Starting a new botanical method aquarium is an exciting, fun, and interesting time. And the process of creating your aquarium is shockingly easy, decidedly un-stressful, and extremely engaging.
The main ingredients that you need are vision, a bit of knowledge, and... patience.
Bringing your tank from a clean, dry,"static display" to a living, breathing microcosm, filled with life is an amazing process. This, to me is really the most exciting part of keeping botanical method aquariums.
And how do we usually do it?
I mean, for many hobbyists, we've been more or less indoctrinated to rinse the substrate material, age water, arrange wood and rocks, add plants (if that's in your plans), and add fishes. Something like that. And that works, of course. It's the basic "formula" that we've used for over a century in the hobby .
Yet, I'm surprised how we as a hobby have managed to turn what to me is one of the most inspiring, fascinating, and important parts of our aquarium hobby journey into what is more-or-less a "checklist" to be run through- an "obstacle", really- to our ultimate enjoyment of our aquarium.
When you think about it, setting the stage for life in our aquariums is the SINGLE most important thing that we do. If we utilize a different mind set, and deploy a lot more patience for the process, we start to look at it a bit differently.
I mean, sure, you want to rinse sand as clean as possible. You want make sure that you have a piece of wood that's been soaked for a while, and..
Wait, DO you?
I mean, sure, if you don't rinse your sand carefully, you'll get some cloudy water for weeks...no argument there.
And if you don't clean your driftwood carefully, you're liable to have some soil or other "dirt" get into your system, and more tannins being released, which leads to...well, what does it lead to?
Does it lead to some kind of disaster? Does having "dirt" in your tank spell doom for the aquarium?
I mean, an aquarium is not a "sterile" habitat. Let's not fool ourselves.
The natural aquatic habits which we attempt to emulate, although comprised of many millions of times the volumes of water volume and throughput that we have in our tanks- are also typically not "pristine"- right? I mean, soils from the surrounding terrestrial environment carry with them decomposing matter, leaves, etc, all of which impact the chemistry, oxygen-carrying capacity, biological activity, and of course, the visual appearance of the water.
And that's kind of what our whole botanical-method aquarium adventure is all about- utilizing the "imperfect" nature of the materials at our disposal, and fostering and appreciating the natural interactions between the terrestrial and aquatic realms which occur.
Now, granted, the wild aquatic habitats benefit from the dissolution of millions of gallons/liters of throughput, but the processes which impact closed systems are essentially the same ones that influence the wild ecosystems.
Of course, much like Nature, our botanical-method aquariums make use of the "ingredients" found in the abundant materials which comprise the environment. And the "infusion" of these materials into the water, and the resulting biological processes which occur, are what literally make our tanks "come alive."
And yeah, it all starts with the nitrogen cycle...
We can embrace the mindset that every leaf, every piece of wood, every bit of substrate in our aquariums is actually a sort of "catalyst" for sparking biodiversity, function, and yeah, sure- a new view of aesthetics in our aquariums.
I'm not saying that we should NOT rinse sand, or soak wood before adding it to our tanks. What I AM suggesting is that we don't "lose our shit" if our water gets a little bit turbid because we didn't "sterilize" it before adding it, or if there is a bit of botanical detritus accumulating on the substrate in our tank over time. And guess what?
We don't have to start a tank with brand new, right-from-the-bag substrate.
Of course not.
We can utilize some old substrate from another tank (we have done this as a hobby for years for the purpose of "jump starting bacterial growth") for the purpose of providing a different aesthetic as well.
And, you can/should take it further: Use that slightly fungal-covered piece of driftwood or algae-encrusted rock in our brand new tank...This helps foster a habitat more favorable to the growth of the microorganisms, fungi, and other creatures which comprise an important part of our closed aquarium ecosystems.
In fact, in a botanical-method aquarium, facilitating the rapid growth of such biotia is foundational. It's something that we should simply view as an essential part of the startup process.
And from a purely "aesthetic" stanpoint- It's okay for your tank to look a bit "worn" right from the start. This is a definite version of the Amano-embraced Japanese concept of "wabi-sabi"- the acceptance of transience and imperfection.
In fact, I think most of us actually would prefer that! It's okay to embrace this. From a functional AND aesthetic standpoint. Employ good husbandry, careful observation, and common sense when starting and managing your new aquarium.
But don't obsess over "pristine." Especially in those first hours and days.
The aquarium still has to clear a few metaphorical "hurdles" in order to be a stable environment for life to thrive.
I am operating on the assumption (gulp) that most of us have a basic understanding of the nitrogen cycle and how it impacts our aquariums. However, maybe we don’t all have that understanding. My ramblings have been labeled as “moronic” by at least one “critic” before, however, so it’s no biggie for me as said “moron” to give a very over-simplified review of the “cycling” process in an aquarium, so let’s touch on that for just a moment!
During the "cycling" process, ammonia levels will build and then suddenly decline as the nitrite-forming bacteria multiply in the system. Because nitrate-forming bacteria don't appear until nitrite is available in sufficient quantities to sustain them, nitrite levels climb dramatically as the ammonia is converted, and keep rising as the constantly-available ammonia is converted to nitrite.
Once the nitrate-forming bacteria multiply in sufficient numbers, nitrite levels decrease dramatically, nitrate levels rise, and the tank is considered “fully cycled.”
And of course, the process of creating and establishing your aquarium's ecology doesn't end there.
With a stabilized nitrogen cycle in place, the real "evolution" of the aquarium begins. This process is constant, and the actions of Nature in our aquariums facilitate changes.
And our botanical-method systems change constantly.
They change over time in very noticeable ways, as the leaves and botanicals break down and change shape and form. The water will darken as tannins are released. Often, there may be an almost "patina" or haziness to the water along with the tint- the result of dissolving botanical material and perhaps a "bloom" of microorganisms which consume them.
This is perfectly analogous to what you see in the natural habitats of the fishes that we love so much. As the materials present in the flooded forests, ponds, and streams break down, they alter it biologically, chemically, and even physically.
It's something that we as aquarists have to accept in our tanks, which is not always easy for us, right? Decomposition, detritus, biofilms- all that stuff looks, well- different than what we've been told over the years is "proper" for an aquarium. And, it's as much a perception issue as it is a husbandry one. I mean, we're talking about materials from decomposing botanicals and wood, as opposed to uneaten food, fish waste, and such.
I love that more and more hobbyists are grasping this concept. What's really cool about this is that, in our community, we aren't seeing hobbyists freak out over some of the aesthetics previously associated with "dirty!"
The understanding that we are helping to foster an ecosystem- not just "setting up an aquarium" changes your perspective entirely.
And soon after your tank begins operation, you'll see the emergence of elegant, yet simple life forms, such as bacterial biofilms and fungal growths. We've long maintained that the appearance of biofilms and fungi on your botanicals and wood are to be celebrated- not feared. They represent a burgeoning emergence of life -albeit in one of its lowest and (to some) most unpleasant-looking forms- but that's a really big deal!
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. It starts with a few bacteria, taking advantage of the abundant and comfy surface area that leaves, seed pods, and even driftwood offer.
The "early adapters" put out the "welcome mat" for other bacteria by providing more diverse adhesion sites, such as a matrix of sugars that holds the biofilm together. Since some bacteria species are incapable of attaching to a surface on their own, they often anchor themselves to the matrix or directly to their friends who arrived at the party first.
We've long called this period of time when the biofilms emerge, and your tank starts coming alive "The Bloom"- a most appropriate term, and one that conjures up a beautiful image of Nature unfolding in our aquariums- your miniature aquatic ecosystem blossoming before your very eyes!
We see this "bloom" of life in botanical method aquariums, and we also see it in my beloved reef tanks as well...a literal explosion of lower life forms, creating the microcosm which supports all of the life in the aquairum.
The real positive takeaway here:
Biofilms are really a sign that things are working right in your aquarium! A visual indicator that natural processes are at work, helping forge your tank's ecosystem.
About a year or so go, had a discussion with our friend, Alex Franqui. His beautiful Igarape-themed aquarium pictured above, "bloomed" beautifully, with the biofilms, fungal growths, and sediments working together to create a stunning, very natural functioning- and appearing-ecosystem. He was not repulsed at all. Rather, he was awed and fascinated...He celebrated what was occurring in his tank. He has an innate understanding of the ecological process, and replaced "fear and loathing" with excitement.
Alex is a hardcore aquascaper, and to see him marveling and rejoicing in the "bloom" of biofilms in his tank is remarkable.
He gets it.
And it turns out that our love of biofilms is truly shared by some people who really appreciate them as food...Shrimp hobbyists! Yup, these people (you know who you are!) go out of their way to cultivate and embrace biofilms and fungi as a food source for their shrimp.
They get it.
And this makes perfect sense, because they are abundant in Nature, particularly in habitats where shrimp naturally occur, which are typically filled with botanical materials, fallen tree trunks, and decomposing leaves...a perfect haunt for biofilm and fungal growth!
Nature celebrates "The Bloom", too.
There is something truly remarkable about natural processes playing out in our own aquariums, as they have done for eons in the wild.
Remember, it's all part of the game with a botanical-influenced aquarium. Understanding, accepting, and celebrating "The Bloom" is all part of that "mental shift" towards accepting and appreciating a more truly natural-looking, natural-functioning aquarium.
You'll gradually see an accumulation of organic detritus...similar to what you encounter in wild aquatic habitats. Various organisms make use of the fine particulate matter by filtering it from the water or accessing it in the sediments that result.
These allochthonous materials support a diverse food chain that's almost entirely based on our old friend, detritus!
Yes, detritus. Sworn enemy of the traditional aquarium hobby...misunderstood bearer of life to the aquatic habitat.
The very definition of this stuff, as accepted in the aquarium hobby, is kind of sketchy in this regard; not flattering at the very least:
"detritus is dead particulate organic matter. It typically includes the bodies or fragments of dead organisms, as well as fecal material. Detritus is typically colonized by communities of microorganisms which act to decompose or remineralize the material." (Source: The Aquarium Wiki)
Yeah, doesn't sound great, I admit. I mean- fecal material and dead organisms?
Not surprisingly, a lot of hobbyists think that it is so bad.
I'm not buying it.
Why is this necessarily a "bad" thing?
Could there be some "upside" to this stuff?
The Latin root word, is really weird, too: It means "rubbing or wearing away."
But really, IS it that bad?
I mean, even in the above the definition, there is the part about being "colonized by communities of microorganisms which act to decompose or remineralize..."
It's being processed. Utilized. What do these microorganisms do? They eat it...They render it inert. And in the process, they contribute to the biological diversity- and arguably even the stability of the system. Some of them are utilized as food by other creatures. Important in a closed system, I should think.
This is really important. It's part of the biological "operating system" of our aquariums.
It's also known that detritus may be formed by some types of bacterial aggregations. These may result from the feeding activities of animals, but often they are simply a result of bacterial growth. Detritus can be composed of inorganic mineral grains resulting from the actions of animals burrowing into wood or botanicals, or from ingested larger mineral grains of material, which are only partially dissolved via digestion.
That's not all bad, right?
I know that uneaten food and fish poop, accumulating in a closed system can be problematic if overall husbandry issues are not attended to. I know that it can decompose, overwhelm the biological filtration capacity of the tank if left unchecked. And that can lead to a smelly, dirty-looking system with diminished water quality. I know that. You know that. In fact, pretty much everyone in the hobby knows that.
Yet, as a hobby, we've really sort of heaped detritus into this "catch-all" descriptor which has an overall "bad" connotation to it. Like, anything which is allowed to break down in the tank and accumulate is bad. Anything that looks like "dirt" is...well, "dirty", dangerous, and should be treated accordingly.
Now, "dirty-looking" and "dangerous" are two very different things, right? Do natural habitats look "dangerous" to the life forms which reside in them?
In botanical-method aquariums, if most of what is accumulating in your mechanical filter media and on the substrate, etc. is just broken-up, decomposing bits of botanicals, I'd have little concern. That's what happens to terrestrial materials in an aquatic environment. It's normal for these types of aquariums. As we've discussed ad infinitum here, various organisms, like fungi, etc., work to break down these materials and begin the decomposition process.
I think we should embrace this. Especially in a botanical-method aquarium, which essentially "runs" on the decomposition of materials.
If you're one of those hobbyists who allows your leaves and other botanicals to break down completely into the tank, what happens? Do you see a decline in water quality in a well-maintained system? A noticeable uptick in nitrate or other signs? Does anyone ever do water tests to confirm the "detritus is dangerous" theory, or do we simply rely on what "they"say in the books and hobby forums?
Is there ever a situation, a place, or a circumstance where leaving the detritus "in play" is actually a benefit, as opposed to a problem?
I think so.
Now, I'm just one guy, but I personally haven't had issues with the complete decomposition of botanicals and leaves being left to accumulate in my aquariums.
In almost three decades of playing with this stuff, and being a hardcore, water-quality-testing reef keeper during much of that time, I can't ever, EVER recall I time where the decline of a system I maintained could be pinned specifically on the detritus from decomposing botanical materials as a causative factor in reducing water quality.
With this undefined "detritus" that you may see, however, do you have phosphate or nitrate issues as a result of accumulating organics from this stuff, or is some of it- enough of it- being utilized by bacteria and other "unseen residents" of your tank that it's not really a "problem" from an environmental standpoint? What does the test kit say? Do you have massive excess algal growths? A depressed oxygen level in the tank?
Or does it just look sloppy?
Is this another case of us in the aquarium hobby making a grand pronouncement like, "It looks shitty, so it's always bad!" yet again?
I think so.
Ahh, "detritus"- menace or benefit? Or perhaps, something in between? Like biofilms, fungal growth, aufwuchs,and decomposition- is it something that is inevitable, natural- perhaps even beneficial in our aquariums? Or, is it something that we should learn to embrace and appreciate? All part of a natural process and yes- aesthetic- that we have to understand to appreciate?
The natural habitats seem to have plenty of it.
Fellow hobbyists keep asking me my thoughts about detritus, and I admit, they have evolved over the years. I think so many things in moderation are pretty good- even things that we have historically "freaked out" about. Yes, hardly a scientific conclusion, but I think valuable from an aquarium management perspective.
It's about moderation. It's about going beyond the superficial.
Of course, if you're allowing large quantities of uneaten food and fish poop to accumulate in your aquarium, that's a very different distinction. Such materials accumulating will contribute to nitrate and phosphate accumulation in closed aquatic systems, and ultimately drive down the pH and oxygen levels unless removed or acted upon by organisms residing in the aquarium. So, our love of detritus shouldn't be a surrogate for poor husbandry- ever.
I have always been a firm believer in some forms of nutrient export being employed in every single tank I maintain. Typically, it's regular water exchanges. And, not "when I think about it', or "periodically", mind you.
Nope, it's weekly.
So, yeah- I'm not saying that you can essentially disobey all the common sense husbandry practices we've come to know and love in the hobby (like not overcrowding/overfeeding, etc.) and just "change the water weekly and everything's good", either.
Water exchanges are helpful.
However, they're not a panacea for all of the potential "ills" of a poorly managed tank. You need to master the well-known basics of aquarium care. Period. You know this, of course...right?
Again- water exchanges are part of the process which creates an amazing aquarium.
Common sense, acceptance of things we've been told to fear, and fostering a greater understanding of aquatic ecology and its role in our aquariums are so important for us to embrace.
Along with patience. Heaps of it. Learning to go slowly, to observe, and to wait for your ecosystem to unfold, instead of racing off to some self-imposed "finish line" for your aquarium.
As if there IS a "finished" aquarium, anyways...
We're collectively afraid to wait. To let things happen. To evolve. We want it done...NOW.
Look, I am going to beat that impatience out of you if it's the last thing we do here.
And I'm going to call us all out:
I absolutely, 100% blame this on the "hardcore aquascaping world", who feature these instant "masterpiece scapes" on social media, and make little to no mention whatsoever about the time required for an aquarium to cycle, to process nutrients, to go through not-so-attractive phases. (Hint: showing you placing goddam rocks in an empty tank isn't the "not attractive phases" I"m talking about here...)
It takes time for plants to establish and grow. Time for the tank to go through the phases where things aren't established.
Yeah, it takes months to get a tank truly "established", regardless of what approach we take, or what type of tank we're setting up. Yet, as a hobby, we seem to fear this. We glorify the "finished" or "presentable" product, eschewing the developmental phases as if they're something to be avoided or circumvented. As if we're afraid to see a tank that doesn't meet some "standard" of what "nice" is.
Don't be afraid to share this.
And yes, less you think I"m being a bit of a drama queen about this- not everyone on social media hides the process.
Only about, oh- I dunno- like, 95% of us...
What we've done collectively by only illustrating the perfectly manicured "finished product "is give our brothers and sisters the impression that all you do is choose some rock, wood, and plants or whatever , do some high concept scape, and Bam! Instant masterpiece.
Yes, there are PLENTY of people who actually think that...WHY are we so fucking scared to show an empty tank, one with the "not-so-finished" hardscape or plant arrangement? The period of time when the wood may not be covered in moss, or when the rock has a film of fungal growth on it? One that has perhaps an algae bloom, a bunch of wood that needs to be rearranged, etc.
That's reality. That is what fellow hobbyists need to see. It's important for us to share the progress- the process- of establishing a beautiful tank- with all of its "ugliness" along the way.
Not sharing this stuff does severe long-term damage to the "culture" of our hobby. It's sends a dumbed-down message that a perfect tank is the only acceptable kind.
I freaking HATE that.
Stop being so goddam afraid of showing stuff when it's not "perfect." You don't need anyone's approval. Period.
To all of us...an appeal: PLEASE STOP doing this.
At least, without taking some time to describe and share the process and explain the passage of time required to really arrive at one of these great works. Share the pics of your tank evolving through its early, "honest" phases. That's the magic...the amazing, inspiring, aspirational part EVERY bit as much as the finished contest entry pic.
And it all starts at the beginning...
Stay patient. Stay observant. Stay open-minded. Stay diligent...
And Stay Wet.