If you have container plants that you water by hand, then you may be familiar with the vaguely terrifying feeling that accompanies going out of town for a few days. Will your precious plants survive the neglect? How long can they go without being watered before they give up the ghost? In drought-stricken California, where I live, it may only be a matter of days before the most tender of potted plants passes the point of no return.
I’ve just arrived back from a week-long sojourn to the east coast, and I’ll tell ya, I was definitely nervous as I disembarked from my airport shuttle and walked back to my apartment. The first thing I would see when I turned the corner to my building would be my handful of container plants, which had been thriving when I left, but hadn’t been watered or checked on in nearly a week. Would they still be going strong? Or would the Palo Alto sun have burnt them to a crisp while I was gone?
I came around the bend and breathed a huge sigh of relief– they were alive! My tomato plant was a bit bedraggled and was clearly ready for a sip of water, but my pepper plants were looking fabulous and were dripping with new peppers.
I’m not sure they would have made it though if it hadn’t been for a little trick I used to keep them watered for a couple of extra days. Most of my pots were inherited from a friend and didn’t come with the water-retaining saucers that go underneath the containers to keep dirt and water from staining the ground below. Since I didn’t have any friends in the building to water for me while I was gone, and no time to pick up any handy self-watering gadgets, I had to get a little creative. I grabbed a couple of large mixing bowls, filled them halfway with water, and then placed one under each of my containers, which I also watered deeply.
My tomato plant was too big to fit a mixing bowl under, so I used the only thing I had handy that was big enough to hold the plant and some extra water– my laundry hamper! While I’m not sure I would recommend that (too much fuss to clean out later), a big ice bucket or washtub would work well here.
If you happen to have a kiddy pool, or other large water-tight container available, you could group all of your potted plants together in it instead.
The extra reserve of water allows your plants to suck up the moisture as they need it, giving you a couple of extra days before their supply runs out. Employing this technique before going out of town for a couple of days could be the difference between coming home to find healthy plants or dying, water-stressed plants. Despite the extra water, my tomato plant was still starting to wilt after a week away, so I wouldn’t recommend this as a long-term solution for vacations more than a week in length. But for just a handful of days, it’s a simple solution that will allow you to rest easy, knowing your plants are cared for while you’re gone.