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Question: Is it better to use plastic or terracotta pots for succulents and cactus?
Answer: This an old debate, going back to at least the late 1960s when I first became interested in houseplants. At the time, I was told succulents and cactus, which are a type of succulent, did best in terracotta pots (unglazed pottery) because the pots “breathed” (were porous) and allowed more air to reach the roots. And because they’re porous, they lost water more rapidly and succulents didn’t like sitting in wet soil. It made sense then and there is indeed a certain truth to it, but…
In fact, you can grow succulents just as easily in plastic pots as terracotta ones. And with terracotta pots being so expensive these days, I suspect most succulent-lovers use plastic more often than terracotta.
That “terracotta pots dry out faster than plastic ones” really makes little difference as long as you use a potting mix with lots of air spaces (potting mixes have become dramatically better aerated since the 1960s!) and water your plants correctly, that is, waiting until the growing mix is thoroughly dry before watering again. The soil in terracotta pots may dry out a little faster, but if the plant is correctly planted in well-aerated soil, the difference will likely be minor.
Still, if you tend to overwater (and ideally, you’d learn not to do so!), terracotta pots might be a better choice. That would also be true if you tend to stick your succulents in dark corners where they receive insufficient light and therefore grow little and use little water, but… you shouldn’t be mistreating your succulents like that anyway. (They all like plenty of light!)
The corollary of the above is that if you’re someone who tends to forget to water, you should probably go for plastic. That might just keep a severely drought-stressed succulent alive a day or two longer.
Of course, if you’re just a regular houseplant owner who pays attention to watering needs, you can use either one.
What Commercial Succulent Growers Do
I think it’s telling that commercial succulent nurseries, that once used terracotta pots almost exclusively, have pretty much all switched to plastic. Now, that’s largely for economic reasons—terracotta pots are just so expensive!—but if terracotta pots were really essential for keeping succulents healthy, they’d still be using them.
In fact, the in-thing these days in succulent nurseries is to grow succulents in very thin, cheap plastic pots in the nursery, then to slip them into more ornamental cachepots to stimulate sales. When you water these, you just have to remove the “grow pot” from the cachepot 10 to 30 minutes after watering and drain away any surplus water from the cachepot.
Other Pros and Cons of Terracotta and Plastic
- Terracotta pots are heavier and can help hold up taller succulents better… but then, you could just as easily slip a plastic pot into a heavy cachepot.
- As mentioned, terracotta is expensive. Some plastic pots are too, but you can readily find inexpensive ones.
- Plastic pots can be seen as pollutants, unless you reuse them (which I do and assume most gardeners do) or recycle them (ditto).
- Terracotta pots tend to develop whitish mineral stains on their outer surface over time, where water seeped through and evaporated. However, that liability can be seen an advantage: some designers think it is chic and are even calling it patina!
- Plastic pots come in almost limitless sizes, shapes, textures and colors. There are even some that perfectly imitate terracotta! Terracotta is much more restricted. There is a good range of shapes and sizes and it could theoretically be offered in a wide range of colors (due to different clays as well as to dyes and stains), but usually it still comes in that well-known brownish-orange color we know as terracotta.
- Terracotta is fragile and easily broken; most plastics, less so. But I don’t recommend dropping any kind of pot from a great height to test this.
- Plastics better tolerate freezing temperatures and some are, indeed, considered weatherproof. Never leave terracotta pots outdoors in freezing weather or they’ll crack. Still, just about any pot will last longer if you don’t leave it outside in freezing weather.
- In the old days, terracotta pot shards—obtainable by (accidentally, one would hope) breaking terracotta pots—were widely used as a drainage layer in pots. But drainage layers have been considered a horticultural no-no for a generation now and, as a result, most terracotta shards probably now end up in the trash.
- Terracotta pots insulate plant roots better from heat than most plastic ones because they evaporate moisture (and evaporation has a cooling effect) and are also fairly thick. Black and other dark shades of plastic can really heat up the soil in a pot if they’re placed in full sun. But if heat is a problem, you could get a similar result by using white and other pale shades of plastic or slipping the pot inside a pale-colored cache-pot.
In most cases, though, it really doesn’t matter what kind of pot you plant your succulents in… as long as it has a drainage hole!