On June 4th, Gaylord Anton Nelson, founder of Earth Day, the Appalachian Trail, the Outdoor Recreation Acquisition Program, plus the author of several pieces of environmental legislation, would have been 99 years old. Nelson’s contributions to helping save our Earth are unsurpassed.
Nelson is honored for his personal vision. He said, “Suddenly, the idea occurred to me — why not organize a huge grassroots protest over what was happening to our environment? At a conference in Seattle in September 1969, I announced that in the spring of 1970 there would be a nationwide grassroots demonstration on behalf of the environment and invited everyone to participate. The wire services carried the story from coast to coast. The response was electric.” No instant messaging, no email blast, yet the response was electric. That’s how important it was back in 1969, as it is today.
We all have a moral obligation, one person at a time, to do what we can to make a difference in our environment. No contribution is too small. No act of generosity to the Earth goes unnoticed, including taking steps to conserve one of Earth’s most precious gifts — water.
The most common ways to conserve water are to repair dripping faucets, brush your teeth without the water running, fix hose connections, reuse water, etc. But let’s look at a way to conserve water in your garden — clay pot irrigation, an ancient practice which is hailed as “the most efficient irrigation system known to man,” according to Geoff Lawton, head of the The Permaculture Research Institute.
Clay pot irrigation can be traced back thousands of years, to several countries, but China has a written history of using clay pots — also called ollas — in their gardens. The concept is ridiculously simple: bury an unglazed olla in the ground, neck deep, put water in it, and put plants around it. What is referred to as soil moisture tension will occur. As the soil outside the olla dries out, water from inside the olla is pulled through the porous wall to replenish the dry soil. Your plants are watered automatically using only the water they need. If it rains, and the soil has enough moisture, no more water will be pulled through the walls. This supply-and-demand system saves up to 70% in water use in gardens, raised beds, and containers. Because of the design of the olla, there is no water runoff and no measurable evaporation (be sure to cover over the top of the olla with a rock, plate or get an olla with a lid).
Because soil moisture tension creates an environment where roots get slow, even watering around the clock, the root base grows larger, producing a healthier plant.
Ollas come in a variety of sizes. The larger the olla, the less often you have to fill it up, and the larger the circle of water around the olla. For example, a 2 gallon olla will water a 3-foot diameter circle for 3 to 5 days. That works well with a 4 x 4 garden or raised bed. Smaller ollas will water less, but may be better suited for tight spots and average sized containers.
To meet another environmental mark, ollas are organic, being made from clay. They leave no plastic residue in the earth for the next generation to worry about. Even if forgotten and left in the ground for years (which we know is possible from archeological digs), ollas are great neighbors to the environment and earthworms alike.
An olla is a gift to the earth, that keeps on giving. How? Consider that ollas are off the grid, so the only energy used is you, pulling the hose to the olla, and what little is needed to get the water from its source. However, if you use rain barrels, we can narrow the energy use down to just you, putting the hose in the neck of the olla!
Ollas have great attributes, but in my humble opinion, the best is where they are used, and my favorite is teaching gardens. It’s one thing to personally learn about water conservation, which naturally leads to growing healthy food. It’s another to actually teach it. So to all those volunteer gardeners out there who think up ideas, frame up gardens, and rev up our children in schools and community gardens, thank you. The ripple effect you have on our youth will shape their health, which in turn will shape the health of our Earth. I call that ultimate recycling. What a wonderful gift to give on Earth Day, our Day, or any day!
Mary Kathryn Dunston
Mary Kathryn Dunston has been an avid gardener for decades, as well as a health advocate. She currently works for Dripping Springs Ollas, a company dedicated to helping others help themselves, by supporting community and school gardens with water conservation. You can contact her at [email protected].