Vacation Care for your Garden

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Vacation time is coming up… but give a thought to your plants before you leave!

Taking a summer vacation is a long-standing tradition. You get two weeks, three weeks or even four weeks off each summer. And part of the typical summer vacation package has always been going somewhere else. To the cottage, to a campground or on a family trip. That’s all fine and good, but what are you supposed to do with your garden while you’re away? Won’t it suffer from your absence?

Not as much as you might think!

Why Gardens Can (Nearly Always) Take Care of Themselves

First, the bulk of season’s maintenance is usually already done before the summer holiday season even begins: pruning, fertilizing, the greatest part of weed control, etc. About the only thing really left to do is watering. And even there, if Mother Nature is in the least bit generous, she may even supply all the water your garden needs while you’re away. Obviously, that’s more likely if your summers are naturally rather rainy, as in the Northeast or Northwest in North America or in northeastern Europe, and less likely where summers tend to be hot and dry, such as in Arizona or Perth, Australia.

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Mulch goes a long way in keeping your plants moister while you travel, even in vegetable gardens. Photo: Aaron Maison, Flickr

Think too that Ma Nature’s care will be even more efficient if you mulch your plantings. A good layer of mulch (at least 2 inches/5 cm thick) on all your gardens except the lawn will reduce water loss due to evaporation and keep the soil cooler, thus helping to conserve moisture and reduce watering needs, sometimes even entirely.

Mulch is doubly important if your summer is likely to be hot and dry, but even under cooler, moister conditions, most plants grow better and with less maintenance when their roots are covered with a good mulch. In addition, mulches greatly reduce the germination of weed seeds… and what gardener doesn’t appreciate reduced weeding?

You can apply mulch in any season, even the day before you leave! (Remember the term “mulch” because it will come up again to the following explanations.)

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A soaker hose attached to a programmable timer takes only minutes to set up, yet can correctly water your plants in your absence. Photo: jhfearless, Flickr

In very dry areas of your yard, such as a slope, a sector with sandy soil or at the foot of shallow-rooted trees (maples, conifers, etc.), where your plants often tend to wilt, you may want to install a rudimentary irrigation system before you leave. A cheap soaker hose attached to a programmable timer will water even when you’re away and you can set it up in minutes.

Special Cases

Flower Beds

In general, flower gardens generally require little maintenance while you’re away, largely because you’ve probably chosen plants well adapted to your local climate and thus capable of being on their own, but a good mulch is always helpful. If there are some plants that need staking or flowers you want to deadhead, either do it before you leave or put it off until you get back.

Vegetable Gardens

A vegetable garden requires more maintenance than a flower bed and is more likely to suffer from your absence. Vegetables and small fruits are more dependent on a constant supply of water than any other type of plant, so mulch and perhaps an irrigation system can be very useful. And think about this: the thicker the mulch, the better your plants will grow well without human assistance. 3 to 4 inches (8 to 10 cm) of mulch is not too much in a vegetable garden! More than that really is too much, though.

As for weeding (always a problem in non-mulched vegetable beds), the best you can do is to weed as best you can before you leave, but be aware you may need to spend a bit of time weeding the vegetable bed back into shape when you get home.

The most unfortunate thing in a vegetable garden is that so many vegetables risk reaching maturity while you’re away! My suggestion is to tell a neighbor or friend to come over and harvest away to their heart’s content while you’re gone: at least the vegetables will serve a useful purpose rather than rotting away!

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Harvest even the youngest summer squash to keep the plant productive while you’re gone. Photo: jhusemannde, Flickr

If no one can come over, harvest at least any string beans, summer squash and cucumbers just before you leave, even if they’re still tiny. That’s because these vegetables stop producing as soon as their first fruits reach maturity. Then you’ll come back to discover their fruits overgrown, bloated and pretty much indigestible with no young fruits on the way. On the other hand, if you harvest just before you leave, even if that gives you the tiniest of vegetables only worthy of a salad or a stir fry, it will nevertheless stimulate the plant to bloom and start to produce again while you’re gone. With a little luck, an abundance of cucumbers, beans and summer squash will be ripe and ready for harvest just as you get home!

Lawns

When it comes to watering, a well-established lawn is a snap to care for while you’re gone: it can go without water for several weeks and live to tell the tale. Even if there is a severe drought, the lawn may turn yellow, but will revive when the rains do return. So you don’t even have to worry about watering your lawn while you’re away.

The problem with vacation lawn care is mowing. Of course, climate is a factor here too: If it’s hot and dry, the lawn will stop growing, entirely solving this problem. But during cooler, rainier summers, lawn grasses will just keep growing, gaining considerable height during a 3- to 4-week absence.

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If your lawn is seriously overgrown when you get home, cut it back in two stages. Photo: Steven Johnson, Flickr

Of course, dealing with a horrendously overgrown lawn when you get back is not that difficult, but don’t whack it down all at once: that can expose the tender, heretofore shaded growth at the base to the burning sun, seriously reducing the lawn’s vigor… and allowing weeds to move in. Instead, shorten it in two steps. For the first passage, set the mower at its highest possible setting and mow the lawn, then wait 3 or 4 days for the lawn to recover a bit, then mow it again, this time lower: to 3 inches (8 cm). That will get you to an acceptable height without doing major harm. From there, just carry on with your usual mowing habits (but mowing to 3 inches/8 cm is the recommended height for most types of lawn).

The real problem with a lawn that hasn’t been mown for a few weeks is that it can take on an abandoned appearance that could indicate to potential thieves no one is home. It’s therefore best to ask a neighbor to mow at least once every two weeks (preferably every week)—or hire a neighborhood adolescent to do so—so that your home maintains that liven-in look.

Container Plants

Honestly, this is where absentee plant care gets a bit dicey. Whether you have flower boxes on the balcony, containers on your deck or houseplants summering outside in various places throughout your yard, plants grown in any kind of pot tend to dry out very quickly. If you’ve been caring for them since this spring, you’ll already have a good idea about their needs. In some cases, they may need two waterings per day! It just doesn’t seem possible that you could keep such a plant going while you travel.

In general, large containers and pots with a water reservoir can easily tolerate one week without watering, sometimes even two. If it usually rains from time to time during your summers, they may not in fact need any watering at all while you’re away. It’s the plants growing in small pots that dry out so quickly they require regular watering.

The most technically advanced gardeners can easily fix this: just install a drip irrigation system with a timer, test it out for a week before you leave and will ensure perfect watering during your absence.

For others, a neighbor or friend with some watering experience can be very helpful. If possible, group your plants together according to their watering needs, pointing out those that need moisture most frequently.

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A temporary move to a shady spot while your travel will do container plants a world of good. Photo: Mark, Flickr

Failing that, move your plants to a shaded area protected from the wind: under shrubs, on the north side of the house or at the back of a balcony, for example. Plants lose much less water to evapotranspiration when they’re not exposed to full sun and windy conditions. Pack them together tightly if possible: plants jammed together with their leaves touching also lose less moisture to evaporation. Water them well when you leave and medium-sized pots placed in shade will often be all right for about 2 weeks; more if Mother Nature supplies rain.

And as for those plants that dry out overnight, the ones in small, shallow pots, they’ll need extra special care (hint: next year, don’t use small pots for your container plants!), Here’s what I suggest: water them normally, seal them inside a clear plastic bag, then place the bag in the shade. This cuts off evapotranspiration entirely and thus they can easily go weeks without any watering at all.

(To understand how plants can thrive so readily for weeks on end when sealed in a plastic bag, read this.)

Houseplants

Pelarg+

Sealing houseplants inside a plastic bag and moving them back from a sunny  window will give you months of autonomy from watering.

Essentially, just treat houseplants in the same way as explained above for container plants in the outdoor garden: water them well and move them well back from sunny windows and you are good for an absence of 2 weeks. Seal them in a clear plastic bag and you could leave for 6 months (and that is no exaggeration!) without having to give them a drop of water.


There you go: several tips on keeping your plants thriving while you’re off on vacation. Relax and enjoy your trip!20170629A

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