8 Mistakes You Might Be Making With Your Aloe Vera Plants
Aloe Vera is a pretty tolerant and low-maintenance plant. But there are some mistakes that many gardeners make when growing them both indoors and outdoors. In this article, gardening expert Emily Horn walks through some of the top mistakes new gardeners make when growing this popular succulent.
Aloe vera is one of the most popular houseplants in the U.S. One of the reasons for such admiration is its low maintenance reputation and forgiving nature to misguided care. It also has many medicinal uses, such as soothing sunburn.
Aloe is a desert succulent and prefers to be left alone for the most part. Put it in the right amount of light, water when needed, keep out of draughts, and give it the right container and soil, and voila! Once established, it is a “set it and forget it” type of plant.
Although referred to as the “plant of immortality” due to its health benefits, improper techniques can lead to the plant’s own mortality. Let’s look at the most common mistakes made when growing an aloe vera plant and how to remedy them.
Overwatering is the #1 reason for cacti and succulent death, hands down. And I guarantee the owners were only doing what they thought was right. Water is crucial for its survival. But there is a right way and a wrong way to water your plant.
You can determine if an aloe vera plant has been overwatered in several ways. The leaves and stems of the aloe plant look swollen, almost as if they are overfilled. Upon touch, the leaves may burst open, oozing out the leaf contents.
If stem tissue is impacted, the collapse of the stem may happen with the result of the entire plant falling into a heap. Leaf yellowing and leaf drop are common.
If you are brave, you can smell the soil. Healthy soil smells, well, earthy or like mushrooms/umami. Overwatered soil smells stagnant, musty, or sewage-like.
If you are even braver, invert the pot and look at the aloe’s roots. Healthy roots are plump, white, and oftentimes contain tiny hairs. Roots on a plant that is overwatered have turned to mush, often being a brown/gray/black color.
Underwatering your aloe can be hard on your plant. While trying to conserve the little bit of water its leaves still contain, the aloe plant begins to shut down essential plant processes, specifically photosynthesis.
Without photosynthesis, food production has ceased. Then the dominoes begin to fall…no food, no growth, stressed out plants, more prone to insect and disease infestation, and early demise.
Symptoms of underwatered aloe plants include tough, grayish-looking leaves and leaves may have a wrinkly appearance. Root damage from a lack of water is also present if the roots look orange-brown in color and are shriveled or crispy.
How to Water
Okay, overwatering and underwatering are both aloe mistakes to avoid. So, how exactly should you water aloe vera?
Watering plants is not an exact science. So many environmental factors contribute to whether a plant needs to be watered. Even working at the university, it’s difficult to break the thought process of many researchers that “It’s Tuesday; time to water.” No, it’s not. Let’s look at the proper way to water your aloe vera or any plant for that matter.
Step 1. Determine if the Plant Needs to be Watered
Buy a water meter, lift the pot, check for signs of wilting, stick your fingers way down in the pot and see how wet the soil is at your fingertips. What does the water meter say? Is the pot lightweight or heavy? Is the plant wilting because of lack of water or is there something else contributing to the wilting? Can you feel dampness at your fingertips?
It’s fine to check your plant weekly to see if it needs water. It may need it. It may not. But checking won’t hurt. If you are ever in doubt, skip or delay watering. A plant can recover much easier from drying out a bit than from staying too wet.
Step 2. Use Tepid Water
Once you’ve decided to water your aloe, use tepid water. Not too hot, not too cold. Hot water can damage plant tissues and so can cold water. I equate it to jumping into a scalding hot or icy cold shower. Your body goes through some shock with the extreme temperatures, and your plant is no different.
Water from the sink should be just fine. If you want, you can also use filtered water. Just make sure there aren’t any excessive minerals or additives to the water before using it to water plants.
Step 3. Water From the Top or Bottom
You can water from the top by pouring water into the pot. Or set your plant in a container of water, allowing the water to get soaked up from the bottom. Either method is fine, but the result is the same. You want to thoroughly water your aloe, from top to bottom, or bottom to top depending on which way you choose.
If top watering, you want the water to run through the soil, with any excess water draining out of the holes of your container.
If bottom watering, make sure the top surface gets wet. This may take a while since you’re working against gravity. When the surface is wet, you know the entire soil profile has been watered.
Too Little Sunlight
All plants need light to make food, and aloe vera is no exception. But different plants need different light intensities to thrive. If placed in an area with suboptimal light levels, the plant will continue to live, but may not be healthy, leaving it susceptible to pests and diseases.
This succulent prefers bright, indirect sunlight. When placed in a location with low light, such as a north-facing window, aloe will begin displaying a different growth pattern compared to aloe receiving stronger lighting. Characteristics of growing under low light include elongated stems, drooping leaves, and an overall leggy appearance.
Too Much Sunlight
Even though it’s a desert plant, it cannot be in direct sunlight either. Under desert conditions, aloe only grows to a maximum of 2 feet, so it’s rather short compared to its neighbors. Larger cacti and succulents would provide a slight shade or filtered sunlight to the aloe.
If placed in full direct sunlight, it will get sunburned. (Oh, the irony!) Sunburn symptoms include leaves becoming yellow, red, or orange in color, the leaves may appear wilted despite having adequate water, and leaf tips may brown and get dry and crunchy.
A location with bright light, such as a south or west-facing window, is the best scenario for your aloe, so long as your aloe isn’t sitting on the windowsill receiving direct sun rays.
If you choose to take your aloe vera outside in the summer months, be sure to acclimate your plant before exposing it to the hot, summer sun. Not acclimating the plant is a common mistake, and can result in a cooked plant. Over the course of 7-10 days, slowly expose your aloe to more light every 2-3 days. This will help prevent sunburn.
Remember that direct sunlight is still detrimental to aloe even outdoors, so provide a break from the summer heat and sun. Find a location that provides respite from those intense midday conditions.
Aloe vera like it warm. How warm? Between 50-80° F. Aloe can adapt to different temperatures just fine, although adapting to heat is easier on the aloe plant than adapting to cold temperatures.
When temperatures begin to dip below 50°F, desert plants begin to get unhappy. Leaf colors can change to yellow, show brown-black irregular spotting and may begin to droop slightly. Go below 40°F and your aloe is done for.
Depending on how close to a window your aloe resides when indoors, it could be exposed to low temperatures at night during the winter months. If your aloe sits between curtains and the window, or even touches the window, the temperature could get too low and cause tissue damage. Also, if your aloe is located near an exterior door, the cold drafts that come in when the door gets opened can damage the aloe as well.
Keep your aloe in a brightly lit spot away from any drafts from windows, doors, and furnace vents. This will help stabilize the environmental conditions.
Aloe vera seems to prefer neglected soils. Neglected soils are mixes that contain very low nutrient levels. The number of organic materials found in the potting mix itself is enough to sustain the healthy growth of your aloe plant.
But if you decide to supplement your plant’s diet with some additional fertilizer, here are a few tips on understanding fertilizer basics.
Fertilizers can be applied in a few different ways. It can be mixed with water to create a solution used to water the plants or may be used as a spray to apply to their leaves.
Some fertilizers are slow-release and are either mixed in the media during potting or sprinkled on the soil surface.
There are also fertilizer spikes and sticks that place concentrated fertilizer into the soil to slowly release over time.
Avoiding any concentrated sources of fertilizer. Because of the frequency, or lack thereof, of watering, these concentrated salts could cause root damage by burning delicate root tissues.
Direct Leaf or Foliar Applications
Foliar applications of fertilizers should be avoided to prevent damage to the leaf surfaces from residual salts. With the physical make-up of succulent leaves, they may not even penetrate the leaf’s surface to be utilized by the plant.
The timing of fertilization is important. Plants need nutrients during times of active growth. This is from fall to spring. There is no need to fertilize it while it’s resting in the summer.
Using the Wrong Container
So, you’ve found the “perfect” container for your plant. It matches the décor of your living space to a tee. You pot up your plant and set it in the “perfect” spot. You water the aloe and leave it alone.
Two weeks later, the aloe is in a downhill spiral. Leaves are squishy to the touch; some leaves are falling off the stem and there is a funky smell coming from the soil. What is going on? You pick up the container for closer inspection and notice there are no drainage holes on the bottom.
Drainage is an absolute necessity for plants, especially plants native to desert areas like aloe vera. There are only a handful of houseplants that can tolerate being in the water all the time (like the Peace Lily) without drowning.
Without drainage of excess water, your plant is deprived of much-needed oxygen at the root level. Roots require oxygen to transport nutrients to various parts of the plant. If roots cannot do their job, the overall system fails, which results in damage to the plant, or at worst, death.
The size of the container relative to the size of the plant is also important. If a plant is potted in a container much larger than the plant itself, there will be an excessive amount of potting mix in the pot not being used.
When the plant is watered, the plant takes up all the water it needs, but the excess surrounding soil will remain wet because the water has nowhere to go. As your aloe sits in this wet soil, the environment is prime for root rot and fungal pathogens to take hold.
When you select your container, pick a container that is one size larger than what your plant is currently living in. For example, if your aloe plant is growing in an 8” pot, you will want to repot it into a 10” pot (yes, that’s a 2” difference, but that’s the next size up, they go by 2s). This will allow the plant to grow and expand but prevent it from sitting in cold wet soil between waterings.
Or if you have a large pot you’d like to use, you can always plant more than one plant in the container. More plants in the pot will be using the water, and it will not be allowed to sit for too long. Be sure to pick companion plants that have similar light, water, and temperature preferences if potting a variety of plants in the same pot.
Using the Wrong Potting Mix
Picking the right potting mix is as important as picking the correct container. Aloe vera is going to want well-draining soil. If there is a commercial potting mix specifically formulated for cacti and succulents, it will have the correct ratios of compostable materials as well as other additives to promote drainage, which your aloe will like. Here’s what to look for:
This would include items like peat moss, composted manures, leaf humus, and other plant-based material. These ingredients retain moisture and as they decompose, provide nutrients to plants. Typically, these compose about 1/3 of the potting mix.
This includes items like sand, perlite, pumice, and gravel. This is what is going to provide pore space in the soil profile. Pore spaces are holes within the soil. This promotes drainage and healthy root development. These materials compose roughly 2/3 of the mix in various quantities and combinations depending on the manufacturer.
If you are adventurous, you can always make your own potting mix using the above materials. Your local garden center will have each of the components available in small quantities for home use.
It may seem daunting to care for aloe vera at home, but really and truly, aloe is one of the easiest houseplants to care for. As long as you provide bright sunlight, water when it’s needed, average household temperatures, and the right soil in a draining container, your aloe growing adventure should be a great success.