Holiday Garden - How to Look After Your Garden When You’re on Vacation

, written by gb flag

Beetroot with a grass clipping mulch to minimize moisture loss

There is great pain in abandoning a tomato on the cusp of ripening but it happens every year. My fruit and veg decide to produce their best just as I have to leave – on business, on holiday – somewhere far from the hosepipe and harvest. Even more painful is to return to a garden of parched, withered crops. To keep your garden going in your absence, a little planning is called for.

Keeping the garden watered while you're away

  1. A day or so before you leave, weed your beds (weeds compete for water).
  2. Cut the grass and pile the clippings near the beds. This kills two birds with one stone. Not only will the lawn be neater when you return, but you now have a mulch.
  3. As late as possible before you leave, water your veggies deeply.
  4. When everything is thoroughly soaked, spread the soil with clippings or, if you don't have clippings, compost or other mulch. You could even place large stones or planks of wood between the rows of vegetables. The idea is to ensure the soil beneath remains damp for as long as possible. Don't use plastic, as you want any rain that does fall to soak in.

It's worth remembering next year, if you don't already, to water more deeply and less frequently from the start of the season. This encourages plants to send roots deeper and means they'll cope better for periods without water than those whose roots are near the surface because they've always been lightly watered.

Watering globes

Making veggies comfortable

Stake and tie any plants that will need it when they're bigger, even if they're not big enough yet. Tomato plants never fail to amaze me with exponential growth whenever my back is turned and too soon they start resting on the ground.

Just how much you decide to harvest before you go depends on how long you'll be away. Pick anything that's ripe and, for any absence longer than a couple of days, add produce that is nearly ripe (tomatoes and strawberries will ripen in the fridge). For longer absences, remove young beans, immature peas and baby zucchini as, if these mature on the vine, the plant will stop fruiting.

The crops that you're most likely to lose are the green leafy ones, such as lettuce, cress and oriental salads - you can slow up their tendency to run to seed by erecting shade protection.

Crops in Pots

Pots are obviously most vulnerable to drying out. Grouping them close together creates a damper micro-climate for them and reduces evaporation from the soil and water loss through the leaves. They should, if possible, be placed in a position that's shady for most of the day and where they'll still receive rain. Water thoroughly and cover the soil surface with a permeable mulch.

Watering devices can help. Water globes are widely available, but you can create your own. Ensure that the soil in the pot is already damp. Fill a glass wine bottle (or similar) to the brim and quickly plunge the neck into the pot, screwing well into the soil so that there's a good contact between earth and water. The water level will stabilize within the bottle and the soil will gradually draw the moisture down as it needs it. It's a good idea to try this out in the week before you go to see if the water lasts as long as you'd like and if very thirsty plants, like tomatoes, still tend to wilt. Increase the water available, if necessary, by adding more or larger bottles.

Grouping pots together to reduce evaporation

Find a Garden Buddy

In an ideal world, we'd all have someone we trusted to tend our gardens while we're away – someone as keen as we, and whose crops we'll look after in return. Sadly, few of us have such a treasure, but you might consider joining your local gardening club or horticultural society in the hope of cultivating one for the future.

It's more likely that, if you find a helper, it'll be a less horticulturally enthused neighbour. The temptation to write copious notes, or take him or her on a long, detailed journey around the beds before you leave should be resisted.

By all means, show them round, but make everything as simple as possible.

  1. Leave watering cans by the tap (faucet) or the hose connected and unravelled as far as the veg beds.
  2. Group pots together so that your helper doesn't have to traipse round the garden to find them.
  3. Make clear what absolutely has to be watered (perhaps insert a flag by particular plants), and what it would be really nice of them to water if they have the time.
  4. Bring a present home. A box of chocolates says "I've appreciated your effort," and your neighbor will feel happier to help again.

You should also tell them to help themselves to the harvest. Not only does this bonus mean they're more likely to remember to nip round but, as mentioned above, continuous harvesting encourages continuous fruiting, so you won't miss further harvests on your return.

Don't expect perfection. These are your babies, and no one is going to treat them as well as you are. Plenty of gardeners have surely suffered blossom end rot in their tomatoes, thanks to a less than attentive neighbor (yes, it was me, but I was young...)

By Helen Gazeley

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Show Comments


"Helen, My efforts to protect my garden while away for any length of time have not always been successful...but I keep trying! I have used the water globe trick and also, water wicks ( containers of water set strategically around the garden rows with long strips of cloth inserted into the bucket of water and then into the soil by the plants or pots) works best with the potted plants. On another note: My family was in the green grocery business for three generations and it is definitely NOT a good idea to put tomatoes in the fridge - ever! The cold temps(40F) destroy the flavor and texture of the fruit.I wrap unripe tomatoes in paper and store in flat boxes to ripen. A refrigerated tomato, even though homegrown, will taste like one from a supermarket! Yuck! "
DR-T on Friday 9 August 2013
"Another helpful idea is to incorporate a great deal of organic matter into the soil where your plants are growing. Generally you will want to do this before you even plant. Compost, animal manures, oak leaves, etc. are good for this purpose. A great introduction to soil preparation can be found here: Nice introduction to organic gardening. Raised beds are definitely the way to go, and you don't really need to build frames around them to make them work. Here is a great introduction to making raised beds according to the technique of the man who brought it to the USA, Alan Chadwick:"
Carlos Mendoza on Saturday 10 August 2013
"Going on vacation for a week next month so I tried the water bottle method last night to see how long the water would last. Woke up this morning and all water was gone from the bottle. Plant was watered beforehand, not sure what went wrong? Too many holes in the cap? I put 5 small nail holes. I will try again with 3 holes. :-/"
Julie on Friday 23 October 2020
"Hi Julie. Maybe try watering beforehand by sitting the pot/s in a reservoir of water so moisture is absorbed from the bottom up. Wait till you can see plenty of moisture at the surface, then remove from the reservoir. This way you know the potting mix will be thoroughly watered, right the way through. Then add your water bottle."
Ben Vanheems on Saturday 24 October 2020
"Great article!!! Thanks!!"
caryparkway on Sunday 27 November 2022
"I just found this very helpful website. Looking forward to increase learning about container gardening"
Linda on Tuesday 4 July 2023

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