In the Studio: Garden Ollas

As pottery and cooking go hand-in-hand, so too do cooking and gardening. Potters know the pleasure of cooking and serving from hand-made dishes designed especially for homemade recipes; and every cook knows the sweetest peas and corn are those that are harvested fresh from the garden moments before they are to be eaten. To complete the triangle and bring pottery into the garden, you can make ollas to keep your thirstiest vegetable plants healthy and productive through the hottest summer weather.

An olla (pronounced oya) is an unglazed bottle made from porous clay. Filled with water and buried next to a garden plant, the olla allows water to seep slowly into the soil to be drawn up by the roots as needed. Tomatoes growing with an olla suffer less from cultural problems such as blossom-end-rot as they receive a steady supply of water. Cucumbers are less likely to grow bitter in hot weather. Pumpkins and squash can grow big and plump without splitting their skins. Ollas keep the soil from drying out but never contribute to overwatering—if the soil is moist enough, water doesn’t seep out of the porous clay. As long as you keep the olla full, the plants always have exactly as much water as they want.

For most purposes, a fairly large olla is desirable so you don’t have to fill it too often. You want a nice round bottle with a long, narrow neck so you can bury it fairly deep and leave the neck sticking out of the ground for easy filling. You can throw a bottle from 6 or so pounds of clay, trimming the excess from the foot as needed. Or, you can make a bigger bottle with less clay if you throw it in two sections.

1 Throw a wide, sturdy bowl. Cut the rim at a downward angle toward the inside, and measure with calipers.

2 Throw a second bowl to the same rim diameter. Open it up all the way to the bat. Trim the angle of the rim upward.

Two-Section Bottle

Start with 3 or 4 pounds of clay and throw a sturdy bowl on a bat. This will be the bottom section of the bottle, so don’t make it too delicate. When you cut the rim, bevel it so it angles down toward the inside of the bowl, then measure the outside of the rim with calipers (1).

With an equal amount of clay, throw a second bowl (this will be the top section), but open it all the way down to the bat, making an opening big enough to get a few fingers inside and leaving a generous amount of clay at the base. Measure the rim with calipers to make sure it matches the rim diameter of the first bowl, and bevel it in the opposite direction. This means it needs to angle down toward the outside of the rim. With the two cuts angled in opposite directions, they will fit together perfectly and make a more secure joint than two flat cuts. Don’t wire under either piece.

Allow the base bowl to stiffen slightly, so it can support the weight of the second section. Put the bat with the bottom bowl back on the wheel and pick up the bat with the second section. Flip it upside down, holding it by the bat so it stays perfectly round, and set it on the first section rim to rim, matching them up exactly (2). Use your fingers and then a stiff rib to smooth the two pieces together. Cut the top section free from the bat by running your needle tool under the edge as far as it will go, then cut it the rest of the way with a wire. Remove the bat.

3 Join the two sections together. Then, widen the opening to fit your hand and join the inside seam.

4 Create a neck by alternately pulling and collaring. You want the neck to be at least 3 inches tall and 1½ inches in diameter.

There will be a thick collar of clay where the pot was stuck to the bat. Use this clay to form a tall, narrow neck. First you need to make the opening large enough to get your hand inside to smooth the area where you joined the two sections (3). Next, pull up the neck and collar it in until it’s about three inches tall and the opening is 1½ inches or so in diameter (4).

You shouldn’t have a lot of clay to trim from around the foot, but if you feel it’s heavier than it needs to be, trim it with a trimming knife (5) or turn it over in a chuck to trim. You don’t need a foot on the bottom—in fact the bottom doesn’t even need to be flat—but you shouldn’t leave it too heavy. Water will pass through it more quickly if it’s not too thick. Bisque fire the pot.

5 Trim what you can from the base and refine the form as needed. Bisque fire the pot.

6 Bury the olla up to its neck in the soil. Plant seedlings a few inches away from the neck of the olla.

Putting Your Olla to Use

I use ollas in several different ways in the garden. Big, thirsty plants, such as pumpkins, that need to be planted 2–3 feet apart get one olla apiece (6). Plants like tomatoes and cucumbers do fine with one olla between every pair of plants. For small vegetables, such as scallions and lettuce, you can try planting a ring of seeds around an olla. If you have an irrigation system or soaker hoses, the ollas will keep soil moisture levels more consistent and reduce the need for watering. If you rely on sprinklers to water your garden, the ollas may be sufficient for most of your water needs, requiring you to supplement with a sprinkler only when the weather is extremely hot and dry.

Ollas are especially useful in container gardening (7–9), whether you are growing tomatoes, flowers, or perhaps sweet basil. Containers require constant vigilance in a hot summer to keep plants from drying out and an olla can cut a twice-daily watering chore down to once a day or even every other day. If you’re thinking you’ll just end up filling the olla every day, don’t worry. The ollas I make hold one to two quarts of water, and I find I don’t have to fill them more often than once a week, even when the weather is hot and dry.

7 To use an olla in a container, bury it up to the neck in potting soil right in the center of the container.

8 Sprinkle seeds around the buried olla. Avoid plants that grow large roots. Use a ball to cover the opening.

9 Mulch, water, and fill the olla. Water daily until the seeds sprout. After that, you can just keep the olla filled.

Sumi von Dassow is an artist, instructor, and regular contributor to Pottery Making Illustrated. She lives in Golden, Colorado. Check out Sumi’s book, In the Potter’s Kitchen, available in the Ceramic Arts Network Shop, http://ceramicartsnetwork.org/store/in-the-potters-kitchen.

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