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Conserve Water; Use a Clay Pot!

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Conserve Water; Use a Clay Pot!

“Gardening is great fun, and really stretches the dollar, but having to water the garden takes too much time and runs up my water bill.” Except for the words “dollar” and “bill,” similar words were likely spoken thousands of years ago by gardeners just like us. So they came up with a solution; clay pot irrigation.

For years, geologists have been digging up unglazed clay pots from long forgotten ancient garden sites, from China to South America. Why? Because clay pots, when used as irrigation thousands of years ago, saved up to 70% of the water use, were inexpensive, and could go days without filling. Nothing has changed: clay pot irrigation still does all that, and is organic to boot!

There is a trend growing in our society to take back our health, our food and our lovely Mother earth. In general, people are realizing that healthy food is the building block of, well, health. This movement is showing up in many places, with gardening being the closest to home and the easiest to address. In front yards, in back yards, in raised beds, on decks, on porches, in old tires and even in used tennis shoes, gardens are blossoming. And more and more people are using clay pot irrigation to water their flourishing gardens because this movement to health includes a commitment to conserve water, and a desire to save time. The process is simple. Bury a clay pot, often called an olla, in the ground, or in a container, upto its neck, and place plants within an 18” radius of its center. Fill the olla with water, and soil-moisture tension will occur. The plant and dry soil literally draw the water out of the olla. The chemistry of soil-moisture tension prevents over and under watering of the plants. This comes in very handy when planning trips, during a busy work week, or when rain is sparse, since larger ollas (around 2 gallons) can go 3-5 days without filling. Even fertilizing is easier with an olla. Add a liquid fertilizer directly to the olla, using 1/3 less fertilizer. There is no runoff, no filter, no need for water pressure, it is low tech, has no plastic parts, is easy to use and supplies water directly to the root zone, which aids in building a healthier, larger root base.

Amazing! Those ancient folks solved some serious irrigation problems with a simple, smart solution, ollas. And so can we! Grab some seeds, some good soil and an olla. Build a garden in the ground, a container or in a raised bed. You’ll be pleased to see how ollas make your plants happy! Gardening is great fun, especially as you enjoy the “modern” way of saving water and time with an olla.

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1 Mary Kathryn Dunston { 06.08.14 at 9:01 pm }

Yes, they are fine for trees, in that the tree gets the water it needs. However, trees have very strong roots and eventually the roots would surround the olla and crack it. How long that takes would depend on the type of tree. So the question is this: Is the tree more valuable than on olla? I put an olla between my blueberry bushes. This is the third year. The bushes are established so I’ll dig up the olla this fall and reuse it. No cracks thus far in the olla. One olla for each of your trees would really help them! If you decide to do this, take before and after pictures and send them to us. We love pictures! Happy Growing!

2 JACKIE { 06.04.14 at 3:01 pm }

Are they suitable for trees? 5 yrs go We purchased very nice med to LG trees in Texas (bad timing). Have been using drip irrigation.Our trees are hanging in there. This summer could be the end.

3 Mary Kathryn Dunston { 04.28.14 at 4:16 pm }

Yes, terra-cotta is useful in growing plants, but the glazed terra-cotta will not work for ollas, because the glaze is a barrier, preventing the water from moving through the terra-cotta. Glazed pots are great for above ground, but if used for growing food, be sure the glaze is lead free.

4 exclusivelane { 04.25.14 at 7:59 am }

Buy Varieties of terracotta products online from the best online shopping store and avail the benefits of discounts and free shipping on various products. Terracotta products are usually handpainted and useful in growing plants.

5 Mary Kathryn Dunston { 04.01.14 at 7:50 am }

Cynthia, you’re right! Ollas do have a long lifespan, history shows that. Even modern history supports the olla. Folks on the Ghost Ranch in New Mexico dug up an olla that they suspect was around 15 years old, and it was in “good working condition”, ( And since the Ghost Ranch is one mile above sea level, the weather is rather extreme. I can’t think of any watering system we have now that still functions after 15 years,….except for gravity! (You know what they say, water always runs down hill!)
I’m glad you’re enjoying your ollas! Having them empty before the first freeze is a great way to preserve them. Some people choose to dig theirs up, but I leave mine in the ground too….here in Virginia.

6 Cynthia { 03.31.14 at 12:01 pm }

I used these last summer. The plants that were fed by this watering system did SO MUCH better than those who didn’t have an olla watering them. I’m buying more!
Byron, I imagine that the lifespan of an olla is very long….clay + soil and water seems compatible. There isn’t much to degrade. The effectiveness of an olla would diminish if it cracked from ice. I left mine empty all winter and they seem to be in good shape. I

7 Byron Williams { 03.31.14 at 10:43 am }

Sounds like a “tried and true” method. What is the expected functional lifespan of the olla?

8 Mary Kathryn Dunston { 03.29.14 at 7:41 pm }

I suspect you’re right….thanks for clarifying that.
I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

9 margaret h hangan { 03.28.14 at 10:46 am }

Great article. However I suspect it’s archaeologists not geologists who are discovering the buried pots. Geologists study soils and geomorphology while archaeologists study the remains of cultures.

10 Mary Kathryn Dunston { 03.27.14 at 5:37 pm }

Go to to find a retailer near you. Or, google ‘olla’ and find a source near you. Store bought terra cotta pots can be fashioned with caulking, etc to work as an olla, with some success. There are choices out there.

11 Pam { 03.27.14 at 11:25 am }
12 M Carter { 03.27.14 at 10:43 am }

I’m never too old to learn something new.

13 Kim { 03.27.14 at 10:41 am }

You can buy online from home depot. Google “where to buy clay pot irrigation” for more choices.

14 Gerald Lewis { 03.27.14 at 10:34 am }

Where can one pick up some of these pots,….especially the larger ones?

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