One of the things I’m often asked on the blog, when readers see me take off on a road trip for days or weeks at a time, is this: Who takes care of your garden when you’re away? Or especially in the summer: How can you even leave your garden with all those tomatoes growing?!
The way we invest in and care for our plants, they’re practically our babies. And since we can’t very well pack them up in the car, many of us feel tied to the responsibilities of raising a vegetable garden the way we do with children or pets.
But with careful planning, it is entirely possible to leave your garden for a week or more, guilt-free and stress-free, and actually come back to a garden that’s even bigger and better than you remembered.
I count myself fairly lucky. I have trusted friends who house-sit, plant-sit, chicken-sit, and occasionally even dog-sit. They know the house inside and out, and have free reign of the property while we’re gone, encouraged to pick as many vegetables and collect as many eggs as they can eat. They’re not even gardeners themselves, but they once kept trays of seedlings alive for 10 days when I was away, nurturing them from seed to sprout. They simply know what needs watering and when, and consult a list we leave that outlines our schedule.
This was all before we had an automatic irrigation system in place, so believe me, if you’re still hand-watering a majority of your garden, you should only leave that task to a very good friend who will still like you when you come back from vacation, all glowing and smiling and breathlessly exclaiming, “So, how did it all go?!”
If there’s a trip on the horizon and you haven’t yet made a game plan, establish one now so that come countdown time, the only thing you’re anxious about is what to pack for your time away.
Assess the needs of your garden and houseplants.
If you’ll only be gone for a long weekend, your garden will likely survive without any attention. But for a week or more away, make a list of what’s most crucial to care for. Account for your vegetable beds as well as your houseplants, your lawns as well as your landscaping.
Some things are more high-maintenance than others (like new transplants and shallow-rooted vegetables), while some can make do with a little neglect and still bounce back when you return (like established perennials and drought-tolerant plants). Make note of what will ripen soon and what will go to seed. Knowing the actual needs of your garden will help you focus on the tasks that are most important.
Ask a friend or neighbor to take care of your yard or houseplants.
This is my recommended method for finding a free (or very cheap) plant-sitter. Most people really do not mind taking care of your garden, especially if you ply them with fresh vegetables or offer to return the favor if they have gardens of their own. Even if you don’t feel comfortable asking a stranger for help, make friends with your neighbors so they’re more apt to pay attention to your home if they suspect something wrong.
But what if you have no friends or neighbors available to assist? On longer trips, plan ahead and have a house-sitter stay in your home. Sometimes you can find one for free through various house-sitting sites (these people are usually retirees or freelancers who exchange house-sitting for accommodations while they’re traveling), and sometimes you can even make a little money by renting your home to a traveler who appreciates having a garden (a site like Airbnb is a good place to search for one).
If you’re leaving your fur babies at home and have a pet-sitter coming every day to care for them, adding a few houseplants to the list is usually not a problem (and often included with other services like bringing in your mail).
When you’ve retained a trusty plant-sitter, give them the game plan you’ve previously drawn up: what needs to be watered and how often, what should be harvested and when, what needs extra attention and what can be left alone. Make sure the sitter knows how to shut off the water in case of an emergency. (I’ve had a pipe burst in my yard before, one week into a four-week vacation! Could’ve been serious buzzkill but the garden was saved and the pipe was repaired with only a couple of phone calls.)
Check the weather and plan accordingly.
If you anticipate days of hot (or rainy) weather ahead, make sure you adjust your watering schedule appropriately. Consider installing weather-based irrigation controllers for your lawns and landscaping, which automatically adjust the water output for current weather conditions.
If you’re frequently out of town or have a sprawling urban farm, a drip irrigation system set on a timer is a worthy investment. (These days, all-in-one irrigation kits can be bought online and popped together with little effort.)
Give your garden a tune-up before you go.
Do any weeding, thinning, pruning, deadheading, fertilizing, or mulching before you leave. Mulching will help your soil retain moisture, smother any weeds, and protect sensitive plants from heat or cold. Anticipate how much your plants will grow while you’re gone and set up stakes, trellises, or cages to support them.
Remove rotting fruit and try to tackle any potential problems before they become bigger problems (such as allium rust or aphid infestations).
Replace troublesome hoses or sprayers, refill self-watering containers, and give everything a good, deep watering the day before you leave, especially if no one will be around to check on the garden.
If you’ll be traveling for a few weeks in the summer, consider solarizing your garden beds — you’ll save water and come back to a clean slate.
For houseplants, water them deeply (from the bottom up) and wash their leaves in the shower or under a faucet; clean leaves help maintain overall plant health. If you have a lot of houseplants to care for, group them together in one spot so that your plant-sitter won’t have to run around hand-watering them all… and possibly missing one. For houseplants that don’t need any maintenance, move them away from sunny windows and into shadier spots to reserve their moisture.
Pick, pick, pick.
Even if you’ve set up your entire garden to be watered automatically, you should still arrange for someone to stop by and harvest vegetables to keep your plants productive. I have never had friends turn down a chance to go shopping in their own personal farmers’ market!
Regular harvesting leads to higher yields, as the frequent picking forces the plant to produce more fruit for its survival. Because no matter what we want to believe, a tomato plant only exists to set enough seed to make tomato babies, and not to give us bottomless bowls of salsa! Fruits left to overripen on the plant will make it think its job is done. In the case of herbs like basil, mint, and parsley, cutting them back encourages bushier growth and delays flower production.
What about the chickens?
I’ve had various friends volunteer to care for my chickens while I’m away, and it seems to be a popular chore, especially for friends with kids who love to help out.
Chicken-sitting works best if your chickens have a safe, enclosed run to roam and are able to let themselves in and out of the coop. Otherwise, you’ll have to find a house-sitter who’s diligent about opening the coop each morning and ensuring the flock has roosted each night.
I ask my chicken-sitters to check on my flock every two or three days to collect eggs, rake up poop, give them some treats, and replenish their food and water. They’re very low-maintenance as far as pets go, and when I’m gone for just the weekend with no sitters lined up, I simply make sure I leave extra food and a second water fountain in the run for them. If your chickens are used to free-ranging, you can keep them occupied in the run for a couple of days with a cabbage piñata or treat ball. It’s nutritious entertainment for them!
In towns with growing backyard chicken-keeping movements, chicken-sitting services have even sprung up (they can usually be found on Craigslist, on the bulletin boards of local feed stores, and through urban farming meet-up groups). You can also make friends with a fellow urban farmer and swap chicken-sitting services, ensuring your flock will be in the hands of someone who’s experienced with poultry.
And then… relax!
I’ll admit, sometimes I ask my friends to send pictures and updates on the garden and the chickens. I feel my heart leap when they say the cucumbers are “growing like crazy… can’t keep up.” Magic to my ears!
But for the most part, it’s outta-sight-outta-mind for me. I love the feeling of coming back after a week or two away and being overwhelmed with what seems like a sudden growth spurt in the garden. Sometimes it feels like everything has doubled or tripled in size! Not being there day to day and seeing the growth in incremental stages means it always seems more dramatic than it really is.
By the time I’m settled in at home, I’m back to the usual routine in the yard… and planning my next trip.