New aquariums always look great, but like everything that is lived in, over time that changes. Many items can be removed and scrubbed, but one challenge that we all face is cleaning plants without damaging them. Live plants, in particular, can be difficult to clean, but even artificial plants can be troublesome to restore to their original attractive state. Follow these steps to keep your real or artificial plants healthy and attractive.
Artificial plants are easier to clean due to the fact that they can't be killed. However, that doesn't mean they can't be damaged by chemicals or rigorous scrubbing. Particles of debris that fall on plants can often be dislodged by simply shaking the plant gently or using your fingers to brush them off. Particles that continue to cling to artificial plants can usually be washed off by removing the plant from the tank and rinsing them in clear water. If that does not remove the particles, gently scrub with an aquarium safe algae pad. Take care to avoid the use of anything with soaps or chemicals, as even a small amount of residue can be harmful or lethal to fish.
What is generally the biggest challenge to remove is algae overgrowth. Some types of algae will slip off with just a gentle rub, but other types are more stubborn. Hair or beard algae are particularly difficult to remove.
If scrubbing with a pad or scrubber does not remove the algae, the next step is to use a 10% bleach solution to soak the plants. Keep in mind that bleach can affect the plant colors, particularly brightly colored plants. To minimize that, closely monitor the length of time you bleach the plant. Ten minutes is all that should be needed to kill the algae.
If you have brightly colored plants you can try a five-minute soak to minimize the effect of the bleach. You will still have to scrub the algae residue with a clean algae pad, but most or all of it should come off after a single ten-minute bleach soak. After soaking and scrubbing, rinse the plants well in clear water and allow them to completely air dry before returning them to the tank. The air drying helps remove any residual bleach solution.
Live plants are not quite as simple to clean as plastic or silk plants because they can be damaged or killed in the process. However, they are still cleaned in much the same way as artificial plants. Ordinary debris should simply be brushed or very gently rubbed off, while the plant remains in place in the aquarium. If there is a lot of algae overgrowth, the plant can be removed and scrubbed by hand. Often a gentle scrub will remove the algae. If it doesn't, live plants can be bleached. That may sound extreme, but plants with extreme algae overgrowth will probably die anyway, so a short bleach can be worth an attempt, rather than toss the plant entirely.
Use a 10% bleach solution, but never soak live plants in bleach for more than five minutes tops, less if the plants are delicate species.
After soaking, remove the plants from the bleach solution and rub the leaves gently to dislodge the algae. Next submerge the plants in a bucket of clean, conditioned water, and allow them to soak for another ten minutes or so (timing is not critical at this stage). Rinse them well before returning them to the tank. It is possible that some plants may be lost via this method, but generally, if that happens those plants were already too overgrown with algae to survive anyway. The best approach with live plants is to address algae growth as soon as it's spotted, as it generally can be rubbed off without even removing the plant from the tank.
As with most problems, prevention is easier than waiting and dealing with the problem when it becomes more severe. Once each week, reach in the tank and gently shake your plants to dislodge debris.
If you notice algae beginning to grow, attempt to gently rub it off without removing the plant from the tank. If it doesn't come off, remove the plant and scrub it a bit more vigorously. Odds are it will come off without any other steps needed. It's not difficult to do, and by addressing problems early on, your plants can remain attractive for a long time.