Aloe vera has a mixed reputation: some aloe parents can do no wrong, while others feel they can’t do anything right (and have many dead aloes to prove it). What’s weird is that the aloe-killers among us might have the ‘greenest’ thumbs. I used to be in the green-thumbed aloe-killer camp, but after lots of research, trial and error I’ve unearthed several simple tricks to keep aloes happy. Whichever group you belong to, your aloes will thank you – and reward you – for reading this Aloe-Killer’s Guide to Thriving Aloe Vera Plants!
Are you ready to help your aloes grow like mad and produce a bunch of aloe babies? Let’s dig in!
The first step to understanding your green friend is to learn its origins – its native habitat. You may have plucked your baby from the shelf of a home goods store, but that’s not what we’re talking about.
Aloes originated in South Africa. Picture sunny, hot dry days and sandy, red soils cracked and thirsting for the infrequent blessing of rain. This environment is harsh for many people and plants, but this is exactly the context where aloes adapted to flourish.
So, here is the first insight – aloes like it tough. They thrive on droughts, soak up simmering heat and don’t care for rich, fertile soils.
This is where good-intentioned, hyper-involved plant parents get off to a bad start with aloes. Aloes just don’t want the kind of attentive care and common enjoyments that most other plants eat up. However, it’s important not to go extreme with the neglect either!
Water Control is Key
The leading cause of aloe demise is too much water. What throws aloe parents for a loop is that watering frequency is just a small part of the equation! Most of the advice that follows pertains to keeping water levels in your aloe’s potting mix exactly right.
How Frequently Should I Water My Aloe?
You’re going to love this answer: it depends! Not helpful, I know. I will unpack that. But! This is an important point here. It’s really key to water your aloe based on when it needs it and not based on a schedule. The better question to ask is: How do I know when my aloe wants water?
3 Signs Your Aloe Wants a Drink
1. The pinch test: Give a few of your aloe leaves a light squeeze. How firm does the leaf feel? Is there a little give when you pinch? Aloe leaves are basically water reservoirs, like the humps on a camel’s back. When the leaves lose some firmness, this indicates that the plant is using its water reserves and will want a drink sometime soon. Don’t wait until the aloe uses so much of its reserves that the leaves start to flop over or bend in the middle. To stick with the metaphor: water before you have floppy camel humps! At first the pinch test may be a difficult way to gauge the right moment to water, but it is the most accurate measure and you will get a feel for it after a few water cycles!
2. The finger test: Poke a finger into the soil a few inches down. Dry as a bone? Water immediately if the leaves look floppy. If the leaves are fine, wait a few days to give your aloe a period of complete drought, then water.
3. The looky-loo: When in doubt, pull it out! Wait, that sounds wrong… Um, if you are more of an eyes-on kind of person you can pull your aloe out of its pot to see if the soil is completely dry. This is also a great opportunity to see how the root system is doing (more on roots later).
The Gist of Watering
Air humidity, ambient temperature, pot, soil mix, root system and sunlight – all of these factors combine to impact how often an aloe is watered. As a general guide, aloes like water every one to three weeks in summer and less frequently in winter when aloes go dormant and do not put energy into new growth.
Potting Mix: The Keeper of Water
The potting medium your aloe lives in determines how much moisture is retained after a watering. Regular potting mix or garden soil holds onto water like a sponge. If you think back to its native habitat, that’s not what aloe wants!
Aloes like a sandy potting mix with great drainage. Store-bought cactus or succulent mixes work quite well, but there may be room for improvement. If you notice the potting medium holding onto a lot of water for days, amend the soil with materials like coarse builder’s sand*, chicken grit, perlite or pumice to improve drainage and provide a lighter, airier space for aloe roots. Experiment with different potting mixes to find the combination that works best!
* Avoid fine grain sand, like play sand
5 Keys to Picking the Perfect Pot
Now here is a factor you may have overlooked: the material, size and shape of your pot plays a huge role in regulating water!
1. Plastic vs. Terracotta: If you live in a cool and humid climate you likely struggle with soil holding too much water. In this case, terracotta will make an excellent pot because its porous nature will wick away extra moisture sitting in the soil. If you live in a hot and dry environment where soil dries out fast, non-porous pots like plastic work best.
2. Go wide, not deep: Aloes have shallow root systems that like to stretch out and don’t do much downward exploration. Pick a pot that is wider than it is deep to match that growth habit. Deep pots are a one-way ticket to root rot town. If there are no roots at the bottom of the pot, the moisture in that soil will not be consumed by the aloe and bing-bam-boom you’ve got root rot!
3. Keep it cozy: Aloes like to be a bit pot-bound. The roots of your aloe should take up about half the pot, by volume to keep a cozy environment for the roots. This also helps prevent overwatering, because there is just a small amount of soil to hold on to moisture.
4. Let it drain: Drainage holes are key because pooling water will be the death of your aloe. I know, often the prettiest pots don’t have holes. But for the sake of your aloe, either drill a hole in the pot with a diamond-tipped drill bit or save it for another plant that likes wet soil.
5. Leave room for pups: With this guide in hand, there is no doubt you are going to have a happy aloe – and happy aloes like to have pups (little aloe babies)! Leave some space for aloe babies to emerge by choosing a pot that is a little wider than the current plant needs.
Aloes Like it Hot – but Not Too Hot!
Aloes are happiest in 55 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit (13 to 27 degrees Celsius) and live natively in USDA hardiness zones 9 through 11. If you live in cooler climates, aloes will be happy indoors all year round. When the weather warms up you may be tempted to bring your aloe outside for a summer vacation.
If you do bring your aloe outside, be sure to make it a gradual transition over the span of a week (starting your aloe off in a shadier and cooler location to mimic its indoor environment) and monitor how your aloe responds. A quick change in sunlight and temperature exposure from bringing your aloe outdoors can shock and kill your aloe: summer vacation can quickly turn into death in paradise. Your aloe’s final destination outdoors should provide bright indirect sun throughout the day, and potentially several hours of direct sun in the morning (depending on your aloe’s unique preferences).
The Sun Burn Remedy that Gets Sun Burns!?
It’s true – aloes can get sun burns! Aloes absolutely love bright sun, but it can become too much of a good thing. Set up indoor aloes around south-facing windows, but don’t let the leaves directly touch the glass to keep them safe. Window glass can intensify sun beams and sizzle aloe leaves.
If you notice your aloe leaves turn pale, orange or brown it’s likely that your aloe is getting too much sun — but don’t fret! There is a simple solution: relocate your aloe to a shadier spot. Jasmine Rosie from the gardenstead succulent group did exactly this when she noticed her aloes turning orange. Her aloe not only bounced back, but is doing better than ever!
If you don’t have an abundance of light, that’s okay — I don’t either and I grow aloes anyway! You’ll notice that aloes with less-than-optimal light will grow leggier and floppier leaves, but the plant will continue to live and grow. If you want the best for your aloe, consider popping a grow light over it to make up for the lack of natural rays.
Aloe’s Got 99 Problems but Fertilizer Ain’t One
Perhaps after reading all this you’re starting to feel like aloes are a bit finicky. Thankfully, when it comes to fertilizing, aloes are low-key. Aloes don’t need any fertilizer, but if you want to give your aloe a jolt of energy to kick off the growing season, you can supply it with a phosphorus-heavy, water-based fertilizer at half strength once a year in spring (try saying that ten times fast!). A houseplant fertilizer with a ratio around 10-40-10 (nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium) should do the trick.
Say Aloe to My Little Friend!
Forming a friendly relationship with your plants is all about understanding who they are and what they need.
That’s why, at gardenstead, we believe that anyone armed with the right tips and an experimental mindset can keep their plants happy and thriving – and aloe is not an exception to that!
Now that you’ve got all the dirt and details on how to make aloes happy, go forth and make friends with aloes! They are a good buddy when you get to know them and have lots to give back. What exactly do aloes have to offer you? Stay tuned for our next article on Twelve Magnificent Uses for Aloe, and How to Harvest It.
And if this article was a wake-up call that your aloe needs to be repotted, we’ve got you covered with a guide to repotting and propagating aloes (coming soon!).