Earth Day 2015 – Gardening in a Drought

Continued from: Earth Day 2015 – Cooking in a Drought

Moving on from the cooking segment of my Earth Day two-parter, let’s talk about our small-scale gardens, whether they be on our patios or part of a larger community.

Last week, Sunset magazine posed the question, “Should We Still Grow Backyard Veggies in the Drought?” It’s an excellent question, but I’ll let you read the article to see what conclusion they draw. When we hear every few days about how much water it takes to grow even the most basic of fruits and vegetables, it would be easy to see our earthy ventures as nothing more than water traps. The fact of the matter is that we need to eat something and there isn’t a blessed thing that we consume that doesn’t require water. My thinking, then, is that it’s perfectly fine, even helpful to grow our own, as long as we are smart about it. With that in mind, here are a few things I’ve been doing to cut back on my own usage.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I reuse as much water as I’m able. I not only throw both bean and pasta water on my plants (after they’ve cooled, of course), but also egg-boiling water, the remnants from steamed vegetables, and any cups of coffee or tea that I fail to finish drinking. Basically, if it’s still mostly water, and doesn’t contain anything harmful like noxious chemicals, it goes into the watering can. And bonus: some of the nutrients from the foods cooked in it can now make their way through the soil and into new fruit and veg.

In addition to saving while cooking, as I wait for water to heat up in the shower or sink, I collect it, rather than letting it slip down the drain. I’ve got a giant soup pot in my shower (silly, but effective), and large bowls next to my sinks. It might sound inconvenient, but it takes almost no effort to put a bowl under the faucet. The hardest part is remembering to do it, after decades of other habits.

Another way to use less water in the garden is to, quite simply, use less. This can be accomplished through improved irrigation, of which there are many methods. My personal favorite is ollas.

Someone Else's Olla

I wrote about ollas for Earth Day in 2013, but I felt the topic could use a revisit. Ollas are an ancient watering technique that are enjoying quite a comeback in the current climate (pun sort of intended). When I started using them in 2012, I had trouble finding much information, let alone guidance in making my own. I’m delighted to report that in doing research for this post, I found page after page dedicated just to ollas and their construction and use.

Essentially, Ollas are simply unglazed terra cotta vessels that are buried in the dirt next to plants and filled with water through a small hole. The pots are semi-porous, which means that water won’t run through them quickly, but it can slowly seep out as the dirt around them begins to dry, making it a near perfect way to ensure that our greenery has the right amount of hydration at all times. No more guesswork, and for those of us who use them in patio gardens, no more watering until liquid runs through the pot (and down the sidewalk and into the street, etc.).  As long as the ollas are in good condition and full, our tomatoes will always have enough moisture.

If you want to learn more about ollas, I recommend having a gander at the Dervaes Family and their Urban Homestead.

There are several places online where you can purchase ollas like the one listed above, but as they are out of my price range, I elected to make my own. Because I use ollas primarily in my patio garden (we do have a couple in the community garden plot, and could use more), I needed small ones, in varying sizes. I opted for plain old unglazed terra cotta pots like one would find in the gardening section of the local hardware store. I plugged up the drainage hole with a pared down plastic cork and sealed it in with melted wax.

(These next couple of pictures are terrible, I know. Forgive me, these were taken in the dark ages of my blogging life.)

I planted them.

And filled them with water.

I also used the clay drip tray as a lid. It’s important to keep them covered to prevent unnecessary evaporation and mosquitoes. Adding mulch on top of the lids helps keep the water from escaping, as well.

The difference I saw was incredible and nearly instant. No more accidentally over or under watering! Minimal waste! I have had to replug a couple of the pots over the years, but for the most part they have all worked wonderfully. The plants clearly like them, too. Look at the root structure when I pull one of the pots out of the soil.


A couple of years ago, I even had one tomato whose roots had pushed their tendrils up under the lid so they could dip straight into the water, greedy buggers.

If you want to make your own, but want bigger ones than I use, The Suburban Farm has a wonderful tutorial.

Lastly, and briefly, it’s really important to mulch. Mulching provides a layer of protection for the soil. It helps keep water in and weeds at bay, and it can be made up of all sorts of things: dead leaves, bark, or in the case of my patio garden, large gravel, as seen in the photo above. If you live in the Los Angeles area, there is even free mulch available from the city!

Obviously I’ve only scratched the surface with this post when it comes to water conservation. There are many, many other things that we can all be doing in the kitchen, the garden, and everywhere else around the home to help keep this crisis at bay. These are just a few of the relatively simple ones to put in place. In fact, if you want a very thorough list, there’s a great one to be found here.

Do you live in a drought-rattled part of the world? What sorts of things are you doing to cut your water usage? I’d love to hear about them in the comments section!


Earth Day 2015 – Gardening in a Drought — 6 Comments

  1. Pingback: Earth Day 2015 – Cooking in a Drought |

  2. Thanks for this! I must remember to use coffee, tea and water from boiling veggies and pasta in my garden! Why have I never thought of that? The ollas I made last year (per your instructions) worked great! But this year I see all the corks fell out, so I’ll have to reseal them. I guess candle wax only lasts so long.

    • I’ve had the same problem with the corks popping out, but I’ve only had to replug a few ollas over the years. There are other methods to plug them up that might work better for you, but I haven’t tried them myself. Let me know if you do!

  3. The corks in the pots are mulch, to keep moisture in and weeds at bay. I ran out of the gravel I had been using, and having read online that wine corks work well, I asked my friends to start saving them for me. I contributed a fair number of my own, too. ;)

    Where you see only one or two corks in a pot, that’s because I’ve now run out of those, as well, and have been adding them here and there as I get more.

  4. Pingback: Community Garden Plot – Update |

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