Coping with holidays

Coping with holidays

For most gardeners, the main drawback of taking holidays away from home is the adverse affect it has on the garden. The dread of returning home to find knee-high grass, pest- and disease-ridden fruit and vegetables, and container plants burned to a crisp. However, there is no need to worry if you take a few simple precautions before you go. The main problem most gardeners face is how plants are going to get enough water. If you are lucky enough to have a willing and reliable friend or neighbour it might not be an issue, but most of us have to be more self-reliant.

Container headache

Plants in containers are entirely reliant on the water you can give them. Unless you have set up an automatic watering system then you will either have to get someone else in to water them for you or rig up some sort of temporary watering system. Set up any watering system at least a week before you are due to go so that you can be sure it is working correctly. If you are using capillary matting in a greenhouse, water all containers from above, until water drains from the drainage holes, to start the capillary action off. Another thing you can try, is to cover the soil surface with water absorbing gel, water it so that it swells and absorbs water. This will provide a protective barrier to stop water evaporating from the compost as well as leaching moisture back into the compost as it dries. Also, the crystals will soak up and hold lots of water if it rains while you are away.

Watering containers

House plants. The easiest way to water a collection of houseplants is to lay a piece of capillary matting on the draining board and lead it down into the sink. Leave the plug in, run a couple of inches of water into the sink and submerge one end of the matting. The water will be absorbed by the matting, keeping the pot plants moist through capillary action.

Patio plants. Move all containers into the shade where they will need watering less often. Grouping container plants together will increase humidity around the plants which will also mean less watering is needed. Where practical, you could try burying pots rim-deep into the border so that they can absorb moisture from the surrounding soil, or ‘over-pot’ small containers into a larger one filled with moist compost.

Smaller pots also can be stood on capillary matting as described for house plants. However, since pots over 15cm diameter will not get sufficient water this way, you will need to adapt the technique a little. First of all, lay a sheet of polythene over a flat surface such as paving. Raise the edges using bricks or planks of wood to create a large shallow reservoir. Use a screwdriver to push narrow strips (about 5cm wide) of capillary matting through the drainage holes of each container so that at least a 15cm tail is left dangling out the bottom. Support each container on bricks in the reservoir with the wicks draped down on to the polythene. Then fill the reservoir with water and water each container thoroughly. The pots will then draw the water they need from the reservoir via their capillary tails.

Keeping the garden going

If you are up-to-date with your gardening chores, most areas will not suffer from being left to their own devices for a week or two. However, there are a few tricks you can employ to make sure the garden is looking good when you return.

Lawns. Most standard or family quality lawns will cope perfectly well if you are going on holiday for up to a fortnight. Mow and trim just before you leave and be ready to do the same on your return. Don’t worry about watering a lawn - it will survive however dry it gets. High-quality lawns need mowing more often to keep them in good condition, so either ask a friend or neighbour to do the job for you or arrange for a professional contractor to visit while you are away.

Beds and borders. The main problem here is weeds. If allowed to flower and set seed they will be a pain for years afterwards. Make sure you clear all weeds, including seedlings just before you go. Then cover any bare soil between plants with a 7cm layer of loose organic mulch to prevent further flushes and to help retain soil moisture. Vacant ground can be covered with a sheet of black polythene or old carpet to prevent weed seed from germinating.

Plants growing in the ground will not need watering unless they have been recently planted. The roots of new trees and shrubs, in particular, will need to be kept moist until well established. Make sure the person who is doing the watering is clear about which plants to water. Shallow-rooted plants, such as bedding, will also need to be watered during a drought.

One of the most annoying aspects of going away on holiday is that you miss out on the climax to the garden’s flowering display. But this needn’t be the case. You can delay the best show by deadheading all repeat-flowering plants, such as roses, before you leave so that they are coming to a peak once more on your return. Similarly, use a pair of shears to trim over bedding plants to remove the older blooms, allowing new buds to develop, ready to open in a few weeks’ time. A few flowering plants, notably sweet peas, need to be picked over regularly so that they continue to produce new buds, so it’s worth removing even partly opened flowers from these.

Water features. Provided a water feature is not being run while you are away, there will be no need to top up the reservoir. However, during thundery, humid weather conditions, water can become depleted of oxygen, and fish can become stressed, gulping for air at the surface. You can prevent this from happening by asking your volunteer to spray a hosepipe into the pond, disturbing the surface and improving the levels of oxygen in the water.

Before going on holiday, it’s a good idea to clear any yellowing pads from waterlilies and remove fading flowers from all pond plants to prevent them rotting in the water and fouling it. Also clear ponds of algae.

Fruit and vegetables. Many vegetable crops will suffer if they run short of water. If you cannot arrange for them all to be watered while you are away, make sure supplies are concentrated on those which produce pods (such as peas and beans) and fruit (such as tomatoes). Leafy crops, such as lettuce, are also worth keeping well watered otherwise they may run to seed. Watering thoroughly before you go and mulching all bare soil between rows and individual plants can often be sufficient if the weather is not too hot. Some vegetables, particularly runner beans, courgettes and tomatoes need to be picked over regularly to ensure the plants continue to produce new pods or fruits. This can be a nifty reward to offer the person who’s looking after your garden while you are away. If this is not possible, make sure you remove all ripening tomatoes and swelling pods from runner beans before you leave, even if you cannot use them.

To get the best harvests from your fruit crops, they need to be kept well watered while the fruit is swelling. Again a thorough watering and a thick mulch will work wonders. Concentrate any additional water on crops trained against walls because there the soil is more prone to drying out.