Terra cotta care

If you’ve been reading CaretoKeep for long, you know that I’m a big fan of terra cotta pots. They’re scattered throughout our home and our yard, too. I love the look of them, and I think they’re by far the best planters for growing plants successfully. They have a fascinating history and wide array of uses — well beyond plant pots! And it takes just a little know-how to take good care of them.

A green plant in a large, rounded planter on a metal stand.

What is terra cotta?

Terra cotta is a porous earthenware clay. In fact, in Italian, terra cotta means “baked earth.”  Fired at a lower temperature than stoneware, the clay may be glazed or (more often) unglazed. The color, which is a result of the iron in the clay reacting with oxygen in the air during firing, ranges from a subtle brownish orange to a bright orange/red. 

Ancient builders used terra cotta for making brick and tiles as well as artwork. You may have read about the thousands of life-size terra cotta figures of warriors and horses at Qin tomb in China (dated c.210 B.C.E.)! Throughout history, artists around the world have used terra cotta for sculpting and in architecture, too. Even modern designers are using terra cotta in homes. Apparently terra cotta was a color trend in home décor a couple of years ago!

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Pros of terra cotta

Terra cotta is:

  • Inexpensive. You can pick up terra cotta pots and saucers for a few dollars (or less for little ones!)
  • Durable, though you do need to take care in cold temps (see below). 
  • Versatile. Terra cotta is terrific for any houseplant or yard plant, and you can use it to make other functional and artistic objects, too (see below). 
  • Beautiful. Agreed? 
  • The best plant pot. Here’s why I vote terra cotta the best plant pot:
ribbed, rounded terra cotta pot sitting  outside on a stone surface in front of water and a blue sky

Pots made from terra cotta provide great drainage — and not only out the drainage holes in the bottom of the pots. Because they’re so porous, the walls of the pots wick any excess moisture from your soil to dry it. It’s as if the pots breathe for the soil, allowing excess moisture to evaporate. 

As a result, plants in terra cotta pots rarely suffer from root rot and other problems caused by overwatering. Oh, it’s not impossible, if you really overdo the watering — but it’s unlikely. Overwatering is one of the most common household plant problems, and terra cotta pots definitely help you avoid it! 

Because the soil will dry out more quickly, though, you do have to be diligent about watering plants in terra cotta pots, especially if they’re outdoors in the sun. 

Cons of terra cotta

Terra cotta pots are:

  • Heavier than plastic.
  • Breakable. They’ll break if you drop them, and they can crack if exposed to freezing weather. Because they’re porous, they absorb water. When that water freezes and expands, the pot can crack. BTW, you can use pieces from broken pots to place over the drainage holes when potting plants (the water will drain around them, but the soil won’t filter out). You can also use them to make projects, such as these adorable place cards.

Choosing a terra cotta pot — glazed or unglazed?

Glazed terra cotta pots differ from unglazed ones. The glazed ones are:

  • Less porous than unglazed pots. For one thing, they’re baked at a higher temperature, making them less permeable. For another, if they’re glazed on both the inside and outside, the clay is sealed, preventing water absorption. 
  • Even heavier than unglazed pots. 

I prefer unglazed terra cotta, generally, for both the look and the benefits of moisture wicking. 

rounded terra cotta planters in front of yellow blooming daffodils

How can I clean terra cotta pots?

Cleaning terra cotta pots is easy. 

  1. Empty the pot and brush away any loose soil or other residue.
  2. Submerge the pot in warm water. Let it soak for about half an hour. If your pot has any stubborn residue on it, add some vinegar to the soaking water. About 1 part vinegar to 3 parts water is a good ratio.
  3. Use a scrub brush to rub away any remaining dirt or residue. You can use a little natural liquid dish soap on the brush or, if you need extra oomph, sprinkle some baking soda on it. 
  4. Rinse with warm then cool water. Make sure you remove all of the soap and/or baking soda. 
  5. Dry the pot, preferably in the sun.

What is that white chalky substance on my pot?

Because terra cotta soaks up water, it also soaks up any fertilizers, salts, or other substances, such as calcium, found in the water. When the water evaporates, it leaves the residue behind on the pot. 

While the white stuff is pretty harmless, you don’t want it to accumulate for too long on the inside of the pot, because your plant will be exposed to the salts and other substances. Clean the pot inside and out (see above) before reusing it (a good idea with every kind of pot). If the pot really is accumulating a lot of white substance, you might not want to wait until repotting time to clean it. 

BTW, some people wonder if that white substance might be white mold or powdery mildew. It’s unlikely, because mold and mildew is the result of too much moisture and humidity. And one great thing about your terra cotta pot is that it knows how to dry out!

two white painted flowerpots with low green plants in them

Can I paint terra cotta?

You can, and it’s a good way to vary the look, if you like. I love the look of terra cotta, and I like that it provides consistency throughout the house and outdoors, but you can easily vary the look — or make a fun gifted plant — by painting it.  

Some tips for painting terra cotta:

  • Most crafters recommend acrylic paints for terra cotta, but chalk paint is another good option.
  • Make sure you cover the pot completely with paint, inside and out. Otherwise, as the unpainted clay soaks up water, it will cause the paint to bubble and blister and peel off. 
  • For an even longer-lasting project, prime the pot first.
  • Use a foam brush for an even coat.
  • Sample pots of paint are perfect. Or use leftover paint from household projects!
  • Use painter’s tape for painting stripes and other geometric designs.

Here’s one good how-to, with more specific instructions.

How can I keep terra cotta from cracking outdoors?

To keep terra cotta from cracking, you need to keep it from freezing. (Of course, you also have to avoid dropping it or running the lawn mower into it!)  

The best way to keep it from freezing is to empty it at the end of the season and bring it indoors for the really cold winter months. Otherwise, any moisture in the soil (or leftover in the pot) can freeze, expand, and crack the pot. 

Short of bringing it indoors — say if there’s going to be a chilly night — you can sometimes get away with covering it, like you do plants during an unexpected light freeze. You can also put the pot up on stones or blocks so that the air can circulate underneath it and dry it. Or you can seal the pot inside and out, to prevent it from absorbing moisture. 

a plant in a rounded clay planter sitting on a small wood table in front of black-framed pictures on a beige wall

Can I repair a cracked terra cotta pot?

You can, though I don’t know of any natural products to use for the adhesive. 

If you don’t mind using these products (it won’t take much to repair a crack), you might try waterproof silicone caulk (which comes in a terra cotta color), gorilla glue, super glue, or joint compound in the cracked or damaged areas. Terracotta Milliput (an epoxy putty) is pliable and easy to mold when you put it on and hardens when it dries. You can shape it to your pot, and it dries a terra cotta color. (You can get the same terra cotta color by mixing some powdered clay into your clear epoxy, too.)

You can also wire your pot together by drilling holes and threading wire through them, in order to hold the cracked edges together. Or you can wrap the entire pot with thin wire to hold it together. 

Honestly, though, I use the cracked pot until it falls apart. Then use the shards for other things and buy a new pot! 

Fun terra cotta items

While we’ve focused on terra cotta pots (which abound around here!), there are lots of other great uses for terra cotta. I’ve collected some terra cotta finds to show you, for fun:

Reclaimed bricks and tiles, salvaged from farmhouses in Provence. Look at these hexagonal tiles!

Place cards made from terra cotta saucers

Art

Pitchers and bowls

Plant hangers and pots and more pots

Vases and more vases

Essential oil diffusers (We talked about these in our newsletter last weekend!)

Birdhouses, cherubs, and a space heater!

(Type terra cotta into your Etsy search bar for more fun!)

How do you feel about terra cotta? 

You might also enjoy:

What’s wrong with my houseplant?

How to repot a plant

How to clean and care for wicker items

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