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DIY Tutorials Plant Care

How to Choose a Pot? Understanding Form and Function

As a preface to this entry, I want to be clear that there are no fast and heavy rules to any of this.  A lot of pot choice comes down to balancing between aesthetics (enhancing/complimenting/contrasting a plant’s appearance) and function (creating the best growing environment for you and your plant’s needs).

I’m going to discuss my assessment of various options for planters, both dealing with my estimation of the aesthetic value, along with the practical functionality of them.  Let’s get down to business!

Terracotta pots come in all sizes, even itsy-bitsy!

Terracotta

Terracotta pots are the iconic planter that every gardener knows and is acquainted with to some degree.  Terracotta, translating to ‘baked earth,’ has been used by many cultures and is a historically important medium to the East.  Go to any museum, and you’ll often see terracotta sculptures and pottery from centuries ago. At its most basic form, terracotta is a type of earthenware, which is a low-fired form of pottery.

I got tired of the same old terracotta pots, so I started painting them. I used tape to create a design and paint over the tape. Peel of the tape and you’ve just transformed your old terracotta pot!

Terracotta pots are fired in a kiln to temperatures around 1200-1800 °F.  While that seems high, terracotta does not fire high enough to achieve vitrification, which allows it to remain porous.  Vitrification (from Latin vitreum, “glass” via French vitrifier) transforms clay into a structure impermeable to water, essentially making it water-proof. But because terracotta does not achieve vitrification, moisture inside of a pot is allowed to seep through the walls of the pot.  This is great if you’re worried about overwatering your plants, but can become cumbersome in the summer when temperatures are high and moisture is evaporating through the pot itself.

The affordability of terracotta is one of its strengths.  You can find small 4-inch planters for usually less than $2.  I tend to only buy the small and medium sizes, because the weight of the large 12″+ pots becomes difficult to maneuver, though the weight can be good for top-heavy plants that tip over at the slightest breeze.

It’s a good thing that these pots are affordable because they really are prone to cracking and, in my opinion, are temporary by nature.  The value of their porous nature is also their drawback since they lack the strength that vitrification results in.  They can break easily and often do.  One other drawback of terracotta is that most commercially sold terracotta pots look exactly the same.  It’s a great form, but it can get terribly boring when you amass a ton of these brownish-red pots.  You can always paint the pots, which is what I did before I was a ceramicist.

I want garden and home to feel custom so I found myself painting terracotta pots with specific plants in mind.  I am a very visual person, so I needed that.

 

Plastic

Another love hate relationship here, but I’m even more conflicted on this one!  Plastic pots are great at keeping moisture in for plants, which can especially be helpful in the summer when the need to water is highest.  Of course, this can also work against you should you have any issue with rot.

One ease of plastic pots is that they are cheap and lightweight.  When you acquire large plants, especially succulents with incredible water reserves, you begin to appreciate a lighter pot.

It is, however, inevitable that the plastic will eventually degrade because of sun-exposure.  Depending on what kind of plastic and how durable it was made, plastic pots may last a few seasons, or they may give up after a single season.  I have several very cheap plastic pots that came with plants purchases from nurseries.  Left out in the sun, these pots have literally take a melted appearance. Typical black plastic pots also can absorb a lot of heat and damage roots if you live in particularly harsh desert environments.

But here is the real concern: we need to be careful about introducing more plastic into our environment, especially for us naturelovers.

These plastic pots are essentially designed to be temporary, maybe lasting a season or two.  As gardeners we have to be very cognizant of the amount of plastic we introduce into the environment.  Unfortunately, every plant we buy is usually in a plastic pot.  Every soil bag is made of plastic. Every container for our fertilizers… well, you get the the picture.  This stuff often takes decades to centuries to degrade (though recently scientists accidentally created a plastic eating enzyme??).

There are two things you can do to help this process while still getting what you need.  Go to your local nursery and ask if they have spare plastic pots to give away.  If you live in Austin, the Great Outdoors has an area in the parking lot where they put their old plastic pots for anyone to take and reuse.  I do this all the time.

Second, if you are going to buy plastic pots, buy some that are strong and will last you many, many years.

Treat it as if it were not plastic, but some sort of ceramic that you’ll keep for life.

If the plastic pots have reached the end of their lives and can no longer be repurposed, do the right thing and recycle them.  Hopefully a plastic eating enzyme will take care of it.

Ceramic

Okay, so I’m a little biased here as an actual ceramicist.  But really, I love high-fired stoneware ceramics both for their form, which can take a dizzying array of colors and shapes, and their function, which keeps moisture inside the pot.  This may not be the best option for very wet environments, but for me, they are perfect especially under the Texas sun.

Stoneware, as opposed to earthenware, is fired in a kiln to a much height temperature, somewhere in the range of 2010-2370 °F .  At this temperature, the clay achieves vitrification and becomes water proof.  The glaze becomes molten glass and solidifies on the pottery as it cools, adding another layer of protection, durability, and especially beauty.  Glazes come in just about every single color imaginable, and even have different textures.  Matte, gloss, crawling glazes all exist and can be a wonderful accent.

Ceramic pots also do not have to be made as thick as terracotta pots because they are inherently stronger.  While stoneware pots are still heavy, theyre not quite as heavy as terracotta.

Here’s another important reason.

There are many wonderful designers making a living as ceramicists.  When you support them, you support the maker community.

While I would OF COURSE recommend the pots I make, there are hundreds of ceramicists out there producing quality contemporary work.  The fun part is finding a ceramicist making work that compliments your own decor and the appearance of your garden.

 

Repurposing old containers

Finally, essentially any container can become your next pot.  I’ve definitely converted old jars, tins, dishes, tea cups, beer bottles, and many more into planters.  These days I do this sparingly, if at all.  While I love the idea of repurposing old containers and giving a second life to things ready to be thrown out, it can be difficult to coordinate a collection of these containers.

Individually, they may look great, but as you begin to acquire more repurposed containers, the variety can look a bit messy, and take away from the plants themselves.

The last thing I would want anyone to look like is that they’re acquiring clutter, because it becomes a distraction from the plants.  So I would recommend you use this sparingly.  Knock yourself out though if you disagree and prove me wrong!

 

Bae•tanical

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2 Comments

  • Reply
    Angelica
    May 12, 2018 at 5:32 am

    The thing about the thrifted pots is something I’ve come to understand as far as leading to a disjointed look. But I still thrift terra cotta for the patina and better variety ( it’s practically the only way to get it with terra cotta) and I still thrift ceramic, but I try to collect the same color/hues. This helps keep the continuity. I think if there’s a strategy it can still work. I really learned a lot from this post though, and feel a little more prepared for when I go pot hunting!

    • Reply
      james
      May 16, 2018 at 2:49 pm

      Those are some great tips, Angelica! I totally agree that as long as there’s some element of continuity or level of thought, a thrifted collection can look great. It’s all about curation and not collecting for the sake of collecting. I just know that I have to be very rigid with myself to achieve the look that I’m going for.

      James

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