Before we left, I tried to move most container plants to shade and/or a location where they would receive water from our automated sprinkler system, and most of them did fine. However, a few others needed fast action. Most just required a good watering.

If a plant is having problems, though, sometimes the solution isn't as simple as a drink of water. Careful scrutiny of stressed plants and their surroundings may give you clues about what's ailing them. Remember, you want to determine the actual problem instead of just treating the symptoms.

For example, if a plant has a spider mite infestation, it's usually the result of the air around the plant being too dry. This is a common, pesky problem with plants that are brought indoors for the winter and placed too close to a furnace vent. So, while your immediate task is ridding the plant of mites, you need to also fix the location and moisture conditions.

What follows are a few specific plant problems I came home to, and how I remedied each situation with some common sense and no pesticides.

That Old Black Magic...with Mites

Case 1: I had two large 'Black Magic' Elephant Ear ('Colocasia') plants in whiskey half-barrel water gardens on my outdoor patio. Upon returning home, I found many of the leaves covered with spider mites. Now, you would think that because the plants are sitting in water, mites wouldn't be a problem. Not so. Between the hot, dry Texas air, constant sun and the fact that these elephant ears were outgrowing their containers underwater, the plants were stressed. Enter the mites.

My solution was to trim off and discard badly damaged leaves and to periodically spray the plant with water. Mites hate moisture. I continued to monitor the plants and ended up putting them in the ground, where they flourished. (While elephant ears can take full sun in many areas of the U.S., they usually need a little shade here in the South.)

Pesticides used: None.

It's Alive! It's Alive!

Case 2: Just before we went on our trip, I indulged in a beautiful bottle brush ('Callistemon citrinus') plant from the nursery. I watered it well before we departed, but left it in its black plastic nursery container. Well, it fried. I was devastated to find it crisp and brown upon my return.

But...hold on. Closer inspection revealed several green, live-looking nodes on the innermost parts of the plant's branches.

I carefully trimmed the plant back to the live leaves, repotted it in a larger, lighter-colored container, and watered it with a very weak form of seaweed and fish fertilizer just to give it a boost. Soon after, it was sprouting new leaves like crazy.

The lesson again is that close inspection may help save your plant. Of course, most plants will eventually reach a point of no return if left unwatered. My bottle brush plant and I both got lucky.

Pesticides used: None.

The Life of the Party

Case 3: If you like cucumbers and have never grown the well-known heirloom 'Lemon' cukes, I highly recommend them. This vine takes "prolific" to a whole new level.

While I love heirlooms, the drawback in growing them is that they've not been hybridized to resist diseases and pests. Generally, once these plants are attacked, they're pretty much done for. And boy, one of my Lemon cukes was inundated. It was literally covered with aphid eggs as a result of drought and just pure neglect.

Looking closer revealed something else, though. I noticed the vine was playing host to a wide range of beneficial insects in various stages of development. Lady beetle nymphs were all over the place, as were assassin bugs and wasps, all munching happily on the unwanted pests.

At the time, I had already harvested over two dozen of the tennis ball-like cucumbers from this particular vine, so I wasn't too concerned about pushing it into fall production. It had served its purpose for me, and now, it was hosting a lively banquet for several beneficial insects. As a result, the vine stayed in the ground for another week to continue hosting its lively party, then went into the compost pile.

Pesticides used: None.