If you go away for a fortnight during the summer holidays and don’t want to return to bedraggled borders, dried-out pots and a lawn which looks like straw, take action now
BEFORE YOU GO
Weed, mow and water. Make sure beds and borders are tidy, weeded and well watered. Deadhead and cut back perennials which have finished flowering. If you have annuals in borders, deadhead them and even pick off emerging flowers to conserve the plants’ energy for when you return. They may reward you with fresh blooms which come through in your absence. Mow the lawn, leaving the clippings on it which will help conserve moisture should it be really dry when you’re away. Give containers and baskets a really good water and feed before you leave.
WHILE YOU’RE AWAY
Family, friends and neighbours: Call on kindly neighbours, friends or family who live nearby to maintain your garden in your absence. Leave clear instructions about watering and deadheading, and get them to harvest any ripening fruit and veg from your allotment or vegetable patch for their own use. That way it won’t go to seed. They could even freeze what they don’t use.
Automatic watering: There are many automatic irrigation systems on the market which can be timed to go on and off as you wish. More sophisticated models are activated depending on the dryness of the soil while others, such as Hozelock’s Cloud Controller, this year’s RHS Chelsea Garden Product of the Year, can be operated from your mobile phone.
Shade pots: If you have a collection of patio pots, give them a really good soaking just before you go away and put them all together in a sheltered, shady spot which is open to the elements (including rain). Clustering them should help conserve moisture, reduce evaporation and make it easier for friends or neighbours to water. Stand the pots in saucers or trays which act as a reservoir and hold some of the excess water as it drains.
Hanging baskets: These can need watering twice a day in the height of summer and if you don’t have a neighbour to do it, you’ll have your work cut out to keep them looking good. Take down the basket and dig a depression in the soil in a shady border that you can sink the basket in. Water and feed the basket, ensuring the soil underneath is thoroughly soaked too and give your basket plants a good trim before you go.
Other watering solutions: If you don’t have an automatic watering system or a neighbour to take care of your patio pots, create your own self-watering system by placing a bucket of water on bricks and surrounding it with your pots, which should be at a lower level than the bucket. Cut out strips of capillary matting (available from garden centres and DIY stores) to create a wick for each pot, placing one end of the matting in the bucket and training it down and inserting the other end into the compost, which should keep it moist when you’re away.
Drought-tolerant plants: There are plenty of colourful plants which will survive your two-week absence. Geraniums, cosmos, escholzia (Californian poppy), gazania, osteospermum and nicotiana should all be okay. A wider list of drought-tolerant plants is available from the Royal Horticultural Society at www.rhs.org.uk
BEST OF THE BUNCH: Pelargoniums
These are among the most drought-tolerant of summer bedding plants, adding colour and texture to containers and at the front of borders. They used to be known as geraniums as their seed capsules are similar to those of our native hardy geraniums, but the name still sticks. There are more than 200 species, but the most common are zonal perlagoniums, the ones with leaves like opened fans. There are also ‘uniques’, which bear masses of small flowers and scented foliage, while regal pelargoniums are among the earliest to flower and many produce rich colours including deep burgundies and plums. Ivy-leaved types are trailing, so ideal for hanging baskets and containers. The beauty about these plants is that they hardly need watering – in fact most problems occur through over-watering – and if its roots become constricted in the pot it should flower profusely. Good varieties include ‘Voodoo’, a unique variety with wine red flowers with black centres, and ‘Attar of Roses’, a light pink type valued for its rose-scented foliage.
GOOD ENOUGH TO EAT: Autumn and winter salads
You may now be reaping the rewards of your summer leaves from successional sowings, but there’s still time to plant some salads to enjoy later on in the season. Rocket and lamb’s lettuce can still be sown in most situations, while winter purslane prefers lighter soil. Sow seeds thinly in drills around 23cm (9in) apart. These leaves don’t need to be thinned out. Just cut them as you need them and they will come again. Oriental veg such as Chinese radish, pak choi and mizuna can also be added to the mix or grown as ornamental plants in borders, sowing in rows 30cm (1ft) apart. These can be thinned to 15-30cm (6-12 inches) between plants.
WHAT TO DO THIS WEEK
- Take cuttings of new shoots of camellias, rooting them in a gritty compost in a covered propagator.
- Clean pond pump filters to ensure they don’t get clogged up with algae.
- Harvest Japanese onions planted last autumn.
- Thin out heavy crops of apples, picking off small, damaged fruits to give the rest more room.
- Continue to pick sweet peas for cut flowers indoors or remove dead seed heads to ensure that plants continue to flower.
- Feed established wisteria with a high potash liquid feed to promote flowering.
- Layer non-flowering side shoots of carnations to raise new plants.
- Water blue hydrangeas with a solution of colourant to ensure blue varieties remain blue in future and prompt pink ones to turn blue.
- Top up levels of ponds and water features as water evaporates.
- Pick ripe tomatoes as they form and remove leaves below the lowest truss to improve air circulation.
- Pick lettuce, cutting every alternate one in a row to leave others more space to develop.