Hello, Summer

How to Keep Your Plants Alive (& Thriving!) All Summer Long

June 21, 2018

Summer starts on June 21st! In honor of all the BBQing, sprinkler-hopping, and ice cream truck-chasing to come, we give you Hello, Summer, a picnic basket full of easy-breezy recipes and tips to help you make the most of every minute this season.

I love plants. And despite living in a postage stamp-sized apartment, I’ve squeezed succulents onto every sill, draped pothos vines over dresser ledges, and packed herbs into crowded terra cotta pots. Not only is it soothing to surround myself with green, but it’s satisfying to watch them reach for sunlight and perk up for water. Sure, it’s not my mom’s sprawling garden, but each plant brings me a little closer to the roots I left in Louisiana.

Earlier this month, I returned from a 10-day vacation rejuvenated and rested. My plants? Not so much. My cacti looked parched, pothos seemed sunburned, and herbs, brittle. Bone-dry soil greedily soaked up water as I actually apologized to my plants out loud.

It turns out that when I asked my roommate to care for my cat, I forgot the other 10 living things in my apartment.

I started thinking, as we enter the season of week-long (or month-long, you lucky duck!) vacations, what’s the best way to ensure your plant pals have a fighting chance? We asked Christopher Satch, Plant Scientist at The Sill in New York City for advice.

“The biggest mistake a person can make is thinking of your plant as a piece of furniture or decor instead of a living thing,” Satch says. “They have to come up high enough in your priority queue that your brain tells you to check on them.”

What to do before you leave

Every plant has different watering needs, but most indoor plants shouldn’t be watered more than once a week. So, for week-long vacations, Satch recommends following your normal routine before you leave and after you’re back. Don’t be tempted to overwater before leaving, it could cause the roots to rot.

Plant care for two-week (or longer) trips can get a little trickier. Your best option is to enlist a plant sitter.

“Find the best plant person amongst your friends and have them come over once a week to check on and water your plants for you,” Satch says. “Really instruct them on how to care for your plants, especially if they aren’t familiar with plants or don’t have plants themselves.”

We love people who love green things

If you don’t have plant-friendly friends, your next best option is to move your plants into the center of a room that receives natural indirect light. That way the sun won’t crisp them up.

“They’re not going to be 100 percent pristine or super-awesome looking toward the end, but they won’t die,” he says. “The goal is not death.”

As for watering, Satch advises against watering bulbs, which don’t hydrate evenly and could drown one half of the roots while the other half die from thirst. Satch also thinks it’s a bad idea to move your potted plants outside.

“Your plants need more attention when they’re outdoors,” he says. “You have other variables that will affect the plants and dry them out faster: hot and cold cycles; the wind drying out the plant; torrential rainfall that could drown them. You could have a really hot heat wave that could crisp them out in a day.“

Tending your plants once you're back

If you’ve come home to a forest of seemingly dead plants, don’t lose hope. Some plants, like calatheas, pothos, or the ones with woody stems (like rubber trees), might come back to life.

“Some plants can die down to the soil and re-grow. It’s hit or miss. If a plant doesn't come back after returning it to the proper light conditions in like, two or three weeks, then consider it dead,” Satch says.

Not all of my plants bounced back (RIP, thyme), but most seem out of the woods. Especially after I promised them to never set and forget them again.

What do you do with your plants when on vacation? Share your best tips in the comments below!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

Katie is a food writer and editor who loves cheesy puns and cheesy cheese.


Smaug June 21, 2018
There's a major distinction to be made between overwatering and thorough watering. The damage from overwatering is largely due to exclusion of oxygen from the root area and (related problem) the growth of various molds. These things take some time to have a negative effect- overwatering needs to be chronic to do significant damage. There are, of course, exceptions, but they are plants you're very unlikely to be dealing with. If a plant is properly potted (both the soil and the pot must drain easily) there's little you can do in a single watering that will harm it. If you water a pot by pouring water on it once and letting it drain through the soil probably won't reach it's maximum hydration; this is usually fine for day to day watering, but if you're going to leave it, best to maximize. One important point- dry soil will tend to reject water; worst case scenario, the soil dries up and pulls away from the side of the pot, resulting in the water simply pouring off down the sides and getting nothing to the root zone. Leaving it out in the rain is the best way to water, but a shower makes a good substitute. Give it about ten min. of gentle water flow- this will not only get the plant watered, it will wash off the leaves and can be very annoying to a lot of plant pests. Another method is to leave the plant in a saucer of water and let it suck up what it will. Do NOT leave it there long term, but an hour or so will do no harm. Or you can just pour water on it in the ordinary way, but repeatedly. Showers or bathtubs can also be a good place to keep your plants for a vacation- they tend to stay cool and hold moisture, and be out of a lot of direct light. Digital timers are easily available- if you have an outdoor area, you may be able to set up your plants with a sprinkler to go off at some reasonable interval. Be careful of light moving plants outdoors- glass blocks most ultra violet light, and even sun loving plants will need time to adjust to full spectrum light. There are a lot of products available (self watering pots and such) to address this problem- I have no experience of them and am not crazy about the idea, but I suppose they work for some. Some people also leave their plants sitting in water- I find this practice horrifying, but as a last resort, it's better than sure dessication.
M June 21, 2018
Love the long shower idea. Maybe this time around, I can remove the little white pests from my lime tree for good!
Smaug June 21, 2018
Good luck- there are several little white pests, but the two that come to mind are whiteflies, which are infinitely tougher than they look- they'll fly away under a shower, but I've actually tried it for getting rid of them- they'd come back and the eggs wouldn't be affected. Pyrethrins are effective on them, but have no residual effect- it will require a regular spray program to get rid of them. The other is mealy bugs- these aphid relatives are covered with a cottony coating; they tend to gather in leaf axils and seldom move visibly; they can be dealt with effectively with a q tip (or other swab)dipped in rubbing alcohol. They can also get established on root systems in very dry conditions- they're a particular problem with succulents grown indoors.
M June 24, 2018
My tree has got citrus mites, I believe. They disappeared for a while after lots of spraying and light insecticidal soap, but have come back, slowly webbing up the tree.