We spend the whole year eagerly anticipating our summer holidays; they promise time to relax, unwind, explore and forget about our daily routines. But while we’re away topping up our tans, experiencing different cultures and indulging in delicious food and drink, our gardens are reaching their productive and decorative peak. In this short guide, I’ve compiled a checklist of things to consider before you pack your suitcase.
A willing and able friend, neighbour or family member is the best solution for all your garden caretaking needs, especially if you are away for more than a week. Brief them well, offer them the pick of your flowers, fruit and vegetables for the duration of your holiday and they’ll feel well rewarded for their hard work. Failing that, if you have teens or students in the neighbourhood, ask around to see if any of them would like to earn some extra cash. I used to make a tidy sum watering pots and hanging baskets for our neighbours during the summer months and the opportunity fuelled my love of gardening.
If you’ve tried all these options and drawn a blank, here’s what you can do to ensure a bountiful garden greets you at the end of your well-earned break.
Summer Holiday Checklist
- Check the local weather forecast before departure.
- Water thoroughly, including pots, borders and houseplants.
- Install a drip irrigation system or seeper hose.
- Mow and edge lawns.
- Weed everywhere.
- Guard against pest damage.
- Support tall and heavily-laden plants.
- Pick open flowers, ripening fruit and vegetables.
- Move outdoor pots and houseplants out of the full sun.
- Top-up ponds and birdbaths.
- Secure valuables in sheds or move them into a locked garage.
Water, Water Everywhere!
As well as keeping an eye on the weather at your holiday destination, pay close attention to the weather where you live. A cool, rainy spell at home will take the pressure off no end, although it won’t completely solve the problem of how to water pots and you may return to taller weeds, longer grass and some slug damage.
Assuming it’s going to be mainly dry and sunny while you are away, water pots, hanging baskets, bedding plants and shallow-rooted shrubs like hydrangeas and rhododendrons as close to departure as you can. Water long and deep at the base of each plant so that the soil around the roots is evenly moist but not waterlogged.
In hot weather, containers won’t survive much beyond two days without watering so consider installing a drip irrigation system (always assuming there are no water-conserving measures in place). Bedding plants and vegetables in the ground may need watering two or three times a week - in this situation, a seeper hose can be a blessing, especially if attached to a timer.
If you have a pond or birdbath, wildlife will have come to rely on these sources of water. Make sure they’re topped up before you hit the road.
Indoors, do not leave bleach in the toilet bowl as the fumes can damage plants in close proximity. Stand houseplants on trays of moist pebbles or on old, damp towels in a bath or shower tray. They will draw water up from below and the moisture will keep the plants cool as it evaporates. If, like me, you have lots of house plants, invest in a grow bag tray, line it with damp newspaper, capillary matting or gravel and arrange your plants on that, beneath a window if you can. (You’ll find the tray a good investment, especially in winter when you can use it to store muddy boots and shoes.)
Run From The Sun
Whilst you may relish the idea of baking in the sun, your plants will not. Even cacti and succulents can have too much of a good thing. Reduce the possibility of root damage, dehydration and scorching by moving potted plants out of the full sun and into a cool, shady position. These might not be their preferred conditions long term, but as a temporary measure, no harm will be done. Exactly the same advice applies to houseplants. Left on a hot, sunny windowsill without water they’ll quickly succumb, so let them enjoy their holiday in the shade. Many houseplants, like those shown below, will enjoy a spell outside during the summer months.
Mow, Don’t Sow
Mow and edge lawns the day before you travel. If no rain is forecast avoid cutting the grass too short as a bit of length will shade the ground and reduce moisture loss, as well as gathering dew. Wait until you return home to sow seeds as any emerging seedlings will dry out very quickly and die. Sadly, the same cannot be said for weeds, which have a knack of using the time you’re away to run riot. The main thing is to prevent them from spreading by setting seed. The well known adage ‘one year’s seeds makes seven years’ seeds’ may or may not be 100% accurate but it’s not far from the truth!
Support tall plants such as tomatoes, dahlias, sunflowers, golden rod and chrysanthemums so they’re not flattened if there’s a summer storm. The same advice applies to trees and vegetables that are laden with developing fruit. If in doubt, stake and don’t hope for the best.
Pick & Preserve
Annual and biennial plants will be flowering and fruiting as if their lives depended on it - they sense that the days are getting shorter and want to complete their reproductive cycle as quickly and successfully as possible. That generally means setting seed and withering away. The trick is to thwart them so that they keep on flowering.
Before you go on holiday, cut off all open ornamental blooms and remove any that are already dead or producing seed pods. Give the flowers away or take them with you to decorate your holiday home if you’re staying in the UK. This may seem mercenary, but by the time you return the flowers that are currently in bud will be blooming and there will be lots of colour to welcome you home.
The same goes for fast-developing crops such as courgettes, tomatoes, strawberries and raspberries. Pick the fruits, even if they’re slightly immature, and give them away, store them in the fridge, make preserves or freeze them. Importantly, don’t let crops go to waste as you’ll have spent a lot of time and energy growing them.
Some salad crops and herbs will go to seed if the weather is hot and dry. There’s very little you can do about this but there may be time to resow for an autumn crop when you return home. Vulnerable herbs like parsley and coriander can be harvested, chopped and frozen in ice cube trays for use at a later date.
Lock Up Your Ladders
Sadly, garden theft is a serious problem and most gardens are relatively insecure. The list of prime swag extends from bicycles and barbecues to furniture and power tools. Even prize plants, especially in containers, are sought by unscrupulous villains. Ladders and tools left outside can be used to aid and abet a burglar.
Don’t be a victim of garden theft and take precautions. First of all, make sure your home insurance covers this eventuality. Then hide anything that might attract a burglar. Ensure sheds are locked or move valuable items into a garage out of temptation’s way. You may not think the old tools in your shed or the terracotta pots on your patio are worth much, but consider what it would cost to replace them - it’s likely to be a lot more than you imagine, not to mention the upset of losing old favourites.
Back To The Daily Grind
Unless you have a fantastic caretaker, your garden is likely to look a little dishevelled on your return. Take heart, as any untidiness is likely to be superficial. After a quick sweep, mow, deadhead and drink everything will be looking splendid and you can start planning your next holiday.