Pot Luck: Which Go, Which Stay?

THE REAL DIRT

January 03, 1993|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

We had two flowerpots when we moved in.

I guess they were male and female, because there are now 300 pots scattered about the place. There are big pots and baby pots, clay pots and plastic pots, and pots in a rainbow of colors. They have taken over the garden shed and are threatening the basement.

I don't know where all these pots came from. Most of them are empty. So many pots, and so few flowers. Have we killed that many houseplants in 17 years? Of course not. Some of the containers were purchased at yard sales. It's hard to pass up a clay pot in mint condition; harder still, if it's filled with live mint.

Some pots are reminders of milestones past: of births and deaths, achievements and anniversaries. When the flowers fade, keep the pot. It's like saving the envelope from a Hallmark card.

When a plant succumbs, or needs transplanting to a larger container, the old pot is scrubbed with a weak chlorine solution and set aside with hundreds of others. Someday, I say, I'm bound to use it. But I seldom do.

Meanwhile, the pile of pots keeps growing. To maximize storage space, I stack the pots in huge towers, one container inside the other, until the stack starts to teeter. I can store a great many pots in this manner. Horticulturists call it vertical gardening. It works for peas and pole beans, so why not flowerpots?

Even so, the pots are becoming a nuisance. Last week, the dog wagged her tail, toppling a 5-foot skyscraper and strewing bits of broken crockery across the basement. That only made matters worse. Instead of disposing of the mess, I saved the clay shards to use as drainage chips in other pots.

Clearly, something has to go. I've decided to part with half of my collection, but which half? Should I keep the red clay pots or the plastic ones?

Gardeners have been wrestling with this question for years. Both clay and plastic pots have their supporters. Generally, clay (or terra-cotta) containers appeal to older folks, while younger gardeners favor plastic.

Clay pots are more attractive, also more expensive. They arheavier than plastic pots, making them more difficult for pets and preschoolers to tip over. A stiff breeze can knock a plastic pot off the windowsill, spilling soil and plants helter-skelter. Have you ever come home during a storm to find a favorite African violet floating in the toilet?

Of course, clay pots do break, but this has given us some laughs. Where would the Three Stooges be without clay flowerpots? There's no sense dropping a houseplant on Curley's head if the pot doesn't break.

Plastic pots are easier to clean, a big advantage for those disease-conscious gardeners who routinely scrub the inside of their containers (after removing the houseplants).

But clay pots do one thing that plastic cannot.

Clay pots breathe.

You can't see them breathing. Clay pots are not like the talking teapots in "Beauty and the Beast." These flowerpots have no eyes and mouths, only tiny pores in their walls that allow air and moisture to circulate freely.

This is an advantage for gardeners, especially those of us who tend to overwater and overfertilize houseplants. Clay pots absorb excess moisture that would otherwise remain in the soil and probably drown the plant.

Because they dry out rapidly, plants grown in clay pots need frequent watering. But knowledgeable gardeners learn to read their plant's needs by observing the color of the pot. As the soil dries out, the walls of the pot turn from dark red to lighter shades.

Likewise, those ghastly white stains on the pot indicate a buildup of fertilizer salts that have seeped through the container. This is the pot's way of telling us that we overfed the geranium again.

I like flowerpots that stick up for their plants. I think I'll keep the clay pots. They seem to take better care of my houseplants than I do.

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