Terracotta or Plastic Pots for Succulents?

Standard

Ill.: leafandclay.co, montage laidbackgardener.blog

Question: Is it better to use plastic or terracotta pots for succulents and cactus?

C.T.

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. 

Watering can watering succulents in pots.
As long as you water your succulents appropriately, it really doesn’t matter whether you grow them in terracotta pots or plastic ones. Photo: urbanorganicyield.com

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

Nursery displaying succulents in plastic pots
If you visit a succulent or cactus nursery, you’ll probably discover they use plastic pots. Most do. Photo: Cactus & Succulent Nursery Tour 2019

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).
White stains on terracotta pots
Terra cotta pots become covered with whitish stains … but that might be a good thing! Photo: mein-schoener-garten.de
  • 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.
Terracotta pot shards in the bottom of a pot.
Pot shards at the bottom of pots are just a waste of space. Photo: lovelygreens.com
  • 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!

8 thoughts on “Terracotta or Plastic Pots for Succulents?

  1. Jennifer

    just wanted to say thanks not just for this post but also the others in your archive. I’ve inherited a number of houseplants from a bereavement, and I’m very inexperienced. Frantically trying to identify everything and just hoping to keep them alive.

      • Jennifer

        Thanks, I’m sure I’ll get to that stage soon! What I’m struggling with is spotting and diagnosing the problem before it’s too late, their needs seem to vary so much, and it’s hard to tell when I try something (water more, water less, spray with neem oil) whether it’s working or whether the problem just resolved itself, or I’ve actually made it worse but the plant will take a few weeks before telling me. I know it takes practice, I’m just hoping not to have too many sacrifices along the way. Were you always a laidback gardener, or did you become one, and if latter, how did you do it?

  2. For production, I grow everything in the same black vinyl cans; but for succulents that remain potted in the garden (rather than planted into the ground) terracotta pots are more visually appealing. I really dislike vinyl or plastic.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.