By: Amy Grant
If you are a cook familiar with southwestern cuisine, speak Spanish, or are a fanatic crossword puzzle player, you may have run across the word “olla.” You do none of these things? Ok, what is an olla then? Read on for some interesting historical info pertinent to today’s environmentally friendly trends.
Did I confound you with the above last statement? Let me clarify. An olla is an unglazed clay pot used in Latin America for cooking but it’s not only that. These earthenware urns were also used as olla watering systems.
The conquistadors brought olla irrigation techniques to the American Southwest where it was used by Native Americans and Hispanics. With the advancement of irrigation systems, olla watering systems fell out of favor. Today, where “everything old is new again,” self-watering olla pots are coming back into vogue and with good reason.
What is so great about self-watering olla pots? They are incredibly water-efficient irrigation systems and couldn’t be simpler to use. Forget trying to lay out your drip line and attach all those feeders in the proper place. Okay, maybe don’t forget it entirely. Using an olla watering system is optimal for container gardens and for smaller garden spaces. Each olla can filter out water to one to three plants depending upon their size.
To use an olla, simply fill it with water and bury it near the plant/plants, leaving the top unburied so you can refill it. It is wise to cover the olla top so it doesn’t become a mosquito breeding ground.
Slowly, the water will seep from the urn, directly irrigating the roots. This keeps the surface dirt dry, hence, less likely to foster weeds and reduces the amount of water usage in general by eliminating runoff and evaporation.
This type of watering system can be beneficial to everyone but especially to folks who face watering restrictions. It’s also great for anyone heading out on a vacation or just plain too busy to water regularly. Using an olla for irrigation is especially handy when container gardening since, as we all know, pots tend to dry out rapidly. The olla should be refilled once to twice a week and should last for years.
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What’s an olla watering system, you wonder? It is an unglazed porous bottle form that is buried in the garden amongst your plants. When it is filled with water, it slowly releases the water into the soil to be drawn up by your plants roots when they need it. In this project, Sumi von Dassow demonstrates how to make an olla watering system out of clay. Read on to find out how to make your very own! – Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor.
PS. Get tips for using your olla watering system in the July/August 2018 issue of Pottery Making Illustrated!
As pottery and cooking go hand-in-hand, so too do cooking and gardening. Potters know the pleasure of cooking and serving from hand-made dishes designed especially for homemade recipes and every cook knows the sweetest peas and corn are those that are harvested fresh from the garden moments before they are to be eaten. To complete the triangle and bring pottery into the garden, you can make ollas to keep your thirstiest vegetable plants healthy and productive through the hottest summer weather.
Justin shows you how to use the Olla (Oy-ya) Pots (unglazed clay pots) to help water your plants in tubs or raised garden beds. They’re a great way to irrigate and were an ancient watering technique that delivers water directly to the roots.
The use of buried earthen jars for watering plants has been used for thousands of years. The hand-thrown unglazed pot is buried neck deep into the soil, fill the pot with water and it slowly seeps into the soil to be absorbed by s urrounding plants (not for use around wood plants such as shrubs and trees).
Irrigation with ollas (unglazed clay pots) is simple and extremely efficient, but the system gave way to modern watering techniques decades ago. With this type of irrigation, gardeners fill unglazed clay urns with water and bury them near plants. The tops of the ollas (pronounced OH-yas) extend above ground so the urns can be refilled as water is absorbed.The water slowly seeps through the porous clay, directly irrigating roots. As they grow, roots form a dense, fibrous mat around the olla — the water nourishes the plant, not the surrounding soil and weeds.Ollas virtually eliminate the runoff and evaporation common in modern irrigation systems, allowing the plant to absorb nearly 100 percent of the water.
The Olla, according to the Spanish English dictionary means “pot” and was used by Spanish speaking countries as a cooking pot. These clay pots were initially used by ancient Latin American cultures to cool water by evaporation. The techniques used to cool the water by evaporation have allowed for a great way to irrigate your garden and provide water directly to the roots of your plants.
For small city lots, growing in containers is an ideal and practical growing medium. Container gardening makes growing more versatile as you are able to move the containers around to adjust to the seasons. However, one of the drawbacks to gardening in pots or containers is that they dry out too quickly.
Since we started using ollas back in 2005, we found out that the plants grow faster, better, and stronger near the ollas. And another advantage is that we cut out watering bill in half! Of course, this went along with many water conservation efforts.
By making your own Self Watering Containers, your garden becomes:
Patio, Deck & Balcony Friendly
Make your own using SWP (Self Watering Pots) using clay pot irrigation or “Ollas.”
We would recommend that if you live in a frost, snow or ice prone area that you dig up the pots up at the end of the growing season to prevent breakage over cold winter months or if a container garden, that you move the containers to protected spaces. When turning over your soil at the end of a growing season, clean off any clinging roots and scrub to remove any salt or soil build up to free the pores of The Waterpot™ If you have a high mineral content in your soil a solution of 1:1 vinegar and water left inside the vessel for a few hours will help dissolve the mineral build up.
What’s an olla? That was one of my first questions when I first heard the word. The basic definition of an olla is an unglazed pot. Ollas have been used for centuries for irrigation in dry climates. The olla is buried next to plants, filled with water, and the water slowly weeps out from the porous clay pot. As the water weeps into the soil, the soil is kept moist, and the plants roots are watered from the moisture.
After reading about ollas I decided I’d give it a try and see how it works. First thing I did was research on where to buy ollas for my garden. My beds are about 2-1/2′ x 5′ so I figured I would need 3-4 pots per bed in order to obtain the proper moisture. Shocking results! I couldn’t believe the prices for a small unglazed pot needed to do this $20-$40 dollars each depending on the size.
Plan B… make my own!My new research on how to make my own ollas came back with very few results, however just enough to figure how to do it, and how to do it cost effectively. This is sort of hybrid system of all of the different systems I found online. I designed it to work exactly(hopefully) the way I want it to water my garden.
Down the middle of the raised garden bed.
Buried in both beds… weeping away.
So far so good.I have one liter bottles attached to each system and I’m filling them up once a day. I’ll probably add a two litter bottle and refill it every other day. Ideally I could plumb both beds up to a five gallon bucket and not have to water for over a week. Because I just transplanted, I am doing a little supplemental watering to help the roots establish themselves, but not much. After another week I’ll stop all supplemental watering and allow only the ollas to water. The area around the ollas does really stay moist, so I haven’t been watering in those areas, just a little water towards the outside edge of the box.
If this project does well, and keeps the plants watered, I’ll provide a “how to” on making this system. I’ll give another update in a few weeks.
Almost forgot! Cost to make this system… less than $25 per bed.
Please feel free to comment below.
I first read about ollas (pronounced oh-yah) over at Little Homestead in the City. Basically it’s an ancient irrigation method that uses unglazed, porous clay pots buried within the root zones of plants. Water poured into the exposed necks of the pots (or pitchers) naturally seeps into the soil, providing a continuous supply of water to the plants.
I’m intrigued by any method of watering that reduces consumption and is more natural. Ollas seem like the perfect answer, but premade ones can be expensive if you’re using them to irrigate everything.
Then I found a gardener named Matt who posted an excellent how-to for making your own ollas using nothing more than inexpensive terra cotta pots.
I followed Matt’s tutorial, and here’s how it went:
STEP ONE: ACQUIRE INEXPENSIVE POTS
This time of year they’re easy to find, and I bought these 15-inch pots for $1 each at Job Lot.
STEP TWO: SEAL ONE END OF THE OLLA
You don’t want water flowing out of the bottom of your finished product. Before gluing and stacking the pots, I sealed one drain hole using a 2×2 inch tile left over from a remodeling project.
I should mention here that my adhesive of choice was Gorilla Glue. I debated buying silicone, but wanted to keep the experiment cheap, so I used what I already had. According to their Web site, Gorilla Glue is waterproof.
STEP THREE: GLUE THE EDGES OF THE POTS AND STICK THEM TOGETHER
It really couldn’t have been easier. The pots are stable in the center. With Gorilla Glue you have to put pressure on the adhesive while it cures. The best I could do was tape and rocks. It worked.
As you can see, the glue expands when it dries, creating a water-tight seal.
STEP FOUR: DIG HOLE, INSERT OLLA
I chose to place this one near my young pumpkins. If the plants weren’t established, I would have planted seeds closer to the olla. However, digging around these delicate young plants was precarious, so I kept my distance.
STEP FIVE: BURY OLLA
STEP SIX: VISIT YOUR RAIN BARREL AND GET A BUCKET OF WATER
These ollas will hold approximately 3/4 of a gallon, so fill ’em up!
You’ll need to keep something over the hole to prevent insects, rodents, and debris from getting inside. If you live in the Northeast, you probably have a handy rock collection.
STEP SEVEN: ADD A ROCK (FOR EXTRA BEAUTY)
That’s it! It took me 24-hours to make five ollas, with most of the time spent letting the glue cure overnight.
Here are a few notes and considerations:
So that`s why you had upside down pots in the Garden LOL I meant to ask you why.. Maybe we need to make these for watering our Garden next year
How are these working out for you? I live in the drought in Texas and this may work for me. What size would you suggest for tomato plants?
I’m not using them this year because my garden has fallen by the wayside pregnancy took over. I would suggest going big, and keeping them close to the plants. The ones I made were relatively small. Also, don’t forget to mulch. Grass clipping, hay, etc. will keep moisture in the soil. Good luck!
A question: can the roots of the plant, as they grow stronger, break the olla pot?
vegetables probably don’t have such roots, but trees or certain bushes do?
I plan to bury them under the ground, entirely shut, with a small plastic pipe/hose for irrigation from a central reservoir. if one of the pot breaks, all the water will flood that spot.
Have you noticed such a problem? will roots go around the pot or break it as they thicken?
I have been doing some research kobi and what I have found out is that larger, more stronger roots can break the pots. Also I read that the pots should not be allowed to drop below 50% water because of salt build up or something of that nature don’t remember where I found it or what it said just know that it said don’t let it drop below that mark. FYI also found a site that claims that milk jugs work just the same by poking holes in them? Kinda curious if that works too. I think I may try both just to see.
I use ollas, but I made mine with one pot and siliconed the matching saucer to the top. They’re smaller, but they work!
I love this idea. Maybe it is the drought that we are in that is making me more thoughtful about ideas like this.(or maybe it is the $200.00 water bill) Vicki
A friend taught me how to do this cheaply. Take a soda bottle, cut holes in the bottom and bury. Fill the bottle as need arises. Boom. Moisture-happy plants.
Really helpful post and a good idea. I have considered commissioning a local potter to make classic ollas, but this sounds a lot cheaper.
maybe a stupid question. how does the water get from the pots to the plants
Not a stupid question Flo. I’m learning myself and I found that Terracotta is very porous and will ‘ooze’ water but the pores are not large enough to let the roots grow into the terracotta.
I, too, had seen them at the city homestead place. Theirs are out of our price range right now. Also, we live where the ground freezes. They will have to be taken out for the winter. We did something similar to what you did, but only used one pot, sealed at the bottom. We fill it and then have a quart sized bottle we fill and simply turn upside down into the pot with a couple small rocks in the bottom of the pot. It works on a water cooler principle, seeping out slowly. This is our first year using it, but it seems to work well. It will be easy to remove for the winter, and it is easy to know when it is out of water.
Assuming these are lead-free pots so as not to leach that stuff into your veggie garden, is there another type of adhsive that wouldn’t break down and into the soill if one is concentrating on growing organic?
Reblogged this on Homestead On Main Street and commented:
Anyone ever made these? I thought about it last year, but never got around to it… My hugelkultur beds already cut down on watering quite a bit, but I might throw a few of these in too!
Awesome project! Summers can be droughty at times depending on how mother nature is feeling that season and these would be super stellar!
Another great place to find cheap pots are thrift stores. I have quite a collection cuz you just never know…or maybe it’s an addiction….
This seems like a fantastic idea for a flower garden, however, I am gearing up for a large organic veggie garden. How did you determine if these particular pots would not leach out lead, and how harmful are the effects of Gorilla glue disintergrating into the soil? I’ve been saving my BPA-free gallon milk jugs to do the same thing as the hollas, but you do have to poke a few small holes into the bottom part of the jug before filling and burying. Plus they have a handy cap that prevents junk from getting inside the container.
I tried those. I used silicon instead of glue. and pipes connecting the ollas to a main bucket or tank. (you just need to add water to the tank and it would level)
They work really well, and the plants growing next to them are happy. but there are some problems.
The setting I use is that I glue with silicon a 16mm pipe on the top with a T, so there is open air right above it (one T side connects to the pipe, the other 2 sides are up and down). Since I use gravity from a small tank (water level should be the same)
you need to put those openings along the way too (every few meters for a 16mm pipe), unless you use a large pipe. the size of the pipe affects the flow (if i understand correctly the density is less when there is air contact) I’m not sure of the physics but those were my findings (I once tried and failed with a 150 meters pipe, since there were no openings along the way :-). you can consult Pascal’s law (pressure formula).
The problems I find are:
1. Transparency: if something happens for example the pot cracks, it’s hard to determine where it happens. I had an idea to put a little flag – a skewer attached to a cork inside, and colors or a flag outside so you can visually watch the water level inside the pot. but I hadn’t tried it.
2. Quite fragile: I used silicon for connecting, it’s fragile because you connect them with inner T, and connecting requires some movements.
Perhaps a better idea is to base them on a siphon. then you just need to attach two pipes to the bottom (or use something heavy) of the pot.
3. green scum in the bucket or tank may reach the plant roots through the pots. If you want to clean the tank, you cannot use anything that would harm the plants.
In my settings the tank (a large bucket) was fixed in place (dug in the ground) so I couldn’t take it out to clean or the entire system breaks. A siphon design would probably avoid that problem.
But siphon’s water pressure can break. so there is still some maintanence to do. (if you imagine it on a large scale, it means checking every pot’s siphon connection)
4. No digging: if you want to change a crop you cannot do that.
This should be for groundcovers (think stinging nettles etc), perennials, large bushes or trees.
By the way, it seems that the size of the pot doesn’t make that much a difference.
I thought the moisture radius would change. but it’s all related to the soil density, so if it costs less, you can use small pots.
Hope this information helps
Great tips and ideas, thanks! I might start small and see how it goes. I really haven’t had to water much with the set up I have, but it’s always nice to add more ways to use water efficiently!
Reblogged this on Watch My Garden Growing and commented:
Great idea to focus water on the root systems.
I used tiny pots – sold for crafts, weddings etc, with patio planters with great success – no watering even on hot days. (I give them a weekly liquid feed seperately though. Larger pots in the garden beds, fed with 6mm piping from a bucket, works too, but the plants need to get established first. Works well with french beans , mange tout, lettuce etc in pots, not so good with high demand plants like toms or cucumbers. A great aid to the daily grind of watering (which I no longer do) but I do feed pot plants with liquid fertiliser once a week and give them a good soaking then.
I read about ollas/clay pot watering just as I was planting my garden, so I put a few pots in the ground as “placeholders” that I would replace with the glued 2-pot olla. I put a metal pie plate over one, a plastic pot saucer over another. Put a plastic container or lid with a rock to hold it down over the drain hole.
Then dislocated my shoulder so project over.
These 2 pots hold water quite well, sometimes don’t need refilling for a week.
I also used a shallower, wide pot in one of my raised beds & used it’s terra cotta saucer as a lid. This one needs refilling daily but I’m quite sure less water used than a drip system. I figure the water evaporates through the “lid”. Didn’t have time to get the drip system to the raised beds before injury. Filling the pot daily with a jug of water wasn’t too bad one-handed. Easier than dragging a hose around, dealing with kinks & catching on things.
Used some “rose pots”, small but deeper ones in a couple of 5gal pots, using the saucer as a lid and those last 2-3 days
and tried burying a regular plastic pot, no lid, as a water-to-root delivery system
these plants grew larger, quicker than plants with the “ollas”that need infrequent filling.
from other reading I have done, the olla is superior to a bottle with holes poked in it, or my water-to-root pots because they just pour the water into the soil, whereas the olla is self-regulating & won’t deliver more water than is needed.
I hope to do something more sophisticated next year, but this year has been an interesting experiment.
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Reblogged this on sliceofheaveninsweden and commented:
I thought this was a great gardening tip to conserve water.
Could Olla be used to water a lawn?
Hi, have found one amazing beautiful, and huge garden in the midst of an Indian city, with extremely dry climate. Had been watching it, and even in the worst drought it is all green, but i never see anyone watering it. Curious about the garden, i went in there, and looked a bit around, and next to each tree there is a clay pot buried. The trees are already big enough to survive on their own, so probably whoever created this garden, does not need to water them regularly, actually the garden seems to be on it’s own. Maybe due to the clay pots somehow the trees are provided with water, and therefor stay green in the driest season. It may be due to condensation, that the pots provide the trees with necessary moisture.
Happy to find some information about it on the web. Is absolutely brilliant technique.
Reblogged this on iuligannclan and commented:
I have been researching an alternative to drip irrigation. I came across the concept of Ollas. This DIY is amazing and fairly cheap! Outstanding!
How much space (diameter) have these pots been reaching? I’m thinking of getting a few 1,000 gal circular containers and curious how many of these guys I would need per container to keep my babies well watered. Thank you!
For additional olla fun, keep an eye out at garage sales for clay wine cooler cylinders (These were filled with water and then, as water passed through the terra cotta to the outside and evaporated, the water (and the bottle of wine inside) cooled without refrigeration. There are no holes to plug, and if you are lucky you get the saucer that comes with the cylinder that you can use as a lid (or if you just search around there always is some round thing that will fit. Just make sure there are no gaps so mosquitoes get in. You do NOT want them.
I made these today. Total time 5 minutes. Cost 2$ each. I’m very happy with them. There us no close spiget to the place I want to water. These will be great. I made smaller peat moss ones that will disinagrate over time for my windows boxes.
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With the approaching summer months bringing potential for severe dry spells, water becomes a precious commodity. At the same time, vegetable crops’ health depends on steady, efficient watering. Add to the mix the occasional weekend trip or longer vacation and you have the potential for some serious soil dryness and ruined harvests.
Luckily, avid gardeners have devised ways—some as long as 4,000 years ago—to efficiently water gardens. What do you think about these methods?
It probably won’t amaze you that this successful irrigation technique presumably originated thousands of years ago in North Africa. Gardeners in this hot, arid climate buried clay/terra cotta pots now called ollas (pronounced oy-yahs) near crops. The thin necks of the pot stick out of the soil and act the refill point. The large barrel holds a reservoir of water that dry roots suction through the pot’s microporous walls (i.e. no wasted water).
Now, gardeners don’t need to know an artisan to obtain an olla: a simple web search will populate tons of vendors. Some ollas come with a cap that keeps out bugs and dirt and slows evaporation. If yours does not, simply use a large rock as a cap.
Depending on your climate, you may have to refill an olla as often as daily or as little as weekly. Ollas will last years before needing to be replaced.
If your already-established garden has no room for an olla this year, you can use an alternative solution. This option recycles a clean vessel, be it a wine bottle, gallon of milk, or soda bottle, and turns it into a steady irrigation system. Here are two popular techniques.
Consider watering stakes that are available for purchase. These get inserted only a few inches into the soil and have an opening to hold a wine, water, or soda bottle. If your stakes are composed of clay or terra cotta like an olla, the microporous surface will still reduce wasted water but require much less garden real estate. Here’s a pro tip: add some food coloring to the water to quickly determine the remaining water level through a clear bottle.
Or, create holes in a plastic jug and bury throughout your garden. Alternatively, cut off the bottom of a plastic jug and use the uncapped top to provide water to the soil by burying upside-down. Leave the refilling hole clearly above the soil line and fill when 50% empty. Unlike wide ollas, you only need to find room for a skinny container. This is an especially efficient watering method for delicate plants and for watering plants with deep roots.
Worried about evaporation? Cover your vessel with another plastic jug, cut in half, to retain moisture.
If your municipal allows rain barrels, get on this DIY project immediately! Not only is your water supply guaranteed during drought periods when water use is restricted or prohibited, you can also include nifty attachments on your rain barrel to make watering a breeze.
At the bottom of your empty rain barrel, drill a hole to fit a standard garden hose. Use properly sized fittings and adapters to connect a hose to your rain barrel. You can use this hose many ways, including arranging a soaker hose in your garden bed (be sure to install a stop valve) or attaching a nozzle to a garden hose for easy filling of watering cans. The possibilities are endless!
This method may take a bit more planning, but will reduce the amount of work and wasted water by targeting zones for hydration. Constructed above the soil prior to planting seedlings, drilled holes in the piping provide steady droplets of water when a hose is connected. A shut-off valve allows you to control when you water and for how long. A PVC irrigation system will last many, many years.
If your yard happens to be overrun by thick bamboo, you can even use the hollow parts of stalks to provide underground irrigation using the same technique. Use smaller bamboo pieces to create an over-the-soil refiller tube and cover with a stone. Bamboo will also work as an over-ground irrigation system and is still used in many parts of the world.
Creative Commons Flickr photos courtesy of cheeselave, squirrelnation, barbndc, and USDAgov.