The Constructor

More Efficient Alternate Irrigation Systems

Civil Engineering

Reading time: 1 minute

The problem of water shortage continues to grow - both locally and globally. At the same time the need for restoration of dry lands and more food production from deserts and dry lands are both increasing.

Buried Clay Pot Irrigation

  • One of the most studied, and very effective systems uses a buried clay pot full of water to irrigate plants
  • The capillary flow of water through the clay walls of the pot is regulated by demand - so little water is wasted
  • Highly recommended! For restoration, gardens, landscaping, farming
  • Clay pots worked well even in the lowest, hottest desert
  • Excellent for seedlings or for starting seeds or cuttings
  • Pot rim painted white to reduce evaporation

Getting Started

  • Regular red clay pots work well
  • Seal the bottom hole with a cork or sealant
  • Use a lid with a small hole drilled in it to capture rainwater
  • Set the pot in the soil so the rim is above ground
  • You donโ€™t want the dirt and leaves to wash in
  • Firm the soil around the pot -- and plant

A Long Tradition

  • A Chinese agricultural text describes the use of buried clay pot irrigation in China more than 2,000 years ago
  • Excerpts from this book provided my inspiration -- writing does speak across time
  • I later found work and use of clay pots in Iran, Pakistan, Mexico and other countries

Fewer Weeds

  • Another great advantage of buried clay pots (and other deep watering systems) is reduced weed growth
  • In one study weeds were cut 87%
  • Less work - and less wasted water!
  • Buried clay pots have also proved to be very effective when saline water must be used - or when salt is a

problem in the soil

  • The steady moisture reduces salt buildup in the root zone and damage

Starting Cuttings

  • Double clay pots are ideal for starting cuttings
  • The inner pot is sealed and filled with water
  • The moisture is maintained in the soil at an ideal level
  • BCP are good for starting cuttings in the field as well

Deep Pipe Irrigation

  • This method of irrigation was suggested by a traditional system from India - where water was placed in the hollow stem of a dead plant to water deeper in the soil
  • Subsequent research found one study and one report from India
  • This has been our best system for restoration work -- cheap, durable and very effective

Deep pipe installation

  • The pipe may be about 14-16โ€ long, 2โ€ diameter, set vertically
  • Small holes are drilled on the plant side below soil level
  • A screen lid is glued on to protect wildlife

Deep pipe drip

  • Where a drip system can be set up it can also be used in a deep pipe
  • Smaller pipes can be used with the emitter inserted in the pipe

No waste

  • Little water evaporates because the water is placed in the deep soil
  • Little time is wasted because it is fast and easy to fill the pipe
  • It works very well on slopes
  • It develops large root systems

Excellent Results

  • Survival can be good with very little water
  • Mesquite trees were started with a total of only 5 gallons of water in the first year
  • Not five gallons a week or two gallons an hour

Wick Irrigation

  • Wick systems were also described in reports from India
  • Wicks were traditionally combined with clay pots to water orchard trees
  • After trying several types of wick systems I think this may be the next great thing!

Wick options

  • Wicks can be used in a capillary form, where water is wicked from a reservoir to the plant through a raised section by capillary forces (as little as 20 ml day)
  • Or in a gravity feed form, with the reservoir above the wick (a hose clamp can be used to adjust the flow rate)
  • Wick with clay pot
  • With a riser tube in bottom hole
  • Capillary wick from buried bottle in plastic tube

More wick options

  • Half inch diameter gravity wick with large reservoir
  • Installed with treeshelter and wire cages for jack rabbit protection
  • Seedlings topped treeshelter at 3 weeks!

Wick Material

  • The best material has been old, used woven nylon rope (1/4โ€-1/2โ€)
  • Fresh woven nylon rope can be used if it is washed with detergent to remove oils - but it is not as good as old rope
  • Cotton is used in India, but tended to mold in my early tests

Porous Hose

  • This system uses a vertically placed leaky or porous hose section
  • It performs a bit like a clay pot--only it is cheaper and smaller
  • These hoses are made of recycled rubber and hold up well
  • This can be fed by a bottle
  • Or attached to a drip type line
  • Both have worked reasonably well
  • A fast rate hose is needed to work at low pressure

Tree shelter

  • Watering into a tree shelter is also effective if the base is sealed into the soil
  • This can be done by hand from a hose, water jugs or using a drip type system

Perforated Pipe

  • Sub-irrigation can also be done with slotted drain pipe
  • The pipe is laid deep in the soil and filled with water using a water truck
  • Best for lines of plants - good for landscaping

Porous Capsules

  • A modern adaptation of buried clay pot irrigation was developed in Brazil
  • The clay is formed into a capsule that can be placed on a water line
  • These worked well -- but were more costly to make


  • Porous capsule made by gluing two red clay pots together (I would use Gorilla glue now)
  • Porous capsules made by a staffer using a beer bottle for a mold

  • These are easy to plumb in a system
  • Or they can be gravity fed from a bottle or tank
  • These are very efficient
  • A range of smaller porous irrigation systems are sold for container plants


  • A microcatchment is a specially contoured area with slopes and berms designed to increase runoff and concentrate it
  • Rain falling on the catchment area drains into a planting basin where it infiltrates and is effectively "stored" in the soil profile
  • Used for millennia - very effective if it rains! But can be easily filled from a water truck if it doesnโ€™t
  • Microcatchments can be shaped to look more natural, but do entail disturbing the soil surface
  • More appropriate in agriculture - but has worked well on restoration projects.
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