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Terra-Cotta Pots Are Gardeners' Favorite


In her tiny Hancock Park back yard, Stephanie Jonas grows an entire kitchen garden in pots, everything from tomatoes to basil. There are pots large enough for a fruit tree, wide enough for a crop of lettuce or small enough for a single herb.

Some of the pots are in vertical wrought-iron racks so she can fit more garden into less square feet, others hang on the walls. There are even pots inside of pots--she keeps pots of small plants inside larger pots, at least until the plant in the bigger container demands more space.

Everywhere you look, there are pots, pots and more pots, and every single one is terra cotta.

Gardeners have been growing things in terra-cotta pots ever since the Egyptians first came up with the basic flaring shape (so plants could be easily removed).

It was the Romans who coined the name terra cocta , which means "baked earth," or terra cotta in modern Italian, although the clay doesn't start out that wonderful dusty mineral color.

It's an ordinary clay gray, but once fired at fairly low heat, it turns that distinctive terra-cotta color, the perfect foil for a plant's foliage, flowers or fruit.

That's one reason it remains the gardeners' container of choice, despite challenges from glazed pots, concrete, plaster of Paris and, most recently, plastic (which, in homage, is often molded in a terra-cotta color). The earthy color looks good, even natural in the vicinity of the roots.

Another reason is cost. Even with her interior designer discount, Jonas finds that terra cotta purchased at a nursery is cheaper than anything else.

A handsome 24-inch Italian-styled pot, big enough for a hydrangea or a young fruit tree, only costs about $25. Some new Chinese pots, meant to look like fashionably old and weathered terra cotta, can be found for about $10. Plainer pots are even cheaper.

And there are lots of factory seconds stores in Southern California where you can find bargain pots, if you'll willing to put up with a few defects. Just stay away from pots with long, thin, hairline cracks; these will probably break in time. Short, open cracks are likely OK. They're caused by the clay cooling too quickly, and that blemish is enough to cut the price in half.

Some of the designs at Southland nurseries are as old as the process itself.

The garlands, clusters of fruit and other raised designs found on many pots date back to the patterns used on Roman sarcophagi, that they then copied onto pots.

The elegant pots with the bulging "rolled rims" are copies of 600-year-old Italian Renaissance pots. It's a distinctive, sturdy shape and the thick rim makes it an easy pot to pick up.

A few terra-cotta pots are still made by hand. Look inside and you can see the coils that make up the pots, or the spirals indicating it was thrown on a wheel, often even a few of the potter's thumb prints, where they pinched or teased the clay. Naturally, these are quite expensive--the 15-inch Willow Pottery pot on K1 costs about $65.

Some of the newest pots at nurseries are meant to look old. They appear to have weathered many a season in the garden.

That's another thing gardeners like about terra cotta--it gracefully ages. Minerals in our water soon frost the sides, and in particularly moist places, moss may even grow, though the harder and denser the pot, the less this is likely to occur.

For those who do not like the caked-on minerals (which do not seem to harm plants), they can be lessened with a scrubbing of white vinegar or scrapped off with a putty knife. But som e gardeners think this white blush an essential part of the pot and actually speed up the process by painting on a mix of lime and water.

If you're looking for longevity, stay away from the very inexpensive pots that feel grainy and are an especially deep shade of mineral red. These are fired at low temperatures (often inside a pile of old tires) and they age a little too quickly, dissolving away as you water. There are coatings (available at some nurseries) that prolong their lives in the garden but darken the shade of red so it is less earthy.

Terra cotta hasn't stayed popular through the centuries on looks alone.

Plants like growing in the unglazed clay because it is porous and, like a swamp cooler, keeps the roots cool by evaporation, even on ferociously hot days. It also lets the roots breath and they need oxygen just like the leaves.

The porous clay wicks away excess moisture, so potting soils seldom become waterlogged in terra-cotta pots, which helps prevent root rot, another plus.

Most are taller than they are wide so there is plenty of room for the roots. Low pots are meant for shallow-rooted plants. The squat versions of the common flower pot were once called "begonia pots" or, in larger sizes, "azalea pots," because those plants don't need much root room.

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