Grace notes in clay

Times Staff Writer

IF you have a terra cotta pot, you have a garden. It brings earth to window sills, balconies, doorsteps, porches. But even before you put a plant in it, terra cotta is deeply appealing. Every gardener I know has a story about a pot spotted far from home but somehow pulled, rolled and carried back to the garden.

I once saw an Englishwoman board a flight from Turin, Italy, to London with a large clay planter, then struggle to wedge it into an overhead compartment. Dangerous? Certainly. Strange? Not at all. It was a nice pot.

Though gardeners move terra cotta around with the tenacity of ants recovering breadcrumbs, the practice goes strangely unremarked. In Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian’s horticulture division concentrates on Victorian cast-iron garden furniture. It doesn’t even have information on the origin of the half a dozen terra cotta pots in its own collection, apologizes a curator. Elsewhere, terra cotta societies tend to focus on “architectural” terra cotta, say good hospital roofs or movie theater Cleopatras.


They are missing out. Terra cotta potteries trade as heavily in fantasy as in utility. The classic machine-cut Italian pots promise summer, while the rather more stately, heavier-set and lushly rimed Italians promise summer at a posh resort. But by Aisle Two, exotica reigns. There will be Aztec jugs, Arabic oil jars, Grecian urns, pots that could hold Barbara Eden. Detailing of garden pots with garlands, grapevines and beading suddenly evoke Victorian England, Tuscany and Versailles. There are pots for any place in your house: square pots, triangular pots and pots that fit around umbrella stands. At the gnomish end of the market, there are pots in the shapes of pigs, puppies, faces, faces with feet.

The earthen color varies with source of the pot, the clay and how hotly it was fired. Italian pots tend to be a dark red, almost brown. Mexican pots tend to be lighter, almost pink; Asian more orange; rare American pots whiter.

The color has structural importance, too. The hotter a pot is fired, the browner and stronger, it will be. Clay also influences toughness. The more porous, the more water it will absorb and the more it will shrink and expand in heat and cool, and the sooner it will crack.

Pots made in Mexico, China and Vietnam often come in mock-Tuscan styles, but the Italian ones are easy to detect. They say “Made in Italy.”

For quality, look for a combination of weight and smoothness. Top quality terra cotta is heavy and dense, and the seepage through its pores so gradual that it can be used for fountains, says Mary Beatson, one of the waterfall designers at the Glass Garage on Melrose.

Plastic imitations of terra cotta don’t leak at all. Pity that they look plastic. But for roof gardens and balconies, where weight is a consideration, these fakes are a boon. A nifty cheat is banking some real terra cotta in front, using smaller and lighter pots. While the plastic is a dull, flat red, the real pots will bring the signature earthen tones.

If you mix clay and plastic, remember to adjust the watering not just to suit the plant but also according to the type of pot. Even the densest terra cotta pots are relatively porous, so plants dry out faster and are less prone to root rot. If over-watered, the root systems in plastic pots, or terra cotta that has the inside sealed with tar, can become unwholesomely boggy.

For window sills, forget plastic. The weight of terra cotta will go some way to keep the pot from falling off, but whatever you do, don’t put any kind of unsecured flower pots on upper floors over sidewalks, patios or doorways. The foliage will act as a parachute to pull the pot off the minute a wind blows.

My colleague Robert Smaus gave advice in this paper two years ago that cannot be repeated too often about how to cover the drainage hole. “All that’s required is some kind of screen, to keep soil in, and pests like slugs out,” he said.

Many of us grow only annuals in pots, so dealing with root-bound plants and soil changes is not an issue. But if you use large pots to grow patio climbers, such as jasmine, after several years you will need to tip the pot over, pull out the plant and unbind the roots, trim away excess, then refresh the soil. The plant will thank you in the long term. Plants that live in pots also need more fertilizer than plants in the ground. The Gevry Chambertin, of these drinks, is diluted compost tea.

Eventually minerals from the water and fertilizer will collect on the outside of terra cotta pots, leaving a sort of white film. This calcification doesn’t bother me, but Scott Shaw, one of the owners of Pottery Manufacturing & Distributing, the vast terra cotta showroom where the Harbor and San Diego freeways meet, says this white residue can be easily scrubbed away with a brush and some water and vinegar.

Deliberately gunking up your pots is a bit more involved but, done artfully, can fetch a premium. A Massachusetts company, Campo de’ Fiori, makes its clay pots in Mexico, then ages them with moss spores in New England greenhouses for instant antiquity. These appear at specialty gift stores around L.A.

When buying terra cotta, Shaw recommends using what he calls the “ping test.”

“When you’re going to buy a pot,” he says, “Hold it up and give it a tap. You should hear a high-pitched ting. This tells you if it’s cracked. If you hear a thump, there’s a crack.”

Good terra cotta isn’t cheap. A 10-inch standard Italian flowerpot should run $2.50 at a discount warehouse, or in the $4 range in garden centers. Nice big 20-plus-inch planters run $25 to $30, more for the rolled-rim types. Simple and perfectly lovely Mexican pots can cost as little as $5.25 for 9-inch vaseshapes. Drill-your-own-drainage-hole 7-inch Vietnamese clay pots start at $1.99 at Ikea.

Looking over my own home, I see a progression of pottery phases: Indonesian, Grecian, Italian. There are always irresistible Mexican pots, ending up as decorative mulch for potted citrus when they invariably break.

But the style with staying power is the plain, machine tooled terra cotta pot, “the Italian” to the trade. These are the bluejeans of flowerpots. A row of them holds the ferns on my front porch. In the back, more act as hose guards, positioned around flowerbeds and planted with mint, sage and pepicha. I like them as well now as I did as a newlywed in the early 1980s, when I had to save to buy one 10-inch pot a week to fashion my first roof terrace. Then, as now, there is no finer sight than the dawn light catching the red, red clay.



Well cast

First buy the pots. That way, when you select the plants, you will have a good home waiting for them when you get them home from the nursery.

Pottery Manufacturing, 18881 S. Hoover St., Gardena; (310) 323-7772. This is the place off the Harbor Freeway with the pots on the roof. It sells wholesale and retail, mostly Mexican with some Italian.

Glass Garage, 8379 Melrose Ave., L.A.; (323) 651-4232. A small and expensive but high-quality and unusual collection of Asian and Italian pots, including stout modern window boxes and every shape of urn.

Marina del Rey Garden Center, 13198 Mindanao Way, Marina del Rey; (310) 823-5956, A superb across-the-board selection, from Italian-tooled and rolled-rim pots to plain Mexican and Chinese pots to every conceivable fantasy pot. It’s a first-class plant nursery to boot.

Sig’s Pottery, 17825 Devonshire St., Northridge; (818) 368-5171, Old enough that its pots could have become mossy naturally. Vast stock includes all types of terra cotta.

-- Emily Green