How To Care For Terra Cotta With Seibert & Rice’s Lenore Rice

Garden Collage recently put together a comprehensive primer on terra cotta– a mythic material that can be traced back to almost every ancestral civilization. Terra cotta is made by firing clay over a low-heat kiln, which causes minerals in the clay to partially melt and disperse into the medium as it hardens. The process of melting and re-solidifying results in a porous quality that helps with drainage and durability, which is why terra cotta– and more generally, clay— is considered one of the most sturdy, insulating, and biodegradable materials on earth. Garden Collage recently spoke with Lenore Rice to discuss terra cotta pots and the role they play in the modern garden.

GC: How did you initially get involved with terra cotta?

I always loved everything Italian, and I spoke Italian– and Mara Seibert collected America pottery, so she had this interest already. We had both had Wall Street careers and took time off to start families, and we had a mutual friend who rented a villa in Tuscany– right outside of Impruneta– that both of our families shared. I had read about the town and terra cotta before we went, so one year when we arrived I asked if anyone wanted to take a ride into Impruneta to look at the pots and Mara said yes. We ended up falling in love with everything. We wanted to buy so much stuff for ourselves but the guy selling the pots was really reluctant to ship to us. You know how when someone says “no” it just becomes a burning passion? That’s what happened. We figured it all out and the next day we went back and said, “Okay, we’re buying these” and we purchased a ton of stuff and had it shipped back to us. This was in 1993, and there was nothing like it in the States at the time, so we took the samples we had and had them photographed and put together a little brochure and we kind of just shopped them around. Eventually we started getting orders from people who were really interested in the product, and then [Seibert & Rice] won Best in Show at the New York Flower Show in 1995, and the rest was history.

GC: Did you have any interest in Gardening or Objet before that, or was it just the artisanal appeal of the product that drew you in?

Not really– I was not a gardener. I grew up in the city; Mara was the gardener. I really came to gardening from terra cotta, and now I have a garden that I love. It’s a shade garden, and I grow a banana tree in one of my pots. I also do this other plant called Ninebark that comes back every year even when I leave them out all winter– the pots and the plant. It has this red leaf that looks beautiful with the pot and it also has these little pink flowers that look really beautiful in the summer.

GC: How do you recommend caring for terra cotta pots? Do you leave all of your pots out in the winter?

I do; Impruneta terra cotta can be left out. When pots are made well you can just leave them out. What’s really important is the drainage and how you plant them in the first place, and we’ve actually gotten a few additional storage tips from our purveyors that are really great. One really good idea is to put a piece of landscape fabric over the drainage hole, and it keeps the root from growing out of the hole. They also recommend this material called leca which are like clay pebbles that you can put in the bottom of the pot with gravel, which allows for drainage. So the key thing is to plant them in a way that allows for drainage– and we recommend lifting them off the ground on pot feet, so then you can just leave them alone.

GC: How often do you go to Italy to source your pots?

We used to go every year, but now its become a lot easier now that there’s email and digital technology [laughs] but we still like to get over there once a year because there’s nothing like a face to face conversation. We have our product line pretty well established at this point, but every time we see something new that we like we’ll add to our line. We also have an America Design Collection where we will have America designers design a pot and we’ll have them made in Italy using those techniques, and that’s one way we keep adding to our product line. Mara and I were over there in March and one of our workshops was making pots by an American designer, and it was wonderful to see the process. They made the original pot by hand– completely by hand, like a piece of sculpture. Then, they make a mold from that and the subsequent pots are made in molds, but the original pots are made by hand. Even the larger pots are made by hand; most pots are made using the coil method, where the pot stays stationary and the potter goes around in a circle building up the pot with coils of clay, or the others are made in molds. The molds are very complicated themselves because there are many pieces and they fit together like a puzzle, which allows them to be more intricate. So when they put the mold together, they pound the clay by hand, and it’s very dense, so they have amazing muscles in their arms [laughs]. Then, they take the mold off in pieces and they finish everything by hand, with a lot of small tools and very painstaking detail. It’s amazing: they’ve been doing it the same way for hundreds of years.

GC: There are very few brands that still make products by hand in the place that they originated. Impruneta seems like one of those items that fortunately hasn’t been automated yet.

It is incredible, but honestly we are concerned about it because it’s an acquired skill, and the craftsman’s kids aren’t really interested in going into this. For instance, one of the workshops we do is run by three brothers, who are probably in their late fifties, and of all their children only one son went into the terra cotta business, so it does make you worry what’s going to happen and how the art form will change with time.

GC: What role does terra cotta play in the urban food movement? It seems like a great vessel for people who don’t have the opportunity to garden in raised beds.

Absolutely– in addition to making it easier for individuals to garden in small spaces or in areas where they don’t have access to land, you also have the rare ability to move whatever you plant; you can put pots on a window, terrace, or stoop. Plants themselves also really love terra cotta because it’s porous and it breathes. It’s the perfect container for container planting, and it’s a great way for city people to grow vegetables and herbs when you don’t have a backyard or a plot.

For more trivia and tips, check out Garden Collage’s Terra Cotta Primer.

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