fall from the trees, accumulate dirt, soil, even pollutants that may be in the atmosphere, like anything that's been "outside." So at the very least, a good rinse with fresh water is a start.
We are firm believers in boiling most botanicals, or steeping them for a while in boiling water, often followed by a prolonged (overnight, at least) soak in room temperature water. This allows them to release any organics, accumulated dirt, lignin, and an initial burst of tannins from their outer layers, as well as other matter bound up in their tissues- stuff you don't want in your tank- before they are placed in it. It's also a fact that the boiling and soaking will soften their tissues, saturating them and helping them sink more easily when submerged.
Now, granted, every botanical behaves differently when boiled, soaked etc. We did a pretty thorough write up on them in our "Aquatic Botanical Preparation" section on the web site, but it's not the last word on everything. Some botanicals will still not sink easily, even after our recommended preparation times. Remember, these are just guidelines, and your experience will vary. Just be patient, and do what is necessary to achieve "submergence..."
2) Add everything at one time to an established, stable aquarium. It's not like a bunch of leaves, seeds and pods should have significant impact on the water chemistry or quality, right?
Okay, this is the one that often keeps me awake at night. I dread receiving the email from the guy with a long-established and stable Discus aquarium, or the hobbyist with the 13-year-old Pleco, who dumped a large quantity of botanicals into his or her aquarium at one time, and suddenly, everyone was gasping at the surface, or worse.
This is a very real possibility. You're adding organic materials to the water. "Bioload", if you will, which can affect the pH, oxygen level, and overall water chemistry far more rapidly than you might imagine. These things start breaking down as they decompose, but a large quantity of material added all at once can amplify this affect. It's really, really, REALLY important to add botanicals- or ANYTHING, for that matter, to an established aquarium SLOWLY. I know this sounds like "Aquarium 101", but I'd rather piss you off by sounding "preachy" than hear that you nuked your fish collection by throwing everything in at one time.
Remember, some fishes are extraordinarily sensitive to seemingly any changes in their environment, specifically rapid ones. Fishes like Apistogramma and Geophagus, and of course, Discus and Angelfishes, some of my favorite cichlids, come to mind. They don't like rapid changes. Most fiefs don't. And you'd be surprised how few botanicals, particularly leaves, can affect a "rapid" change in ph, redox, or water quality in a short period of time. A sure recipe for problems.
Look, it's not all doom and gloom. I'm simply advocating caution. Go slowly. There is absolutely no rush to add stuff to your tank, especially a well-established on with a substantial and/or stable population. Of course, if you are starting with a brand new, "fish-less" aquarium, you have my permission to go to town, and add as much stuff as you want- as quickly as you want! Just be sure to do some basic water tests, adjust environmental parameters as you need to, and carefully and slowly acclimate all the fishes you add to the aquarium. Botanical-influenced aquariums are no more difficult to establish or maintain than any other type of aquarium. You just need to apply common sense.
Another note: For everyone's peace of mind, including our own, we "batch test" all of our botanicals on our own systems before we release them for sale. Even though we have vetted out suppliers who we feel provide clean, pollutant and chemical-free product, we are paranoid enough to check for ourselves. Again, it's still highly advised to go super slowly...You'll get there soon enough. Enjoy the journey!
Now, I appreciate you staying with me to the end of this little dissertation. Look, as experienced hobbyists, we all know to approach everything carefully and skeptically, yet it's easy to get excited and forget the "golden rules" of aquarium keeping, concerning going slowly and carefully. You know, "common sense." (is that like the 5th time I've used the expression, "common sense?" Feels like it...)
With a little caution, some observation, and advanced knowledge about what to expect, you can have some amazing experiences with aquatic botanicals. There is no need to fear them, but every reason to respect the "power" of these natural materials. For eons, leaves, wood, and botanicals have been washing into streams, rivers, and other bodies of water in nature, affecting the water chemistry. It is no surprise that the same thing happens in our aquariums, albeit with more rapid, pronounced, and potentially serious consequences, so that "fishy intuition" we all possess as aquarists may be the most important tool we have with which to enjoy them!
Oh, and I didn't even mention the biofilms, brown water, algal films, and decomposing matter...Stuff we've talked about repeatedly, and no doubt will talk about again in future installments!
So, to borrow from the cliche'd expression- "Be calm and tint on."
Stay alert. Stay level-headed. Stay smart.
And Stay Wet.