The Benefits of Terracotta

The Benefits of Terracotta

With a little research you realise how long terracotta has been used by our ancestors for everything from rudimentary vessels for carrying and cooking to the most elaborate aesthetic purposes such as the Terracotta Army in Xi’an China where hundreds of lifesize soldiers, horses, and chariots were constructed in painstaking detail for the tomb of the Emperor Qin Shihuang over 2000 years ago. This enterprise apparently involved over half a million artisans. Today we struggle to get one builder to appear on time at our home, can you imagine the logistics of that many for 40 years, how many cups of Lyons would that take!

Terracotta which literally means baked earth from the Latin – terra cocta, can be glazed or unglazed depending on your preference. There seems to be an abundance of glazed ceramics for the garden on the market at the moment, but I fear the blues and greens that abound in the garden centres across the country will become dated and move out of fashion. Personally I prefer the natural colours without the glazing, these pots age very well with the natural salts and minerals in the clay coming to the surface over time and allowing a little bit of algae or moss to attach and get some sustenance giving that classic terracotta look that all the best gardens usually have often from some very old terracotta pots. Terracotta lasts if it is made well, and Italian terracotta is particularly renowned for quality due to the quality of the natural clays used in the manufacturing process , strength due to many centuries of experimentation and refinement of the firing process, and the richness of colour depending on where the clay was quarried. Tuscan clay is considered the best in Italy having better durability and flexibility, it might be more likely to survive that slight slip of the hand or bump if your are lucky but no pot made from natural clays  is unfortunately break proof.

Frost proofing is important though and possible with the right pot and a little care. There are a couple of things to consider here. If it gets really cold and a pot is completely saturated (it will be extremely heavy) the water content will obviously expand on freezing and the pot will burst, even if there is a frost proof indication with the pot. Only a pot that can flex and expand could withstand this, many plastic or resin based pots won’t even be able to take this kind of stress (freezing water can break rocks apart!) but our Capi range with the orange insulation layer are designed to withstand this (these are not Terracotta but beautiful and great for the contemporary look). For the health of the plant but also the preservation of the pot it is important to put a drainage layer in of ideally something like pea gravel or even large stones or whatever is to hand to allow free water to drain away easily. We recommend the bottom ¼ to 1/3 of the pot has free draining material. Roots generally don’t like standing water anyway so you are doing your plant a favour and your pot a favour. Plants do love organic material, peat, manure, good quality top soil etc., are full of it but organic material does retain water so a pot full of just soil will put your pot in danger of bursting once the winter comes.

The other mechanism that terracotta fails with is that it is a porous material and water can get into the pores and flake and crack with freezing. Cheaper terracotta will fail like this. With the right firing and finishing terracotta should be good to -250C. Even in the coldest winter in living memory in 2010 we only saw -16 in Ireland. For our lowest temperature ever recorded you have to go back to 1881 at -19.1C.

We have worked hard on sourcing our terracotta pots to ensure suitability for the Irish climate, as discussed above no terracotta can survive “burst” conditions of saturated frozen water, but our high quality Italian made and hand finished pots are rated down to -250C, due to the quality of the Tuscan clays and the firing process. We currently carry smaller pots but we will be getting in some larger ones in the next few months (50cm +)  and if you have a specific need for really big ones we can use our supplier to source and import them for you specifically. Get in touch to let us know your needs.

Other considerations for Terracotta are how to plant, where to plant and what to plant. I think terracotta looks really great on the patio when there are lots of pots of different shapes and sizes carrying an array of summer plants for colour throughout the outdoor dining and sitting season. Fionnuala Fallon (@theirishflowerfarmer) of the Irish Times recommends sticking with a particular colour palette and she also highlights that while flowers are important foliage is key.  She recommends the highly architectural Senecio candicans 'Angel Wings', felty-leaved Plectranthus argentatus, trailing Dichondra 'Silver Falls', Helichrysum petiolare and the ever-popular Senecia cineraria 'Silver Dust'.  

Shortly we will be thinking of spring bulbs and if you are limited for space or want to decorate a window sill our deep 40cm planters look fantastic with a bit of spring colour such as tightly bunched daffodils. I like some of the more unusual varieties like cyclamineus daffodils that bloom in early spring with slightly smaller flowers ideal for planters and containers, or poeticus which are great as cut flowers, or Jonquilla with their multiple flowers per stem.

Finally terracotta goes great indoors too, obviously without the drainage holes or with a saucer underneath. Our range of shallow bowls look great with succulents on a table display for example.

If you have any questions don’t hesitate to drop me an email: