Olla Experiment

skipv(9)June 9, 2013

I thought that I would share my experience thus far this Spring using an olla for watering my small garden. (Is it spring if the temperature as I write this is 105 degrees?) Please comment freely.

I'm located in NE Phoenix. My vegetable garden consists of a grand total of 4 Armenian cucumber plants and 4 butternut squash plants. All were planted from seed around mid-April in 2 separate containers, 15-18 inches wide and 10-11 inches deep. On about April 11 (approximately 17 days after germination) 2 cucumber plants and 2 squash plants were transplanted to a plot in the ground with an olla in the center. The olla was made from 2 - 6 inch pots and holds not quite a gallon of water.

Here's the plants in the original containers before transplanting

The olla:

Here's the olla going into the ground:

Here's the transplants shortly after being moved (looking pretty sad):

Here's the containers today:

And the transplants today:

Now having said all that, here's (to me) the interesting part. Most days I have had to water the container plants once averaging 1.5 to 2 gallons of water per container. In the current hot weather of 100-110 degrees this week, I've had to water them 2 times daily. The olla watered plants on the other hand have been watered every 2nd or 3rd day, usually needing less than ½ gallon each time. In the current hot weather I'm topping it of daily with less than ½ gallon each time.

I know this is entirely unscientific, i.e. different containers, close but slightly different locations, some in containers the others in the ground, etc. but the difference in the amount of water needed is striking to me. In addition, the olla watered plants, although smaller than the container plants are healthier looking. Also, the container plants have had some days where they were watered in the morning but by the time I get home from work they had wilted and needed immediate watering. The olla watered plants don't experience that. They appear to be consistently getting water as needed. I'm attributing the difference in size to being transplanted, especially since I did it mid-morning on a hot, sunny day. And they are catching up with the container plants. But so far the difference in the amount of water needed, the ease of watering and the availability of water as needed to the plants has me sold on ollas.

I'm wondering about the experiences of other folks using ollas and any comments that people might have.

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MaryMcP Zone 8b - Phx AZ

I too am an olla lover. I tried them a couple of years ago but when the plants came in, the lush growth prevented me from finding the darn things to refill them.

This time I planned better, and queried someone else on how he replenished the water. He told me he uses a 'water wand' with the sprinkle head removed. Viola olla! Works great.

Here's a picture of my bed with three olla's. I have three beds, 4' x 6' and all three have basically the same setup. I erred in one bed in not putting in a good bottom stopper. I had stuffed a piece of foam in the bottom hole and am guessing the force of the water during a refill dislodged it. That happened with two olla's, just like the ones you made. Large[ish] clay pots from the 99 cent store. You don't mention how you stoppered the bottom hole. Most anything would probably work better than that piece of foam. All others were fine but I used various methods of stoppering. Next time, corks all around.

I agree whole-heartedly that the beds are less needy for water. I would refill the olla's each day, every other day worst case, and just lightly spray the beds. The soil must remain damp, at minimum, for best wicking results.

Definitely a keeper of a solution. Thanks for posting about it. More people here should employ this 'trick'.

What works just as well, or better for refilling, are those unglazed clay 'wine coolers'. The idea is to soak the clay cooler until the clay is saturated, dump out the water and your bottle of wine will stay cool. Don't know how well they work for that but they make great ollas. Get them at Goodwill or other thrift type stores. Methinks they were wedding presents that didn't make the cut. ;-) I use clay plant saucers to cover the top.

Here's a bed picture before planting (the soil should cover the olla, I fixed this with more dirt later, and mulch):

    Bookmark   June 10, 2013 at 9:07AM
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Actually this is a very demonstrative experiment. I saw no difference between the olla and the two containers except the black container had more growth (with flowering). Once you realize the difference in water consumption there is no doubt the ollas were a huge success.

Yes, it is a tiny sample size and the experimenter was responsible for choosing the photographs but the results are so dramatic in their lack of difference that it clearly shows ollas conserve water big time in the summer here. They do take up real estate however for broad use in a garden. For plants that need space not a problem, but ones that can be planted 12-16 per sq. ft. maybe a hole every 4" drip tape system would work better.

    Bookmark   June 10, 2013 at 12:38PM
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grant_in_arizona(USDA Z9 Scottsdale AZ)

This is such a fun and useful discussion! I too am a huge fan of ollas ("oy-yuhz") and have been using them since around 2000 when I first bought a bunch of no-holes-in-the-bottom cool Egyptian urns in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I half-buried them and filled them a couple of times a week and the plants nearby (in the ground and in pots) did great. I've since moved across town, but took those pots with me and I still use them. It's a great concept and I think it makes a huge difference in terms of reducing the amount of water we need for our plants.

Your pics and comments are great, thanks for highlighting this great old time technique! I also use "plant nanny" which is similar with a big terracotta spike you jab into soil and then invert a large drinking/wine/water bottle filled with water in it. Same idea: slow, seeping water.

Keep the updates and discussion coming!
Happy gardening and thanks for sharing your experience and information so freely! Gardeners are just the best!

Take care,

Here is a link that might be useful: Plant nanny, seeping terracotta spikes

    Bookmark   June 10, 2013 at 5:51PM
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SkipV, the olla plants do look happier! I've seen the technique in a "propagation box" but it's the first time I've seen it in the garden. Your soil looks so rich...did you add alot of organic matter?

Grant, you can try the wine bottles as plant nannies too without the terra cotta stakes. I've even had 2 or 3 going in large pots at the front door but then I started to worry what the neighborbors would think lol

    Bookmark   June 11, 2013 at 1:29AM
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Thanks everyone for your comments, and for the water wand, plant nanny and wine cooler ideas. Fascist_Nation: I can see that space could be a problem, but for now my garden is so small it isn't an issue yet.

I will have to amend my post to say that I happened to be home mid-day earlier this week and the olla watered plants were wilted some in the Noon sun, but by the time I got home at night they had recovered nicely. (I didn't add any supplemental water because I really want to see how they do with just the ollas.)

The olla plants haven't produced yet and I just harvested 3 cukes from the container plants. But, I expect the olla plants to be somewhat behind because they were transplanted from their original location so we'll see what comes from them. I enjoy planting but I don't cook at all so now I've got to rely on family to figure out what to do with the produce.

    Bookmark   June 11, 2013 at 9:26PM
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MaryMcP Zone 8b - Phx AZ

Large leaved veggies will curl in on themselves in the heat of the day. They do that to save evaporation of the plant's water/moisture content in the leaves and stems. Even if the soil is well hydrated, the large leaves lose too much moisture to the air so it tries to conserve square footage, in a manner of speaking. Like covering your forearms with a loose cotton shirt. I think you're doing fine with it.

    Bookmark   June 11, 2013 at 11:13PM
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wanna_run_faster: I did mix in some bagged potting soil or compost. Can't remember exactly what it was, I wasn't paying close enough attention that day.

marymcp: Thanks for that info about the leaves curling in. The leaves for all the plants have gotten a little "crispy" around the edges. The container plants much more so than the olla plants, and the squash more than the cukes. I've interpreted that as a sign that they weren't getting enough water. And that the squash need more water than cukes. Do you think that's correct?

Desert gardening is new to me. I did a little gardening up north (Michigan) before we moved here and mostly that was irises and coneflowers. I've had success with cactus cuttings here. This year is the first time I've tried vegetables here.

    Bookmark   June 12, 2013 at 1:12AM
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Oh and btw I used waterproof bath and kitchen caulk to plug the bottom hole of the olla. At the end of the season I'm planning on digging it up to see how the plug did and also because I think i see roots inside the olla. I understood that they would grow around the outside but didn't think they would find their way inside. We'll see in a couple months.

    Bookmark   June 12, 2013 at 1:15AM
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MaryMcP Zone 8b - Phx AZ

SkipV - 'crispy around the edges' is different from 'leaves wilting and curling'. I would not automatically think low water, look also at sun exposure. The leaves could be getting fried by the sun causing the crispiness. You could try shading the plants in some manner. I have a mesquite tree strategically placed to provide dappled shade throughout the day, that's not working for one bed so I'm using pvc hoops covered in a large scrap of fabric. I have a pic of the hoops, you'll have to imagine the covering. You can attach the covering with large binder clips (thanks to Facist_Nation for that tip), The pvc is in 10' sections, costs just a couple of bucks and I've just shoved them into the soil a few inches. Some folks hammer in a rebar pole and slide the pvc over the rebar.

That middle bed is the one in the above pic, this shot was taken in April, there are four tomatillo plants (on the right as you are looking at it) and two tomatoes. Bed on right is tomatoes, same on left although there's basil in there too. Only thing still kicking today is the basil and a bunch of spaghetti squash that came up from compost that was added.

    Bookmark   June 12, 2013 at 7:34AM
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marymcp: Thanks for the info and suggestion. Wilted and crispy - I've got both to varying degrees. More water to the container plants seems to have taken care of the wilting but not the crisp edges. The sun exposure makes perfect sense about that now that i consider that the container squash has the greatest amount of "crispy" edges (there must be a more appropriate word than crispy....) and it gets the most sun, pretty much all day long. The other plants get shade later in the day from either a wall or a tipuana tree. I'll fashion a fabric shade and see how that helps. Is the kind of fabric important?

    Bookmark   June 12, 2013 at 2:55PM
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MaryMcP Zone 8b - Phx AZ

I don't think the type of fabric is critical but that's not what the marketing efforts of shade-cloth manufacturers will tell you. Mine is a light-weight jersey fabric, mostly white that I just had around. It probably lets *some* light through but I've no idea of the rating. :-\

I meant to say above that the stuff I've read says that wilting is normal in the heat and if the plant recovers in the evening/early morning hours that you should not worry about the wilting during the day.

    Bookmark   June 12, 2013 at 4:35PM
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I read on another board that someone would put plants in terra cotta pots and then dig a whole in the garden and put the pot in the ground. They did this to retain the roots and water. I think I going do the same but fill up the bottom hole first so I would have a double duty half olla.

    Bookmark   June 21, 2013 at 9:49PM
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MaryMcP Zone 8b - Phx AZ

I bury some plants in terra cotta pots to contain the roots from spreading. Good candidates for this treatment are mint, 'walking' onions, lemon balm....many others. Any plant that can become an invasive pest by taking over the garden.

I don't understand this statement: ...going do the same but fill up the bottom hole first so I would have a double duty half olla

A plant growing in the pot is not an olla because there is no room for a water reservoir if the terra cotta pot is full of soil and plant roots. Sorry, I don't get it.

    Bookmark   June 22, 2013 at 6:44AM
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I just thought it would help retain the moisture better not only in the pot, but in the whole garden.

    Bookmark   June 23, 2013 at 5:48PM
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MaryMcP Zone 8b - Phx AZ

Oh, I see where you are coming from now. Yes, most certainly burying the potted plant in a hole in the garden will keep the soil in the pot from drying out so quickly.

There is also the concept of sub-irrigation planting and/or a wicking bed. These ideas use a below ground reservoir system for water delivery. In this manner you maintain a sufficient water level in the reservoir so that the soil in the bed is able to wick the water up as needed. Kind of a large EarthBox. The trick is how to contain the water in the reservoir. Some have used a pond liner for containing the water then placing a raised bed over the 'pond'.

But - a buried pot filled with soil and a rootball is not an olla. And if one were to sink a larger clay pot for the buried pot to sit in, that is still not an olla. The design concept of an olla is to have a small opening that allows one to add water to the vessel acting as a hydro-reservoir. The small opening prevents evaporation.

Thanks for explaining your concept. Buried pots do retain moisture better than above-ground planting containers.

    Bookmark   June 24, 2013 at 9:22AM
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Just a quick update: we were away last weekend for 3 days when the Phoenix area set records for heat. For the cucumbers in the container I was able to reroute a drip line. For the squash in the container that wasn't possible so I created a sun shade from a recycled trellis and an old table cloth (probably needed to do that anyway) and for water for the squash I froze a gallon milk jug and poked 2 small holes in the bottom with an awl. The frozen jug was put into the container along with a 2 gallon plastic container filled with water (not frozen) with 1 hole in the bottom. For the plants watered by the olla I simply topped it off before leaving.

Three days later everything was somewhat stressed, but the cucumbers were fine and the squash was pretty okay except some of the small, new fruits were too stressed and won't develop I'm sure. But the plants watered by the olla were no different than they had been when we left. The water level in the olla was down considerably from what it usually is but it wasn't dry.

    Bookmark   July 4, 2013 at 6:13PM
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MaryMcP Zone 8b - Phx AZ

Hi Skip, Thanks for the update. That was a good experiment and continues to solidify our concepts about olla's in the garden. I will place more of them next time around, probably incorporate some smaller ones tucked in between the larger ones.

Keep on gardening!

    Bookmark   July 6, 2013 at 10:05AM
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"The water level in the olla was down considerably from what it usually is but it wasn't dry."
How many more day(s) do you figure you had before it was dry?

    Bookmark   July 6, 2013 at 5:42PM
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Hard to say because I didn't think to measure what I added but I'd guess 1 more day.

    Bookmark   July 7, 2013 at 4:23PM
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very interested in this discussion. Y'all are just making your ollas from regular pots stuck together? Not buying them purpose-made? Can you even find them purpose made in your area (I know there's one place that makes them)

    Bookmark   July 15, 2013 at 1:01PM
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Has anyone tried an olla with a fruit tree?

    Bookmark   April 7, 2014 at 12:17PM
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I am experimenting with fruit trees. Persimmon, peach, fig. I also have pomegranate and blackberries. It is actually not recommended to leave the ollas with trees and shrubs as the roots may eventually crack the it. One of these pictures has a peach tree with an olla and new drip irrigation going in. This tree was planted 2 years ago. I started a company that makes/sells ollas because I couldn't find them and I wanted several for my garden. I began experimenting with glueing pots together to see if the method would work. I have had success using olla irrigation. I am gardening in Central Texas -- west of Austin.

    Bookmark   April 26, 2014 at 1:05PM
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Great info in this thread. I just wanted to add my experience at growing Goji berries and pink blueberries. Both are acid soil lovers. Instead of using acidifier amendments to the soil, I planted a 1.25 quart olla next to each plant with a 4" pot saucer as a lid. I keep the plants in separate half barrels. When I fill the olla I take non chlorinated water and add ~5ml of apple cider vinegar using a Nyquil cup. I can add chileated iron or Maxicrop-kelp or compost tea too if needed. So far the Gojis have taken off. The blues have grown well too from a cutting. I expect they'll do great this summer in Houston. When I stick my finger in the barrel I feel two inches of bone dry dirt followed by nicely moist dirt without it being too wet. Seems perfect. I can't ask for more.

    Bookmark   April 26, 2014 at 1:42PM
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txdurk-- this is great information for our alkaline soil. Mind if I share this on my FB page?

    Bookmark   April 28, 2014 at 2:10PM
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@lhayes: Certainly you may but, as in anything, mileage may vary.

    Bookmark   April 28, 2014 at 2:25PM
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