When you think of Aloe Vera, most people imagine it as something you slather on after a sunburn. While that is certainly one excellent use for it, there are many other beneficial applications for this magical plant!
This article will discuss the healing properties of aloe vera, how to grow it, use it as a natural facial moisturizer, along with ways to use it in the garden to feed and support the health of other plants.
Even if you aren’t able to grow your own aloe at home, there are still ways to obtain and use aloe vera in your garden. We’ll talk about that too.
Be sure to check out the accompanying video at the end of this post. I show you the various aloe vera plants around our garden, harvesting some leaves, processing them, and how we use aloe vera as a soil drench for newly transplanted seedlings – as well as for other (spoiled!) established plants!
THE BENEFITS OF ALOE VERA
Aloe Vera, or Aloe barbadensis, has many well-known uses for human health. For example, it is used to soothe skin ailments like sunburns, burns, dermatitis, acne, and eczema. Aloe also helps to reduce scars, prevent or heal razor burn, and serves as a nourishing hair treatment. It can also be used to heal from within, consumed as a beverage to boost hydration, increase digestion, and cleanse. Aloe is also a key ingredient in homemade hand sanitizer!
I plan to write a more in-depth post about the natural (human) health applications of aloe vera in the future. Today’s post is more about uses in the garden, but I know many of you are curious about aloe and skin care, so I will just briefly mention a few things now…
I personally use fresh aloe on my face almost daily, along with homemade calendula oil as my moisturizer. Even though I am in my 30’s, I struggle with cystic acne scars and occasional breakouts – side effects of my Type 1 Diabetes and associated blood sugar and/or hormone swings. While aloe doesn’t eliminate all of these things, it does noticeably help! I know many other people who do the same, for scars, eczema, or just because. I also use it after shaving.
To do this, it is as easy as keeping a fresh whole leaf of aloe in the fridge, cutting off a thin slice each day as needed, squishing it around to extract the gel, and rubbing it on! For those who don’t have access to fresh homegrown aloe, check out this USDA organic, preservative-free aloe.
But, why does aloe vera smell so bad?
When you first cut into a leaf of aloe vera, it will expel a yellow goo. This is the leaf’s latex, which is bitter and has an off-putting odor. It also has a laxative effect. This is not the stuff you want to put on your skin, or ever consume!
Wash the yellow latex away and let the plant finish seeping. It won’t do that more than once, so your following cuts will be nice and fresh, and shouldn’t smell bad. Once the latex is gone, the inner gel is totally safe to consume. Many people enjoy it on its own, or adding it to water, juice, or smoothies. Before we grew our own, we took a shot of this organic aloe juice every day!
A couple comments about using fresh aloe vera as moisturizer:
Note that I do not cut open and expose the gel from the entire leaf at one time. Aloe quickly ferments and loses some of its beneficial properties when exposed to air, unless some type of preservative is added. Hence why I only cut and use a little slice at a time, keeping the rest in tact. You’ll see in the video, around minute 9!
Something else worth mentioning is that while aloe vera does heal and help your skin retain moisture, it also tightens skin and can feel drying for some. For my relatively oily skin, I don’t find it overly drying on its own. However, this might not be the case for everyone. For some skin types, it may be best to use aloe vera as a supplement to another moisturizer, or to be used less frequently than I do.
Also, I was surprised to recently learn that some people are quite allergic to aloe! So if you aren’t accustomed to using it, I suggest doing a small test patch somewhere before slathering up.
Aloe Vera Benefits to Plants
Growth & root development
In addition to human-use, we can apply the stellar properties of aloe vera to benefit other plants – like those in your garden! Aloe contains plant hormones that help stimulate new root growth, aid in seed germination, and can ease or prevent transplant shock. We try to water our newly transplanted seedlings with aloe vera, especially if they’re looking stressed. Another way to prevent transplant shock is properly hardening off indoor seedlings before they are planted outdoors.
As a nutrient accumulator, aloe vera is reported to contain over 75 active constituents, including amino acids, enzymes, lignins, polysaccharides, minerals, vitamins (A, C, E, and B2, 3, 5, 6, & 12) along with choline, calcium, magnesium, zinc & more. These things combined make aloe a natural, mild but potent “fertilizer” for plants. This superfood-like tonic can be used for enhancing root development, cell strength, and overall plant vitality!
Disease resistance & resilience
Aloe vera also promotes a strong plant immune system for disease resistance. It contains three very important compounds for plant health: acemannan, saponins, and salicylic acid.
Acemannan is a therapeutic compound in aloe vera that stimulates the immune system and has antiviral, antibacterial, antitumor, and antifungal properties. It also aids in wound healing. Saponins help protect the plant from harmful microbes, yeast, mold, and fungi.
Salicylic acid is involved in local and systemic plant defense responses against pathogens, by enhancing the plant’s systemic acquired resistance (SAR). SAR is essentially the plant equivalent of the human immune system. It protects the plant and increases its resistance to environmental stresses such as drought, chilling, heat, heavy metal toxicity, and osmotic stress.
Pretty rad, right?! And guess what? We can easily gift all of the good stuff inside aloe to other plants – through a soil drench or foliar spray.. I’m sure you’re eager to try now after reading all of that!
HOW TO GROW ALOE VERA
Aloe vera is an easy-to-grow plant both outdoors or in containers inside! Apparently, it is also pretty easy to grow aloe from seed, though we never have. Instead, we’ve obtained started plants from our local nursery. Aloe barbadensis shouldn’t be hard to find. I even see it at Home Depot frequently!
An established aloe vera plant will often put off “pups” – baby plants growing from under and around it. Those can be separated to establish more new plants too! If you need to separate a pup from its mother that is growing in the ground, gently loosen and push away soil around it, then gently dig down and pull the pup away from as deep as possible. The idea is to try to keep some of its roots in tact, and not just break it off at the soil line. For potted plants, it may be easiest to take the whole family out of the pot and gently pull them apart instead.
Temperature & Zone requirements
The biggest limitation that you’ll need to overcome in regards to growing aloe is that it is frost-sensitive. As a tropical perennial and succulent, a hard freeze will usually kill aloe. Here in zone 9/b10a, we are virtually frost-free and fortunate to be able to grow our aloe vera plants outside in the ground. They’ll do well outdoors in USDA zones 10-12. In zone 9, you can get away with growing them outside but you may want to provide frost protection when it comes on occasion. Even if they look very sad after a light frost, there is still a chance they’ll bounce back!
On the other hand, if you live in a climate with cold harsh winters, plan to keep your aloe in a container. You may want to keep the container outside during the warmer months and bring it indoors in the winter, or if you have the space, keep it inside as a houseplant year-round. Keep in mind that the size of the pot will limit the size the plant can grow to. It is okay to start a small plant in a modest size pot, but plan to pot-up into large containers as it grows. If you don’t have space for large pots, you could grow several smaller ones instead!
Aloe vera can withstand heat and direct sun, though it can get a bit sunburned in the hottest sun. Sunburned aloe vera plants turn red and even brown. Though aloe is said to love sun, we have found our plants grow quite well in nearly full shade too! That said, I would suggest planting aloe (or keeping your pots) in a location that receives bright ambient light and morning to midday sun, but some afternoon shade if you’re in a location with intense summer heat.
Indoors, provide potted aloe vera plants bright ambient light. They don’t necessarily need to be in a windowsill in direct sun, but they will not be happy in a dark corner.
Soil & Water
Aloe vera leaves are full of water and gel. That means they love water and want a ton of it, right?! Nope. Not true. Aloe is a succulent, and likewise to cacti, prefer to be more on the dry side. Provide regular, light water and allow the soil to dry out slightly between watering. They cannot handle standing water, and are susceptible to rotting. A very common killer of aloe is overwatering!
Plant aloe vera in well-draining soil. A cactus soil mix is ideal, or potting soil amended with extra perlite, pumice, coarse sand, or small volcanic rock to promote better drainage. If you are growing aloe in a container, ensure the pot has a good drainage hole (as suggested for any potted plant).
Feel free to add a little compost into their planting soil, but aloe vera doesn’t need much in the way of fertilizer. Going forward, plan to give them some mild compost tea or dilute seaweed extract once or twice per year.
USING ALOE VERA IN THE GARDEN
One way to dose your plants with all of the goodness that aloe has to offer is by making a soil drench for them. Simply put, a “soil drench” is watering plants with a dilute aloe vera water mixture. We do this treatment for freshly transplanted seedlings, newly planted trees, stressed plants, or sometimes, just as a special treat for our plants! Another use for the soil drench is to pre-moisten seedling starting soil, to aid in germination.
High Times recommends using aloe vera as a regular part of your cannabis watering routine. To read more about how to organically grow cannabis, see this post. Our spoiled cannabis plants get aloe vera with every watering, though not always fresh aloe. We’ll talk more about freeze-dried aloe vera powder as an alternative in a moment.
How to Make an Aloe Vera Soil Drench
To make an aloe vera soil drench, all you need to do is blend aloe vera leaves with some water. It’s really that easy! With this method, there is no need to skin the leaves and extract the gel first.
- Harvest a couple outermost leaves from your aloe vera plant(s). Gently tug on them, rocking from one side to another. Sometimes the base of the leaf will easily disconnect from the rest of the plant. Other times, it may break off near the base. That’s okay. You could also remove the leaf with a knife, taking care to not cut the rest of the plant.
- Cut the whole aloe leaves into large chunks, combine with water in a blender, and blend them up! Note it will foam up, so don’t completely fill your blender with water. Leave some room for expansion.
- Note that you can choose to extract the inner gel only (described in foliar spray section below) for a more “pure” aloe feeding… or to save time, just blend the whole leaf. That is what we do.
- Add that blended solution to more water to further dilute it. For example, by adding a blender full of aloe-water into a 5-gallon bucket of water – to then spread and share between plants.
- If you can, avoid using chlorinated water to get the full benefits of the aloe vera. We use filtered water in the blender and harvested rainwater in our 5-gallon buckets. If you can plan in advance, letting chlorinated tap water sit out in a bucket overnight often helps chlorine dissipate. You could also use filtered water, like from a Brita filter. For larger amounts, it may be easiest to use a simple carbon filter that attaches to a hose.
How much aloe vera should I add for a soil drench?
After searching around online, it appears the suggested amount is about 1/4 cup of fresh aloe vera gel per gallon of water. A little goes a long way! As you’ll see in the video to follow, we don’t bother with measuring. An estimation is okay, since you really can’t “overdo it” with aloe! On average, we use about 2 large leaves or 4-5 small leaves per 5 gallon bucket of water.
Using a Fresh Aloe Vera Soil Drench
When you are preparing your aloe concoctions, time is of the essence! Fresh aloe will start to ferment and lose a lot of its beneficial properties within 20 minutes after being prepared and exposed to the air. That is why pretty much every store-bought aloe vera product out there contains preservatives of some sort. Therefore, make sure you have all your supplies and extra water ready and waiting, so you can blend and use the aloe vera as soon after cutting as possible! If you ever have excess aloe and can’t use it quickly, I suggest freezing it for later use.
After blending, diluting, and mixing, simply water your plants with it! We generally give smaller seedlings about a cup each, and larger plants up to several cups. The beaker I am using in the aloe video is 16 ounces.
It is best to add a special drink like this (or something like compost tea) within a day or two after a plants routine watering. When your soil is already nice and moist, it more readily accepts additional moisture – so your precious aloe solution won’t run off the top and away from the plant! Additionally, doing this right after a routine watering means you probably won’t need to water again for a few days, which gives the aloe good contact time before you further wash it away.
An aloe vera solution can also be used as a foliar spray, also known as “foliar feeding”. What is the purpose of foliar spraying? Well, studies show that plants can uptake micronutrients and enzymes faster and at a higher absorbed concentration directly through their leaves than through their roots.
Of course, a foliar feeding is not intended to replace quality soil, compost, and occasional root fertilizing. Core macronutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are still best derived from soil. But when you want to give a plant a little extra TLC, or help it recover from a deficiency, disease, or stress, a little supplemental foliar love with aloe could be the ticket! Our cannabis plants are sprayed with aloe on almost a weekly basis up until they begin to flower.
To prepare a foliar spray, the steps are very similar to that of making a soil drench! However, you want to only use the inside gel this time, as blending a whole-leaf would make it chunky which could clog a sprayer.
To extract the inner gel from an aloe vera leaf:
- Using a sharp knife, trim off the outer spiny edges
- With the rounded portion of the leaf down, carefully slide the knife inside the leaf, running it as closely along the flat top side as possible.
- See the demonstration of me filleting an aloe leaf in the video below (shown at minute 14 – note that I was being awkward and not thinking, and should have been cutting away from myself, not towards…)
- Scoop out the inner gel with a spoon
- Blend with water
- Dilute further with water to your desired amount (e.g. 1 or 2 gallon sprayer)
- Compost the leftover leaf skins
Because plants more readily uptake nutrients from foliar applications than through their roots, less aloe is needed for the foliar spray than in a soil drench solution. A suggested dose is only two to three teaspoons of fresh aloe gel to 1 gallon of water. As you can see, just one small leaf would be more than enough for this practice!
Using an aloe vera foliar spray
Fill a sprayer with your blended solution. I highly suggest using pressure sprayers over the types you have to repeatedly hand-squeeze. Apply evenly to your plants leaves until they’re dripping, and again, preferably within 20 minutes of first cutting the aloe vera plant. It is best practice to foliar spray with aloe just before sunlight, or after sundown – avoid wetting leaves in direct sunlight, which can cause sunburn.
No fresh aloe? No problem! Try aloe vera powder for plants.
While we love using the fresh stuff for transplants and other plants as much as possible, our supply can’t always keep up with the demand, especially during cannabis season. Therefore, we supplement by using freeze-dried aloe vera powder too. Simply mix and rehydrate per the instructions on the package. To maintain maximum freshness and potency, store it in the freezer after opening. The powder can be used for both a soil drench or foliar spray, for any type of plant!
Aaron uses powdered aloe in every cannabis soil watering and for weekly foliar sprays, mixed with rainwater. Moreso than fresh gel, a little powder goes an even longer way! The aloe powder we use from BuildASoil is 200x concentrated, and only requires ¼ teaspoon per gallon of water for foliar applications.
One last use for aloe vera in the garden is as a natural rooting hormone. When taking cuttings of established plants to propagate new ones, also called “clones”, aloe vera can assist in rapid root development for the new cutting. This is a common practice used for everything from fig trees to milkweed to cannabis.
There are varying “best practices” for cloning out there, and I am no expert. Some folks suggest soaking new plant cuttings in an aloe solution, be it fresh gel or powdered, for 4 to 12 hours before planting. Others recommend soaking the cloning medium (e.g. coco coir or peat root riot cubes) in an aloe vera solution to pre-moisten it, and then insert the cutting. Or, simply dip the cut stem in aloe gel before placing it in its medium. I have also heard of people inserting the cutting into the middle of an aloe leaf and letting it root there!
Again, since aloe is so mild, there is really no way to do any harm with it! We have had success with rooting milkweed cuttings by soaking them for a week in an aloe-water solution. You may find one method more or less effective than another. If you use aloe as a cloning agent, let us know what works for you in the comments!
In closing, aloe vera is badass.
You can’t argue against that, right?! I am even more convinced after doing my homework for this article. Now that we know just how phenomenal aloe vera is, are you ready to incorporate it into your personal and plant health care routines? Again, I will follow up with more information about human-uses soon too!
Until then, check out the video below – all about harvesting and processing aloe vera for a soil drench. I hope you enjoy the meander around the garden with me too!
Here is wishing you the best on your aloe adventures, and plenty of vitality in the garden! Please feel free to ask questions, and spread the love by passing this on.