It’s always wonderful to go on holiday, as we will be next week. All the usual worries and stresses will be parked for three weeks while our little nuclear family kicks back and mingles with extended family, in- and out-laws. We will cavort along beaches as happy and carefree as the day is long. We will skip through fields as blissful as lambs in springtime. We will loll along lakesides, mosey up mountains and wander through woods. There will be no preoccupations, no thought given over to writing, blogging, work, study or any of the other spheres of activity that normally press upon my harried neocortex. Except one little niggle — my plants back home in Madrid.
You see, I put a lot of time into the plants on our balcony during the year. Many I have grown from seeds or cuttings. Many have been with me for a fair few years now. And I’d hate lose any of them. Take the jasmine, which for almost six years has been doing its best to smother all of its nearby botanic brethren as it throws out tendrils hither, thither and yonder; as well as all the other care and attention I’ve lavished on it, I’ve pruned it, trained it and trellised it, but it repays me handsomely. Every March its hundreds of star-like flowers fill our house with their heady aroma. If something happened to it while I was away, I’d nearly die. And what about our lemon tree? It’s something of the runt of the leafy litter; nary a flower nor a fruit in its seven years of life. But we love it all the same. Just what would we do if we couldn’t grab the odd leaf, rub it gently and fill our nostrils up with essence of lemon?
With summer being what it is in Madrid you cannot leave plants unwatered for more than a couple of days. Even going away for the weekend is something of a gamble; on the Friday afternoon before we head away I’ll be on the balcony with my watering can, force-feeding pots and planters with as much water as the soil will take. I’ll put the awning all the way down to exclude as much sunshine as possible, and say a quick prayer to St Fiachra (the patron saint of herbalists and gardeners) before locking up. But I know — I just know — that when we come back on Sunday evening, one or more of my little babies will not have enjoyed as happy a weekend break as those members of the household belonging to the animal kingdom. A couple of weeks ago it was my lavender that didn’t make it through from Friday to Sunday. It gave up the ghost, not because of drought, but succumbed to a fungal disease due to overwatering.
There’s the quandary. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If you don’t water, the thirty-five-plus (ninety-five Fahrenheit) dry heat of Madrid will shrivel up any leafy greenness on show; on the other hand, you’re leaving yourself open to all sorts of root-rotting nasties if you go the route of super-soaking.
Over the last few years we have tried many approaches to the watering of plants while on holiday. A couple of years running we hooked up a drip irrigation system on our balcony. This worked pretty well for the most part, except that it took extensive trialling in the week before jetting off, in order to ensure that those greedy plants requiring buckets of water got what they needed, while cacti and succulents literally only received a couple of drops a day. A regular result of this approach was the lethal overwatering of plants like rosemary and pelargonium and the shrivelling up of strawberry, mint and melissa. Because of this mixed success, we moved away from this system and took to utilising the services of a plant waterer. A work colleague and neighbour came by every few days to give the plants a tinkle and we repaid his diligence by watering and feeding his cat when he went away. This arrangement worked splendidly until the man in question upped sticks to Barcelona, forcing us to revert to drip irrigation once more. This was the system’s swansong; upon returning from holiday, we were met with a balcony under a couple of inches of water, and it was by the grace of God that we didn’t flood the apartment below us. Therefore, the last couple of summers I’ve gone for the que será será method. I give everything a good soaking, lock down the awning to keep the sun out, and whatever survives our few weeks’ absence survives . . . and if some poor plant doesn’t make it, so be it. The most delicate plants, I bring to my parents-in-law.
This method works surprisingly well, or at least just as so-so as the drip irrigation system. As with before, there are casualties. Some plants die outright, while others require copious amounts of water and TLC to bring them back to health. But at least there’s no deluge awaiting us on our return from the airport. Additionally, the process of leaving plants’ survival to chance sees a type of natural selection play out. The fittest — the most drought resistant — survive the few weeks’ waterless scourging. Those that need mollycoddling meet a waterless grave. Our lemon and orange trees, our cacti and pelargoniums do well out of this process. The jasmine isn’t happy, but recovers well. There are losses among the strawberries and tomatoes, but, hey, that’s life.
This summer, I’ve planned to be slightly less laissez faire, though. Before we set off, I’m going to use inverted two litre mineral bottles as reservoirs, and while I’m far away from daily life hope that this amount of water trickling down to my beloved plants suffices. No matter what, I’m certain of two things: there will be some fatalities; and while I’m getting up to all the usual holiday larks there will be that tiny worry gnawing away at some remote part of my mind that some of my babies are in the process of dying of drought back home.