When you’re setting up your goldfish tank, you’re faced with an important choice:

“Live or plastic plants?”

Which one is better, and why?

In today’s post, we compare the advantages and disadvantages of both options – and give our verdict at the end.

The Advantages of Going with Live Plants

Pros:

  • Beautiful – I think you’ll agree with me that plants can take just about any tank a “level up.”  A relatively boring tank can be turned into something interesting and attractive just by adding a few choice live plants.
  • Mimics natural environment – Let’s face it, in the wild ponds and streams have plants, sometimes even lots of plants.  Goldfish are used to swimming through these and nibbling on them occasionally in search of food.  The more natural we make our fish’s environment, the healthier (and happier) they tend to be.
  • Never looks “fake” – You’ll never struggle with this problem for sure.
  • Shelter for eggs and fry – Goldfish especially tend to devour eggs within a few hours of laying them.  This can be frustrating for those who are trying to get their fish to breed or are interested in raising babies.  But live plants offer superior shelter for these eggs, protecting them from goldfish jaws and providing shelter for little fry as they mature.  An added bonus?  Plants provide micro particles of food for the babies to eat.
  • Removes toxins, including nitrate – Plants are nature’s water filter.  They love to eat toxins that are harmful to goldfish, including ammonia, nitrite, and most especially important: nitrATE.  The first two are easily dealt with by a decent filter, but nitrate is notoriously difficult to control without water changes.  Plants use nitrate as a food source and a heavily planted tank can go from high nitrates to very low nitrates in the right conditions.
  • Creates oxygen – We usually don’t think of this as being important, now that we have technology like airstones, pumps and filters.  But what about if the power goes out?  What if you go on vacation and the babysitter overfeeds?  What if you want to stock your tank on the heavier side?  Live plants help to pull up the slack when modern filtration doesn’t cut it.
  • Competes against algae – Many goldfish keepers struggle with some form of algae in their tanks, usually the unsightly brown algae but it can also be black or greenish.  Algae is simply an indicator that the tank is out of balance, usually with too much nutrients in the water.  Live plants help to process these nutrients and reduce their levels, starving out other unwanted plants such as algae.
  • Grows – Something that’s fun about live plants is how they grow.  You can start out with just a few stems of something and watch it flourish in a matter of months under the right conditions.  There’s something that’s rewarding about seeing a plant get bigger under your special care.

See Also: 5 Best Plants for Goldfish Aquariums

Cons:

  • Requires careful selection – Not just any beautiful plant will do! Most of these will end up as goldfish lunch if you don’t pick out the right variety to begin with.  Goldfish are extremely voracious and will gobble up just about any green thing they can find – unless it is tough enough or grows fast enough to endure their abuse.
  • Sometimes requires more care – If your tank doesn’t supply enough nutrients, sometimes you have to supplement.  I supplement anyway for the sake of my goldfish so that’s not something that’s a big deal to me.
  • Usually needs to be quarantined – Plants can transmit diseases from the seller’s tank.  Quarantining plants can be done by dipping them in solutions of parasite and bacteria-killing substances, such as potassium permangenate, bleach or hydrogen peroxide, or through simple isolation for at least 28 days.  I use MinnFinn for one hour before transferring the plants to my tank if I want to do a quick QT.  Admittedly this is more risky than the 28 day isolation method.  Some people might not want to have to deal with this.
  • May contain snails – Usually these are so tiny that goldfish will quickly make a meal out of them.  Snail takeovers seem to be more of an issue in tanks where the fish don’t eat snails of any size, such as in most tropical tanks.  Getting rid of snails is best done manually by picking them off or the old trick of trapping them with a piece of cucumber or lettuce in a jar.  Some crush them and feed them to their fish.  Honestly, the tiny little hitchhiker snails are a part of natural life in the wild and as long as they are quarantined first, they won’t usually harm your fish or your tank.  They also have their own set of advantages, such as breaking down mulm and gross stuff that makes your tank dirty.  It’s an ecosystem in there!

Plastic Plant Advantages

Pros:

  • You pretty much can’t kill them – This one is pretty obvious.  You can use whatever meds you want in your tank without fear of harming them.  And don’t worry about fish eating them or them dying from lack of nutrients.
  • No fertilizing or lighting necessary – Yep, it doesn’t get much lower maintenance than a plastic aquarium plant.  I mean, these things don’t even need water, let alone fertilizer.
  • Come in a wide variety of colors – From hot pink to neon yellow to glow in the dark.  This definitely isn’t something most live plants offer.
  • No risk of disease or pests, easy to sterilize – In this respect they are the safer option.  If you want to pour strong chemical disinfecting agents on them, no big deal for the most part.

Cons:

  • Usually made of plastic – Your first thought might be, “Yeah, so what?”  Well, while plastic has the advantages mentioned above, have you ever thought about the possibility of them releasing microplastics into the water as they break down over time?  Certainly this can’t be good for your fish.  Not to mention who knows what kind of weird chemicals and dyes these plastics contain, maybe even BPA (which could potentially mess with your fish’s reproductive system). Some suppliers offer silk plants, but these really fray and fall apart quickly when kept under water in my experience.
  • Looks fake – It’s difficult to find a fake plant that looks real.  And that fake-ness often inevitably adds a layer of “tacky” to the aesthetic of the aquarium.
  • Do not help to clean the water – Don’t look for help on this one from your plastic plant! :)
  • Do not create oxygen – No matter how many you add…
  • Do not grow – It will stay the same exact size pretty much for ever.  No joy of finding new stems.
  • Prone to fading, algae & discoloration over time – When I used to keep plastic plants this was one thing that always bugged me. It didn’t seem like more than a few months went by before they faded considerably from how they used to look.  Cleaning off algae was also a big pain.
  • Not natural for goldfish – It’s pretty questionable if goldfish even appreciate them.  Most certainly will not protect young fry or eggs in the event that your fish spawn.

Our Verdict

As someone who has tried both routes, I definitely think that live plants outweigh fake ones when it comes to a planted goldfish aquarium.

The advantages are just too good to pass up.

What about you?

Which do you prefer, and why?

Leave your feedback below to share your thoughts!