Surviving the festive season

Garden Life

Tips from Sarah the Gardener

The biggest problem with a productive vegetable garden in the Southern Hemisphere is that there is a festive season smack bang in the middle of it.  Not only do we have Christmas and New Year, but also the traditional summer holidays.

Just as the harvest is getting started and the plants need us now more than ever, we enter a busy season that leaves barely a moment for the garden.  It can become quite neglected.  However, before things get hectic, you have a few options to ensure the garden not only survives but thrives.


This is the most essential part of caring for the garden at any time of year. It is the life blood of the garden. Without it all will die. It isn’t ideal to rely on the rain to water your garden and chances are it will rain on your campsite but not in your garden. During this time, you need a good plan.  

A tap connected to a water computer combined with a sprinkler set to go off once a day for 20 minutes or so every other day will ensure your garden will be able to survive without you. Also you could ask a friendly neighbour or friend to come over to wave the hose around. Choose this person carefully as, not everyone will understand the needs of the garden, which could result in shallow watering and wet leaves resulting in a welcome home gift of blight!  Volunteers are well meaning though and it’s still better than not watering at all.

Whatever method you chose, before heading off, give the garden a good deep soak so the soil is wet to a depth that won’t be affected by a baking sun or drying wind.


Leading up to the beginning of the neglectful season, it is important to schedule some time to get on top of any weeds – even if they are very tiny. They can grow rapidly at this time of year.  If they set seed before you go away, or get big enough to set seed in your absence then the chances are high that you will come back to thousands of weeds.

The other advantage of removing the weeds is they are a threat to your plants in terms of competition for airflow, nutrients and light. Weeds overcrowding the garden also increase the risk of fungal disease, which can spread quickly in warm summer weather. A good mulch can also help to keep the weeds down and lock in the moisture.


The next thing you should do is to harvest anything that is remotely edible.  Do a thorough pick or it will just go to waste. If the broccoli, peas or beans look nearly ready then pick them because they won’t wait for you. After months of tending these plants, the last thing you want is to miss the edible stage!  If the tomato looks almost red, then pick it. It will ripen on a windowsill. You can also eat small cucumbers.

If you have arranged for someone to water your garden in exchange for free food, you may find that as well as not knowing how to water properly they may not know how to harvest properly either. You may find that they will have only picked what they need or have seen in front of them. There is the chance you will come home to yellow cucumbers, giant marrows or peas well passed the sweet tender stage.

This isn’t just about the wasted food – although this is a shame. It is about the message being sent to the plant.  The plant is focused on setting seed and once they achieve this goal then generally they shut down. Our aim is to harvest as much as we can from each plant, convincing the plant that it is a failure, as they are quite tenacious and will keep trying until after many months they die in an exhausted heap in cooling autumn weather. To leave even a single pea pod will tell the plant they have achieved their goal of creating seed and their progeny will live on.

Tidy up

Despite the demands of the season, take a moment in your garden to do some general maintenance. Check your stakes and structures to make sure they are still strong and sturdy. Add extra support for peace of mind. There is nothing more heartbreaking than coming back from the holidays to find all your stakes broken under the weight of the tomatoes and your plants bruised and contorted on the ground. Tie in any plants that need it, nip off any laterals. Remove some lower leaves to increase air flow. 

Plant with disease

Pests and Disease

Once summer really gets going, so do the pests.  Set aside some time to thoroughly inspect your garden.  If you spot anything untoward, treat it straight away. Even with a single aphid, don’t think – oh it’s only one – squash it or you will come home to one million and the life sucked out of your plant.  A quick spray with a food safe pesticide can slow pests down enough so you can sort them out when you get back. 

The garden can be a tranquil oasis in the midst of the busy lead up to the festive season. Even just coming home at the end of an exhausting day to just sit in the garden can be restorative. A chance to reflect on what you have done and what you still need to do in a peaceful setting. Taking care of the various tasks required to ensure your plants continue to flourish in your absence can be rewarding and relaxing at the same time.