What's the problem?

Problem (prob*lem): a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome.

Requirement (re*quire*ment): a thing that is compulsory; a necessary condition.

Think about that for a bit. The idea that something is a "problem" is, in itself a bit of a problem! 

The word "problem", IMHO, gives us a cushion to fall back on when something want to we do in the hobby requires that certain steps which we are unaware of, uncertain of, unwilling to take, or cannot undertake- present themselves. The challenge is to determine if the requirements are insurmountable for us, or if there is a way we can meet the requirements in a manner that is practical, given our resources.

A great example was the botanical-style/blackwater world we work in today. For many years, playing with this idea was considered a"problem." We had well-founded fears about the process, the look, and the management of these types of aquariums, based on generations of established ideas and techniques that told us this was contrary to proper aquarium practice.

A "problem."

I think that the "problem" of blackwater tanks for years was that we saw them as "dirty", dangerous", "non-sustainable" etc. We didn't look at the blackwater environment as one that required that we meet a specific set of parameters.

We didn't look at keeping botanical-style, blackwater aquariums as an endeavor that required an understanding of the processes involved, and developing technique and practices to accomplish our goals. Rather, we as hobbyists saw a foreboding, dark environment which had low pH and all sorts of seemingly contrarian, scary processes.

WE made it a "problem!"

As a hobby, I think we make lot of stuff "problems." 

When you think about it  many concepts in aquarium keeping started out as "problems", or were considered “impossible” until someone made them work.

Now, sure, I get the fact that Nature imposes "rules" on what we can do. There are consequences- often dire- to trying to break or circumvent natural processes. For example, trying to avoid the nitrogen cycle, or attempting to keep incompatible fishes together. Much of this stuff is common sense. However, it doesn't keep a lot of people from trying to "beat the system."

No look- I'm all for trying new ideas-pushing the limits of what's possible, and questioning the "status quo" in the hobby. However, trying to "game"eons of natural processes in order to create some sort of a "hack" doesn't only not work- it's stupid.

THAT is a problem that we create.

You can, however, push the limits and break new ground by working within the boundaries of natural processes. That's advancement. That's progress. Innovation.

Many of us are working every day to progress in the hobby.

It took doing things that we hadn't previously done before- researching exactly what it was, what is required to make "blackwater"- and doing some things which were perceived by the majority of hobbyists as unconventional to get there.

But we did. And now, we approach keeping botanical-style/blackwater aquariums not as a "problem" to overcome, but an approach which requires us to do specific things in order to do so successfully.

Look, it wasn't like  we were creating warp drive or nuclear fusion. But it is an example- one of many in our hobby, of an evolution which simply required us to look at what exactly we wanted to accomplish, understand what it was, and to develop ways to work within the requirements and parameters laid out by Nature to do it in our aquariums. It's still very much a "work in progress", but we're well on the way to making botanical-style/blackwater aquariums far more common in the hobby. 

And definitely not a "problem."

Funny thing is that, in reality, it IS a sort of an evolution, isn't it? A little advancement from where we are in the hobby before. 

I mean, sure, on the surface, this doesn't seem like much: "Toss botanical materials in aquariums. See what happens." It's not like no one ever did this before. And to make it seem more complicated than it is- to develop or quantify "technique" for it (a true act of human nature, I suppose) is probably a bit humorous. 

Yeah, I guess I can see that...

On the other hand, the idea behind this practice is not just to create a cool-looking tank...And, we DO have some "technique" behind this stuff...

And it's not about making excuses for abandoning aquarium "best practices" as some justification for allowing our tanks to look like they do.

We don't embrace the aesthetic of dark water,  a bottom covered in decomposing leaves, and the appearance of biofilms and algae on driftwood because it allows us to be more "relaxed" in the care of our tanks, or because we think we're so much smarter than the underwater-diorama-loving, hype-mongering competition aquascaping crowd.

Well, maybe we are? 😆 (I promise to keep dissing these people until they put their vast skills to better use in the hobby...Sorry, lovers of underwater beach seems and "Hobbit forests.." You can do a lot better.)

I mean, we're doing this stuff for a reason: To create more authentic-looking, natural-functioning aquatic displays for our fishes. To understand and acknowledge that our fishes- and their very existence- is influenced by the habitats in which they have evolved. 

We've mentioned ad nauseum here that wild aquatic habitats are influenced greatly by the surrounding geography and flora of their region, which in turn, have considerable influence upon the population of fishes which inhabit them, as well as their life cycle.

The simple fact of the matter is, when we add botanical materials to an aquarium and accept what occurs as a "result"-regardless of wether our intent is just to create a different aesthetic, or perhaps something more- we are to a very real extent replicating the processes and influences that occur in wild aquatic habitats in Nature.

The presence of botanical materials such as leaves in these aquatic habitats is foundational to their existence, as it is in our aquarium approach.

And the fact that they recruit biofilms and fungal growths, and break down over time in our tanks is simply part of the natural process. We can consider this a "problem" which needs to be 'mitigated" somehow, or we can make the effort to understand how these processes and occurrences can benefit the little microcosms which we have created in our aquariums. 

It's about understanding, education, and acceptance.

As aquarium hobbyists, we are in a unique position to learn about and recreate many of the functions of Nature in our aquariums.We have the opportunity to go beyond long-held suppositions about what is "healthy" for an aquarium. We have the opportunity to innovate.

Innovation, and of itself, is a dynamic concept.

It's hard to quantify. But it's there. And it often happens right before our very eyes, initiated and perfected by ourselves...We just don't always make that connection, because we focus on the finished idea, not all of the subtle little breakthroughs and iterations along the way that lead up to it. New innovations often build on existing ideas or concepts in practice. Sometimes from necessity- other times, out of a simple desire to improve. Sometimes out of frustration.

Often, out of sheer genius.

Innovation has been happening like this for millions of years. No sense in stopping now!

YOU are innovating. Every single day. Everything that you do contributes to the body of knowledge, the state of the art, and the refining of technique. 

There must be a million ways to do an aquarium, and the stuff we practice here is not any different, really. I mean, have you ever noticed that there are lots of different ways to accomplish the same thing in our little botanical-style aquarium world?

There really is no set "formula" to establishing a botanical-style aquarium. No exact way that you should proceed to achieve a specified result. No human-imposed "rules." Just the ones Nature Herself mandates. What we have in this area of the hobby are guidelines. "Best practices." Ideas. Recommendations from others who have walked the path before.

What you choose to do with those "recommendations", of course, can make the difference between being successful, and pushing beyond the conventional thinking in our hobby. 

Looking at things we're unfamiliar with as "problems" in the aquarium hobby deters us from evolving and moving ahead, IMHO. It sets up artificial "roadblocks" on our journey that aren't always necessary.

We need to look at these things as opportunities. Yes, opportunities to figure out what role they play in the ecology of natural aquatic ecosystems- and in our aquairums. We need to look for ways to incorporate, rather than eliminate them from our tanks. 

Because when we incorporate natural processes and functions into our tanks, we're doing the very best possible job at advancing the state of the art in aquarium keeping. 

Some may interrupt this as being a bit rebellious, or even foolhardy. I think that's ridiculous. Since when is trying to figure out how and why something works in Nature and if it can be incorporated into aquarium practice "rebellious?" Just because something seemingly goes against what has been long taken for aquarium hobby "religion" doesn't mean that it's without merit, or somehow "unsafe." It just means that we need to understand how to incorporate it to our animals' benefit. 

Yeah, it's a "mental shift"- another of the many we preach about around here, isn't it?

Nature is the one who imposes "requirements" for us to follow. When we don't, other situations can occur..."problems", perhaps?

In the aquarium hobby, we often tend to "edit" Nature, polishing out, or trying to "bypass" the processes, aesthetics, and functions that we find distasteful- in search of what we have generically called a "balanced" aquarium.

It's a noble, important goal-at least, on the surface.

However, I think we need to understand that Nature seeks "balance" in Her own way- one that really doesn't take into account our schedules, goals, or aesthetic preferences.

And it's well known that an aquarium is a closed ecosystem that can easily "fall out of balance", as the expression goes, when we go too far in a certain direction.  

We often say that an aquarium is a "delicate" ecosystem- but I don't think that it really is. Rather, an aquarium is a pretty robust system, which establishes itself in a way that utilizes "what's available" at any given time. And sometimes, it results in the pendulum shifting from one life form to another. The "balance" itself, may be delicate; in that various life forms can "take over" at any given time- and rapidly, too.  However, if you've ever battled something like an algae bloom- you'd never call the life forms themselves "delicate", right?

They're tenacious.

You have to respect that. Any life form that takes advantage of optimum conditions to thrive is at least worthy of some appreciation- even if it looks like- well- shit, right?

Sure. excessive algae growth is a sign of imbalance of something- light, nutrients, often exacerbated by deficiencies in husbandry, or a combination of these factors. This is  "Aquarium Keeping 101", of course, but when you're in the middle of these kinds of struggles, it's easy to overlook seemingly "basic" stuff.

Is this a "problem", or simply a result of a life form taking advantage of circumstances which favor its growth and proliferation?

It is not always easy or clear to understand why a tank is "out of balance." Sometimes, it just takes time to figure it out. I think the important thing is to think of an aquarium- especially our botanical-style aquariums- as a small, closed ecosystem or microcosm, with internal and external influences-any one of which  may be extremely impactful when they converge.

Understanding that the various possible impacts that our techniques and executions may have on our aquariums is just the start. On the most superficial level, adding a lot of botanical material into a tank is a recipe for: a) a lot of bioload for resident organisms to process, b) a substrate for biofilm and/or algal growth, and c) biodiversity- a proliferation of a variety of organisms.

And of course, the additional "bioload" can be taken advantage of by a particularly adaptable life form which could proliferate more quickly than others...throwing your little ecosystem "out of balance", as the expression goes.

In our aquarium practice, it's the time when you think about the impact of technique-such as water exchanges, addition of aquatic plants, adding fishes, reducing light intensity and photoperiod, etc. and (again) observation to keep things "in balance"- at least as much as possible. You'll question yourself...and wonder if you should intervene- and how..

Or, IF at all.

Yeah. In many instances, I've found it most helpful to simply do nothing, and let the system find its way naturally. 

Someone in the system- one life form or another-will exploit the available resources, possibly to the detriment of others, and the key here is observation, followed by intervention only as needed/desired. "Intervention" being manipulation of environmental parameters or impacts in order to "rebalance" the ecosystem- if you can, or if you feel you must.

Like in any aquarium, there is no "magic elixir"- no single solution to a situation like this.

It's about a number of measured moves, any of which could have significant impact- even "take over" the system- if allowed to do so.

"Hands off" is not an easy concept for aquarium hobbyists to grasp- especially when what we are looking at in our tank flies against what we expect- or want- to see.

We can change some of the physical aspects of our tanks (equipment, hardscape, etc.), but Mother Nature is in control.

She "calls the shots" here.

And I think that's perhaps the most important lesson that we can learn from our aquariums. As aquarists, we can do a lot- we can change the equipment, correct initial mistakes or shortcomings the system might have had from the beginning.

We set the stage, so to speak.

However, in the end..

it's Nature who does most of the real "heavy lifting" here. Nature rewards us for our good decisions, scolds us for our bad ones, and provides "cues" on what future decisions we need to make. And Nature does it all indifferently...without judgement. It simply reacts positively or negatively to our attempts to control it. 

Which is why the reality of a botanical-style aquarium is that it's perhaps one of the best ways to bring Nature into our home. To blur the lines between Nature and aquarium. Sure, planted aquariums give us a similar challenge...but the botanical-style aquarium challenges us in different ways. It tasks us to accept Nature in all of its beauty. And yeah, it makes us accept that there IS beauty in things like decomposition, biofilm, detritus, and algal growth. Things which we as aquarists might have been "indoctrinated" to loathe over the years..

We just have let go sometimes, and trust in Nature to move stuff along the correct path.

Nature finds a way. Nature knows how to do this.

Problems are only "problems" if we interpret them as such. When we see something we didn't expect to happen in our tanks occur, the question to ask ourselves might not be, "What's the problem?" Rather, it might be, "IS there are problem?"

It's up to us to decide wether to understand and accept- or to resist and circumvent the offerings of Nature.

Which way will you go?

Stay observant. Stay brave. Stay curious. Stay diligent. Stay patient...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 



Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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