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Caring for an Outdoor Container Garden While on Vacation

By Edited Jun 19, 2016 4 1

Caring for an Outdoor Container Garden While on Vacation

Leaving the garden to go away even on a short holiday was something that filled me with a sense of dread. It's not always possible to get other people in to water your garden. As some close friends of mine discovered, even if you do manage to persuade someone else to come over and do the watering, it won't necessarily be up to your normal standards.

Plants like shrubs and trees planted out in the soil can pretty much look out for themselves once established. Container plants, however, rely on a lot more work from us to keep them nice and healthy. Enclosed are practical tips and advice on easy and simple things you can do to keep your outdoor pot plants happy while you go off for a short break or holiday. They're the same methods I use for the odd week away and I'm happy to report that there are, so far, no casualties.

Group Containers Together for Shade

Grouping containers

Normally we have pots dotted all around the garden but, if you're going away, the plants will do better if they are all pushed together. I place ours all along the garage wall which normally has shade for half of the day and sun for the rest. This provides a relatively happy medium.

Grouping does a few things. It can help to keep the plants cooler overall and therefore reduces the need for water. If you have some flowers or plants that are more delicate or fragile and could be damaged by strong winds, you can put those in the middle. Have tougher plants on the outside to offer the rest some protection.

If someone is coming over to tend to your plants then having them all lined up together makes it a much easier and quicker job to water. If you don't group the containers together then you run the risk that some get missed out when it comes to watering.

Place Saucers Under Containers to Store Water

Place smaller plant pots in containers

Where possible, place saucers or an equivalent under your pots and containers. This can get expensive if you need lots of these. However, you can also buy large watering trays or use other items that you may already have in the home such as washing up bowls. Shown in the photo is an old but functioning washing up bowl that is holding several small viola plants.

While you don't want plants getting waterlogged, a worse fate while you're away is that the compost may dry out completely in your containers because that could kill your plants. The smaller the containers, the higher the risk of them drying out.

Placing saucers underneath allows water to collect either from a manual watering or from any rain. Providing the containers have holes in the bottom, the plants can take up any moisture that they need. When you get back home from your vacation you can empty the saucers or remove them to make sure that the plant roots are not getting over-wet or saturated.

Use Capillary Matting on Precious Plants

Seedlings on capillary matting

I was especially concerned about leaving my seedlings while away. I had some swede and turnip seedlings at this point and I felt they were too young to risk sitting in a saucer of water all week. I was lucky to have an under cover shelter on a table at the back of our garage. This would protect these young plants from an excess of rain, wind or sun. If not for this, I'd have given them to someone to look after indoors for me since they were a little delicate.

Capillary matting placed underneath these did a great job and was still just damp to touch after a week. I soaked the matting in a bowl of water until they were full, placed these inside a plastic lined tray, watered the veg well and then sat the pots on top. I crossed my fingers and hoped they'd be OK. Thankfully they were fine.

I bought the Gardman variety of capillary matting which had no instructions with it. You really need to make sure to soak it well first. You can use this matting for all your plants and not just young ones. The main issue is that it can become quite expensive if you need to use a lot of it. Hence why I reserved it for my more delicate plants and not the rest. Once I got back from vacation, I washed the matting by hand. Then I dried the pieces off in the polytunnel and it is now ready to use again.

Note: This post contains affiliate links for which I may be compensated. 

How to Use Capillary Matting to Self-Water Your Plants

Give a Good Water and Feed Before You Go

Grouping plants together for easy watering

Normally my containers get a daily sprinkling from a watering can with the rose on unless the weather is wet or the compost is already damp enough. You can tell how wet the compost is by sticking your finger a couple of inches down it. When you pull your finger back out, you can see whether the compost is wet and sticks to your finger or if it is dry and flakes off. If the soil feels saturated long after watering then it is too wet.

If you normally use a liquid or pellet feed, you may want to give the plants a good feed (and perhaps a slow release one too) just before you go along with a nice deep water. A deep water is where I remove the rose from the watering can and direct the water right at the base of each plant. This is better than sprinkling because I know the roots soak up what they need.

Apply a Mulch Over Any Exposed Compost

Place a mulch such as bark chips or small stone chippings around any bare areas of compost in your containers after giving a good soak. This can help to lock that moisture into the compost, keeping the water in for longer. Mulching helps to prevent the top of the soil layer from drying out and it is also good for stopping weeds growing in your containers. [3]

Consider a Watering Device

I didn't use anything extra other than the capillary matting to aid with the normal watering process. There are other products on the market that you might want to consider including watering spikes. Attach the spikes to bottles filled with water and push them down into the container to eek out the liquid slowly. 

Whether you really need any devices like these for only a week away or less is debatable. I've read that most container plants are fine for up to a week, especially if they're in good health and have had a good water beforehand. If you are planning a longer vacation, you may wish to look into irrigation systems.

Advice on Installing a Drip Irrigation System for Containers

One Final Task: Deadhead Your Flowers for a Great Display When You Return

One tip I took from the celebrity gardener, Monty Don, on watching a recent BBC Gardeners' World was to not only deadhead tired and spent flowers before going away but also to cut off healthy blooms as well. If you do this, you can look forward to a really good display of new growth when you return. This tip really worked wonders for us and after a week's absence we came back to a really great show of flowers and a lovely display in the garden.

Image Credits: The introductory image belongs to the author, Marie Williams Johnstone. All other images (unless watermarked with the author’s name) are product photos from Amazon.



Dec 18, 2015 3:45pm
Keeping plants alive while you're on holiday can be quite difficult. You've given a good range of options here. Thanks.
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  1. Dr D G Hessayon The Container Expert. New York: Expert Books, 1995.
  2. Alan Titchmarsh Alan Titchmarsh How to Garden: Container Gardening. London: BBC Books, 2009.
  3. "Mulches and Mulching." RHS. 5/12/2015 <Web >

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