Nature has been working with terrestrial materials in aquatic habitats for uncounted eons.
And Nature works with just about everything you throw at her.
She'll take that seemingly "unsexy" piece of wood or rock or bunch of dried leaves, and, given the passage of time, the action of gravity and water movement, and the work of bacteria, fungi, and algae- She'll mold, shape, evolve them into unique and compelling pieces, as amazing as anything we could ever hope to do...
If we give her the chance.
If we allow ourselves to look at her work in context.
If we don't worry when things go "sideways."
If we don't give up.
Always have faith in Nature.
She'll challenge you. She'll tempt you. She'll school you. But She'll also educate you, indoctrinate you into her ways, and take you under her wing...if you let Her.
Let Nature handle some of the details... She pretty much never messes them up! Don't fight Her. Understand her. Don't be afraid to cede some of the work to Her.
Botanical-method aquariums are not not "just a look." Not just an aesthetic. Not just a "trend." Not even just a mindset...
Rather, they're a way to incorporate natural materials to achieve new and progressive results with the fishes and plants we've come to love so much. And they incorporate many of the same "best practices" that we've come to know and love over the past century of modern aquarium keeping. Our success or failure is completely dependent upon how we apply many of these time tested approaches.
If there is a commonality among successful hobbyists in any aquarium speciality, it's that they follow fundamentals- common core principles of aquairum keeping. It's not additives, or fancy gear- it's patience and consistency. Routine and following a philosophy of aquarium husbandry.
First and foremost is patience.
I feel that we don't celebrate patience quite enough.
Are you one of those people who loves to have stuff right now? The kind of person who just wants your aquarium "finished"- or do you relish the journey of establishing and evolving your little microcosm?
I'm just gonna go out on a limb here and postulate that you're part of the latter group.
Have you ever completed an aquascape and stepped back and looked at it in its most "embryonic" phases, and thought to yourself, "This looks good?" The pristine glass, perfect deal wood, sparkling gravel...The scent of a brand new aquarium...
Well, of course you have! It's part of the game.
It's a total sensory experience, isn't it?
To me, however, the real "magic" in an aquarium happens not when it's new and pristine, but after a few weeks or months, when it develops that "patina" of micro algae, fungal growths, and a bit of detritus...the "matte" sheen of biofilm on the substrate...And when your tank develops that earthy, clean, alive smell.
That, to me, is when an aquarium really feels "alive" and evolving.
When it comes to maintenance of aquariums, I'm a big believer in removing algae from the front glass and "excessive" films from the driftwood or other materials...But I don't go crazy about it like I used to. Like many of you, I let some of those natural processes evolve, just like the tank itself...
I think I tend to spend less time and energy removing "offensive" algae growth manually, and spend far more time and energy controlling and eliminating the root causes of its appearance: Excess nutrients, too much light, lax maintenance practices, etc. It's not that I don't think I should be scraping algae- it's just that it seems to make more sense to "nip it in the bud" and attack the underlying causes of it's growth.
Understanding the dynamic in a closed aquarium system is really important.
There is another aspect to appreciating it: Letting a system "evolve" and find its way, with a little bit of guidance (or botanicals, as the case may be) from time to time, is beautiful to me...Watching the "bigger picture" and realizing that all of these "components" are part of a bigger "whole."
When I first approached botanical method tanks a couple of decades ago, this was a definite of mental shift for me, right along with accepting the biofilms, blackwater, and decomposing leaves. Like most of you, I've spent much of my fishy "career" doing "reaction" style aquarium maintenance, breaking out the algae scraper at the first sign of the "dreaded" stuff.
And I've come to realize that taking a more proactive, understanding, and yeah- relaxed approach to so-called "nuisance algae management" has created a much more enjoyable hobby experience for me. And being a bit more accepting about seeing "some" algae growth and such has created far more aesthetically pleasing, naturally-appearing aquariums.
There is nothing wrong with creating a more "clinically sterile-looking" aquarium. Perfectly manicured, impeccably groomed task are beautiful. It's just that there is something about the way nature tends to do things that seems a bit more satisfying to me.
And apparently, for many of you, too!
The beauty is that, like so many things in this hobby- there is no "right" or "wrong" way to approach something as mundane as algae growth and tank "grooming." It's about what works for YOU..what makes you feel comfortable, and what keeps your aquarium healthy.
Regardless of what approach we take, natural processes that have evolved over the eons will continue to occur in your aquarium. You can fight them, attempt to stave them off with elaborate "countermeasures" and labor...or you can embrace them and learn how to moderate and live with them via understanding the processes.
And the algae?
It'll always be there. It's just a matter of how "prominent" we allow it to be.
Simple. And, actually- sort of under our control, isn't it?
And when new think of expanded time frames under which our tanks evolve and operate, what's the big rush to "eradicate" things?
I'm not sure exactly what it is, but when it comes to the aquarium hobby...I find myself playing what is called in many endeavors (like business, sports, etc.) a "long game."
I'm not looking for instant gratification.
I know-we all know- that good stuff often takes time to happen. I'm certainly not afraid to wait for results. Well, I'm not just sitting around in the "lotus position", either- waiting, anyways. However, I'm not expecting immediate results from stuff. Rather, I am okay with doing the necessary groundwork, nurturing the project along, and seeing the results happen over time.
Yeah, that's a "long game."
If you're into tropical fish keeping, it's almost a necessity to have this sort of patience, isn't it? I mean, sure, some of us are anxious to get that aquascape done, get the fishes in there, fire up the plumbing in the fish room, etc. However, we all seem to understand that to get good results- truly satisfying, legitimate results- things just take time. Yeah, I'd love it if some "annual" killifish eggs hatched in one month instead of 7-9 months, for example, but...
I wouldn't complain, but I do understand that there is the world the way it is; and the world the way we'd like it to be.
I'll just say it: Your aquarium likely won't look anything like what you've envisioned for at least 3 months.
And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.
What's the rush? From day one, your botanical method aquarium will simply look different than any other tank that you've ever kept. It will by virtue of the fact that it's set up differently than any other tank you've ever kept!
So, why not simply enjoy THAT?
I also think that we as a hobby tend to glorify the "finished product", with very little discussed- or shared on social media- about the journey itself. I believe that, if presented with the same gusto as finished tanks by hobbyists active on social media, stories about the journey of a botanical method aquarium can be incredibly compelling- even as compelling as the "finished" product.
I think that, by sharing such journeys, we can create an atmosphere of excitement around process- a huge thing for our hobby.
What it takes to get there is consistency and patience...
I have to implore you to deploy absurd amounts of patience and to employ "radical cal consistency" in your maintenance efforts. "Radical" in the sense that you simply have to become fanatical. Consistency meaning you do it regularly. Not sometimes, or when it feels right- but regularlary. Always.
Consistent habits create consistent environmental parameters, without a doubt.
As you've heard me mention ad nauseum here, natural rivers, lakes, and streams, although subject to seasonal variations and such, are typically remarkably stable physical environments, and fishes and plants, although capable of adapting to surprisingly rapid environmental changes, have really evolved over eons to grow in consistent, stable conditions.
In the botanical-influenced, low alkalinity/low pH blackwater environment, consistency is really important. Although these tanks are surprisingly easy to manage and run over the long haul, consistency is a huge part of what keeps these speciality systems running healthily and happily for extended periods of time. It wouldn't take too much beginning neglect or even a little sloppiness in husbandry to start a march towards increasing nitrate, phosphate, and their associated problems, like nuisance algae growth, etc.
Consistency. Regular maintenance. Scheduled water changes. The usual stuff. Nothing magic here. Nothing that a sexy $24.00 bottle of bacterial culture is going to replace.
Nothing that you, as an experienced hobby don't already know. Right?
Just looking at your tank and its inhabitants will be enough to tell you if something is amiss. More than one advanced aquarist has only half-jokingly told me that he or she can tell if something is amiss with his/her tank simply by the "smelI!" get it- excesses of biological activities do often create conditions that are detectible by scent!
It's as much about consistency-consistency in practices and procedures- as it is about hitting those "target numbers" of pH, nitrate, etc. If you ask a lot of successful aquarists how they accomplish this-or-that, they'll usually point towards a few things, like regular water changes, good food, and adhering to the same practices over and over again.
Consistency = Stability.
Sure, there might be times you deliberately manipulate the environment fairly rapidly, like a temperature change to stimulate spawning, etc., but for the most part, the successful aquarist plays a consistent game. Most fishes come from environments that vary only slightly during he course of a day, and many only seasonally, so stability is at the heart of "best practice" for aquarists.
So, without further beating the shit out of this, I think we can successfully make the argument that consistency in all manner of aquarium-keeping endeavors can only help your animals. Keeping a stable environment is not only humane- it's playing into the very strength of our animals, by minimizing the stress of constantly having to adapt to a fluctuating environment. As one of our local reef hobbyists likes to say, "Stability promotes success."
Who could argue with that?
I'm sure that you can think of tons of ways that consistency in our fish-keeping habits can help promote more healthy, stable aquariums. Don't obsess over this stuff, but do give some thought to the discussion here; think about consistency, and how it applies to your animals, and what you do each day to keep a consistent environment in your systems.
And don't be fucking lazy.
Don't look for magic potions, shortcuts, or hacks.
Good stuff takes time to achieve.
Stay observant. Stay methodical. Stay diligent. Stay grounded. Stay consistent...
And Stay Wet.
Okay, that title sounds a lot like some spy thriller or sci-fi action movie. The reality is that it's simply a part of my tank identification "nomenclature." Each year since Tannin began, I committed myself to do at least one major aquairum project, one that really puts down a "marker"- or tests some idea that Ive had in my head. Something that pushes the boundaries of what we do in the botanical-method aquarium.
Despite the "major" descriptor- the tank doesn't have to be a big one. I've had some of my most epic tanks and greatest influential developments arise out of nano tanks. The "Urban Igapo" concept (Project 19), The "Tucano Tangle" (Project 20), the botanical brackish system (Project 17), and our "Java Jungle" (Project 21) all came from tanks of 25 US gallons or less. Each one had outsized impact on my philosophies moving forward.
Each one represented a "turning point" in my personal botanical method aquarium journey.
Of all of the tanks I've played with in the past 5 years, none has had greater impact on me and my future work than the 50-gallon botanical method tank which we called "Project 18". This tank helped move the mark...pushed me into a new era of more thorough, more natural ecosystem creation.
It was the first larger tank in which I really let Nature take control. Let her dictate the pace, the diversity, and the aesthetic.
It started quite simply, really.
An almost stupid-looking stack of wood.
Not just any wood, though- Red Mangrove branches. A wood variety that imparts large amounts of tannins into the water. A very "dirty" kind of wood, with lots of textured surface area- perfect for biofilm and fungal colonization.
The idea behind "Project 18" was to accept what Nature does to the materials we use- without any intervention on my part, nor a bent towards placing aesthetics first.
Well, for one thing, it was to put down my personal "marker" for "Natural" in the aquairum hobby. This word is used too often, and in weird ways, IMHO. Some hobbyists emphasize how "natural" their aquairum is without really looking at the absurdity of how hard they're trying to fight off Nature- by forcing decidedly unnatural combinations of plants and other materials to exist in a highly staged, very precisely manicured world of aesthetic-first philosophy. The result is a beautiful aquairum- one which has natural components, sure- but which could hardly be considered anything but an artistic view of Nature when placed into this context.
I sometimes fear that this burgeoning interest in aquariums intended to replicate some aspects of Nature at a "contest level" will result in a renewed interest in the same sort of "diorama effect" we've seen in planted aquarium contests. In other words, just focusing on the "look" -or "a look" (which is cool, don't get me wrong) yet summarily overlooking the function- the reason why the damn habitat looks the way it does and how fishes have adapted to it...and considering how we can utilize this for their husbandry, spawning, etc.- is only a marginal improvement over where we've been "stuck" with for a while now as the "gold standard" in freshwater aquariums..
Some people are simply too close minded to apply their skills to doing things in a TRULY more natural way.
Some of these people need to just stare at a few underwater scenes for a while and just open their minds up to the possibilities...
We all need to go further.
I'm sure I'm being just a bit over-the-top (oaky, maybe QUITE a bit!), but the so-called "nature aquarium" movement seems to have, IMHO, largely overlooked the real function of Nature, so there is some precedent, unfortunately. A sanitized, highly stylized interpretation of a natural habitat is a start...I'll give 'em that-but it's just that- a start.
The real exciting part- the truly "progressive" part- comes when you let Nature "do her thing" and allow her to transform the aquarium as she's done in the wild for eons.
So, yes- It should go beyond merely creating the "look" of these systems to win a contest, IMHO. Rather, we should also focus on the structural/functional aspects of these environments to create long-term benefits for the fishes we keep in them. We should aim to incorporate things like biofilms, detritus, decomposition into our systems, just as Nature does.
That's a real "biotope aquarium" or 'Nature" aquarium in my book.
That was the philosophy behind "Project 18."
Perhaos the most important things that botanical method aquariums can do is to facilitate the assembly of a "food web" within the system.
To me, these are fascinating, fundamental constructs which can truly have important influence on our aquariums.
So, what exactly is a food web?
A food web is defined by aquatic ecologists as a series of "trophic connections" (ie; feeding and nutritional resources in a given habitat) among various species in an aquatic community.
All food chains and webs have at least two or three of these trophic levels. Generally, there are a maximum of four trophic levels. Many consumers feed at more than one trophic level.
So, a trophic level in our case would go something like this: Leaf litter, bacteria/fungal growth, crustaceans...
In the wild aquatic habitats we love so much, food webs are vital to the organisms which live in them. They are an absolute model for ecological interdependencies and processes which encompass the relationship between the terrestrial and aquatic environments.
In many of the blackwater aquatic habitats that we're so obsessed with around here, like the Rio Negro, for example, studies by ecologists have determined that the main sources of autotrophic sources are the igapo, along with aquatic vegetation and various types of algae. (For reference, autotrophs are defined as organisms that produce complex organic compounds using carbon from simple substances, such as CO2, and using energy from light (photosynthesis) or inorganic chemical reactions.)
Hmm. examples would be phytoplankton!
Now, I was under the impression that phytoplankton was rather scarce in blackwater habitats. However, this indicates to scientists is that phytoplankton in blackwater trophic food webs might be more important than originally thought!
Now, lets get back to algae and macrophytes for a minute. Most of these life forms enter into food webs in the region in the form of...wait for it...detritus! Yup, both fine and course particular organic matter are a main source of these materials. I suppose this explains why heavy accumulations of detritus and algal growth in aquaria go hand in hand, right? Detritus is "fuel" for life forms of many kinds.
In Amazonian blackwater rivers, studies have determined that the aquatic insect abundance is rather low, with most species concentrated in leaf litter and wood debris, which are important habitats. Yet, here's how a food web looks in some blackwater habitats : Studies of blackwater fish assemblages indicated that many fishes feed primarily on burrowing midge larvae (chironomids, aka "Bloodworms" ) which feed mainly with organic matter derived from terrestrial plants!
And of course, allochtonous inputs (food items from outside of the ecosystem), like fruits, seeds, insects, and plant parts, are important food sources to many fishes. Many midwater characins consume fruits and seeds of terrestrial plants, as well as terrestrial insects.
Insects in general are really important to fishes in blackwater ecosystems. In fact, it's been concluded that the the first link in the food web during the flooding of forests is terrestrial arthropods, which provide a highly important primary food for many fishes.
These systems are so intimately tied to the surrounding terrestrial environment. Even the permanent rivers have a strong, very predictable "seasonality", which provides fruits, seeds, and other terrestrial-originated food resources for the fishes which reside in them. It's long been known by ecologists that rivers with predictable annual floods have a higher richness of fish species tied to this elevated rate of food produced by the surrounding forests.
And of course, fungal growths and bacterial biofilms are also extremely valuable as food sources for life forms at many levels, including fishes. The growth of these organisms is powered by...decomposing leaf litter!
Sounds familiar, huh?
So, how does a leaf break down? It's a multi-stage process which helps liberate its constituent compounds for use in the overall ecosystem. And one that is vital to the construction of a food web.
The first step in the process is known as leaching, in which nutrients and organic compounds, such as sugars, potassium, and amino acids dissolve into the water and move into the soil.The next phase is a form of fragmentation, in which various organisms, from termites (in the terrestrial forests) to aquatic insects and shrimps (in the flooded forests) physically break down the leaves into smaller pieces.
As the leaves become more fragmented, they provide more and more surfaces for bacteria and fungi to attach and grow upon, and more feeding opportunities for fishes!
Okay, okay, this is all very cool and hopefully, a bit interesting- but what are the implications for our aquariums? How can we apply lessons from wild aquatic habitats vis a vis food production to our tanks?
This is one of the most interesting aspects of a botanical-style aquarium: We have the opportunity to create an aquatic microcosm which provides not only unique aesthetics- it provides nutrient processing, and to some degree, a self-generating population of creatures with nutritional value for our fishes, on a more-or-less continuous basis.
Incorporating botanical materials in our aquariums for the purpose of creating the foundation for biological activity is the starting point. Leaves, seed pods, twigs and the like are not only "attachment points" for bacterial biofilms and fungal growths to colonize, they are physical location for the sequestration of the resulting detritus, which serves as a food source for many organisms, including our fishes.
Think about it this way: Every botanical, every leaf, every piece of wood, every substrate material that we utilize in our aquariums is a potential component of food production!
The initial setup of your botanical-style aquarium will rather easily accomplish the task of facilitating the growth of said biofilms and fungal growths. There isn't all that much we have to do as aquarists to facilitate this but to simply add these materials to our tanks, and allow the appearance of these organisms to happen.
You could add pure cultures of organisms such as Paramecium, Daphnia, species of copepods (like Cyclops), etc. to help "jump start" the process, and to add that "next trophic level" to your burgeoning food web.
In a perfect world, you'd allow the tank to "run in" for a few weeks, or even months if you could handle it, before adding your fishes- to really let these organisms establish themselves. And regardless of how you allow the "biome" of your tank to establish itself, don't go crazy "editing" the process by fanatically removing every trace of detritus or fragmented botanicals.
"Project 18" was a tank which really pushed this idea to the forefront of my daily practice. Everything from the selection of materials to the way the tank was set up, to the "aquascape" was imagined as a sort of "whole."
Yeah, I said the "A" word...Let's think about the "aquascape" part bit more deeply for just a second...
What IS the purpose of an aquascape in the aquarium...besides aesthetics? Well, it's to provide fishes with a comfortable environment that makes them feel "at home", right?
So when was the last time you really looked into where your fishes live- or should I say, "how they live" - in the habitats from which they come? The information that you can garner from such observations and research is amazing!
One of the key takeaways that you can make is that many freshwater fishes like "structure" in their habitats. Unless you're talking about large, ocean going fishes, or fishes that live in enormous schools, like herring or smelt- fishes like certain types of structure- be it rocks, wood, roots, etc.
Structure provides a lot of things- namely protection, shade, food, and spawning/nesting areas.
And of course, the structure that we are talking about in our aquairums is not just rocks and wood...it's all sorts of botanical materials and leaves that create "microhabitats" in all sorts of places within the aquarium.
We can utilize all of these things to facilitate more natural behaviors from our fishes.
So, yeah-think about how fishes act in Nature.
They tend to be attracted to areas where food supplies are relatively abundant, requiring little expenditure of energy in order to satisfy their nutritional needs. Insects, crustaceans, and yeah- tiny fishes- tend to congregate and live around floating plants, masses of algae, and fallen botanical items (seed pods, leaves, etc.), so it's only natural that our subject fishes would be attracted to these areas...
I mean, who wouldn't want to have easy access to the "buffet line", right?
And with the ability to provide live foods such as small insects (I'm thinking wingless fruit flies and ants)- and to potentially "cultivate" some worms (Bloodworms, for sure) "in situ"- there are lots of compelling possibilities for creating really comfortable, natural-appearing (and functioning) biotope/biotype aquariums for fishes.
Ever the philosopher/ muser of the art of aquaristics, I sometimes fear that the burgeoning interest in biotope aquariums at a contest level will result in the same sort of "diorama effect" we've seen in planted aquarium contests. In other words, just focusing on the "look" (which is cool, don't get me wrong) yet summarily overlooking the reason why the habitat looks the way it does and how fishes have adapted to it...and considering how we can utilize this for their husbandry, spawning, etc.
I'm sure it's unfounded, but the so-called "nature aquarium" movement seems to have, IMHO, completely overlooked the real function of nature, so there is some precedent, unfortunately. I hope that "biotopers", who have a lot of awareness about the habitats they are inspired by, will at least consider this "functional/aesthetic" dynamic that we obsess over when they conceive and execute their work.
It should go beyond merely creating the "look" of these systems to win a contest, IMHO. Rather, we should also focus on the structural/functional aspects of these environments to create long-term benefits for the fishes we keep in them. That's a real "biotope aquarium" in my book.
Leaves, detritus, submerged terrestrial plants- all have their place in an aquarium designed to mimic these unique aquatic habitats. You can and should be able to manage nutrients and the bioload input released into our closed systems by these materials, as we've discussed (and executed/demostrated) here for years. The fear about "detritus" and such "crashing tanks" is largely overstated, IMHO- especially with competent aquarium husbandry and proper outfitting of a tank with good filtration and nutrient control/export systems in place.
If you're up to the challenge of attempting to replicate the look of some natural habitat- you should be a competent enough aquarist to be able to responsibly manage the system over the long term, as well.
Ouch, right? Hey, that's reality. Sorry to be so frank. Enough of the "shallow mimicry" B.S. that has dominated the aquascaping/contest world for too long, IMHO. You want to influence/educate people and inspire them? Want to really advance the hobby and art/science of aquarium keeping? Then execute a tank which can be managed over the long haul. Crack the code. Figure out the technique. Look to Nature and "back engineer" it.
These things can be done.
There are many aspects of wild habitats that we choose to replicate, which we can turn into "functionally aesthetic" aquarium systems. Let's not forget the trees themselves- in their submerged and even fallen state! These are more than just "hardscape" to those of us who are into the functional aesthetic aspects of our aquariums.
I hope that you have your own "Project 18"- an aquarium which served as an "unlock" for the future of your botanical method work. I hope that you find your unique way in the hobby, and enjoy every second of it!
Stay bold. Stay creative. Stay observant. Stay thoughtful...
And Stay Wet.
I think that one of the most interesting- and perhaps, not widely overlooked aspects of botanical method aquariums is their ability to provide sustenance for the fishes which reside in them. Yeah, we DO talk a lot about how to feed our fishes, and how best to provide nutrition for them in thenmhobby. However, have you ever thought of how it might be possible to create an interesting fish community and display based on the different feeding strategies of fishes?
In other words, constructing your aquarium with the expressed purpose of supporting the various feeding adaptations of different fishes!
The idea is absolutely not crazy, nor "revolutionary"- but it is something...an "angle", if you will- that we should be considering when we construct our aquariums.
One of the most important functions of many botanically-influenced wild habitats is the creation and support of food webs. As we've discussed before in this blog, the leaf litter zones in tropical waters are home to a remarkable diversity of life, ranging from microbial to fungal, as well as crustaceans and insects...oh, and fishes, too! These life forms are the basis of complex and dynamic food webs, which are one key to the productivity of these habitats.
By researching, developing, and managing our own botanically-influenced aquaria, particularly those with leaf litter beds, we may be on the cusp of finding new ways to create "nurseries" for the rearing of many fishes!
At least upon superficial examination, our aquarium leaf litter/botanical beds seem to function much like their wild counterparts, creating an extremely rich "microhabitat" within our aquariums. And reports form those of you who breed and rear fishes in your intentionally "botanically-stocked" aquariums are that you're seeing great color, more regularity in spawns, and higher survival rates from some species.
We're just beginning here, but the future is wild open for huge hobby-level contributions that can lead to some serious breakthroughs!
Nature has been providing for the organisms which live in Her waters for eons...So I think any discussion about possible food production in a botanical method aquarium starts there...
The population and distribution of the fishes is based partially upon what food resources are available in a given locale.
A typical tropical stream or river has a variety of different feeders, each one specializing in a different method of feeding.
You'll often hear the term "periphyton" mentioned in a similar context, and I think that, for our purposes, we can essentially consider it in the same manner as we do "epiphytic matter." "Periphyton" to the hobbyist is essentially a "catch all" term for a mixture of cyanobacteria, algae, various microbes, and of course- detritus, which is found attached or in extremely close proximity to various submerged surfaces.
Again, fishes will graze on this stuff constantly.
In fact, many of our favorite fishes may be classified as "periphyton" grazers, which have small mouths, fleshy lips, and numerous tiny teeth for rasping. "Periphyton", by the way, is defined by science as "...freshwater organisms attached to or clinging to plants and other objects projecting above the bottom sediments." Ohh- sounds good to me! This stuff is abundant in all sorts of streams, but can be limited by availability of light and solid substrates.
It's noteworthy to point out that detritus is a less nutritious resource for grazers than the typical periphyton, especially for fishes like loricariid catfishes and such- and is thought by scientists to only be actively consumed when the periphyton growth is limited. So, interestingly, fishes do shift their feeding patterns to adapt to seasonal and other changes in their habitat..something we can replicate in our aquariums, no doubt!
Natural aquatic habitats can range from highly productive to relatively impoverished.
Major rivers like the Rio Negro are often called "impoverished" by scientists, in terms of plankton production. They also show little seasonal fluctuations in algal and bacterial populations. Other blackwater systems do show seasonal fluctuations, such as lakes and watercourses enriched with overflow in spring months.
At low water levels, the nutrients and population of these life forms are generally more dense. Creatures like hydracarines (mites), insects, like chironomids (hello, blood worms!), and copepods, like Daphnia, are the dominant fauna that fishes tend to feed on in these waters. This is interesting to contemplate when we consider what to feed our fishes in aquariums, isn't it? Hmm...Why don't more commercial fish foods contain mostly aquatic insects? Hint, hint, hint, hint...
Anyways, these life forms, both planktonic and insect, tend to feed off of the leaf litter itself, as well as fungi and bacteria present in them as they decompose. The leaf litter bed is a surprisingly dynamic, and one might even say "rich" little benthic biotope, contained within the otherwise "impoverished" waters. And, as we've discussed before, it should come as no surprise that a large and surprisingly diverse assemblage of fishes make their homes within and closely adjacent to, these litter beds. These are little "food oasis" in areas otherwise relatively devoid of food. The fishes are not there just to look at the pretty leaves.
It's not really that much different in the aquarium, is it? I mean, as the leaves and botanicals break down, they are acted upon by fungi and bacteria, the degree of which is dependent upon the available food sources. Granted, with fishes in a closer proximity and higher density than in many wild habitats, the natural food sources are usually not sufficient to be the primary source of food for our fishes- but they are one hell of a supplement, right? That's why, in a botanical-rich, leaf litter dominated aquarium, you see the fishes spending a lot of time foraging in and among the litter...just like in Nature.
It's been observed by many aquarists, particularly those who breed loricariids, that the fry have significantly higher survival rates when reared in systems with leaves present. I'm sure some success of this could be attributed to the population of infusoria, etc. present within the system as the leaves break down.
Bacterial biofilms, as we've discussed many times before, contain a complex mix of sugars, bacteria, and other materials, all of which are relatively nutritious for animals which feed on them. It therefore would make a lot of sense that a botanical-influenced aquarium with a respectable growth of biofilm would be a great place to rear fry! Maybe not the most attractive place, from an aesthetic standpoint- but a system where the little guys are essentially "knee deep" in supplemental natural food at any given time is a beautiful thing to the busy fish breeder!
And what of the leaves themselves? Do our aquatic animals feed on them? Well, yes- and no. Some fishes, for example, Loricariids, will feed on some of the materials directly, rasping off surface tissues. Others, like certain characins (notably, Headstanders, Metynis, and similar fishes), will feed off of the algae growth, or aufwuchs, as it's collectively referred to, present on the botanicals and leaves.
As we've talked about previously, aquatic invertebrates and crustaceans are one of the primary foods consumed by many fishes which reside in tropical streams, and the amounts and types are dictated by the environment of the stream, which includes factors like the surrounding topography, current, elevation, surrounding plant growth, etc.
Many fishes, like Headstanders and others, simply consume tiny crustaceans as part of their sediment feeding activity. Now, we're not likely to set up aquariums with fine, silty sediments stocked with tons of little copepods and worms and such...but if we were, I wonder how long it would take a few fishes to decimate the population.
Detritus, sediment, etc...all of these things are important food sources- all of which can be cultivated in our tanks for the benefit of our fishes...
At the risk of being a bit pretentious, I'll quote myself from an article from 2015:
"Maybe we will finally overcome generations of fear over detritus and fungi and biofilms- the life-forms which power the aquatic ecosystems we strive to replicate in our aquariums. Maybe, rather than attempting to "erase" these things which go against our "Instagram-influenced aesthetics" of how we think that Nature SHOULD look, we might want to meet Nature where she is and work with her."
And then, we might see the real beauty- and benefits- of unedited Nature.
One of the important food resources in natural aquatic systems are what are known as macrophytes- aquatic plants which grow in and around the water, emerged, submerged, floating, etc. Not only do macrophytes contribute to the physical structure and spatial organization of the water bodies they inhabit, they are primary contributors to the overall biological stability of the habitat, conditioning the physical parameters of the water. Of course, anyone who keeps a planted aquarium could attest to that, right?
One of the interesting things about macrophytes is that, although there are a lot of fishes which feed directlyupon them, in this context, the plants themselves are perhaps most valuable as a microhabitat for algae, zooplankton, and other organisms which fishes feed on. Small aquatic crustaceans seek out the shelter of plants for both the food resources they provide (i.e.; zooplankton, diatoms) and for protection from predators (yeah, the fishes!).
I have personally set up a couple of systems recently to play with this idea- botanical-influenced planted aquariums, and have experimented with going extended periods of time without feeding my fishes who lived in these tanks- and they have remained as fat and happy as when they were added to the tanks...
Something is there- literally!
Perhaps most interesting to us blackwater/botanical-method aquarium people are epiphytes. These are organisms which grow on the surface of plants or other substrates and derive their nutrients from the surrounding environment. They are important in the nutrient cycling and uptake in both nature and the aquarium, adding to the biodiversity, and serving as an important food source for many species of fishes.
In the case of our aquatic habitats, like streams, ponds, and inundated forests, epiphytes are abundant, and many fishes will spend large amounts of time foraging the biocover on tree trunks, branches, leaves, and other botanical materials. Although most animals use leaves and tree branches for shelter and not directly as a food item, grazing on this epiphytic growth is very important.
Some organisms, such as nematodes and chironomids ("Bloodworms!") will dig into the leaf structures and feed on the tissues themselves, as well as the fungi and bacteria found in and among them. These organisms, in turn, become part of the diet for many fishes.
And the resulting detritus produced by the "processed" and decomposing pant matter is considered by many aquatic ecologists to be an extremely significant food source for many fishes, especially in areas such as Amazonia and Southeast Asia, where the detritus is considered an essential factor in the food webs of these habitats.
And of course, if you observe the behavior of many of your fishes in the aquarium, such as characins, cyprinids, Loricarids, and others, you'll see that in between feedings, they'll spend an awful lot of time picking at "stuff" on the bottom of the tank. In a botanical method aquarium, this is a pretty common occurrence, and I believe an important benefit of this type of system.
I've said it many times, and it bears saying again:
I am of the opinion that a botanical-method aquarium, complete with its decomposing leaves and seed pods, can serve as a sort of "buffet" for many fishes- even those who's primary food sources are known to be things like insects and worms and such. Detritus and the organisms within it can provide an excellent supplemental food source for our fishes!
Just like in Nature.
Another interesting fact:
It's well known that in many habitats, like inundated forest floors, etc., fishes will adjust their feeding strategies to utilize the available food sources at different times of the year, such as the "dry season", etc. And it's also known that many fish fry feed actively on bacteria and fungi in these habitats...so I suggest once again that a blackwater/botanical-method aquarium could be an excellent sort of "nursery" for many fish species!
You'll often hear the term "periphyton" mentioned in a similar context, and I think that, for our purposes, we can essentially consider it in the same manner as we do "epiphytic matter." Periphyton is essentially a "catch all" term for a mixture of cyanobacteria, algae, various microbes, and of course- detritus, which is found attached or in extremely close proximity to various submerged surfaces. Again, fishes will graze on this stuff constantly.
And then, of course, there's the allochthonous input that we talk about so much here.Foods from the surrounding environment, such as flowers, fruits, terrestrial insects, etc. These are extremely important foods for many fish species that live in these habitats. We mimic this process when we feed our fishes prepared foods, as stuff literally "rains from the sky!" Now, I think that what we feed to our fishes directly in this fashion is equally as important as how it's fed.
I'd like to see much more experimentation with foods like live ants, fruit flies, and other winged insects. Of course, I can hear the protests already: "Not in MY house, Fellman!" I get it. I mean, who wants a plague of winged insects getting loose in their suburban home because of some aquarium feeding experiment gone awry, right?
I think we need to let ourselves embrace this stuff and celebrate it for what it is: Life. Sustenance. Diversity. Foraging. I think that those of us who maintain blackwater. botanical- aqumethod ariums have made the "mental shift" to understand, accept, and even appreciate the appearance of this stuff.
We look at Nature.
Natural habitats are absolutely filled with this stuff...in every nook and cranny. It's like the whole game here- an explosion of life-giving materials, free for the taking...
A true gift from Nature.
Yet, for a century or so in the hobby, our first instinct is to reach for the algae scraper or siphon hose, and lament our misfortune with our friends.
It need not be this way. Its appearance in our tanks is a blessing.
You call it "mess." I call it "food."
Another "mental shift", I suppose...one which many of you have already made, no doubt. Or, I hope you have..or can.
I certainly look forward to seeing many examples of us utilizing "what we've got" to the advantage of our fishes! AGAIN:
A truly "natural" aquarium is not sterile. It encourages the accumulation of organic materials and other nutrients- not in excess, of course. Biofilms, fungi, algae...detritus...all have their place in the aquarium. Not as an excuse for lousy or lazy husbandry- no- but as supplemental food sources to power the life in our tanks.
Real gifts from Nature...that you can benefit from simply by "working the web" of life which arises without our intervention as soon as leaves, wood, and water mix.
Keep making those mental shifts. Meet Nature where it is. She won't let you down. I promise.
Now, there are a fair number of fishes that consume aquatic plants, or more properly- parts of aquatic plants- as part of their diet, such as Doradid catfishes and Anomostids. Often, they're also consuming epiphytic algae and such in the process. Now, I'm not suggesting to utilize plants in your aquascape for feeding purposes; however, it's not entirely out the the realm of reality to do this, right?
A lot of omnivorous fishes in the wild are removing the periphyton from the roots of floating plants in some streams, so it may make some sense to utilize these plants as sort of "for culture stations" in your aquascape to support the feeding habits of many fishes, such as characins, Danios, Barbs, etc.
It's interesting to contemplate designing a biotope or other aquarium around feeding, an important but often overlooked aspect of fish behavior (when it comes to tank design, that is!) With a little research, planning, and a lot of experimentation, what interesting discoveries can be made? What breakthroughs await? Combining our much evolved expertise in fish feeding with our love of aquascaping seems almost a natural combination, doesn't it?
It might simply be an idea that's always been right in front of our noses, which we just resisted for a generation or two.
Stay persistent. Stay engaged. Stay confident. Stay open-minded. Stay unafraid...
And Stay Wet.
Recently, I've been fielding a lot of questions from new hobbyists.
Not just new to the botanical method aquarium world- new to the aquarium hobby altogether!
On first thought, my answer is, "Fuck, no! You have to understand the basics of the hobby first."
Ouch. A bit quick and decisive, right? And perhaps a bit contrary to the realities of what we do and experience with botanical method aquariums.
I mean, I've often touted how I feel that, once these systems are established, they are remarkably stable, relatively easy-to-maintain aquariums., right?
Of course, there are some real qualifiers here.
The first being, "After the system is established."
Establishing a botanical-method aquarium, blackwater, brackish, or otherwise- certainly requires some basic understanding of the principles of aquarium management. Specifically, the nitrogen cycle, an understanding of water quality assessment and management, and stocking.
You need to understand a little about the ecology of natural aquatic systems; how they function, evolve, and why the look the way that they do.
Yet, you CAN learn all of these things. You can google and study and even listen to our podcast and read our blog.
Facts. Processes. Techniques.
And then, there are some things you can't really "teach"- like patience. You need, well- a shitload of it...in the aquarium hobby in general, yet especially in the natural, botanical-method aquarium sector. And the "patience" part? I feel that it's seminal. Foundational.
I don't think you can "teach" that.
I mean, perhaps you can be taught about why patience is so important.
We can provide some expectations and explanations of how these systems establish, appear, and operate over time. We can offer guidelines about "best practices" and procedures.
However, the best teacher, as with so many things- is experience. You have to dive in and do it. Beginner, intermediate, advanced- you have to DO.
Perhaps some things might be easier to an outright beginner; someone who has no preconceived notions about how an aquarium is "supposed to look", or what is considered "natural", "beautiful", etc. There is a beautiful, almost innocent objectivity that we bring to the game when we are flat-out beginners, right? We have little basis for comparison, other than our own observations and personal tastes.
And that's actually an advantage, in some respects, IMHO.
In my opinion, the hobby has been- for better or worse- influenced by schools of thought which seem to dogmatically dictate what is "good", "bad", and "correct." And, in a strange sort of way, hobbyists who stray off of the generally accepted, well-trodden paths established by our hobby forefathers are often greeted with skepticism, cynicism, and sometimes, outright disdain!
That blows, IMHO.
And then there is the other end of the spectrum: The splashy, often vapid, sometimes downright bizarre presentation of the aquarium hobby found on social media.
One trend I've noticed that's fueled by social media is an almost fetishization of showing only the "finished product" of gorgeous, pristine aquascaped tanks, with maybe just a little sampling of "construction" pics (usually just staged shots of products or "unboxing" stuff- read that, "shilling" for manufacturers, btw), but little mention of the actual process; the challenges, the "ugly" parts- the work- of establishing one of these aquariums.
The result of this superficial ("dumbed down") presentation of aquariums conveys the message that it's just all about buying stuff, artfully arranging some materials, and POW! Finished awesome tank. Shit, it's so easy- why isn't YOUR tank this cool and sexy?
It often results in frustration for the everyday hobbyist, who can't seem to figure out why his or her tank isn't exactly like the one on the 'gram.
Sure, the fundamentals of aquarium keeping and the mindset behind establishing successful systems isn't as "sexy" or 'gram-ready as pics of the finished product, but to operate from the position that everyone who sees these tanks has that underlying knowledge already is at best "glossing over" the realities, and at worst, downright irresponsible.
We've gotta talk more anbout process. About how these tanks work, the philosophy and methodology behind them, and about how to establish and maintain them. The beginner needs to see this stuff.
To jump into any aquarium- botanical-filled or otherwise- without having basic knowledge about stuff like the nitrogen cycle, fish stocking protocols, and husbandry techniques- is flat-out stupid, IMHO.
Now, I realize not everyone wants to- and can- produce content about aquarium keeping fundamentals, but maybe just touching on a few basics now and then would be cool.
I challenge all of my fellow hobbyists who are influential in this social-media-powered world to commit to touching on some of these underlying themes, challenges, and expectations on occasion when featuring your amazing work. Just taking a few seconds to explain this stuff; even posting just one pic in your feed showing a tank cycling, or with the plants not looking perfect, or the water not crystal clear- can go a long, long way to gently give a dose of reality and expectation management in the splashy world of aquascaped aquariums.
Now, I realize that there is plenty of material out there on "how to start an aquarium" or whatever- but I think it needs refreshing, updating, FEATURING- for a new generation of hobbyists who are getting the bulk of their information from Facebook forums, Instagram feeds, and YouTube shorts. It's important for the future of the hobby. It will assure more people get in- and STAY in the hobby. We need to evolve how we present the concepts as much as we need to evolve the concepts themselves.
Sadly, it has to be reinforced constantly.
I can't tell you how many times a week I answer questions like, "I just received my Enigma Pack! Can I just add this stuff to my 5-gallon tank? What do I need to do..?" And I have a freakin' website with gigabytes of stuff on this very topic and other related topics, accumulated over years! And we're evolving this too. I had to check my ego a bit, and accept that not everyone likes to read a daily blog. So I started this podcast in 2019.
Getting some of the fundamental messages across required us to adapt.
We all need to evolve. More succinctly, we need to preach the underlying fundamental stuff...but in an evolved way.
Part of the reason we've spent so much time over the past few years in this blog/podcast chatting about the processes, the pitfalls, and the expectations you should have when establishing the systems we advocate is to give everyone a very clear picture of what's actually involved.
Makes sense. We are literally asking you to dump dead plant materials into your aquarium and let them decompose. To NOT touch on all of this fundamental stuff and discuss the potential issues would have been irresponsible at every level.
So, yeah- getting back to the initial point of this whole thing- I believe that you certainly CAN start with a botanical-style natural aquarium for your first project, but you absolutely need to familiarize yourself with the fundamentals of aquarium practice. And you CAN be successful.
Of course, you just can't delude yourself into thinking that it's a simple matter of tossing leaves and twigs into a tank, filling it up, and BAM! "Instant Borneo" or whatever. Like, the nitrogen cycle, formation of biofilms, environmental stability, etc. don't apply to you... Yeah, there are a LOT of neophyte hobbyists- end experienced ones, for that matter-who harbor such beliefs! I've talked to quite a few over the years. And, based on 'gram reality, apparently, there IS no "nitrogen cycle"- just cool finished tanks, so...
As those of us in this game already know, it's a process.
A journey. A learning curve.
One that acknowledges that success is entirely achievable for those who make the effort to study, familiarize themselves with the basics; one that is almost guaranteed to kick the shit out of you if you leap without learning.
It doesn't matter if you're an innocent neophyte, unfamiliar with this stuff - or even a seasoned hobbyist with decades of experience. You CAN be a "beginner"- and one who's quite successful. We, as a community just need to continue to do some of the "heavy lifting" to help everyone along!
Expectations need to be set.
As we all know, leaves and botanicals simply don't last indefinitely; they begin to soften and decompose shortly after they're added to the aquarium. Depending upon the particular botanical in question, they can last from a few weeks (as in the case of Catappa leaves, for example) to many months (the "harder" pods, like Carinaina or Sterculia pods.).
And of course, that means that we need to accept the idea that most botanicals are "consumables" for all intents and purposes, much like activated carbon, filter pads, etc.- and need periodic replacement.
Leaves, for example, should be "topped off" regularly to continue to contribute to the ecological function of the aquarium. Just like in a real tropical stream or other body of water, as materials decompose or wash downstream, the physical appearance" and other characteristics, like water movement, etc. will change over time. And the fishes will adapt, too- finding new "territories", spawning sites, and feeding locations. These are very natural behaviors which you just won't see in a more traditional "static" aquascape.
Expectations. Evolutions. Changes.
Part of the game that beginners and advanced hobbyists alone need to accept.
By regularly replacing the botanical materials in your aquarium, you're constantly "evolving" or "editing" the habitat, creating a truly dynamic display for your fishes. And if you look at your botanical method aquarium over several months or longer, for example, you'll see this clearly. Now, Nature does a certain percentage of this for us, because, as mentioned above- stuff decomposes, softens, breaks down, etc. And this results in subtle (or not-so-subtle) changes over time, wether we intervene or not.
Sure, the basic "structure" of the aquascape will likely be the same- but the smaller-scale "niches" within the tank, as well as the colors, textures and "negative space" within the habitat will vary and "evolve." Similar, in some respects to a planted aquarium, a botanical system can be "pruned" to keep a rough "form", yet it will evolve in subtle ways on it's own, despite our interventions.
This fascinates me.
And there is that concept of when the aquarium is "finished."
Over the years, I've found that the thrill of starting up a new aquarium never faces. However, one of the things that I'm realizing is that I've never been in any particular hurry to get my tank "finished."
I mean, I don't think a tank is ever really "finished"- it's more like the system reaches some level of function and appearance that you may have envisioned before your started the project, and you tell yourself, "yeah- this is what I wanted..."
My aquarium hobby "philosophy" is predicated on one simple idea:
What's "radical" about patience?
Is there some special meaning to this? Well, not really. It's as much about common sense as anything, actually. Yeah, common sense. However, in today's "insta"- world, the concept of taking the time to establish an aquarium is sort of...radical- as is the patience required to go slowly and steadily.
That is- not jumping right into something...taking a bit of time- or even a long time- to allow your aquariums to "run in" and develop before pushing them along.
I mean, why are we always in such a hurry to get fishes in?
Having set up more than a few systems in my time, I never seem to be surprised at my own true hobbyist-style impatience!
Let’s face it—once we get the plumbing done, the lighting tweaked, leaks sealed, and aquascaping set, we’re all seemingly hell-bent on getting some fishes in there! I mean—we’ve waited so long for “first water” in the tank that it’s time to enjoy the fruits of our labor.
It's like we need to get the fishes in there right away…even just a few, right?
Can’t really blame us, huh?
However, there may be some compelling reasons to wait just a bit longer…
Would you like to move into a house which didn’t have a refrigerator full of food? I wouldn’t, for sure. Unlike humans, fishes seem to have not lost their "genetic programming" for grazing and hunting for food. Let’s face it—most of the waking hours of aquatic animals are devoted to acquiring food and reproducing. They need to have some food sources available to "hunt and graze" for.
So, unleashing a group of fishes into an almost "sterile" aquarium seems decidedly at odds with this evolutionary adaptation which our fishes have. Yet, from a strictly human perspective, most of us would rather have parts of our vital organs snipped off before we'd wait several weeks or more to add fishes to our new aquariums...
As a reefer, my patience has really evolved over the years. My friends have finally learned to stop asking me "How's the tank looking?" after it has been set up for a few weeks, because they know damn well by now that my tank looks essentially the same as it did the day I set it up..at least, from an animal stocking perspective! I simply don't start adding tons of animals until the system has evolved to the point where it's "ready" IMHO.
This approach actually has its origin in my youth.
Like now, I was really into fish. However, with limited funds, I often had to do things in stages...It could literally take months to get a tank set up as I accumulated the funds. SO, sometimes, the then would be filled, "scared", and just...sit. And this was after taking a few months to get to that stage! it actually was such a regular process to me that it kind of became a habit. I mean, I was (and still am) pretty adverse to getting a tank up and running and populated in just a few days.
I feel like I'm rushing things too much.
Interestingly, Nature sort of supports this approach! With reef tanks, or the natural, botanical method aquariums we play with here, this "latency period" when the tank is "running in" gives the ecology of the tank a chance to establish itself. The microfauna which make up the foundation of our closed ecosystems will colonize and multiply, umolested and unhurried, during this time.
I believe that it gives an aquarium a greater degree of long term success.
And there is a lot to be said for simply doing nothing when you're experiencing something like cloudy water, for example. Yes, your aquarist instinct is screaming at you to do something, but the reality is that it's SOOOO much better to simply "wait it out" and let Nature sort things.
Remember: THERE IS NO RUSH!! THERE IS NO "FINISH LINE!"
It all starts with an idea...and a little bit of a "waiting game..." and a belief in Nature; a trust in allowing the natural processes which have guided our planet and its life forms for eons to develop to the extent that they can in our aquariums.
Rituals we engage in, and stages that we go through with our aquariums are remarkably analogous to the processes which occur in Nature...
Yeah, think about it for a second:
A tree falls in the (dry) forest.
Wind and gravity determine it's initial resting place (you play around with positioning your wood pieces until you get 'em where you want, and in a position that holds!). Next, other materials, such as leaves and perhaps a few rocks become entrapped around the fallen tree or its branches (we set a few "anchor" pieces of hardscaping material into the tank).
Then, the rain come; streams overflow, and the once-dry forest floor becomes inundated (we fill the aquarium with water).
It starts to evolve. To come alive in a new way.
The action of water and rain help set the final position of the tree/branches, and wash more materials into the area influenced by the tree (we place more pieces of botanicals, rocks, leaves, etc. into place). The area settles a bit, with occasional influxes of new water from the initial rainfall (we make water chemistry tweaks as needed).
Fungi, bacteria, and insects begin to act upon the wood and botanicals which have collected in the water (kind of like what happens in our tanks, huh? Biofilms are beautiful...).
Gradually, the first fishes begin to "follow the food" and populate the area (we add our first fish selections based on our stocking plan...).
The aquatic habitat is enriched by the decomposition of leaves, wood, and botanical materials, creating new food supplies, spawning locales, and biological stability.
It continues from there. Get the picture? Sure, I could go on and on drawing parallels to every little nuance of tank startup, but I think you know where I'm going with this stuff...
Yet, when we think about our aquariums this way, the parallels are striking, aren't they?
And the thing we must deploy at all times in this process is patience. And an appreciation for each and every step in the process, and how it will influence the overall "tempo" and ultimate success of the aquarium we are creating.
When we take the view that we are not just creating an aquatic display, but a habitat for a variety of aquatic life forms, we tend to look at it as much more of an evolving process than a step-by-step "procedure" for getting somewhere.
Taking the time to consider, study, and savor each phase is such an amazing thing, and I'd like to think- that as students of this most compelling aquarium hobby niche, that we can appreciate the evolution as much as the "finished product" (if there ever is such a thing in the aquarium world).
It all starts with an idea...and a little bit of a "waiting game..." and a belief in nature; a trust in the natural processes which have guided our planet and its life forms for eons.
Fools rush in. Smart hobbyists enjoy the process.
The appreciation of this process is a victory, in and of itself, isn't it? The journey- the process- is every bit as enjoyable as the destination, I should think.
Stay excited. Stay enthralled. Stay observant. Stay appreciative...Stay patient...
And Stay Wet.
I make it no secret that the botanical method aquarium is unlike almost any other approach to aquarium keeping currently practiced. Not better. Not the "coolest" (well, possibly...)- just different. To parse all of the many reasons why this approach is so different could literally take years...Oh, wait, it HAS..like 8 years, to be exact!
If you take this approach, you simply, literally- need to clear your mind of any preconceived notions that you have about what an aquarium should look like. The aesthetics are unlike anything that you've seen before in the hobby.
And, over the many years that I've been playing with botanicals, my approaches and processes have changed and evolved, based on my own experiences, and those of our community. The way I approach botanical method aquariums today is definitely a bit different than I have approached them previously.
And that's pretty cool..It's the by-product of years of playing with this stuff; modifying techniques, philosophies, and approaches based upon actual practice.
My practices are constantly changing...Persistently evolving.
Here are a few examples of the evolution of my practices and approaches over the years.
As a regular consumer of our content, you likely know of my obsession with varying substrate compositions and what I call "enhancement" of the substrate- you know, adding mixes of various materials to create different aesthetics and function.
Over the years, I've developed a healthy interest in replicating the function and form of substrates found in the wild aquatic habitats of the world. What we had to work with in years past in the hobby was simply based upon what the manufacturers had available. I felt that, although these materials are overall great, there was a lot of room for improvement- and some evolution based upon what types of materials are found in actual wild aquatic habitats.
My evolution was based upon really studying the wild habitats and asking myself how I can replicate their function in my tanks. A big chunk of this understanding came from studying how substrate materials in the wild aggregate and accumulate; where they come from, and what they do for the overall aquatic ecosystem.
I'm fascinated with this stuff partly because substrates and the materials which comprise them are so intimately tied to the overall ecology of the aquatic environments in which they are found. Terrestrial materials, like soils, leaves, and bits of decomposing botanical materials become an important component of the substrate, and add to the biological function and diversity.
Now, there is a whole science around aquatic substrates and their morphology, formation, and accumulation- I don't pretend to know an iota about it other than skimming Marine biology/hydrology books and papers from time to time. However, merely exploring the information available on the tropical aquatic habitats we love so much- even just looking long and hard at some good underwater pics of them- can give us some good ideas!
How do these materials find their way into aquatic ecosystems?
In some areas- particularly streams which run through rain forests and such, the substrates are often simply a soil of some sort. A finer, darker-colored sediment or soil is not uncommon. These materials can profoundly influence water chemistry, based on the ionic, mineral, and physical concentrations of materials that are dissolved into the water. And it varies based on water velocities and such.
Meandering lowland rivers maintain their sediment loads by continually re-suspending and depositing materials within their channels- a key point when we consider how these materials arrive-and stay- in the aquatic ecosystems.
Forest floors...Fascinating ecosystems in their own right, yet even more compelling when they're flooded.
And what accumulates on dry forest floors?
Branches, stems, and other materials from trees and shrubs. When the waters return, these formerly terrestrial materials become an integral part of the (now) aquatic environment. This is a really, really important thing to think of when we aquascape or contemplate who we will use botanical materials like the aforementioned stems and branches. They impact both function and aesthetics of an aquarium...Yes, what we call "functional aesthetics" rears its head again!
There is no real rhyme or reason as to why stuff orients itself the way it does. I mean, branches fall off the trees, a process initiated by either rain or wind, and just land "wherever." Which means that we as hobbyists would be perfectly okay just sort of tossing materials in and walking away! Now, I know this is actually aquascaping heresy- Not one serious 'scaper would ever do that...right?
I'm not so sure why they wouldn't. Look at Nature...
I mean, what's wrong with sort of randomly scattering stems, twigs, and branches in your aquascape? It's a near-perfect replication of what happens in Nature. Now, I realize that a glass or acrylic box of water is NOT nature, and there are things like "scale" and "ratio" and all of that "gobbldeygook" that hardcore 'scaping snobs will hit you over the head with...
But Nature doesn't give a shit about some competition aquascaper's "rules"- and Nature is pretty damn inspiring, right? There is a beauty in the brutal reality of randomness. I mean, sure, the position of stones in an "Iwagumi" is beautiful...but it's hardly what I'd describe as "natural."
We talk a lot about "microhabitats" in Nature; little areas of tropical habitats where unique physical, environmental and biological characteristics converge based on a set of factors found in the locale. Factors which determine not only how they look, but how they function, as well.
The complexity and additional "microhabitats" they create are compelling and interesting. And they are very useful for shelltering baby fishes, breeding Apistogramma, Poecilocharax, catfishes, Dicosssus, an other small, shy fishes which are common in these habitats.
Small root bundles and twigs are not traditionally items you can find at the local fish store or online. I mean, youcan, but there hasn't been a huge amount of demand for them in the aquascaping world lately...although my 'scape scene contacts tell me that twigs are becoming more and more popular with serious aquascapers for "detailed work"...so this bodes well for those of us with less artistic, more functional intentions!
Except we don't glue shit together.
When I see aquascapers glue wood together, it makes me want to vomit. I know, I'm an asshole for feeling that way, but it's incredibly lame IMHO. Just fit the shit together with leverage and gravity, like your grandparents did, or keep looking for that perfect piece. Seriously! You don't need to glue to make wood look "cool."
You're not a reefer gluing coral frags to rock. There is no "need" to do this.
Relax and just put it together as best as Nature will allow.
Okay, micro rant over!
Let's get back to discussing natural materials and how we've come to include them in our tanks just a bit more...
In flooded forests, roots are generally found in the very top layers of the soil, where the most minerals are. In fact, in some areas, studies indicated that as much as 99% of the root mass in these habitats was in the top 20cm of substrate! Low nutrient availability in the Amazonian forests is partially the reason for this. And since much of that root mass becomes submerged during seasonal inundation, it becomes obvious that this is a unique habitat.
So, ecological reasons aside, what are some things we as hobbyists can take away from this?
We can embrace the fact that most of these finer materials will function in our aquairums as they do in Nature, sequestering sediments, retaining substrate, and recruiting epiphytic materials which fishes will forage, hide, and spawn among.
And let's talk about preparation a bit.
I'm at a phase in my aquarium "career" with regards to botanicals in which I feel it is less and less necessary to worry about extensively preparing my botanical materials for use in my tanks. In essence, my main preparation "technique" is to rinse the items briefly in freshwater, followed by a boil until they are saturated and stay submerged.
It's less and less about "cleaning them" and more and more about getting them to stay down in my aquairums. And to be perfectly honest, if the materials would actually sink immediately and stay down, I think my "preparation" would simply consist of a good rinse!
What's the reason for this "evolution" of my preparation technique? Well, part of it is because I've started to realize that virtually every botanical item which I use in my work is essentially "clean"- that is, not polluted or otherwise contaminated. Generally, most of the items I use may simply have some "dirt" on their surfaces. I typically will not use botanical items which have bird droppings, insect eggs, or other obvious contaminants present.
The reality is that, in over 20 years of playing with botanicals, I simply cannot attribute a single fish death to the use of improperly prepared botanical materials!
It's really more about the sourcing, to me.
Naturally collected materials, air or sun-dried over time are just not an issue. However, when you obtain materials from unvetted sources, you cannot be sure what her original intended use was. For years, the "hack" I've seen was hobbyists purchasing dried botanical materials from craft stores...And these are the people I've seen the most issues with.
The problem is that materials intended to be used in craft projects are typically chemically preserved or treated with varnishes or other materials...and these are simply deadly to aquatic life.
Feel free to experiment with all sorts of carefully collected natural materials, but I would simply avoid purchasing them from sources which you cannot thoroughly vet. The price of such "hacks" may be the deaths of your fishes.
Another reason I'm less "anal" about preparation of my botanicals and wood and such is that these materials contain a lot of organic materials which are likely "catalysts" for ecological processes. I know, that's vague and oddly unscientific, but it makes sense, when you think about it.
"Organics" are simply incorporated into the aqueous environment, and help foster the growth of a variety of organisms, from fungi to bacterial biofilms and more. IMHO, they are helpful to create an underwater ecology in your aquirium. It's no longer a concern of mine that botanicals being added to my aquairums need to be essentially "sterile."
Ecology is the primary motivation for me when it comes to adding botanicals to my tanks- specifically, helping to foster an underwater ecology which will provide the inhabitants with supplemental food and nutrient processing. So, trying to keep things impeccably clean when setting up an ecology first, botanical method aquarium is downright counterproductive, IMHO.
And I have a hunch that a lot of our fear of introducing extraneous "stuff" into our tanks via botanicals was as a result of my excessive paranoia back in 2015, in our earliest days- when I was very concerned about some hobbyist simply dumping a bunch of our fresh botanicals into his/her tank and ending up with...well, what?
A tank with a little bid of turbidity? Darkly tinted water? Some fungal and biofilm-encrusted seed pods and leaves? Detritus from their tissues?
All things that we've come to not only accept, but to expect and to even celebrate as a normal part of our practice. I mean, man, there is literally an explosion of hashtags used on instagram weekly celebrating shit that I used to have to beat you over the head about to convince you that these things were normal: "Detritus Thursday", "Fungal Friday", etc.
And, isn't this what you see in wild aquatic habitats?
None of these things are "bad." We're beyond these concerns that were partially rooted in fear, and the other part in our desire to fit in with the mainstream hobby crowd's aesthetic preferences. We've finally accepted that our "normal" is very different from almost every other hobby specialty's view of "normal."
My development, use, and marketing of our NatureBase line of sedimented substrates reflected another big step in my growing confidence about what is "normal: in our world. These substrates are filled with materials which will make your water turbid for a while...and we absolutely DON'T recommend any sort of preparation before using them.
Your tank WILL get cloudy for a few days...Absolutely part of the process. I remember a lot of sleepless nights, discussions with Johnny Citotti and Jake Adams before launching the product, and just convincing myself that it was okay to convince fellow hobbyists to...relax bit about this stuff and embrace it, in exchange for the manifold benefits of utilizing more truly natural substrate materials.
The entire botanical method aquarium movement has been, and likely will continue to be- an exercise in stepping out of our hobby "comfort zones" on a regular basis. Trying out ideas which have long been contrary to mainstream aquairum hobby practice and philosophy. Ideas and practices which question and challenge the "status quo", and seem to go against a century of aquarium work, in favor of embracing the way Nature has done things for eons.
It's a big "ask", but you keep accepting it...and we've all grown together as a result.
Another seismic shift (in my head, anyways...) is my acceptance that... leaves are leaves. Yeah, seriously. Wether they come from the rainforest of Borneo or the mountains of West Virginia, leaves are essentially similar to each other. Sure, soem look different, or perhaps might have different concentrations of compounds within their tissues...yet they're all fundamentally the same. They perform the same function for the tree, and "behave" similarly when submerged in water.
A Catappa leaf from Malaysia, Jackfruit leaf from India, or a Live Oak leaf from Southern California are more alike than they are dissimilar. Other than having slightly different concentrations of tannins (and even that is possibly minimal), a leaf is a leaf. To convene ourselves otherwise is kind of funny, actually.
I did for a long time. I was 100% convinced that the leaves I was painstakingly sourcing from remote corners of the globe were somehow better than our Native Magnolia or Live Oak or whatever. The reality is that, other than some exotic sounding names, a morphology that might be different, or a good story about where they come from, the "advantages" of most "exotic" leaves over "domestically sourced" leaves ( or leaves from wherever you come from) are really minimal at best.
Trust me- no Catappa leaves find their way into tributaries of the Orinoco river. It's Ficus, Havea leaves, various palms, etc.
But not Catappa, Guava, or Jackfruit.
And if they did, they likely impact the water chemistry or ecology no differently.
Leaves are leaves. In fact, ecologically, they all essentially do the same thing, just on a different "timetable." Trees in tropical deciduous forests lose their leaves in the dry season and regrow them in the rainy season, whereas, temperate deciduous forests, trees lose their leaves in the fall and regrow them in the spring.
In the moist forests close to the equator, the climate is warm and there is plenty of rainfall all year round. In this environment there is no reason for the trees to drop their leaves at any particular time of year, so the forest stays green year round.
Trees from temperate climate zones lose leaves regularly during certain times of the year and then regrow them., and must take a fairly precise cue from their environment. In the mid and high latitudes, if trees put the leaves out too early in the year, these may be damaged by frost and valuable nutrients lost, because the tree cannot easily reclaim nutrients from a frost-bitten leaf.
Yeah, leaves...They perform similar functions for their trees, regardless of where they come from.
The morphological differences are often subtle, and sometimes inconsistent:
It has long been recognized by science that tropical forests are dominated by evergreen trees that have leaves with "complete" margins, whereas trees of temperate forests tend to have deciduous leaves with toothed or lobed margins.
Maybe leaves from different habitats and environments look a bit different, and fall at different times...but that's really about it...
I'm sure that this is not an "absolute" sure- there ARE trees which have leaves with higher concentrations of tannins, etc than others...However, by and large, there are not all that many compelling arguments to favor "exotic" leaves from faraway places over the ones you can source locally!
Sure, soem botanist somewhere could school my on over-generalizing this, but in the aquairum world, I'm not certain one could successfully prove that you MUST use "Pango Pango leaves" from Cameroon to be successful with botanical method aquariums. Now, could one argue that there are some subtle chemical ben efiots to fishes from these regions by using "local" botanicals in their tanks? Maybe. But by and large, I just don't think so anymore.
So,as a hobbyist and vendor, I'm not completely engrossed by chasing every exotic sounding leaf out there anymore.
I may offer limited quantities of the "big three" in the future, but I feel less and less compelled to do so. Trying to be the aquarium world's "catalogue" of tropical leaves for aquariums long ago lost its luster, among the realities of supply chain issues, tariffs, and unreliable producers. Let other vendors chase the dollars. I'm going to chase my ideas...and use whatever materials I see fit for purpose- regardless of their origin.
Constantly changing. Persistently Evolving.
We're in an amazing time right now. For the first time in years, I personally feel that the idea of botanical method aquariums has moved out of it's obscure, "fringe-culture-like" parking spot in the fish world, and into the light of the mainstream.
And it's all because of YOU! Sure, many of you were playing with "blackwater" tanks before, but if your experience was anything like mine, you were sort of viewed as a mildly eccentric hobbyist playing with a little "side thing"- a passing fancy that you'd eventually "get over.."
Well, I think that is changing a lot now. We're seeing a community of what was once widely scattered hobbyists starting to come together and share ideas, technique, pictures, inspiration with other equally as obsessed hobbyists. This is an amazing thing to me, and to be able to witness it firsthand is incredible! It's been a renaissance of sorts for this once-neglected aspect of the hobby.
Another think that I think is interesting is that we, as a community, are viewing our aquariums as "habitats" more than ever before. We seem to have broken through the mindset of creating aquariums only based on an aesthetic WE like, and fitting the fishes into it, as opposed to creating aquariums with specialized habitats for specific fishes.
And we're not afraid to make little detours- small changes. And, not all of them need be intentional. Things happening in unexpected ways are what can propel the hobby forward.
Everything doesn't have to follow a plan.
A detour can be amazing.
However, if your looking for a specific result and go too far in a different direction, it's often a recipe for frustration for those of us not prepared of it. Sure, many of us can simply "go with the flow" and accept the changes we made as part of the process, but the aquarist with a very pure vision and course will work through such self-created deviations until he or she gets to the destination.
Many find this completely frustrating.
Others find this a compelling part of the creative process.
Pretty much every major breakthrough I've encountered in my hobby "practice" has been the result of me "breaking pattern" and trying something fairly radically new...You know, a big remake of an aquarium....Trying a new manipulation of the environment, etc.
And of course, the thing which maintains the "breakthrough?"
I've always had this thing about repetition and doing the same stuff over and over agin in my aquarium practice. It's one of the real "truisms", to me, about fish keeping: Once you've gotten in a groove, in terms of husbandry routines, it's great to just do the same thing over and over again.
Yes, I beat the shit out of that idea fairly regularly, right?
Now, notice that I'm not talking about doing the same thing over and over when it comes to ideas...Nope. I'm of the opinion that you should do all sorts of crazy things when it comes to concepts and experiments.
One thing that was sort of "experimental" for many years in my world was the idea of NOT removing decomposing botanical materials from my tanks. You know, flat-out siphoning stuff out, lest it do "something" to the water quality in my aquariums.
It was a big deal about 20 years ago...People thought I was crazy for talking about leaving leaves and botnaicals in the tank until they fully decomposed. I was told that if I didn't remove this stuff, all sorts of horrifying outcomes would ensue. Yet, in the back of my mind, I thought to myself, "If the whole idea of botanical method aquariums is to facilitate an ecosystem within the tank, wouldn't removing a significant source of the ecology (ie; decomposing leaves and botanical detritus) be MORE negative than leaving iot in the tank to be "worked" by the resident life forms at various levels?
So I left the stuff in...
Never had any "bad" results...
It really wasn't that surprising, in actuality.
I figured that this would actually be beneficial to the aquairum...My theory was steeped in the mindset that you've created a little ecosystem, and if you start removing a significant source of someone's food (or for that matter, their home!), there is bound to be a net loss of biota...and this could lead to a disruption of the very biological processes that we aim to foster.
Okay, it was a theory...But I think I am on to something, maybe? So, like here is my "theory" in more detail:
Simply look at the botanical-method aquarium (like any aquarium, of course) as a little "microcosm", with processes and life forms dependent upon each other for food, shelter, and other aspects of their existence. And, I really believe that the environment of this type of aquarium, because it relies on botanical materials (leaves, seed pods, etc.), is more signficantly influenced by the amount and composition of said material to "operate" successfully over time.
Just like in natural aquatic ecosystems...
Detritus...the nemesis of the hobby...not all that bad, really..
It's all about not simply accepting the generally held hobby "truisms" as "gospel" in EVERY situation. Experimenting and considering stuff in context is important.
Change and variation is inevitable and important in the hobby. Being open minded about things is vital.
The processes of evolution, change and disruption which occur in natural aquatic habitats- and in our aquariums- are important on many levels. They encourage ecological diversity, create new niches, and revitalize the biome. Changes can be viewed as frightening, damaging events...Or, we can consider them necessary processes which contribute to the very survival of aquatic ecosystems.
Think about that the next time you hesitate to experiment with that new idea, or play a hunch that you might have. Remember that there is always a bit of discomfort, trepidation, and risk when you make changes or conduct bold experiments.
Goes with the territory, really.
However, once you get out of that comfort zone, you're really living...and the fear will give way to exhilaration and maybe even triumph! Because in the aquarium hobby, the bleeding edge is when you're constantly changing, and patiently evolving.
Stay Brave. Stay persistent. Stay curious. Stay thoughtful. Stay creative...
And Stay Wet.
If you've been in this game long enough, you've likely seen some stuff which leaves you frustrated/baffled/confused, or some combination of the above! And I'm here to tell you that you're not alone in your frustrations. Today, lets look at one of the more common "issues" reported by hobbyists with botanical method aquariums and how to address it...
One of the things I alternately love and loathe about the aquarium hobby is that, no matter what you do; no matter how carefully you plan- no matter how carefully you execute- stuff canc out differently than you might expect.
Well, the same "variable" which we have come to extoll, emulate, and adore- Nature, of course!
She'll entice, challenge, reward, and punish you- sometimes in the same day! Nature can be wildly unpredictable, yet often thoroughly logical at the same time. You can do everything "right"- and Nature will think of some way to throw a proverbial "wrench" into your plans.
She operates at Her own pace, with Her own rules, indifferent to you or your ideas, practices, and motivations.
Things can even "go sideways" sometimes.
Yet, with all of Her wild and unpredictable actions, it's never a bad idea to show some deference to Her, is it?
With our heavy emphasis on utilizing natural botanical materials in our aquairums, I can't help but think about the long-term of their function and health. Specifically, the changes that they go through as they evolve into little microcosms.
As we've discussed before, a botanical-method aquarium has a “cadence” of its own, which we can facilitate when we set up- but we must let Nature dictate the timing and sequencing. We can enjoy the process- even control some aspects of it...Yet underneath it all, She's in charge from the beginning. She creates the path...
And along this path, you'll encounter some stuff. I get questions...
"Scott, the water in my tank is kind of cloudy..."
Okay, this is one of those topics which can go in a lot of different directions. And we will...
For a lot of reasons, the aquarium hobby has celebrated crystal clear, colorless water as the standard of excellence for generations.
Our colored, often turbid-looking water is a stark contrast to what most hobbyists consider "acceptable" and "healthy."
We just see colored, slightly turbid water and think, "That shit's dirty!"
And of course, this is where we need to attempt to separate the two factors:
Cloudiness and "color" are generally separate issues for most hobbyists, but they both seem to cause concern. Cloudiness, in particular, may be a "tip off" to some other issues in the aquarium.
And, as we all know, cloudiness can usually be caused by a few factors:
1) Improperly cleaned substrate or decorative materials, such as driftwood, etc. (creating a "haze" of micro-sized dust particles, which float in the water column).
2) Bacterial blooms (typically caused by a heavy bioload in a system not capable of handling it. Ie; a new tank with a filter that is not fully established and a full compliment of livestock).
3) Algae blooms which can both cloud AND color the water (usually caused by excessive nutrients and too much light for a given system).
4) Poor husbandry, which results in heavy decomposition, and more bacterial blooms and biological waste affecting water clarity. This is, of course, a rather urgent matter to be attended to, as there are possible serious consequences to the life in your system.
Those are the typical "players" in most "cloudy water" scenarios, right? Yet, in the botanical method aquarium, the very nature of its existence includes stuff like sedimented substrates, decomposing leaf litter, botanicals, and twigs.
If you place a large quantity of just about anything that can decompose in water, the potential for cloudy water caused by a bloom of bacteria, or even simple "dirt" exists. The reality is, if you don't add 3 pounds of botanicals to your 20 gallon tank, you're not likely to see such a bloom. It's about logic, common sense, and going slowly.
A bit of cloudiness from time to time is actually normal in the botanical-method aquarium.
And, of course, what we label as "normal" in our botanical-method aquarium world has always been a bit different from the hobby at large.
In my home aquariums, and in many of the really great natural-looking blackwater aquariums I see from other hobbyists, the water is dark, almost turbid or "soupy" as one of my fellow blackwater/botanical-style aquarium geeks refers to it. You might see the faintest hint of "stuff" in the water...perhaps a bit of fines from leaves breaking down, some dislodged biofilms, pieces of leaves, etc. Just like in Nature. Chemically, it has undetectable nitrate and phosphate..."clean" by aquarium standards.
Sure, by municipal drinking water standards, color and clarity are important, and can indicate a number of potential issues...But we're not talking about drinking water here, are we?
"Turbidity." Sounds like something we want to avoid, right? Sounds dangerous...
On the other hand, "turbidity", as it's typically defined, leaves open the possibility that it's not a negative thing:
"...the cloudiness or haziness of a fluid caused by large numbers of individual particles that are generally invisible to the naked eye, similar to smoke in air..."
What am I getting at?
Well, think about a body of water like an igapo off of the Rio Negro. This water is of course, "tinted" because of the dissolved tannins and humic substances that are present due to decaying botanical materials.
That's different from "cloudy" or "turbid", however.
It's a distinction that neophytes to our world should make note of. The "rap" on blackwater aquariums for some time was that they look "dirty"- and this was largely based on our bias towards what we are familiar with. And, of course, in the wild, there might be some turbidity because of the runoff of soils from the surrounding forests, incompletely decomposed leaves, current, rain, etc. etc.
None of the possible causes of turbidity mentioned above in these natural watercourses represent a threat to the "quality", per se. Rather, they are the visual sign of an influx of dissolved materials that contribute to the "richness" of the environment. It's what's "normal" for this habitat. It's the arena in which we play in our botanical-method aquariums, as well.
You've got a lot of "stuff" dissolving in the water.
Mental shift required.
Obviously, in the closed environment that is an aquarium, "stuff" dissolving into the water may have significant impact on the overall quality. Even though it may be "normal" in a wild blackwater environment to have all of those dissolved leaves and botanicals, this could be problematic in the closed confines of the aquarium if nitrate, phosphate, and other DOC's contribute to a higher bioload, bacteria count, etc.
Again, though, I think we need to contemplate the difference between water "quality" as expressed by the measure of compounds like nitrate and phosphate, and visual clarity.
And, curiously enough, the "remedy" for "cloudy water" in virtually every situation is similar: Water changes, use of chemical filtration media (activated carbon, etc.), reduced light (in the case of algal blooms), improved husbandry techniques (i.e.; better feeding practices and more frequent maintenance), and, perhaps most important- the passage of time.
So, yeah, clarity of the water in our case is usually directly related to the physical dissolution of "stuff" in the water, and is influenced-and mitigated by- a wide-range of factors. And, don't forget that the botanical materials will impact the clarity of the water as they begin to decompose and impart the lignin, tannins, and other compounds from their physical structure into the water in our aquariums.
This happens indefinitely.
A lot of botanical-method aquariums start out with a little cloudiness. It's often caused by the aforementioned lignin, as well as by a burstsof microbial life which feeds upon these and other constituents of botanicals.
Once this initial "microbial haze phase" passes, there are other aspects to the water clarity which will continue to emerge. And I think that these aspects are similar to what we observe in Nature.
And in many cases, the water will never be "crystal clear" in botanical-influenced aquariums. It will have some "turbidity"-or as one of my friends likes to call it, "flavor."
Remember, just because the water in a botanical-influenced aquarium system is brownish, and even slightly hazy, it doesn't mean that it's of low quality, or "dirty", as we're inclined to say. It simply means that tannins, humic acids, and other substances are leaching into the water, creating a characteristic color that some of us geeks find rather attractive. And the "cloudiness" comes with the territory.
If you're still concerned, monitor the water quality...perform a nitrate or phosphate test; look at the health of your animals. These factors will tell the true story.
You need to ask yourself, "What's happening in there?"
I won't disagree that "clear" water is nice. I like it, too...However, I make the case that "crystal clear" water is: a) not always solely indicative of "healthy" or "optimum" , and b) not always what fishes encounter in Nature.
I believe that a lot of what we perceive to be "normal" in aquarium keeping is based upon artificial "standards" that we've imposed on ourselves over a century of modern aquarium keeping. Everyone expects water to be as clear and colorless as air, so any deviation from this "norm" is cause for concern among many hobbyists.
Natural aquatic ecosystems typically look nothing like what we'd call a "healthy" aquarium.
Yet, many of us don't think about that, or even look objectively about what wild aquatic ecosystems actually look like.
And so we panic and do massive water exchanges, add carbon , or reach for a bottle of...something...to "fix" the "problem...often creating a bigger (and more problematic) PROBLEM than what we were trying to remedy in the first place!
Even if your cloudiness is caused by a bloom of bacteria, perhaps from too much botanical materials being added to rapidly to the tank, or simply by overfeeding, it's not a disaster- if you understand it. Knowing what caused it is half of the battle, right? The "fixes" become obvious.
If you're overfeeding, just chill out on the food, right? If you added too much botanical material at one time, stop fucking adding botanicals for a while! You could do some stepped-up water exchanges...or you could just "wait it out", and let Nature catch up.
Often times, it simply takes time for these things to clear up.
Just like in nature.
Chemically, my water typically has virtually undetectable nitrate and phosphate levels...A solid "clean" by aquarium standards.
But, yeah- it's "soupy"-looking...
Other times, it can be crystal clear.
Both are just fine, as long as you're paying attention to the fundamentals of water quality.
Again, in Nature, we see these types of water characteristics in a variety of habitats. While they may not conform to everyone's idea of "beauty", there really IS an elegance, a compelling vibe, and a function to this.
Fish don't care that their water is tinted, a bit turbid, and sometimes downright cloudy.
As we've discussed a lot lately, we're absolutely obsessed with the natural processes and aesthetics of decomposing materials and sediments in our aquariums. And of course, this comes with the requirement of us to accept some unique aesthetic characteristics, of course!
We have, as a community, taken our first tentative footsteps beyond what has long been accepted and understood in the hobby, and are starting to ask new questions, make new observations, and yeah- even a few discoveries- which will evolve the aquarium hobby in the future.
And that means understanding why aquatic habitats look and function the way they do, and embracing things in our aquariums which simply might frighten others...
It's definitely a contrarian thought process, at least. Is it rebellious, even?
I've occasionally had to re-examine my own relationship with my love of unedited Nature, as it relates to the "business" side of things.
Our original mission at Tannin was to share our passion for the reality and function of "unedited" Nature, in all of its murky, brown, fungal-patina-enhanced glory. And I started to realize that a while back, we were starting to fall dangerously into that noisy, (IMHO) absurd, mainstream aquascaping world. Pressing our dirty faces against the pristine glass, we were sort of outsiders looking in...the awkward, different new kid on the block, wanting to play with the others.
Then, the realization hit that we never really wanted to play like that. It's not who we are.
We are not going to play there.
We're going to keep doing what we're doing. To "double down" in our dirty, tinted, turbid, decomposing, inspired-by Nature world.
We all have to have some understanding about what's "normal" when we try to replicate Nature in our tanks in a more literal manner...
And the "fixes" for stuff like..."cloudiness"... are often two things: Acceptance, and the passage of time. Core tenants of our botanical method aquarium game.
Patience. Observation. Objectivity. Mental Shifts.
Thanks for being a part of this exciting, ever-evolving, tinted world!
Stay level-headed. Stay creative. Stay engaged. Stay excited. Stay studious. Stay rebellious!
And Stay Wet.
As a lifelong hobbyist, devoted to natural aquarium systems, the idea of outfitting or setting up my aquariums to facilitate biological processes is second nature. With botanicals in play, the concept of them serving as a medium for biological support is "baked in" to our processes.
And you don't need to invest in all sorts of plastic filter media, blocks, beads, "noodles", etc. to facilitate biological filtration in your botanical method aquarium. I use a lot of "all-in-one" aquariums in my work; that is, aquariums with a rear compartment housing the return pump/heater, with space intended to hold biological media.
I run them empty.
Because the aquarium itself-or, more specifically- the botanical materials which comprise the botanical-method aquarium "infrastructure" act as a biological "filter system."
In other words, the botanical materials present in our systems provide enormous surface area upon which beneficial bacterial biofilms and fungal growths can colonize. These life forms utilize the organic compounds present in the water as a nutritional source.
Oh, the part about the biofilms and fungal growths sounds familiar, doesn't it?
Let's talk about our buddies, the biofilms, just a bit more. One more time. Because nothing seems as contrary to many hobbyists than to sing the praises of these gooey-looking strands of bacterial goodness!
Structurally, biofilms are surprisingly strong structures, which offer their colonial members "on-board" nutritional sources, exchange of metabolites, protection, and cellular communication. An ingenious natural design. They form extremely rapidly on just about any hard surface that is submerged in water.
When I see aquarium work in which biofilms are considered a "nuisance", and suggestions that it can be eliminated by "reducing nutrients" in the aquarium, I usually cringe. Mainly, because no matter what you do, biofilms are ubiquitous, and always present in our aquariums.
We may not see the famous long, stringy "snot" of our nightmares, but the reality is that they're present in our tanks regardless. Inside every return hose, filter compartment, and powerhead. On every surface, every rock, or piece of wood.
The other reality is that biofilms are something that we as aquarists typically have feared because of the way they look. In and of themselves, biofilms are not harmful to our fishes. They function not only as a means to sequester and process nutrients ( a "filter" of sorts), they also represent a beneficial food source for fishes.
Now, look, I can see rare scenarios where massive amounts of biofilms (relative to the water volume of the aquarium) can consume significant quantities of oxygen and be problematic for the fishes which reside in your tank. These explosions in biofilm growth are usually the result of adding too much botanical material too quickly to the aquarium. They're excaserbated by insufficient oxygenation/circulation within the aquarium.
These are very unusual circumstances, resulting from a combination of missteps by the aquarist.
Typically, however, biofilms are far more beneficial that they are reven emotely detrimental to our aquariums.
Nutrients in the water column, even when in low concentrations, are delivered to the biofilm through the complex system of water channels, where they are adsorbed into the biofilm matrix, where they become available to the individual cells. Some biologists feel that this efficient method of gathering energy might be a major evolutionary advantage for biofilms which live in particularly in turbulent ecosystems, like streams, (or aquariums, right?) with significant flow, where nutrient concentrations are typically lower and quite widely dispersed.
Biofilms have been used successfully in water/wastewater treatment for well over 100 years! In such filtration systems the filter medium (typically, sand) offers a tremendous amount of surface area for the microbes to attach to, and to feed upon the organic material in the water being treated. The formation of biofilms upon the "media" consume the undesirable organics in the water, effectively "filtering" it!
Biofilm acts as an adsorbent layer, in which organic materials and other nutrients are concentrated from the water column. As you might suspect, higher nutrient concentrations tend to produce biofilms that are thicker and denser than those grown in low nutrient concentrations.
it's pretty much a "given" that any botanicals or leaves that you drop into your aquarium will, over time, break down. Wood, too. And typically, before they break down, they'll "recruit" (a fancy word for "acquire') a coating of some rather unsightly-looking growth. Well, "unsightly" to those who have not been initiated into our little world of decomposition, fungal growth, biofilms, tinted water, etc., and maintain that an aquarium by definition is a pristine-looking place without a speck of anything deemed "aesthetically unattractive" by the masses!
And then, of course, there are our other rather slimy-looking friends- the fungi.
Yeah, the stringy stuff that you'll see covering the leaves, botanicals, and wood that you place into your aquarium. Let's talk about why you actually WANT the stuff there in the first place.
The fungi known as aquatic hyphomycetes produce enzymes which break down botanical materials in water. Essentially, they are primary influencers of leaf maceration. They're remarkably efficient at what they do, too. In as little as 3 weeks, as much as 15% of the decomposing leaf biomass in many aquatic habitats is "processed" by fungi, according to one study I found!
Aquatic hyphomycetes play a key role in the decomposition of plant litter of terrestrial origin- an ecological process in rain forest streams that allows for the transfer of energy and nutrients to higher trophic levels.
This is what ecologists call "nutrient cycling", folks.
These fungi colonize leaf litter and twigs and such soon after they're immersed in water. The fungi mineralize organic carbon and nutrients and convert coarse particulate matter into...wait for it...fine particulate organic matter. They also increase leaf litter palatability to shredding organisms (shrimp, insects, some fishes, etc.), which help further facilitate physical fragmentation.
Fungi tend to colonize wood and botanical materials because they offer them a lot of surface area to thrive and live out their life cycle. And cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin- the major components of wood and botanical materials- are easily degraded by fungi, which posses enzymes that can digest and assimilate these materials and their associated organics!
Fungi are regarded by biologists to be the dominant organisms associated with decaying leaves in streams, so this gives you some idea as to why we see them in our aquariums, right?
In aquarium work, we see fungal colonization on wood and leaves all the time. Most hobbyists will look on in sheer horror if they saw the same extensive amount of fungal growth on their carefully selected, artistically arranged wood pieces as they would in virtually any aquatic habitat in Nature!
Yet, it's one of the most common, elegant, and beneficial processes that occurs in natural aquatic habitats!
Of course, fungal colonization of wood and botanicals is but one stage of a long process, which occurs in Nature and our aquariums. And, as hobbyists, once we see those first signs of this stuff, the majority of us tend to reach for the algae scraper or brush and remove as much of it as possible- immediately! And sure, this might provide some "aesthetic relief" for some period of time- but it comes right back...because these materials will provide a continuous source of food and colonization sites for fungal growths for some time!
I know that the idea of "circumventing" this stuff is appealing to many, but the reality is that you're actually interrupting an essential, ecologically beneficial natural process. And, as we know, Nature abhors a vacuum, and new growths will return to fill the void, thus prolonging the process.
You want this stuff in your aquariums.
Again, think about the role of aquatic hyphomycetes in Nature.
Fungal colonization facilitates the access to the energy trapped in deciduous leaves and other botanical materials found in tropical streams for a variety of other organisms to utilize.
As we know by now, fungi play a huge role in the decomposition of leaves, both in the wild and in the aquarium. By utilizing special enzymes, aquatic fungi can degrade most of the molecular components in leaves, such as cellulose,, hemicelluloses, starch, pectin and even lignin.
Fungi, although not the most attractive-looking organisms, are incredibly useful...and they "play well" with a surprisingly large number of aquatic life forms to create substantial food webs, both in the wild and in our aquariums!
And it all comes full circle when we talk about "filtration" in our aquariums. Let's come back to this one more time.
People often ask me, "Scott, what filter do you use use in a botanical-method aquarium?" My answer is usually that it just doesn't matter. You can use any type of filter. The reality is that, if allowed to evolve and grow unfettered, the aquarium itself- all of it- becomes the "filter."
You can embrace this philosophy regardless of the type of filter that you employ.
Yeah, my sumps and integrated filter compartments in my A.I.O. tanks are essentially empty.
I may occasionally employ some activated carbon in small amounts, if I'm feeling it- but that's it. The way I see it- these areas, in a botanical-method aquarium, simply provide more water volume, more gas exchange; a place forever more bacterial attachment (surface area), and perhaps an area for botanical debris to settle out. Maybe I'll remove them, if only to prevent them from slowing down the flow rate of my return pumps.
But that's it.
A lot of people are initially surprised by this. However, when you look at it in the broader context of botanical method aquariums as miniature ecosystems, it all really makes sense, doesn't it? The work of these microorganisms and other life forms takes place throughout the aquarium.
The aquarium is the "filter."
The biomass of lifeforms in the aquarium comprise the ecology and physical structure as well.
I recall an experiment I did about 12 years ago; another exploration into letting the ecology within the aquarium- and the aquarium itself- become the "filter."
My dear friend, the late Jake Adams of Reef Builders, came up with what he called the “EcoReef Zero” concept; essentially an approach to keeping coral that eschews the superfluous- gear, live rock, macroalage, sand, etc., in favor of using the coral biomass and the physical aquarium itself as the "filter."
After seeing Jake's work in this area, and lots of discussions with him, I immediately realized that this approach was philosophically unlike anything I had ever attempted before. Yet, it somehow resonated for reasons I could not entirely put together. This approach was developed to focus on creating an excellent environment for corals, providing them with everything that they needed to assure growth and health, and nothing that they didn’t, while keeping things as simple and uncomplicated as possible- aquatic minimalism, if you will.
While in principle the concept of the Zero Reef is ridiculously simple and almost mundane, if you follow the history of modern “reefing” technique, it’s downright “revolutionary” from a philosophical standpoint. So much energy and effort has been expended in recent years attempting to keep corals in high biodiversity, multi-faceted “reef” systems, with all of their competing life forms, that anything else seems on the surface to be almost heretical!
I think a proper description for the approach would be something like “Minimal Diversity Coral Husbandry”. Jake called it “Reduced Ecology Reefing”. It’s sort of the “anti-reef” approach, if you will.
The "Zero Reef" approach essentially distills coral keeping down to its most basic and simple elements, and utilizes minimal technology and energy to achieve success. The premise is simple: Do away with the unnecessary “distractions” of conventional reef aquaria- live rock, sandbeds, macroalage, large fish populations, “cleanup crews”, extensive equipment, etc., and focus solely on the coral, with the bulk of the biomass in the system being contained in the coral tissue itself.
What I only half-jokingly referred to as “revolutionary” about the approach is really the mindset you need to adapt- a reliance on your intuition, a trust in the most basic of skills as a marine aquarist. This differs from the modern convention significantly, because this philosophy really focuses on one element of marine aquarium keeping: The needs of your coral. Indeed, on the coral itself. While there is nothing “wrong” with other, more traditional approaches, by their very nature, they tend to shift focus off of the true “stars” of the aquarium- the corals.
What you want in the "Zero Reef "approach are the beneficial bacterial populations to help break down metabolic waste products, without a huge diversity of other life form to burden the system in any way. In essence, what you’re looking at is a “Petri dish” for coral culture, or the equivalent of a flower in a vase – totally different than any other saltwater experience I’ve ever had.
It is to a conventional reef aquarium what haute couture is to ready-to-wear clothing in the fashion industry: An individual, special aquarium conceived to experiment with simplified coral husbandry. It’s not “your father’s frag tank”. And, it was pretty interesting from an aesthetic standpoint, too! And I think that it's scaleable.
For my “Zero Reef”, I decided to utilize a 4- gallon aquarium, with one side and the bottom painted flat black for aesthetics. My Eco Reef was located on my desk in my office, where I was able to enjoy it all day, every day! The aquarium was equipped with a simple internal filter with media removed, a heater and seven paltry watts of 6700K LED lighting. The setup of the system could not have been easier:
Literally pour water in the aquarium, plug everything in, and you’re under way.
The coral specimen was mounted on a single piece of slate.
Slate was used because the Eco Reef “philosophy” postulates that the porosity of live rock, coupled with the “on board” life that accompanies it, places an excessive burden on a system solely designed to grow coral, and thus detracts from the needs of the corals in the aquarium. Slate has minimal pore structure, primarily on the surface, and does not provide a matrix of nooks and crannies for detritus and nutrients to accumulate. It’s essentially inert, and has little, if any measurable impact on water parameters. Quite frankly, I could have just placed the coral right on the bottom of the aquarium, but the slate does provide a bit of aesthetic interest. I mean, I can’t totally depart from my principles, right?
It really doesn’t get any easier than this: I topped off for evaporation (mere ounces in this 4-gallon aquarium) as needed, and changed 100% of the water every Thursday (not a water exchange, mind you- this was a complete replacement of all of the water in the tank). The maintenance process literally took 5 minutes, and most of that was consumed by putting a towel around the aquarium so I didn't spill on my desk! I fed the coral small quantities of frozen mysis every Tuesday and Wednesday, or when I had the chance.
Probably the most difficult decision of the whole project was deciding what coral to use to serve as the primary inhabitant for the aquarium. The candidate coral had to be one that is fleshy, voluminous, and can safely be placed in a system without sand or rocks. After much consideration, I decided upon a specimen of Green Bubble Coral (Plerogyra simplex) for my test subject.
The piece of coral was approximately 4 inches in length when I started the experiment. Bubble Coral has a reputation for being relatively easy to keep, yet it’s not without its challenges, too. Although Jake recommended Euphyllia, various Faviids, Wellsophyllia, and other corals as ideal candidates for this type of system, I forged ahead with Bubble Coral for the simple reason that I like the way it looks!
The coral’s feeding reactions were immediate- and impressive! The feeding schedule was consistent with the protocol that Jake and I discussed: Feed the coral a couple of days before a water change. This allowed the coral to process and eliminate waste products during that time period, and for me to export as much of the metabolic waste as possible, as quickly as possible.
Being a habitual water changer and nutrient export fiend since my early days in the hobby was a huge asset to me with this approach. Water changes are of critical importance, because they not only export metabolites from this system, but they “reset” the trace elements, minerals, etc. that the coral needs for long-term growth and health. I didn’t dose anything, nor did I test, which was another radical departure from my habits developed over the decades.
Rather, I let the coral “talk” to me, and observed its health carefully. Despite my religious devotion to water testing in reef tanks, I’ve secretly long believed that corals will "tell" you when they are happy, and this approach validated my belief. I can honestly say that I’d never developed such an intimate “relationship” with an individual coral before!
I'd like to try this approach soon with my all-time favorite coral, Pocillopora.
Sure, the "Zero Reef" approach is not the single best way to keep every coral or anemone, and every bare-bottomed, low-diversity aquarium that comes along is not to be enshrined as an affirmation that this is "the best way to keep marine life." In fact, it may not work for some species. The point is, it’s worth investigating and experimenting with. It’s always a good thing to try new technique, new avenues. No matter how simple, or how elementary the approach seems.
I find different ecological approaches to aquarium keeping fascinating. It took a lot of years off observing Nature from not just a "how it looks" standpoint- but from how it works...and synthesizing this information has made me a better hobbyist.
The botanical "method" aquarium is really not a "method." It's literally just Nature, doing Her thing...and us keeping our grubby little hands off of the process!
Eventually, it got through my thick skull that aquariums- just like the wild habitats they represent- have an ecology comprised of countless organisms doing their thing. They depend on multiple inputs of food, to feed the biome at all levels. This meant that scrubbing the living shit (literally) out of our aquariums was denying the very biotia which comprised our aquariums their most basic needs.
That little "unlock" changed everything for me.
Suddenly, it all made sense.
This has carried over into the botanical-method aquarium concept: It's a system that literally relies on the biological material present in the system to facilitate food production, nutrient assimilation, and reproduction of life forms at various trophic levels.
It's changed everything about how I look at aquarium management and the creation of functional closed aquatic ecosystems.
It's really put the word "natural" back into the aquarium keeping parlance for me. The idea of creating a multi-tiered ecosystem, which provides a lot of the requirements needed to operate successfully with just a few basic maintenance practices, the passage of time, a lot of patience, and careful observation.
"Unlocks" are everywhere...the products of our experience, acquired skills, and grand experiments. Stuff that, although initially seemingly trivial, serves to "move the needle" on aquarium practice and shift minds over time,
It's my sincere hope that you will open your mind to the process of experimentation, and share your results with fellow hobbyists as you take your first steps into previously uncharted territory.
Stay bold. Stay provacative. Stay undeterred. Stay curious. Stay humble. Stay diligent...
And Stay Wet.
Last year, I shared the first two installments of what I hope to be an evolving, semi-periodic look at the techniques I employ personally with my botanical method aquariums. I mean, we share all of that stuff now in our social media and blogs, but until this little "series" I've never been done it in a really concise manner. Many of you have asked for this type of piece in "The Tint", and, since Ive been creating some new tanks lately, it's time to get back at it!
Today, let's get back to a pretty fundamental look at what I do, and how I start my botanical method aquariums.The processes and practices, in particular. Remember, this is not the "ultimate guide" about how do to all of this stuff...It's a review of what I do with my tanks. It's not just a strict "how to", of course. It's more than that. A look at what goes through my mind. My philosophy, and the principles which guide my work with my aquariums. I hope you find it helpful.
First off, one of the main things that I do- what I believe most aquarists do- is to have a "theme"- an idea- in mind when I start my tanks. A "North Star", if you will. This is an essential thing; having a "track to run on" guides the entire project. It influences your material and equipment selections, your establishment timetables, and of course, your fish population.
Let's look at my most recent botanical method aquarium as an example of my approach.
First off, I had a pretty good idea of the "theme" to begin with: A "wet season" flooded Amazonian forest. Now, I freely admit that I put a lot of thought into getting the characteristics of the environment and ecology down as functionally realistic as possible, but that the fish selection was far more "cosmopolitan"- consisting of characins- my fave fishes- some of which are found in such habitats, and some which are not. It was not intended to be some competition-minded, highly accurate biotope display.
Just a fun way to feature some of my fave fishes!
Since I was kid, I'd always dreamed of a medium-to-large-sized tank, filled with a large number of different Tetras. This tank would essentially be my "grown-up", more evolved version of my childhood "Tetra fantasy tank!"
The most basic of all "how I do it" lessons is to have some idea about what you're trying to accomplish before you start. In our game, since recreating the environment and ecology are paramount, this will impact every other decision you make.
In this aquarium, the main "structure" of the ecosystem is comprised of a literal "hodgepodge" of "scrap" pieces of wood of different types and sizes that I had laying around. Very little thought was given to specific types or shapes. The idea was to create a representation of an inverted root section and tangle of broken branches from a fallen tree on the forest floor, which becomes an underwater feature during the "wet season."
It was simply a matter of assembling a bunch of smaller pieces to create the look of the inverted root that I had in my head. And once they are down and covered in that "patina" of biocover, it's hard to distinguish one from the other. It looks like one piece, really. Sure, it would have been easier to carefully select just one piece to do it all (would it, though?🤔), but it was more practical to "use what I had" and make it work!
So, another "how I do it" lesson is that you don't always have to incorporate a single specific wood type to have an incredible-looking, interesting physical aquascape. No chasing after the latest and creates trendy wood for me.
I use what I have, or what I like.
You should, too.
Since we're more about function than we are about aesthetics exclusively, which type of wood isn't as important as simply having any wood to complete the job. (and by extension, other "aquascaping materials"...)
After I get my wood pieces the way I like them, it's the usual stuff: Make sure that they stay down before you fill the tank all the way, etc. Nothing exotic here.
The next step is to fill the tank up. Again, there is no real magic here, except to note that, since we're often using sedimented substrate and bits of botanicals on the substrate, it's best to do this very slowly. I mean, your water is likely to be turbid for some time; it's what goes with the territory. However, no need to exacerbate it by rushing!
And, after the tank is about 1/3 full, I'll usually add all of my prepared leaves and botanicals. Why? Because I've found over the years, similar to planted tank enthusiasts, that it's much easier to get the leave and botanicals where you want them by working in a partially filled tank.
Another, hardly revolutionary approach, but one which I think makes perfect sense for what we do.
After the tank is fully filled...that's is where the real fun begins, of course...In our world, the "fun" includes a whole lot of watching and waiting...Waiting for the water to clear up (if you use sedimented substrates). Waiting for Nature to start Her work; to act upon the terrestrial materials that we have added to our tank.
And of course, this is the time when you're busy making sure that you did all of the right things to get the tank ready for "first water."
And of course, it's also the part where every hobbyist, experienced or otherwise, has those lingering doubts; asks questions- goes through the "mental gymnastics" to try to cope: "Do I have enough flow?" "Was my source water quality any good?" "Is it my light?"
And then- when the first fungal filaments or biofilms appear, some new to our specialty still doubt: "When does this shit go away?" "It DOES go away. I know it's just a phase." Right? "Yeah, it goes away..." "When?" "It WILL go away. Right?"
And then there is the realization that this is a BOTANICAL METHOD aquairum, and that you expect and WANT that stuff in your tank. And it will likely never fully "go away..."
But you know this. And yet, you still count a bit.
I mean, it's common with every new tank, really. The doubts. The worries....
The waiting. The not-being-able-to-visualize-a-fully-stocked tank "thing"...Patience-testing stuff. Stuff which I- "Mr. Tinted-water-biofilms-and-decomposing-leaves-and-botanicals-guy"- am pretty much hardened to by now. You will be, too. It's about graciously accepting a totally different "look." Not worrying about "phases" or the ephemeral nature of some things in my aquarium.
Yet, like anyone who sets up an aquarium, I admit that I still occasionally get those little doubts in the dim (tinted?) recesses of my mind now and then- the product of decades of doing fish stuff, yet wondering if THIS is the one time when things WON'T work out as expected...
I mean, it's one of those rights of passage that we all go through when we set up aquariums right? The early doubts. The questioning of ourselves. The reviewing of fundamental procedure and practice. Maybe, the need to reach out to the community to gain reassurance.
It's normal. It's often inevitable.
Do I worry about stuff?
Well, yeah. Of course.
However, it's not at the point in my tank's existence when you'd think that I'd worry. It's a bit later. And it's not about the stuff you might think. It's all about the least "natural" part of my aquariums: The equipment.
Usually, for me, this worry manifests itself right around the first water exchange. By that time, you'll likely have learned a lot of the quirks and eccentricities of your new aquarium as it runs. You'll have seen how it functions in daily operation.
And then you do your first deliberate "intervention" in its function. You shut down the pumps for a water exchange.
That's when I clutch. I worry.
I always get a lump in my throat the first time I shut off the main system pump for maintenance. "Will it start right back up? Did I miscalculate the 'drain-down' capacity of the sump? Will this pump lose siphon?"
And so what the fuck if it DOES? You simply...fix the problem. That's what fish geeks do. Chill.
Yet, I worry.
That's literally my biggest personal worry with a new tank, crazy though it might sound. The reality, is that in decades of aquarium-keeping, I've NEVER had a pump not start right back up, or overflowed a sump after shutting down the pump...but I still watch, and worry...and don't feel good until that fateful moment after the first water change when I fire up the pump again, to the reassuring whir of the motor and the lovely gurgle of water once again circulating through my tank.
Okay, perhaps I'm a bit weird, but I'm being totally honest here- and I'm not entirely convinced that I'm the only one who has some of these hangups when dealing with a new tank! I've seen a lot of crazy hobbyists who go into a near depression when something goes wrong with their tanks, so this sort of behavior is really not that unusual, right?
However, our typical "worries" are less "worries" than they are little realizations about how stuff works in these tanks.
In a botanical method aquarium, you need to think more "holistically." You need to realize that these extremely early days are the beginning of an evolution- the start of a living microcosm, which will embrace a variety of natural processes.
But yeah, we know what to expect...We observe.
So, what exactly happens in the earliest days of a botanical method aquarium?
Well, for one thing, the water will gradually start to tint up...
Now, I admit that this is perhaps one of the most variable and unpredictable aesthetic aspects of these types of aquariums- yet one which draws in a lot of new hobbyists to our "tribe." The allure of the tinted water. Many factors, ranging from what kind (and how much) chemical filtration media you use, what types (and how much again!) of botanical materials you're using, and others, impact this. Recently, I've heard a lot of pretty good observation-based information from experienced plant enthusiasts that some plants take up tannins as they grow. Interesting, huh?
Stuff changes. The botanicals themselves begin to physically break down; the speed and the degree to which this happens depends almost entirely on processes and factors largely beyond your control, such as the ability of your microbial population to "process" the materials within your aquarium.
I personally feel that botanical-method aquariums always look better after a few weeks, or even months of operation. When they're new, and the leaves and botanicals are crisp, intact, and fresh-looking, it may have a nice "artistic" appearance- but not necessarily "natural" in the sense that it doesn't look established and alive.
The real magic takes place weeks later.
Things change a bit...
The pristine seed pods and leaves start "softening" a bit. And biofilms and fungal growths make their first appearances.
Mental shifts are required on your part.
Yup, the first mental shift that we have to make as lovers of truly natural style aquariums is an understanding that these tanks will not maintain the crisp, pristine look without significant intervention on our part. And, by "intervention", I mean scrubbing, rinsing, and replacing the leaves and botanicals as needed. I mean, sure- you can do that. I know a bunch of people who do.
They absolutely love super pristine-looking tanks.
Well, to each his own, I suppose. Yet, the whole point of a true botanical method aquarium is to accept the "less than pristine" look and the changes that occur within the system because of natural processes and functions.
I admit, I feel a bit sorry for people who can't make the mental shift to accept the fact that Nature does Her own thing, and that She'll lay down a "patina" on our botanicals, gradually transforming them into something a bit different than when we started.
When we don't accept this process, we sadly get to miss out on Nature guiding our tank towards its ultimate beauty- perhaps better than we even envisioned.
For some, it's really hard to accept this process. To let go of everything they've known before in the hobby. To wait while Nature goes through her growing pains, decomposing, transforming and yeah- evolving our aquascapes from carefully-planned art installations to living, breathing, functioning microcosms.
But, what about all of that decay? That "patina" of biofilm?
If you're struggling with accepting this, just remind yourself regularly that it's okay.
The whole environment of a more established botanical-method aquarium looks substantially different after a few weeks. While the water gradually darkens, those biofilms appear...it just looks more "earthy", mysterious, and alive.
It's a reminder of "Wabi-Sabi" again.
Something that's been on my mind a lot lately.
In it's most simplistic and literal form,the Japanese philosophy of "Wabi Sabi" is an acceptance and contemplation of the imperfection, constant flux and impermanence of all things.
This is a very interesting philosophy, one which was brought to our attention in the aquarium world by none other than the late, great, Takashi Amano, who proferred that a (planted) aquarium is in constant flux; constant transistion- and that one needs to contemplate, embrace, and enjoy the changes, and to relate them to the sweet sadness of the transience of life.
Many of Amano's greatest works embraced this philosophy, and evolved over time as various plants would alternately thrive, spread and decline, re-working and reconfiguring the aquascape with minimal human intervention. Each phase of the aquascape's existence brought new beauty and joy to those would observe them.
Yet, in today's contest-scape driven, break-down-the-tank-after-the-show world, this philosophy of appreciating change by Nature over time seems to have been tossed aside as we move on to the next one.
Sure, this may fit our human lifestyle and interest, but it denies Nature her chance to shine, IMHO. There is something amazing about this process of change; about the way our tanks evolve, and we should enjoy them at every stage.
And then, there is the human desire to "edit" stuff. People ask me all the time if I take stuff out of the system; if I make "edits" and changes to the tank as it breaks in, or as the botanicals start to decompose.
Well, I don't, for reasons we've discussed a lot around here:
Remember, one thing that's unique about the botanical-method approach is that we accept the idea of a microbiome of organisms "working" our botanical materials. We're used to 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.
I have long been one the belief that if you decide to let the botanicals remain in your aquarium to break down and decompose completely, that you shouldn't change course by suddenly removing the material all at once...
Well, I think my theory is steeped in the mindset that you've created a little ecosystem, and if you start removing a significant source of someone's food (or for that matter, their home!), there is bound to be a net loss of biota...and this could lead to a disruption of the very biological processes that we aim to foster.
Okay, it's a theory...
But I think it's a good one.
You need to look at the botanical-method aquarium (like any aquarium, of course) as a little "microcosm", with processes and life forms dependent upon each other for food, shelter, and other aspects of their existence. And I really believe that the environment of this type of aquarium, because it relies on botanical materials (leaves, seed pods, etc.), is more signficantly influenced by the amounts and composition of said material.
Just like in natural aquatic ecosystems...
The botanical materials are a real "base" for the little microcosm we create.
And of course, by virtue of the fact that they contain other compounds, like tannins, humic substances, lignin, etc., they also serve to influence the water chemistry of the aquarium, the extent to which is dictated by a number of other things, including the "starting point" of the source water used to fill the tank.
So, in summary- I think the presence of botanicals in our aquariums is multi-faceted, highly influential, and of extreme import for the stability, ecological balance, and efficiency of the tank. As a new system establishes itself, the biological processes adapt to the quantity and types of materials present- the nitrogen cycle and other nutrient-processing capabilities evolve over time as well.
Yes, establishing a botanical method aquarium is as much about making mental shifts and acquiring patience and humility as it is about applying any particular aquarium keeping skills. It's about growing as a hobbyist.
Having faith in yourself, your judgment, and, most important- in the role that Nature Herself plays in our tanks.
In seemingly no time at all, you're looking at a more "broken-in" system that doesn't seem so "clean", and has that wonderful pleasant, earthy smell- and you realize right then that your system is healthy, biologically stable, and functioning as Nature would intend it to. If you don't intervene, or interfere- your system will continue to evolve on a beautiful, natural path.
It's that moment- and the many similar moments that will come later, which makes you remember exactly why you got into the aquarium hobby in the first place: That awesome sense of wonder, awe, excitement, frustration, exasperation, realization, and ultimately, triumph, which are all part of the journey- the personal, deeply emotional journey- towards a successful aquarium- that only a real aquarist understands.
This is how I do it.
Stay excited. Stay bold. Stay observant. Stay brave. Stay curious. Stay patient...
And Stay Wet.
Substrates, IMHO, are one of the most often-overlooked components of the aquarium. We tend to just add a bag of "_____________" to our tanks and move on to the "more exciting" stuff like rocks and "designer" wood. It's true! Other than planted aquarium enthusiasts, the vast majority of hobbyists seem to have little more than a passing interest in creating and managing a specialized substrate or associated ecology.
And, when we observe natural aquatic ecosystems, I think we as a whole tend to pay scant little attention to the composition of the materials which form the substrate; how they aggregate, and what occurs when they do.
I'm obsessed with the idea of "functionally aesthetic" substrates in our botanical-style aquariums.
It's because I imagine the substrate as this magical place which fuels all sorts of processes within our aquariums, and that Nature tends to it in the most effective and judicious manner.
Yeah, I'm a bit of a "substrate romantic", I suppose.😆
I think a lot of this comes from my long experience with reef aquariums, and the so-called "deep sand beds" that were quite popular in the early 2000's.
A deep sand bed is (just like it sounds) a layer of fine sand on the bottom of the aquarium, intended to grow bacteria in the deepest layers, which convert nitrate or nitrite to nitrogen gas. This process is generically called "denitrification", and it's one of the benefits of having an undisturbed layer of substrate on the bottom of the aquarium.
Fine sand and sediment is a perfect "media" upon which to culture these bacteria, with its abundant surface area. Now, the deep sand bed also serves as a location within the aquarium to process and export dissolved nutrients, sequester detritus (our old friend), and convert fish poop and uneaten food into a "format" that is usable by many different life forms.
In short, a healthy, undisturbed sandbed is a nutrient processing center, a supplemental food production locale, and a microhabitat for aquatic organisms.
You probably already know most of this stuff, especially if you've kept a reef tank before. And of course, there are reefers who absolutely vilify sandbeds, because they feel that they "compete" with corals, and ultimately can "leach" out the unwanted organics that they sequester, back into the aquarium. I personally disagree with that whole thing, but that's another battle for another time and place!
Okay, saltwater diversion aside, the concept of a deep substrate layer in a botanical-style aquarium continues to fascinate me. I think that the benefits for our systems are analogous to those occurring in reef tanks- and of course, in Nature. In my opinion, an undisturbed deep substrate layer in the botanical-style aquarium, consisting of all sorts of materials, from sand/sediments to leaves to twigs and broken-up pieces of botanicals,can foster all sorts of support functions.
I've always been a fan of in my aquarium keeping work of allowing Nature to take its course in some things, as you know. And this is a philosophy which plays right into my love of dynamic aquarium substrates. If left to their own devices, they function in an efficient, almost predictable manner.
Nature has this "thing" about finding a way to work in all sorts of situations.
And, I have this "thing" about not wanting to mess with stuff once it's up and running smoothly... Like, I will engage in regular maintenance (ie; water exchanges, etc.), but I avoid any heavy "tweaks" as a matter of practice. In particular, I tend not to disturb the substrate in my aquariums. A lot of stuff is going on down there...
I realize, when contemplating really deep aggregations of substrate materials in the aquarium, that we're dealing with closed systems, and the dynamics which affect them are way different than those in Nature, for the most part.
And I realize that experimenting with these unusual approaches to substrates requires not only a sense of adventure, a direction, and some discipline- but a willingness to accept and deal with an entirely different aesthetic than what we know and love. And this also includes pushing into areas and ideas which might make us uncomfortable, not just for the way they look, but for what we are told might be possible risks.
One of the things that many hobbyists ponder when we contemplate creating deep, botanical-heavy substrates, consisting of leaves, sand, and other botanical materials is the buildup of hydrogen sulfide, CO2, and other undesirable compounds within the substrate.
Well, it does make sense that if you have a large amount of decomposing material in an aquarium, that some of these compounds are going to accumulate in heavily-"active" substrates. Now, the big "bogeyman" that we all seem to zero in on in our "sum of all fears" scenarios is hydrogen sulfide, which results from bacterial breakdown of organic matter in the total absence of oxygen.
Let's think about this for just a second.
In a botanical bed with materials placed on the substrate, or loosely mixed into the top layers, will it all "pack down" enough to the point where there is a complete lack of oxygen and we develop a significant amount of this reviled compound in our tanks? I think that we're more likely to see some oxygen in this layer of materials, and I can't help but speculate- and yeah, it IS just speculation- that actual de-nitirifcation (nitrate reduction), which lowers nitrates while producing free nitrogen, might actually be able to occur in a "deep botanical" bed.
There is that curious, nagging "thing" I have in my head about the ability of botanical-influenced substrates to foster denitrification. With the diverse assemblage of microorganisms and a continuous food source of decomposing botanicals "in house", I can't help but think that such "living substrates" create a surprisingly diverse and utilitarian biological support system for our aquariums.
And it's certainly possible to have denitrification without dangerous hydrogen sulfide levels. As long as even very small amounts of oxygen and nitrates can penetrate into the substrate, this will not become an issue for most systems. I have yet to see a botanical-style aquarium where the material has become so "compacted" as to appear to have no circulation whatsoever within the botanical layer.
Now, sure, I'm not a scientist, and I base this on close visual inspection of numerous aquariums, and the basic chemical tests I've run on my systems under a variety of circumstances. As one who has made it a point to keep my botanical-method aquariums in operation for very extended time frames, I think this is significant. The "bad" side effects we're talking about should manifest over these longer time frames...and they just haven't.
And then there's the question of nitrate.
Although not the terror that ammonia and nitrite are known to be, nitrate is much less so. However, as nitrate accumulates, fish will eventually suffer some health issues. Ideally, we strive to keep our nitrate levels no higher than 5-10ppm in our aquariums. As a reef aquarist, I've always been of the "...keep it as close to zero as possible." mindset (that's evolved in recent years, btw), but that is not always the most realistic or achievable target in a heavily-botanical-laden aquarium. You have a bit more "wiggle room", IMHO. Now, when you start creeping towards 50ppm, you're getting closer towards a number that should alert you. It's not a big "stretch" from 50ppm to 75ppm and higher...
And then you get towards the range where health issues could manifest themselves in your fishes. Now, many fishes will not show any symptoms of nitrate poisoning until the nitrate level reaches 100 ppm or more. However, studies have shown that long-term exposure to concentrations of nitrate stresses fishes, making them more susceptible to disease, affecting their growth rates, and inhibiting spawning in many species.
At those really high nitrate levels, fishes will become noticeably lethargic, and may have other health issues that are obvious upon visual inspection, such as open sores or reddish patches on their skin. And then, you'd have those "mysterious deaths" and the sudden death (essentially from shock) of newly-added fishes to the aquarium, because they're not acclimated to the higher nitrate concentrations.
Okay, that's scary stuff. However, high nitrate concentrations are not only manageable- they're something that's completely avoidable in our aquairums.
Quite honestly, even in the most heavily-botanical-laden systems I've played with, I have personally never seen a higher nitrate reading than around 5ppm. I attribute this to common sense stuff: Good quality source water (RO/DI), careful stocking, feeding, good circulation, not disturbing the substrate, and consistent basic aquarium husbandry practices (water changes, filter maintenance, etc.).
Now, that's just me. I'm no scientist, certainly not a chemist, but I have a basic understanding of maintaining a healthy nitrogen cycle in the aquarium. And I am habitual-perhaps even obsessive- about consistent maintenance. Water exchanges are not a "when I get around to it" thing in my aquarium management "playbook"- they're "baked in" to my practice.
And I think that a healthy, ecologically varied substrate is one of the keys to a successful botanical method aquarium.
I'm really into creating substrates that are a reasonable representation of the bottom of streams, tributaries, and igapo, as found in the Amazon basin. Each one of these has some unique characteristics, and each one presents an interesting creative challenge for the intrepid hobbyist. Until quite recently, the most common materials we had to work with when attempting to replicate these substrates were sand, natural and colored gravels, and clay-comprised planted aquarium substrates.
I reiterate a "manifesto" of sorts that I played out in "The Tint" back in 2015:
"If I have something to say about the matter, you'll soon be incorporating a wide variety of other materials into your biotope aquarium substrate!"
Damn, did I just quote myself?
If you've seen pictures and videos taken underwater in tropical streams (again, I'm pulling heavily from the Amazonian region), you'll note that there is a lot of loose, soil-like material over a harder mud/sand substrate. Obviously, using an entirely soil-based substrate in an aquarium, although technically possible and definitely cool- could result in a yucky mess whenever you disturb the material during routine maintenance and other tasks. You can, however, mix in some of these materials with the more commonly found sand.
So, exactly what "materials" am I referring to here?
Well, let's look at Nature for a second.
Natural streams, lakes, and rivers typically have substrates comprised of materials of multiple "grades", including fine, medium, and coarse materials, such as pebbles, gravels, silty clays and sands. In the aquarium, we seem to have embraced the idea of a homogenous particle size for our substrates for many years. Now, don't get me wrong- it's aesthetically just fine, and works great. However, it's not always the most interesting to look at, nor is it necessarily the most biologically diverse are of the aquarium.
A lot of natural stream bottoms are complimented with aggregations of other materials like leaf litter, branches, roots, and other decomposing plant matter, creating a dynamic, loose-appearing substrate, with lots of potential for biological benefits. Of course, we need to understand the implications of creating such "dynamic" substrates in our closed aquariums.
When we started Tannin, my fascination with the varied substrate materials of tropical ecosystems got me thinking about ways to more accurately replicate those found in flooded forests, streams, and diverse habitats like peat swamps, estuaries, creeks, even puddles- and others which tend to be influenced as much by the surrounding flora (mainly forests and jungles) as it is by geology.
And of course, my obsession with botanical materials to influence and accent the aquarium habitat caused me to look at the use of certain materials for what I generically call "substrate enrichment" - adding materials reminiscent of those found in the wild to augment the more "traditional" sands and other substrates used in aquariums to foster biodiversity and nutrient processing functions.
Again, look to Nature...
If you've seen pictures and videos taken underwater in tropical streams (again, I'm pulling heavily from the Amazonian region), you'll note that there is a lot of loose, soil-like material over a harder mud/sand substrate. Obviously, using an entirely mud-based substrate in an aquarium, although technically possible- will result in a yucky mess whenever you disturb the material during routine maintenance and other tasks. You can, however, mix in some other materials with the more commonly found sand.
That was the whole thinking behind "Substrato Fino" and "Fundo Tropical", two of our most popular substrate "enrichment" materials. They are perfect for helping to more realistically replicate both the look and function of the substrates found in some of these natural habitats. They provide surface area for fungal and microbial growth, and interstitial spaces for smalll crustaceans and other organisms to forage upon.
Substrates aren't just "the bottom of the tank..."
Rather, they are diverse harbors of life, ranging from fungal and biofilm mats, to algae, to epiphytic plants. Decomposing leaves, seed pods, and tree branches compose the substrate for a complex web of life which helps the fishes were so fascinated by flourish. And, if you look at them objectively and carefully, they are beautiful.
I encourage you to study the natural environment, particularly niche habitats or areas of the streams, rivers, and lakes- and draw inspiration from the functionality of these zones. The aesthetic component will come together virtually by itself. And accepting the varied, diverse, not-quite-so-pritinh look of the "real thing" will give you a greater appreciation for the wonders of nature, and unlock new creative possibilities.
In regards to the substrate materials themselves, I'm fascinated by the different types of soils or substrate materials which occur in blackwater systems and their clearwater counterparts, and how they influence the aquatic environment.
For example, as we've discussed numerous times over the years, "blackwater" is not cased by leaves and such- it's created via geological processes.
In general, blackwaters originate from sandy soils. High concentrations of humic acids in the water are thought to occur in drainages with what scientists call "podzol" sandy soils. "Podzol" is a soil classification which describes an infertile acidic soil having an "ashlike" subsurface layer from which minerals have been leached.
That last part is interesting, and helps explain in part the absence of minerals in blackwater. And more than one hobbyist I know has played with the concept of "dirted" planted tanks, using terrestrial soils...hmmm.
Also interesting to note is that fact that soluble humic acids are adsorbed by clay minerals in what are known as"oxisol" soils, resulting in clear waters."Oxisol" soils are often classified as "laterite" soils, which some who grow plants are familiar with, known for their richness in iron and aluminum oxides. I'm no chemist, or even a planted tank geek..but aren't those important elements for aquatic plants?
Let's state it one more time:
We have the terrestrial environment influencing the aquatic environment, and fishes that live in the aquatic environment influencing the terrestrial environment! T
his is really complicated stuff- and interesting! And the idea that terrestrial environments and materials influence aquatic ones- and vice-versa- is compelling and could be an interesting area to contemplate for us hobbyists!
When ecologists study the substrate composition of aquatic habitats like those in The Amazon, they tend to break them down into several categories, broad though they may be: Rock, sand, coarse leaf litter, fine leaf litter, and branches, trunks and roots.
Studies indicate that terrestrial inputs from rainforest streams provide numerous benefits for fishes, providing a wide range of substrate materials that supported a wider range of fishes than can be found in non-forested streams. One study concluded that, "Inputs from forests such as woody debris and leaf litter were found to support a diversity of habitat niches that can provide nursing grounds and refuges against predators (Juen et al. 2016). Substrate size was also larger in forest stream habitats, adding to the complexity and variety of microhabitats that can accommodate a greater and more diverse range of fish species (Zeni et al. 2019)."
But wait- there's more! Rainforests create uniquely diverse aquatic habitats.
"Forests can further diversify and stabilize the types of food available for fish by supplying both allochthonous inputs from leaf litter and increased availability of terrestrial insects that fall directly into the water (Zeni and Casatti). Forest habitats can support a diverse range of trophic guilds including terrestrial insectivores and herbivores (Zeni and Casatti).
Riparian forests deliver leaf litter in streams attracting insects, algae, and biofilm, each of which may be vital for particular fish species (Giam et al., Juen et al. ). In contrast, nonforested streams may lack the allochthonous food inputs that support terrestrial feeding fish species..."
Leaf litter- yet again.
And then there are soils...terrestrial soils- which, to me, are to me the most interesting possible substrates in wild aquatic habitats.
So, the idea of a rich soil substrate that not only accommodates the needs of the plants, but provides a "media" in which beneficial bacteria can grow and multiply is a huge "plus" for our closed aquatic ecosystems. And the concepts of embracing Nature and her processes work really well with the stuff we are playing with.
As you've seen over the past few years, I've been focusing a lot on my long-running "Urban Igapo" idea and experiments, sharing with you my adventures with rich soils, decomposing leaf litter, tinted water, immersion-tolerant terrestrial plants, and silty, muddy, rich substrates. This is, I think, an analogous or derivative concept to the "Walstad Method", as it embraces a more holistic approach to fostering an ecosystem; a "functionally aesthetic" aquarium, rather than a pure aesthetic one.
The importance of incorporating rich soils and silted substrates is, I think, an entirely new (and potentially dynamic) direction for blackwater/botanical-style tanks, because it not only embraces the substrate not just as a place to throw seed pods, wood, rocks, and plants- but as the literal foundation of a stable, diverse ecosystem, which facilitates the growth of beneficial organisms which become an important and integral part of the aquarium.
And that has inspired me to spend a lot of time over the past couple of years developing more "biotope-specific" substrates to compliment the type of aquariums we play with.
When we couple this use of non-conventional (for now, anyways...) substrate materials with the idea of "seeding" our aquariums with beneficial organisms (like small crustaceans, worms, etc.) to serve not only as nutrient processing "assistants", but to create a supplementary food source for our fishes, it becomes a very cool field of work.
As creatures like copepods and worms "work" the substrate and aerate and mix it, they serve to stabilize the aquarium and support the overall environment.
That's a huge takeaway here. I'm sure that's perhaps the biggest point of it all. By allying with the benthic life forms which inhabit it, the substrate can foster decomposition and "processing"of a wide range of materials- to provide nutrition for plants- or in our case- for the microbiome of the overall system.
There is so much work to do in this area...it's really just beginning in our little niche. And, how funny is it that what seems to be an approach that peaked and fell into a bit of disfavor or perhaps (unintended) "reclassification"- is actually being "resurrected" in some areas of the planted aquarium world ( it never "died" in others...).
And a variation/application of it is gradually starting to work it's way into the natural, botanical-method aquarium approach that we favor.
Substrates are not just "the bottom."
They are diverse harbors of life, ranging from fungal and biofilm mats, to algae, to epiphytic plants. Decomposing leaves, seed pods, and tree branches compose the substrate for a complex web of life which helps the fishes we're so fascinated by to flourish.
And, if you look at them objectively and carefully, they are beautiful.
Stay curious. Stay ob servant. Stay thoughtful. Stay bold...
And Stay Wet.
As we become more and more experienced as a community playing with botanical method aquariums, our techniques and approaches have evolved. And we have gotten much better and more sophisticated about developing best practices and classifications. When it comes to the materials themselves, we have more to choose from than ever before-there are all sorts of different types of materials with different applications for use.
I think that if we had to break them down into very specific "usage categories", it would be a bit challenging, but it is sort of doable. In the grand scheme of things, virtually any botanical material which you place in the aquarium will have some impact on the environmental conditions.
I break them down into three broad classes, based on how long they last while submerged, and what their "best use" would be in the aquairum:
Some materials are quite durable, and last a long time-perhaps indefinitely- when submerged. I classify them as "permanent." However, some materials, such as leaves, are more "ephemeral" in nature, in that they break down and ultimately decor pose more quickly than others. Other materials, like bark, sort of "walk the line" between "permanent" and "ephemeral", and I classify them as "transitional" materials.
And of course, even within these broad "classifications", there are variations. For example, some leaves- such as oak- last an incredibly long time without fully decomposing, whereas others, such as Catappa, break down rather quickly.
Some hobbyists have commented that, as their leaves- and botanicals- break down that the physical "aquascape" as initially presented changes significantly over time. Wether they know it or not, they are grasping the Japanese philosophy of "Wabi-Sabi", as preferred by the late Akashi Amano...well, sort of. A philosophy which asserts that one must appreciate the beauty of life at various phases to appreciate it. To find little vignettes- little moments- of fleeting beauty that need not be permanent to enjoy.
Yes, these categories are useful, IMHO.
I plan on making much more use of these categories when we launch our new website. My hope is that these classifications become part of our "nomenclature" within the botanical method aquarium community. This will facilitate a better understanding about how to employ various materials, and create a better way to communicate and prompt discussions with our fellow hobbyists about how and when we use them.
This is sort of important to think about.
Well, when we consider which botanical materials we intend to use in our tanks, we should give some thought as to what our purpose for including each one is. For example, if you're like me, and are really trying to foster an ecology within the aquarium, you should include a healthy portion of more "ephemeral" materials. These will break down faster, and create "fuel" for the colonization and proliferation of microorganisms and fungi.
The more durable, "permanent" materials will also foster fungal growths and biofilms on their surfaces, but are much slower to break down, and less likely to impart significant amounts of compounds like tannins, humid substances, etc. into the water.
If you'll notice, I don't mention anything about "tint capability" within these classifications because: a) that's an aesthetic attribute, b) it is generally pretty obvious which materials do tend to impart color producing tannins into the water, and c) it's not entirely relevant to our main goal of cultivating an ecology within the aquarium.
Obviously, to many hobbyists, the "tinting capability" of various botanicals IS important, and if you ask us, we can (and always have) make recommendations about which materials will produce these superficial effects most readily and easily.
As we touched on briefly, some botanical materials are better suited at physically and structurally enhancing the aquarium environment, and eliciting and complimenting various behaviors among our fishes. For example, larger, hollowed-out materials like Sterculia pods, Carinaina pods, and "Monkey Pots" are most useful as hading spaces, territories, and spawning locations for fishes like Apistogramma and other dwarf cichlids.
While they will provide surface area for colonization of bacterial biofilms, fungal growth, and epiphytic algae, their primary "strength" in the botanical method aquarium is to serve as one of the aforementioned "physical/structural" roles.
Other materials, like twigs and roots- what we would classify as "transitional" materials- are perfect for creating a more complex benthic environment within the aquarium, being perfect to layer with leaves and other more ephemeral materials. They will soften and break down over much longer periods of time than say, leaves, but will provide a variety of benefits during their "useful life" while submerged.
The utility of botanicals is as diverse and comprehensive as the number of botanicals in existence!
One of the most amazing things about our practice of adding leaves, twigs, seed pods, and other botanical materials to our aquariums- whether you collected them yourself in Houston, Hamburg, or Hong Kong- or purchased them from a supplier like us-is that most can be almost "relied on" to perform in a fairly predictable manner in our aquariums.
The same natural processes which affect the decomposition of an Alder Cone from Europe impact the Sterculia pod from Southeast Asia, the oak twig from North America, the Jackfruit leaf from Malaysia, or the Banana Stem from Thailand. Colonization by biofilms, fungal growths, and the resulting decomposition which occurs are the same all over the planet.
And they're the same processes which govern what happens in our aquariums.
Think about that for just a second. Let me rephrase it one more time:
The same processes of Nature which impact the leaves when they fall into the water in the Amazon occur in your home in suburban Los Angeles, Paris, or Tokyo, for that matter.
Nature doesn't care.
Sure, there are subtle chemical, mineral, and other physical variations in the tap water in different parts of the world, which, if I'm being intellectually honest, could make some difference-but the ecological processes which decompose leaves are the same.
It's actually pretty remarkable, when you think about it!
When viewed as a "whole", the macro view of a botanical-method aquarium is that it challenges us to look at the big picture- to not get too caught up in any one aspect of creating or managing our aquarium...and to appreciate all of the process by which Nature does its work. And to make a "mental shift" to understand that everything we see in the aquarium is exactly what Nature intends.
I think we're starting to see a new emergence of a more "holistic" approach to aquarium keeping...a realization that we've done amazing things so far, keeping fishes and plants in a glass or acrylic box with applied technique and superior husbandry...but that there is tons of room to experiment and push the boundaries even further, by understanding and applying our knowledge of what happens in the real natural environment.
You're making mental shifts...accepting these processes and attempting to replicate the function of natural aquatic habitats in our aquariums by achieving a greater understanding of Nature in general.
Wow, as usual, I drifted into "Philosophical Mode" here.
So, yeah, that's all well and good, but which seed pods and leaves are acceptable for aquarium use, besides just the ones that we offer for sale?
I simply can't tell you!
Besides, should we assume that all botanical materials impart the same substances into the water? Damn, who could possibly know that for certain? Better to do your homework. If collecting the damn stuff is the easy part, shouldn't figuring out WTF they do be at least a tiny bit of a challenge? Yeah!
I suppose it starts with proper identification of what you're collecting, and understanding what your intent is when using botanical materials in your aquarium. For me, it's about fostering an ecology- and that ecology includes bacteria, various other microorganisms, and perhaps our most important friends, the fungi.
Yeah, you heard me. Fungi.
Fungi reproduce by releasing tiny spores that then germinate on new and hospitable surfaces (ie, pretty much anywhere they damn well please!). These aquatic fungi are involved in the decay of wood and leafy material. And of course, when you submerge terrestrial materials in water, growths of fungi tend to arise.
Anyone who's ever "cured" a piece of aquatic wood of almost any type for your aquarium can attest to this! It's absolutely pervasive in Nature, along with bacterial biofilms- an indespensible benefit to the higher aquatic organisms which reside in these aquatic habitats.
Fungi tend to colonize wood ( and by extension, botanical materials) because they offer them a lot of surface area to thrive and live out their life cycle. And cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin- the major components of wood and botanical materials- are degraded by fungi which posses enzymes that can digest these materials! Fungi are regarded by biologists to be the dominant organisms associated with decaying leaves in streams, so this gives you some idea as to why we see them in our aquariums, right?
And of course, fishes and invertebrates which live amongst and feed directly upon the fungi and decomposing leaves and botanicals contribute to the breakdown of these materials as well! Aquatic fungi can break down the leaf matrix and make the energy available to feeding animals in these habitats.
These bacteria and fungi are all participants in a rather grand process of nutrient utilization- both in Nature, and in our aquariums. And it all starts with adding botanicals and leaves to our systems. This is absolutely analogous to what happens in Nature.
When leaves enter tropical streams and other bodies of water, fungal colonization causes leaves to increase nitrogen content (because of fungal biomass) and leaf maceration. This is thought by aquatic ecologists to be evidence of microbial colonization. There are many different stages in the process, starting with the leaching of materials from the cells of the botanicals during initial submersion, in which soluble carbon compounds are liberated in the process. A rapid release of phosphorus accompanies this leaching.
Of course, the process ultimately leads to physical breakdown and/or fragmentation of the leaves and botanicals into smaller "pieces", which possess larger amounts of surface area for microbial attachment. Extensive ecological studies done by scientists specifically in regard to leaf litter have yielded a lot of information about this process.
The fungi known as aquatic hyphomycetes produce enzymes which cause leaf maceration, and in as little as 2 to 3 weeks, as much as 15% of the decomposing leaf biomass in many aquatic habitats is processed by fungi, according to one study I found.
In experiments carried out by aquatic ecologists in tropical forests in Venezuela, decomposition rates were really fast, with 50% of leaf mass loss in streams occurring in less than 10 days!
The ultimate result of this process is the transformation of what ecologists call "coarse particulate organic matter" (C.P.O.M.) into "fine particulate organic matter" (F.P.O.M.), which may constitute an important food source for other organisms we call “deposit feeders” (aquatic animals that feed on small pieces of organic matter that have drifted down through the water and settled on the substrate) and “filter feeders” (animals that feed by straining suspended organic matter and small food particles from water), as well as worms, planaria, and insects.
And of course, these organisms and their processes create not only the basis of a food web, but the development of an entire community of co-dependant organisms which work together to process nutrients and support life forms all along the chain. When we encourage, rather than remove these organisms when they appear, we're helping perpetuate these processes. I can't stress how important it is to let these various organisms multiply.
And, as I've mentioned numerous times here- we need to think about our relationship with detritus, decomposing botanical materials, and sediments in our tanks.
Yes, I'm asking you to not only "leave them be" -but to encourage their accumulation, to foster the development and prosperity of the organisms which "work" them.
Now, again, I have to at least ask the rather long question, "Are these things (detritus; decomposing materials) really problematic for a well-managed aquarium? Or, do they constitute an essential component of a closed aquatic ecosystem...One which can actually provide some benefits (ie; supplemental nutrition) for the resident fishes and the community of life forms which support them?"
I think that I know the answer...
Many of us have already made a mental shift which accepts the transient, subtle beauty of decomposing botanical materials, tinted water, biofilms, and the like, so it goes without saying that taking it a little further and allowing these materials to completely breakdown to serve as the substrate for our aquatic ecodivesity is simply the next iteration in the management of blackwater/brackish botanical method aquariums.
So, yeah- there IS a lot to consider when utilizing botanical materials in your aquarium. It's far, far beyond the idea of just "dumping and praying" that has been an unfortunate "model" for how to utilize them in our aquariums for many years. It's more than just aesthetics alone...the "functional aesthetic" mindset- facilitating ecological processes, while accepting the look and the appearance of various life forms which occur when terrestrial materials break down in our tanks is a fundamental shift in thinking.
By studying and encouraging the growth of this diversity of organisms, and creating a multi-faceted microcosm of life in our tanks, I believe that we are contributing to an exciting progression of the art and science of aquarium keeping!
Wow- I went from talking about a general classification system for botanical materials to the whole damn treatise on the botanical method approach once again...Okay, there's a whole lot there to unpack- drawing from a variety of scientific fields, such as biology, chemistry, and ecology, as well as from our everyday practices as aquarists.
And, because someone will inevitably ask about "tannins" in relationship to our botnaicals- the answer is, we still don't know exactly which tannins are imparted to the water by a specific botanical. And for that matter, we don't know which tannins provide what specific effects on fishes or their aquatic environment, and what concentrations are found in their natural habitats. It simply hasn't been studied, to the best of my knowledge.
And again, it's not necessarily that we are creating a new "thing"- we're simply seeing a correlation to the processes that we are fostering in our aquariums and what occurs in Nature, and realizing that we can embrace, study, and benefit from them in our aquarium work.
I think that there are so many different things that we can play with- and so many nuances that we can investigate and manipulate in our aquariums to influence fish health and spawning behavior, like changing botanical concentrations and such during various times of the year- recreating ephemeral aquatic systems and other unique environmental-themed displays, etc.
Yes, once again, a discussion about some esoteric features or attributes of botanicals ends up with me waxing philosophical about the ecology of the botanical method aquairum. It's such an important thing- developing an understanding about how something seemingly as inconsequential as which botanicals we choose to employ in our aquarium can influence such a wide range of factors.
Stay open to new ideas, experiences, and interpretations. Look to Nature as a key influence in your aquarium designs, and your selection of botanical materials...Share your revelations, thoughts, and experiences with other hobbyists. Enjoy the benefits of such experiments...
Stay enthralled. Stay creative. Stay open-minded. Stay intrigued...
And Stay Wet.