Survival tips for home-alone plants

Jeff Lowenfels

We must be nearing the school holiday season. Readers start asking for advice regarding the care of houseplants while they are on vacation whenever it gets close. When I get these questions, I am not sure I should be envious over the trips or feel lucky I am not abandoning our houseplant collection to the vagaries of power outages and 14 days of no water.

Still, if you are going to Hawaii or visiting grandma's and you want to make sure your houseplants won't suffer, there are some steps you can take to keep your houseplants alive while you are away.

Obviously, a reliable house sitter, or at least someone who will stop by and check the house periodically, is the best solution. To make sure he or she is as attentive to your houseplants as the cat or dog, it is important to make it as easy as possible. This means putting all of the plants that really need to be watered the most in one location where they won't be missed, preferably near the sink or water source.

In fact, it makes a great deal of sense to move all of your plants to one location. This surely will make it easiest. You should also arrange them according to their watering needs, separating them into groups such as orchids (water once a week) cactuses (every 10 days) and herbs (check daily). Good signs will help too. Don't assume anything. These are your babies and, if you want them to live, you have to give explicit instructions.

Finally, and obviously, don't just leave notes regarding how you want your plants watered. When the person who will be taking care of them is in your presence, show her how much water is needed by actually watering the plant.

If you don't have a house sitter, the trick is to ensure that your plants can conserve the moisture they have for as long as possible. At the outset, this means you should make sure that they are well watered just before you leave for your trip. For many plants -- the low-light standards in particular -- this is all they may need for up to a month.

Lowering the temperature to 55-65 degrees won't hurt plants and will conserve water in their soil. Since plants take up water as a result of evaporation from their leaves, increasing the humidity, at least in the vicinity of the plant, will help reduce the water uptake rate. You can place plants on trays of water, lifting the plants up a bit with pebbles or marbles or anything, actually. You can also put your plants in a bathroom with a filled bathtub or even put the plants in the tub, raised out of water, of course.

There are some gadgets worth considering. If you want to make your own, search online for "soda bottle plant watering system." Most involve poking a very small hole in a pop bottle and burying it half into the soil of a plant. Also check "vacation plant waterers." Do go check. You will also find some commercial products, worthy of consideration if you travel a lot.

Finally, you can try a new product called "Vacation." Mix some of this liquid in water and apply it to your houseplants and they will become drought resistant for two weeks. And, just to give you peace of mind about your plants (as you lay in the sun reading some trashy novel instead of "Teaming With Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to The Soil Food Web"), "Vacation" only works if your plants don't get watered. Wow, that sounds too easy.

I am not sure how it works, but I tried a bottle of the stuff a few months ago when I got a sample. "Vacation" is extremely safe, no toxic chemicals, but rather natural inputs. Check it out at by going to their product tab, or look for it locally. For those who are staying home here in Alaska, I notice the product can be used to help prevent Christmas tree-needle and poinsettia-leaf drop.

Jeff Lowenfels is a member of the Garden Writers Hall of Fame. You can reach him at or by calling 274-5297 during "The Garden Party" radio show from 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays on KBYR AM-700.