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How to Set up a Planted Tank in 7 Steps (with Photos)

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By Lindsey Stanton

Planted tropical fresh water aquarium low light_nektofadeev_shutterstock

Planted goldfish tanks sure are gorgeous, with both live plants and fish working together in a symbiotic relationship, each benefiting the other. It just gets better and better! But how do you get started? Today I’m going to help you learn just that!

How to Set up a Planted Tank:

29 Gallon Planted Tank Tutorial

Full Equipment Breakdown

Tank: SeaClear 29
Lighting: COODIA, 36″
Filter: BoxTech HOB
Tools: Aquascape kit
Substrate: Top soil, White feldspar sand, Silver Pearl Aquarium Gravel (2-4mm, 20 lbs)
Fertilizers: Root Development, Power Growth, Plant Strength, Colour Enhancer
Plants: Italian Spiralis Vals, Brazillian Pennywort, Rotala Rotundifolia, Amazon Sword, Ludwigia Repens, Bacopa Monnieri, Micro Sword (foreground)
Fauna: Calico veiltail goldfish (“Emporer”), Oranda veiltail goldfish (“Duke”), 6X Jumbo Amano Shrimp, 10X Olive Nerite Snails, 15X Young Mystery Snails

A few notes:

  • The cloudy water dissipated in a week (I didn’t thoroughly wash the gravel like I normally do.)
  • This setup is ideal for fancy goldfish. For slim-bodied fish, I would double the gravel cap to 3 inches and add a 1-inch layer of bentonite between the soil and gravel. You may also want to skip the carpet plants.
  • Fish were added the same day. Water quality was checked frequently and remained safe, no ammonia/nitrite spikes.
  • Soil was soaked for a week prior to adding it to the tank to remove tannins. Every other day I would drain and refill the soaking tub. This mineralizes the soil.
  • If ordering plants online like me, I found it helps to time things, so your plants come very close to the day you want to build your environment. It helps prevent stress from having them sitting in a bucket with no light or CO2.


I chose a fine gravel as the primary substrate. It is the ideal size to hold the plants down well but is too small to get stuck in their mouth. The substrate base consisted of a cosmetic barrier around the perimeter of the tank. I used the first bag of gravel to create the barrier around the front and sides.

This barrier was then lined with fine white sand to prevent soil & fertilizer from discoloring the gravel on the sides.

I recommend using 1″ soil to cap the fertilizers at the bottom, topped with 1″ sand or bentonite clay, then 2″ gravel to cap the soil. (This helps fertilizers from making a mess, especially during replanting.) For the fertilizers, you want to use enough to spread in a thin layer along the bottom of the tank up to double the depth where you want to plant.

To calculate how much fine gravel you need:

Aquarium length inches x width inches x desired depth inches divided by 32 = the weight you need (in pounds)

Goldfish in aquarium with green plants
Image Credit: Skumer, Shutterstock


I am not adding any CO2 to this tank. I run the lights on a 5-4-5 hour pattern to give the plants a break midday and let CO2 levels rise naturally. This is called the “siesta” method, as per Diana Walstad.

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Algae Control

There was a MAJOR diatom outbreak about a week after setup. The good news is my cleanup crew got it under control. Those consist of snails and shrimp.

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How to Set up a Planted Tank with Updates

Lighting: COODIA Full Spectrum 24 Watt LED, 36″ (12-15 hours per day)

Substrate: Sandastik white Feldspar sand, about 3/4 deep”

Hardscape: White river rocks


  • Java fern (3)
  • Anubias congensis (4)
  • Anubias Barteri (5)
  • Cabomba
  • Vallisneria Contortionist
  • Rotala magenta
  • Pennywort
  • Moneywort
  • Water Sprite
  • Ludwigia Repens

Plants are planted in white waterproof nylon fabric squares filled with organic potting mix, a bit bigger than the size of a golf ball—used a rubber band to secure. These bags are hidden behind rocks and midground plants. The plants are easy to reposition, and the goldfish won’t make a big mess with digging.

But they will have the nutrients and carbon they need from the soil. You could also use small glass vases instead of fabric and cap the soil with gravel, which could be easier to work with.


Tank: SeaClear 29 gallon acrylic aquarium


  • 1 calico Veiltail goldfish
  • 1 Oranda Veiltail goldfish
  • 10 nerite snails
  • 5 ramshorn snails
  • 15 melantho snails

The 7 Steps to Set up a Planted Tank

1. First I bagged up my rooting plants in soil

2. Empty Tank & Place in Rocks and Sand

I emptied the tank and placed the large rocks in a pleasing layout. Then I added the sand (which was still wet from me washing it, but it was easier to scoop handfuls). This helps it to look more natural, like the rocks are sticking up from a river bottom. Odd numbers look best, and staggering the rocks helps too. Adding a little water helps to smooth the sand evenly.

3. Time To Fill Up

Using a plastic bag prevents clouding the water. Tip: wash the sand first until it is not cloudy in under 60 seconds. As you can see, there is zero cloudiness in the water. Once it is 1/2 full, I placed the plants, added some smaller rocks in front for scale, and added the fish. (And connected the filter.) Now: Like every planted aquascape, it needs several months to mature before it really fills in with plant growth and looks its best.

[Edit: scroll all the way to the bottom to find the updates!]

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Reasons Behind What I Did

I chose a wide variety of plants in case the goldfish decide to munch on something. Lots of plants of different leaf sizes and colors add depth and interest; I was inspired by Dutch-style aquascapes (though I’m sure this is nowhere near close to one). Also, I did not use any driftwood or sharp stones. This is to be fancy-friendly. Foreground and midground plants, Java fern, and Anubias help hide the bags and do not require planted roots. This is to make it safe for the fancy goldfish.

I thought for sure the Water Sprite would be a goner with those goldies, but 2 weeks later, it had two huge new leaves growing out of it, and the fish haven’t nibbled on it once. The Rotala has really “blossomed” as well and turned much more peachy-pink. Why so many snails?

One main reason: Algae.

1 week later, I noticed the beginnings of some green string algae. 2 weeks later, brown algae reared its ugly head, and the string algae were multiplying rapidly. These can kill the plants. I tried Amano Shrimp, but they either got eaten or jumped out. But the snails eat both of these, and the goldfish can’t eat them.

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1 Month Update

Here we are at the 29-day mark:

Observations: Most of the plants have done well and are growing nicely, but challenges remain.

The Ludwigia did NOT like being all planted in one bag (there were a LOT of stems). Stems started turning black at the base and breaking off…possibly because it was too many plants. I now have lots of little tips scattered around in the sand that doesn’t have a good nutrient source.

Cabomba experienced a similar issue but is throwing roots just being wedged in the other plants. The bacopa doesn’t seem very happy. On the other hand: The Rotala has EXPLODED! I split that plant into two bags, so that might have something to do with it doing better than the Ludwigia.

Just look at how it’s opening up (above shot):

My nitrates consistently hit 20-30 ppm each week. So the color isn’t very red. But I like the pink and gold coloration better myself. The white sand is getting on my nerves a bit. I have a dark anaerobic pocket in one spot, possibly from too fine sand being too deep (probably should have stuck with 1/2″ instead).

The poop shows badly. It’s also kind of turning a bit brownish, possibly from my seemingly never-ending brown diatom battle. But I’m going to wait and see. On the bright side: Java fern is throwing off baby plants like there’s no tomorrow despite some green string algae making a home on the baby plant’s roots.

We’ll see what happens with the Pennywort, Bacopa, and Water Sprite (they seem to be a bit frozen in time to me).

Upcoming plans:
  • Add more ramshorn snails to help with the diatoms on the leaves of some of the plants.
  • Make the Ludwigia and Bacopa happier somehow
  • Explore an FDSB to reduce maintenance
  • Eventually, I’d like to totally remove the canister filter and switch to an internal pump

aquarium plant divider

2 Month Update

Wow, has the Rotala ever grown! The Pennywort has also reached the top of the tank and is becoming much bushier and more like a vine. Even the Bacopa looks a little fuller. The sand looks like it is getting quite discolored and is going from white to beige.  But for now, I’ve decided to leave it and just see what happens.

I have not changed the water in 3 weeks. Nitrates have not gone above 30ppm. Aside from a few bits of string algae here and there, the tank is pretty much algae-free. I attribute this to the nerite and ramshorn snails and (possibly) dosing with barley extract each week.

Upcoming Plans:
  • I really need to trim and replant the Rotala (haha)
  • Start decreasing the flow rate of the filter to gradually wean off of it entirely. #goals
  • The Vallisneria was damaged in shipping and has never really rebounded. I’ll probably have to move it out.

4 Month Update

Here we are 4 months later… FILTER FREE.

Yep, 100% plant-powered now. Aside from the airstone.

  • Completely removed canister filter, UV sterilizer, and attachments.
  • Added Elodea
  • Currently doing top-off only, no water changes. Nitrates remain around 20ppm.
  • Added mystery snails! Gold and ivory (you can’t see them in the photo they are hiding in the back haha)

We’ve even got an anubias bloom!

I am keeping the airstone as this tank is so heavily planted the CO2 levels rise quite a bit at night. Too much CO2 leads to oxygen deprivation. The algae in this tank is a bit annoying, but that could be because I need more nerites (some were donated to another tank).

The fish are happy, and the plants are exploding. It will be time for a trim soon.

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Further Reading

1. Choosing Your Flora

One of my planted goldfish tanks–Anubias, Myrio Green, Rotala Rotundifolia before I moved the white fish to my 29-gallon.

You’ve probably seen pictures of beautifully planted aquascapes that look like something out of a dream. They can take months to mature. Put a couple of goldfish in there, and in a week or so and they’ll mow down just about everything. Goldfish love soft, tender plants. So unless you manage to somehow get these plants to multiply faster than the goldfish will eat them, you’re buying some expensive goldfish salad!

What do you do? I recommend choosing plants goldfish WON’T eat. Admittedly, there are not tons. First, it’s a good idea to choose your goals before you choose your plants.

Do you want a bare-bottom, low-light tank with low-maintenance plants?

Anubias and Java fern are going to be good options, as they don’t require a substrate or added fertilizer.

Need something to remove nitrate?

You’ll want a fast-growing plant like Green Foxtail or Hornwort.

Want a heavily planted tank that looks like a jungle?

A combo of Vallisneria as a background plant plus Amazon swords in the mid-ground can help you achieve your goals. You’ll probably want to be sure to pick hardy, low-maintenance beginner plants that don’t have a lot of demands.

As the aquarist, it’s your aquarium and your rules. Pick what you love and what you think will work best for your setup! Small goldfish are less likely to destroy plants than big jumbo ones with massive mouths. Fancy goldfish also seem to be less destructive to some plants than slim-bodied ones.

Goldfishaquarium a fish on the background
Image Credit: Chaikom, Shutterstock

Some plants are nutrient hogs and can end up out-competing others for food. These are probably best kept by themselves. Also: What works for one person doesn’t work for everyone. My tip?

Start out with a wide variety of plants.

Not all plants may like your tank’s conditions, so if you put all your eggs in one basket and buy several plants of the same variety, and then the plants don’t like your water, you might lose everything. But having a variety will let you experiment with finding which ones really thrive.

Read MoreBest Plants for Goldfish

2. Lighting for Plants & Fish

Full-spectrum lighting is important to both fish and plant life. In goldfish, light is used for vitamin D production and skin pigmentation. Plants need it for growth and overall health. Without enough light, both your fish and plants will suffer. Many aquarium lamps need to be replaced yearly because the UV rays become less efficient. Not so with LED! A good quality LED light will give your tank what it needs until the bulbs physically burn out.

Read more here about choosing the proper goldfish light.

Goldfish in aquarium with green plants
Image Credit: dien, Shutterstock

How much light do I need?

Different plants have different light requirements. Some plants don’t need much at all, like Anubias and Java fern. Others get fried in high-intensity light, but most plants prefer a moderate to high amount of light. So how long you leave your light on during the day depends on what plants you have.

Typically, 8-12 hours a day is the norm. More light results in faster plant growth.


Use a large enough full-spectrum LED light for best results at 8-12 hours per day.

3. Fertilization

Plants need food, too! Without fertilizers, plants can show all kinds of problems, from poor growth to weird leaf issues.

Chemical Fertilization

In high-tech tanks, fertilization is supplied in the form of:

  1. Root tabs
  2. Liquid fertilizer dosing (usually used in combination with other fertilizers)
  3. Powdered nutrients

These are usually made of chemicals. Fish poop is cleaned out constantly, and no speck of dirt is allowed. And sure, you can have a beautiful, pristine tank with flourishing plants that way.

  • It’s expensive
  • It requires careful monitoring
  • It’s not really natural

Natural Fertilization

Do you know something? I’ve learned that fertilizing plants can be done naturally and for far less $$. Think about plants in the wild. They have what they need to flourish without anyone dumping in synthetic nutrients. It comes down to two organic food sources for them:

  1. Mulm/Fish waste
  2. Soil (yep, good ol’ dirt!)

Mulm is made of old fish food, rotting plants, fish poop, and basically dead stuff. As it settles around the plant roots, it brings them much-appreciated minerals and nutrients (as well as CO2). The plant takes this and turns it into energy for new growth.  Soil works in a similar way, and when it comes down to it, plants love growing in the dirt!

For naturally strong plant growth: Consider using either a freshwater deep sand bed for mulm diffusion or a tank with soil in the substrate (i.e. Walstad-style) or putting plants in glass jars/pots/bags full of soil like I did in the first tank I showed you. Both of these can eliminate the need for expensive fertilizers and CO2 units.

Get this: With enough plants, you can reduce or even eliminate your need for electrical filtration!


Plants need fertilizers to grow properly in some form or another.

goldfish eating_Daniel Kloe_shutterstock
Image Credit: Daniel Kloe, Shutterstock

4. CO2

Plants NEED CO2 to survive. It’s the #1 limiting factor when it comes to growth (source). Underwater, plants don’t have as much access to this as they do in the open air. Some people use expensive CO2 injection kits. And granted, it does work.

You can have a beautifully flourishing tank, but there is a dark side to this technology. Besides being costly, it can be very dangerous to your fish! Too much injected CO2 can cause oxygen deprivation and even death.  And there is a VERY fine line.

But if you don’t have enough CO2 in your tank, your plants will not flourish. And in the worst cases – they will die.  If you want to use them, by all means, go ahead. Lots of people do and have lovely planted tanks.

Good news: If you understand how underwater ecosystems work, you can harness natural sources of CO2 to give your plants what they need. Carbon is released through many decaying organic processes in the wild. Soil is an excellent source of CO2. So is decaying mulm, and in a goldfish tank, mulm is very abundant.

Using too much aeration/current in the water drives off CO2, so keeping the filter on the smaller side can help, as can not using an air stone. (Healthy plants supply lots of oxygen for your fish – while consuming the carbon.) Even very delicate, CO2-demanding plants have been known to thrive in a low-tech tank that contains soil!

The key is figuring out how to successfully merge soil with goldfish.


Adequate CO2 will help ensure good growth

5. Substrate

The substrate you choose for your planted goldfish tank is an important choice. If you want a bare-bottom tank, most plants are out of the question unless you put them in pots or glass jars. This can work very well. Plain ol’ gravel (with or without an undergravel filter) is often a recipe for plant disaster—unless you use pots or supplement with root tabs/other chemical fertilizers.

A cheaper and more natural route would be to add a soil layer below the gravel. Now the issue with gravel is it doesn’t support fine roots very well, and average pea-gravel can be a choking hazard for goldfish. I tried dirtying a tank with large gravel, but I was a bit disappointed. The gravel was too large to prevent the soil from penetrating all along the sides of the tank, where it remains looking disgusting. Large gravel also gives the tank the illusion of being smaller than it really is.

On the positive side, there were no choking issues, and it holds down the plants well. Instead? I recommend using “gravel,” that’s really more of a large-grain sand. CaribSea has a course, substantial sand called Peace River which is in between a fine sand and a gravel. It’s PERFECT for dirted or FDSB tanks!

That’s because it can hold down the dirt or allow mulm to effectively penetrate through to plant roots. Other course, sands can work in either a thin or a thick layer. The nice thing about planted tanks is the roots make having a deeper layer of sand possible by preventing hydrogen sulfide buildup.

You can also use the finer sands for cosmetics and plant in pots or stick to plants that don’t need to root.

  • Anubias
  • Java Fern
  • Hornwort
  • Other free-floating plants

Fine sands may require frequent vacuuming. I only have one display tank with fine sand that I vacuum often. Some goldfish keepers use something like Flourite or ADA Aquasoil. The thing is, it lowers the pH and can be hard to clean. I’m leery that the goldies will choke on it.

One of my planted tanks contains about 1.5″ layer of Seachem’s Flourite Black Sand. (Psst… it’s actually clay.) The finer sand is good for delicate roots, and the clay allows TONS of good bacteria to grow—even the kind that removes nitrates!

Related PostBest Substrate for Goldfish


Choose the appropriate substrate for the plants you intend to keep if not using pots.

Goldfish in aquarium
Image Credit: dien, Shutterstock

6. Thoughts on Carpets

Lush carpets of plants sure do make for a beautiful bottom on the tank. MOST plants that carpet will be an appetizer for your goldfish. I have talked to folks who have had success growing carpets of Dwarf Sagittaria with their goldfish. The key seems to be to grow the tank in for at least a month before adding fish. That way, the roots can get established and resist floating up when disturbed by the goldies.

Another option is several little Anubias nana petites glued to rocks and placed side by side until you can’t see the bottom. That can work on sand or bare-bottom setups. And they are removable (for maintenance).

aquarium castle
Image credit: Oleksandr Khalimonov, Shutterstock


My best tip for growing a carpet is to use soil and coarse sand. People worry about vacuuming a carpet. Trying to keep it all spick-n’-span. Fish mulm is plant fertilizer. Instead of fighting nature, harness its powers to work for you. These are natural processes that happen in the wild, and they can also work in a closed aquarium.

If the mulm is piling up to crazy amounts, a light surface sweep with the siphon may be called for. But the best part of having a planted tank is the plants can use this waste for growth. And it’s FREE!


Choose goldfish-friendly carpeting plants and accept you will not remove every speck of mulm.

7. Use Little Organisms

This is a little tip from me (at no charge.) Remember how I told you earlier to stop fighting nature? This goes for the “pests,” too. I’m talking about snails! Snails are AWESOME in the planted tank. I keep snails of all sorts in every single goldfish aquarium I have. Why? They play an important role in the health of my systems.

  • Eating algae (MAJOR benefit) and dead plant leaves
  • Breaking down waste in the tank (makes it easier for bacteria to process it) adds to tank stability
  • Their babies are nutritious fish food
  • Some breeds of snails (think Malaysian Trumpet) burrow in the substrate, diffusing nutrients to the plants.

Far be it from me to scheme on how to eradicate them using all manner of poison, traps, etc. I like to keep as many snails as possible! I even take their eggs and raise them in separate tanks or containers, so I have a continual supply.

goldfish and snails
Image Credit: Madhourse, Shutterstock

And I keep several kinds which do different things.

  • Nerites are perfect for glass cleaning and other broad, flat surfaces. Great for brown diatoms.
  • Ramshorns are great for polishing more delicate leaves and replenishing baby snails
  • Melatnos are fast-cruising algae destroyers that also assist in delicate leaves

Bonus: Watching snails is also relaxing ?

RelatedBest Snails for Goldfish

Any object or living creature that has been in a tank with other fish has the possibility to transmit disease. The more “harmless” hitchhikers like pond snails are common. While not as dangerous to your fish, they can quickly become an out-of-control (and tricky to eradicate) problem in your tank. Many sellers make sure to get rid of snails prior to selling their plants, but not all. But it gets worse: Parasites and their eggs can also be brought in with new plants. How do we make sure they are safe? You can do two things to ensure the plants are disease-free:

  1. Isolate the plant for 28 days minimum.  Without a host, parasites will die off.
  2. Use a 1-hour MinnFinn bath at regular strength to kill off parasites and most parasite eggs (washing the plant thoroughly in tank or tap water is also a good idea).  I have not tried this with all plant species, but it has never harmed any of the ones I tried it with.

Read More: How to Quarantine Aquarium Plants (or Snails)

Image By: Madhourse, Shutterstock

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Algae: The Nemesis

Unless you have a tank that’s all algae and no live plants, algae is bad. Not only can it look ugly. It KILLS plants. That includes brown diatoms (which technically are NOT algae). Algae suffocates plants by growing on their leaves.

Good news:

In a heavily planted tank with strong, healthy plants, algae can be greatly inhibited without the use of toxic algaecides. Snails are essential for keeping algae at bay, in my experience. So is making sure your plants have enough CO2 and nutrients to grow big and strong.

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Wrapping it All Up

I hope you found this article useful. Are you planning to set up a planted goldfish tank in the near future? Got some fun ideas or tips? Share them with me in the comments below (I love hearing from my readers)!

Featured Image Credit: nektofadeev, Shutterstock

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