The Beauty of “Baked Earth”: A Terra Cotta Primer
Bringing an old pot out for a new season of gardening is like catching up with an old friend or finally being able to wear a spring outfit that has been cooped up in a closet all winter. The ritual of filling a terra cotta pot is a timeless act in gardening, one that manifests in a centuries-old craft that still serves a functional purpose in today’s garden.
“Terra Cotta” is commonly recognized as the sunset-colored pottery created by firing clay in a low-heat kiln for several hours until it hardens into a shell. Derived from the Italian word for “baked earth,” terra cotta was the only form of pottery that existed in the west until stoneware came along in the 14th century. Long regarded as one the sturdiest, most insulating, biodegradable compositions on earth, the clay-derived substrate and the various techniques by which to fire them have been used by artisans since Ancient Egypt.
These days, many of the slower, heritage-steeped production systems that prevailed in previous generations have been phased out in favor of cheap, mass labor that emphasizes quantity over quality: hence, the abundance of cheap, cracked, underwhelming “terra cotta” flowerpots. If you’ve never seen the real thing, or if you’re just a bigger fan of reclaimed wood or stone, you might regard terra cotta as a secondary consideration– but high quality terra cotta is a different story.
High quality terra cotta is a different story. Clay is an inexpensive, durable, abundant material found pretty much everywhere on Earth; if you’ve ever found reddish streaks in the dirt while digging in the garden, you’ve seen it. It’s also incredibly sturdy: there’s a reason why the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Guang, filled his tomb with 8,000 terra cotta warriors to protect himself. The fine-grained rock or soil of a given region provides the substrate for the clay, which means that the mineral composition (e.g. the distribution of iron, copper, calcium, and aluminum) will vary from place to place. Tuscany, Italy– with its mountainous, sometimes volcanic geology– is one such region that produces some of the finest, nutrient-rich clay in the world.
High quality pottery purveyors, Seibert & Rice, make excellent pots sourced from this region. Nestled in the hills of Tuscany is the town of Impruneta, a humble city of 15,000 that takes pride in being home to both the world-renowned Sanctuary of Santa Maria and some of the best terra cotta pottery on earth. For hundreds of years, artisans have crafted thousands of works of art from the region’s bountiful clay deposits, drawing the attention of legends like Filippo Brunelleschi, the foremost renaissance architect who, for his awe-inspiring dome of the Florence Cathedral, demanded genuine Impruneta terra cotta that the company now sources for gardeners with an eye for quality. Many, many years have passed since the development of clay-fired pottery in this region, but today, Impruneta’s artisan spirit lives on in the twelfth generation potters who carry on in the customs of their ancestors: digging up clay from the same family pits, hand-crafting the vessels using centuries-old techniques, and finally, firing them in ovens until they turn a gorgeous pinkish-red unique to Tuscany. Strike the terra cotta pot with one’s knuckles and you’ll hear a high-pitched ringing sound, a distant echo, perhaps, of the Florence Cathedral’s bell. That’s the sound of genuine, time-tried artistry.
A Look At The Process
When the terra cotta is fired over the low-heat kiln, minerals in the clay partially melt and disperse into the clay as it hardens. A terra cotta pot will endure temperatures well below zero, year after year, provided that it’s from a reputable source. What’s better, because fired clay is porous after hardening, plants potted in terra cotta are able to “breathe” better than those placed in containers of wood or stone, and enjoy an optimal dissemination of water and materials.
Although archaeologists have unearthed terra cotta pots from pretty much every ancestral civilization, (from Egypt and China to Rome and Inca Peru) the model continues to change even today. The vast majority of purveyors import directly from artisans in Spain and Italy- their products are fitted, of course, with the characteristic “lip” (a feature that emerged later, as a means to ensure ease in shipping.) Among certain groups, especially apartment-dwellers and other urbanites, there’s a rising popularity in stackable pots and planters that combine to form a multi-tiered display, rather than the classic one-pot, one-plant model. For those who don’t have the money to spend on imported terra cotta, a popular substitute involves aging or white-washing an inexpensive vessel: a valid option, so long as the terra cotta itself is sturdy (it should emit a hollow, bell-like sound when struck with one’s knuckles.) That being said, when it comes to terra-cotta pottery, you really get what you paid for: a quality planter may last 20 or 30 years when treated with care. (High quality pots can be left outside, but most terra cotta should be brought inside during the winter, emptied of water, and stored upside down.)
Trends may come and go, but the deep red beauty of baked earth endures. Even in an age where technology continues to tighten its grip, terra cotta its status as most gardeners’ go-to material. Apple could come out with an iPot complete with temperature calibration and bird-detecting technology, but in terms of durability, longevity, and historical and aesthetic appeal, even the most newfangled gadget would be hard-pressed to replace the staple that terra cotta has become.