Plan for plant care during vacation

Richard Bogren, Gill, Daniel J.  |  5/29/2012 11:52:47 PM

For Release On Or After 06/08/12

By Dan Gill
LSU AgCenter Horticulturist

People often take their longest vacations during summer. When planning a vacation, people make arrangements to have someone take care of everything from their pets to the newspaper. But it’s also important to have someone look after plants and home grounds during an extended absence.

For vacations that involve being away from home for a week or more, you may return to find substantial damage has occurred to plants left unattended. This is especially true for plants growing in containers – both indoors and outside. The ideal solution is to ask a friend who is knowledgeable about plants to check on your plants regularly and water them when necessary. Be sure to give written instructions on the needs of each plant because your friend is not as familiar with them as you are. Try not to make the instructions too complicated, though.

If the plants are going to be on their own, move those growing indoors away from sunny, bright windows so they use water less rapidly. This doesn’t mean putting them in a dark room, however, because they still need bright, indirect light to stay healthy while you’re gone. Right before leaving on your trip, thoroughly water all of your indoor plants. Even allow some water to stand in the saucers beneath the plants’ containers – something we normally would not do.

Plants in small pots will tend to dry out the fastest. If you will be gone for more than a week, enclose these plants (pot and all) in clear plastic bags to retain moisture and prevent drying out. Plants in plastic bags should receive bright light but no direct sun, which could cause excessive heat build-up inside the plastic.

Plants in containers outside often need to be watered almost every day during the intense heat of summer. Place all of your outdoor container plants, including any hanging baskets, in a shady location near the northern side of a building or under the protective cover of a large shade tree or covered patio. Group plants fairly close together because this, along with the shady location, will help slow water loss. Water these plants thoroughly just before you leave on vacation.

If you’ll be gone for more than a few days and you can’t find someone to water for you, inexpensive water timers – available at local nurseries and hardware stores – can work very well hooked up to an irrigation system. A battery-operated or electrical unit attaches to an outside faucet. All you do is set the timer for when you want the water to come on (based on how often you generally have to water the plants) and for how long, and it will water your plants automatically.

It’s probably easiest to use an oscillating sprinkler to water a grouping of your container plants. But if you want to be more sophisticated, drip systems are also available. An emitter head, which is attached to thin, plastic tubing, is placed into each container. When the water timer comes on, the tubing carries water from a main line to each container where the emitter allows the water to drip into the soil. Very little water is wasted, but it takes more time and money to set up this type of system.

Also water your home grounds very well prior to leaving, especially if there has been little rainfall. A thorough, slow soaking will provide a lasting supply of moisture. Make sure you mulch all flower beds, vegetable gardens, shrub plantings and newly planted trees with a 2- to 3-inch layer of leaves, pine straw, cypress mulch or other available mulch to conserve moisture and hold down weeds. Water newly planted trees thoroughly by laying a hose trickling water a few inches from the trunk and leaving it there for about 20 minutes.

Flower beds and vegetable gardens are particularly vulnerable to drought while you’re away. To water automatically, place either soaker hoses or sprinklers to cover various beds and areas of your landscape. Connect them to hoses attached to a timer at each faucet you use for irrigation. Set the timers to come on twice a week and stay on long enough to thoroughly soak an area. Also, set the times so that each water timer comes on at a different hour and you won’t lose water pressure while irrigating. Morning irrigation is best.

Be sure to water and cut the lawn before leaving, and plan to have it mowed during your absence, if necessary. Most lawns require mowing at least every seven to 10 days. Besides becoming a telltale sign that you are away, overgrowth is unhealthy for your lawn. And the grass will be unattractive and stressed when it finally is mowed. Deal with any sign of active insect or disease problems before you leave, or you may return to widespread damage and expensive replacement costs.

Vacations are an important part of our lives and provide a great opportunity for the family to spend time with each other. In the excitement of planning the trip, however, remember that you will enjoy yourself a lot more if you are not worrying about things back home. With some forethought and planning, you can make sure you plants stay in good shape while you are gone.

Rick Bogren
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