Thriving On Neglect

“You’re going away in June … for five weeks”, was the general response to our plans to travel around the Highlands and Islands of Scotland this summer. Non-gardening friends thought it was a great idea. “The sort of thing you say you’ll do but never get round to,” said one. The gardeners we know however took more convincing. It wasn’t as if I didn’t share their concerns. How would the plants cope without me watering them? Would the slugs be waiting with baited breath for our bags to be packed before chomping their way through the plants I’d spent spring nurturing? Then there was the crop of strawberries we’d miss out on.

Holidays always pose a problem for gardeners, or you could see it that gardens get in the way of holidays. Either way, unless you have the budget and desire to holiday during our winter, jetting off somewhere far flung, the chances are you’ll take your annual break during the summer, just when your garden is reaching its peak.

Most plants will survive a week or two without your presence, particularly if you do a bit of planning beforehand – make sure the borders are weeded, the lawn has been mown and any containers are gathered together somewhere shady and cool and are given a thorough soaking. But what about for longer? Our 5-week trip to Scotland was to celebrate a special birthday and had been something we’d wanted to do for a while. The timing was right, apart from the garden. Could I have my cake and eat it – a long holiday and a garden and allotment that on my return wouldn’t resemble a jungle?

I sowed annuals and potted up dahlia tubers as normal with the plan that they would all be in the ground by the last week in May, to give me time to give them a good water before we went away. I knew there wasn’t much point growing some crops that would be at their peak during our break, such as broad beans, so I didn’t bother with these. Instead I planted lots of potatoes. They are such a low maintenance crop and I thought they’d be able to withstand my neglect. They’re also good for covering the ground and preventing weeds from taking hold.

I made sure everything that needed netting or staking was attended to. Then came the weeding. Both the plot and the garden were blitzed the weekend before, then there was a quick hoe the day before we left. Mulching was next on the list. The compost heap was emptied and spread on the beds at the allotment. We also discovered a local craft brewery around the corner from us that was giving away its spent hops. It turns out that this smelly and soggy waste product makes a great mulch – the smell does fade quite quickly, but you might want to be wearing old clothes when you spread it. And of course, everything got a good water.

So did it work? I was nervous as we spent our time away hearing about heatwaves and drought, but I needn’t have worried. Apart from one or two container plants which I half expected wouldn’t make it, both the allotment and garden survived my neglect. My no-dig policy at the allotment helps as I don’t disturb weed seeds constantly and the garden is so densely planted that weeds struggle to get a roothold. The potatoes were ready to dig up and the blueberries and blackberries ripe enough to pick. And the annuals and dahlias that 6 weeks ago had gone in as small plants were now in full bloom and ready to cut to fill vases at home. A weekend’s worth of tidying up and the garden was looking spick and span once more.