Don’t let your holiday ruin your garden

Posted on: 02 August 2010 by Mark O'haire

Gardening expert Maxine Farmer gives her top tips on getting the best out of your garden whilst you’re away on holiday.

Does anyone else think about their garden while they are on holiday?  I find that instead of just focusing on the lapping of the sea, not getting sand in my cocktail and ensuring that the Factor 50 is slathered on thick enough, I wonder whether the night-scented stocks have bloomed yet, or whether the aubergines will be ready to pick by the time I get home. 

But I no longer waste my holiday actually worrying about the garden, having over the years adopted some simple stratagems that help ensure I won’t return to a mass of burnt, crisped leaves. 

Here are my top 10 tips:

1. Shade – wherever possible, get plants out of direct sunlight, or if they are not moveable, construct shade over them.  I have found that plants that are under-watered but in shade will survive a lot better than well-watered plants exposed to unrelenting sun.

2. Help you can trust – while lots of people may say they are willing to water your garden while you are away, do choose someone who will stand by their word and water properly.  My parents used to suffer the well-meaning ministrations of their neighbour, but found that his definition of watering was a sprinkle, whereas their plants were accustomed to a good dousing.  If in doubt, pay someone – perhaps a neighbour’s grandchild – to water and more to the point, ask them to do it thoroughly.   In my view, it is best to soak every few days, rather than a token amount every day.  And encourage your waterer to pick beans and tomatoes, to encourage further cropping that will benefit you later in the season.

3. Feed & weed - A well-fed plant is better able to cope with stress than a hungry one, so make sure you find time to put some all-purpose food on plants that may be vulnerable.   Also remove any weeds, because these will be competing for the same water supply, as well as growing into giants by the time you return.

4. Mulch – membrane, gravel, stones, old plastic bags, thick cardboard – it doesn’t really matter what it is, and who cares if it looks pretty or not, but give plants a helping hand by covering bare earth to minimise evaporation. 

5. Saucer support – despite my best intentions to reduce the number of plants I have in pots or trays, I always seem to have hundreds of them.  So over the years, I’ve collected up a host of old plates, saucers, catering trays (those big tin foil ones that you buy for parties are ideal), old saucepans, plastic picnic bowls, baking trays...again, none of these would win a beauty contest and most of the year remain hidden, but they are invaluable for creating short-term  water reservoirs for potted plants.

6. Plant-sitting – for anything in a container that is very delicate, or which requires daily observation, place in the hands of someone who you can trust to nurture it while you are away.  I have been known to turn up on my neighbour’s doorstep late the night before I’m due to get a flight, clutching trays of seedlings that I dare not leave ‘home alone’.   That said, with a few exceptions, most of my houseplants are treated to a holiday outside my own sheltered front door.  And I can tell how much they enjoy the change of scenery, as they’ve usually put on a spurt of growth by the time I come back.

7. Don’t scalp the lawn – yes, I know that no-one wants to come back to an overgrown lawn, but can I please make a plea on behalf of the thousands of grass plants concerned?  They will reward you better if you stick to a minimal cut before you go away, so that when the blades grow, they are able to droop slightly at the top and hence give themselves some protection from the sun.   Need convincing?  In the recent heatwave, I cut my lawn just once a fortnight (shocking!) but unlike many manicured lawns that are now just brown patches, mine is still lush and green.  And no, I didn’t water it either.  Smug?  Yes.

8. Invest – if pockets are deep enough, consider buying an irrigation system: arguably expensive but worthwhile and they will save a lot of work, even when you are not on holiday.  I look after a plot in France that would have been toasted if it wasn’t for the automatic watering system that pops up each night (though make sure you get the timings right – from experience I don’t recommend  getting a surprised soaking while enjoying a late night drink in the garden). At the less expensive end of the scale, there are stoppers you can buy (eg from Amazon) that can be fixed onto the end of old plastic drinks bottles, to create mini watering systems.  However, it is worth buying them in plenty of time and road-testing them, as I’ve found some better than others.  Also, they will not last a couple of weeks unless someone refills them.

9. Repel all borders – if cats are a pest, don’t forget to lay a chemically-safe deterrent such as ‘Get Off’ around any area they like to dig in.  Chocolate and garlic are reputed to work too, although I’ve yet to meet someone who can confirm they work.  And don’t forget to cover the pond with mesh, otherwise when you return you may find that a crane has taken a fancy to the fish.  Finally, ensure that any valuable garden tools, lawn mowers and garden gates are secure.  If anything is likely to be affected by high winds, make sure it is removed or tied down.

10. Forget about the garden – if you follow my advice you should return to minimal casualties – so relax and enjoy that holiday!

By Maxine Farmer

Garden writer and consultant Maxine Farmer writes specialises in writing about garden challenges and people who have fascinating plots.  She has written for The Daily Telegraph, Housebuilder & Renovation, and the RHS’ members magazine, The Garden.  Maxine has also published ‘Wet and Dry’, a book of advice about helping gardens to  survive the extremes of hot summers and wet winters. 

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