Should You Remove Decomposing Aquarium Leaves?

Leaf litter and aquarium botanicals in a blackwater aquarium by Betta Botanicals.
Oak Twigs and Old Aquarium Leaves at Betta Botanicals.

By now you have probably come to realize that botanical method aquariums seem to rewrite the handbook of aquarium keeping. On our social media we have recently discussed this profound methodology of not touching the substrate, and I would love to bring up another hotly debated topic: Should you remove the decomposing leaf litter materials and replace them with a fresh batch?

If you want the short answer, do not remove the decomposing aquarium leaves!


@bettabotanicals Do you remove them or leave them in? #bettabotanicals #botanicalstyleaquarium ♬ original sound - 🕷Daycore ver.🕷


Decomposing leaf litter in a blackwater aquarium by Betta Botanicals.
Decomposing old aquarium leaves in a botanical method aquarium.

Why You Should Use Dried and Naturally Fallen Leaf Litter

The aquarium botanicals we use in the hobby are naturally fallen... which is so important because it means the plants have pulled the naturally occuring sugars/saps and other compounds leaving behind a leaf that is largely just its structural fibers. Technically just hemicellulose, cellulose, lignins and other fibers.

Which begs the questions. Do decaying plants increase ammonia levels? Not in our experience, and not in levels high enough to measure on our API test kit. These materials might produce ammonia/ium, but it's quickly absorbed by the phytoplankton, biofilms, or aquarium plants growing in the system. Yes. Algae could be your friend here.


Betta albimarginata amongst leaf litter in a blackwater aquarium by Betta Botanicals.
Betta Albimarginata in a botanical aquarium.


Is Detritus Beneficial to Aquariums?

The cellulose and hemicellulose left behind by these broken down aquarium leaves helps to form our favorite part of botanical aquariums. DETRITUS. Detritus helps to do many things in the aquarium, and I highly recommend reading the chapter on it in Diana Walstad's Ecology of the Planted Aquarium. This detritus contains very little compounds which might degrade the water quality, but when it comes to food sources for bacteria/fungi/crustaceans, detritus is a gold mine! ...a brown gold mine... you understand what I mean.

Detritus in a blackwater aquarium with aquarium botanicals by Betta Botanicals.\
Detritus and Casuarina Cones in a blackwater botanical aquarium.


Will Detritus Benefit an Aquarium?

Detritus can help process elements in the water column to make them more available to our plants and detritus can bind with toxic metals and lock them away in the substrate. It's pretty cool stuff. If you've ever thought to yourself, "who eats detritus?" the answer is the bacteria, fungi and tiny microfauna living in the aquarium. 


Betta Macrostoma in a blackwater botanical aquarium by Betta Botanicals.
Betta Macrostoma in a blackwater aquarium.


Can You Remove the Detritus in an Aquarium?

Now, I understand that detritus is not for everyone, and I have to admit that once in a while I do remove a pile or two of it, and if you want to remove it you can. Ways to get rid of detritus in the aquarium can be as simple as siphoning it out... but a cooler, more fun way, is to use a type of bacteria. Our friend Purple Non-Sulfur Bacteria. Which consumes detritus both in the presence of light on the surface of your gravel, and deep in the sand bed in the realms where oxygen is too low for respiration to occur. It's fun stuff, and shrimp go crazy eating it when you get it growing on the surface of your aquarium.


So there's the long winded explanation. We recommend leaving the leaves in to get the most benefits from them. When it's time to replenish the leaves, simply add more on top of the old. If you chose to take them out, that's okay too! simply siphon them out or grab them with your hand.

When setting up your next aquarium we recommend using leaf litter to help the process along. We've found it to be most beneficial.

I hope this blog post helps you take beh-ttah care of your tanks!




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