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?
I have been testing one Olla in my front yard in an area that is hard to reach with a hose. So far I have been happy with it. I only bought one because of the price point so I may pick up a few more over time. The great thing I do with my Olla is save “gray” water in 3 gallon buckets (usually shower water that is heating up) and then pour the bucket into the Olla. This works well because the hose doesn’t reach this particular area of my garden. Thanks for your observations on your Ollas! It makes me more confident to buy more.
I had never even thought to do that. What an efficient use of otherwise disposed of water!
In regards to the Olla pots, this system worked really well. I have the same brand Ollas that you have and I really like the wide mouth which makes pouring from a 3 or 5 gallon bucket really easy. However, sometimes I save water from washing vegetables and would have some insects/veggie residue in the water so I refrained from putting those in the Ollas because I didn’t want it to get gross inside.
You can read more here about my attempts at water wise gardening here: http://eastsacedible.com/2014/05/28/water-wise/
Keep the posts coming! I learn a lot from your blog especially about gardening in hot climates!
I’ve never used an Olla. We have raised beds and use soaker hoses. 🙂
Just bought my first Olla and trying it in a 4×4 raised bed. I was going to get two more for a 4×8 bed but may get 3 instead based upon your trial. I’m in the Sierra foothills so if we finally get a rainy season I may not get a good test until spring. Thanks for the info and I look forward to reading your other posts!
If you were not planting densely you might be able to get away with two. My beds were pretty crowded. 🙂
I am assuming that when you refilled every day the ollas were not empty. 2/3 full??
In the middle of summer they were not empty, but definitely not 2/3 full. I would say half at most, maybe less. You also have to think about the ball of the olla being completely encased in roots and the root depth of the plants around it. Shallow rooted plants may only have their roots wrapped around the top of the olla. Since i had to water anyway, it was easy to top off the ollas. If I waited two days in June or July they were pretty much empty, but that’s with regular temps around 110.
I also like to plant my beds very densely. More plants = more water.