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The Travelling Gardner

Gardening is like parenting. It is a commitment.

Today’s topic is for the reader who asked about watering the plants while you are away. It is one of the major pains associated with the hobby. What do you do when you got to go away from home for a few days?

 1Balcony-Flowerssource

I have myself faced this several times. I grow things on my open terrace, in direct sunshine. This adds to the problem. The sun dries up the water pretty fast. Miss one day of watering, and the plants will look like hungry children by evening. And that is one heart breaking scene! Places that do not have direct sunshine would fare slightly better, they do not dry up as fast. A window sill should be fine to go without added water for two or three days. A balcony may safely miss a day without added water.

The first thing we got to do is to identify the need for water by the plants. This depends upon the type of plant and also the volume and water retaining capacity of the potting mixture. Normal soil has poor water retention compared to special potting soil, like that made from coconut pith generally known as Coco Peat. This wonder material can retain a lot of water. This should be available in horticulture stores in the form of compressed dry cakes. Adding water would make them expand into a spongy mass that could be used to fill pots. Giving a thick top layer with this, and saturating it with water would help a lot to retain water.

collage coco

It is always a good idea to move the pots to shade while you are away. If shade is not readily available, move them to one corner and make a shade using some tarpaulin or plastic sheet. Make sure that the place has plenty of ventilation. Shade does not mean you can throw a tarp over the plants. That would do more harm than help. Like us animals, plants also need a lot of air.

Moving the plants to shade and giving a top layer of spongy material with water should take care of a few days away. But if you need to be away for longer, or if you can’t move the plants, you need improvised solutions which might require some additional effort.

Easiest one that I tried was the cloth siphon (similar to the setup shown below). All of us have seen the capillary siphon made from a string. You take a glass of water and out a moist string over the edge, so that the end of the string is lower in level than the level of water in the glass. Water will get up via capillary action over the string, and drip from the other end. You can use the same principle to make a drip irrigation scheme.

 clothes siphon collagesource

I have also used a plastic jerry can as a water tank. I filled it with water, and kept it at a few feet above the plants. Then I ran strings made from cotton rags from the can to the pots. This drip irrigation worked away for a few days.

One problem with the strings is that they can become dry and unserviceable after a couple of days. For the more adventurous another thing to try are the thin plastic tubes that are used for craft work for absentee watering. You would have seen the bright-colored thin plastic tubes in the craft stores that are weaved into baskets and God only knows what else! Put them to good use by taking one piece of the tube per pot and bunch them all together. The tubes can be used as a siphon to carry water in drips to the pots. This takes some skill and effort to pull off so dont give up too soon.

 collage2source

Being the engineer, I have also thought of an automatic watering system that will open a solenoid and run the water drips to the pots based on a timer. But I never got the time to build that.

Of course, plant sitting is the best. Otherwise, what are friends for?
A kind contribution from Dileep Kumar for Housedelic.