How to Clean Aquarium Plants: Easy Steps for Live & Artificial Plants

There’s nothing quite like setting up a new tank, everything looks spotless, bright and inviting. After some time things begin to change, stuff grows where you don’t want it to grow and formally bright decor items start to look a little dull.

Most items can be removed from the aquarium and scrubbed clean with a bit of vinegar and some warm water. However, both live plants and artificial plants can pose a challenge. But not all is 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 both artificial and live plants by running a finger along the leaves and stems. More serious algae and dirt will require additional steps which we’ve laid out below.

Cleaning Aquarium Artificial Plants

It should come as no surprise, but artificial plants are far easier to clean compared to their living counterparts. Having said that, they aren’t invulnerable and can be damaged with harsh chemicals or overenthusiastic cleaning.

If you find the finger brushing technique is not working on the artificial plants, it’s best to remove them from the tank so you can tackle the dirt or algae more comfortably. Before you begin cleaning, check for any hitchhikers such as snails, fish or shrimp. A little shake or prod is normally enough to dislodge them back into the tank.

You probably shouldn’t remove all plants at the same time, this can cause stress to fish that like to hide in foliage.

Once the artificial plants are removed from the tank and there are no guests we can begin the cleaning process. There are a number of methods of cleaning which we’ve detailed below. The methods escalate in harshness, so it’s best to start at the top and work your way down the list if you’re not having any success.

Clean Running Water

A stream of fresh running water and a vigorous rub with your hands will work most of the time for dirt and limited algae growth. Avoid using any soaps or cleaning agents, not only can this damage the artificial plants, but they can tend to stick to things far longer than you expect 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 as you’re cleaning as this will help with the cleaning process.

If this doesn’t work, then it’s time to incorporate some tools.

Algae Pad & Toothbrush

Algae can be especially difficult to remove from artificial plants, so if you have some which are refusing to budge, then it’s time to bust out an algae pad or a soft-bristled toothbrush (baby toothbrush).

The process is pretty similar to the above method. Have a stream of running water and use the algae pad or toothbrush to work any stubborn algae spots, don’t forget about all the nooks and crevices.

This method will work for 90% of dirty artificial plants, but if it doesn’t, then we may need to loosen things up before we begin working on it again.

Boiling Water

Bring a kettle of water to the boil and in a bucket submerge your artificial plants in the freshly boiled water for 5 – 10 minutes. Please don’t do this to live plants!

After a few minutes submerged in very hot water, algae will begin to soften up, essentially become cooked. At this point, it should be much easier to remove with an Algae pad or toothbrush.

If however you’re still not having any luck, then it might be time to introduce some chemicals.

Bleach & Vinegar

Bleach is fantastic at cleaning, but you’re not going to want to use it neat. You’ll want to create a 10% solution, which is 1 part bleach to 9 parts of water.

Pro Tip: Buy the cheapest bleach you can, the budget stuff works best, don’t buy gel bleaches or anything fancy. The bleach should pour out of its container like water.

Once you’ve made up your 10% bleach solution, fully submerge your plants for at least 10 minutes. Once soaked for a good amount of time tackle the algae with an algae pad again and it should come away quite easily.

Rinse the plants thoroughly and allow them to completely dry before returning to the tank.

If you’d rather not use bleach, you can make up a 10% vinegar solution and use it in the same way as above. Word of warning, don’t mix bleach and vinegar, doing so creates a fantastically effective disinfectant, but also releases a bunch of toxic gases. It’s best avoided.

Cleaning Live Aquarium Plants

Cleaning live aquarium plants is a little trickier than artificial, but it’s certainly not impossible.

As with artificial plants, you’re first going to want to try and remove any debris or algae while the plants are still in the aquarium. Brush as much dirt off as you can using your fingers if you’re not happy with the results then consider your options.

Additional cleaning will require removing the plants from the aquarium, which depending on how well established they are might be a big headache. You might be better of removing especially algae infested leaves or opting for a longer term slow solution detailed in our preventative section.

Removing and Cleaning Live Aquarium Plants

Please bear in mind that removing live plants from your aquarium risks killing them, so weigh that 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 rather than do them any good. They also have a good chance of killing your fish as well.

If you want to proceed with removing your plants, then only do a small amount at a time. Plants, especially live plants, are homes to fish, snails, and shrimp, removing too many at a time can cause stress to your fish and ultimately long term harm. Additionally, live plants help with the nitrogen cycle in a tank, removing them for any length 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’re very careful, you can introduce a algae pad and very gently work at stubborn algae patches.

Chances are this will leave some algae behind so you may wish to proceed to consider either hydrogen peroxide or bleach bath.

Bleach Live Aquarium Plants

Most of the time a bleach bath is not going to cause any permanent damage to your aquarium plants, but there is always a risk, especially with plants that are already weakened.

A weak 10% bleach solution should be used as with the artificial plants. Let the live plants sit in the bleach solution for between 5 and 10 minutes. Once soaked rinse the plants thoroughly and allow them to sit in a bucket of clean water for 24 hours to ensure all excess bleach is removed.

After the 24 hour soak, the algae should be easier to remove and the plants can be moved back into the aquarium.

Cleaning Aquarium Plants With Hydrogen Peroxide

Hydrogen peroxide is excellent at treating algae as well as bacteria, and we actually have a couple of options for treatment. We can use it to treat the plants within the aquarium or we can remove them from the tank and use the hydrogen peroxide as a dip.

Treating Algae in an Aquarium with Hydrogen Peroxide

3% H202 Hydrogen peroxide can be bought online or at many chemists or supermarkets and it’s an inexpensive solution.

To treat a whole tank, you’re going to want to use between 10 – 30 ml or 2 – 6 teaspoons per 50 liters or 15 gallons. Dose the tank once a day for 3 days and then wait a few days, you should start to see the algae turn a lighter shade and die off. Once all the algae has gone complete a 50% water change.

I would suggest starting with a lower dosage and seeing what impact that has on the algae on your plants. You may notice your plants turn a lighter shade of green, but they shouldn’t die.

Hydrogen Peroxide Aquarium Plant Dip

We can also use 3% H202 solution as a bath for treating new plants as well as plants removed from your aquarium

Submerge the plants in the solution for a maximum of 5 minutes and then thoroughly rinse them in running water. Leaving the plants in too long may cause them to lose color and turn a lighter shade.

Preventing Algae on Aquarium Plants

Preventing algae from taking hold of your plants is far easier than trying to treat them afterward. As part of your weekly maintenance, you should make an attempt to remove any spots of algae 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 taking hold, as well as reducing or replacing your lighting.

Snails and shrimp like to eat algae, so investing in a few can make a serious impact on any algae coating your plants. It’s certainly easier than removing the plants from your tank.

If you’ve had success cleaning aquarium plants with a method we’ve not covered, then please let us know in the comments below. We’d love to update this article with your experiences, good or bad.

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