Keeping your garden and houseplants alive on a budget
It’s a problem most of us face (a nice one) – going on summer holiday. If you have school-age kids, work in education, or have a partner who has to take off ‘factory fortnight’, you have no option but to take a break in July/August – the time when harvest begins in earnest.
How do you safeguard your plants? I’m missing out the two most obvious solutions, as we’re not all made of money and there’s a water shortage (hiring a gardener and installing an automatic watering system).
Here are some ideas for the outside garden:
- Watering plants thoroughly and less frequently. If you do this from planting them out, they’ll develop deep, searching root systems. Frequent, insufficient watering leads to shallow rooting and plants are much more susceptible to drought.
- Choose plants wisely. If you know you’re going to be away, or have to leave your garden a lot, grow drought-tolerant plants. Choose perennial varieties with hairy or silver leaves, such as Stachys, Verbena, Alchemilla, succulents, Salvia and Mediterranean-style shrubs and sub-shrubs. Half-hardy Pelargoniums, Cosmos, Californian poppies, Gazania and Osteospermum are excellent choices for splashes of colour.
- Mulch. An early season 2-3 inch layer of organic material or gravel prevents evaporation and discourages weeds, especially for serial wilters like hydrangeas and clematis.
- Weed. A day or so before you leave, weed your beds to avoid water competition.
Just before you leave
- Give your plants a good soaking. Do this early morning or late evening to avoid excess evaporation. Bear in mind newly planted shrubs and roses need a gallon at a time!
- Mulch. After a thorough watering, mulch with grass clippings, compost, pebbles, gravel etc. Obviously, this is a big ask if you’re trying to get a family ready for a holiday – do it in advance. Avoid plastic, as rain won’t get to soil level.
- How you water is vital. Do it slowly, or most of the water will run down the outside of the pot. Make sure the soil is saturated.
- Stand pots in saucers. It’s an extra water reservoir.
- Move pots into the shade and group them closely together. They will shade each other and produce humidity, which will keep the soil moist for longer.
- Capillary action watering system. Make a wick from a strip of cloth or strips of capillary matting. Leave one end in a bucket full of water on bricks so it’s higher than the other containers and the other end deep in the soil of a pot.
- Make a water reservoir. Ensure that the compost is already damp. Fill a glass wine bottle or 2-litre pop bottle to the brim with water and quickly plunge the neck into the pot, screwing well into the soil. The compost will gradually draw the moisture down. Try this a couple of weeks before you go to see how long the water lasts and add more bottles if necessary.
- Hanging baskets. They can need watering twice a day. Either abandon them or cut them back, taking the basket down and placing in a deep depression in a shady border. Water thoroughly, making sure the soil underneath is soaked.
Fruit and vegetables
- Pick anything that’s ripe. If you’re away longer than a couple of days, gather produce that’s just started to ripen, such as tomatoes and strawberries, and store in the fridge.
- Keep plants fruiting. If you’re away longer than this, pick young beans, peas and courgettes. If they mature, the fruiting mechanism in the plant will ‘switch off’.
- Give up salads. Green leafy salad crops are most likely to be lost – give what you can away and shade the rest to try and stop them running to seed.
- Cool down the greenhouse. Apply extra shading and leave it well ventilated.
Get a ‘willing’ helper
I’m lucky in having my daughter and lovely neighbour Julie to help out with watering but neither are keen gardeners. Don’t assume others know as much as you, or bamboozle them with sheets of notes. Keep watering duties to the absolute minimum.
- Leave watering cans by the tap and the hose connected and unravelled.
- Place pots in a convenient, shady place.
- Quite literally flag up plants (with flags) that must be watered.
- Bribe with alcohol and chocolate.
- Tell them to help themselves to ripe fruit or veg – this will help beans, courgettes and peas keep on producing, too.
Caring for houseplants while on holiday
- A few days away shouldn’t hurt, as long as you move them to a cooler room out of direct sunlight.
- For longer periods and bigger pots, use the capillary action watering system as described above.
- For smaller collections of pots, use capillary matting on the kitchen sink draining board or next to the bath. Drape one end of the matting into the filled sink or bath. Group plants on the wet matting, pressing them down well. Clay pots need a thorough watering first.
- For short-term use only, cover plants with a clear plastic bag and seal it closed. Keep the sides of the bag away from the plant with canes.
- Self-watering containers with built-in reservoir systems are reasonably priced for the odd houseplant if it needs year-round moisture.