How to Tell if Aloe Plant is Over or Under Watered (How to Save It)

How to tell if your aloe plant is underwatered or overwatered

Is your aloe showing symptoms, but you are not sure if it is because you have watered it too much or not enough? I have personally grown countless aloe plants in my job as a commercial supplier to garden centers, and I have learned from expert, specialist succulent growers how to water your aloe plants to meet their requirements without overwatering.

In this article, I share with you all the tips, tricks, and hacks I have discovered to establish whether your aloes are watered properly, and I share how to save them if they are looking worse for wear!

The difference between an underwatered aloe plant and an overwatered aloe plant is that the leaves of an overwatered aloe turn brown and yellow with a mushy, soft texture, whereas the leaves of an underwatered aloe become thinner and shrink in size before turning brown.

Aloe plants are succulents that store moisture in their leaves which is why the leaves shrink in size if the plant is underwatered.

However, aloe plants are adapted to tolerate drought and cope much better with underwatering than overwatering, therefore, most of the problems I encounter relate to overwatering.

Keep reading to properly establish whether your aloe is watered properly and for my tips for what to do if it needs saving…

How to Tell If the Aloe Plant is Overwatered

Roots turning brown, mushy with a bad smell due to overwatering.
These are roots that have turned brown and are mushy with a bad smell due to overwatering.

If an aloe plant is overwatered, the leaves turn yellow or brown and have a soft, mushy texture and a drooping appearance. The roots turn brown and die back with a rotting appearance and an unpleasant smell.

I think it is important that we understand how aloe plants grow in their natural environment so we can mimic these conditions in our homes…

Aloe plants are native to the Arabian peninsula and grow in well-draining, gritty soils with infrequent rainfall.

Therefore, aloe plants are particularly well adapted to tolerating drought conditions, which makes them very sensitive to overwatering and slow-draining soils and usually results in root rot or mushy, brown/yellow leaves.

The roots of a healthy aloe are firm and lighter in color.
This is a photo of one of my aloe plants. The roots of a healthy aloe are firm and lighter in color.

(Aloe plants can turn brown for a few other reasons, such as sunburn. Read my article, why is my aloe turning brown).

Overwatering and planting aloes in slow-draining soils is the most common mistake I see when caring for aloe plants.

Pro tip: The experts I spoke to told me that aloe plants thrive when they are given a thorough watering followed by a period of dry for about two weeks, as this replicates the -deluge of rain followed by a period of drought- cycle of watering they typically experience in their native environment.

Aloe plants draw moisture from the potting soil after a good soak and then store the moisture in their leaves, allowing them to live in dry climates with well-draining soils.

Aloe plants need the soil to dry out completely between bouts of watering, which typically means I water my aloe around every 2 weeks (Read my article, how to water aloe vera for how often to water aloe vera at different times of the year).

If you are watering your aloe plant more often than once a week, then you are overwatering your aloe, as this does not give the soil enough of a chance to dry out.

However, it is important to acknowledge that the right watering schedule has to be in conjunction with the right, well-draining potting soil to avoid the symptoms of overwatering.

Aloe plants do not grow well in ordinary potting soil as they retain moisture for too long around the roots after watering, which results in the symptoms of overwatering. (I see people make this mistake when they repot their aloe plants).

An aloe plant with mushy, drooping leaves is a warning sign of overwatering, but it may not necessarily mean that the plant has developed root rot if you detect the problem quickly before root rot can set in.

How to Fix an Overwatered Aloe Plant

To save an overwatered aloe plant, I replicate the conditions of its native environment by replacing the soil with well-draining, gritty succulent soil, only watering the aloe when the potting soil has dried out, and cutting off any brown, mushy aloe leaves to prevent the rot from spreading.

  • I wait until the potting soil completely dries out between each watering bout. To tell when it is time to water your aloe plant again, feel the soil at the bottom of the pot through the drainage hole in the base. If I can still detect moisture, then I delay watering for a few days. If the potting soil feels dry, then I can assure you this is the perfect time for watering.
  • I would take your aloe plant out of its soil and inspect the roots for root rot. The roots should appear healthy and lighter in color (note roots can be discolored brown with soil). If there are any roots that are brown, mushy in texture, and smell bad, then these roots are rotting, and it is important that you snip these roots off back to healthy growth with a sharp pair of pruners. I strongly advise that you sterilize the pruners with a cloth soaked in disinfectant to prevent spreading fungal pathogens to healthy roots. Snip away all rotting roots until only healthy, firm roots remain.
  • I remove any leaves that are turning yellow or brown with a sharp pair of pruners. Sometimes, you can peel the leaves back gently. Removing these discolored leaves prevents the rot from spreading around the aloe plant.
  • Re-pot your aloe in succulent and cacti soil if the soil is draining slowly. Special succulent and cacti soil is created to replicate the natural soil conditions of the aloe plant’s native environment. This allows water to drain efficiently and is the best way to mitigate the effects of overwatering (read my article on the best potting soil for aloe vera).
  • I clean the pot out before repotting or, ideally, repot the aloe into a terracotta or clay pot. I always clean the pot with disinfectant as the pot can harbor fungal diseases that are caused by damp soil. Terracotta or clay pots are my favorite pots for aloe plants because they are porous, which allows the soil to dry out more evenly between each bout of watering, which mitigates the effects of root rot (read my article, choosing the best pots for aloe vera).
  • I always place the aloe plant in bright, indirect light for 2 weeks while it recovers. While aloe plants can tolerate direct sunlight, harsh sun, and high temperatures can add additional stress to an ailing plant, so locate the aloe in bright light.

I have personally recovered many aloe plants from overwatering, but if the root rot is too significant, then your only option is to propagate the aloe from any remaining healthy leaves.

Aloe plants are relatively easy to propagate, and it may be the only way to save the overwatered plant. Watch this helpful YouTube video for how to propagate aloe plants from leaves.

How to Tell Whether an Aloe Plant is Underwatered

Tiger tooth aloe (Aloe juvenna) with leaves turning brown and curling inwards due to underwatering.
This is my Tiger tooth aloe (Aloe juvenna) with leaves turning brown and curling inwards due to underwatering.

If an aloe plant is underwatered, then the aloe shrinks in size, with its leaves becoming thinner and curling inwards as the aloe draws upon the moisture reserves in the leaves. The leaves also turn brown if they are severely underwatered.

As I previously stated, Aloe plants are native to dry, arid regions with well-draining soil and infrequent rainfall.

Whilst aloe plants do not need to be watered as often as most houseplants, they should always be watered with a generous soak.

A common mistake I find people make with aloe plants is to misinterpret the advice that ‘succulents and aloe plants do not need much water’ to mean that they should only be watered lightly.

The problem is if you water the soil too lightly, then only the surface of the soil becomes moist, and the water does not infiltrate the potting soil and reach the aloe’s roots where it is required.

Aloes need the soil to be evenly moist so that the roots can draw upon the moisture they require before allowing the soil to dry out. The moisture is then stored in the leaves which is why healthy aloe plant leaves look full and feel plump.

The first sign that you should notice of an underwatered aloe plant is that the leaves become thinner as the aloe draws upon its moisture reserves.

Fortunately, this ability to store water is a part of the aloe’s survival strategy to cope with the hot and dry conditions of its native environment. Therefore, in my experience, aloe usually copes well with being underwatered and recovers fairly quickly.

It is important to note that the aloe plant’s soil can dry out much quicker if the pot is particularly small, which can lead to the symptoms of underwatering.

Also, high temperatures, intense sunlight, and indoor heat can also cause the soil to dry out too quickly for the aloe’s roots to draw up enough moisture, which can result in an underwatered aloe.

How to Save an Underwatered Aloe Plant

Here are the steps that I take to save an underwatered aloe…

  • I place the aloe in a basin of water for 10 minutes or so, ensuring the soil and root ball are submerged. This is the best way to water a severely underwatered aloe plant, as it allows the potting medium to absorb properly and reach the roots. The danger with a severely underwatered aloe is the potting bakes hard, which can cause the soil to become hydrophobic (repels water), which causes the water to trickle off the surface of the soil and out the drainage hole in the base without reaching the roots.
  • Once the aloe plant has had a good soak in a basin, I take it out and empty any saucers or trays of excess water. This should immediately help your aloe improve its appearance as the roots can draw up moisture to store in the leaves. To avoid overwatering, do not water the aloe again until the potting soil feels dry.
  • I always water aloe plants with a generous soak so that excess water trickles from the base of the pot. The potting soil must be evenly moist so that the aloe’s roots can draw up the moisture they require.

The key to saving an underwatered aloe plant is to find out how quickly the aloe’s soil dries out. The rate at which the soil dries can vary depending on the aloe plant’s maturity, the pot’s size, and the temperature of its environment.

So, to establish the optimal watering cycle for your aloe plant (to avoid underwatering), I give the aloe a generous soak, then feel the soil to find out how many days it takes to feel dry at the bottom of the pot.

Once the soil feels dry at the bottom (feel the soil through the drainage holes in the base to detect moisture), then this is the optimal time for watering.

(Read my article, 5 most common problems with aloe plants and how to solve them).

Key Takeaways:

  • The best way to tell if your aloe plant is overwatered or underwatered is to look at the leaves. Overwatered aloe leaves turn brown and yellow with a soft, mushy texture, whereas underwatered aloe leaves become thinner and shrink in size before turning brown.
  • To revive an overwatered aloe plant, snip back any roots with pruners, remove any leaves that are turning brown or yellow, replace the potting soil with a gritty, well-draining potting mix, and wait until the soil is completely dry before watering again.
  • To revive an underwatered aloe plant, place the aloe pot in a basin of water for 10 minutes ensuring the root ball is submerged, so that the soil is evenly moist and the roots can draw up the moisture that it requires to replenish the moisture reserves in the leaves.

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