The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Pitcher irrigation

Pitcher irrigationA couple of inches of rain and a lot of melting snow mean that our garden is about as wet as it gets right now.  Still, I was intrigued when I read about pitcher irrigation.  This traditional technique is a bit like drip irrigation for dummies --- you bury an unglazed ceramic pot in the soil, fill it with water, and the liquid seeps out into a three to six foot diameter area, keeping the soil at a constant 80% of saturation.  If the soil gets too wet, water will actually seep back into the pot, so there's no need to worry about overwatering, and there is clearly no runoff.

I've read that 1.5 to 2.5 gallon ceramic pots are ideal, but infonet-biovision suggests using a dried sweet monkey orange fruit (whatever that is.)  Makes me wonder if a dried gourd would work?  I'm very content with our irrigation method for the main part of the garden, but would like to have something more low-tech in my arsenal, especially for watering trees and other perennials that are spread out across the yard.  I can even see pitcher irrigation being a fun way to keep those potted plants wet during a dry summer on a hot patio.  Has anybody tried it?

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Before plastic pots became commonplace, it was common here to keep plants in terracotta pots. These pots were filled with earth and plants, and placed inside another waterproof pot or dish. Water poured into the outer pot or dish would moisten the plant through the terracotta.
Comment by Roland_Smith Sun Jan 2 19:49:44 2011
The Dervaes family use Ollas and have info on it on their blog.
Comment by Fostermamas Mon Jan 3 00:24:06 2011

Roland --- good idea! I guess terracotta pots had a lot going for them (although used by themselves they tend to dry out much faster, which is why I've always used plastic.)

Fostermamas --- good call! I hadn't heard them called that, but looking at the Dervaes family website, it looks like they've got a good cottage business selling irrigation pitchers under that name. For anyone who's interested, you can get them at

I'd be tempted to make my own --- finally dig my old potters wheel out of the barn...

Comment by anna Mon Jan 3 09:40:41 2011

If you want to use a single terracotta pot, use one that is glazed. Those are watertight AFAIK.

Making your own would be a good use of your clay soil, wouldn't it? Firing a kiln with wood seems like a big undertaking though, looking at this.

OTOH, you shouldn't loose to much of your clay, since it is about the most fertile soil you can have (so I've been told). But clay soils tend to have drainage issues. It is an issue here in our "polders" (reclaimed land). Here in the Netherlands there are several solutions practiced;

  • Mix sand into the clay, up to four shovels deep (not sure about the proportions, though)
  • Gravel or sand pillars; dig a deep hole (up to an underlaying permeable layer) and fill it with sand or gravel. This will obviously not work when the clay is resting on an impermeable layer.
  • Drainage tubes. From what I've read, the previous options work better.

Just putting sand on top of the clay is not a permanent solution; after a couple of years the sand will have sunk into the clay. :-)

Keep in mind though that if you start draining, the clay will compact and the surface will sink.

In a recent comment on Cosmic Cookout (science of the paranormal article) I left a link to a report about finding potable water. I think it is worth reading to get a better understanding about geohydrology, since drainage is more-or-less the the other side of the coin from finding water.

Comment by Roland_Smith Mon Jan 3 14:30:14 2011

Among gardening circles, it's generally accepted that sand is a short-term fix to clay soil. Instead, the best solution is copious additions of organic matter, while the best way to deal with waterlogged soil is raised beds. Organic matter sucks up excess water out of the soil, holding onto it until the plants need it in dry weather. And raised beds have the obvious advantage of literally raising you above the groundwater. My hugelkultur beds combine the two techniques, making the swales pretty much irrelevant.

The only areas I'd really need to drain are paths where there's literally water running across the surface of the ground during very wet spells. The goal would be just to channel the water out of the walking area and keep my feet dry. But since that only happens for a few weeks out of the year, I tend to forget about it... :-)

Comment by anna Mon Jan 3 15:59:40 2011

This is a similar idea, but they keep the planting movable, either in buckets, or bags. I hope it stokes the fires of your creativity!

Comment by Case Mon Jan 3 22:33:48 2011
I like the use of free materials over there --- that's always a major plus in my book. But I have to admit to being a bit leery of all of the folks who think they're changing the world by growing in pots. In some situations (like the rooftops they mention) pots make sense, but I don't think that growing food in Africa is going to be improved by asking them to grow in pots rather than in the ground. In my experience, growing plants in pots tends to cost a lot more (you have to buy soil, etc.) and to be more problematic (you don't have the natural soil food web and water-holding capacities to help you out). But maybe that's just my bias toward natural soil. :-)
Comment by anna Tue Jan 4 08:47:39 2011
I've tried something similar. I've used pvc to slice 1 foot vertical holes into the soil. There is a lot of clay so the holes hold up. There about 2 1/2 inch diameter. From what I've read I haven't seen anyone do this so we will see how it turns out. The main reason I've chose to do this is because we added newspaper and grass clippings as a ground cover to prevent weeds but water is not going to permeate through that in less then 30 minutes so a useful watering takes too long.
Comment by Jason Mitchell Fri May 27 13:39:13 2011
Interesting! I could see filling the holes with gravel if they start to crumble under repeated watering. Or maybe even put in a worm tower....
Comment by anna Fri May 27 16:49:59 2011

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