Dirty Business SPECIAL EDITION: Ollas

The irrigation struggle is real

Last year’s drought was so bad that it just kicked the living shit out of everything.  For the first time since moving here, I couldn’t harvest enough blueberries to make preserves.  The tomato plants produced at about ½ their usual rate.  The squirrels were so thirsty they were resorting to eating my green chiles.  The worst part was that the soaker hoses simply were not up to the task.  I ran them twice as long as I usually did, and the only material result was a much higher water bill.  This year, we were finally able to nail down a decent location for the installation of a rain barrel—but, like fucking clockwork, the very minute the rain barrel was in place, it stopped raining.  So, I’m trying a new method of irrigating the garden in the hopes that it will be more consistent and drought resistant:  ollas.

Ollas (pronounced OY-yuhz) are, at their core, unglazed clay pots.  They were developed in European antiquity for storage, but eventually were used for irrigation.  Spanish settlers taught the Native American tribes in the desert regions how to use them to make their crops less prone to drought.  The traditional olla has a large globe-like body with a long narrow neck.  The olla is buried underground with just the opening of the neck above ground to reduce evaporation while still allowing some rain to enter.  The principle at work here is soil-moisture tension:  If the ground around the olla is dry, then the water will leach out of the olla into the soil.  If the ground is moist or wet, then the water will remain in the olla.  Thus, plants will get as much water as they need without being overwatered—or, at least, that’s the idea.  We’ll see how it works in practice.

So, because what’s old is new again—and what’s new again is invariably hip and cool—you can find traditional ollas for anywhere from $25 to $60 a pop.  Or, you can just make your own ollas for a few bucks each.  Here’s the basic process:

Buy several unglazed clay pots—the size will depend on the size of your garden beds, but I went with pots that were roughly a gallon—as well as dishes large enough to cover the tops.  Now, these pots all have a large hole in the bottom which is, you know, not conducive to holding water.  To fix this, run a strip of duct tape on the outside bottom of the pot, then use a strong sealant like Flex Seal (the type that comes in a can so you can use a paint brush) and use that to fill the hole and seal the bottom of the pot.

Before you put your plants in the ground, bury the ollas up to their rims.  Distance will depend on the size of the ollas, but mine are planted three feet apart.  Then fill the ollas with water and place your plants around them.

Then cover the olla with the dish.  Of course, with newly transplanted plants, you still need to give them a good soaking to start.

Now, if you’re mulching your plants as you should, it won’t be easy to see if the ground is drying out.  So, get yourself a moisture meter which should help you keep track of things.

In either event, it’s a good idea to lift the lids and check the ollas every couple of days to see if they need watering, at least until the ground gets wet enough to justify checking with the meter.

Considering that we’re already looking to have another totally bullshit drought-filled summer, I’m really hoping these do the trick.  If I go another year without homemade blueberry preserves, I may just straight up lose my mind.

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When you can walk its length, and leave no trace, you will have learned.


  1. Good luck. Are you going to lift them before the ground freezes or just put new ones in?

    Are you worried about mosquitos or do you think the lids are tight enough? I have a little water basin I made and I need to dose it with BT granules to kill the larvae.

    • Definitely pulling them out at the end of the growing season so they aren’t crushed by the freezing of the ground.

      The lids should do the job to keep the mosquitos out.  They fit nicely over the rim of the pots and so far I haven’t found any issues, especially considering that they’re draining empty in about two day’s time while they saturate the ground.

  2. I might use ollas next year. I only have a few raised beds with stuff in them, so even in hot dry times it’s not that much to water. The majority of the nonedibles are natives where I rarely need to water more than once a month. That being said, the only time since the 1980s that St Louis had an actual drought year was 2012. So we’re more focused on shit to reduce flooding than anything else.

  3. Also! I appreciate the way you did these. I’ve seen TikTok videos where they are using silicone sealant to stack an inverted pot on top of the bottom one and then putting a lid on the top of its base. While I appreciate the increased tank size it makes, that’s honestly a more complex project and more to dig up to place it. Your strategy is much more attainable.

  4. I have a very similar moisture meter but it also does PH.  A few of our blueberries either died or partially died recently, not sure what is going on.  It is not drought because we just got our first long stretch of sun & we have started watering, nothing else is doing that.  Good luck this season!

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