Plan for plants' welfare before going on holiday

Nick's Garden Even if someone you trust is caring for the garden, don't leave things to chance.

A handout photo showing Adenium obsesum, the desert rose, paired with some local pottery and Heliotropium kotschyi. Adenium is native in southern Arabia, but it does not occur naturally in the UAE. (Courtesy: Rob and Karen Reid)
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The prospect of going on holiday always fills the gardener in me with excitement and trepidation in equal measure. While there is the thrill of new gardens to be visited and exotic plants to be seen, leaving home for any length of time can also involve prolonged anxiety about the fate of the plants while we're away, particularly at this time of year when regular watering regimens are so vital for their survival.

This means that my horticultural destination planning is always accompanied by a detailed check-up of the plants and by preparations for their care and welfare while I'm away. Luckily, I took an early holiday this year so my worrying is over but if you are just about to escape the worst of the UAE summer the following might be useful. While it's always going to be better if you know somebody that you trust - in the horticultural sense - to keep an eye on the garden, even then it's better to leave as little as possible to chance. When it comes to irrigation, now is the time to check your automated watering systems to make sure that everything is working and check for any leaks or deadly blockages in the pipes. If, like me, you've asked somebody to come in and water while you're away, move as many pots as possible into the shade and group your plants together by their irrigation needs to make your volunteer's life easier and to ensure that the thirsty specimens get the soaking they need while the low-water-demand species are watered only as required.

On returning from holiday this summer I learnt this lesson the hard way, having failed to move my huge and beloved desert rose (Adenium obesum) out of harm's way. Consequently, my faithful, blameless watering volunteer treated the drought-tolerant desert plant to a soaking each morning and night. On my return I was shocked to find that, rather than drowning in all the extra water, the Adenium had greedily soaked up every last drop and, in so doing had produced copious new foliage while growing to almost twice its previous size. My volunteer was understandably pleased with the marked and highly visible "improvement" in the plant. However, I now find myself with a bloated, weak and needy plant that had once laughed in the face of drought but that now wilts without constant care and attention. Now is not the time to subject the traumatised patient to the shock of a massively reduced watering regimen but even come winter, I am not sure how I will wean it from its new-found addiction.

When it comes to houseplants, their survival and success will ultimately depend on the particular species of plant and the conditions you have in your home. However, as long as the room is kept cool and shaded I normally find that established specimen plants in larger pots (of 10 litres or more) are fine for a week to 10 days as long as they receive a thorough watering before you go. Just remember to make sure, if they are in cachepots, that you do not leave your plants standing in water as this, more than anything else, will be guaranteed to kill them.

For those of you going on longer holidays who do not want to invest in expensive, self-watering houseplant containers (which favour plants that like to grow in permanently moist conditions), it's possible to create a home-made wick-and-reservoir watering system that will enable your plant to draw on water as and when it needs it while you are away. To do this, place a container of water next to your plant and then run a length of damp capillary matting (available from the garden centre) from the top of the plant pot into an adjacent container full of water. The capillary mat will then act as a wick and will allow the transportation of water from the container to the plant by the process of capillary action. A similar system can be set up for multiple plants in smaller pots as well as for those that enjoy humid conditions. Before leaving for holiday, give the plants a good water (particularly if they are in absorbent, terracotta pots) and then place them on top of a wet towel or capillary mat either on a draining board next to a sink of water or on a suitable surface that is next to a bath.

While these techniques are not guarantees, they should allow you to leave with the knowledge that you've done everything you can to ensure your plants' survival while you are away. I find it's always best to return with a sense of humour as, after all, who knows what you might come back to?