One of the fun choices we get to make when we plant container gardens is picking out the container. Don’t get me wrong; I also love choosing new varieties of vegetables and which tools I might need. But there’s a certain aesthetic pleasure in finding that perfect pot. Often though, I’m left trying to decide between terracotta vs. plastic pots, and the difference is more than just about the way they look.
There are other materials, too. You can find metal containers, concrete planters, ceramic, wood, and even foam. These, too, have their pros and cons, but terracotta and plastic pots are much more prevalent. So while you may come across other plant container materials, I’m going to stick to terracotta vs. plastic pots for now.
How to decide between terracotta vs. plastic pots for your edible container garden
One of the most initially noticeable differences between terracotta vs. plastic pots is the availability of colors. Terracotta is the traditional, unglazed clay pot. They are most often reddish-brown, though depending on the color of the clay, they may be orange, brown, light gray, or even yellow.
Plastic, on the other hand, can come in just about any color or combination of colors you can imagine. So whether you want a pot that’s royal blue, dark green, deep purple, or yellow and orange striped, plastic is your go-to.
There’s also glazed terracotta (ceramic), which can offer some gorgeous color combinations and patterns (think your favorite handmade coffee mug here). We’ll get back to this option in a moment. Let’s look first at regular terracotta vs. plastic pots.
Terracotta is a classic. These unglazed clay pots have been around for ages, and they look great. A terracotta pot can last for years and give your garden a natural and welcoming look.
Plastic pots can come in any shape, size, or color imaginable. They can even look like ceramic or terracotta pots.
There’s no question here that plastic pots weigh less than terracotta. That can be positive or negative, depending on your purposes. Since terracotta weighs more, it can offer young plants a solid base of support against wind, critters, or people tipping it over.
On the other hand, if you plan to move your plants around, plastic is lighter and can make a big difference in the overall weight, especially in larger planters.
Though terracotta is relatively inexpensive, plastic pots are the clear winner here when it comes to price.
It’s hard to judge either way about the durability of terracotta vs. plastic pots. Terracotta can crack or break easily if you drop it or, in some cases, if you leave it out in winter weather.
Plastic pots won’t break when you drop them, but they can crack in cold weather or if you accidentally squish them.
There’s little question here that terracotta is about 10 billion times more sustainable than plastic. Terracotta is made from clay, and the only processing is that it gets fired in a kiln. It’s interesting to note, however, that terracotta is not biodegradable. One look at any archeological site, and you’ll find clay pots and vessels that are thousands of years old.
However, you can still use broken terracotta pots. You can get creative and use them as part of a fairy garden or general garden design. You can also crush them and use them as mulch for your container garden.
Most of the above points between terracotta vs. plastic pots don’t have a lot of impact on your plants, with the possible exception of weight. But your container material does make a difference to your plants. Here is some of what your plants can expect from terracotta vs. plastic pots.
The thicker walls of terracotta containers help regulate soil temperature. Roots are more insulated and less exposed to extreme ranges of hot and cold temperatures. On the other hand, plastic is often thin and is a poor insulator. Temperatures can fluctuate wildly. Add to that, dark plastic containers, especially black containers, can heat the soil to the point of damaging seeds or roots.
Simply put, plastic is impermeable and retains a lot of moisture. Terracotta allows moisture to soak through and will help the soil drain more quickly. The biggest factor is how often you want to water your plants and how much moisture your plants need. Terracotta is probably a better option for an herb like rosemary that enjoys very well-drained soil. Plants like mint or celery that enjoy lots of water may appreciate a plastic pot.
What about ceramic?
Ceramic plant containers are clay pots that are glazed and fired at a high temperature. Though they are clay, just like terracotta, the glazing process gives them some unique features. One of the most significant is that they do not have the same porosity as terracotta. That means they retain water more like a plastic pot. However, they also have the stability and durability of terracotta.
Terracotta, ceramic, and plastic pots can all be acceptable options for edible gardens. Which is better? When it comes to sustainability, durability, temperature regulation, and that ever-present need for “well-drained soil,” my preference is for terracotta. However, if price and weight are your primary considerations, plastic might be a better choice.
Do you have a preference for terracotta, ceramic, or plastic pots? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments below.