How to care for your garden
while on a summer vacation

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The Heart of New England
A Gardener’s Vacation
by Jeanne Prevett Sable

Every summer I approach vacation time with a mix of excitement and mild
apprehension. It’s tough leaving the garden when it’s in full gear. A lot can
happen in a week or two.  We could return to a mat of munched stubble, a
patch of parched rubble, or a forest of trouble (overgrown weeds.)

Of course, engaging a house sitter who loves gardening is the ideal solution,
but an available prospect doesn’t always surface. Sometimes the plants we’ve
coddled along, defended from hungry beasts, weeded, nourished, and
refreshed with frequent waterings, must be left to fend for themselves for a
while. When that happens, I feel like a mother leaving her child without a
babysitter for the first time.

Of course, a garden shouldn’t tie you down completely. That would take much
of the fun out of summer. A little forethought and preparation can improve
your odds of returning to a lush, healthy garden after a well-deserved, though
abbreviated vacation.

Perhaps most important are the four M’s—mulch, mulch, and more mulch. Not
only will it keep the weeds from overtaking your precious charges while you’re
away, it will retain ample moisture to hold them over between rains (if there
are any.) I often use grass trimmings or weeds pulled from the garden—
provided they haven’t gone to seed. Stay away from those persistent species
that throw down new roots at the drop of a hat . . . You know the ones. We just
scored a truckload of wood chips from the local highway department. I think I
will put them to good use this year, though I imagine I will need to lime a bit
more than usual later, to counteract the added acidity.

You might also try the old milk jug trick— cut the bottoms out of plastic milk
jugs and bury the containers neck down next to the roots of thirsty larger plants,
such as tomato or broccoli. Fill the jugs with water right before you leave. This
delivers water deep down to the roots where needed, slowly releasing more of
the same after each rain. It also makes it easier for a neighbor to serve a quick
drink to your plants, without having to man the hose or mind the sprinklers. A
soaker hose attached to a rain barrel will also do the trick. Of course, these
measures will not take your garden through extended periods of drought. We
are talking mini vacations here.

Take note of any neighbors or friends who routinely walk or jog by your
garden. They may not mind turning on an outdoor faucet to activate a sprinkler
on their way by, and turning it off on the way back. Dog walkers can be an even
greater help in rural areas. Ask them to lead Rover around the perimeter of
your garden to do what he does best—mark “his” territory to dissuade deer
and other animals from taking advantage of your absence.  

Before leaving is also a good time to rotate security strategies in your garden,
since deer and other garden pests often get used to once tried-and-true tactics.
If you’ve been spraying peppermint scented castile soap, try switching to
lavender scent, or sprinkling garlic powder in lieu of cayenne pepper.
Reposition that lawn chair or scarecrow.

The next couple ideas are new experiments. We worry particularly about heavy
rains washing away the soap scent (which has been quite effective) before our
return. So this year we’ll try placing “curiously strong” breath mints in strategic
places around the garden—like inside our now burgeoning broccolis—a
favorite of the local deer. With any luck, rains will activate their minty scent.

We may also try setting meat scraps around the edge of the garden to
temporarily invite the coyotes. I realize this could backfire, but we recently
spied not one, but TWO rabbits on the road to the garden, and you know what
that means.  

Of course, if you’ve gone the more high tech route and installed fencing,
automatic timed sprinklers, electronic pest repellents and other devices, your
garden is practically on auto-pilot as far as meeting its survival needs while
you’re away. But then, so are the weeds.  Here’s where your vegetable patch or
cut flower bed can earn its own keep. Tell your neighbors they are welcome to
harvest any mature fruits and veggies or flowers that strike their fancy, as long
as they pull a few weeds while they’re at it.

With any luck, you’ll be able to leave for vacation without kissing your garden
goodbye.  Happy trails!

About the Author:

Jeanne Prevett Sable is an organic gardener, editor, and freelance writer based
in New Hampshire who specializes in farming and environmental issues, with
hundreds of articles published in local, regional, and national publications. She
has written environmental scripts for children's television, live puppet theater,
and the Web. She is also the author of
Seed Keepers of Crescentville, her first
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