For as long as I’ve been plant keeping (my entire adult life), I’ve had an aloe plant. A lot of different aloe plants, actually — they’re easy to divide and fun to give away. Someplace in or near my kitchen (because their juice soothes minor burns) an aloe is always on standby.
Happily, I also love the way an aloe looks. And now that there are so many varieties available in plant shops, I’m tempted to start a collection.
There are over 400 types of aloes — some with little white whiskers, some with red, coppery leaves or pink-tipped ones, some growing in spirals, and some with octopus-like tentacles. There’s even an aloe vera tree from Madagascar that grows to eight feet! (Aloes grow outdoors as perennials in hot, dry climates.)
Aloes (easily identified by those little serrations along the leaves) are succulents, but they’re easier to grow than most succulents, I’ve found.
Their care in a nutshell: Think of them as desert plants that like plenty of light and an occasional soaking shower with dry spells between.
What do I need to know about transplanting an aloe vera plant?
• Aloes don’t need repotting very often. Repot when your aloe is rootbound (the pot is packed with roots) or when she has lots of little babies, or “pups” that you want to divide. (See below for directions on those.)
• Wider (rather than deeper) pots work well for aloes because the roots are kind of shallow. That’s not to say a big plant won’t eventually fill a big pot with roots. I can attest that it will!
• Since aloes detest soggy roots, I would avoid plastic pots. (While excess water will evaporate via an unglazed or terra cotta pot, a plastic pot will contain the water in the soil.) Another advantage is that ceramic or terra cotta pots are sturdier than plastic ones. Aloe plants can get a little top heavy and wobbly and can sometimes topple lightweight plastic pots.
• Make sure there’s a drainage hole in the pot. Because, again, you don’t want any extra water in the soil. This might be the most important tip for growing aloes!
• Aloes usually don’t have much of a stem, but when planting, plant the entire stem below the surface of the soil. The leaves should sit just above the top of the soil.
• Some sources (such as the Farmers’ Almanac) suggest not watering an aloe right after potting it. Instead, they suggest, let it nestle into its new pot and start to establish its roots for, say, about a week. Then water it. I’ve always watered aloes (like any plant) right after potting, but I’m going to give this method a try next time. If you do water your aloe after potting, just be sure to let it dry well before the next watering.
What’s the best soil for an aloe vera plant?
For your potting mix, choose something that drains well — something that has perlite and/or sand or another ingredient that allows the water to drain through. You can make your own by mixing about equal parts of sand and all-purpose potting soil. Or you can pick up a mix especially made for succulents and cacti.
How do I separate the baby aloes from the main plant?
This is the fun part! I once had an aloe that had so many pups I was able to divide them into little pots and give away 50 of them. (Aloes can get big and very generous!)
Let the pups get a pretty good size (at least three inches), so they have a good root system before venturing out on their own.
To separate the pups:
• Slide the entire plant out of its pot.
• Brush away the dirt.
• Gently pull the baby aloes apart. If they’re stubborn, you can cut them with a sharp knife or scissors. Make sure each pup has at least an inch (preferably more) of stem on it.
• Without potting, place the pups in a warm spot in indirect sunlight for a few days. During this time, they’ll form a protective callous where they were pulled apart or cut.
• When the callouses have formed, pot the pups and put in a sunny spot. You can pot a litter of pups together in one pot, if you like.
• Keep the soil dry for a week, then water.
How much light does my aloe vera plant need?
Being a succulent, your aloe will bask in bright light. If your aloe is getting leggy, it probably needs more light. Make it indirect, though, or you might burn its leaves. West and south windows with some protection from direct sun (like a sheer curtain) are usually ideal. If you notice the leaves starting to brown, you’ll want to move it to a less sunny spot.
Aloes are content indoors because they prefer temps between 55 and 80 degrees F. You can bring an aloe outside for a little summer vacation, but let it acclimate. Put it in a shady spot for a while, then move it to a sunnier one. (Again, watch for browning leaves.) Also be sure to bring your aloe indoors as soon as the temps begin to dip (say below 60, to be safe) at night.
How often should I water an aloe vera plant?
This is the only tricky part, and it’s not very tricky. Just remember that aloe roots do not want to stay wet. In fact, keeping its roots soggy is the sure way to kill one. The aloe is a desert plant with fleshy leaves that store water. So give it a nice desert rain shower, then let it dry.
How often to water depends on your soil and the pot. It might be every very couple of weeks, or even every month or more. I’ve always watered mine every week. (I like my plants to keep a schedule, like I do.) But I’ve learned they would be better off with less watering. (I think I get away with it because their terra cotta pots help them dry out.) Since doing this research, though, I’m going to let them go two weeks and just give them a better soaking when I do water them.
So there’s no hard and fast schedule to give you. You’ll need to let the soil be your guide.
How dry should I let the soil get?
You don’t want all of the soil to be bone dry, but it should be dry an inch or two below the surface before you water it. (Use the DIP test: Just stick your finger into the soil. An inch would be to your first knuckle past your fingernail, your distal inter-phalangeal joint, or DIP.)
You can water your aloe more in the summer and less (even every month or two) in the winter, when It’s resting.
Should I fertilize my aloe?
Aloes don’t need to be fertilized, but some of us hope (well against the odds) of getting one to bloom indoors. Most aloe houseplants won’t bloom — you’ll need to visit them in their outdoor warm climates to see an inflorescence (flower spike). But it’s not impossible, especially for older plants.
So, if you like, fertilize in spring and summer with a good houseplant formula (mixed half strength) once a month. Cut back on watering and don’t fertilize them in the fall or winter, when they’ll rest up, hopefully gathering energy to surprise you with a bloom some late winter or early spring.
Aloe to the rescue
Back to the kitchen. The fleshy juice inside the aloe plant is cooling and soothing for any minor burn or scrape. (I’ve used it on countless kitchen burns and a few sunburns, too.)
Choose a plump leaf and simply break or cut it off near the base. (It will heal itself.) Squeeze the juice from the inside of the leaf directly onto the troubled area. You can also slice the leaf lengthwise and lay it on top of the burn or scrape.
There are lots of terrific recipes for DIY aloe body products online. Most would require purchasing aloe gel (rather than decimating your plants). But here’s a recipe for an aloe and coconut body moisturizer that you can make using just one good-sized aloe leaf!