Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Olla

“What the heck is that?”
We get that question a lot at art fairs across Texas.  The folks are usually pointing at an Olla (oy-yah) sitting on the ground.  It’s not quite a vase, parts are unglazed and it has a lid - weird looking thing.

After seasons of watering my vegetable garden every morning and still seeing that pitiful limp tomato plant by 3:00 pm in the Texas heat, I knew I had to change something for the sake of our water supply.  We are on 100% rainwater catchment – every single drop counts.  I would cringe when I saw the water just roll off the surface and not even penetrate into the soil, definitely not to the roots where the plant needed it.  I felt like I was just watering my weeds! 
So, I did some research.  I found some cool gardens like key-holes (tried that…it was going good until I stuffed grass into the chamber and suffocated everything…don’t do that), aquaponics (can’t afford that), container gardening (didn’t work for me…they dried out too fast), sack gardening (what the heck is that?)  and, of course, there is drip irrigation systems. They work great for the folks that can afford the upkeep and the time to design the system but I have neither of those.  What I do have is a husband that is a potter and a shovel.  Could this poor girl find a way to grow a tomato?
Jim Bob made me some ollas!
Yes!  I discovered the olla.
Alright, alright.  What is an olla?

It is a pot that is made out of earthenware clay (terra cotta), it is sometimes glazed at the neck of the pot, leaving the body of the pot unglazed, and comes with a lid.  Ollas have been around since ancient times.  I believe the first ollas were discovered in Northern Africa but have been used in China for 4000 years.  So, I was pretty slow on the discovery but I was still super excited about it.  Folks in countries all over the world are using ollas today – India, Iran and Brazil are well known for the olla usage.

How does it work?

Since the body of the olla is unglazed, it is porous.  A porous surface will allow water to seep through it.  In this case, the olla is allowing the water to seep from its body into the soil, since the olla is planted in the ground up to its glazed neck and then filled with water.   The plants are planted around the olla.  That means the roots are in the right spot to grow towards the olla and only suck up the moisture from the olla when it is needed.   Yes, that is right…no run off, no over-irrigation and no limp plants.  The water is EXACTLY where it is needed: the roots.  There is, of course, some science behind ollas: suction force, water/root tension, etc.  That is all very fascinating but, honestly, I just want some nice plump tomatoes. 

So I mentioned my husband was a potter and that I had a shovel.  I felt like ollas were invented just for me.  My next hurdle:  getting him to actually make the ollas.  After a season of harassment, he made me 10 ollas.  Yay!  I had them in my hands and I was ready to plant. 

I had my beds ready.  I just laid some cinder blocks in a rectangle and added some soil.  I guess they are “raised” beds but not very high.  They were about 4’ long and 2.5’ wide.  I dug two holes in each bed that were deep enough for the ollas to sit in up to its glazed neck.   I filled in the space around the olla with dirt.  I basically “planted” the olla and then I filled it with water and put the lid back on.   I planted my vegetable around my ollas and waited.  I was waiting for many things:

1.  A limp plant:  the ollas seemed pretty awesome but would they really work?  Too good to be   true?  Would my veggies suffer from LVD (Limp Vegetable Disorder)?
2.  Tomatoes:  Ollas had to work!  They have been around for 1000's of years!  They wouldn’t last that long if they were fads, right?  A healthy tomato would prove it. 
3.  Weeds:  Weeds would always come when I watered the surface.  Where are those pesky water-sucking things? 
4.  An empty olla:  I had my doubts that the water would just seep from the olla.  The soil seemed so dry and I thought it would be empty in a day.

So what happened?

Ollas are fantastic.  No wonder they have been around so long!  I planted veggies about 12” from the olla and had new growth in days and it hasn’t stopped yet.  I do a little dance when I pick a yummy tomato from the garden.

Here is a list of my pros and cons:

The pros:
- The plants seem to be doing great and producing delicious veggies.
- I can leave town and not worry about LVD!
- I have noticed a huge decline in the weeds.  It makes sense.  I am not watering the surface and giving the weed seeds a chance to sprout. Awesome.
- I have saved SO much water by just watering the ollas and not dumping water on the soil.  
- I have less pests walking around on the soil.  I don't know what this is about but I haven't had all the bugs that I usually have.  Maybe when I watered the surface they liked the moisture too?  I still have those poopy pill bugs.  I feed them to the frogs at night.  It makes me smile. 

The cons:  
- I don't know how they would do with seedlings.  I think you would have to water the surface until the plant was mature.  I planted green beans, kale and turnip seeds recently.  They are all growing fine but it has been raining.  Anybody have any experience with this?
-The soil looks dry to me.  I dig deeper and it has moisture but the surface looks dry.  Sometimes that makes me worry.  The plants look I guess that is what matters. Mulch! Mulch! Mulch!
- We have had a super wet spring.  When August rolls around there will be no escaping the brutal sun.  I see LVD in my future.  Maybe I will get some little shade tarps for each of my beds?  Any thoughts?

-Fill the olla all the way up until it overflows.  This gets all the debris, bugs, and stuff floating on the surface out of the olla. 
-The higher the water level in the olla the better.  I have noticed that if I let the level go down that the surface soil looks WAY dry.  
-Always keep the lid on.  That will keep the water from evaporating and bugs, frogs and creatures from living/dying in your olla.

If you are interested in ollas, you should check them out.  The earth's water supply will thank you! Search the internet to see if they are right for you. This was a great article: Ollas: Unglazed Clay Pots  There are some folks who are making them:  Diana KerseyCeramics and Dripping Springs Ollas are two that I am familiar with.  Diana is a fabulous potter and person.  I would recommend her in a heartbeat.   I came across Dripping Springs Ollas in an internet search and thought it was cool that they were a Texas Company.  Or…

My wonderful potter husband, Jim Bob Salazar, can make some just for you too!  What colors do you want? We will be at the Rockport Art Festival on July 4 – 5th, 2015.  Come by and check out his awesome pots and look at the ollas in person.  I will be there and LOVE to chat about them too.  Not lucky enough to be in Texas?  Check out his blog:   Just send us an email and we will hook you up with the most efficient watering system ever!

Two months later!  The ollas are in there somewhere.

Close up of tomato plants.

Cucumber plants.

Bell pepper bush.

Herb garden.

Green bean seedlings, kale seedlings and bell pepper bush.

Maybe you can help me figure out how to get those pills bugs from eating my zucchini!  
Help!  Any tips?

No comments:

Leave a Comment