Olla is a latin word meaning earthenware jar. Its first use in writing is in a medieval collection of ideas from 1535 called De Proprietibus Rerum:
“A crocke hyghte Olla, for water boylethe therin whan fyre is there vnder, and vapour passeth vpward, and the boll that ryseth on the water, and durethe by substaunce of the wynde and ayre, hyghte Bulla.”
Before and simultaneous with use of metal, earthenware has been a primary material for the containment and preparation of food across the world. The right combination of clay and water, then fire, can create one of the harder substances on earth that doesn’t degrade, and that transfers heat without burning. According to Marguerita Abreu, its qualities are in these ways as incredible as advanced, modern day materials (ceramic has, for example, greater resistance to abrasion than steel) and yet its making is so simple that humans have done so for 10,000 years (concerning pottery, whereas ceramic figurines were being made 25,000 years ago). Simple ceramic vessels have been used as tools for agriculture since the beginning of its practice, arising also roughly 10,000 years ago.
Gardeners around the world, like John Dromgoole of Texas, use ollas to efficiently bring water to plants and reduce the frequency of watering. A particular benefit mentioned by many is that because the olla is buried in the soil, water is introduced deep initially rather than having to seep down from the top, where it is easily caught by roots closer to the surface. This tends to encourage deeper root growth and therefore more plant strength as well as general above ground growth. And compared to hand watering, an olla can be filled just once or twice a week, dispersing water in the interim. Further, if an olla is used and handled carefully and put away during freezes it can last hundreds of years.
An example of an interesting variation comes from permaculturist Tom Bowes in Michigan. He connects a rain catchment system with his ollas so they’re filled by water runoff. In this way plants are watered by rainfall and for days afterward.
Another possible idea could be to mix a drip-tape system with an olla system, with tape providing for row crops and large ollas for perennial trees or bushes. Invariably you can create any kind of system you’d like.
If you’re interested in implementing an olla type watering system in Albuquerque you can purchase pre-made vessels from Growing Awareness Urban Farm. Growing Awareness Urban Farm runs a mini-farm in the city, at the East Central Ministries Church, and makes their own ollas for sale as well as sells seeds and produce at markets.
Another popular, resourceful, and probably cheaper method is to seal two machined terracotta pots together, plugging the bottom drain-hole, and filling from the top hole with a funnel.
Lastly, you can make ollas yourself! To do this you’ll need full access to a ceramics facility and be able to throw simple vessels on the wheel or else build them as a sculpture.
Good luck! Feel free to contact me with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. In my process to throw my own ollas and use them in my garden I might be able to offer some pointers. The above-mentioned Albuquerque producers are also excellent resources for information.
-Posted by Tyson