Take a break: holiday care for the garden
by Emma Cooper
credit: Andrew Black
Once summer arrives, most gardeners are torn between tending their plants through the growing season and heading off for a couple of weeks of R&R while the weather’s nice. Spend a little bit of time on preparation though and you might just be able to have the best of both worlds: a relaxing holiday and a garden that looks like you never went away.
Patio and pots
Plants in pots are completely dependent on us for water in dry weather and so they can be one of the biggest worries when you’re going on holiday.
If you have plants that have outgrown their current pots and are waiting to be potted on, make time to do this a couple of weeks before you go. Once settled in their new, larger, pots, plants will be less prone to drying out. But don’t repot them at the last minute – disturbed roots are more vulnerable to drought.
Consider sinking smaller pots into the ground (or a larger container) as this will help to keep roots cool and moist. This is particularly helpful for terracotta pots because they are permeable and allow water to evaporate from their sides.
Shade and wind breaks
The amount of water plants need is governed by how much sun and wind they are exposed to. Before you go away, move planters into a shady corner or erect a shade. If your garden is exposed to the wind, consider a temporary wind break too.
Self-watering pots and watering systems
There are all kinds of self-watering pots and automatic watering systems on the market that can help to keep your patio well-supplied for short periods of time. Pots and troughs with in-built reservoirs are cheap and simple – a perforated tray in the bottom stops the compost from falling into the water and an overflow system prevents waterlogging. It’s also possible to build a DIY version if you’re crafty.
If you want to stick with the pots you’ve got, then you’ll need a watering gadget. The simplest are water spikes, which screw on to an ordinary plastic bottle filled with water and, once pushed into a container, gradually release moisture into the soil. You’ll need one per pot or per plant, and they cost about £6 each.
For grow bags or long troughs, the Growtube works in a similar way but has several smaller spikes to distribute the water evenly. It costs £4 to £6.
Alternatively, you can set up automatic irrigation, which delivers water when it’s needed through a network of pipes. If you have a water butt on the patio, a solar-powered pump will allow you to set up an eco-friendly system. The pump will cost about £100. A cheaper option, if you have an outside tap, is an electronic timer to control when water flows (about £40). In either case, you’ll need time to set up and test the system before you go away.
Lawn, beds and borders
If there’s a dry spell before you go away then it’s worth making time to mow the lawn but resist the temptation to cut it extra short to compensate for missing a week or two. Very close mowing can make the grass more susceptible to drought and weeds.
Weeding and mulching
Pop out with the hoe and get rid of any visible weeds in the flower borders and veg patch. Many grow so rapidly, they could have seeded by the time you get back. Consider mulching bare ground to prevent weed problems and to stop the soil drying out.
Deadheading and harvesting
Deadheading spent flowers, and even removing blooms at their peak, will encourage some plants to grow more flowers for your return. In the kitchen garden, pick any pea and bean pods to prevent them maturing while you’re away and ending the harvest season early. Harvest all courgettes too or risk returning to marrows!
The wet weather this year has encouraged a slime wave, so make sure your chosen slug defences are in place before you go. If you don’t like using chemicals but traps and barriers aren’t working, try biological controls such as Nemaslug.
Remember to net any ripening fruit to protect it from the birds, but be careful not to leave loose ends – not only are birds adept at finding vulnerable points, they, and hedgehogs, can get tangled.
Watering for houseplants
Watering gadgets such as spikes can also be used for houseplants but if you have a lot of pots, then a different approach may be required. Consider moving all of your pots to the kitchen, and sitting them on capillary matting on the draining board. Drape one end of the matting into a sink full of water and plants will be able to draw up moisture as and when they need it without becoming waterlogged.
You also can buy self-watering trays that work on the same principle, and hold enough water to keep most houseplants happy for a couple of weeks.
Greenhouse shading and ventilation
If you’re lucky enough to have a greenhouse, then the watering systems mentioned above will help to keep your plants happy. But remember to apply shading (if necessary) to avoid overheating and make sure that manual vents are left open and automatic vents are working properly.
With a little bit of thought and planning, your garden can survive weeds, pests, diseases and drought while you’re away and be a peaceful oasis on your return. If you’ve already plunged into pre-holiday panic though, there is one rather easier alternative: delegate! Find a green-fingered friend or neighbour to take on the holiday horticultural care and you’ll be free to focus on the packing (and present buying).