Going on extended leave and holiday needs lots of preparation and effort! And then when you come back, you need to get your plants back on track. And not only with watering, but also with help for your plants to catch up on their impetus of growing and developing; blossoming and producing.
Plants need water. They need sunshine. They need food. And they need the right conditions in which to grow. So do children and gardeners. Imagine if you were somehow stuck in this needy situation and was then left alone with contraptions all about you that drip fed you eking out wholesome biscuits one by one and drops of water little by little for a while, anytime from a couple of days to 6 weeks or so? Well essentially, and as funny as this idea seems, that is what we are talking about here.
So does that mean you can never go on holiday or away on business or similar because you have a container garden? Of course not, but it may mean a compromise of another sort, especially if the stress of incorrect watering while you are away means a near-death experience for your containers.
There are expensive solutions to this “while I am away” watering dilemma and, using similar principles, there are some cheaper we-can-make-a-plan systems that are also available. Here are some thoughts and ideas for you to consider.
GET FRIENDS AND FAMILY
Do you have anyone that you can rely on to come to do your watering - bonsai need it at least daily while cacti can go much longer with little or even without. Do you have a friendly neighbour, including those living three houses down the street who may help? There is no substitution for this personal care. But, if you can’t or won’t or don’t have this type of service at your fingertips, then
USE AN OUTSIDE SERVICE
Do you have a nursery near you who offers a holiday camp service for short stays that you can take your plants to (much like a cattery or kennels for pets?) What about a house sitter service? Your gardening club? The university horticultural centre? A reliable teenager who could also mow the lawn? Consider all of these options if you can afford them or trade them for return favours, and then do your best to use them; but if you haven’t then there are
THINGS YOU CAN BUY
There are several commercial products available. You can buy or install an underground sprinkler pipe system on a timer (not always useful for containers but it can be adapted); watering spikes, capillary mats, trays, self-watering pots … but the one I think is worth the investment (definitely so if you go away a lot) is the Gardena Holiday Watering Set (or any other brand name using this design). It may be a good investment anyway as a permanent way to manage the watering and feeding of your plants.
Basically the water is supplied via a large bucket into which you have placed an electrically run water pump - much like those you buy for goldfish bowls – to which are attached varying sized pipes that lead off a drip distributor mat. As the water source is not tap dependent, you will not get wrong-watering and you can monitor how much water each plant gets easily. Set up is simple; it looks neat and it can be used long term. Of course, this is a time you do not need an electricity power cut for any reason …
There are also other similar versions which do not use electricity or a pump. These are like the drip systems you see in hospitals and I have heard of people using real medical drips in their gardens just so.
A watering Spike (all sorts of designs by many different companies) could be suitable for you. These can be mimicked in a way with a cheaper-by-far homemade version of spikes that get placed next to the plant and allow a slow release of moisture. It’s like a drip feed irrigation system that fits on to old soda bottles (standard size tops) and where there are many different flow rates because these drip tops come in different sizes.
THINGS YOU MUST DO
* You must check out the expected long-term weather for your area with the met office for the time you expect to be away. This may help you to determine how and what you will do about your container garden.
* You must move your containers out of the direct sunshine and into shady and sheltered areas of your space. You will need to protect them from heat (evaporation) and wind which really dries out plants.
* You must weed thoroughly. These guys love it when you go on holiday! They get to perform at their best and they will efficiently steal a lot of the water from your plants.
* You must group plants that need similar watering amounts together cacti with succulents and roses with roses.
* You must water your plants thoroughly just before you leave. Fill the trays, bottles, spikes, bags etc. with water too. Wicks and string will not work unless they have been started up. Water drops attract water drop; and if you do not water your plants before you go you won’t start off the capillary action so they will not get the water they need.
THINGS YOU CAN DO
* You can leave some or all of your plants outside in a filtered shady spot; sheltered from the wind and midday sun so that they can catch the rain. Is it your rainy season?
* You can add water retaining gel and crystals and bits of florists foam (oasis) to your soils in your various pots.
* You can use one-litre to five-litre plastic soda bottles, depending on the size of your containers and what you need. Put several small definite pin/nail-holes in the neck of the bottle/s, fill them with water, screw the caps back on then bury them upside-down a few inches into the soil so they stand upright (bottom-end-up). Make sure you bury them deep enough so that the bottle does not fall over. In theory the water then seeps slowly out from these pin holes into the soil which will in turn ensure that the area around the plant is never dry. Big Pin pricks are important as anything much bigger will release the water too quickly and anything too small will not release and the idea will not serve its purpose properly.
* You can use mulch to conserve water. Natural mulches only please like bark, peanut shells, straw, grass cuttings. This will suppress weeds, retain moisture and protect roots and soil alike. Over the long term they break down and improve your soil.
* You can make a drip hosepipe out of one inch clear plastic tubing (bought from water feature supply shops) and drape it across your pots drip irrigation style.
* You can use a soaker hose (similar to above but the more expensive commercial option). These seep small but constant amounts of water into the soil. For containers you can measure the length of hose you are likely to need that will allow you to loop it around the drip line on the outer edge of your larger containers. These kits have different bits and pieces that will allow you to customise their use to your garden. Not always easy to set up for containers but it can be done and it is efficient. My local nursery does this for their container fruit trees.
* You can plant 2-litre bottles next to or in between your plants. This is a little different from the idea above in that you keep the cap on, still make small but large enough holes in the top, slice off the base and plant the bottle upside down. You then fill the plastic bottle with water. This then leaks slowly as it should. Some like to add food to this water, some don’t. I prefer plain water that I have left in the sun. I learnt this trick from a friend of mine and see that there is a difference. It seems that somehow the fluoride is rendered harmless? Anyway I feel better and I hope my plants do too.
* You can fill a gallon milk container (the plastic ones) with water. Put the lid on tightly and poke a small hole in one corner on the bottom. Set this water jug in your container (or hang it from above if there is no room in the container). The water will drip out very slowly and will help your container plant survive till you get back. This practical and tested tip comes from Phyllis Doyle, another Editor who writes for Bellaonline. Thanks Phyllis!
* You can use large plastic or melamine drip or tea trays. The deeper the better (5-10 cms very nice) You put down a layer of gravel stones then you can use string, strips of old t-shirt, candle wick cord or curtain tie back cord or anything similar. Tuck this into the bottom of one of the drainage holes of your pots, fill the trays with water, place the pot plants on top of the gravel with the wick of choice being covered with water and held in place by a stone or two. The theory is that the plant will draw water as and when it needs it from the bottom of the tray via the wick.
* You can use a ‘bain marie’ idea. Place a pot or pots into a large water-filled container as you would when slow baking a pud in the oven.
* You can use your bathtub and your basin! For a replacement of the more expensive and not always workable capillary garden mats, first line the bath/basin with heavy-duty plastic garbage bags - I use the green ones just because. Cut up and trim as many disposable diapers/nappies (Pampers style) as you need to line the bottom of the bath using only the central or absorbent bits of the diaper. These have been designed to retain and hold lots of moisture and are a fabulous if a funny looking alternative to capillary mats. This I have tried and it works like a bomb. Just watch out for lighting (use growth lights on a timer if your bathroom is too dark).
* You can create a mini greenhouse effect by grouping small plants together and covering them in a plastic dome. This is a mixture of a terrarium effect where the moisture goes back on itself and can be reused by the plant. This is not for longer than two-week trips or your plants may rot. Do not use this with hairy-leaved plants like African Violets.
* You can mix and match bits of all of these ideas to suit your particular circumtances.
How much water is enough? Can’t say, but too much water and some water is better than no water at all. If your roots rot then the goose is cooked but you may be able to save something. If your roots are dead becasue they dried out, there is nothing you can do! Still, damage does happen and we inevitably lose somehow. Either the plants will not produce fruit or seeds for a season; they may not flower for a season while they ‘catch up.’
If you are going to be away for longer than 8 weeks and there really is no-one who can or will come in to help you then consider giving your plants away and starting again. Go to a garage sale or swap meet or offer them to the local charity or old-age/retirement home or hospital or school. They would surely welcome this gesture.
Good luck and enjoy your trip.
P S When you get back, check and water thoroughly then wait a day then water again according to plant needs then wait a day or so then feed. Never feed or fertilise dry soil or plants - you might kill them!