There is great pain in abandoning a tomato on the cusp of ripening but it happens every year. My fruit and veg decide to produce their best just as I have to leave – on business, on holiday – somewhere far from the hosepipe and harvest. Even more painful is to return to a garden of parched, withered crops. To keep your garden going in your absence, a little planning is called for.
Keeping the garden watered while you're away
- A day or so before you leave, weed your beds (weeds compete for water).
- Cut the grass and pile the clippings near the beds. This kills two birds with one stone. Not only will the lawn be neater when you return, but you now have a mulch.
- As late as possible before you leave, water your veggies deeply.
- When everything is thoroughly soaked, spread the soil with clippings or, if you don't have clippings, compost or other mulch. You could even place large stones or planks of wood between the rows of vegetables. The idea is to ensure the soil beneath remains damp for as long as possible. Don't use plastic, as you want any rain that does fall to soak in.
It's worth remembering next year, if you don't already, to water more deeply and less frequently from the start of the season. This encourages plants to send roots deeper and means they'll cope better for periods without water than those whose roots are near the surface because they've always been lightly watered.
Making veggies comfortable
Stake and tie any plants that will need it when they're bigger, even if they're not big enough yet. Tomato plants never fail to amaze me with exponential growth whenever my back is turned and too soon they start resting on the ground.
Just how much you decide to harvest before you go depends on how long you'll be away. Pick anything that's ripe and, for any absence longer than a couple of days, add produce that is nearly ripe (tomatoes and strawberries will ripen in the fridge). For longer absences, remove young beans, immature peas and baby courgettes as, if these mature on the vine, the plant will stop fruiting.
The crops that you're most likely to lose are the green leafy ones, such as lettuce, cress and oriental salads - you can slow up their tendency to run to seed by erecting shade protection.
Crops in Pots
Pots are obviously most vulnerable to drying out. Grouping them close together creates a damper micro-climate for them and reduces evaporation from the soil and water loss through the leaves. They should, if possible, be placed in a position that's shady for most of the day and where they'll still receive rain. Water thoroughly and cover the soil surface with a permeable mulch.
Watering devices can help. Water globes are widely available, but you can create your own.
Ensure that the soil in the pot is already damp. Fill a glass wine bottle (or similar) to the brim and quickly plunge the neck into the pot, screwing well into the soil so that there's a good contact between earth and water. The water level will stabilise within the bottle and the soil will gradually draw the moisture down as it needs it. It's a good idea to try this out in the week before you go to see if the water lasts as long as you'd like and if very thirsty plants, like tomatoes, still tend to wilt. Increase the water available, if necessary, by adding more or larger bottles.
Find a Garden Buddy
In an ideal world, we'd all have someone we trusted to tend our gardens while we're away – someone as keen as we, and whose crops we'll look after in return. Sadly, few of us have such a treasure, but you might consider joining your local gardening club or horticultural society in the hope of cultivating one for the future.
It's more likely that, if you find a helper, it'll be a less horticulturally enthused neighbour. The temptation to write copious notes, or take him or her on a long, detailed journey around the beds before you leave should be resisted.
By all means, show them round, but make everything as simple as possible.
- Leave watering cans by the tap (faucet) or the hose connected and unravelled as far as the veg beds.
- Group pots together so that your helper doesn't have to traipse round the garden to find them.
- Make clear what absolutely has to be watered (perhaps insert a flag by particular plants), and what it would be really nice of them to water if they have the time.
- Bring a present home. A box of chocolates says "I've appreciated your effort," and your neighbour will feel happier to help again.
You should also tell them to help themselves to the harvest. Not only does this bonus mean they're more likely to remember to nip round but, as mentioned above, continuous harvesting encourages continuous fruiting, so you won't miss further harvests on your return.
Don't expect perfection. These are your babies, and no one is going to treat them as well as you are. Plenty of gardeners have surely suffered blossom end rot in their tomatoes, thanks to a less than attentive neighbour (yes, it was me, but I was young...)
By Helen Gazeley