Garden while you're gone. Some simple steps to let you leave your garden and eat it too

THE turn of events is exciting, to say the least. An unexpected business trip will take you to London this summer, and your spouse can accompany you. When the meetings are over, you will take in a few West End plays, and there will still be time enough over for that long-fancied boat trip up the Rhine.

There's just one minor flaw in the arrangements. You will be gone for the last two weeks in July and the first week in August - the hottest and driest time of the year! When you get back, your garden will be one step short of the Sahara, unless it's blessed with unusually constant rainfall while you're gone - in which case the weeds will have run amok!

Either way, those guests who love your cookouts because of the fresh-from-the-garden treats you serve up, will have to take store-bought this year.

Inevitable? Not necessarily!

It doesn't have to be that way at all. There are some fairly simple steps that will allow you to leave your garden and eat it too, so to speak, despite your absence. But you will need to start preparing for your midsummer departure now. So here are the steps to follow:

1.If your garden is still largely in the planning stage, select those varieties that will mature either before you leave or after you return.

Space plants somewhat farther apart so that there will be less competition for soil moisture. On the other hand, if your garden is already in place, don't be overly concerned. The remaining steps will still go a long way toward keeping your garden going while you're gone.

2.Start collecting the mulching materials: newspapers, plus grass clippings, shredded leaves, or straw. Don't skimp on the newspapers. You'll need to lay them on thickly before you leave.

3.Two weeks before leaving, weed the garden, apply a top dressing of compost or slow-release fertilizer, and water well. It is an established fact that a well-fed plant in a rich soil is more resistant to drought and heat. A foliar feeding of seaweed solution would help at this time, too. 4.One week before flying off, water deeply again, and if you don't have permanent mulch in place, start applying the mulch. First soak the newspaper overnight in a tub of water, then set the dripping sections (some 60 pages thick) directly on top of the soil, right up to the stems of plants. See that the sections overlap slightly.

On top of the newspaper add 4 to 6 inches of hay, straw, or shredded leaves. A word of caution: Watch out for recently donated lawn clippings. The grass might have been treated with a weed-killing herbicide. If that is the case, it could damage your plants.

But this is easily overcome. Set the suspect lawn clippings in a pile and leave them to compost for two or three weeks. By that time the herbicides will have degraded and will pose little or no threat to the plants in your garden.

This mulch will do two important things for your garden while you are away. It will conserve moisture by all but eliminating evaporation from the soil, and it will stop any sprouting weed seed in its tracks. You will also find that it will markedly stimulate earthworm activity in your soil. 5.Immediately before you leave, water heavily again unless the weather forecast predicts a downpour. The need is to have your soil and mulch fully charged before you leave.

6.Finally, and this is probably necessary only in the hotter parts of the country, you might consider adding shade netting. Of course this would need a supporting frame, preferably constructed weeks ahead.

You might also have the sprinkler set up so that an obliging neighbor could turn on the faucet for an hour or two if he or she noticed the garden was drooping toward the end of your vacation. Have it checked out only in the late afternoon.

In summer, a plant can droop around midday even if it's growing alongside a stream. Some timers on the market will automatically turn the sprinkler on at designated times. Also on the market is the drip irrigation system that offers the best garden protection of all.

Unfortunately most of the timers can be preset only for a week in advance, which means that, in the hotter regions, the obliging neighbor remains a necessity.

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