It’s wonderful to travel during the holiday season to celebrate with family or in faraway places, but who wants to come home to dead houseplants? Here’s how to keep your plants happy while you are gone—without hiring a plant sitter.

For a Long Weekend

In case you haven’t noticed, even houseplants slow down in the cooler months. To give them their natural rest period, water less and less often—let the soil mix go dry between waterings—and don’t fertilize. The soil mix should be lightly moist, not soggy (plunge in a finger to confirm that there’s dampness an inch or more below the surface). 

Everything from spider plants to bay trees to pothos will survive a long weekend without attention this time of year. Do move everything but cacti away from the window prior to a long weekend, but plants don’t need any extra watering. Exception: Plants that bloom in winter, such as amaryllis, poinsettia and Christmas cactus. Water these until you see water coming out the bottom of the pot, then stop. 

for Longer Trips

The options here will help your plants ­retain moisture for up to one month. 

Bathtub/sink method: Place recently watered plants—watered normally, not extra—in the sink or bathtub, then stretch clear plastic wrap over the top of the tub and duct tape in place (scotch tape is too frail). If the tops of any plants are hitting the plastic, peel it back and insert a few tall stakes in the pots so the plastic will rest on the stakes. Do not fill the tub with water or plug the drain. Standing water will lead to rot. 

Bag method: First, water well and let plants drain. Next, cover each plant with a clear plastic bag. To keep the plastic from touching the foliage, insert small sticks—I use chopsticks. If a plant is too large to bag up entirely, just pull a bag up from below to enclose the pot, then tie it gently around the base of the plant at the soil line with string or yarn. This helps keep in moisture but lets in a bit of air, too. Finally, move the plants out of direct sunlight.

Thirsty plants: Rig a temporary wick-watering system for thirstier plants, such as ferns and spiderworts, including ­Tradescantia zebrina (“Wandering Jew”) and Tradescantia pallida (“Purple Heart”). Set up a jar or bowl of water adjacent to the plant(s). For each, dunk one end of a thin strip of absorbent fabric—strips of an old cotton t-shirt serve well—in the water, dangling it to the jar’s bottom. Securely tuck the other end an inch or more down into the pot’s soil. 

Prized plants in clay pots, such as African violets: Water normally. Line a cardboard box with a plastic trash bag or use a plastic storage tub. Pack it half-full with damp sphagnum moss or wet sand. Nest the pots in, and tuck the moss or sand all around them. They will be set for the duration of your trip. Do not do this for succulents, which can go up to a month without water. 

Back Home Again

Once you return home, liberate your houseplants from their temporary quarters and check them over. Remove any dead or dying growth. Give them water if their soil mix is dry an inch or so down, and return them to their usual locations.

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