Welcome to Ask A Plant Queen, where with the help of Tula founder and bona fide plant expert Christan Summers, we'll answer every question you've ever had about the care, keeping, and presentation of houseplants. No need for you — or your pretty green pals — to thank us. Check out our first edition, which answers the question: "is watering plants with La Croix a thing?"
Question: My partner and I are about to embark on a two-week trip for the holidays. It's the longest we've ever been away from our apartment — and definitely the longest we've ever been away from our plant children. Since we live outside of the city, we're way too far for our friends to come up and water for us. So we're left worrying that a couple weeks without water or regulated temps in our apartment will leave our plant babies all wilt-y (and dead, eep!). How do we give our plants some TLC that will last the length of our vacay?”
Answer: How wonderful to take a long holiday! Good for you guys. Traveling in the winter is an ideal time for your plants as they are usually dormant, therefore not using as much energy and water. The sun is also not as strong so you can worry less about leaf burn and your home overheating. Before we get into tips, you need to take stock of your plants.
A Few Days Before You Leave
1. Divide your plants by size: Smaller plants need more attention and moisture than larger plants. If you have large, established plants all they may need is a good water and healthy indoor temperatures while you’re away.
2. Then, divide your plants by type and neediness: Succulents and cacti should be separated from tropical plants and other leafy, moisture-loving plants. Cacti and succulents shouldn’t require any extra moisture or care while you’re away.
3. From there, separate your tropical and leafy into two groups: The ones you water often and the ones you water less often should be two separate groups. For example, the ZZ (Zamioculcas zamifolia) is a tropical plant but can most definitely be left alone for two weeks – no care tricks required, except a good water before you leave. Same applies to Sansevieria and certain Philodendron and Dracaena plants.
4. Think about the temperature: Locate the sunniest and the draftiest area of your space.
Right Before You Leave
Now that you’ve completed the foundational work, we can move on to care tips. Please keep in mind that you know your home and plants better than I do; these are suggestions and should be applied after you’ve identified what your plants’ needs are and the environmental conditions of your home.
1. Optimize indoor temperatures: First priority is to make sure you leave your heat on. It shouldn't be the tropics, but the temperature should not fall below 55 degrees F. The best temp to leave the thermostat at is 65 degrees F. Indoor plants literally melt in freezing temps and some can develop leaf mold if left wet and cold. It won't matter what else you do if you're space is too cold.
2. Increase air flow: Do you have a ceiling fan? If so, leave it on at a lowest speed. This will help circulate stale air.
3. Dry your plants out to a healthy level of thirst: Then, a day or two before you leave, give everyone a good shower — water and mist. If you don’t usually water your succulents and cacti during winter, don’t start now. Keep to your usual routine.
4. Move all plants away from heat vents, drafty windows, and intense sun spots.
5. Group all of your moisture-loving leafy, tropical plants together: This will help retain moisture and warmth. For small, moisture-loving plants you could keep them in the tub or sink, sitting in a few inches of water. When they start to dry out, the soil will wick water into the roots from below.
6. Think about moisture: If you have sensitive plants that are susceptible to overwatering, do not sit them in water and instead fill a tray with pebbles, top it off with water, and sit your plant on top of the pebbles. This will help increase humidity without overwatering the roots.
7. Make a plant house: Another trick for small, moisture-loving plants is to build them a mini greenhouse. You’ll want to water them first so their soil is moist. Start with a large clear trash bag and cut it so it lies flat. Place bamboo sticks into the outer edge of your plants’ root balls so the plastic doesn’t rest on the foliage. Place your plants on top of the plastic and find the corners of the plastic. Gently pull the plastic over your plants, being careful not to tip them over. Blow air into the plastic until it balloons and the bag at the top. You’ve basically created a mini eco-system. Because your plants were watered, the evaporating moisture will catch at the top of the plastic and then "rain" back onto the plants. This is also a good trick for those who live in apartments where they don’t control the heat; the plastic will also help retain warmth.
8. Crank up the humidity: For tropical plants, increasing humidity is always a battle, especially when you’re away and not able to refill a humidifier. In addition to the pebble trick outlined above, you can fill a few pots with water and place them in super sunny spots in the apartment. The water will evaporate into the air, slightly increasing humidity.
There you have it! I hope this helps. And honestly, most plants can deal with you being away for two weeks as long as the temperature remains steady. Just make sure you identify any needy plants and give them the extra TLC outlined above.