Many families take their major vacations during the peak of summer, which is exactly the point when most landscape plants are growing most actively and are most susceptible to drought injury. Unless you have an automatic watering system that covers your entire lawn and garden, you may well arrive home from long trips to find that many of your beloved garden plants have succumbed to summer dryness.
A well-designed garden that uses drought-tolerant plants can be less susceptible to serious damage, especially if you have done a good job of mulching the soil around the plants. Even so, hot temperatures, spotty showers, and unforeseen problems can set you up for disappointment when you come home. But you can avoid such disappointments by using these 12 tips.
Before Getting Started
The reality is that losing a few annuals and some immature perennials is almost inevitable if a large garden must be left unattended for long periods during the hottest, driest time of the year. If your lifestyle is such that this kind of absence is common, then it's a good idea to design your garden with plants that can withstand periods of drought. Of course, we all grow a prima donna or two, but it's much easier to care for a handful of high-need plants than a whole garden full of them. If you haven't incorporated the concept of water-wise (xeriscape) gardening, it is well worth looking into. You'll be surprised how many plants, especially native species, are largely self-sufficient.
Lack of water is not the only threat to plants left unattended during your vacation. Do a pest check the week before you leave to treat any obvious problems and make sure they don't balloon into major infestations while you're away. Obvious insect damage can be treated with spot-spraying with an approved pesticide, but avoid indiscriminate widespread spraying of chemicals. If you fear problems from larger animals, such as squirrels, groundhogs, rabbits, or birds, you can apply a spray deterrent, add temporary fencing, or put up an action detector or just some shiny noise-makers to help to confuse the creatures.
The materials you'll need to keep plants hydrated during absences will depend on which of the methods you are employing, but they can include some or all of the following:
Equipment / Tools
- Watering time
- Garden hose
- Soaker hose
- Rain barrel
- Commercial watering bulbs
- 2-liter or 1-gallon jugs
- Self-watering pots
- Drip irrigation tubing
- Water-holding polymer crystals
- Shade cloth
Mulch Heavily, Then Water Deeply
If you are only going to be gone a week or less, your in-ground garden plants can probably survive with nothing more than a thorough soaking and a good layer of mulch over the soil. Mulched plants lose 25 percent less water than unmulched plants because the mulch keeps the soil shaded and cool. Some plants may wilt or become stressed if the weather is very hot and dry, but you probably won't lose any if your absence is no more than a week.
If you already have a few inches of mulch on the garden bed, you probably don't need to add more. You don't want the mulch to be so deep that the crown of the plant is buried, which can encourage fungal problems. If your garden is already well mulched, just give your garden a good soaking before you leave. If you want to add more mulch, you don't need to re-mulch the entire bed. Mulching around the plant roots will suffice.
Container gardens, however, can't survive by mulching alone. Since they are exposed on all sides, container plantings lose moisture quite quickly, and you'll need to find another solution to keep plants from perishing if you'll be away for more than a few days.
Install Drip Irrigation Lines
Drip irrigation systems may sound complicated, but the installation process is quite simple. You can purchase an inexpensive drip irrigation kit that basically snaps together and connects to an ordinary hose faucet. If linked to a timer, the time can provide for targeted automatic watering precisely where you need it during the time you're away from home. Higher-end timers can even sense how much rain has fallen and adjust accordingly.
Because drip irrigation systems direct the water precisely where it's needed, they are the most water-efficient of all methods, and they can be used for both in-ground plantings and outdoor container plants.
Ideally, a drip irrigation system should be laid out and installed before the growing season begins, when you can tailor the system to irrigate both in-ground and container garden plants. It is more difficult, though not impossible, to lay the tubing once plants are large and growing.
Set Hose Sprinklers on Timers
You don't need a drip irrigation system to benefit from using a timer. The timer option works just as well with a hose connected to a regular garden sprinkler. You may need a couple of sprinklers fed by connector hoses and Y-fittings if your garden is expansive. Because your hose faucet will be left in the open position, make sure the hose connections are all watertight, as even a small leak can lead to many gallons of wasted water if it drips during periods when the timer is off.
Sprinklers are not especially efficient watering systems since they broadcast water over large areas, not just where water is needed. But you can make sprinklers more efficient by setting the timers to provide water early or late in the day when the hot sun won't cause the water to quickly evaporate.
Attach Soaker Hoses to Rain Barrels
Rain barrels offer a great way to catch and store "free" water from rainfall that runs off a roof. And they can be adapted to help keep plants hydrated while you are vacationing. If you have a rain barrel, attach a long soaker hose to it and run it through your garden. The water captured by the barrel will leech out slowly and saturate the ground. It's best if the rain barrel is full when you leave home, so if recent rainfalls haven't filled it, you may want to fill the barrel with a garden hose. It can take as much as a week for a rain barrel to distribute its water through a soaker hose.
If your rain barrel holds standing water for any length of time, be sure you use some sort of mosquito control, or you'll be solving one problem only to invite another. Fine-mesh screen fabric over the inlet opening of the rain barrel is an effective way to keep mosquitoes out of the standing water.
Use Watering Bulbs
Commercial watering bulbs, globes, or other self-watering gadgets are designed for container gardens but will also work with in-ground plants. When filled with water and embedded in a container, the bulb slowly drips water into the pot over a week or so. Be sure to thoroughly water the container's potting soil shortly before you leave on vacation, then fill and insert the bulb.
It can be expensive to use commercial watering bulbs if you have many plants, so they are usually reserved for important specimens.
Make Drip-Watering Jugs
Although it's not the most attractive solution, DIY drip-watering jugs can be made by poking tiny pinholes around the bottom of ordinary 2-liter plastic soda bottles or milk jugs. When filled with water and partially buried adjacent to a plant, the jug will slowly release its water to the plant's roots over a period of a week or more. This method will work for both in-ground plants and container-grown plants. For closely spaced plants, one watering jug can supply enough moisture to keep as many as four plants alive.
Water the garden well before setting your watering jugs in place; this will ensure the garden stays moist for as long as possible.
Group Containers Together
Large gardens often include many container plants scattered about the yard. These containers require even more water than the plants in the garden beds. For the time your are on vacation, it's a good idea to group the containers together. Grouped together in the shade, they will lose less moisture to evaporation, and you may be able to position a timed sprinkler so they all get nicely watered at the same time. Or, if a neighbor or friend is helping out with watering chores, having your containers clustered together makes it easier for them to maintain your plants.
Create Watering Wicks
For a DIY version of a self-watering method for indoor houseplants, set up a system using bottles of water and wicks of cotton string or yarn. Place one end of the string into the soil, about 1 inch deep, and firm the soil around the string. Put the other end in a water bottle or jar set slightly higher than the plant pot. The water will gradually wick from the container of water and into the soil.
A 1-liter soda bottle should keep the soil moist enough to sustain the plant for about a week; a larger, 2-liter bottle can work for as long as two weeks or maybe longer, depending on the size of the pot and the thickness of the string.
Keep in mind that the string can drip on its way into the container. Don't set this up on a good piece of furniture or near an appliance cord.
Add Water-Holding Crystals
Another option is to blend some water-holding polymer crystals into the potting soil in a houseplant pot or into the garden soil around an in-ground plant. These polymer crystals have the ability to soak up as much as 200 times their weight in moisture, which is then slowly released to help hydrate your plants while you are away. After blending in the crystals, you must water slowly and deeply to fully hydrate the crystals.
Polymer crystals can cost as much as $1 per ounce, however, so they are often reserved for the most prized houseplants and outdoor container plants.
Protect large portions of your garden by hanging shade cloth to diffuse the light. Shade cloth is often used in greenhouses in the spring to prevent tender plants from burning, but it can also be used to protect gardens in the heat of summer. You can stretch it across a fence or hang it from two poles, where needed. For temporary use during a vacation, you can always use sheer curtains or old screens.
Don't worry about the effect of shading plants that normally require full sun, as shade cloth still allows some amount of sunlight to penetrate. For up to three weeks or so, your plants will not be harmed by the lack of full direct sun, and they will greatly benefit from the cooler soil and reduced evaporation.
This advice also works for indoor houseplants. Draw sheer curtains across a sunny window and place your potted plants behind the screen, where they will still get some filtered light while being protected from direct sunlight.
Establish a Watering Partnership
Form a vacation watering agreement or "co-op" with one or more friends or neighbors—a classic "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" arrangement. Offer to reciprocate for an acquaintance who agrees to water your indoor and outdoor plants while you are vacationing. This can be one of the best solutions if your absence will be lengthy—more than two weeks.
Try and make it easier on your co-op partner by keeping the hose handy and by grouping container plants as close together as you can.
Hire a Garden Sitter
If you are going to be away two weeks or longer and your garden will be unattended, a reliable option is to hire someone to come in once or twice a week to check on your plants. They can either hand-water or simply check to make sure your timers are working properly. Your local hardware store, garden center, or a neighborhood online forum can offer referrals for someone willing to do this work affordably. Or you may find a neighborhood teenager or retiree who will be delighted to earn some easy money.