If you're new to the world of botanical-style aquariums, blackwater or otherwise- you've no doubt embarked on this journey because it offers you all sorts of new benefits, possibilities and ideas to explore.
And, if you're like a lot of hobbyists, flush with inspiration and excitement, you carefully prepare, then add your selection of botanicals to your aquarium, perhaps arranging them in a specific way, perhaps simply adding them at random. And then...
What happens next? What happens later? What happens tomorrow?
Since the very nature of utilizing materials such as leaves and botanicals will result in them breaking down in water, and not only changing in appearance, but influencing the water chemistry to a varying degree, it makes sense to view every aquarium as an evolving entity. A brand new tank, or one that you've just begun adding botanicals to, fits this description absolutely.
As the aquarium runs in, you'll see the breakdown/decomposition of the "less durable" botanicals. It's particularly noticible in leaves and materials with harder external surfaces, like Cariniana Pods, Sterculia Pods, etc. That "brand new look" of clean and sharp colors gives way to the more subtle, muted, and earthy colors of materials being affected by submersion. A "patina" begins to build. This is a great sign; the beginning of a very "earthy-looking" phase.
At some point, you'll likely notice a color to the water. A visible "tint"- perhaps accompanied by a bit of turbidity, depending upon the amount, pace, and type of materials added. There are no specific "timetables" for how fast and how darkly your water will color. There are many factors which can affect this influence. Also, if you're a heavy user of chemical filtration media, you'll see much less impact than you would if these media were not present. Of course, I like dark, soupy water and the "biofilm-on-stuff" kind of look. But that's me. A lot of you will want the "clearwater, botanical-style" look.
Just add carbon.
You will probably get a feel for how quickly your aquarium "processes" leaves- as well as a definite opinion of what looks best for you, aesthetic-wise. I have come to embrace the more "ragged", softening and decomposing look (I guess you hardcore 'scapers would even call it a "wabi-sabi" look, huh?), and tend to leave my leaves in until they completely break down, and simply add a few leaves every couple of days to add new ones into the mix as older ones break down.
Likely, you'll find some "in-between" that suits your tastes and stick with that. My only comment is that you'll possibly even notice the visual effect ("tint") that adding and/or leaving leaves in the aquarium for extended periods of time has on your water. Perhaps you'll just sort of "feel" when it's time to add more stuff by simply looking.
Ah, the art!
Or, you may also be a more "data-driven" aquarist who utilizes TDS or pH or some other measure to determine when to add or remove leaves- the beauty is that it's totally your call! The important thing to understand is that, like in Nature, botanical-driven habitats are influenced significantly by the presence of these materials and how they exist in them. Managing and embracing the "evolution" of a botanical-style blackwater aquarium is a completely individual thing, based on aesthetics, environmental parameters, and the requirements of your animals. As much an "art" as it is a "science."
And of course, there are biofilms.
Biofilms are really a sign that things are working right in your aquarium! A visual indicator that natural processes are at work. Biofilms form when bacteria adhere to surfaces in some form of watery environment and begin to excrete a slimy, gluelike substance, consisting of sugars and other substances, that can stick to all kinds of materials, such as- well- in our case, botanicals.
And we could go on and on all day telling you that this is a completely natural occurrence; bacteria and other microorganisms taking advantage of a perfect substrate upon which to grow and reproduce, just like in the wild. Freshly added botanicals offer a "mother load"of organic material for these biofilms to propagate, and that's occasionally what happens - just like in nature.
Understanding that these biofilms are normal, natural, and to be expected is an important part of what we do. Nature isn't a crystal-clear, spotless ecosystem. It's not perfectly arranged, "ratio-embracing", and compliant with our idea of aesthetics. It's important to "deprogram" yourself a bit from what we've been indoctrinated to believe and accept in the hobby for generations.
This is part of that "mental shift" towards accepting and appreciating a more truly natural-looking, natural-functioning aquarium. The "cost of admission", if you will- along with the tinted water, decomposing leaves, etc., the dues you pay, which ultimately go hand-in-hand with the envious "ohhs and ahhs" of other hobbyists who admire your aquarium when they see it for the first time.
That's an important consideration, too.
One of the things that we've noticed a lot about blackwater, botanical style aquariums is that they seem to improve over time. I mean, they start our looking nice, albeit a bit "sterile", don't they? Like many other aquariums...but this look is, in my opinion, really pronounced with botanicals. And, as the water darkens, the botanicals soften, and that patina of biofilm appears, the whole scape looks more... natural.
More alive. More biologically "rich", if you will.
And it's important to know that you're not headed for some "ultimate destination." There simply is no "finish line" here! It's an evolving, ongoing, adaptable microcosm.
And what about routine "maintenance" of the botanicals?
Replace the softer stuff as needed (or not) to keep the look you like, and leave the more "durable" items in indefinitely. Observe. Understand. Study. And that's how you not only let your tank evolve naturally- but you can keep the look (and possibly even the environmental effects caused by the botanicals) consistent throughout the "working lifetime" of the tank!
And it's our strongest recommendation that you keep thinking about Nature in the context of our botanical-style tanks. Think about how Nature really looks. Think about how Nature works with the "ingredients" She has...
In Nature, the leaf litter "community" of fishes, insects, fungi, and microorganisms is really important to the overall tropical enviroment, as it assimilates terrestrial material into the blackwater aquatic system, and acts to reduce the loss of nutrients to the forest which would inevitably occur if all the material which fell into the streams was washed downstream!
Stuff is being utilized by many life forms.
And that's what happens in our aquariums, isn't it?
If we let it.
Don't go crazy, forcing sterility on your closed ecosystem. Don't develop a "dependency" on technology or external practices. Rather, develop an understanding of how Nature processes nutrients, produces food, and strives for some sort of equilibrium. And She's done it on hero own- without our intervention- for eons.
I think we really need to think about our systems- particularly in the blackwater/botanical-style aquarium world- as little microcosms which replicate- at least on some level, some of the process which occur in nature to create a specialized but highly productive and successful- not to mention, dynamic- ecology.
So when you look at your aquarium today- it's always a good thing to consider what happens tomorrow.
Stay observant. Stay patient. Stay diligent. Stay open-minded...
And Stay Wet.