July 12, 2020

Conserving Water in the Garden: The Olla

We're in the season of popup thunderstorms. That means hot days where some places can get drenched, while others get passed over for rain altogether. Lately, we've been passed over, which means we're checking daily on the water needs of our garden and container plants. I mulch, work toward increasing moisture-conserving organic matter in the soil, and we have our rainwater tanks. Even so, I'm always on the lookout for new ideas. This book is loaded with them.

Gardening with Less Water: Low-Tech, Low-Cost Techniques; Use up to 90% Less Water in Your Garden by David A. Bainbridge. This book has a lot of interesting, inexpensive ideas for water conservation, many of them gleaned from arid parts of the world. The one you see pictured on the cover is called an olla (oy-ya).

An olla is basically a terra cotta pot. They are often used for cooking or for evaporative cooling of foods (zeer pot). In the garden, it's used to hold water for nearby plants. Mostly buried, its porous walls allow for a slow transfer of moisture to the surrounding soil. Brilliant and effective.

Ollas like the one pictured on the book cover can be purchased, or one can DIY. For a small olla, the materials list is short: an unglazed terra cotta planter, saucer to serve as a lid, and a way to plug the drain hole.

The book recommends a cork, but some people plug the drain hole with a bit of concrete. Dan cut disks from plastic coffee can lids and glued them down with RTV, a silicone product used for automotive gaskets.

Anything that would make a watertight seal would do. RTV is just what Dan had handy.

To make a larger olla, use two pots and plug the hole in only one. Glue the second pot upside-down on top of the first. The drainage hole of the top, upside-down pot is where the olla is filled with water.

Next, they're buried up to the rim.

And filled with water.

The inverted saucer becomes the lid.

This one is in my thyme bed. Thyme seems to dry out quickly with no rain.

The saucer lid keeps debris from falling into the water and is easy to remove to refill with water.

For the lid for my second olla, I cheated somewhat. The large saucer I needed was twice the price as the one with the same circumference as the top of the pot. So it doesn't fit over the pot, it fits on top of it.

This one is in the front porch trellis bed to water my Matt's wild cherry tomatoes.

As you can see, I weight it with a rock. Hey, it works!

We check the water every couple of days and fill the ollas as needed. So far, so good. My thyme hasn't dried out yet, which is a relief. My front yard herb beds tend to dry out quickly, even with a good layer of mulch. That means every little bit helps!

Obviously, the larger the olla, the less frequently it needs refilling. My recommendation is to get the largest pots you can, or make the double-pot olla (or both).

I'll close with a couple of links for more photos and ideas for olla irregation.


  1. What a terrific idea! Thank you for sharing.

  2. Tpals and Phil, I agree! Glad to share. :)

  3. Wow! There's always a way . . . and isn't it great to come across something as simple and effective as this? Thanks for sharing, Leigh. (Your pictures of how you are actually doing it are much appreciated.)

  4. Mama Pea, thanks! I find the simpler the better is always a good rule to follow. :)

  5. Great idea. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Nice and very easy to do!

    My friend Janet did this a few years back. You and Janet would have been fast friends as she has a mind like yours. Between the weaving and garden she was always coming up with something amazing.

    And these work beautifully! I will check into the book.

    Does Dan have a brother?😂

  7. That's really cool Leigh, what a great idea. Even though we have lots of water now, Alex and I feel weird using it. I guess it's out of fear we'll lose it again! All water conservation ideas are welcome to me. Thanks for the links too! I find my raised beds dry out SO quickly but then I haven't had time/resources/money for mulching, I know that would make a huge difference, that'll be an addition to the garden next year for sure.

  8. Frugal in Essex, you're welcome!

    Goatldi, weaving and gardening is an excellent combination of interests. :) Add to that, goats!

    The book is well worth a look. Lots of good ideas.

    Dan has one brother, who is nothing like him!

    Rain, water is indeed precious! I know it's a relief to finally have yours. Interesting that your raised beds dry out quickly, mine always did too. You have a lot of trees around, don't you? Any caches of leaves you could use as mulch?

    1. Well now isn’t that the way Leigh? Never two of a kind in the same family LOL. I will get a hold of that book and learn from it thanks for this share!

  9. It's an interesting idea and useful for sure. In our area though, we have to worry about standing water creating mosquito breeding grounds. Even rain barrels need to be sealed or covered with a fine mesh as one little container of accessible water can mean hordes of the irritating bugs. While it doesn't add water, I've found by putting in 8-12 inches of straw keeps the ground around my plants from drying out.

  10. Hi Leigh, we have so many trees here, I'm sure in the fall I'll have lots of fallen leaves I can use for my beds!

  11. I would bet buying one of these with the narrow neck is expensive since it has a specific function - but your DYIs look like they would work just as great!! Love the idea of it.

  12. Nina, mosquitoes are a concern here too, but hopefully, the lids will keep them from laying eggs in my ollas. I'm not familiar with the straw idea, though. How does it work?

    Rain, that's great. Leaves make great mulch, and great compost! We use dry ones for bedding in the chicken coop.

    Nancy, have you tried it?

    RT, those lovely narrow neck ollas are expensive, especially if a lot were needed. I really like the look, but the DIYs are okay with me!

  13. Goatldi, it's definitely worth getting your hands on a copy. Mine is borrowed from the library, but I'm thinking I may need it in my homestead library!

  14. Fabulous idea! I can't wait to try it! I assume the lids keep mosquito larva from developing too. Thank you!

  15. Thanks for the share Leigh! I think we currently live in a weather zone similar to yours and have the same issues, but even where we would like to be - The Ranch - has a Mediterranean climate and the water issues. So it is something that will always need to be addressed.

  16. Daisy, correct: deter mosquito larvae, also to keep dirt or mulch from falling in and to keep evaporation down.

    TB, anything to minimize the amount of water needed!

  17. Any idea if you can leave the empty pot buried in the ground during the winter when the ground freezes solid? I'd like to put these in my asparagus bed but digging them up would not be practical or good for the crowns.

  18. I found a large, restaurant sized plastic mayo jug, at least I think that is what it was, along our road...and repurposed it. After poking many holes in it, I buried it deeply between 2 tomato plants, so just the lid is at the soil surface. Simply screw off the lid and fill. It soaks away gradually. Between two other plants, I buried a milk jug, perforated the same way. It isn't as big, but does the job.

  19. Suze, that's a very good question, but one to which I don't know the answer, since we rarely have more than a surface ground freeze. I would probably want to empty it of water once we got toward freezing season.

    Rosalea, that's another good idea. A gallon mayo jar would certainly be sturdier than the milk jugs that are usually used.

  20. Great post, Leigh! Thanks for the links, too. I have been watering a lot, as the storms seem to be passing us by. We have about a dozen container boxes, and they have actually needed filling with water three times a week...highly unusual, but the plants this year are very healthy. That’s ultimately what’s most important! Never hurts to try new ideas, for sure!

  21. Wyomingheart, there's no telling about the weather. This year we've had the same problem as you; some parts of the state are getting drenched, we get little to nothing. Having a few water conservation tricks up our sleeves is essential!

  22. I couldn't get the full blog to come up on my phone so I waited until my 'puter was fixed to read it all and comment. Ingenious way of watering small spaces. I've repurposed soda bottles and sponges the same way. Where there's a will, there's a way.

  23. It took me a little extra thinking to fill the drain hole but I'm ready to put my first one in the dirt. Thanks again!

  24. A friend gave us an olla last year like the one pictured on the cover of the book. It had not worked for her as hoped and she passed it along to me to experiment with. I sunk it into a 4x4 strawberry bed, and I love it! I would like to add more of these to my other raised beds. It makes watering so much simpler! I should see about getting my hubby to make me a few.
    PS Good luck with your Matt's Wild Cherry Tomato!! I grew one a couple years ago, and it certainly lived up to its name :)

  25. Bekah, I agree about making watering easier! I plan to make more but would love to have a classic one. If your husband is a potter, he'll likely have a market!

    My Matt's tomatoes have really taken off lately and starting to flower. Very curious about the tomatoes!

  26. does it work the other way round, dig one in and it takes out water from the soil? no, only joking, but we're lucky in that we rarely need watering outside. I do however put simple pots in the tunnel soil, when it needs a good soaking after winter, where I don't water much if at all. I dig normal pots into the soil every few inches and pour water inside. it goes in deeper and doesn't run off, so that method works well for me.... I'd love to have a drip watering system, but our water pressure from the house isn't strong enough:( and olla irrigation would take up too much valuable space inside our rather small tunnel:(

  27. Bettina, yes, the olla does take up room!That is a good idea about the normal pots. Delivering water under the surface is truly better than watering on the surface.


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