How to Prune Aloe Vera Plants in 7 Easy Steps

Does your aloe vera need a trim? Aloe vera is a pretty forgiving plant, but that doesn't mean you should just start trimming away without a plan. In this article, gardening expert and succulent enthusiast Emily Horn walks through a few easy steps to successfully prune your aloe vera plant.

prune aloe vera

Always an attention getting move, when young children visit the desert room here at the university, I rip a leaf from one of our many Aloe vera plants, allowing the juice to run freely down the leaf and drip on the greenhouse floor. The kids are in complete disbelief that I just did that to a plant!

As entertaining as this can be, it is not the correct way to prune an Aloe vera plant. Pruning is intimidating to many newer gardeners. Some people assume they are hurting the plant. The complete opposite is true. 

Pruning is part of the regular maintenance of houseplants to keep them thriving in your home. Let’s take a look at seven easy steps used to properly prune your Aloe vera plant. From proper tools to separating pups, we will explore the pruning process to make your aloe the healthiest it can be.

Step 1: Thoroughly Examine The Plant

Flowerpots with aloe vera
It’s a good idea to inspect your plant before you start pruning to decide which leaves to trim.

You should start with the most basic task. Look at the plant. You may ask how looking at a plant assists in the pruning process. So by ‘looking at the plant’ I mean look at the overall structure and shape of the plant. Is your aloe growing under low light conditions and stretching out on one side more than the other? Is the aloe producing pups causing it to lean?

Are the lower leaves drooping or curling downward? Any yellowing or browning present on the leaves? What about any broken or damaged leaves? Getting an overall assessment done prior to pruning will keep you from removing the wrong leaves. You don’t want to make a current leaning issue worse than it already is.

And remember to look at your plant while you are pruning it. After removing a leaf or two, step back and look at the plant as a whole. Is it more balanced now? Should you take another leaf off on the left side to offset the lighter weight of the right side? These are decisions you’ll need to evaluate and make.

Step 2: Select The Proper Tools

woman pruning Aloe vera plant with a knife
A single-bladed knife is considered one of the best pruning tools.

There are many tools available to prune plants. From bypass pruners, anvil pruners, ratchet pruners, straight edge pruners, loppers, and hand saws just to name a few. Each of these tools has their pluses and minuses in the plant world.

But for pruning, each of the aforementioned tools are big and bulky. Then cam become very difficult to maneuver inside the tightly-leaved succulent.

The best tool for the job is a single-bladed knife. A pocket knife, florist knife or even a kitchen paring knife so long as the blade is sharp and not serrated will do.

Aloe vera has a thick, waxy coating on the leaves to prevent excessive water loss. By using a small knife, you can cleanly cut away any leaf materials from the plant without breaking or damaging any surrounding leaves or the stem.

Another tool to have available is either ethanol or isopropyl alcohol. Both of these alcohols are great at disinfecting tools prior to and after use. Simply use a cotton ball soaked in the alcohol to carefully clean the knife blade.

I’ve also used old, clean, unrepairable socks dipped in the alcohol wipe blades clean.  The texture from the sock can scrub the knife blade if sap should remain after pruning.

Step 3: Remove Dead Leaves

dead houseplant leaves need pruning
If you notice dead leaves, remove them from the base of the stem.

Dead leaves are part of the circle of life and do not necessarily mean your plant is dying. The senescence of older leaves makes room for new leaves to form. But, succulents tend to hold on to their dead leaves rather than dropping them like other houseplants.

Dead leaves can be rather tough and fibrous. You may need to use pruning shears or scissors to prune out dead leaves. A knife may not cut it literally.

If you notice brown tips on your leaves, it could be because the plant is living in an overly bright location. You can cut off the tip, but instead of having a brown tip, you will have a flat ended leaf that is brown at the cutting point. It’s best to remove the leaf from the base at the stem.

To limit the amount of dead leaves on an aloe, make sure to follow a watering schedule that fits the needs of your plant. Underwatering can be a reason for both leaf and plant death.  Water the plant thoroughly with each watering, allowing water to flow freely through the drainage holes of your container.

Step 4: Remove Older Leaves

Woman pruning old leaves on plant
It is recommended to prune off old yellow leaves.

As your Aloe vera grows new leaves, the older leaves at the bottom of the plant may become a lighter, pale green or yellow color. Since your aloe is focusing on new growth, nutrients bypass the old tissues and head straight to the newer leaves.

Many times lower leaves turning pale is a sign your plant is undernourished and lacking in nitrogen. However, aloe plants can thrive in nutrient poor soil, so its highly unlikely fertilizing is needed. Yellowing of older leaves can be an indication of overwatering of the plant as well.

Regardless of the reason, yellowing leaves may not be appealing to you. It’s fine to remove the leaves from your aloe plant. Since the leaves are the storage units of water for your succulent, do not remove too many yellow leaves. Even though they are yellow, they are still photosynthesizing and making food for your plant too.

Some older leaves that are yellow may fall off on their own with a simple tug towards the stem. If the leaf does not easily release, using a sharp knife, gently cut the leaf at the base. Get as close to the stem as you can. These old leaves can be discarded, used to grow new aloe plants, or harvest the gel for your personal use.

Step 5: Remove Old Flower Stems

withered flower on succulent
After the flower withers, its stalk will dry out and must be removed.

If you were lucky enough to get your Aloe vera to bloom under household conditions, congratulations. It’s not an easy feat. But after the flowers have faded and dropped, you are left with a browning, straw-colored stalk protruding from the middle of your plant.

Eventually, the stalk will dry out enough to be removed. Due to the dense structure of the stalk, you will want to use disinfected pruners or kitchen shears to remove the flower stem. Because this tissue is dead, if it gets crushed by the pruners, it will not cause damage to other parts of the aloe plant.

Find the bottom of the flower stalk down inside the aloe plant and snip it away from the plant in one single motion.  Using a sawing action will leave a jagged, unsightly stem, looking more like your cat chewed on it than you pruned it.

Step 6: Separate New Pups

small Aloe vera shoots grow
Pups are recommended to be separated from the mother plant and transplanted into a separate pot.

Often, mature plants will begin growing little baby Aloe vera plants, called pups, from the base of the plant. These pups are relatively lightweight compared to the mother plant, but when in abundance, can cause the entire plant to fall over due to uneven weight distribution.

Pups are completely independent plants from the mother plant, and are capable of surviving on their own in a separate pot. Depending on the age of the pup, there may be a root system already formed or barely a single root present.

Regardless, you can remove the pup from the mother plant one of two ways. If there are roots present, gently tease and untangle the pup’s roots from the roots of the mother plant, careful to leave as many roots intact as possible. Then pot the pup in its own individual pot, and place the mother plant back in its original pot.

The second way to remove a pup is to carefully cut the pup away from the mother plant using a clean, sharp knife. At the base of the pup, gently slice the pup away from the mother plant, focussing on the stem portion of the pup to prevent damaging any leaves. If there are no roots present, let the pup callous over for 2-3 days.

Callusing is the process of a cacti or succulent drying out at the cut portion of a leaf or stem. This callus seals off the remaining tissue preventing infection or insect pest infestation. Once a callus has formed, stick your pup in a small pot containing a well draining succulent soilless mix and in about 2-3 weeks, a new root system should be forming.

Step 7: Prune The Roots

woman caring for new succulent shoots
If your plant is affected by root rot, then you need to prune the roots to encourage the plant to grow a new root system.

Under normal circumstances, root pruning is not necessary for these popular succulents. This is one of the reasons they are so popular! However, if you suspect root rot or other root death, pruning the roots can often stimulate the plant to grow a newer support system.

Start by removing the pot and examining the roots. Healthy roots are off white, yellow or even pink in color and fleshy.  If the roots appear black, brown or mushy, root rot is occurring. If the roots look dried and or feel crunchy, chances are the roots have died back.

With pruners that have been disinfected with either ethanol or isopropyl alcohol, begin trimming back the roots. Usually, root pruning will remove 25% of the damaged root system. Look for roots showing nodes and carefully prune away tissue below the node.

Although not necessary for most succulents, you could dip your plant roots in a rooting hormone compound. Rooting hormone comes in powders and liquid concentrates and can be purchased at your local garden center.

Just remember that the roots are there to anchor the plant into the pot and to suck up water and nutrients from the soil. If you remove too many roots, the plant will be top heavy and fall over.

This is an indicator of root rot as well since roots have rotted away leaving the top unsupported.  Root pruning without top pruning can also cause undue stress on the aloe plant. The leaves still need the same amount of water and nutrients, but the reduced root workforce simply cannot keep up with demand.

Stress signals can be easily picked up by insect pests and plant diseases. Pruning back or thinning out the leaves will help balance the weight after root pruning as well as keep the supply and demand of water/nutrients in balance with the root capabilities.

Final Thoughts

Growing under favored conditions, Aloe vera will require very little, if any pruning. However, living in a house compared to a desert is certainly not ideal for our succulent friend. The nice thing about aloe is pruning is a rarity, and the tools needed to prune them are most likely already in your home.

If and when you decide to clean up your aloe, be sure to look at the plant from many different angles to determine which leaves can stay, and which leaves should go-kind of like the old adage measure twice, cut once…And cleanliness is key.

Cleaning and disinfecting your tools will help prevent the spread of disease and insects among your houseplants and keep your Aloe vera plant happy and healthy for years to come.

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