Aloes are easy. If you get busy and forget to water them or repot them, they’ll forgive you and get over it.
“I grow them hard,” says succulent collector Joni Pierce, meaning that her aloes don’t expect any particular pampering from her. That being said, there are optimal conditions for growing aloe at their best—certain guidelines to follow that apply to keeping many other tender succulents in containers, as well.
Here are Joni’s instructions:
Potting mix. Drainage is critical, so pot them in a gritty potting mix that lets water run off freely. She recommends a peat and perlite-based professional potting mix with additional sand or grit added. Try builder’s sand (also called sharp sand), decomposed granite, vermiculite or other mineral sands such as greensand, lava sand or basalt—all work well to increase the grittiness of the potting mix. You want small particles, not chunks, Joni says.
Pot size. “Make sure it’s not overpotted,” Joni says. Use small individual pots without too much extra soil; the roots should take up perhaps two-thirds of the pot when you first replant it, because if there aren’t sufficient roots to draw moisture it will sit in wet soil and won’t be happy. Then you can let it totally fill the pot, even to the point of looking root-bound, before you repot it again. “Sometimes I’ll go years without repotting,” Joni says. It’s fun to sometimes grow them with other succulents in dish gardens, but the collectors generally prefer one aloe, one pot.
Pot type. Aloes look great in clay or porcelain pots on the windowsills, but plastic pots are sometimes better in very warm climates like Texas. Adequate drainage holes are a must.
Watering. Move them outside in the warm season when temperatures are higher than 80 or so, which in Texas is generally April through early November, and water them about once a week. In the fall, start to back off on the watering, about once every two weeks, move them indoors and water about once a month through the winter. If growing them inside in the arid environment created by heating and air conditioning, watering about once every two weeks should be fine. Be sure each pot on the windowsill has a saucer to catch the overflow, and empty it regularly so that the roots don’t sit in water.
Sun. Aloes generally look best if grown in light shade, indirect or dappled light, rather than full sun, so patios can be perfect in the summer. Some, such as A. dorotheae, can adapt to full sun gradually and take on a very attractive color, but most aloes just turn darker and muddier if grown in too bright a light.
Food. Fertilizing is not too important, but even the aloes appreciate a bit every now and then. Joni recommends a slow-release granular fertilizer or a diluted solution (a third to half the recommended rate for container plants) of a liquid fertilizer; choose one with a higher phosphorus content (the second of the three numbers on fertilizers) to promote flowering. Too much fertilizer or too high a concentration will push out soft, weak new growth, and the plant won’t be as strong.
Pests. About the only pest that bothers an aloe is the microscopic aloe mite, which can distort or deform leaves and even kill plants altogether. It’s not often a problem for home gardeners, according to Joni, but in large greenhouse collections it can be devastating. Dunking the leaves in a strong solution of soapy water can help, she says.