As we continue on out third year of existence as a brand, and we've seen a lot of amazing work from our community...and we've heard and seen all sorts of unique ways to "deploy" them in our tanks. Each technique results in interesting effects and potential benefits. And of course, each one has it's pros and cons, in the eyes of the hobbyist.
Let's take a very quick look at the most popular methods for utilizing botanicals in your aquariums!
You can add the botanicals directly to your aquariums.
Of course, this is the clear fave and most popular (and visible!) way to add botanicals into your tank! With their unique aesthetics and "structural-functional" benefits as discussed here many times, the opportunity to create attractive, interesting, and beneficial aquascapes featuring botanicals is irresistible to many of us!
Of course, not everyone likes the look of botanicals (oh, the horror!) and the idea of them recruiting biofilms and decomposing in their aquariums. Yet, a lot of you want the benefits of the humic substances and the look of tinted water created by tannins. What to do? Well, there are actually a few methods!
First, you could employ the botanicals by placing some of the more "reactive" ones, like Alder Cones, Catappa Bark, leaves, etc. into a mesh filter bag, and locating it in either a canister filter, outside power filter, or simply passively in the tank, sump or filter compartment (in the case of those "all-in-one" style tanks), where water can flow through the bag.
This type of "deployment" of botanicals is really useful in situations where you have a lot of tanks to "tint" and simply want to keep things simple and clean. Breeders, for example may want the aforementioned and often-discussed environmental benefits of blackwater, without the hassle.
Another great way to play with botanicals where their direct presence in the tank is not desired is to employ a "reactor"- which his essentially a vessel, typically constructed of acrylic, which directs water into the until to pass over the media contained inside. Many of the dedicated reactors employ small pumps to keep the media in motion (we call it "fluidization"- as in "fluidized reactor'). And the "media", in our instance, would be leaves, cones, or other botanicals which react with the water.
Super planted-tank/aquascaping nerds also might like this type of botanical application, because 1) You guys love keeping a clean aesthetic, and 2) You guys like gadgets, like "drop checkers", CO2 infusers, "Lilly Pipes", etc. This makes you a prime candidate for the aforementioned fluidized reactors, which you can use externally from the aquarium. And of course, that makes it easy to access them for cleaning or to take them off line as desired.
I think- actually, I KNOW- that these last two applications are really fantastic and filled with lots of potential for real progress. That being said, there are a couple of more "advanced" applications that you might want to consider.
The first would be to employ a "refugium" of sorts...
Now, the idea of a "refugium" is not at all new to the reef aquarium world, although you see less of them these days than you did in the early 2000's..a shame, because their benefits are numerous. Yet the idea has been little discussed in the context of freshwater, other than a scant mention or two in Discus discussion groups that I've stumbled on. Essentially, a refugium is a dedicated space (typically a vessel separate from the aquarium), which performs multiple functions to support the display aquarium it's associated with.
These include nutrient processing via plant or macro algae growth, or organisms such as worms, copepods, etc. which consume uneaten food and act upon organics (nutrient export). A refugium, as its name implies, provides a "safe haven" for life forms which would otherwise be consumed by the resident fishes in the display aquarium. And, these animals will often reproduce, and some of them are swept into the main aquarium, providing a natural food source. Typically, a reef refugium employs live rock and sand, as well as macro algae. Being essentially another aquarium, a refugium also adds to the stability of your display by adding overall capacity to the system, and can provide additional circulation and oxygenation.
Now, in a blackwater, botanical-style system, I can think of a number of cool uses for a refugium, playing on the theme above, but thinking it through a bit further. For instance, you could throw all of your pods, leaves, and other stuff into the refugium, and let them do their thing, influencing the environment in the main aquarium.
You could also use it for keeping some specialty fishes which might otherwise be lost in the main display. For example, if you like small "Darter Characins" which live among the leaves, and would be lost or in danger in your 120-gallon cichlid display, a refugium could provide the perfect place for you to keep them. Or to keep Neocaridina shrimp, which would otherwise be a part of someone's meal plan...
And the whole "food culture" idea utilizing a refugium is awesome to me! I mean, you could grow Daphnia, copepods, worms...all sorts of aquatic crustaceans that are tasty supplements to your fish's diets. And, with an abundance of botanical materials present, they will reproduce rapidly.
And then there is that idea of "deep botanical beds" in the aquarium...
How about some more investigation into how substrates, perhaps consisting of shallow levels of very coarse pebbles and finer sand, interspersed with a deeper bed of a few types of botanicals and leaves- or just "all botanical" aggregations- the so-called "deep botanical beds" function? Besides perhaps putting to rest long held hobby concerns about the "dangers of detritus", what else could experimenting with such substrates unlock? Well, a sort of "cadence", for one thing.
We know from experience that adding a lot of material to any tank at one time is a recipe for problems. In fact, virtually every bad outcome (and we have only seen/heard of a very few) we know of has been caused by adding a lot of material all at once to an established system. It seems that, even when building a deep botanical bed, you need to do it slowly. We know a few things, for sure- many of these materials will recruit fungal growth and biofilms. Many aquatic creatures, from shrimp to Plecos, will actively forage among such an aggregation of materials.
Oh, the ideas...And those are just a few of them. And we're considering offering products that support these different applications of botanicals; we'd love to hear more about your experiments, interests, and needs in this area!
What methods are YOU interested in exploring to "deploy" botanicals in your tanks?
Stay excited. Stay curious. Stay innovative. Stay resourceful...
And Stay Wet.