For all the very real stress, misery, and chaos the pandemic introduced into everyday life, there were a few unexpected silver linings. As lockdowns fell into place, people raced to add life to their homes. Houseplants filled living spaces, vegetable gardens sprang to life, and long-disregarded landscapes got much-needed overhauls. Almost overnight, seemingly everyone became ravenously obsessed with plants. Today, living rooms have become jungles. Front yards have never looked so good. Privacy screens have been planted to ensure nobody has to greet their neighbors while enjoying their rediscovered back yard. In many ways, the world became a greener place.
But what happens as people resume pre-pandemic life? With more travel and social activities on the horizon to consume time and attention, plants might struggle to get the care they’ve grown accustomed to. Fortunately, there are some steps you can take now to avoid throwing away all that energy and money that you’ve invested in houseplants, landscapes, and gardens.
Hopefully you installed landscape irrigation prior to planting. It’s easier to install a watering system without worrying about damaging plants in the process. If you don’t already have irrigation in place, a drip system is easy to install. I won’t go into detail about the pros and cons of all the various ways to design a drip system, suffice to say there are a lot of different ways to do it. This is also a great and relatively low-cost way to automate your landscape care. The whole thing can be run from a battery powered timer that attaches to your hose spigot, no need to call in a professional installer. Drip has the additional benefit of keeping water off your plants’ leaves, which reduces problems like powdery mildew and black spot. Plus, drip irrigation is extremely efficient, saving your water bill and helping out when we’re facing water shortages and restrictions.
On the topic of irrigation, you can help your plants become hardier by focusing on watering less often but more deeply. When you water, let your irrigation run long enough that water can soak down deep in the soil, and then don’t water again until the soil has dried down several inches below the surface. This will encourage plants to send their roots deeper in search of a drink, making plants more resilient, more heat tolerant, and less likely to suffer if your road trip gets extended a few days longer than planned.
Another job that pays off big time is mulch. Whether you prefer the cleaner and more uniform look of bark mulch or the often cheap/free option of arborist wood chips, getting a layer of mulch on top of the soil helps retain water, keeps the soil cooler, reduces weed pressure, and reduces erosion, all of which make for happier and lower maintenance plants!
My advice for successful absentee vegetable gardening is very similar to the options described above for landscapes.
Drip irrigation is the gold standard. It is easy to automate and customize for different plants’ water needs. Your watering frequency will likely need to be a little higher for a garden than for the landscape, but always be sure to check and make sure you’re not overdoing it by testing the soil with your finger right before the system is set to run. If it’s still wet you’ll want to space out your watering a bit more.
Mulch is a winner in the veggie garden as well. I avoid wood mulches in the garden since I’m digging more frequently in my garden than in my landscape and wood chips mixed into the soil can cause problems with nitrogen availability. Instead, I prefer processed straw mulch because it is weed-free and breaks down much more rapidly than wood or bark mulch. It helps retain moisture and makes weeding a much less daunting task.
Houseplants can be tricky, as their watering needs can vary wildly from one to the next, but there are still a few things you can do to make their survival during your vacation.
Self watering devices are plentiful. Most rely on the concept of water being drawn from some sort of reservoir as soil dries. Some use gravity, balancing the reservoir above the plant. These include the artistic blown glass water bulbs and the clay spike that hold an upside down wine bottle. Others rely on a siphon, using a discrete clay spike and a hose to draw water from an adjacent reservoir. All of these options work short term, but often fall short if you’ll be gone for more than a week or so.
For longer spells, your best bet is to recruit a friend to water our plants for you. While trusting anyone to give your plant babies the love and care you provide might induce some anxiety, there are some things you can do to make their job easier. Any plants that can be moved should be grouped by water needs. This will take a lot of the guesswork out of how much water to give each plant. Plants that are too big or difficult to move should be given big saucers to catch any excess water – you don’t need a water damaged floor in the event your helper is a little heavy handed with the watering can.
Originally published on May 4th, 2021.