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How To Clean Live Aquarium Plants – Methods, Algae Removal, And More

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Love the aesthetic of heavily planted aquariums? They’re an absolute treat to look at, but they can be intimidating if it’s your first time caring for aquatic plants. This guide will show you how to clean live aquarium plants and how you can get rid of excess algae and snail infestations in a planted tank.

You can clean live aquarium plants with household disinfectants that you probably already have on hand, such as vinegar, bleach, or hydrogen peroxide.

Aquatic plants are an awesome addition to any aquarium. Novice fishkeepers usually get them for how animated and more picturesque they make the tank look. But experienced aquarists know that there are many more perks that come with keeping live aquarium plants in your tank.

Live plants, if taken care of correctly, will do wonders for the water quality inside your mini underwater ecosystem, aiding in biofiltration and oxygenating the tank at the same time.

The downside is that every new plant you add to your tank can potentially carry pathogens (viruses, bacteria, fungi, parasites), which can wreak havoc in an enclosed habitat.

Let’s see how you can efficiently clean live aquarium plants before settling them into your planted tank and how to maintain the lush green aquatic garden inside your aquarium!

Prepping And Cleaning Sensitive Plants

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Glossostigma elatinoides

Hardy live aquarium plants can be cleaned using household cleaners, like bleach, vinegar, or hydrogen peroxide. You can also use diluted solutions of any of these disinfectants to sterilize your fish tank and fishkeeping equipment (heater, filter, fish nets, etc.).

All live plants can carry diseases and hitchhiking parasites, which are harder to get rid of than it is to prevent them from making their way into your fish tank. That’s why preventively sanitizing live aquarium plants is highly recommended.

However, there are some plant species that don’t handle chemical substances well, even in low concentrations. First, let’s talk about how you can prep sensitive plants before their initial set-up in your planted tank and how you can clean them when needed.

Set up a quarantine tank for new live aquarium plants

Just like you would quarantine new fish before adding them to a community tank, live aquarium plants can be kept in a quarantine tank and monitored for 2-4 weeks before getting planted in their forever home.

Quarantining new live plants is the safest way to make sure your plants don’t carry in harmful pathogens. So, if you’re not sure that the new plant you just bought can withstand a bleach solution dip, keeping it in a quarantine tank for starters is a fail-safe way to prevent putting your fish at risk.

Bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens usually die off in the 2 to 4-week quarantine period, as they don’t have any hosts to infect and live off of. 

Spot-clean live aquarium plants as needed

Once your aquatic plants are settled into your planted tank, you can spot clean them without having to remove them from the aquarium.

Of course, if you’re a live plant shows signs of a fungi infection (white fungus) or rotting, you should definitely remove it from your fish tank. Otherwise, well-established plants shouldn’t be removed from the aquarium.

They become a vital part of your tank’s biological balance, and even the critters (fish, snails, shrimp, etc.) in your aquarium get accustomed to them and can become stressed if too many plants are removed at the same time.

To spot clean a live aquarium plant, you can simply rub the leaves of your plants gently, removing dirt, debris, or algae whenever you notice visible build-ups. Your tank’s filtration system will take care of the rest.

Here’s how you can clean carpet plants in a planted tank:

 

There are, of course, more thorough plant cleaning options you can use that are safe for hardier live aquarium plants. You can also use the following cleaning methods to get rid of algae deposits that won’t just rub off, or if rinsing a live plant in plain water doesn’t get rid of accumulated dirt.

How To Clean Live Aquarium Plants With Bleach

Bleach dips for live aquarium plants should be your last resort for cleaning them. That is because even with a 10% bleach solution, plants will get damaged to some degree. Most plants will recover quickly after getting rinsed, planted, and fertilized.

Use a bleach solution to clean aquatic plants if you’re removing them from a disease-ridden tank or if you suspect they’re carrying parasites. For extra caution, you can quarantine the plants for 2 weeks after a bleach soak.

Bleach dips are also recommended if there are stubborn patches of algae build-up on a plant’s leaves that you can’t simply dislodge using your fingers.

Here are the steps to follow when cleaning live aquarium plants with bleach:

  • Add 1 cup of bleach to 19 cups of clean water in a clean container, and mix.
  • Use regular bleach, unscented, that pours out of the container like water would.
    Gel bleach isn’t recommended.
  • Place your aquatic plant into the bleach solution, and let it soak between 2 to 5 minutes.
  • Rinse thoroughly with clean water, gently enough to not damage the plant.
  • Even the toughest algae patches should easily rub off of the plant’s leaves at this point.
  • To make sure there’s no bleach residue left on the live plant, soak it in clean water for 10-15 minutes before planting it inside your fish tank.

Depending on the species of live aquarium plant you’re trying to clean this way, you might be unfortunate enough to lose some plants. If you already know that the plant is higher-maintenance and generally more delicate, let it soak for no longer than 2 minutes in the bleach solution.

How To Clean Live Aquarium Plants With Vinegar

how to clean live aquarium plants with vinegar

A vinegar dip, or soak, depending on the amount of build-up detritus/algae you see on the leaves of the plant, can sometimes be enough to sanitize a live aquarium plant.

Here are the steps to follow when using vinegar as your plant cleaner of choice:

  • Add 1 cup of vinegar to 1 gallon of clean water to a clean container, and mix.
  • You can use regular cooking vinegar with a 5-9% acetic acid concentration.
  • Place the live aquarium plant you want to clean into the vinegar solution and let it soak for 5 minutes.
  • After 5 minutes, rinse the plant gently but thoroughly, using clean water.

Some sensitive aquatic plants might not do well after a dip in the vinegar solution, so try to only use this cleaning method with hardier plants or as a last resort.

Caution: Don’t overdo it with these household cleaners. There’s no plant dirty enough that would require you to blend bleach and vinegar in the same plant-cleaning solution.

This mix releases harmful toxic vapors and isn’t proven to be more effective in disinfecting surfaces.

How To Clean Live Aquarium Plants With Hydrogen Peroxide

Similar to the bleach solution, a hydrogen peroxide solution should only be used to clean hardy aquarium plants. It can kill delicate live plants, like moss balls or carpet plants. 

Some aquarium plants can get damaged irreversibly if their roots soak up too much hydrogen peroxide, so as a precaution, you should avoid having their roots submerged into the hydrogen peroxide solution.

Here are the steps to follow when cleaning live aquarium plants with hydrogen peroxide:

  • Add 1 teaspoon (5ml) of 3% hydrogen peroxide to 1 gallon of water in a clean container, and mix.
  • Dip a new live plant into the solution for 30 seconds to sanitize it, or let soak for 5 minutes if you’re cleaning the plant of algae/parasites.
  • Rinse the plant thoroughly using clean water, rubbing off any remaining algae patches if necessary. They should be easy to clean off after a 5-minute hydrogen peroxide soak.

Like any oxidizing agent, hydrogen peroxide can cause damages if you let the plant soak for too long. Otherwise, this household disinfectant is perfectly safe to use, as there’s no risk of residue harm. Hydrogen peroxide turns into water and oxygen after 24 hours.

Other Methods To Safely Clean Live Aquarium Plants

anubias nana
Anubias barteri

There are more ways to clean aquatic plants at home, but they’re less popular than bleach, vinegar, or hydrogen peroxide dips.

Potassium permanganate

Potassium permanganate is an oxidizing agent that destroys most cells, making it an excellent disinfectant if you’re dealing with a parasite infestation in a planted tank. Here’s how you can use potassium permanganate to clean live aquarium plants:

  • Add enough potassium permanganate into a container filled with clean water so that the water turns pink. The amount needed to make this happen will depend on the quality of your water, but the resulting solution should turn pink relatively quickly if you’ve added enough potassium permanganate.
  • Place the live plant into the potassium permanganate solution, and let it soak for 10-15 minutes.
  • Rinse thoroughly using clean water and soak for an additional 15 minutes in clean water to remove any residue.

Aquarium salt

Dipping live aquarium plants in a saltwater solution (aquarium salts + clean water) is one of the best plant cleaning methods if you’re dealing with a snail infestation.

This dip won’t just get rid of any snails that might be trying to hitchhike their way into your fish tank, but it will also remove snail eggs from the plant as well. Here’s how you do it:

  • Add 1 cup of aquarium salt to 1 gallon of clean water into a clean container, and mix.
  • Dip your live plant in the saltwater solution for 15-30 seconds, careful not to submerge the plant’s roots. Remove any adult snails that you can visibly see making a run for it.
  • Rinse the plant thoroughly using clean fresh water.

How To Clean Snails Off Of Aquarium Plants

If you’re noticing a snail infestation in your planted tank, there are some snail-control methods you can try out to get the snail population under control before resorting to a saltwater dip.

  • Avoid overfeeding your fish

Excessive amounts of leftover food are one of the most common triggers for snail infestations.

A few (cleaner) snails, such as nerite snails, are actually beneficial in a fish tank, as they’re avid algae eaters and can help you prevent algae overgrowth on both live plants and in your fish tank in general.

  • Use a leaf trap to remove adult snails

A lettuce leaf, or sometimes even a cucumber slice, will attract enough snails so that you can get rid of half of the snail population in your fish tank in just one go.

Place your veggie trap inside your planted tank, and monitor it for 10-15 minutes. Remove it while the snails are feasting, and discard it.

  • Keep snail-eating fish inside your planted tank

Live aquarium plants can get torn to shreds if your planted tank is overrun by a snail infestation.

To prevent this from happening, consider introducing a few snail-eaters to your tank to help keep the snail population under control. Here are a few fish species up for the task:

  • Clown Loaches;
  • Gouramis;
  • Cory Catfish;
  • Bettas;
  • Green Spotted Puffers.

If your live aquarium plants are getting severely damaged by the snails inside your tank, removing them from the aquarium and cleaning them using a saltwater dip might be the fastest way to deal with a snail infestation. A bleach solution soak works well too, for hardier aquatic plants.

How To Clean Algae Off Of Aquarium Plants

Before getting into algae cleaning methods, let’s address the underlying factors that can cause algae growth to spike:

  • Phosphate levels and water quality

If you suddenly see algae overgrowth, it’s worth testing your tank water’s phosphate levels using a phosphate test kit. Phosphates are usually consumed by plants, and their presence is normal in an aquarium, as they are byproducts of the phosphorus cycle (decomposition of waste).

In a well-established planted tank, the phosphate level should be as close to zero as possible. If testing your water reveals a higher number, excess phosphates are most likely the reason behind the algae overgrowth in your aquarium.

To help keep phosphate levels down, and especially if this is a recurring problem, you can set up a macroalgae refugium, which has the benefit of keeping both phosphates and nitrates in check.

  • Too much exposure to light

Having your planted tank exposed to direct sunlight or just keeping the aquarium’s lights on too much can trigger a spike in algae growth.

Your plants need sufficient light to thrive, but there’s a fine balance between keeping your live aquarium plants healthy and inadvertently causing algae to take over your tank.

Keep the lights on for no more than 10-12 hours a day, and move the aquarium if it’s getting too much sunlight exposure.

  • Weak filtering system | Not enough circulation

If there’s not enough water circulation in your tank, or if your planted aquarium’s filtering system isn’t strong enough, algae will have an easier time flourishing on the leaves of your live plants.

There are several ways to clean algae off of live aquarium plants:

  • Spot clean the leaves, removing visible algae patches as needed.
  • Use an algae pad to gently dislodge tougher algae deposits on a live plant.
  • Add algae-eaters to your planted tank (nerite snails, Siamese algae eaters, tangs, plecos).
  • Remove your plants from the tank, and give them a bleach/hydrogen peroxide dip as a last resort.

Benefits Of Having Aquarium Plants In Your Tank

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Whether or not you choose to keep live aquarium plants in your tank is a subjective choice. Some aquarists simply consider planted aquariums too much of a hassle, while other fishkeepers see a tank without plants as a sterile, lifeless habitat.

Live aquatic plants, just like pet fish, have variable levels of hardiness depending on the species you choose to keep. Some are more high-maintenance than others, but most aquarium plants have the same basic needs.

Here’s a list of water conditions and set-up requirements that most live aquarium plants need to thrive in a planted tank:

Temperature74-80°F

Most aquatic plants will need a heater, but some will do well in a coldwater tank (Anubias barteri).

pH6.5-7.8 for most live aquarium plants.

Can vary from one species to another.

SubstrateNecessary for rooted plants.

Quartz gravel and lime-free substrates are ideal.

LightTo grow live aquarium plants, you need full-spectrum light in the form of T8 or T5 fluorescent bulbs.

Planted tank lights should be kept on a diurnal schedule (10-12 hours of light).

FertilizersA freshwater plant fertilizer will supply your plants with extra nutrients for faster growth and less yellowing leaves.

Start adding plant fertilizers as soon as you introduce plants into your fish tank.

Water hardness3-8 dGH
Nitrates<10ppm
Phosphates<0.5ppm
Filtration | CirculationBoth filtration and circulation are necessary for a planted tank.

A steady water current will evenly distribute plant fertilizers, prevent algae overgrowth, and space out plant cleaning sessions.

 

So, are live aquarium plants worth the effort?

Listed below are the benefits that aquatic plants bring to the table in a planted tank. Decide for yourself!

  • Improved oxygenation

Live aquarium plants will convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, perpetually improving oxygenation inside your planted tank. This will benefit both fish and your aquarium’s water quality (stabilized pH, better circulation/filtration).

  • Stress inhibitors for your pet fish

Aquatic plants make awesome hiding spots for shy (or vulnerable) fish inside a tank. Many pet fish use plants as refuge areas, resting spots, and even to explore for entertainment.

With plenty of room to hide and rest, stress levels among your fish will drop significantly.  And keeping stress levels low is the best way to keep fish healthy in captivity!

  • Algae control

By consuming excess nitrates and phosphates, live plants will inhibit algae overgrowth, practically competing with algae for nutrients.

  • Excellent spawning sites

Fish that lay eggs will often use plants as spawning sites, which provide both stability (eggs stick to the leaves easily) and protection. Live aquatic plants can also help shield the newborns of livebearers and the free-swimming fry of egg-laying fish.

  • Food source for herbivores

Lots of omnivorous/herbivorous fish will nibble on live aquarium plants, some eating the tiny microorganisms that live on plant leaves, and some feasting on the plants themselves.

Conclusion

Get into the habit of either quarantining live aquarium plants or using a diluted disinfectant solution to sanitize them before adding them to your fish tanks.

You’ll avoid exposing your pet fish to the pathogens that live plants can carry with them during transfers. Prevention will require significantly less effort than dealing with a disease/parasite outbreak in a fully stocked community tank.

Once established, most live aquarium plants are easy to clean and care for, as long as you meet their most basic needs for light, fertilizer, and decent water quality.


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