Buried Clay Pot Irrigation For The Garden {& More}

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If you are looking for ways to reduce your garden’s water usage this summer (and low maintenance watering), buried clay pot irrigation might just be the trick you’re after. It’s a new concept to me but this method has apparently been around for centuries yet still offers value to today’s gardener. Here’s a bunch of info to get you started and then I added several different DIY irrigation methods at the bottom (some simple and small enough for house plants while others are more suited for gardens and shrubbery). Enjoy!

Use Pots That Are Unglazed

Use Pots That Are Unglazed For This Project

Here’s the scoop: The idea is to bury clay pots (Ollas) in the ground making sure to keep the mouth level with (or just above) the soil surface and then fill them with water.

As the soil dries, suction develops and the water slowly seeps out from inside the pot and into the soil around it (the suction force is created by soil moisture tension and/or plant roots themselves, source). This is a naturally automatic system, if it’s been raining, the soil is wet so there is no moisture tension and the pots don’t release any water. The soil gets just what it needs, right when it needs it with no gadgets or sensors required!

Arrange the pots in clusters and plant your garden around them. How many do you need? Each pot will water the plants within its immediate area (responding to the soil moisture tension around it). The larger the pot you use, the larger the area it covers (and the less often you have to top it up with water).

Since the pots are buried, water is delivered more efficiently at root level rather than above the soil surface (with water needing to travel a few inches down to reach the roots). To keep the system working optimally, add more water to the pots as needed and avoid letting them dry out completely. Dig the pots up at the end of the growing season to prevent breakage over cold winter months. This method can be used in container gardening as well, you’ll just need to use smaller clay pots that will fit inside the containers or planter boxes leaving enough room for the plants to thrive.

What kind of pots to use: They need to be unglazed clay pots (otherwise the water will be sealed inside and won’t seep out) and can have a wide or narrow mouth. Select pots that don’t have a long or fragile neck so they’ll withstand being buried without breaking. You can use regular flower pots but make sure to seal closed the drainage hole. Keep the mouth of the jar covered to prevent insects and debris from getting inside and to help reduce water loss through evaporation. If there are no fitted lids for the jars, you can use flat rocks, shells or ceramic tiles depending on the size of the hole.

a clay pot in operation when installed neck-deep into the ground and filled with water...Source: upetd.up.ac.za (pdf)

A clay pot in operation when installed neck-deep into the ground and filled with water. Source: upetd.up.ac.za (pdf download)

Tip: To test whether a pot will work or not, fill it with water and watch if the surface becomes damp. If it does, it’s porous enough.

Bonus: Because the soil is kept moist inches below the soil surface, this helps reduce the growth of weeds (also means less water consumption and less maintenance).

Resources

ecocomposite.org

Buried Pot Surrounded By Plants From ecocomposite.org

Here are some reference pages with more details (also make sure to grab the 25 page pdf linked to in the diagram image above)…

ecocomposite.org: Provides a bit of history to this technique and traces it back to over 2,000 years ago (from China). Also gives brief details of how it works and compares its results to other irrigation systems.

Olla Irrigation: (Clay Pot System) Lots of information on this page including a tip to add liquid fertilizer to the water (you’ll need just a quarter to half the amount you would normally use). They also show a DIY using regular clay flowerpots attached to each other using waterproof Gorilla Glue and silicon caulking. They advise painting the top of the Olla with white paint to reduce evaporation (top part of the jar will be exposed to the sun).

More Ideas

Is this clay pot method too much for what you need? Check out these ideas…

lifehacker.com

lifehacker.com

Automated Drip System: You don’t need to know much about hardware or plumbing, nor do you have to dig any trenches.

After setting up the head, you simply lay 1/2 tubing down and stake it where you’ll want to irrigate. Any place where you’d like to add some water output, you simply puncture the tubing with a specially designed tool, leaving a clean hole.

System is flexible, pretty much leak-proof, and go together like a box of legos.

radmegan.blogspot.com

radmegan.blogspot.com

Coke Bottle Watering Globes: The idea is to fill glass bottles with water and stick them neck down into moist soil. The soil seals around the bottle opening and water releases only as the soil dries. You can use larger bottles (for example wine bottles) if you need more time between refilling.

Here’s a similar idea using 2 liter plastic soda bottles from yougrowgirl.com. This places the bottle neck down as well but has the bottom cut off so you have a large funnel to work with (and collects the rain water too).

shelterrific.com

shelterrific.com

Iowa Watering Hole Trick: Keep trees and shrubs watered by drilling a hole in the bottom of a 5 gallon bucket, place it near the trunk and fill with water. This will slowly release the water into the soil, reducing the need for soaker hoses.

Supplies needed: A drill with 1/4″ bit, 5-gallon plastic bucket and a hose to fill pail with water.

To keep debris out (and potentially clogging the hole), cover with a piece of board.

csupomona.edu

csupomona.edu

DIY Bucket Drip: This is a gravity system to feed your drip irrigation system. A heavy pail and a few parts are required, but it’s fairly simple to setup.

Advises that if your bucket is too transparent, the light will encourage the growth of algae so choose a pail that’s dark and won’t let much light in.

Also gives the tip to choose a sturdy object to elevate the bucket since once filled, it’s darn heavy (5 gallons is about 33 lbs.).

craftzine.com

craftzine.com

Houseplant Wicking System: The idea is simple yet brilliant: feed water from a bowl underneath (or beside) the plant into your plant’s soil using strips of cotton fabric.

There are two different arrangement examples provided. Very simple way to keep your plants happy and avoid drying out.

This project was previously featured on Tipnut and moved here for better organization.

lettuceshare.com

lettuceshare.com

Wine Bottle Waterer: A simple setup using a wine bottle, wire from a hanging candle holder (or other hanger) and glass flat-backed marbles (to help get the drip right).
howstuffworks.com

howstuffworks.com

Plastic Milk Jug Ollas: Instead of using clay jugs, try this cheap version using plastic jugs instead. Several holes are drilled into the plastic (advises filling containers with water, freezing and then drilling) then the jugs are buried into the soil (same idea as discussed in the article above). Fill with water, twist on the cap and then refill as needed.
veggiegardener.com

veggiegardener.com

Simple Watering Wells: These are made by recycling plastic plant pots (one gallon or half-gallon sizes), bury them in the ground (keeping the rim just above ground level) and then filling with rocks. The water will slowly drip out through the holes at the bottom. Neat idea that’s a lot less expensive to put together than the clay pot method mentioned at top.
suburbanfarmonline.com

suburbanfarmonline.com

Make Your Own Ollas: Here’s another clever & cheap DIY, two terra cotta pots are attached to each other with Gorilla Glue then sealed on one end. Bury in the ground, leaving a couple inches above ground. Water is poured into the top hole (that wasn’t plugged).

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Published: March 17, 2011
Updated: September 4, 2012

What Readers Are Saying:
10 Comments to “Buried Clay Pot Irrigation For The Garden {& More}”
  1. Sharon says:

    This looks like a good solution to the hot, dry spells but, I’m wondering about mosquitoes breeding on the water if it doesn’t go down fast enough.

  2. Becky Stancill says:

    What a brilliant idea! A bit of cheesecloth and then a rock on the opening would really keep junk and bugs out.

    I have some broken clay pots that will fill the holes in the “regular” flower pots nicely.

  3. PH says:

    I live in the northeast and would love to use this method. If I were to use this method, I’d use a fairly large pot, but don’t want random holes in the yard during the winter, can the pots stay buried year round?
    PH

    • Tipnut says:

      Hi PH, I wouldn’t but then my winters are freezing cold here and the pots would crack for sure. You could refill the holes with dirt as you take them out. It takes just one crack in the pot for this to no longer work, water would seep out steadily. If you think your winters might be warm enough, try leaving one pot in the ground over the winter and see what happens.

  4. Jean says:

    The link to the 25 page pdf did not work for me.
    Otherwise, this looks like a good idea! My soil is quite sandy and watering and irrigation never seemed to help. I would combine underground watering with composting on top. I think I will implement this come spring!

  5. Tandis says:

    I did this method last year but will definitely change to the milk jug WITH COVER idea. Last year a mouse fell into my clay pot, couldn’t apparently get out, drowned and began rotting in my pot. =/ Since the pot was a narrow top opening I didn’t see it and when I did see something there I thought it was a leaf and didn’t investigate. It was reallllllllly nasty! So I totally suggest some sort of lid. It did a nice job of keeping my tomato plants moist but not soaked or bone dry which was awesome.

  6. Sergio says:

    I have a back yard with poor to mo drainage in a rainy country. Would this method allow the ollas to collect the excess rain water and to release it when needed? It certainly looks like an option.

  7. Judy says:

    Hello,
    I have always had a large herb garden. Would like to now plant single type herbs in individual terra cotta pots and have them buried in the ground with only the top rim above ground. We live in Florida so having the ground freeze is remote. Does this sound plausible??
    thanks your advice.

  8. claire says:

    To keep small animals from falling in and drowning :( – cut a piece of screening 3″-4″ in diameter larger than the jar hole, fold down all around the top of the lid & secure it by wrapping a piece of wire over the screen and the lip.


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