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Terra Cotta Artistry | Spring 2008 Out Here Magazine

Chalkboard paint makes for a fun writing surface. Paint and then write the names of the plants or a personal message on the pots.

Inexpensive clay pots are a blank canvas for your creativity

By Laurena Mayne Davis
Photography by Dean Humphrey

Earthy, inexpensive terra cotta pots can easily be customized for any yard or garden. If you want a designer touch without a designer price, save money by decorating your own clay pots, and spend that money, instead, on what your gardening heart really desires, whether that's rows of heirloom tomatoes, a new English rose, or even garden gnomes.

Terra cotta — Italian for "baked earth" — gets its dark orange color from iron oxide in the clay. The technique of mixing clay and water, pouring that slip into a mold, drying and firing it goes back thousands of years. Finer-grade clay and higher firing temperatures are used to make stoneware or porcelain. But for growing your sweet basil or scented geraniums, terra cotta works just fine.

And chances are, your terra cotta pots came from Marshall Pottery Inc., which began business in 1895 and has become the No. 1 producer of red clay pots in America.

Located in the East Texas town of Marshall, the pottery manufacturer uses clay mined nearby to make terra cotta pots from 1½ to 21 inches in diameter.

Marshall Pottery, which ships all over the world and to domestic retailers, also has a 100,000-square-foot retail store stocked with terra cotta, stoneware, and home decorator items.

Customers snap up the low-priced terra cotta pots for gardening and crafts, says Robert Parker, the store's assistant manager.

With a bit of ribbon and colored pens, you can create one-of-a-kind planters.

"I know they découpage them a lot, and they make the 'pot people' out of them, and they paint them a lot," Parker says.


"Pot people" are made from different sizes of terra cotta pots roped together to approximate a scarecrow-like figure. "Pot people" often contain plants tucked into moss between the pots, but they are largely whimsical.


Découpage, from the French word decouper, which means "to cut out," involves gluing photos, magazine images, dried botanicals, ticket stubs, colored paper, and just about anything else in overlapping layers. Mod Podge, a thinned glue substance, makes easy work of it. Parker once sold 300 4-inch, 25-cent terra cotta pots to a vacation Bible school for a craft project. Schools and churches are frequent customers, he says.


Get Decorating


For planting, the most popular sizes are 6- and 8-inch pots, which normally sell for under $1, Parker says. At that price, you can afford to experiment.


Painting and stamping are quick ways to echo the décor of your yard or garden. Try metallic paint for a bit of shine. Mask off and paint just the rim to preserve the natural water-wicking and breathability of the clay down where your plants' roots need it. Sealing terra cotta pots protects your decorating efforts, but it erases the clay's natural breathability. It's a tradeoff.


If you're going to paint the entire pot, first seal the inside of the pot with an acrylic spray. Many of his customers go for a heavy-duty waterproofing by brushing on Thompson's Water Seal, Parker says.


Turn the pot upside down on newspaper and paint. If you're concerned about a perfect painting line, mask the rim first.


Chalkboard paint makes for a fun writing surface. Paint and then write the names of the plants or a personal message on the pots.


For a quick, simplified monogram, buy a laser-cut alphabet stencil of the first letter of your last name. Tape on the stencil and blot with stencil paint or stamping ink. Seal and plant with stately topiary.

String your personal sentiments around a clay pot using elastic cord and colorful alphabet beads.

Use the stamps you have on hand if you're a stamper, or invest in a set of foam alphabet stamps for easy customizing. You can get a lot of mileage out of a $12 set of foam alphabet stamps. Use black ink on the stamp in order for it to show on the porous pots. If you want to use other colors, paint the pots a lighter color first.


For an international touch, look up one word in several languages and stamp the word in different languages in concentric circles around the pot. "Welcome," for instance, is willkommen in German, e komo mai in Hawaiian and bienvenue in French. Add the Southern "how y'all doin" just for fun.


Other easy decorating ideas include stringing your sentiments on elastic cord with alphabet beads, attaching craft-store garlands of berries around the rim or affixing and grouting ceramic tiles in a mosaic pattern.


The sky's the limit when it comes to decorating earthy, terra cotta pots. With just a little money and a little time, you can have one-of-a-kind planters. The garden gnomes will appreciate your efforts.


Laurena Mayne Davis, a writer living in the orchard country of western Colorado, not only decorates clay pots, but she fills them with interesting plants, too.