The Most Efficient Irrigation System in the World

If you live in a hot and dry location and you want to grow a garden, or keep a potted plant on your balcony, you have a problem.

It’s very hard to keep your plants properly watered.

I might have a resilient solution for you. It’s a simple, low-cost technology that works for you, around the clock.

Specifically, it’s an ancient bit of technology from Northern Africa/China that may be the most efficient irrigation system in the world. It has the capacity to:

  • Use 50-70% less water (which makes it a nice compliment to a rainwater harvesting system).
  • Control soil moisture levels to prevent over-watering and reduce irrigation labor.
  • Allow planting by seed. Reduce weed cover (by depriving surface rooting plants of water).
  • And much more…

What is it?

It’s simply a clay pot called an Olla (pronounced oy-yah). This clay pot is buried in the soil next to the plants you want to irrigate as you can see at the center of this photo (via Dripping Springs).

olla irrigaion

To irrigate, you simply add water to the pot. The pot then slowly releases the water to the plant over time.

Very simple.

The Olla

Here’s what an Olla looks like:


It’s a terracotta clay pot that is:

  • Unglazed (you can glaze the neck and lip).
  • Fatter at the bottom than at the top.
  • Open at the top (typically with a lip to make filling it easier).

To put it to use, bury the pot next to the plants you want to water and cap it with a fitted cap or a stone to prevent mosquitoes from using it.

After that, just keep it filled.

Photo of Ollas that are about to be buried.


The technology employed by the Olla is pretty simple.

The unglazed clay of the pot only releases water upon demand, when it senses negative pressure (suction). It doesn’t just seep out continuously. This negative pressure is caused by plants. When plant roots use the water, removing it from the soil, negative pressure is created. The interaction between the plant and the pot is what makes it so efficient.

Well, I’m back on the hunt to find great insight/experts for this month’s report.



PS: If you know somebody that might benefit from this idea, please share it with them!

PPS: Kevin Bayuk is an expert in Olla operation and employment (as well as many other permaculture topics).

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  • Joan

    I’ve seen these in articles before, and wonder where I can get some?

  • Matthew

    Here is a DIY version,

    • John Robb

      Matthew, Not quite the same thing, it’s a wicking system. Very nice link though. JR

  • Martha

    How to you keep mosquitoes out of it?

    • John Robb

      Martha, Put a cap or stone on the top to seal it shut. JR

  • Lex

    You can play with the concept by sealing the drainage hole of a small terra cotta pot and burying it up to the lip. Less efficient than this because of the surface area, but it does a pretty good job.

    • CarefreeDesertGardener

      Lex, you can take the terra cotta pot DIY olla a step further by gluing a second pot upside down onto the first. I’ve made several dozen using inexpensive 10″ pots I found at a dollar store and used them last season with good success.

  • Jay

    Wow! Great stuff, as always, John.

    OBTW, when can we expect to see another book from you? My friends & I absolutely loved Brave New War. A compendium of resilient techniques and strategies would be a great follow-up

    • John Robb

      Yes. Deal in the works. A couple of books on the way. JR

  • Cag3db1rd

    if you get a tray that fits on top of the pot, it will help hold in the moisture. Something similar you can do is poke holes in the bottom of 2 litre bottles and plant them next to the root ball of the plant. Almost as efficient as the olla.

  • Lisa Capehart

    Here’s a link to ollas at Home Depot – you can order online. They’re a little on the pricey side if you need several:

  • Marcus Wynne

    This is very similar to the simple technology used in the “Zeer Pot”

    I’ve tested this technology as a way of keeping insulin cool/cold in the absence of electricity. Works a charm.

    Lots of very simple and robust solutions coming out of very old technology enjoying a renaissance in Africa and Asia.

    cheers, m The Resilient Nomad

  • sandy

    But where do you get them?

  • Melissa

    Fabulous! I’m curious to know how long they last. I assume they would eventually biodegrade, which is not a bad thing if you are making them locally, but could be pricey if they need to be shipped and ordered. Thanks for the great tips!

    • John Robb


      The big problem is from thermal expansion/contraction of the soil as seasons change. Winter could grind these up in northern climates.


  • Zeb

    hi there,

    this looks like a great system. It reminds me of the Sub Irrigation Planters (SIP) system which I recently discovered and have been testing out in my roof garden.

  • http://facebook PAMELA Bosemer

    Where do you buy the pots and how much do they cost??

  • Karlie

    How would this work for a potted plant?

  • Tom

    I have a couple of YouTube videos that describe how to make a self-regulating olla system which can be used to water an entire garden or set of planters. The ollas are made from terra cotta pots and connected to the water supply using 1/4″ irrigation tubing.

  • Marilyn Allen

    Where can I find these pots. – my. Location – Dallas/Ft. Worth

  • Sergio Ferraz

    No Brasil tem o nome de “Moringa”.

    É popular e barato.

  • mel

    Where do you get them from?

    • John Robb

      Mel, I’m working on finding a low cost source. JR

  • Peter O’Connor

    We run an (old -used -leaky) pipe to the garden from a barrel that gets filled with our (personal) shower-water.

    Some of is used for washing the car – on the lawn – so the lawn gets the tertiary run of the water.

    We have a 1 ton tank propped up under the roof-gutter to catch the rainwater and that feeds the toilets. Our water bill is 60% of Irish average – yet we run 6 bedrooms/bathrooms for guests as well as our own as well as some big gardens. It’s easy to do if one goes about it right in the beginning.

    More ideas daft and otherwise on my blog

  • Lori Haynes

    Our only source of water is rainwater collection. Having to be very frugal, I researched methods and experimented with making ollas one summer. The results were good.

    I started a company, Dripping Springs OLLAS. You can find a list of retailers on my website.

    • John Robb

      Lori, I linked to your company in the article. JR

  • Bonney

    Where can I get Ollas?

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