While The Cat's Away

Posted on: 10 June 2009 by Gareth Hargreaves

Gardening expert Maxine Farmer explains what happens to your garden when you go on holiday.


Many of us spend months planning our holidays, but many only think about what is going to happen to the garden at the very last minute.  When I recently went away for a two week holiday, a hectic schedule beforehand meant that I only gave my own garden any thought the night before our departure.  Luckily, a combination of shoving some kind of saucer under very plant container, hefty watering, a few days of rain and the kindness of a neighbour when there was an unexpected hotspot, meant that our garden survived pretty well.

But it reminded me how easily months and months of careful garden planning can go to pot.  We plan our holiday wardrobes, order foreign currency, book the cattery and kennels and cancel the newspapers….so why not give the garden the same attention?  A lot that can be done to make sure that a garden survives a couple of weeks untended, even in the very height of summer.


At the top end of the budget are local services that provide watering and maintenance services while the householders are away.  If pockets are deep enough, these are an excellent idea, but make sure to choose a reputable service that is either recommended by a friend, or has references that can be checked.

Automatic watering systems are another high ticket price item, but are a worthwhile investment.  Less comprehensive but much cheaper is to create your own low cost watering system for pots and selected plants in the garden, simply using recycled plastic drink bottles, the sort used for mineral or sports drinks.

If in a hurry, one of those bottles with a pull-out nozzle, as opposed to a screw-crap can be used for a slow drip-feed.  Attach the bottle with some wire or tape to a small bamboo cane and dig it into the earth close to the plant, but be careful not to damage any roots close to the surface.  A more ‘scientific’ option is to buy a kit of drip-feed nozzles that can be fixed to old plastic drink bottles.  Suppliers include Iriso, who sell watering kits online from Amazon and providers.

Be Prepared

At the very least, make sure that you give every plant in the garden a good soaking before you leave, preferably early morning or late evening, when water evaporation is minimal.  Put mulch around any vulnerable plant: gravel, stones and pebbles help to keep in moisture, while minimising weed growth.

Try to move as many potted plants as possible into the shade, but aim for somewhere that is open to the rain, not sheltered by trees.  It is a good idea to place some kind of saucer underneath each pot, however makeshift: I’ve used aluminium baking sheets, oven trays, casserole dishes (and washed them well afterwards of course!), even large sheets of bubblewrap tied around pots with tape or string.   Forget how scruffy it all looks, the objective is to make sure that any moisture is kept in.  Let’s face it: a bit of over-watering is less dangerous than plants becoming dessicated.

The greenhouse is trickier.  Assuming that the plants cannot be moved outside, it makes sense to leave a window open (assuming risk of frosts has passed) and fix green colour shades to the inside panels, to protect plants from the worst of hot sun.  Again, drip feed systems attached to old water bottles are useful here. Make sure that every pot or tray is sitting in some kind of container that is waterproof and able to carry a couple of inches of water. 

However, this is not ideal for seedlings, which need more regular checking than established plants and dislike sitting in too much water.  The best bet is to avoid buying lots of new plants, particularly seedlings in the weeks before going on holiday, because you will be away precisely when they need the most attention (a piece of my own advice I always ignore).   If it is unavoidable to have seedlings, put them and any other portable precious plants in the safe-keeping of a trusted neighbour, friend or relative.

Houseplant Holiday

Now is an ideal time to give houseplants a holiday.  As long as we are talking about summer, as opposed to those months when frost is still a risk, then houseplants will generally benefit from a spell in the garden, somewhere not  too hot or wind-exposed.  Again, they are happiest in light shade, supported with a saucer of water.

Established shrubs and perennials should be able to survive most of what the UK summer has to offer for a couple of weeks, though if there is a real heat-wave, it is always useful to have a willing neighbour prepared to water every couple of days.  That said, it’s best not to lean too much on neighbours, because if it is that hot, then they will want to spend limited watering time on their own garden.  Make it easy for them too: make sure hoses and watering cans are easy to access.

Look After The Lawn

Assuming that no-one is going to be cutting the lawn, cut it the day before you go, but avoid ‘scalping’.  A medium-cut that leaves the grass at least a couple of inches high, is far better, because it is more likely to survive a dry spell.  True, it will be a bit overgrown after a couple of weeks, but should still be lush and will respond well to a good trim.

Of course, living plants are not the only items in the garden about which to worry.  Lock away lawnmowers and other tools.  Secure gates and any items that might be affected by high winds. If cats using the garden as a toilet is a risk, products such as ‘Get Off’ may help to deter them in your absence.  Most cats also hate the smell of cocoa shell mulch!  Organic slug repellent or copper bands can help to keep slimy enemies from polishing off the vegetable garden.  And don’t forget to keep their natural predators happy: fill up the birdbath and replenish the birdseed feeder before you go.

Finally, just before you go, remove any large weeds that will be more difficult to remove once they have been allowed to grow for a couple of weeks.    Also make time to do remove flowerheads that are dying so that you are more likely to come home to new buds.  In fact, why not cut all the flowers that are in full bloom: they will make a nice advance-thank-you for anyone looking after your plants while you are away.  Of course, the same is true of vegetables  or fruits that are ready to harvest.

Just a couple of hours’ preparation can mean that while you are on holiday, you can relax, safe in the knowledge that you have done everything you can to ensure you return to a green and happy garden.

By Maxine Farmer

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