Most of us are familiar with aloe—as a medicinal, as a decorative plant, and occasionally as an ingredient in a food recipe. Aloe is a fairly common plant in many gardens, and is especially popular among folks who garden in containers. And while aloe is a popular plant with a great many uses, it’s often misunderstood and may even seem daunting to a beginner. Never fear—we at Gardzen are here to demystify this beautiful plant. So, let’s dig in and learn a bit more about this fascinating plant, and how growing and caring for your aloe plant isn’t as difficult as some folks might think.
What is Aloe, Exactly?
“Aloe” actually refer to a family of closely related plants, with Aloe vera being the most popular. Other varietals, like Aloe ferox are also found in garden centers and plant collections around the US and Canada. (A quick note: the maguey plant, common in Texas and northeastern Mexico, is sometimes referred to as “American aloe” but is actually an unrelated plant.) Real aloes are native to arid parts of Africa and the Arabian peninsula, and have become naturalized in many other places around the world. Aloe prefers a hot, dry-ish climate with sandy soil, and will thrive outdoors in many places that offer those conditions.
A quick safety note: aloes often feature spines or spikes on the edges of their leaves, and can be a little rough on human hands. Make sure you wear gloves while handling aloes of all varietals, just to be on the safe side!
Growing Aloe at Home
Aloe’s native environment naturally shapes how we grow it at home. Like many similar plants, aloe does best in containers with a loose, sandy soil—a cactus or succulent mix works best. Unlike many other container plants, aloe doesn’t need a lot of water, and this informs how we plant them as well. Aloes do best in a porous or breathable container—terra cotta or fabric containers--rather than a plastic one. This allows the roots to breath and keep the plant from becoming too waterlogged. As for container size, that depends on how big you want your aloe to grow, but we recommend at least a 2-3 gallon container for your aloe.
Watering Aloe Plants
As for watering: unlike many patio or container plants, aloe doesn’t require much water. Most aloe plants need to be watered two or three times a month, with a deep watering each time. A good rule of thumb is to allow the top third of the potting soil to dry out before watering again—EG, if you have 6 inches of soil, let the top 2 inches dry out before watering again. Over-watering can cause as many problems as under-watering, so be careful and pay attention to the plant. Aloes are pretty hardy, so the plant will teach you what it needs with time. Aloe thrives in temperatures between 55 and 80F/13 and 27C, so the indoor temperatures of your home are likely fine and your outdoor temperatures should be good during at least part of the year.
Separating and Propagating Aloe Plants
Eventually, every aloe plant owner faces the need to separate, divide, and propagate aloe plants. This has to do with how aloes reproduce. While aloes do flower and produce seed under the right conditions, they most often propagate offsets or “aloe pups”. Mature aloe plants will grow a new plant with a distinct crown, which grows off of the main root of the mother plant. These can be easily separated with a bit of care, and re-planted in similar conditions to the mother plant. Here’s roughly how it works:
- First, figure out where your pup attaches to the mother plant. While some pups do separate on their own, some maintain a stem/root attachment to the mother plant. You can find this by digging gently in the soil between the pup and the mother plant until you locate this connection. Cut the root or stem connecting the two with a pair of sharp scissors or garden shears, being careful to avoid excess damage to the roots of either plant!
- After gently removing your pup from the soil of the mother plant—and filling the hole in with similar soil!—let the pup rest out of soil for a few days if you had to cut it away from the mother plant. This allows the cut to harden over and heal, which prevents the pup from developing root rot when placed into its new home.
- Once the pups have healed a bit and formed callouses of dry material over the cut, place them in similar containers and soil that housed the mother plant. Place the new container in a warm, sunny place.
- Wait at least a few days, or preferably a week, to water your new aloe plant!
Aloes aren’t prone to transplant shock—again, these are hardy plants—but a bit of care does deliver best results when separating and propagating pups. One mature aloe plant can produce many, many pups per year under the right conditions, and they need to be removed to avoid overcrowding. So—what to do with them? All we can tell you there is that we’ve never had anyone refuse the gift of an aloe plant, so feel free to spread them around your friends, neighbors, and loved ones!
How to Get Aloe Plants to Flower
While mature aloes do in fact flower occasionally by producing a tall flower spike with a burst of colorful flowers at the top, the reality is that it’s fairly difficult to get aloe to flower under home conditions. Aloes require nearly-ideal conditions to flower, so if you want to try the experiment of getting your aloe to bloom you’ll need to provide as much light as possible, keep temperatures ideally between 70-80F/21-27C, and be very careful with how much you water them. They’ll also need a dormancy period of slightly cooler temperatures and less water in the fall and winter, further complicating things.
To be honest: we’ve never gotten an aloe to flower. So if you have, please let us know what helped you do it, and what the secret was!
In conclusion: aloes are for everyone, and these handsome, useful plants are a great addition to any garden space. With a little love—and moving the containers indoors during cold weather—an aloe plant can last for years and add an interesting piece to your garden. If you have questions about growing aloes, either get in touch via email or social media and we’ll do our best to answer them. If you’ve had some experience with aloes, share your tips in the comments section! We love to hear from you!