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 then overwatering.
Keep reading to learn the difference between an overwatered and underwatered aloe plant and how to save it…
How to Tell If the Aloe Plant is Overwatered
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.
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.
(Aloe plants can turn brown for a few other reasons, such as sun burn. Read my article, why is my aloe turning brown).
Overwatering and plant aloes in slow draining soils is by far the most common mistake when caring for aloe plants.
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 period of drought- cycle of watering they typically experience in their native environment.
Aloe plants draw up moisture from the potting soil after a good soak and then store the moisture in their leaves, which allows 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 watering your 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 an aloe plant more often then 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 it retains moisture for too long around the roots after watering which results in the symptoms of overwatering.
An aloe plant with mushy, drooping leaves is a warning 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, replicate the conditions of its native environment replacing the soil with well draining gritty succulent soil, only water the aloe when the potting soil has dried out and cut off any brown, mushy aloe leaves to prevent the rot from spreading.
- Wait until the potting soil has dried out completely between each bout of watering. To tell when it time to water your aloe plant again, feel the soil at the bottom of the pot, through the drainage hole in the base. If you can still detect moisture then delay watering for a few days. If the potting soil feels dry, this is the perfect time for watering.
- 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 to snip these roots off back to healthy growth, with a sharp pair of pruners. Sterilize the pruners with a cloth soaked in disinfectant to prevent spreading fungal pathogens to health roots. Snip away all rotting roots until only healthy firm roots remain.
- Remove any leaves that are turning yellow or brown with a sharp pair of pruners. Sometime you can peel the leaves back gently. Removing these discolored leaves prevents the rot from spreading around the aloe plant.
- Repot 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 plants native environment. This allows water to drain efficiently and is the best way to mitigate the affects of overwatering (read my article on the best potting soil for aloe vera).
- Clean the pot out before repotting or, ideally repot the aloe into a terracotta or clay pot. Clean the pot with disinfectant as the pot can harbor fungal diseases that are caused by damp soil. Terracotta or clay pots are best for aloe plants, because they are porous which allows the soil to dry out more evenly between each bout of watering, which mitigates the affects or root rot (read my article, choosing the best pots for aloe vera).
- Place the aloe plant in bright indirect light for 2 weeks whilst it recovers. Whilst 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.
Aloe plants can recover from overwatering, but if the root rot is too significant, then the 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
If an aloe plant is underwatered then the aloe shrinks in size with leaves becoming thinner and curl inwards as the aloe draws upon the moisture reserves in the leaves. The leaves also turn brown if they are severely underwatered.
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 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.
If you water the soil too lightly, then only the surface of the soil becomes moist and the watered 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 an healthy aloe plants leaves look full and feel plump.
The first sign of an underwatered aloe plant is that the leaves becomes thinner as the aloe draws upon is moisture resveves.
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 the aloe usually copes well with being underwatered and recover fairly quickly.
It is important to note that the aloe’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
To save an underwatered aloe plant, give the soil a generous soak,
- Place the aloe in a basin of water for 10 minutes or so, ensuring the the soil and root ball is 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 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. Do not water the aloe again until the potting soil feels dry, to avoid overwatering.
- Always water aloe plants with a generous soak, so that excess water trickles from the base of the pot. It is important that the potting soil is 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 maturity of the aloe plant, the size of the pot and the temperature of its environment.
So to establish the optimal watering cycle for your aloe plant (to avoid underwatering) 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).
- 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 roots with pruners, remove an 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 the allow require to replenish the moisture reserves in the leaves.