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The pot or container you use to create stunning combinations will make or break the health and ultimate look of your plants. The good news is you have a lot of choices regarding the type, size, and material from which your patio pots and container gardens are made from. And nowadays, the list continues to grow just like the plants. There is always something new on the market to try or there may be a pot or container which has been on the scene for years. Either way, how they look and function varies greatly based on the material so here I share my thoughts on the types of container garden pots available and whether I give them a thumbs up or thumbs down based on my experience over the years.

Types of Materials:

Glazed Pot C TestaGlazed:  Glazed pots are very pretty, long-lasting, and classy. They are available in many colors to add glam to your plants. If you can manage to carry them, they are a very good choice for container gardens because of the colors available, various sizes, and because they stay nice for many years. The glaze may crack a little after 5+ years but this is not common.  It is best to not leave them outdoors in the winter. I take all my glazed pots inside when fall arrives, but I have heard you may tip the pots on their side so any water will drain out, and this may prevent cracking, but I advise against if you really like your glazed pot because some are not cheap. One big downfall to most glazed pots, there are not enough drain holes at the base.

When buying a glazed pot, think about the color of your surroundings. Also, dark colored pots absorb more heat. This may cause more stress on the plants, depending on the type of plants you put in the pot. Visually, warm colors appear closer to you, and cool colors farther, but are less intense.

If possible, consider the plants’ bloom colors.  You may want to go with a complementary color scheme.  For example, a blue pot with orange flowers is beautiful (because orange and blue are opposite on the color wheel creating a complementary color scheme.)

Opposite colors on a color wheel (complementary colors) speak to each other and make the design pop. Take a look at this container garden I spotted on Pinterest HERE. It is a perfect example of what I mean – you see immediately the impact of the blue pot with orange blooms – and even the door in the background is blue. The color combination is truly inspiring.  FYI:  See my page, “Color Wheel My World” or my Pinboard to learn more about color combinations.

photo (8)Terra-cotta: There is something so earthy and natural about terra-cotta. It was baked in a kiln and has a color of true clay, but whatever the reason, it is porous, so when non-glazed, it will dry out faster than other types of pots.   This can be a good or bad thing.  Roots enjoy having a bit of breathing room because they require oxygen in addition to water to grow. But if you are not good with a watering routine to suit your plants’ demands, the pot will dry out quickly. Plus terra-cotta is heavy, especially with big sized terra-cotta pots.  However, I give them a thumbs-up. They are excellent for growing succulents which can take some drought and look wonderful in them. Terra-cotta reminds me of the beautiful dessert plants and skies of Arizona, but this does not limit them to be used in only sunny conditions. Terra-cotta pots and container gardens look fab in a shady garden too, especially when moss naturally grows on the side to add that natural feel to the container’s looks. Take a look at this photo I spotted on Pinterest HERE of a terra-cotta pot with shade plants.  It is lovely.  In the winter, they must be moved to a sheltered location because they crack if wet soil freezes and then expands in them.

Tip: Line a terra-cotta pot with bubble-wrap so there is cushion between the soil in the pot and the inner wall of the pot to prevent the pot from cracking.  Not sure if this works, but perhaps worth a try.

photo (9)Self-Watering Pots:  Right off the bat, I’m going to tell you my opinion about self-watering pots. I don’t really care for them.  It is sooo critical for your plants to have free drainage at the roots because they will suffocate from lack of oxygen in the soil if they remain wet. Just like wet feet in sneakers, this is not a good feeling. And if there is not a weep hole, or a way to open up the base of the pot for drainage when there is a case of over abundant rainfall, well, take a look at this photo. It results in a pond.

However, with all this said, there have been people who have told me they love their self-watering pots. So for me to be completely objective is difficult – because, shocking as this may be, I like watering my plants in container gardens. I don’t try to avoid this task needed by the plants on regular basis.  What I need to do is test out some more self-watering pots and give them another chance, but in the meantime, I kind of give them a “thumbs-down.”

IMG_9758Concrete:  Who would build a concrete foundation for their plants?  Cathy T, that’s who.  I had one made at a 5 ft wide by 10 ft long size. Every season, it is filled with huge tropical plants and perennials. In autumn, I fill it with various bulbs for a spring display. Cement or concrete, obviously, is heavy but very long lasting if installed correctly and at the right depth to avoid the frost issues, heaving, etc. Connecticut’s minimum frost line depth is 42 inches. The base of this structure shown, which I affectionately call “My Big Cement Planter,” has no bottom so it drains freely. We drilled drain holes into the back and side walls as well.  It did not take long for worms to move in and without any fertilization, I grew a huge red banana plant (Ensete) with several elephant ears and perennials the first season. Cement is a wonderful medium for making planters, and you may make them much smaller of course. They last a long time – a thumbs up!

Hypertufa pots are made with Portland cement, coarse sand, peat moss or vermiculite, chicken wire, and shaped into various sizes and shapes.  They are commonly used in the gardening scene to make earthy pots for your plants. The one drawback to cement is it cracks if you don’t make them as sturdy and large as my big cement planter, but hypertufas for example, are easily stored inside after the outdoor season is over for our plants sensitive to cold and frost. In some cases, hypertufa pots are moved to sheltered areas (under porches, in sheds, etc.) and they do fine.

photo (5)Cast-iron:  Cast-iron is obviously heavy, but it has the advantage being tolerant of all seasons. It can be left outdoors, often has a sophisticated or elegant look, and is extremely long-lasting and durable.  It doesn’t crack like pots made of clay.

Sometimes it is difficult to tell what is cast-iron or wrought-iron. I get confused on this all the time. In a book titled, “A Guide To Buying Antique Garden Ornament” by Barbara Israel, the distinction is described this way:

“Wrought iron is hand-forged by a blacksmith and is invariably comprised of multiple long, thin scrolling elements that have been joined together by hand.  Cast iron is an industrial product created by pouring molten iron into a mold.  It can take any form; consequently, cast-iron pieces end to have more intricate decorations with greater dimensionality than objects made of wrought iron.”

This makes sense to me.  I spotted two cast-iron pots last summer (at least I think they are cast-iron or made of some kind of metal), and fell in love. The way the shape and form is made with curves provides a sophisticated look.  Each has a decent size drain hole in the base which is mandatory for growing plants.  Mine (as shown here) has some type of powder coating to bring about a light minty-green coloring. The size of the pot is perfect, not too big – and not too small. And because of the material from which it is made, I leave them out year round.

Tip:  Leave the soil in the containers after removing summer plants so you can insert winter evergreens into the soil for the holidays.

Cast-iron lasts for years to come. It gets a big thumbs up from me. I haven’t found any serious downfalls of buying them. Many can be pricey but are worth the investment.

photo (5)Wood:  Wood is one of the perfect materials for potting up plants because it expands and contracts in the weather.  There isn’t an issue with cracking and breaking easily.

However, I find whiskey barrels somewhat unattractive, and the opposite of the cast-iron look – much more informal.  In the right setting, rustic containers can work and make sense if you like that look.

Note to the manufacturers of whiskey barrels, please create some with a bit more formality to the style or make them unique – maybe stain them in various colors.

Because whiskey barrels have a slight space between the planks or board sections, they offer good air circulation.  Plus, they are large sized – and I like big pots so I can create large arrangements with many plants. Just remember, drill several drain holes in the bottom for drainage before planting them up.  See my 5 must do’s HERE.

Other wood products, such as pallet boxes or old wooden boxes, are excellent for doing up container gardens.  I typically line all of my pots but especially do this for anything that has a potential to contain any kind of chemicals or stain.  You don’t want the stain to seep into the plants if planting edibles. Be careful with pallets – many have chemicals on them.

Wood has a little downside.  It may rot over time if it stays wet.  Mold or mushrooms will suddenly appear in cases where the wood is remaining damp and the soil is in contact with it. Otherwise, wood is good.

Tip: It is a good idea to raise any wood planters you use with pot risers or pot feet placed below the pot so it is elevated just a tad. You would be amazed how much a little air circulation below a pot or container helps because the water escapes freely and there is no seal between the base of the pot and the floor it is sitting upon.

Another bonus with wooden pots is you can find them for free, at antique or vintage shows where they are being up-cycled or recycled, and in a garbage dump. I give wood a thumbs-up as long as it is placed in the right place to match the surrounding decor.

photo (92)Repurposed:  I’ll never forget the day an attendee to a Container Garden Party showed up with a washing machine drum as her container of choice. I told her she got the most creative award – thinking out of the box!  The drum is perfect because it has holes throughout the sides, which is great for drainage and air.  And it is made of metal so it can stay outside for years if desired.  Another bonus, the center portion has a tube which can be handy.

Tip:  Insert a pole through the tube in the center for a birdhouse or for a patio umbrella. Fill the base with soil and plants and voila, you have a gorgeous base to the pole.

When you are out there, rummaging tag sales or fairs, look for items you could potentially re-purpose as a container or pot for your container gardening needs. Sometimes you get them for free if not a really low price.  And an item like this doesn’t end up in a garbage dump too.

Cathy Testa
Owner of Cathy T’s Landscape Designs and Container Crazy CT
860-977-9473 (texts are welcome!)


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