I should randomly talk about this more often: I like working with plants, but I’m terrible at keeping them alive. Sometimes it’s because I picked finicky or climate resistant plants, but those are stories for another time. (Suffice to say that Venus flytraps are an amusing idea but realistically almost impossible to keep alive indoors.)
Right now I’m working on keeping two little aloe sprouts alive. Gifted to me earlier this year by my wonderful sister, Lisa, there were originally three but I threw one away after a month or two because I had already made mistakes and it seemed beyond saving.
Differing sources report different treatment conditions for aloe, so everything here is my best approximation at what they actually need based on the many things I’ve read and what I’ve seen my plant respond to.
My first mistakes were using a fuckton of composted material–given to me by a family friend–along with potting soil and not enough sand (there should be a 1:1 ratio between sand and soil). I didn’t have a rockbed on the bottom nor any intermediary between the soil and bottom of the pot. I was also keeping it indoors under a full spectrum bulb with irregular hours.
This is a perfect recipe for water-retention in the soil, which is pretty much exactly what you don’t want for succulents. They hold most of their water in their leaves and being watered immediately after transplant can worsen the shock (*pointing at self*). They need to be allowed to dry out completely in between waterings, which wasn’t working with the air-conditioned temperatures and the effect of a full pot of soil retaining moisture. Aloe plants can also be damaged by over-nutrition, which may well have been part of the problem as well, due to the compost.
My first adjustment was digging all three of them up and just adding more sand. At this point I repotted the throwaway in our other pot that previously housed a strawberry plant. A day or two later my partner asked if he could toss it for the sake of a different experiment and I didn’t really care, so it got tossed in the grass to finish dying.
It’s worth mention here that the sand I bought is fine play-sand. I didn’t look it up before buying it, but fine-grain sands create easily compacted soil, somewhat defeating the purpose of the goal of well-draining soil and creating restricting boundaries for the plants’ root systems. Oops again.
The next major adjustment I made, when it became obvious that the plants were not getting healthier and root rot was the likely culprit, was to carefully dig them up to inspect the root systems. They were brown and mushy on both plants, and almost all of them came off just by gently handling the area. I removed most of the dead tissue by letting it crumble into my hand or pulling on it slightly. This left me with two plants that each had no root system whatsoever.
Despite the seemingly inherent looming death awaiting a plant with no roots, I dumped the soil in another container and removed some of our river-rock from the previously-strawberries pot to fill up the lower third-ish-maybe-more of the aloe pot. Then I picked up a bunch of smaller rocks from the yard area outside my apartment. I know there are a lot of rocks out there because I had to have the landscaping company replace my windshield earlier this year. 🙃
Anyway, those were used to fill in holes between the big rocks and create a layer between them and the soil. As for the soil itself, I obviously displaced a good amount of it with the rocks and still felt it was probably not sandy enough and definitely not coarse enough. Strawberries also require well-draining conditions and there was a lot of perlite in the 1:1 sand and soil we had mixed for those, so I took some of that and mixed it with the aloe soil at probably a bit less than a 1:1 ratio, favoring the composted material.
When I was satisfied, I put my little sprouts back in and covered the top with some mulch to avoid messing up the sandy soil whenever it gets watered. And I started keeping it outside, slowly reintroducing them to sunlight in the hopes that the soil would dry faster. Having shallower soil is supposed to help with that as well.
At some point I realized my mistake with the mulch (sealing in moisture and protecting soil from drying sun effect) and scraped most of it off. Later I was waylaid by our talkative, former-horticulturalist neighbor who suggested I cut off some bits that were drying out so that the plant could focus on surviving. We took a bet as to whether the plants would die, him saying it looked like a plant that was already headed that way and giving me advice contrary to almost everything I’ve read about succulents and aloe in particular.
I did end up cutting those bits off–they were two fairly big leaves on the larger of the two sprouts and they were definitely taking up energy unnecessarily and it’s not the first time I’ve trimmed dying pieces off.
Even more recently, my partner pointed out that despite my efforts to put plenty of drainage holes in the bottom, some kind of seal was being created and not allowing the soil to properly dry out. At his suggestion, I poked a bunch (probably 6-8) of fairly small holes about 1.5 centimeters from the bottom of the pot on all sides to allow for aeration if not flow.
Which brings us to today. My aloe have continued to appear less and less healthy, so I decided to carefully pick them up to see if they were snaking new roots or just continuing to rot since I haven’t been perfect about keeping them dry.
They’re both trying to establish new roots! I was so excited to see the tender green shoots, but I also noticed something that I hope makes a big difference now that I’ve rectified it: The times I’ve previously cut the outer leaves on both of these plants, the bottom of the leaf remains attached to the stalk. Which means that I was looking at two plants whose roots couldn’t escape because the not-quite-dead shell of former leaves was causing some of them to grow around the stalk on the inside. (Aloe roots horizontally rather than vertically.)
No wonder my plants have been drying out despite the moist soil! I ripped the offending parts off by hand, and made sure to remove any other remaining mushy roots. I picked even more rocks up from the area, focusing on really small ones I could mix in to get a texture closer to coarse-grain sand. When all was done, I put my little ones back where they go, found more small rocks and scattered them over the top of the soil. They’ll be a slight protection against water reshaping the soil and will eventually work themselves down to contribute to the overall ease of draining I’ve been looking for.
I’m rooting for you, little buddies! If you survive the winter I’ll have to inform Jerome that he owes me a Coke. ;p