Working with "the establishment!"

The last few pieces we've shared here on "The Tint" have apparently really resonated with a lot of you! We've received a lot of comments, questions, and thoughts about deploying patience and observation during the establishment of new botanical method aquariums. I'm very pleased to hear this, because the fact that so many people have been "buying in" to these philosophies is indicative a of a "mental shift" of sorts in our hobby movement.

As I've said numerous times here, botanical method aquariums are not an "aquascaping style"- they are a representative of a methodology which embraces natural materials and processes to "finish" what we start- to not only help create and enrich the ecosystem- but to change the aesthetics as it does.

This "handing off" to Nature to take over what we've started in the earliest days of our tanks is a hugely important step in what we do. In fact, I dare say that this is a foundational part of our approach. I can't stress it enough. And honestly, I admit that it's really hard to do sometimes. You've earnestly done the work to get your new aquarium up and running, and then it starts getting a bit turbid and tinted, and biofilms and fungal growths start appearing- and we tell you to "keep your hands" out and just...enjoy!

For those patient souls who admire and appreciate the process of Nature, and therefore embrace the aesthetics as the aquarium establishes itself, it's a time to savor all that is unfolding. For those who are perhaps a little less patient, maybe unsure, and eager to see clear (but tinted) water and perhaps a less "disheveled" start to their new tank, it can test their patience and faith in the approach for sure!

Interestingly, one of the most frequently asked questions that we receive about newly established botanical method tanks is how to get them to look "broken in" and "established" more quickly! 

Okay, let me be clear about a few things. I don't advocate circumventing the processes which help establish our botanical method aquariums. I do, however, understand that many enjoy the "look" of these tanks, and want to enhance the aesthetic experience whenever possible.

The strange inconsistency is that it would be better to embrace the aesthetics which arise when we create these types of tanks. So my advice on how to get the "look" you like is to go "all-in" and embrace the extensive use of the materials which we use to create them.

Of course, there are a few things you could do to sort of "expedite" the "established" look of a botanical-method 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.

"Well, what are they, Fellman?" 

So you could use some botanicals and partially decomposed leaf litter, substrate, and even water from an established botanical-method tank to give you a bit more of an "evolved" vibe and definitely some microbial populations and therefore, some function. This is completely consistent with the concept of adding sand from an established, healthy aquarium, which has been used by aquarists for decades. 

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. Hell, adding sand or gravel/decomposing leaves and such 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 makes perfect sense.


Yet, there is no substitute for patience and the passage of time.

Looking back on some of my favorite tanks that I've executed in the past few years, even though they look awesome from the start, it becomes increasingly obvious to all that these systems really don't hit that complete "look and feel" that we expect until long after they have 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. 

It takes time. Fungal growths establish. Bacterial populations grow. 

Every new botanical-style tank looks cool from day one...A lot of people love the clean and fresh-looking leaves, and seed pods that are squeaky clean. More and more of of us love the look of softening and decomposing leaves and botanicals. And yet, the long-established systems are the ones that really stand out.

After 6 months, that's when things get really special.


That's when the bulk of the "settling in" is done. The bacterial, fungal, and microorganism populations have increased, and nutrient imports and exports have balanced out and stabilized. The tank looks great, smells earthy and pleasant, the substrate is rich and ecologically diverse, and the fishes take on a very relaxed demeanor.

I've long held that my fave botanical-style, blackwater aquarium of all was the one I did about 3 years 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! 😂 

And it wasn't all sexy and dark and established-looking from the get-go.


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 from experience that if I waited it out, let Nature do Her thing- that the potential was huge in this tank.

However, 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. A very slight "turbidity" or "flavor" as one of my friends called it- that was as compelling as it was beautiful.

Yeah, 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 LED 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. IN fact, I had three spawns of Rummy Nose Tetras in that tank!

This tank had a certain "something":

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

In Nature, many habitats go through periods of time where they are inundated by a flow of sediments, detritus, etc., and this has a big impact not only on how they function and support the life forms which reside in them, but in how they look as well.

This is very analogous to the way in which our botanical method aquariums "break in" and establish themselves that it's not even funny! Many of the same ecological and hydrological processes which impact wild habitats appear to shape our botanical method tanks at home, too.

And it is part of a sequence. A pattern...A journey. Perhaps what could best be called an evolution- which Nature has carefully set up and managed over eons. 

In our own aquarium work, we can replicate this sequence and's not that hard to do. The really difficult part is the waiting. Acquiring the patience that we must deploy as we watch our aquariums evolve, uninterrupted- under the steady hand of Nature.

That's the magic.

It's a process- the part of the journey which every botanical-method aquarist needs to embrace and understand. And sure, if you can accept the "look" during the "establishment phases"-  

Of course, an aquarium which utilizes botanicals as a good part of its hardscape follows a set of phases, too. And I've found that once a botanical method aquarium (blackwater or brackish) hits that sort of "stable mode", it's just that- stable. You won't see wildly fluctuating pH levels, increasing nitrates, phosphates, etc. To a certain degree, the aquarium has achieved some sort of "biological equilibrium."

Now, one thing that's unique about the botanical method approach is that we tend to accept the idea of decomposing materials accumulating in our systems. We understand that they act, to a certain extent, as "fuel" for the micro and macrofauna which reside in the aquarium. The idea of leaving this material in place over the long-term is a crucial component of this approach, IMHO.

When we do that- when we make those mental shifts and accept that our aquariums aren't really "finished" in 5 days- or 50- we have suddenly begun to understand this whole "botanical-method aquarium thing."

Suddenly, the day-to-day appearance of the aquarium during its establishment phase is not something which you "endure"- it becomes an intriguing part of the journey. Yeah, a mental shift of the highest order- appreciating your aquarium during every phase of its existence.

That's how you work with "the establishment..."

Stay strong. Stay committed. Stay creative. Stay bold...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics  

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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