Top Tips: Preparing Your Garden for a Summer Holiday

The school summer break is over and the kids are back for the autumn term, which means it must be time to take our holidays. I love September: the hazy light, the gentle warmth that seems to radiate from the ground and the ebullience of the garden. For me, this is my last hurrah before work becomes too chaotic to take time off. It’s an opportunity to reboot, recharge and start preparing for winter and the ‘C’ event (only 107 shopping days left!). Over the next two weeks we’ll be visiting some of our favourite places in Devon and Cornwall, reconnecting with family and meeting my favourite blogger Gill Heavens, author of Off The Edge Gardening. On a scrap of paper secreted safely away from Him Indoors, I have a long list of nurseries and gardens to drop in on.

I wouldn't be without Aster divaricatus, a plant with tumbling, wiry stems which cover a multitude of sins in late summer
I wouldn’t be without Aster divaricatus at this time of year, a plant with tumbling, wiry stems which cover a multitude of sins

Leaving our gardens at this time of year is to some extent the easiest option. Many plants are growing less fast and concentrating their efforts into flowers or building up strong leaf rosettes to get them through the colder months. However, in the vegetable garden we are approaching the peak time for harvesting. I remember, when I was a child, returning from long holidays in Cornwall to lawns strewn with apples and damsons, and to courgettes-turned-marrows which my mother would then try to stuff and cook until we could take no more. Not much chance of a glut in our tiny garden, but maybe more than we can eat at once. The best solution here is a friendly neighbour who can help themselves whilst you recline on a beach or live it up at the pool bar.

A little forethought can make all the difference when planning time away from the garden and means you don’t have to worry about returning to a wilting, mildew-molested mess. Here are my top tips for preparing your garden for a late summer holiday.

Water generously the day before departing, allowing time for a good soak.
Water the day before departing, allowing time for a good soak

Watering

Watering is every gardener’s number one concern when going on holiday. Unless you’re into cacti, the prospect of a hot, dry spell is a nightmare if you’re away for any length of time, especially if you grow many plants in pots. Solution number one is a trusted friend who will come around to quench your plants’ thirst every day or two. Should you not have one of those to hand (and I don’t trust many people with my watering) an irrigation system is an option. However, these are only suitable for relatively small areas and seem to me heavy-handed unless you’re away frequently. Instead I use a loam based, water retentive compost for my containers which dries out more slowly than other growing media. By grouping several pots together you will shade the surface of the compost and reduce evaporation. Better still, move any pots which are portable to a lightly shaded position. This may result in temporary legginess or a lull in flowering, but is better than complete dehydration.

Be careful about standing plants in trays of water (this works a little better for some houseplants). Rain may keep these topped up for long periods of time and very few plants relish having wet feet. Better to water thoroughly and allow pots to drain naturally.

Any pots that can be moved will benefit from relocation to a shaded part of the garden
Any pots that can be moved will benefit from relocation to a shaded part of the garden

Disease Prevention

Second on the list of potential vacation spoilers are bugs and diseases. Snails and caterpillars can wreak havoc in the space of a week and cause fatalities within a fortnight. If you are prepared to use slug pellets then do so, especially around vulnerable plants like hostas. General tidying up of dead or dying foliage and flowers will reduce the garden’s appeal to a whole range of pests: get the air circulating around your plants and avoid anything that will attract the little blighters.

Spray plants like dahlias to protects against attack from greenfly or red spider mite. Powdery mildew (an unsightly whitish mould) can be a real nuisance during prolonged periods of dry weather. There are anti-fungal sprays which are meant to defend against this non-fatal blight, but once you have powdery mildew, it tends to stick around. Remove and burn infected foliage and fresh new leaves will quickly emerge.

These mildew infested polemoniums will come back with fresh green foliage after removing the tired old foliage
These mildew-infested polemoniums will come back with fresh green leaves after removing the old foliage

Be Prepared

The British weather is unpredictable and perennials are at their tallest right now. Any that are spent can be given a haircut and will divert their energies into building up strong crowns for winter. Stake any plants that are still in their prime, such as asters, heleniums, rudbekias and dahlias, if you haven’t done so already: a single gale could see them flat on the their backs. I like to interplant early flowering perennials with Aster divaricatus (above) which blooms in September and lolls about, covering and gaps or unsightly foliage in the border. Tie in tomatoes and remove the lower leaves to allow the sun’s rays to ripen the fruit whilst you’re away.

Unless they open automatically, leave greenhouse ventilators ajar to improve air circulation and keep things cool.

With their lower leaves removed, tomatoes will ripen fast in the autumn sunshine
With their lower leaves removed, tomatoes will ripen fast in the autumn sunshine

Plan Ahead

Pick everything you can before you go and freeze it, gift it or take it with you. You will prolong the flowering season of dahlias, cosmos and annual bedding by deadheading and then picking any open blooms. This will encourage the formation of new buds, which should be opening by the time you return. If you have a lawn, mow it the day before you leave, setting the blades high if the weather is warm and/or dry. Pinch out chrysanthemums and fuchsias which will still be growing strongly, and pot young plants on so that they can be making roots whilst you languish in the sunshine.

If you like to be organised, order your spring bulbs before you go so that they are waiting for you on your return. Narcissi and any remaining autumn flowering bulbs should be planted immediately.

Narcissi bulbs will already be putting down new roots, so can be planted immediately
Narcissi bulbs will already be putting down new roots, so can be planted immediately

Whatever mirth one encounters when wheeling the suitcase up the garden path after two weeks on the Costas, it will always look worse than it actually is. Do not postpone a thorough watering unless it’s been vile whilst you’ve been away (which always feels so good!) and follow up with a quick mow, deadhead and weed, concentrating on the bits that show. You will soon restore a semblance of respectability and be able to enjoy the fruits (and vegetables) of your labours.

I’d love to hear your top tips for making a garden holiday proof…..