The aloe plant may look like a cactus and act like a cactus, but it’s actually related to the lily and the onion. It is a succulent (i.e. its leaves retain an abundance of water), and while its exact origins are unclear, some believe it is native of Africa. It is usually found in hot, dry climates. There are close to 200 species of aloes in the world and they range in size from as little as one inch to well over 2 feet. The species most are familiar with, and the one we will discuss in this article is the aloe barbadensis, better known as Aloe Vera (“True Aloe”). Aloe Vera is quite popular because of its medicinal qualities that have been recognized since ancient times. The gel inside the leaf of the Aloe Vera plant is quite effect for treating burns (including sunburns), rashes and insect stings. The gel is also used in a variety of beauty products. Aloe Vera also makes a unique, easy-to-care-for houseplant.
Before You Plant
Choose the Right Type:
- While Aloe Vera can be grown from seed, most successful growth is achieved by propagation from existing plants.
- In the wild, Aloe Vera stem can grow up to 3 feet and produces bright tubular yellow flowers. The leaves grow to about 8 to 10 inches and have a mottled green appearance.
- Aloe Vera is a semi-tropical plant and will not tolerate cold temperatures. Therefore, if you intend to use it as an outdoor plant, it is recommended only for Zones 9 and 10.
- If you do not live in growing zones 9 or 10, but still dream about having an Aloe Vera plant or two, consider keeping it as a houseplant. It will thrive indoors and will provide the same medicinal benefits.
Find a Suitable Place:
- Whether indoors or outdoors, Aloe Vera plants need lots of sun. If you are planting outdoors, make sure you find a spot that gets 8 to 10 hours of sunlight a day (in any event, no less than 6). Indoors, make sure you place your plant by a sunny window (facing South or West is usually best), switching it as the day progresses, if necessary, to ensure it gets 8 to 10 hours of sunlight.
- If you are planting outdoors, make sure you find a spot that has excellent drainage. As a succulent, the Aloe Vera plant is built to withstand drought conditions, and it will not do well in areas where the soil is too wet, or where the ground has a tendency to collect water.
- Aloe Vera plants can be grown relatively close together, but a mature plant can have a spread of about 25 or more leaves; make sure you leave enough room for adequate growth.
- When keeping your Aloe Vera in a pot, keep in mind that it prefers a crowded root system, so it in a pot appropriate for its size. Don’t be too tempted to place it in a nice roomy planter, thinking you are promoting its growth—you may be doing just the opposite.
Prepare the Soil:
- Whether planting your Aloe Vera indoors or out, it prefers dry, loose, sandy soil.
- If your soil is not sandy by nature, simply mix in sharp sand and a handful of loose pebbles until your soil has about a 50/50 mix. This will promote drainage and keep your Aloe Vera happy.
- The pH level of your soil should be around 6.0-8.0; the pH can be raised by adding lime to the soil.
- If you are keeping your Aloe Vera as a houseplant, some stores sell a potting mix especially designed for Cactus plants. This mix works very well with Aloe Vera plants.
What You Will Need:
- Mature Aloe Vera plant
- Sharp knife
- Gardening gloves
- Planter pot with good drainage (if you are keeping it as a houseplant)
- Properly prepared soil (see above)
- Root growth hormone powder (optional)
Steps for Planting/Growing:
- While it is possible to grow Aloe Vera from seed, it is not recommended for the recreational gardener. It takes a long time and strict greenhouse conditions in order to germinate properly.
- A mature Aloe Vera plant produces offshoots along its base (known as “pups”), which are actually baby Aloe Vera plants, and can be used for create new plants (propagation).
- Locate the offshoot on the mature plant. When the offshoot is a couple of inches tall and the leaves have begun to unfold, it is ready to transplant.
- Brush away some of the soil so that the base of the offshoot is exposed. Using the sharp knife, cut the offshoot from the mother plant, making sure to keep a portion some of the base intact on the offshoot.
- The wounded area of the offshoot should be allowed to dry and scab over before planting. This usually takes about two days, and will prevent disease organisms from getting into the plant.
- Once the wound has scabbed over, the offshoot can be placed into the soil. The hole should be deep enough so that about 1/4 of the offshoot (from the cut base, up) is in the soil. We recommend dipping the cut of the offshoot in root growth hormone powder before placing it in the soil to accelerate root growth.
- Pack the soil firmly around the base of the offshoot, making sure the plant is stabilized.
- Water the plant until the soil is moist but not saturated and, if it is ina pot, make sure you place it in a sunny location.
Maintenance and Harvesting
What You Will Need:
- Watering can or hose
- Gardening gloves
- White or light-colored rock or stone (optional)
- Sharp knife
Steps for Maintenance and Harvesting:
- As mentioned, the Aloe Vera is a succulent, built for hot, dry conditions. Consequently, you must be careful not to over water it; over watering will cause the spongy leaves to rot at the base of the plant. Generally, outdoor plants do not need to be watered, and will survive on the rain and dew. For potted plants, as a rule of thumb, water until the soil is moist but not saturated. Then allow to dry completely before watering again.
- Because they are hot weather plants, Aloe Vera plants often go dormant in the winter months, and they will need even less water.
- If your Aloe Vera plant is outside, we suggest surrounding the base of the plant with white rock or stone to help reflect the warmth of the sun back at the plant.
- Aloe Vera needs very little in the way of mulching and fertilizing. In fact, over-fertilizing could do more harm than good. A light application of diluted fertilizer once a year (typically in the spring) should be sufficient.
- Keep the area of your Aloe Vera plant weed free, but since the soil should be loose and sandy, be careful when pulling weeds so as not to disturb the Aloe Vera roots.
- Aloe Vera is generally resistant to pests and disease, but outdoor plants may become susceptible to mealy bugs, in which case it is safe to spray the plant with an insecticidal solution.
- When harvesting the leaves from your Aloe Vera plant, choose the larger, thicker leaves on the outside of the plant, cut them at the base using a sharp knife, and slit them lengthwise to expose the pulp and the gel within. The pulp can be rubbed directly on the area of your skin in need of healing. Caution: if you’ve never used Aloe Vera before, or any product containing aloe, check a little of the gel first on a small part of your skin first to make sure there is no allergic reaction. Allergies to aloe are quite rare, but they do exist.
Additional Tips and Advice
- Occasionally, the outer leaves of your plant may droop or discolor. If so, it is perfectly fine to cut them off of the plant.
- Don’t try to eat your Aloe Vera plant! It probably won’t hurt you, but it has an awful, bitter taste—nature’s defense against predators.
- Allowing too many offshoots to remain on your Aloe Vera plant will have an adverse affect on its growth and health. Consequently, even if you don’t intend to propagate your plant, remove the offshoots anyway.
- The offshoots from an Aloe Vera plant can make a nice gift for a friend or family member—just plant it in a decorative pot as indicated above and provide a note or card with some instructions as to the care and uses of the plant (or you can just give them the link to this article!)
- When keeping your Aloe Vera in a planter or other container, make sure it has sufficient drainage on the bottom.
- One problem with Aloe Vera plants is that they tend to become top-heavy over time and may tip over, uprooting themselves. If this happens, gently replace the Aloe Vera plant, and remove some of the outer leaves so that it won’t have a tendency to tip.
- The leaves of your Aloe Vera will develop what looks like spines or needles along the leaves. No need to be alarmed—they are soft and if handled, will not pierce you like the needles of a cactus.
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