Tuesday, May 6th, 2008...2:21 pm

What to do with your plants when you go on vacation


TheGardenLady received this question from Steph.

I am going away for 4 weeks from mid-July and I don’t know what will happen to my plants! I can’t get anyone else to water them and I am afraid they will die…I’ve been nurturing them for about 1-3 years now…I have a ficus/rubber plant (Ficus elastica ‘Robusta’), a yucca (not too worried about this one) and still young/small Cycas revoluta/Sago palm. The sago palm is already suffering as one of its leaves is turning increasingly yellow, and I never know if this happens because of sun burn or lacking/excessive water. How can I ensure my beloved plants (I’ve even named them!) do not die while I am away? The only outside space I have is a small balcony which is west-facing and is battered by the sun from the early afternoon onwards (and is subject to temperamental UK weather).  

Going on vacation and leaving plants can be a serious concern. 4 weeks is a very long time to leave plants untended. Two weeks is about the longest time that plants seem to be able to tolerate. You are really trying to “push the envelope.”

I have been told that bonsai growers will rent a van and pack all their bonsai in the van and drive with the bonsai wherever they go when they go on vacation. Of course, this is an extreme measure, but it is a suggestion.

As you said, the yucca plant will like full sun. Your Cycas revoluta/Sago palm  may also be quite happy being out in the sun, which it loves with only moderate shade from strong summer sun. And it loves less water-like a cactus, but it should never be allowed to dry out completely. If the leaves are yellowing in the house, you might have been over watering the Cycas or giving it too much fertilizer or have it in the wrong soil. Cut off those yellowing leaves. And though the Ficus may be very resistant in dry conditions and can survive very harsh droughts when planted outdoors, naturally it will thrive with plenty of water, especially if the weather gets really hot. When plants are in pots there is very little soil around the roots which can dry out too quickly. So the Ficus is really the trickiest of the 3 plants to try to keep alive when you are away for one month.

Though the Yucca and Sago Palm are either drought tolerant or fairly drought tolerant and like sun. Older plants are more tolerant than younger plants.

However, here are some suggestions if you are leaving plants that need more watering: You say that you do not know anyone who will come to water your plants. Have you asked around at local plant nurseries to see if they can “board” your plants or if they know of someone who is in the business of watering vacation plants or boarding plants. There are companies that water plants in public offices. Have you contacted the companies that do this service to see if you can contract them for one month? I don’t know if the Master Gardening program has come to London – I had heard it was starting. MGs don’t recommend any businesses.  However, they might give the names of some commercial watering businesses who would go to a private home for a month or maybe one of the MGs provides this service. The best place of all for you to call for information about your plants, since you are in the UK, would be Kew Gardens. They certainly would give you excellent advice on how to care for your plants while you are on vacation and they might know a service that would go to your house when you were away.

Also, because you do not know a person who would go to your house, is there someone whom you could bring your plants to their house to be “boarded”? Is there some young kid in the neighboring apartment whom you could ask to babysit your plants on their deck for a babysitting fee?  Do you know someone with a garden? Someone who would be willing to allow your plants to sit outside in their garden under a shady tree or in a shady spot. Tell these people to just water the plants once a week or once every two weeks until the water runs through the pot.  Assure any friend or neighbor who offers to board your plants that should something happen to your plants, you would understand. People are afraid to assume this responsibility for fear of killing your plant. Of course it would be best to let your plants stay with someone with a green thumb. But these options would be better than allowing your plants to be “home alone” on your deck.

If getting a person is not an option, could you rig a big beach umbrella on your deck to shade the Ficus plant?

Any indoor plant being taken outdoors should be acclimated slowly.  Do not put them in bright sunlight right away. Take a few weeks to introduce them to the light slowly. Make sure to deeply water every plant (until water comes out of the bottom of their drainage holes).  Remember as well to remove all of the plants’ “unhealthy” greenery with a pair of clean sharp pruners. Where possible, water the plant in the bathtub or shower. Then put plants that need more water in pots that retain moisture, perhaps on stones in cache pots or pots with wicks to wick the water. You can use water retentive pellets mixed into the soil. I use Schultz Moisture Plus but there are other brands of watering crystals and in this link are other brand names.  Or you can buy pots with wicks that will constantly wick the water into the pots. Check your local nursery for water retentive pellets or wicking pots or make your own wicks (here or here).  Place the pot on something that holds water. Someone suggested getting some of those super duper disposable diapers, wet them to the dripping point then put your plants on top of it and enclose all in a plastic bag – best done in a shaded area. It is best to put the plants somewhere there won’t be large temperature fluctuations as you don’t want mold if it gets too hot.  But this is not an option for you. So I might also consider putting something damp on top of the pot for the plant that needs moisture.  Again this advice is Not for desert types of plants like Yucca or Sago Palm. And the Ficus does not like too much water so this is tricky.

For your Ficus, can you put some sort of drip hose line on your deck? Again check on drip line systems in Google or with your local nursery. There are many new types of drip irrigation around.   See here. Many people suggest the bathroom for leaving plants when going on vacation, as the best place to leave plants when going away. And you can leave the bathroom light on.   2 of the plants you mention will be happy with the sunny deck. But you might try the bathroom for the Ficus. What you are attempting is very difficult. TheGardenLady hopes that some of the suggestions will be what you are looking for.  here are no guarantees on any of these suggestions; but they might just work. Remember, whatever you do, as much as you love your plants, if one dies, mourn briefly and move on. In the grand scheme of life, the death of a plant is not the worst thing that can happen. My father-in-law used to say that the nursery business is the best business to be in because plants die and one always has to replace them. You are a good plant mother, but 1 to 3 years is not a very long time in a plant’s life.

And, please let TheGardenLady and her readers know what you chose to do and what the outcome was. It will be a learning experience for all of us.

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