With the approaching summer months bringing potential for severe dry spells, water becomes a precious commodity. At the same time, vegetable crops’ health depends on steady, efficient watering. Add to the mix the occasional weekend trip or longer vacation and you have the potential for some serious soil dryness and ruined harvests.
Luckily, avid gardeners have devised ways—some as long as 4,000 years ago—to efficiently water gardens. What do you think about these methods?
It probably won’t amaze you that this successful irrigation technique presumably originated thousands of years ago in North Africa. Gardeners in this hot, arid climate buried clay/terra cotta pots now called ollas (pronounced oy-yahs) near crops. The thin necks of the pot stick out of the soil and act the refill point. The large barrel holds a reservoir of water that dry roots suction through the pot’s microporous walls (i.e. no wasted water).
Now, gardeners don’t need to know an artisan to obtain an olla: a simple web search will populate tons of vendors. Some ollas come with a cap that keeps out bugs and dirt and slows evaporation. If yours does not, simply use a large rock as a cap.
Depending on your climate, you may have to refill an olla as often as daily or as little as weekly. Ollas will last years before needing to be replaced.
Soda bottles and plastic jugs
If your already-established garden has no room for an olla this year, you can use an alternative solution. This option recycles a clean vessel, be it a wine bottle, gallon of milk, or soda bottle, and turns it into a steady irrigation system. Here are two popular techniques.
Consider watering stakes that are available for purchase. These get inserted only a few inches into the soil and have an opening to hold a wine, water, or soda bottle. If your stakes are composed of clay or terra cotta like an olla, the microporous surface will still reduce wasted water but require much less garden real estate. Here’s a pro tip: add some food coloring to the water to quickly determine the remaining water level through a clear bottle.
Or, create holes in a plastic jug and bury throughout your garden. Alternatively, cut off the bottom of a plastic jug and use the uncapped top to provide water to the soil by burying upside-down. Leave the refilling hole clearly above the soil line and fill when 50% empty. Unlike wide ollas, you only need to find room for a skinny container. This is an especially efficient watering method for delicate plants and for watering plants with deep roots.
Worried about evaporation? Cover your vessel with another plastic jug, cut in half, to retain moisture.
Rain barrel with attachments
If your municipal allows rain barrels, get on this DIY project immediately! Not only is your water supply guaranteed during drought periods when water use is restricted or prohibited, you can also include nifty attachments on your rain barrel to make watering a breeze.
At the bottom of your empty rain barrel, drill a hole to fit a standard garden hose. Use properly sized fittings and adapters to connect a hose to your rain barrel. You can use this hose many ways, including arranging a soaker hose in your garden bed (be sure to install a stop valve) or attaching a nozzle to a garden hose for easy filling of watering cans. The possibilities are endless!
This method may take a bit more planning, but will reduce the amount of work and wasted water by targeting zones for hydration. Constructed above the soil prior to planting seedlings, drilled holes in the piping provide steady droplets of water when a hose is connected. A shut-off valve allows you to control when you water and for how long. A PVC irrigation system will last many, many years.
If your yard happens to be overrun by thick bamboo, you can even use the hollow parts of stalks to provide underground irrigation using the same technique. Use smaller bamboo pieces to create an over-the-soil refiller tube and cover with a stone. Bamboo will also work as an over-ground irrigation system and is still used in many parts of the world.
Additional resources and efficient watering methods:
Using 5-gallon food barrels:
Creative Commons Flickr photos courtesy of cheeselave, squirrelnation, barbndc, and USDAgov.
I like the olla idea . What about adding broken / small bits of terracota to the soil? Would that also work? Has anyone tried that?
Guillermo Justel says
I make ollas for a living and play with plenty of other self-watering systems and I don’t think your idea would work. Even though I haven’t tried I can tell you that terracotta only absorbs water when the surronding space has more water density than the terracotta can absorb and that normally means water-logged soil, which hardly happens unless it has just heavy-rained. I can try helping you with any more questions you may have regarding ollas or self-irrigation systems 🙂
Jean Vega says
I like this article. I’ve never heard of Ollas until recently, they seem like a good idea though.
The drip irrigation looks really complicated. I just use a drip hose. It’s like a soaker hose but is made out of drip tape. You get the benefits of drip irrigation, but it’s easy to use. Here’s the one I use http://www.gardendripsystem.com
I’ve been wanting to try the rain barrel. I’ve always read about them, but just haven’t set one up.
how about “wicking” as another method for watering plants? I have some braided strips That I never made into a rug. They should work well………….