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Gone potty: irrigating with terracotta pots and hand watering


My many experiments in irrigating my garden have proving  fruitful. 

When I say 'irrigating' I mean keeping the water up to vegetables so that they don't die.

I'm not asking much.

Pursuant of that I've engineered a lot of  creative use of mulch.  So now -- even though we have seen so little rain for the past two dry months -- I'm still harvesting vegetables.

This year I have been fortunate in that my supply of grass clippings has been good and the garden never ran out of a top bedding of the stuff.

The grass later breaks down and makes and enriches my soil...

Combine that with my heavy papering and burying of branches earlier in the year --mulching with anything I could get -- and I've been able to hold onto more H2O than in  past dry spells.

Nonetheless, the garden is still thirsty. 

I have a Leeaky hose system embedded as my primary irrigation network but after using it occasionally for the past two years  I'm finding that the method doesn't suit my sandy soil nor my erratic lifestyle.  I may be able to wet soil when the system is turned on and  'leaking' into the beds -- but when it's not -- and  the system isn't in routine use --  the beds dry out and the plants wilt.

So I've tended to rely on hand watering especially as by visiting each plant with a douse from the hose I get to assess its state of health.  

I like hand watering. It's my  commune-with-nature moment almost on a daily basis. 

Clay Pottery

 For some of  those places I didn't have the Leeaky system installed I embedded terracotta pots ( I used wine coolers I bought cheap at Op shops). 

Then a few months back, as an experiment,  I moved my coolers/pots to four of  my primary beds, placed them closer together and made sure I keep them topped up with water. 

I also stopped using  the Leeaky system to irrigate these beds.I only hand watered them as required and topped up the pots.

The results were impressive. Plant growth   was better in these pot watered beds than in others.

If you do your homework, the stats for  Unglazed Pot Irrigation are impressive. Water savings of 50-70% is a feasible option.

So with that experience behind me, I've decided to convert my garden to clay pot irrigation.

Going Potty

 From  one of the major hardware chains I've purchased 19 cm terracotta pots for $2 each. I plugged the drainage holes by gluing tile offcuts   to the pot base. At the local tip I  got  white tiles to sit across the pot rim. (My wife does mosaics and there are always plenty of tiles to hand).

The whiteness of the tile gloss reflects heat away from the pot surface and the slight over hang shades the pot and soil underneath. Tiles are also heavier than plates and bigger tiles are more difficult for crows and other inquisitive or cumbersome critters to shift to the side or flip.

There are any number of online DIY methods to create these 'Ollas' but I've opted for simple + easy + cheap. 

Each pot holds 2.5 litres of water which is a generous aquatic reserve every few centimetres. While there is literature on how best to distance the pots from one another -- I've opted to position and bury by experimentation and impulse. The pots are so cheap to buy and adapt to irrigation purposes that I should be able to saturate my beds as I see fit. They're also  like caravans: you can move 'em about.

Remember I don't mind hand watering so I don't mind the business of  having to top up 30, 40 or whatever number of  pots as a gardening task. And by hand watering I'm also very conscious of how much water I'm using to keep the garden productive.

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Comment by Dave Riley on September 9, 2013 at 2:30

These pots has proven very effective  thus far so I'm getting more. A lot of wetpot/olla literature suggests you extend the height of  the pot in order to bury it deeper. Indeed many are thrown on a pottery wheel  as urn shape.  But looking at the dampness these pots create extending from their perimeter I'm thinking that the diameter of the pot may also offer its own useful dynamic.

A wider  pot makes  a bigger  pond and the water spreads laterally and below as it seeps trough the terracotta clay. This means that I can plant around the edge and these plants will root and drink both from the sides and below the pot (so long as the soil isn't too compressed).

In my sandy soil this makes a lot of sense as the deeper you go the more sterile is the 'soil'. Similarly, the shallower the pot the less disturbance and compression there is to the underlying soil structure and the easier it will be to lift up and move around (if I decide to).

I've also learnt that pots with narrow openings -- such as urns and terracotta wine coolers -- are much harder to fill by hand hose than than broad  ones.

The only challenge is evaporation. As I said, I'm using tiles  with a glossy white surface as  lids. Light coloured dinner plates would also work.... Now if the seal of the lid is firm enough, the cooling effect of the overhang should  work against easy evaporation. And as the seedlings -- planted around the pot -- grow they will serve to shade the terracotta underneath. 

If I think that  the tiles or the dinner plates aren't solid or thick enough to insulate the pot underneath (or aren't heavy enough to withstand animal investigations)   I'll simply glue two tiles or two dinner plates together  in order to thicken these lids and make them heavier.

Dinner plates and old tiles are a dime a dozen...and the irony is that the pots I'm buying are cheaper than the terracotta saucers that are made to go with them. And terracotta -- as the olla literature suggests -- needs to be painted in white in order to reflect the heat of the sun off its surface.

Now if you are into Pique Assiette (broken pottery)mosaic or any mosaic form  you'll note the decorative potential  offered by these pot lids. You could even set little animal figures atop of them and they'd work as handles! 

Comment by Andrew Cumberland on September 7, 2013 at 19:11

Sounds like a fabulous way to use old terracotta pots.  Even easy if you have raised beds.  

Comment by Dave Riley on September 7, 2013 at 17:37

Around trees I use trench mulching: (deep) pits I fill with newspaper,cardboard, branches, cotton rags and green mulch. From what I've experienced I think terracotta pots  primarily  lend their use to growing annuals. You can still treat the pits (and size, depth or shape) as  wet 'pots'. I mark them with a stick and just run the hose into the spongey mulch. But you need  to flag them otherwise they are hard to find OR when walking about, as the contents rot, you may trip in the hole. So long as you replenish and top up the mulch in the trench you replicate a sort of clay pot irrigation.

Comment by Elaine de Saxe on September 7, 2013 at 13:54

Cool system, Dave. A bit much physical labour for this old duck though :-( I've finally found 2 terracotta wine coolers ($5 each!) with lid and have installed them next to citrus trees.

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