Gardening With Minimal Water

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Honey-hole peppers

In an intriguing comment to my blog on the world's best tomatoes, Linda from Northern California asked about "dry farmed" tomatoes, which are grown with little or no supplemental water. Linda says the dry farmed tomatoes grown by a neighbour have a remarkably intense, delicious flavour, and I’m not surprised. A little drought stress deepens the flavors of ripening tomatoes, melons, and several other garden crops. In fact, one of the reason commercially-grown specimens often taste flabby is because they are pumped up with water.

Enter dryland gardening, in which every drop of water is regarded as precious. If you live in a climate where rain is often scarce when your garden needs it most, you’re a prime candidate for dryland gardening. Thick mulches are mandatory to reduce surface evaporation, and it’s always a good idea to position a soaker hose before you pile on the mulch. Made from recycled tires, soaker hoses weep out water when the faucet is turned on at very low pressure.

Beyond mulches and soaker hoses, gardeners in different parts of the world have discovered more ways to keep plants watered in the dry season:

Berms and Basins

In the American Southwest and West Africa, many gardeners surround plants with low earthen berms, forming basins that catch water.  Zuni tribes use this technique in creating waffle gardens, which capture and retain water better than regular rows. Berms about 4 inches (10cm) high made of loose soil also provide a little shelter from sun and wind, which is especially important for young seedlings.

Shade Screens

Shade screens that cool down plants’ root zones work miracles in hot, dry climates. Snow fencing placed along the south or west side of a tomato row works great, or you can make shade screens by attaching pieces of cloth to stakes. Or maybe you can use plants. In Techniques for Dryland Gardening, David Cleveland and Daniela Solari report on the Egyptian practice of protecting seedlings from scorching sun with low, wattle-type fences made from corn or wheat stalks.

Fertility Trenches

In Africa, some gardeners have learned to bury organic materials in holes or fertility trenches during the rainy season. As the materials rot, they form a reservoir of moisture and nutrients below the surface. In The Complete Compost Gardening Guide, Deb Martin and I describe a similar method called Honey Holes, which I often use when growing peppers and pole beans. I dig a hole, fill it with pulled weeds, grass clippings and other compostable stuff, and surround it with four peppers (as shown at the top of the page) or a circular teepee of pole beans. In dry weather, water run into the Honey Hole slowly percolates an enriched brew into the root zones of the nearby veggies.

Keyhole Gardens

Keyhole gardens include the Honey Hole feature, only in the middle of a walk-in raised bed. Developed as a gardening technique for remote highland villages in Africa, keyhole gardens are catching on in other parts of the world thanks to this animation produced by the Send a Cow charitable organization. I haven’t built one yet, but I plan to!

Buried bottles

Buried Reservoirs

Buried earthen pots have been used to irrigate crops in China for thousands of years, and they can be terrifically efficient. A regular unglazed terra cotta flower pot will do as a reservoir, though some people do buy and install special earthenware jars, called ollas, to keep their gardens watered.

Buried Bottles

Personally, I have no ollas, but an unlimited supply of plastic drink bottles awaits me at the recycling station. I use a sharp knife to jab 5 or 6 small holes in the bottom half of a bottle, and then "plant" it between tomatoes. After filling the buried bottles with water, I screw on the caps, which slows the percolation of water into nearby soil (see photo). Because all of the water in buried bottles is released several inches below the surface, not a drop is wasted. This is dryland gardening at its best.

- Barbara Pleasant

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Show Comments


"I have no ollas, What is an ollas?"
Vernon Bullers on Monday 8 June 2009
"Ollas are earthenware jars with narrow necks, made for irrigation purposes. If you click on the boldfaced word above -- and wait a minute for the page to load -- you will see an example of ollas being installed in a raised bed garden. Very cool."
Barbara Pleasant on Tuesday 9 June 2009
"Ollas option- another way to use the plastic bottle is to slice the bottom end off, looen the cap enough to let water dribble out, then bury the bottle top down with the bottom end exposed. that way rain will refill the bottle, getting the water to the roots. Or during dry periods, you can refill (preferably from a rain barrel or recycled source). It also help for vacations when you will be away and there is no one to water."
ed pierzynski on Friday 12 June 2009
"On the "Ollas Option", how many holes and what size would one put in the plastic bottle? Could a cork be drilled and put in the mouth of the bottle then a tube inserted to refill from a raised rain bottle? Very interesting - very curious"
Harry Parker on Tuesday 16 June 2009
"Harry, 5-6 small holes as mentioned in the article. You could use your cork and tube method but part of the reason for having a cap screwed on the bottle is to prevent the water draining out too fast and this might increase the drain rate too much. I suggest you experiment a little and let us know what worked for you."
Jeremy Dore on Wednesday 17 June 2009
"Another option to ollas and plastic bottles would be 5 gallon plastic cans with lid and/or cap to slow the dainage....And then plant around the can...most cans are bodegradable so burial is an absolute must...With just the lid exposed....5 gallons of water would last a long time too if u adjusted the percolation rate just leyva"
al leyva on Saturday 5 December 2009
"Have you ever come across "soluble calcium". We saw it mentioned on Jimmie's Farm a few weeks ago being used in Australia to make a can of water go much further into the soil than it would if watered on "as is". It only had to be done once and lasted a long time. Really helped them grow a lot more in a barren environment. Have tried to google it but got nowhere - but think it would help my soil a lot."
Jane Le Maux on Monday 22 February 2010
"Jane, looking at the research available it seems that soluble calcium is particularly useful in displacing sodium (salt) from saline soils and also for increasing water absorption with drip systems, which is probably what they were using it for in Australia. However, from what I've read it needs to be gradually added over a period of time - see this article for an example:"
Jeremy Dore on Tuesday 23 February 2010
"Thanks Jeremy - I'm no chemist and really don't know if my soil has much if any sodium in it but another thing mentioned in the article rang a cord with me - and that is when infiltration drops below about a tenth of an inch (0.25 cm) per hour, it is difficult to get enough irrigation water into the root zone to satisfy the needs of the tree or vine. Also The soil in San Joaquin was a sandy loam. That is the very thing that has been puzzling me. My soil appears to be light and sandy, so sandy it hardly supports any grass in summer, and yet in the dips left by roots where trees have been blown over water remains for weeks. Trying to water the potager in summer is a nightmare as the water just runs off the top. Water left in plastic bottles (I use mine upside down with the lid off and the bottom cut off) - and the water remains in the bottle for days."
Jane Le Maux on Tuesday 23 February 2010
"Can you demonstrate or show a drawing maybe or in any manner you think best to explain how to apply three sisters gardening, i don't understand what this means three sister gardening ."
Jovenal on Saturday 22 January 2011
"Jovenal - there's a good illustration of the three sisters technique here:"
Jeremy Dore on Wednesday 26 January 2011
"Experiment with Wicks"
GrahamK on Monday 2 May 2011
"I'm developing an easier continuous irrigation system than Ollas (porous pots) using rope wicks instead. If you want to try this out - it is very easy - email Graham at and I will tell you more"
GrahamK on Monday 2 May 2011
"I wanted about 50 ollas for my garden, but nearly fainted when I saw how much that would cost. So, instead, I'm taking my Simply Orange plastic juice containers (shaped a little like ollas), chopping off the bottoms, then gluing them to 4" unglazed pots (drain hole plugged). They fit perfectly together. I'll be using silicone glue made for aquariums because it's non-toxic to fish.... and, um, I'm assuming non-toxic to humans too.... I hope. I also found on a blog called "Closer to the Dirt" some guy that is gluing two large clay pots together to make ollas. Oh, and the orange juice cartons are free since we already buy the orange juice, and the 4" clay pots are about $1 US."
Sylvia B. in Dallas, TX on Friday 12 August 2011
"What a great idea! After a summer like this, you Texans and your neighbors can really use more ingenious ideas for getting water into the soil."
Barbara Pleasant on Saturday 13 August 2011
"I wanted to add this link on a large program in Pakistan making use of buried jugs:"
Barbara Pleasant on Monday 15 October 2012
"Thank you Barbara Pleasant for adding link of article "Vegetable production in deserts of Pakistan through pitcher irrigation" from my web ( "
Saif Malik on Monday 15 October 2012

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