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Caring for potted plants while you're away

By Susanne Talbert (art_n_gardenApril 6, 2009
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Inevitably, all gardeners must leave their precious plants at some point for extended periods of time. Whether it is on vacation, to tend to a family emergency or a work trip, sometimes our plants just have to fend for themselves. Here are a few tips for how to care for your potted plants if you do have to be away.

Gardening picture

Well duh, get someone else to do it!

Gardeners may have family, friends or neighbors who love them enough to care for their plants while they are away. In this case, make sure that you write detailed instructions about exactly how you want someone to care for your plants. Remember, not everyone has the intuition with plants that you do. You’d be surprised how fast someone can kill your plants.

To make it easier on your substitute gardener, put all houseplants in a centralized area with good lighting and a constant temperature. Group plants that have similar water needs together in an obvious way and label plants with specific needs. Make sure that each plant has a water dish, so that you don’t come back to puddles, or worse, moldy surfaces.

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If you have outdoor potted plants, pull them into a well-protected shady spot or better yet, indoors. Your outdoor plants need to be gathered in a centralized location as well because no one can guess where all your plants are. Leave out a watering jug and make sure water is easily accessible. Don’t forget to thank your substitute gardener with a cutting or two of your well-cared for plants once you return; if they aren't a plant-lover, maybe a batch of cookies would be a better thank-you.

If you are not lucky enough to have someone to take care of your plants while you are gone, or like me, you hate to ask someone to do that much work for you, there are plenty of other options.

Paid services

Online sources such as Craigslist.com can be tapped to find someone trustworthy to take care of your plants at a low cost.   There are also companies that specifically care for plants; generally they will do upkeep for plants in business offices, but you could always try them. 

In addition, rarely do I go a summer without seeing an advertisement or having a flier stuck in my front door from an 'everything guy:' someone who will repair anything, can lift, climb, or make just about everything.  Might he be okay at watering plants, too?  Make sure you prepare for this far ahead of time so you can check references and vet your possibilities.

Some Tricks of the Trade

The bathtub trick: You can place your potted plants in a bathtub.  Turn on the shower and drench the plants from above as well as fill the tub with water a few inches.  Then cover the whole setup with clear plastic to keep up the humidity level. This will work for around two weeks in your absence.

 
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Bag it up: For plants that are too heavy, large, or cumbersome to move inside, you can put a large plastic trash bag around their pot and soil. This might take some brute strength or some finesse, but wrapping up your pots will help create a mini greenhouse to maintain moisture. You can also place smaller houseplants completely inside large plastic bags. Slice a few vents to help with circulation and don’t forget to water before you bag.

Humidity rocks: If you will be away for a short while, an excellent way to keep up humidity levels around your plants is to use pebbles.  Line the bottom of a shallow tray with small rocks or pebbles and then fill with water almost to the top of the rocks.  Potted plants placed on top of the rocks will enjoy increased humidity levels while you are gone.  This is also an excellent trick for everyday use.   

Products

Moisture crystals: Moisture crystals are a wonderful addition to your potted plants for everyday purposes, but are also great if you have to leave your plants for a while. The small polymer granules absorb water and retain it at the root level for your plants. You can purchase them online or at garden centers for under $10. When you are repotting your plants mix a small handful of moisture crystals in with the potting soil.  

Diapers: If you don’t want to pay money for moisture crystals, another trick I learned from a fellow Dave's Garden member, is to use baby diapers. Have you ever wondered how that little diaper can hold so much liquid? It's the same technology as moisture crystals. When you re-pot your plants, you can place the absorbent part of the diaper on the sidewall of the pot or on the bottom. Be sure that the diaper does not block drainage and drown your plant.

Drip Spikes: Drip spikes are a handy invention that will purportedly water your plants for you while you are gone.  A spike is placed in the soil in your potted (or in-ground) plants with a 2-liter bottle full of water tipped upside-down and screwed in to function as its reservoir.   You can adjust how much water it will release daily.  Products like this range in price from about $10 to $15 for a set of four; beware because reviews also span a wide range of satisfaction. 

 
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Tips:

A few things that you can control will also help with insuring your plants survival.

  • Make sure than your plants are not overly rootbound in their pots. Plants that are rootbound do not have enough dirt to retain moisture for long periods of time. Repotting severely rootbound plants before you go on vacation is an excellent idea.
  • Because of the nature of the materials, plants in terracotta pots dry much faster than those in plastic pots. Keeping potted plants, both indoors and out, in plastic pots will help retain extra moisture for your plants.
  • Set your home's thermostat to a temperature between 60 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit while you are gone.  The cooler air will help your plants keep their moisture longer (and cut down on your utility bill!) 

Hopefully your vacation or trip is not marred by the stress of leaving a precious and expensive plant collection at home.  Be prepared in advance and you can keep all of your plants healthy and green while you are away.  Bon voyage! 

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References:

Garden Doctor: Advice from the Experts, published by Better Homes and Gardens, 2005, page 378. 

Images are the author's other than the following: image of bathtub from Morguefile user dave, and image of sailboat, Morguefile user biberta.


  About Susanne Talbert  
Susanne TalbertI garden in beautiful Colorado Springs, half a mile from Garden of the Gods. Since we bought our first house two years ago, I have been busy revamping my 1/4 acre of ignored decomposed granite. My garden passions include water gardening, vines, super-hardy perennials, and native xerics. By day, I am a high school ceramics teacher as well as a ceramicist and painter.

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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
long-term watering pifano 5 59 Aug 22, 2009 8:34 PM
Caring for seedlings while you're away bethhick 2 12 Apr 11, 2009 3:33 PM
Caring for your plants.... MiniMoo_ 0 8 Apr 7, 2009 7:19 PM
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