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Going away? Plant-sitters you don't have to pay

May 12, 2010 | 10:35 am

Vacations are hard on some gardens. Plants won’t whine to let you know they need water. They can’t migrate to a cooler, wetter part of the yard to survive. If your long weekend away falls during a hot spell, anything in those patio pots could be goners.

So, what is the best solution? It depends on your plants, your site and the weather. Beyond planting smartly, watering thoroughly, installing automatic drip irrigation or moving any containers to a shadier location, you can try:

GrandinRoadStakes: There are many variations on the idea, such as the 24-ounce hand-blown fluted globe (about $25) from the Plant Nanny suitable for a medium-sized container. The globes sit on top of a ceramic cone that is inserted next to the plant and gradually seeps the reservoir into the soil at root level. A similar globe, right, is $29 from Grandin Road. The Plant Nanny also has ceramic adapters, pictured below, for wine or plastic bottles starting around $4 each.

Hydrogels: Theoretically, polymer moisture crystals mixed into soil will store water and slowly release it over time. These crystals have been around for decades, but the bloom is decidedly off this rose. The petroleum-based polyacrylamide products bound water too tightly. (The technology was developed in PlantNanny2Japan for baby diapers, after all.) Critics also had concerns about health effects; in 1990 polyacrylamide landed on the California Proposition 65 list of substances that require labeling when included in products. Quench, launched in 2006, is a cornstarch-based hydrogel that differs from polyacrylamide-based ones in that it is 100% biodegradable. Initially developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it is capable of holding more than 400 times its weight in water for gradual release back into the soil via microbial activity. You don't use much -- just about 1 teaspoon for a 24-inch pot -- so 1 pound of the stuff ($15) will last a while. It doesn't replace watering, but manufacturer Zeba says it can reduce the amount of irrigation needed by 30% to 50% over time. 

DriWater: Rather than absorb and store water, this product is 98% water already, designed to be released over time. It was developed by a food chemist 20 years ago to help combat climate-changing deforestation. Water is bound by a vegetable gum binder coating that is broken down by microbes in the soil. One caveat: Higher soil temperature increases the rate of liquefaction. Depending on the temperature, it may not break down fast enough and should be considered a supplemental system, according to DriWater marketing chief Janeen Murray. A 9-ounce gel pack ($2) suitable for hanging plants and house plants will last about a month. For vegetables, a 32-ounce PT Delivery System ($5) also will last about a month. DriWater requires soil for water dispersal, so it is not suitable for orchids.

Wicking: Many gardeners swear by this DIY method for seedlings and other small container plantings. Feed an acrylic or nylon string up through the bottom of a pot, and add potting soil as you wind the string in circles inside the container. Submerge the feeding end of the string in a water reservoir below the pot. Check weekly to make sure the string is moist.

Other DIY suggestions: Some like to line pots with sponges. Some bury containers halfway in the soil. And still others leave plants in a water-filled tray in the bathtub. And yes, you always could ask your neighbors to water for you. Or you could pray for rain.

-- Jeff Spurrier

Photos credits, from top: Ann Summa, Grandin Road, the Plant Nanny

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post misspelled the name of hydrogel manufacturer Zeba as Zaba.

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