Ollas are the name for unglazed terracotta pots that you bury in the ground with only the neck exposed. I’ve written on them here before but it seems like so long ago I thought I would explain more without having to dig back through old posts.
This last spring was the first time I tried using ollas.
The ones that I selected were from Dripping Springs Ollas. They are larger than most, locally available to me, have a lid that fits perfectly, and have a mouth that is wider than most, making it easier to fill with a long watering wand. Actually it didn’t take long before I could use my wand to pry up the edge of the lid, fill the olla, and replace the lid without having to bend down and pick the lid up.
Saved a lot of lower back pain.
I had nine ollas that I used all together. They are on the expensive side, I believe about $30 each. Which was actually a lot cheaper than others because they were locally available and I didn’t have to pay shipping. Still $30 x 9 = ouch.
I buried three ollas per 4 foot x 8 foot planting bed and then planted heavily around them.
Two of the beds contained peppers (and are still using the ollas), and one bed was planted with tomatillos, squash, zucchini, beans, and watermelons.
I’ve since removed the ollas from the one bed because they are not good to overwinter in the ground since they COULD freeze in a hard frost. Granted those are pretty rare around here, but at $30 a piece I really didn’t want to take the chance.
Filling the ollas was a lot faster than watering a whole bed. I did fill them every day, which I’m sure helped, but still it was definitely faster. Faster watering means less water. I still watered the perimeter of the bed and the corners, only because I had planted very densely and wanted to make sure that everything was well saturated.
I like to let the chickens out when I fill the ollas because I’ve found that a wide assortment of bugs enjoy the moist environment. Crickets, ear wigs, and roaches are pretty typical, with the occasional scorpion. Either way, my one smart chicken figured this game out pretty quick and would hop in the beds and wait for me to fill the pots so she could grab a bug or two. It worked out pretty well.
I did find that the plants in the bed did not wilt as quickly in the heat of the afternoon, in fact frequently they did not wilt at all. Similar plants, especially the squash and zucchini, in other beds looked pretty sick when the mercury hit 110+. My peppers in my pots look good, but are not as big as the peppers in the beds with the ollas. They also weather the afternoon sun better, even though they aren’t shaded like the potted peppers.
When I removed the three ollas out of the one bed I was able to confirm what I had been told previously, that the roots of the plants would weave their way around the olla, making the watering even more efficient. Sure enough what I found was a complete encasement of the ball of the olla in a thick mat of roots. It was impressive! The roots did not penetrate the olla and I found that the surface of the terracotta was in good condition, giving me confidence that they will last for several years to come.
In all, the ollas definitely lived up to the hype. They worked efficiently and made watering easier. I cannot gage whether or not I actually used less water, since this year I drastically expanded my garden with six additional 4×8 beds, but I can easily say, just by gaging the time, that I used less water on the beds with ollas than I did on the ones without.
Are they worth the investment? Well, that’s depends. My water is not that expensive, so it would probably take two – three years to recoup the investment. I will definitely keep the ones I have and use them again, but I’m trying to garden more cheaply, so I will probably not buy any more next spring.
Have you ever tried ollas?