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What’s an Olla?

It’s that time of the year here: lawnmowers are being taken out, gardens are being planned, and Claritin-D sales are about to skyrocket once again. (Darn you, pollen!) Our local library is into the spirit of things and has started placing gardening books in strategic locations where unsuspecting customers might be accosted. Last week, I was confronted by Gardening With Less Water, by David A. Bainbridge. It’s one of those books that does exactly what it promises: teaches how to double, even triple, your garden’s water efficiency. Mr. Bainbridge discusses wicks, porous pipes, and ollas, among other things.

What’s an olla, you ask? Besides being yet another word that my spell-check isn’t aware of (seriously?), it’s an unglazed clay pot. Nothing fancy—some gardeners just use terracotta plant pots as ollas. The key, however, is that because it’s unglazed, it waters for you. Bury it up to its neck in the ground, top it off with water, and put a lid on it to keep water in and bugs out.

An artist's interpretation of an olla at work.
An artist’s interpretation of an olla at work.

Plant roots will naturally pull the water through the olla’s porous sides as needed. This allows all of the water to be used efficiently: almost no water is lost to evaporation or runoff.

Gardening explains the history and use of ollas, and other super-efficient watering methods. (The techniques described are as old as civilization, perhaps older.) Some thoughts:

  • Unfortunately for me, the East Coast (US) is a wet place to live. Unlike the desert climates many of the book’s methods thrive in, we struggle not with too little H20, but sometimes too much. Still, no knowledge is wasted, and I plan to use one method, wicking, this summer. Desert gardeners will see more dramatic results from using Gardening methods than those in damp climates.
  • Mulch is rarely mentioned in Gardening, but it is mentioned. Long term, I wonder if mulching techniques such as “lasagna gardening” (layering different kinds of material) would work well with Mr. Bainbridge’s water-efficient methods. Perhaps my wife and I will have to include a gardening “experiment station” in our backyard of awesomeness someday, so we can try this.
  • The business applications of water-efficient gardening are intriguing. Organizations with large buildings could use a mixture of rain collection (discussed in Gardening) and “green roof” techniques to save on long-term heating and cooling expenses. (“Green roofs” refers to buildings with a growing rooftop: it’s a modern take on the sod roofs and roof gardens of the past.) Food businesses may find that land previously thought unusable could, with the propers methods, be extremely productive. The upfront costs will probably be higher, but long term costs would be lower. (And in some places, businesses will find tax deductions in place for water-efficient gardening methods.)
  • There was no mention of aquaponics, that I could find. Aquaponics (combining fish farming with hydroponics, or no-soil gardening) is often touted as requiring less water for both the fish and the plants. With his interest in water efficiency, I’d be interested in Mr. Bainbridge’s opinion on aquaponics versus the more traditional techniques described in his book.

Gardening With Less Water should be a fun read for anyone with a green thumb—or those of us whose green thumbs are still growing.

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©2016 (including the picture)

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