The Snowflake That Broke the Terracotta’s Back

Last week, I returned home to Montreal after a few weeks away. As much as I love to travel, there’s no place like home! And, to my great delight, the city was covered with a thick layer of fresh snow. It’s winter, my little ones! Can I smell cross-country skiing and ice fishing?

My snowy yard. Photo: Mathieu Hodgson.

The State of Affairs

I put on my boots and went out to see the state of my garden, which is, in fact, only a terrace on the second floor of a small building: the kale had frozen (no big deal, it’s still beautiful!); the parsley was still alive under a layer of snow; and dry stems were poking out here and there, a sign of a well-stocked urban vegetable garden. I wasn’t quite done with my fall cleaning.

Of course, whenever possible, I leave the plants to die in their pots, where they remain all winter, providing a sanctuary for native insects during the off-season. I had time to collect the dead leaves and shred almost half of them before the snow arrived. But I had run out of time for a crucial step: emptying the terracotta pots which, unlike other types of containers, are not at all cold resistant.

Why did I buy clay pots, you ask, when I live in Canada where the temperature often go below zero? A very good question that I have often asked myself. Why empty pots in the fall and fill them in the spring when it would be easier to do absolutely nothing? BECAUSE TERRACOTTA POTS LOOK GOOD!

Plants in terracotta pots

The Terracotta Pot Debacle

Two years ago, when my girlfriend and I moved here, the priority was, of course, to install the garden (at least it was my priority!) After all, the large terrace at the back was one of the reasons we bought this place. Those who know me will understand that an outdoor space was an absolute necessity.

So, I went to the big box stores in search of pots to plant my urban vegetable garden, as well as a few perennials and shrubs (a small tree as well, you say ?) Armed with my cell phone, I was virtually accompanied by my girlfriend. (Not embarrassing at all: “Can you show me that one on the top left, no the other left? Forget it, that’s ugly!”). I walked up and down the aisles looking for attractive containers for my plants. Obviously, I failed (otherwise I wouldn’t be here today telling you about the terracotta pot debacle) and I left empty-handed.

However, while shopping in the general store two blocks from our home, some stoneware pots that caught my eye. They were beautiful and quite large, about 12–14” (30 to 40 cm). That’s not quite big enough for a tomato plant, but they were so cute that I gave them a chance. I bought a dozen of them and carried them home two at a time because they were so heavy (I was already off to a bad start!)

Terrace with clay pots
My super-trendy terrace… Photo: Mathieu Hodgson.

Happiness Is Fleeting and Terracotta Pots Are Brief

For a while, my pots, my girlfriend and I were all happy together. Once they were filled with potting soil and plants, my patio looked like something out of a trendy website (or so I thought). The garden was overflowing with greenery and even my tomatoes seemed to forgive the narrowness of their containers.

Besides their great beauty, terracotta pots have another quality: they are porous and therefore “breathe” better. They lose water a little faster, but this prevents the soil from staying wet for too long and causing root rot because of lack of oxygen in the soil. Alas, it snowed and my illusions fell like flakes of snow on my clay pots…

Frozen terracotta pots
The potting soil froze in my clay pots! Photo: Mathieu Hodgson.

Winter Arrived

Today, back home, I discover that the soil has frozen in my pots! However, it’s essential to empty them before winter settles in. You see, the soil, being filled with water, expands as it freezes, and…CRACK! A broken pot! But now that the ground is frozen, they’re much more complicated to empty. I have to bring the pots inside, making sure to protect the beautiful hardwood floor, to let them thaw. Then I store their contents in a garbage can on my deck.

Put the pots in, defrost the pots, take the pots out, empty the pots, put the pots away… Photo: Mathieu Hodgson.

That is not all, oh no! Clay pots also need to be protected from snow, so I cover mine with garbage bags. The porosity of terracotta, an advantage in summer, makes it sensitive to frost. The moisture it contains causes it to disintegrate with the freeze/thaw cycle. If I had a heated storage space, I could save myself some trouble, but so little! I can see why you’d find my story deathly boring! I am bored myself with all this work! And to think that I could’ve bought pots that spend their winters outside! It just goes to show that the shoemaker always wears the worst shoes.

What Kind of Pots Should We Use Then?

I haven’t found the perfect solution yet. Plastic pots are moderately frost resistant, but their main problem is that they’re ugly. They can sometimes be recycled, it’s true, but we find more and more plastic particles in our environment, an ecological disaster.

Geotextile pots (smart pots) are the most resistant to cold, even more so than plastic, but they’re also the ugliest.

Metal containers keep their shape in winter and are flexible, but they can rust. They’re also terribly expensive.

Fiberglass planters come in a near-infinite number of finishes and colors and have the reputation of being the most frost resistant. But they are also the most expensive. And I can confirm that, despite their frost resistance, they are fragile and can easily be damaged or scratched.

My wooden planters. Photo: Mathieu Hodgson.

Wood? Why not!

Personally, I turned to wood even though it’s not the most frost-resistant material: it’s flexible enough to resist the movement of frost, but it tends to rot or break over time. Even cedar, which has a reputation for being rot-proof, isn’t very durable since it’s a soft wood. But I like the fact that wood is decomposable. In that sense, it is perhaps the most environmentally friendly material. Moreover, it’s easy to work with and you can give it the shape you want. On the other hand, wood is expensive, especially nowadays! So, as you can see, no one option stands out. You have to choose the one that suits you best.

Except you, my terracotta pots! It breaks my heart to say this, but we’re through! (But they’re still cute, aren’t they?)

Doesn’t my bird of paradise look cute in a stoneware pot? I’ll have to find a dozen large houseplants to fill my pots! Photo: Mathieu Hodgson.

8 comments on “The Snowflake That Broke the Terracotta’s Back

  1. Mary Lou Dalaire

    LOVE YOUR POST!!! With a fairly small backyard, I can use some of your ideas!!! Terrecotta pots are great for our plants…but not when it is COLD!!!

    • Ann Tihansky

      I have lost many a clay pot to cracking and cleaving especially after a freezing rain. I have found if they don’t get wet, they won’t crack. Still, I use clay pots for annuals and when the first frost kills them I simply tump the contents into my compost pile where all that great dirt blends into next year’s garden! So after I empty them, I round them up and store them in the potting shed all ready for spring and new plants! Good luck!

  2. Christine Lemieux

    Well, I have a graveyard of broken terracotta pots. I used to break them up for making a layer at the bottom of new terracotta pots….until I learned from your father that putting a layer at the bottom of pots was not a good thing to do! Love your big terrace.

  3. Gads! I loathe the container gardening fad! What is the point of so much usable pavement or decking if only to clutter it with pots?! Most plants are happier in the ground! Nonetheless, pots are a fad. We will add a few onto a deck next year, but only because the deck is upstairs, with no soil in which to plant anything. Freezing is of course not a concern here. However, because Canna will live in most of the pots, they will cohabitate with some sort of evergreen perennial, such as Dianella caerulea, to compensate for their winter dormancy. I hope that the mix is not too complicated when I must thin the Canna in the future, but I will worry about that, . . . in the future. A problem with the pots that are most trendy is that they are tapered inward at the top. Who thought that was a good idea?! They are no problem for annuals or perennials that get dug from such pots. However, when a nice palm or bulky perennial gets too big for such a pot, it can not be removed with its root system intact. Either the roots must be shredded, or the pot must be broken. Such pots are stupidly too expensive to waste in such a manner.

  4. Mark Werder

    I dealt with same issue in Michigan by using ugly frost resistant pots and painting them with terracotta color latex samples that cost about $5 at Home Depot and look indistinguishable from clay pots; I’m from a family with a greenhouse and florist business and have clay in my DNA.

  5. Bill Russell

    Having a dozen house plants…wasn’t that the idea in the back (perhaps very far back) in your mind?…

  6. Usha Menon

    I love your post since I am also in the same situation.

  7. I loved reading your post. It wasn’t boring at all!

Leave a Reply

Sign up for the Laidback Gardener blog and receive articles in your inbox every morning!

%d bloggers like this: