Tuesday, September 30, 2014

How NOT Plant Ollas in Your Garden

It is officially fall, my favorite season in Arizona, and my fall garden plans are well underway. One of the big things I've been planning for this season is to take my olla experiments to the next level. So about a month or so ago, I tracked down a bunch of ollas for sale in Tucson and decided to take a little day trip down there to pick up four of them. (I visited some of my other favorite nurseries while I was there too, of course!) Since then, when I've had time, I've been preparing the garden to put these little babies into action!

First, I dug an individual hole for each of them, leaving space around them to add the plants:

Then I hollowed out the areas between the holes because I wanted to plant there too:

Next, I placed the ollas and filled the hollowed out area with some really good dirt:

To pretty things up a bit, I added a nice border around the edges where the native dirt met the "good" dirt:

Now, before you look at the next picture, who can tell me what's wrong with this design?

Give up? Well, water will be absorbed by the two types of dirt at drastically different rates. The native dirt (which has a lot of clay) absorbs water slowly, but it does absorb it. The "good" dirt doesn't absorb water much at all. Instead, the water just runs right through. When this design is hit with a lot of water (say, by one of the big rains that we had recently), the whole thing acts like a big bath tub with a clogged drain. (It doesn't help that the whole setup was in the lowest part of my yard.) So during the rains, the ollas started floating in the dirt like plastic toys in a toddler's bath tub:

Oh well. Happily, this all happened before I ever planted anything. So I didn't lose any plants. I'm already working on "Plan B" that will work better. I expect I'll have it implemented in a week or two. Stay tuned!

This Week's Permaculture Principles:

Hey, remember how I'm obsessed with permaculture? I thought I'd talk about the permaculture principles I observed in this week's exciting episode of Gilbert Garden Girls!

Observe and interact. As you can see, I put a decent amount of work into making my little olla design work. That was a lot of digging. It was tempting to be stubborn jackass and stay the course. ("Rainy season is over, right? It won't flood again soon. I can make this work!") But it didn't take much observation at all to see that staying the course wasn't a good long term solution. Rather than sticking with what I wanted to make work, based on my observations, it was clear I needed to take action and move onto a different plan.

Catch and store energy. One of the reasons I really love the idea of ollas is I think they are a great way to catch and store energy in our desert environment. They are a perfect way to distribute rain water--the best type of water for plants--exactly where it's needed (directly to the roots). And they are so efficient! Plants use exactly as much water as they need and no more!

Optimize the edges. This is a clear example of how I did NOT optimize the edges, isn't it? By having such a stark contrast between the native dirt and the "good" dirt, I created a real problem. I'll have to learn from this when I implement Plan B!

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