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Water like the ancients did: it works!

The joys of gardening are what bring us back to the toils of weeding and insect bites, dirty nails and waiting. The anticipation in winter of planning our crops and the double anticipation of spring while patiently watching for that unfurling tip of an asparagus frond or the pea green tip of that legume to emerge, anchors that joy that grows in gardeners.

And then there's watering, that necessary aspect of growing a garden that we design our day around. We ponder, "Should I water in the morning before work, or in the evening when I'm tired?" "It's supposed to rain today, but what if it doesn't?" Or, "I better water before the sun gets too hot." Rainfall, no rainfall, irrigation investment, time investment, the cost of city water or the level of well water all play a part in how often or how long one can water. There must be an easier way to do this. There is! There is an easy and "new" way of watering that is over 2,000 years old, clay pot irrigation!

Over 2,000 years ago when Google didn't have the word "hose" in its data bank, ancient peoples from China to South America were burying porous clay pots in their gardens and next to their saplings. The bulbous clay pot, known as an olla (oi-yu), would have a neck on it which would be visible just above ground level. The opening at the neck allowed the gardener to add water into the pot, or olla, as the olla emptied. This was ingenious because the water in the olla was pulled out by the thirsty roots of the surrounding plants. Soil moisture tension was at work--not an ancient word, but that is what was happening none-the-less. Every plant got water as it needed it. No water was wasted and no plant was over- or under-watered. Ingenious! As you have no doubt figured out, ollas are still used around the world today, but in our country, the concept is just seeping out.

People are learning that ollas are easy to install. Dig a hole and put the olla in it. Backfill. Okay, that was easy. Adding water to the olla is quick. Lift the lid off, put your hose in, wait 30 seconds or so, put the lid back on. If you get bored in those 30 seconds, bend over and pull what few weeds are around the olla. There won't be many since ollas keep the water below the soil surface, discouraging weed growth. Planting around the olla is just like planting anywhere. Ollas work in ground, in raised beds and in containers. People are using them in everything from a water trough to a truck bed. How far out the water seeps from the olla depends on the olla size and soil type. A larger olla, say two gallons, will water an 18-inch radius in most garden soils. That's a three-foot circle watered with one olla, about the area of a 4' x 4' raised bed. It will need filling every three to five days. Fill the olla on Saturday and then check again on Tuesday. The time you saved not hand watering can be spent, well, doing what ever you want! Ollas not only save time, they save water. Using an olla can save up to 70 percent in water use, due to the low evaporation rate and the zero run off rate. Using water so wisely saves you money and puts less stress on a water source. Not bad for a piece of organic clay.

But there's more! Because ollas are porous, they work in two directions. When water is on the outside of an olla, as when it rains and rains and rains, by gravity, some water will seep back into the olla. This decreases the splitting of tomatoes, melons, etc. The olla needs to be partially empty for this to work best, since the excess ground water needs someplace to go. It is nice to know, however, that the time invested in setting up this ancient watering system is never wasted, rain or no rain. As Randall Isherwood, owner of Garden Outposts Nursery in Columbia, South Carolina, put it, "Last year (2013) we had a deluge of rain every week, tomatoes were splitting all over the state. My tomato plants that I had installed with ollas averted this splitting issue 100% of the time, in all types of locations in ground, containers and raised beds." Even if 100% isn't a guaranteed success rate, Mr. Isherwood is not far off the norm. In addition, the root base of plants around ollas is larger and happier since they have water consistently, and can be fertilized, by adding a liquid fertilizer in the olla. Finally, in our modern times, we have some added bonuses those ancients couldn't have dreamed about. Ollas do not need electricity and have no plastic residue. They are environmentally safe across the board. A modern responsibility we gardeners take seriously!

So, this winter, when you're huddled next to the fire and poring over your spring seed catalogs, think clay pot irrigation, the most efficient watering system known. Google olla to learn more or to find them at your local nursery.

Vegetables on the go

How surprised would you be if you were sitting at a stop light and in front of you was a truck whose bed was full of greens? I'm not talking about bushels of harvested beans or kale, or yard debris piled high, I'm talking about living, growing, flowering greens, and reds, and yellows and purples, and greens. That's lots of greens! I'm talking about a garden growing in the bed of a truck ... yes, that is Truck Farming and a mother-daughter team in Texas is making Truck Farming very popular. Marilyn and Donelle Simmons of Texas have a purpose; to Educate, Empower and Encourage. They are garden coaches and educators and a Truck Farm is one of their venues. They use ollas for easy watering. Donelle said, "The olla's pot is amazing, the truck farm has flourished beyond our imagination. I think every truck farmer should have one and every gardener who is working in a small space. It is the best gardening tool we have." Visit them at to see what WOW (Women On Wheels) can do!

Mary Kathryn Dunston is an avid gardener who teaches about Clay Pot Irrigation for Dripping Springs Ollas.

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Title Annotation:The garden
Author:Dunston, Mary Kathryn
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Nov 1, 2014
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