Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
Of course we’re not talking about getting your garden ready to take a vacation, but rather to survive while you take one. How long you will be away, as well as what kinds of plants and gardens you have, will determine whether you need to think about more than just watering.
If you’ll only be gone for a day or two, as on a long weekend, you may not need to do much at all. Container plantings and pots (I always seem to have some large plants that haven’t gotten in the ground yet) will need the most attention during vacations, even if short. If you’re gone just a few days, you can just move them out of the sun into a shady site, or even a cool garage. They’ll lose much less water there. If soil is showing in large containers, cover with an inch or two of mulch such as pine bark or cocoa shells. Or, if not too large, you can sink the pots up to their rims into a bed or pile of wood chips or bark, and water all well.
If you know early in the season, when planting, that you may be taking a vacation later, put into the potting mix some water absorbing gels. These especially are great in hanging baskets, even if you aren’t going on vacation. They absorb water, releasing it to the mix as it dries. Keep in mind too that clay pots will dry out much quicker than plastic ones.
Another option is to plant into self-watering containers. These are especially popular with houseplants. They often consist of a pot with a false bottom, to which water is added, and that wicks up into the soil through a fabric of some sort. You can even make one of these yourself. There are other devices you can buy, or make, that basically wick water from a bucket or tube into the pot. You may find a plastic tube with holes to screw on a large soda bottle filled with water, that you invert and push into the soil. The water will slowly drip from the holes in the tube into the soil over a day or more.
In the garden, watering well before you leave may last a week, depending on the weather. Best is to start watering early in the season, as needed, deeply and less often. This will “train” the plants to not need water daily, the roots going deeper and not growing just near the surface. If you have lots of plants and gardens, too many to all water if it doesn’t rain, just focus on the new plantings this year, vegetables, and more special (or expensive) trees and shrubs. Even a couple inches of organic mulch, such as bark or pine needles, and straw in the vegetable garden, will help conserve moisture and slow down weeds from coming up. Lay a lightweight white fabric, as used for frost protection, over annuals and vegetables to help retain moisture, slow down water loss from leaves, and help keep away insect pests.
If you’ll be gone for longer periods, or vacation more often, you may want to invest in an automatic watering system. More expensive are ones you have professionally installed, that may even run off mini computers, similar to athletic fields and golf courses. Rather inexpensive, on the other hand, are soaker hoses made of recycled materials. Water slowly seeps out of these hoses that you lay throughout the beds, or along garden rows under mulch. You can have a house sitter turn these on as directed or needed, or you can put these on timers. The timers are relatively inexpensive devices, found at many home and garden stores, that you put on the faucet and then attach to the hose.
You’ll want to plan a few weeks out to make sure your beds are weeded, otherwise these will take up water your plants need, will create competitive stress for them, and may be hard to get under control once you’re home again. Then check plants a couple days before leaving to make sure no pests, and treat if so.
In addition to watering, you’ll want to make sure your lawn is mowed before leaving. This may last a week or 10 days, depending on weather. You don’t want to mow extra low, as this will only stress the grass. Better to have it be high when you return, then mow once again and again lower in a few days. Beware if you have a well-meaning friend mow that they don’t scalp your lawn either!
If you have repellents out for deer, make sure to rotate them or add new ones. They are quick learners, and if they learn that a noise or smell isn’t an issue, they’ll move in to feed while you’re away. If you have a smell repellent, move it elsewhere and add another type. Lights and sound especially should be rotated every few days around the garden.
If you have herbs, pinch flowers off so new growth will develop. If they’re ready to harvest, do so and dry while you’re away. Pick any produce from the garden or fruits that are ripe, or that can continue to ripen once picked. Otherwise they can get too large, lose flavor, rot, fall off, and cause disease. Letting a plant sitter harvest your garden while you’re gone may be an enticing benefit for them to help you.
Don’t plant within a month or so before going on vacation, so you’ll be around to water and tend the plantings until they become somewhat established. Don’t fertilize annuals just before leaving, as this will just stimulate new growth that needs more water. You can if you’ll have a reliable plant sitter tending them daily. Wait until cooler at the end of the season to fertilize perennials. Don’t fertilize shrubs and trees in the north after the first part of July, as doing so will stimulate new growth that doesn’t harden properly before fall.
If you’ll be gone for more than a few days, or have lots of containers that dry out quickly, you may need to line up a plant sitter. Make it easy on them, starting with a list so they don’t forget certain plants or tasks. Walk through what needs doing, such as how much water to add. Group containers so they’re easier to water, even into lower and higher water groups. You might even consider banding with friends or neighbors that can work together to take turns tending each others gardens while away. Don’t forget to bring back a thank you gift for your plant sitter!