How to leave your garden

It pays to prepare your garden ahead for your summer vacation

Christin Geall

Christin Geall

A vexing problem: I love to garden and love to travel. I’m sure I’m not alone with this seeming dichotomy – we garden to create spaces and places and we travel to see others. We return with inspiration, ideas and a refreshed perspective (if not body), grateful to be home. Or: we come back to a jungle of weeds, to planters caked and cracking, and a heck of a lot of work.

I garden on a third of an acre which is bigger than it sounds when almost every inch is planted other than a swath of lawn and the footprint of the house.

What lawn we have my husband cuts and I manage pretty much everything myself. My only son studies in Scotland, and so somehow I’ve made three trips across the pond in just over a year and I’m about to embark on my fourth. I’m lucky, yes, but I favour the busman-style holiday, so I’m either learning or writing when I go.

How do I leave my garden? Today’s answer at T-minus 24 hrs: frantically. Perhaps I’m writing this as a reminder to trust – all will grow. All will survive. Provided you think ahead first.

Here’s what I do: I plan for my departure a few weeks out. I quit seeding two weeks ago, so I could clear the greenhouse of anything that might roast.

I plant densely in my borders to prevent weeds, which this week meant shoving sprouting dahlia tubers into any gap I could find. I hoe down annual weeds that might bloom in my absence and turn a blind eye to the rest. I do not move any established plants for a couple weeks before I go.

If I have planted new roses say, I mulch madly with compost. Right now I’m growing 60 linear feet of sweet peas and they are about two feet high. This morning I ran around with a seaweed solution to foliar feed. It’s crazy to leave them right? Maybe. I’ve mulched to keep the roots cool, but I guarantee I’ll be pinching back the buds to promote vegetative growth on the morning I leave. After that, I’ll hope. In two weeks, they should double in size.

I also ensure the garden gets watered when I leave. My father, who would be hard-pressed to know a zucchini flower from a zinnia, will be housesitting so I’m using bright orange pin flags (of the kind landscapers use) to mark areas that have been seeded or contain transplants and need to stay moist. The irrigation system I will ask him to control manually, dependent on the weather (which I will interrupt vacation-like activities to monitor). I expect he can push a button. The goal: to water deeply and occasionally if needed, not necessarily regularly. It’s better for plants to work their roots deep into the ground than spread along the surface for light refreshment.

If you don’t have a housesitter, irrigation or a drought-tolerant garden, what can you do? Give up planters. Really. If you can’t, then drag them to the shade. I am down to five and I’d like even less. If you can fit them in your car, take them to a friend’s – it’s an easier ask than having someone come over to water.

Leaving a productive garden in summer is possible, but it means spending oodles of time with it before you go. This is simply the price of beauty. I do not have good nails or posture or skin. But I do pump out blooms, so beauty happens nevertheless.

And that’s the most wonderful part of travel: coming home to gorgeous surprises, to the fact that your children – botanical or otherwise – can live without you and do. They may even thrive.

Christin Geall is an avid Oak Bay gardener and creative non-fiction writing instructor at the University of Victoria.