Sometime this summer, chances are you're going to go on vacation. But what about your plants? How will they live without you?
Their major enemies will be heat and moisture loss. But with some planning, you can be pretty confident that you will not come back to a garden or houseplant graveyard.
Choose survivors --If you know you are going to be away for a week or more this summer, don't plant thirsty things such as impatiens. Smart owners of weekend homes who often leave their plants for weeks at a time rely on drought-tolerant species such as black-eyed Susans (rudbeckia) and coneflowers (echinacea), according to Linda Patejdl, co-owner of the Sawyer Garden Center in Sawyer, Mich. The most durable and resilient houseplants for frequent travelers are cacti, succulents and plants with stiff, fleshy leaves such as sansevieria and rubber trees, says Marion Parry, owner of A New Leaf in Chicago.
Use large containers --The larger the container, the better. A large soil volume, such as a half whiskey barrel, will hold moisture longer, while a 1-gallon pot on a hot day will dry out by noon, says Mike McGrath, host of the NPR and Sirius garden show You Bet Your Garden. And put those large pots on wheeled trays or trolleys so you will be able to move them into the shade. Hanging baskets are especially vulnerable, so a year when you plan a long vacation might be the year to skip them.
Avoid porous pots --Terra-cotta pots and hanging baskets with coir liners are handsome but they lose moisture quickly, McGrath says. If you like the look, do your actual planting in a plastic pot (with a drainage hole) and hide it inside.
Mulch --That doesn't mean 6 inches deep, but a 1-inch layer of relatively fine-textured organic mulch over all beds and the surface of all pots will do a lot to hold moisture.
Buy a timer --Soaker hoses or drip irrigation on a timer, set to come on once in the middle of the week, can make a big difference.
Group containers --Move them to the shade. Their mass will tend to hold moisture and humidity, Parry says. If you don't have a shady spot -- likely on a balcony -- move plants indoors and put them on saucers.
Move houseplants --Place houseplants at least 4 feet in from a sunny window, Parry says. The heat from that window can fry them. And if you can't give them plenty of ventilation, don't turn up the air conditioning too high. It will be a tradeoff between your electric bill and your carbon footprint on the one hand and possibly cooked plants on the other.
Don't overfertilize --It's tempting to think you should stoke them up before you leave, but plants that have been stimulated by fertilizer use more water.
Water, water, water --Soak every pot and every bed, long and slow, before you leave, says McGrath. It will take a day or two of moving the sprinkler to do the whole garden, so allow for watering and other plant preparations in your vacation schedule.
Empty saucers --More potted plants die from overwatering than from drought. McGrath says, "Ninety-five percent of your wilting-from-drought plants are going to come back. But your drowned plants are dead forever." So don't leave potted plants sitting in water. It's OK to set them on stones or bricks above the level of water in a tray or saucer to maintain humidity indoors.
Pick clean and deadhead --Fruit or flowers left too long signal the plants to stop producing. So pick every vegetable and cut bouquets of roses, says McGrath; if you can't take them along to the cottage, give them away. Vegetables are edible "as soon as they are identifiable," says McGrath, even the tiniest ones.
Forget about the lawn --Going dormant for a few weeks in late summer is natural for grass, McGrath says, and will make it less hospitable to grubs. If it's really dry just before you leave, give the lawn one long soak to keep the roots alive. But turn off the sprinkler system before you leave for the airport and don't panic if the grass is a little brown when you get back.
Cultivate your neighbors --If you are going to be away for more than a week, you will need someone to come and water a couple of times. Offer the neighbors all the vegetables they can pick while you're gone or swap house-sitting chores with them.
What if they die? --Most in-ground plants will recover from a dry week or two, McGrath says. Container plants are far more vulnerable. But even if you lose a couple, don't let it ruin your vacation memories.
Beth Botts writes for the Chicago Tribune.