Saving your garden when you go away
It's vacation season again. How great to finally relax and forget all the day-to-day nonsense that makes everyday life the opposite of vacation. But it's also the time of year when gardens can be temperamental and needy- plants screaming to be staked, weeded, watered, harvested- and it's no fun to spend your vacation trying not to listen to the nagging whisper in your head insisting that all hell is breaking loose back home in the yard.
When I go away I try to remind myself that worrying about my garden is silly; it's not transplant surgery that's at stake or delicate foreign relations. But I still fret. To combat my anxiety, I have developed some vacation stress-prevention tricks that will leave your garden in good enough shape so that your vacation afterglow lasts longer than the sand between your toes. None of these techniques involve hours of work or getting a garden babysitter (which even for someone as overprotective as me is just too much.)
1. Pre-hydrate- The luckiest vacationers will depart the morning after an all-night steady rain has drenched the garden. For the rest of us, water any cultivated areas deeply in the day or two before you depart, even if it isn't dry. This can buy your garden a week or more if it doesn't rain.
For newly installed expensive plants like shrubs and trees, place a 5 gallon bucket with a tiny hole drilled close to the bottom next to the base of the plant and fill the bucket before you leave. It will take several days to empty and will keep the ground moist.
Containers are the hardest to manage remotely, since they dry out so fast. Scoot any containers that get full sun into the shade. You can also try putting them in a baby pool under a porch of overhang, and filling it with a few inches of water. The snugger the containers fit into the pool, the slower they will dry out. You may want to temporarily put hanging containers in a saucer on the ground.
2. Squelch- Hot weather means that some weeds can grow at an astonishing pace. If you're able to weed and mulch before you go you'll be all set, but who has time for such an ambitious project when you're also trying to organize a trip and deal with all the other loose ends? A half-inch thickness of wetted newspaper weighed down with a little dirt, rocks, or bricks so it won't blow away will suppress weeds for a long time. If this doesn't work for the size of your area, just make sure that new or small plants have a weed-free perimeter twice their diameter, so they won't be completely suffocated by the time you return.
If you have any weed-infested problem areas, vacation is a good time to pounce. Put a few layers of soggy cardboard over the weedy patch so that no bare earth shows. It's ugly, but you won't be looking at it every day. And the weeds will suffocate.
3. Support- Plants grow a lot on the longest days. Make sure that tomatoes, dahlias, vines, and any other plants that need support are staked, even if it looks like overkill. In just a week or so they can take off and be too unwieldy to constrain.
4. Postpone the show- This is neat. Many perennials can be cut back before they flower to delay blossoming time. If your phlox, echinacea, Rudbeckia, or perovskia hasn't set buds yet, cutting about six inches off the tips will delay blooming so you can enjoy the flowers when you return. This also works for reblooming roses and dahlias. It doesn't work with plants that send out one or a few spikes like iris or daylilies, but most other perennials can be paused.
In full disclosure, if you could see my garden right now you would know that I'm a preacher more than a practicer. It looks messy, and I'm about to leave. When I return in a few weeks I will fill you in on what I learned studying gardens in England, and hopefully share strategies for bringing a neglected garden back to life- not that any of you wonderful gardeners will need it.