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Going Away And Worrying About Your Lawn And Garden? Expert Tips Keep Them Growing Strong



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When it is the middle of summer and you are off with family, upstate, out of state, or wherever — for days or weeks at a time — the neighbor will pick up mail, garbage will not pile up ... but those plants will need watering and perhaps other care, such as harvesting in the case of vegetables.

From indoor to outdoor plants, there are a vast variety with a plethora of needs. Local garden experts Eugene Reelick, owner of Hollandia Nurseries and Farm in Bethel, and Dan Holmes, owner of Holmes Fine Gardens in Newtown, share some tips that apply to plant care specific to vacation time and in general.

Watering plants may not be easy even when home. “The number one hardest job I have at the nursery is being a waterer,” said Reelick, noting that different types of plants and soils make for a variety of watering responsibilities.

So when you go away, watering and caring for plants becomes that much trickier of course. A good option, Reelick said, is to have a family member or neighbor care for plants while away. If that is not an option, there are some things that can be done to give plants their best chance to survive.

House Plants

Reelick notes that there are low, medium, and high light indoor plants, all of which need to go in the right location inside, and Reelick advises people to not be afraid of putting house plants outside in appropriate, non-direct lighting. In general, house plants do best with a thorough soaking and being allowed to dry before the next soaking, Reelick said.

When it comes time for a trip, give those plants a good drink. They can also be left in a bowl of water and will absorb the water they need through capillary action, Reelick said. There are also a variety of products that allow for hands-off watering, including the Plant Nanny, a stake with an adaptor for recycled bottles that will slowly dispense water into the soil.

The type of soil can make a big difference. Reelick suggests a potting soil that contains a compost mix which will better retain water for potted plants.

Occasionally, perhaps including before and after your trip, a suggestion Reelick gives for house plant care is to put them in the shower for a complete rinse. “All plants that are outside love a rainfall,” Reelick said.

There are some exceptions to the soak, let dry and repeat process. The moist or bog soil plants, such as Venus flytraps and mosses, need consistently moist soil, whereas dry or arid soil plants such as cacti and succulents need less water, Reelick said.

According to the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station’s article “General Houseplant Care,” by Dr Sharon M. Douglas, Department of Plant Pathology and Ecology: “Drainage is important for almost every plant. There are very few plants that will tolerate saturated soil and lack of soil oxygen for any length of time. For this reason, all pots, regardless of their composition, should have openings in the bottom for water drainage. A layer of stones or broken pottery pieces can be placed in the bottom of the pot before any soil is added. This permits rapid drainage and good soil aeration. The type of soil used to pot plants should be well-draining. A mixture of equal parts of loam (or garden soil), humus (e.g., leaf mold, peat moss), and either coarse sand or perlite is usually sufficient. Vermiculite and bone meal may also be added.”

In The Garden

Plants, whether they are in pots or the garden, should be watered near the center of the base so the main root does not dry out. This is especially important for when plants are transplanted from one pot to another or from a pot to an outdoor garden space, Reelick and Holmes note.

“Usually a week is OK for things that have been in the ground for a couple of months,” said Holmes, noting that consistent 90-or-so degree temperatures and dry conditions for a week are cause for getting plants watered during that week.

The roots are what need to be watered, not the leaves. So if vacation is for an extended time or dry and hot conditions are in the forecast, and the neighbor or family can not be there, what to do?

There are a variety of soaker hoses, drip hoses, and spray heads. “It’s endless,” said Reelick of what is on the market for home gardeners to keep their plants thriving.

“They work very well as long as you have a timer and you can leave your water on while you are away,” said Reelick, who suggests experimenting with the watering system for a couple of weeks before vacation time to become comfortable and confident with its effectiveness.

Longer soaking periods are key. Holmes notes that a good soaking encourages roots to go deep, making for stronger plants. Shorter, more frequent soaking promotes roots staying closer to the surface.

According to another Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station article by Dr Douglas, “First Steps to Healthy Gardening,” mulch is a good method for helping outdoor plants throughout the summer. “Properly applied summer mulches have several advantages: they help with weed control, soil temperature moderation, and soil moisture retention,” according to the article.

The article also reads: “In order to keep the leaves dry to minimize potential disease problems, it is important to avoid overhead irrigation or to water early in the day.”

Weeds And Grass

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Holmes notes that now is a good time to address those weeds before they take over, and the right approach to grass cutting can pay dividends as the summer months unfold. Multiflora rose, Holmes said, has a beautiful fragrance but is a “thug of a weed.” Bittersweet, mugwort, and crab grass are among the other aggressive weeds. They can be sprayed by any of a variety of organic or nonorganic weed killers, pulled, or cut short and covered by a thick layer of mulch to keep them at bay, Holmes said. If left ignored, vacationers might be greeted by more opportunistic weeds and taller versions of the green garden nuisances, many of which have stubborn (and strong) root systems. Getting these weeds out now enables gardeners to gain back their space.

Lawns can be cut every other week this time of year, now that we’re though the peak growing season, Holmes said. And set the lawn mower blade a bit higher to remove only about a third of the grass blades, Holmes suggests. “Everybody cuts grass too short,” said Holmes, adding that this common practice opens spaces between the grass blades to more sun exposure which promotes weed growth and a less healthy lawn.

“If you’re cutting all the time and it’s a bright, full sun, you’re definitely going to have to baby that lawn,” Holmes said. “Aggressive weeds will pop in and start taking over.”

Grass that receives some shade and is cut less frequently may not need watering, Holmes said.

Veggies And Rain

For those who grow vegetables and herbs, there are more things to consider when heading out of town for extended periods. Veggies should be picked and taken for the trip or given to friends or the local parish so they do not go to waste, Reelick suggests. Herbs and leafy veggies, such as lettuce, can be cut back or removed to avoid having them overgrow and going to seed, which will destroy the plant, said Reelick, who suggests new crops can be planted just before leaving.

Planting vegetables or flower beds is best when done before a rainfall when they can absorb a good soaking when getting established, so it is a bit of a gamble putting a new plant in the ground and then going away.

“Mother Nature waters in a way I can never water. She’s very good at it,” Reelick said.

When home and able to water plants, Reelick suggests “the old fashioned way of doing it with a hose and nozzle, and enjoying the great outdoors.”

Reelick’s last bit of gardening advice: “Love gardening because it gives back so much. It’s incredible how much gardening gives back.” Reelick said that, for example, planting flowers that bloom in June, July, and August can be enjoyed by people while outside, and some flowers are ideal for cutting and bringing indoors.

Or perhaps to make a bouquet for a neighbor who will watch over your plants while you are away.

Andy Hutchison can be reached at andyh@thebee.com.

Grass should not be cut too low, or it opens up opportunities for stubborn weeds, suggests Dan Holmes, owner of Holmes Fine Gardens in Newtown.
Veggies, such as tomatoes, should be picked before extended travel. Herbs and lettuce, for example, need to be picked or cut back so they do not go to seed, advises Eugene Reelick, owner of Hollandia Nurseries and Farm.
The Plant Nanny is an option for ensuring plants get water while you are away.
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