"We interrupt this aquarium..."

Every aquarium is a unique microcosm, with different looks, goals, and processes that it embraces. Each aquarium has different factors which contribute to its function and evolution.

Processes which cannot be interrupted if the aquarium is to evolve. Processes which must be left in place.

As I've been doing lately, I find it fun to look at some of the tanks I've created recently which take this philosophy to heart.

One of my faves has been my brackish water mangrove aquarium, which took well over a year, to really evolve into something exactly like I envisioned...It simply wasn't "there" after a month or two, or even six. Our botanical style tanks, with few exceptions- just don't start looking their best- all "earthy" and "funky" and...established- for a few months, typically.  growth of beneficial microfauna.

The brackish tank has embraced all of the things we've talked about here over the years- deep, soft substrates, decomposing leaves, occasional biofilms, tinted water, and a diverse assemblage of micro and microfauna. These are unusual things to embrace in a brackish water aquarium.

To terminate them "mid-evolution" is really a kind of shame! The possibilities are too incredible for you to just "stop them in place!" 

Of course, there are a few things you could do to sort of "expedite" the "established" look of a botanical-style tank, but they're really just sort of "hacks" (ugh I hate that word!)- and are no substitutes for just letting a tank evolve over time naturally.

What are they, you ask?

Well, you could use some botanicals and partially decomposed leaf litter, substrate, and even water from an established botanical-style tank to give you a bit more of an "evolved" vibe and perhaps some function. I've done this many times over the years. 

And, if doing this for purely "functional" reasons as opposed to just trying to "hack" the look- I can actually see tremendous merit to this idea.

Adding sand or gravel from an established tank to "jump-start" a new one has been standard practice in marine aquariums for decades, and in freshwater as well. Doing this with botanical materials- rich with detritus, biofilms, fungal growth, and beneficial bacteria- is simply the botanical-style version of this time-honored process, right?

It is.

Yet, there is no substitute for patience and the passage of time. You can't get results of processes which take time to evolve by "hacking" them. They'll only get you so far.

As we drum into your head time and again, patience is the key.

It's so fundamental that I will say it yet again. 

The idea of letting Nature take over some of the evolution of your aquarium is so important, so essential to the work we do with botanical-style aquariums that I imagine I'll write about this a few hundred more times before they put me out to pasture! 

Again- just because stuff looks "weird" or different than what we've been indoctrinated to believe doesn't mean that it's a "problem" or somehow "bad."  It just doesn't. There is absolutely nothing wrong with stuff like biofilms, decomposing leaves, and tinted water. It's all about how we perceive it.

Sure, many of these things go completely against everything that we were taught in the hobby to accept as "healthy" or "normal"- but the reality is, they are all perfectly "normal", healthy, and natural.

Looking back on some of my favorite tanks that I've executed in the past few years, it becomes increasingly obvious to all that these systems really don't hit that "look and feel" that I want until long after they've evolved naturally...however long that is. Stuff needs to acquire a "patina" of biofilm, a "stain" from the tannins, and decomposition of botanical materials needs to really begin before one of these systems turns "functional" as well.

I mean, every new botanical-style tank looks cool from day one...But the long-established ones stand out. After 6 months, that's when things get really special.

I've long held that my fave botanical-style, blackwater aquarium of all was the one I did about 2 years ago..an aquarium utilizing mangrove wood, extensive leaf litter, and catappa bark throughout. This is probably the only tank in recent years that I've truly regretted changing and moving on from! 😂 

It literally looked like shit for the first couple of months of it's existence: Slightly tinted water, a contrived-looking "campfire-like" wood stack, bare sand, and mostly intact botanical materials. I had to do a bunch of iterations with the hardscape to get it where I wanted it. It almost looked contrived, but I knew instinctively that if I waited it out, let Nature do her thing- that the potential was huge in this tank.


Sure enough, a few months in, biofilms started forming. The wood acquired that "patina" we talk about so much. Leaves and botanicals broke down...And the water took on the most earthy-looking, deeply mysterious color I've seen in a blackwater aquarium.

By some standards, the water in the tank could be described as almost "turbid"- taking on an appearance as though there were fine materials in the water column. Yet, the tank had a real magical appearance with the lighting; the fishes were as colorful, relaxed and happy as any I've ever seen, and the water parameters were spot-on and consistent for as long as the tank was set up.

The essence "wabi-sabi", for sure. Transience, the ephemeral aspects of our botanicals...the wonders of Nature, embraced.

I could have "intervened" at a number of junctures- trying to "circumvent" these aesthetic "deviations" while the tank was evolving. However, I knew not to. I knew that the long-term gains from letting this system evolve would far exceed any "relief" I'd gain from siphoning out the biofilms, removing decomposing leaves, and clearing the water.

And, as usual- Nature delivered...because I didn't get in Her way.

We've done this numerous times with similar results.



And then there are aquariums which are simple in concept, look "about right" from day one; and you just need to set them up and sort of "wait it out" until they start looking and functioning in a more "established" manner- which might only take a few weeks or a month or two at the most.

Yet, even in those "compressed" time frames, Nature only asks that we refrain from intervening. You sill have to have faith..


Now, other experimental systems I've played with simply take more time to do their thing and come into their own before you'd really move on. However, they actually are intended for "forced iteration"- a deliberate change to their composition or progression. Indeed, after the initial setup, the "evolved" product looks little like what it started out as.

Of course, these projects may take many months to evolve as part of the plan.

The best examples of this are what I call my "Urban Igapo" tanks- the Varzea aquarium I'm playing with is perhaps the most evolved one that I have pics of at the moment.

Intended from the outset to demonstrate how an ecosystem changes from "dry season" to "wet season", this tank started out in a "terrestrial mode", with a carefully blend of selected substrate materials, mixed with botanical materials, such as crushed leaves, to form a representation of a forest floor. After a period of time sowing some seeds and bulbs of terrestrial plants, the substrate was quite damp and established.

And of course, when it was time to "inundate", the system took on a completely different look and feel, transforming from a purely terrestrial environment to an aquatic one.

The key ingredients: Time and patience, in generous quantities, and having a plan or "track" to run with, create truly interesting outcomes...if, of course, you let them play out without interruption.

My true "igapo" aquarium went on a slightly different track...It started it out in "wet" mode- silty, sedimented, and tinted, and then I "drew down" the water level and sowed grass seeds to take advantage of the wet, rich substrate for growth.

It's in "terrestrial mode" at the moment, happy growing Paspalum grass. Months afterwards, we will begin the process again...and run through the "seasonal cycle" once more.

The timetable governing this process can be "manipulated", but the pace at which things happen- growth of the grasses, establishing them, and how long they survive under inundation- are dictated almost entirely by Nature. We're merely facilitating the process.and watching! 

And then there are systems which, by virtue of their very concept, capture the essence of a natural habitat in a very specific phase- and can do it almost immediately...

An example of an aquarium that takes on the "established" look literally from the first days would be the "Late Season Igapo" tank that we recently set up. This system is designed to replicate- in form and function (to a certain extent, of course) the habitat which emerges when a flooded forest floor is inundated for several months. After this period of time, much of the terrestrial vegetation goes into a "dormant" phase, and detritus and biofilms over a "matrix" of these materials form the basis of the aquatic "terrain."

And of course, utilizing a mix of sediments, crushed leaves, and plant stems/twigs in the scape encourages the formation of biofilms and the sequestering of detritus and other materials as the basis of your scape will, almost from the beginning, give you an established-looking tank which also happens to function in a manner similar to what you'd find in the natural habitat.

This is an aquarium that- much like the leaf-litter-only system that we talked about above- is providing the bulk of the nutritional needs of its resident fishes (in this case, Neon Tetras) with little to no supplemental feeding. The "changes" to this habitat will simply take place at the pace of Nature.

She'll dictate the direction of this tank for the next few months.

Botanical-style aquariums typically require more time to evolve. This process can be "expedited" or manipulated a bit, bit to achieve truly meaningful and beneficial results, you just can't rush stuff! 

You can't interrupt it.

When you do, as we've learned, results can be, well- "different" than they would be if you allow things to continue on at their own pace. Not necessarily "bad"- just not as good as what's possible if you relax and let Nature run Her course without interruption.

Patience is our guideline. Nature our inspiration. Experience and execution our teachers. We're on a mission...to share the benefits which can be gained by embracing and meeting Nature as She really is.

Give Her a chance. let's let Nature do her thing without interruption.

Trust me. She's awfully good at it.

Stay observant. Stay diligent. Stay bold...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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