There’s nothing quite like setting up a new tank, everything looks spotless, bright and inviting. After a while things start to change, things grow where you don’t want them to grow and formally shiny decor items start to look a bit dull.
Most objects can be removed from the aquarium and cleaned with a little vinegar and warm water. However, both live plants and artificial plants can pose a challenge. But all is not lost, there are a few methods we can use to leave even delicate live plants spotlessly clean.
How to clean aquarium plants? Most debris and light algae can be cleaned from artificial and live plants by running a finger along the leaves and stems. More serious algae and dirt will require additional steps which we have outlined below.
Cleaning artificial aquarium plants
It should come as no surprise, but artificial plants are much easier to clean than their live counterparts. That said, they are not invulnerable and can be damaged by harsh chemicals or over-enthusiastic cleaning.
If you find that the finger brushing technique does not work on artificial plants, it is best to remove them from the tank so that you can more comfortably tackle dirt or algae. Before you start cleaning, check for any hitchhikers such as snails, fish or shrimp. A small jolt or push is normally enough to dislodge them in the tank.
You probably shouldn’t remove all the plants at once, it can cause stress for fish that like to hide in the foliage.
Once the artificial plants are removed from the tank and there are no more guests, we can begin the cleaning process. There are a number of cleaning methods which we have detailed below. The methods get harder and harder, so it’s best to start at the top and work your way down the list if you don’t get any success.
Clean running water
A stream of cool running water and vigorous scrubbing with your hands will work most of the time for dirt and limited algae growth. Avoid using soaps or cleaning agents, not only can these damage artificial plants, but they can also tend to stick to things much longer than intended and can end up poisoning your fish.
Don’t be afraid to use a nail on particularly stubborn stains and try to keep the plant under a stream of water while you clean, as this will make the cleaning process easier.
If that doesn’t work, it’s time to integrate some tools.
Seaweed pad and toothbrush
Algae can be particularly difficult to remove from artificial plants, so if you have any that refuse to budge, it’s time to get out an algae pad or a soft-bristled toothbrush (baby toothbrush).
The process is quite similar to the method above. Have a stream of running water and use the algae pad or toothbrush to clean stubborn algae stains, don’t forget all the nooks and crevices.
This method will work for 90% of dirty artificial plants, but if it doesn’t, we may need to loosen things up before we start working on it again.
Bring a kettle of water to a boil and in a bucket immerse your artificial plants in the freshly boiled water for 5-10 minutes. Please don’t do this for live plants!
After a few minutes submerged in very hot water, the seaweed will begin to soften, essentially cook. At this point it should be much easier to remove with an algae swab or toothbrush.
If however you are still unlucky, it may be time to introduce some chemicals.
Bleach and vinegar
Bleach is fantastic for cleaning, but you won’t want to use it cleanly. You will want to create a 10% solution, which is 1 part bleach to 9 parts water.
Pro tip: Buy the cheapest bleach possible, budget products work best, don’t buy gel bleach or anything fancy. Bleach should flow from its container like water.
Once you have prepared your 10% bleach solution, completely submerge your plants for at least 10 minutes. Once soaked for a good while, attack the algae again with an algae pad and it should come off fairly easily.
Rinse the plants thoroughly and let them dry completely before putting them back in the tank.
If you prefer not to use bleach, you can make a 10% vinegar solution and use it the same way as above. A word of warning, don’t mix bleach and vinegar, it creates an incredibly effective disinfectant, but also releases a bunch of toxic gases. It is better to avoid it.
Clean live aquarium plants
Cleaning live aquarium plants is a little trickier than artificial, but it’s certainly not impossible.
As with artificial plants, you will first try to remove any debris or algae while the plants are still in the aquarium. Brush off as much dirt as you can with your fingers if you’re unhappy with the results, then consider your options.
Further cleaning will require removing the plants from the aquarium which, depending on how established they are, could be a big headache. You may be better off removing particularly algae-infested leaves or opting for a longer-term slow fix detailed in our preventative section.
Remove and clean live aquarium plants
Please keep in mind that removing live plants from your aquarium may kill them, so weigh this against the benefits of clean plants.
You should never use common cleaning chemicals on your plants, soaps and sprays are more likely to kill the plant than do them any good. They also have a good chance of killing your fish.
If you want to remove your plants, only do a small amount at a time. Plants, especially living plants, are home to fish, snails, and shrimp. Removing too much at once can cause stress to your fish and ultimately long term damage. Also, living plants contribute to the nitrogen cycle in a tank, removing them for any amount of time can impact the cycle.
As with artificial plants, your first attempt at cleaning removed live plants should be under running water. This extra agitation can sometimes be enough to remove excess algae and dirt. If you are very careful, you can introduce an algae pad and work very gently on stubborn patches of algae.
Chances are this will leave algae behind, so you might want to consider using either hydrogen peroxide or a bleach bath.
Blanch live aquarium plants
Most of the time, a bleach bath will not cause permanent damage to the plants in your aquarium, but there is always a risk, especially with already weakened plants.
A 10% weak bleach solution should be used as for artificial plants. Allow live plants to sit in the bleach solution for 5-10 minutes. Once soaked, rinse the plants thoroughly and allow them to sit in a bucket of clean water for 24 hours to ensure that any excess bleach is removed.
After the 24 hour soak, the algae should be easier to remove and the plants can be returned to the aquarium.
Clean aquarium plants with hydrogen peroxide
Hydrogen peroxide is great for treating algae as well as bacteria, and we actually have a few treatment options. We can use it to treat the plants in the aquarium or we can take them out of the tank and use the hydrogen peroxide as a dip.
Treating Algae in an Aquarium With Hydrogen Peroxide
Hydrogen peroxide 3% H202 can be purchased online or at many pharmacies or supermarkets and it is an inexpensive solution.
To treat an entire tank, you are going to want to use between 10-30ml or 2-6 teaspoons per 50 liters or 15 gallons. Dose the tank once a day for 3 days then wait a few days, you should start to see the algae turn a lighter shade and die off. Once all the algae is gone, perform a 50% water change.
I would suggest starting with a lower dose and seeing what impact it has on the algae in your plants. You may notice your plants take on a lighter green hue, but they shouldn’t die.
Hydrogen Peroxide Aquarium Plant Dip
We can also use a 3% H202 solution as a bath to treat new plants as well as plants removed from your aquarium.
Immerse the plants in the solution for a maximum of 5 minutes then rinse them thoroughly with running water. Leaving plants too long can cause them to lose their color and take on a lighter shade.
Prevent Algae on Aquarium Plants
Preventing algae from taking over your plants is much easier than trying to deal with it afterwards. As part of your weekly maintenance, you should try to remove any algae spots as they appear. This will go a long way to avoiding drastic measures.
Adding carbon dioxide to your aquarium will also help reduce the chances of algae growth, as well as reducing or replacing your lighting.
Snails and shrimp like to eat algae, so investing in a few can have a serious impact on the algae covering your plants. It’s definitely easier than pulling the plants out of your tank.
If you’ve had success cleaning aquarium plants with a method we haven’t covered, please let us know in the comments below. We would like to update this article with your experiences, good or bad.