Aloe Vera Plant Care: Easy Tips To Grow & Harvest Your Aloe
So, you've just bought a new aloe vera plant—congratulations! You're the proud new parent of a versatile, medicinal plant that's been used and admired for thousands of years. Furthermore, this tropical succulent is easy to care for—as long as you know the basics. To get you started, we spoke to plant expert Nick Cutsumpas about the best practices for aloe vera plant care.
Growing aloe indoors.
If this is your first aloe, you'll be glad to know that it "is one of the most self-sufficient plants to grow indoors," says Cutsumpas. It comes down to creating the right conditions for your beloved succulent:
Tools you need
You'll need the following supplies:
- Aloe plant: You can find aloe plants at nurseries, floral shops, and hardware stores.
- Pot with drainage holes: "Although it's possible to grow healthy plants in pots without drainage holes, the aloe will appreciate as much drainage as you can provide," notes Cutsumpas.
- Plant saucer: This is a shallow dish that's placed under a pot, which will protect your interior surfaces from water.
- Succulent soil mix: For an aloe plant, a loose succulent mix works best.
- Lava rocks: Lava rocks help drain water, so they're usually added to the bottom of pots without holes. Yet, "even with pots with drainage holes, I still add a 1- to 2-inch-layer of porous lava rocks to the bottom to prevent water from building up around the roots," says Cutsumpas.
Put your aloe in a bright, sunny spot. Keep it out of excess direct sunlight, which can dry it out too much. (Kind of ironic for a plant that soothes sunburns, right?) "I keep mine a few feet away from south-facing window to avoid [this]," shares Cutsumpas.
You'll also want to give the plant a good soak every two to three weeks (i.e., water deeply but sparingly). The exact frequency will change with the seasons; you'll need to water less frequently in the winter. Regardless, allow "the water to completely drain from the pot and [ensure] that the soil dries out completely before the next watering," says Cutsumpas. This is key for preventing root rot, which is extra-harmful for moisture-sensitive plants like aloe.
Growing aloe outdoors.
Caring for aloe outdoors is a bit more complex. Usually, it's only recommended if you live in a certain climate—here's what you should keep in mind:
Tools you need
Outdoors, a potted aloe plant essentially requires the same tools as an indoor plant: pot with drainage holes, plant saucer, succulent soil mix, and lava rocks. But if you live in a warm and dry climate year-round—and you have a yard with rocky or sandy soil—you can plant the aloe in the ground.
Before moving your aloe outside, consider where you live. Aloe plants are highly sensitive to the cold. According to The Farmer's Almanac, it prefers temperatures between 55 and 80°F.
Specifically, it thrives outside year-round in Zones 8 to 11. (To determine what zone you live in, check out the USDA Plant Hardiness Map.) If you don't live in an aloe-friendly area, "you can bring your aloe outside in the summer months to enjoy the heat," says Cutsumpas. "However, if your environment is rainy, your aloe may get too much water if you're not diligent about bringing it inside before storms," he adds. Similarly, you'll need to bring it inside on cooler summer nights. This back-and-forth can be risky, so keeping your aloe inside is generally the best choice.
If you must move your aloe plant outside, avoid immediately placing it in direct light. Slowly move it closer to avoid stressing it out.
The do's and don'ts of aloe plant care.
Follow these tips to keep your aloe healthy and well:
Do: Keep in the sun.
Aloe craves bright, indirect sunlight. You can tell your plant isn't getting enough light if it's "leggy" (tall and wiry) instead of lush and full, says Cutsumpas. This is a sign that your aloe is searching for more light, causing it to lose its strong foundation. To fix this, Cutsumpas recommends moving it closer to the window, changing locations, or using a grow light during the winter.
On the other hand, if your plant is overexposed, it might develop dryness and brown spots on the leaves, explains Cutsumpas. "This can also be due to extreme heat if the plant is too close to a hot window, so pull the plant back a few feet and monitor your watering schedule carefully to ensure it is getting enough H2O," he says.
While it might be tempting to shower your aloe with love, try your best to avoid overwatering it. "Aloe are low-maintenance succulents, and they thrive without much attention," notes Cutsumpas. "So, take a deep breath, trust the plant process, and let your plants do their thing."
If your aloe is overwatered, it will develop droopy, mushy-looking leaves. This can also happen if it's in the wrong soil, which brings us to our next point...
Do: Use the right soil.
Soil can retain or drain water, so it's important to use the right kind. Aloe plants need well-draining soil in order to avoid root rot and wilting. A loose succulent potting mix—made of perlite, sand, or lava rock (or all three)—is typically recommended.
How to harvest your aloe.
To harvest aloe, cut the thickest leaf at the base the plant. Next, "cut that leaf into two or three equal pieces," explain Cutsumpas, then "let it soak in water for 10 to 20 minutes before filleting the pieces and scraping out the meat inside." From there, you use it topically—just be sure to follow the best practices for aloe vera gel storage.
If you'd like to eat the gel, you'll have to take some extra precautions. "Consuming aloe without harvesting it properly can cause some nausea and digestive issues, due to the latex coating underneath the skin called aloin. "The chances of this will increase if your aloe is not thick and ripe with the nutritious gel, so be careful before you decide to eat it," warns Cutsumpas.
To avoid releasing the aloin, avoid squeezing out the gel with your hands. Instead, use a spoon to carefully scrape it out.
Under the right conditions, your aloe may sprout little babies around the mother plant. "Once these reach 3 to 4 inches in height, use a sharp knife to cut at the bottom of the root, then place them in soil or water to grow new roots of their own," says Cutsumpas. In the meantime, give your aloe plant lots of light and minimal water to help it survive—and thrive.
Kirsten Nunez is a health and lifestyle journalist based in Beacon, New York. She has a Master of Science in Nutrition from Texas Woman's University and Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from SUNY Oneonta. Kirsten specializes in nutrition, fitness, food, and DIY; her work has been featured in a variety of publications, including eHow, SparkPeople, and international editions of Cosmopolitan. She also creates recipes for food product packaging.