Front-yard garden: At vacation time, drip irrigation and a sitter come to the rescue


The author’s garden looks better when he gets back from the vacation than it did before he left, thanks to Genna the garden sitter. (Joe Yonan/The Washington Post)
August 13, 2014

In mid-July, I stood in my front-yard garden, looked around and experienced more than a touch of anxiety. It wasn’t that things weren’t going well — they were — but I was about to go on a two-week vacation. What would become of my budding, leafing, flowering and fruiting plants while I was gone?

I wasn’t about to leave things to chance. Watering was the biggest concern, and I had (modestly) invested in a drip-irrigation system, just getting it hooked up and testing it before vacation day arrived. But the question that remained was who would operate the system — and who would watch over and communicate with me about the garden while I escaped work and headed to New England?

This was a first. The past few times I had traveled, my boyfriend, Carl, had stepped in to help, coming over and watering virtually every day — particularly when the weather turned hot and dry. But that was only for a few days or a week at a stretch. And this time, he was accompanying me.

I had in mind a next-door neighbor, but I was reluctant to propose such a big job to someone I was still getting to know. Genna and I had been enjoying chatting about gardening and more most mornings, when she would water her container herbs and ask my advice about stubborn weeds while I was planting cucumber seeds or harvesting peas. She is interested but not experienced, asking the type of questions that might seem obvious but, like most things about gardening, are actually pretty complicated. She reminds me of myself just a few years ago.

One morning, while I was working on the irrigation system, a grid of flat hoses that extend down each row of the raised beds, I saw Genna and mentioned that I was setting it up so watering would be easier during my time away. She didn’t miss a beat: “Do you need me to do anything to help with your garden when you’re away?” Um, yeah. I grinned and took her up on the offer on the spot.

We talked about how the watering might work; I imagined her turning on the system (overnight, to prevent evaporation) every couple of days when there were dry spells, and skipping it, of course, when it rained. I suggested that some of the leafy greens and herbs might need more frequent watering, along with my own container plants — including hanging flower baskets. I walked her through the narrow paths between beds and clarified which plants were which, and made sure she knew she was free to pick anything she wanted. Greens (kale, collards and Swiss chard) were coming on strong, the herbs were bountiful and tomatoes were on the way. I didn’t want her to worry too much about weeding, but to concentrate on the watering and harvesting.

And then I gave her a bagful of freshly dug radishes, along with an idea for cooking them, packed my bags and left.

I felt like a new parent leaving the baby with a sitter for the first time. I tried not to annoy her with too many “How’s everything going?” text messages, but I kept tabs on the weather forecast from afar and checked in with my garden sitter every two or three days. She sent me photos of the peppers and eggplants as they lengthened, and then, as my vacation entered its second week, she used the phrase we gardeners like to hear: “growing like crazy.” Should she do anything to prune, tie up or otherwise tend to the sprawl? We were just a day away from our return, so I told her to not sweat it.

Soon enough, we were heading home in a cab from the airport. I left my bags on the sidewalk as I leapt up my steps to the garden. My heart raced: It had exploded! Between a lot of rain the first week we were gone and Genna’s smart use of the irrigation system (and hand watering), every plant had seemingly doubled, tripled or even quadrupled in size.

The tomatoes had reached the top of the seven-foot trellis I had set up for them and had sent out so many branches (I didn’t prune as much as I should have, no doubt) it was hard to make it through the paths. The cucumbers were leaping over the small net I had arranged to try to get them to grow vertically and were stretching practically onto Genna’s yard. The bush green beans that had been just a few inches tall were cascading down a sidewall. A few lemon basil plants that had been unhappy in a crowded container before I transplanted them into the ground had turned into bushes of their own. There were dozens upon dozens of Thai peppers on four large plants, jalapeños galore, a half-dozen white and purple long eggplants. And more.

Of course, the growth seemed even more dramatic because I hadn’t witnessed it in incremental stages every day; now I felt like a proud parent picking up an adolescent from summer camp and noticing a growth spurt. Genna was glad for my return, although she let out a little nervous chuckle when I said I should go away more often.

I thanked her profusely, in word and deed. After pulling those cucumber vines up onto a new, taller trellis, then re-staking and tying the tomatoes into some semblance of shape, I cut down a bowl’s worth of basil, made a large batch of pesto, and divided it up into two jars. One for me, and one for the best sitter a gardener could hope for. The next thank-you: a dinner made from the vegetables she tended.

More from this series on font-yard gardening:

Should lead test cause worries when the beds are raised?

The front-yard garden gets squared away

A foodie’s foray into urban gardening

Joe Yonan is the Food and Dining editor of The Washington Post and the author of "Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook." He writes the Food section's Weeknight Vegetarian column.
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