It's Easy to Grow Your Own Amazing Aloe Vera

Photo: califrayray/flickrAloe vera has been on my mind since I spoke with a non-gardening friend recently. He was tentatively interested in growing a few houseplants. At that point all the windowsills and side tables in my home were overrun with plants, so much so that I barely had time to keep up with their needs for water, food, and TLC, and was feeling a little like the mother of newborn triplets. So I offered to give him some plantlets, culled from my own stock, to get started with. Last night he went home carrying a giant cardboard carton full of young houseplants, including two beautiful baby aloe veras. Hard to say who was happier!

The Advantages of Aloe

Aloe vera is actually a subspecies of the genus aloe, which is the perfect easy-to-look-after plant for newbies at gardening -- or for busy and distracted old timers like me. It's attractive, with multiple thick leaves in the shape of elongated triangles, which branch off from a central stalk. The color varies from jade to silvery green and can be speckled or striped. This succulent thrives in either sun or partial shade and requires a minimum of care. Beginning gardeners, particularly children, will be gratified by how quickly aloe grows, as well as by the fact that it produces "babies" or "pups," offsets that are easily detached to form new plants. What's more, this amazing plant can be used for a variety of medicinal purposes.

How to Care for Your Aloe

One thing aloe does need is good drainage, so plant it in special potting soil made for succulents and cacti, or a mix of compost, shredded brown material such as dried leaves, and clean construction sand. Leave plenty of space around the root ball. An upper layer of pebbles or gravel will help retain moisture. Be wary of overwatering. Water only when the top inch or two of the soil is completely dry; twice monthly should be sufficient in winter, while in summer you may need to double or triple that frequency, more so if you move your aloe plant outdoors for the warm season. In southern climes (USDA Zones 10 and 11) like Los Angeles, your garden can be home to aloes all year round. Fertilize biweekly from April to September.

When your aloe becomes overgrown, it's time to transplant. Tap gently on the bottom of the pot to loosen the roots and soil and slide them out gently. Transplant the plant into a container that will allow room for new growth, about 3-5 times as large as the aloe's root ball. At this time, you can remove the offsets. I use sharp gardening shears and try to include a bit of root with the baby. Plant each one in a suitably small pot. Let them rest for a few days before watering.

How Your Aloe Cares for You

Fleshy aloe leaves, particularly those of the aloe vera, are filled with a naturally healing gel which can treat all kinds of skin problems. (While aloe gel is sold commercially, it tends to be expensive and may contain artificial additives.) I especially like it as a rub to soften rough, dry skin on heels and elbows. It's also fantastic for taking the itch out of mosquito bites and the sting out of minor sunburn. To use, I break off a leaf from an inconspicuous place low down on the stem, peel it open, and apply the gel directly to the affected area. Watch out for the spines on the side of the aloe leaf! Leaves may be stored in fridge for several days so they are ready to use whenever required -- and the coolness adds to the soothing effect.

Some folks recommend drinking aloe juice as a remedy for digestion and a host of other ills. I've found the taste of aloe so bitter, though, when I've gotten it on my hands, that I'd be reluctant to swallow it in quantity. Be sure to consult a qualified health professional before starting treatment for any serious illness.

Laura Firszt writes for

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