Potatoes and Ollas revisited

So last year I tried growing potatoes in trash bags with marginal success. My mistakes were:

  • The bags I used were too big.
  • The bags lacked structure which made it difficult to add more soil as the plants grew.
  • I did not provide adequate drainage.

Still, the poor potato plants tried their best and at the end I did get a few potatoes. I did much better with the tubs. The only problem I had with the tubs was that when I tipped them to harvest the potatoes, the tubs broke.
So, this year I gave in to marketing and purchased two factory-made potato bags. These bags are 18 inches (45.72 cm) high and 14 inches (35.56 cm) in diameter. I planted two varieties of potato today –Yukon Gold and Purple Majesty.

I have been told that the first week of March is too early to plant potatoes but I have planted potatoes this early before and it has worked well for me.
As a test, I will also plant potatoes in:

  • The empty garden soil bag. I’ll cut it to match the dimensions of the store-bought bags.
  • A 5 gallon (18.925 liter) bucket.

I really want to try the Olla (clay bottle) method of watering my plants but Ollas are rare to non-existent around here. So I took a pottery class last year in an effort to make my own but it turns out that making clay bottles is an advanced skill so I never made any. I am now considering going to one of the many pottery shops around here and paying someone to make them for me.
Olla watering is a very old method of watering allegedly brought to the Americas by the Spaniards. You bury a clay bottle near your plants with the mouth of the bottle exposed (for refilling the water) and the roots will obtain the moisture they need from the water that seeps through the porous clay. We’ll see.

Stay tuned…


I bleed red clay

I took my first pottery class. It was a humbling experience at best.
When I arrived, I was assigned my wheel and was given my tools:

You use your garroting tool (really, it is a wire with two wooden handles, just like in The Sopranos) to cut a chunk of clay.
You wedge (knead) the clay to “awaken” it and to remove air bubbles. “Make a ram’s head” Kaye told me, as she expertly produced something very much resembling the head of such an animal. As she wedged the lump of clay, the ram’s head appeared and disappeared under her experienced hands.
When I tried it, well, let’s just say that the animal whose head I made has not yet been seen in nature.
Next, Kaye showed me how to center the clay. You put the lump of clay in the middle of a tray called a bat and then you affix the bat to the potter’s wheel. Then you turn the wheel on and using both your hands you center the clay. I was to practice this for an hour. An hour?! Come on!
A child could center clay

An hour later, I still could not do it properly.

Sweat pouring down my red clay-smudged face, feelings of shame and insecurity running rampart in my heart, I continued until I got the clay to stop wobbling so much.
“Keep your elbows tucked in and point your left hand toward 1 o’clock” Kaye reminded me.
My more experienced classmates kindly encouraged me:
“It takes a while” someone said.
“Once you get this, the rest is easy” Dave said. Dave has been doing this a long time; ever since returning from Vietnam. I stopped for a second to watch Dave put some finishing touches on a beautiful flower vase.
While I was struggling with this very first step, Kaye built a huge, perfectly even urn. As it turned flawlessly on the wheel, Kaye exclaimed “it’s a little wobbly”.
I felt small.

I moved on to the next step, which was to make a cylinder out of my lump of clay. Kaye had already shown me how to do this. She made a whole in the middle using her thumbs while the wheel spun.
“Only touch the clay when it is moving” she said.
Then, she touched the clay and it magically rose smoothly and evenly into a perfect tube.
I practiced this for the next hour.
These are the results:
If you look really carefully, you can see that by the end of the class, I was tired and disillusioned.

So it will be a while before I produce my first Olla it seems. Let’s just hope that pottery does not totally destroy my self-esteem and I end up on the street muttering to myself “I did tuck my elbows in! I did push toward 1 O’clock!”

Giddy with anticipation

At the recommendation of fellow blogger Diana, I signed up for pottery classes.

I went to Clay Art Studio and paid for a 10-class session which includes the clay and the tools.

I am so excited I can’t hardly sit still! The tools all looked mysterious and esoteric to me, all except for the garroting tool that looked just like the ones the mobsters used in The Sopranos.

I spoke to Kaye (the owner and teacher) and told her about Ollas. She had never heard of the concept but she was happy to tell me that they have a low temperature kiln where I can fire my terracotta masterpieces. She also suggested that I may enjoy making my own flower pots…oh the joy! Plus, I get to learn how to do other cool and exciting things like glazing.

The class is every Tuesday at 6pm. The studio is practically next to my job. I can already hear The Righteous Brothers singing Unchained Melody as I sensually GET TO PLAY WITH MUD!!! (movie reference: Ghost)

Oh, and I can just envision the endless hours of fun me and my boys are going to have once I know enough to start showing them!!!

I don’t know if I will be able to produce Ollas for this gardening season but I will sure have some for next year!

Ollas again

After watering my plants by hand last year, I was left with a deep desire not to water that way again. Ever.
And so I began looking for better ways to water my plants. I saw many an irrigation scheme on the Internet and I really liked the following:

1) Self-watering containers.
2) Ollas
3) Watering spikes

I want to talk about Ollas today.

Ollas are clay jars that you bury next to your plants, fill them with water and let the plant draw water from them as needed.

The following pictures of Ollas in action came from this web page, which is possibly the coolest post about using Ollas.
I highly recommend you visit their main website (www.pathtofreedom.com) as it has Cool of the highest quality.
I really wanted to try them last year but I could find no Ollas anywhere in Kansas. On the Internet, I found a link to a non-for-profit place in New Mexico that only sold the Ollas locally.
This year, I found a couple of companies on the Internet that sell Ollas (for $20 and up) and a post on the Dave’s Gardens web site on how to make your own using terracotta pots.
I will keep the terracotta pot idea on the back of my head for now.

While reading the Ollas post on the Path to Freedom website, I came across a post by Diana, a gardener and potter who said she may make her own ollas. I went to her blog:
and left her a message about wanting to know more about her Olla making.
Here’s her response for your reading enjoyment:

“David –
we had such a wet, wet summer (and I was so very, very pregnant) that I never did make ollas. I still think they’d be easy to make, though. I was thinking I’d roll slabs (you can roll clay like pie dough), wrap them around a wine bottle (covered with newspaper, so I could slide the clay off later) to get a tube form, and then slap a bottom on them. The top could be pinched in later to give it a smaller circumference. They wouldn’t be the traditional shape and wouldn’t hold nearly as much water, but they would still work as long as they were only low-fired, not high-fired. They’d just need to be replenished more often.

I’m sure there’s good clay in Kansas, you’d just have to find it (look near a river). The problem with plain old dirt is that it has much larger particles than clay, so it doesn’t stick together the same way – it just turns into mud. Clay’s particles are evenly sized, as fine as silt, and oval-shaped so they slide over each other. If I were you I’d just buy some clay: it’s not expensive. Look at Bailey’s (www.baileypottery.com) low-fire or earthenware clays. Those are clays that mature at low temperatures (1500 degrees), which is what you’re talking about if you want to fire in the old-fashioned way.

The way Native Americans did it is called a “pit firing”, which you can learn lots about just by googling that term. They basically stacked pots in among piles of dried dung and sawdusty stuff, covered and filled them with that stuff, covered the pile with wood, lit it on fire, and came back the next day to sift through the ashes. It can give you some beautiful results, but a) none of it is waterproof unless later treated with fat or wax, and b) there is a tremendous percentage of loss in a firing like this due to the unpredictability of the fire, weight, etc.

I’d encourage you to look up a local community center and see if they have an intro to ceramics program, or perhaps just a place where you can fire your stuff. Everything I know about Kansas I learned from Dorothy, but if you ever have dry summers there then I’d encourage you to experiment.”

So now I have an Olla roadmap of sorts.
1) See if there is a pottery class offered at my County Extension Office.
2) Investigate where I can buy clay locally.
3) Find out who has a kiln that I can use.

My Gardening Style

I started gardening 6 years ago. My initial attempt at gardening consisted of going to the local Mega Gigantico Mart and getting some seeds off a cardboard rack in their gardening section, buying a 72 cell mini disposable greenhouse, dropping the seeds –all peppers, into the now moistened cells and forgetting about the whole thing for a week.
I read none of the seed packets; I read no gardening books; I researched nothing on the Internet. Remembering how my mother just put seeds in discarded soup cans with regular dirt from the garden in them and got EVERYTHING and ANYTHING to grow on the windowsill of her kitchen window, I simply expected the seeds to germinate and become plants without any work on my part.

These days I put a little more effort into the whole exercise and also, I have began to think about my gardening style, my gardening philosophy: What kind of gardener am I? Why do I do this? Do I really need to grow 22 varieties of pepper?
I think the answers to these questions are taking shape every growing season. For example, I am now as concerned about the life under the garden as the life above it. This year, I have postponed turning my garden plot because I am concerned about all the little creatures hibernating under it. Then I read about the no-till gardening method and it seems sensible and appropriate to me.

And this concern about the ground critters is not a fad. I recognize a fad! If you want fads, I got fads!

  • Upside down hanging tomato planters. As seen on TV!
  • Self-watering containers. Home made because it was cheaper and more fun.
  • Water walls. Growing season extenders!

Also, every year I learn about a new thing in gardening and I just have to try it:

Square foot gardening. This one may turn out to be a life-long pursuit.
Ollas. Also may keep this one forever, if I ever get one!
Winter sowing in plastic milk containers. Just learned about this one so I haven’t tried it.
Watering spikes. They work but are expensive and plastic.
Soil Blocks. These are growing plugs made only out of compressed dirt. They sell the contraption to make them but you can also find instructions on DIY versions on the Internet (of course!).
Tomato ladders. The coolest thing ever but I am waiting on my brother to weld me some.

These techniques and tools may be replaced by the next big thing but my overall gardening philosophy, the base of it all is something more stable and that’s what I am talking about here.