Ancient Drip Irrigation: Ollas in the Garden

I’ve had several people watch the garden tour video from my last post and ask me what’s up with all of the upturned bottles in my beds. It got me thinking that it would be a great opportunity to discuss ollas and talk about my experience with this ancient drip irrigation technique.

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An olla (pronounced oh-yah) is an unglazed pot or clay vessel that is buried in the ground and filled with water. Over time, the water slowly permeates through the walls of the pot and delivers water directly to the roots of surrounding plants. This technique for agricultural irrigation is thought to have originated in Africa. Traces of ollas have been found in China, dating back over 4,000 years! This method is still used in many places around the world (I observed many villagers using ollas in kitchen gardens on my travels through Nicaragua last year).

There are many benefits to this watering technique. The most obvious being that it greatly conserves water. Some say it can reduce water usage in your garden by 50-70%. It is particularly helpful in deserts and drylands where water quickly evaporates from the surface of the soil. The micropores in the clay vessel slowly seep water and over time, the plant roots grow around the pots and only “pull” moisture when needed, never wasting a single drop.

I was recently going away on an eight day trip and was concerned about my veggie garden, since the forecast called for sun without a single drop of rain the entire time I was away. I was pressed on time, and opted to order Garden Summit’s Plant Watering Stakes off of Amazon. I gathered every glass bottle I could muster up from both my recycling bin & a friend’s bin and filled them with water. The stakes are pretty small, but since wine bottles hold a decent amount of liquid, the upturned bottle slowly feeds water into the clay stake as it drains. I placed one every 2-3 feet and hoped for the best. To my delight, I returned home to plants that were all still alive and thriving!

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In retrospect, I would probably recommend following along with a DIY online. It seems more cost-effective and you can choose the size of your pot. The benefit of a larger vessel is that it lasts longer without you having to refill the water as regularly. If you’re interested in making your own, I recommend this Olla DIY from Global Buckets. It’s easy!

Full disclosure: during long, hot periods without rain, I do water my garden with the hose, in addition to the ollas. The late afternoon western sun in Charleston during the summertime is brutal and sometimes it’s clear my plants need a boost. Regardless, ollas are an awesome way to cut down on the water you use in your garden, and allow you to skip hand-watering for several days at a time (or longer, depending on your vessel size and the weather!).

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