Plastic, Terra-cotta, or Paper Pots: Which is the best?

Pots come in a lot of different shapes, sizes, and materials. All this diversity makes it hard to choose the best option. All different materials offer their own advantages and disadvantages, in this post, I will explain the individual pros and cons of each material and help you to find the best option for your Garden.

Which Pot material is best: Clay, Plastic, Wood or something completely else?

With that out of the way, let’s have a more detailed look at each material and find out which one works best for you.

Plastic Pots

Starting with the most commonly used Container and it’s advantages over other Types of Pots:

  • Inexpensive: The reason plastic pots are so common is their price, nothing is as cheap as plastic, by far the cheapest option available
  • Come in all shapes and sizes: Another advantage of plastic is its flexibility, from small to giant plastic Pots can be found in all sizes, forms, and colors.
  • Lightweight: plastic Pots are very Lightweight and can easily be transported if necessary.
  • Stackable: plastic Pots are mostly designed to be stacked, which will save up quite some space if they are not yet used for any plants.
  • Durable: While plastic will degrade after a couple of years, they tend to be relatively durable, even in outdoor conditions. In my experience, Clay Pots won’t last as long as a good plastic pot.
  • Installed Drainage Holes: plastic pots come with installed drainage holes so excess water can leave the Pot easily. This can be useful for Plants needing well-drained soil but will require specific draining soil.

On the other hand plastic pots also have some disadvantages over other materials:

  • Can get to wet for certain plants: Drainage Holes can also do so much in terms of drainage, the sides of the plastic pot cannot absorb any moisture, which will increase the chance for root diseases in plants which can’t handle moisture around the roots. This also will increase the chance of overwatering.
  • Sensible to direct Sunlight: Especially black plastic pots are sensible to direct sunlight, plastic will be prone to chipping if exposed to the sun for a longer period of time.
  • More sensible to Cold Temperatures: The thin walls of a plastic pot are less resistant to cold temperatures than clay, Plants which should stay outside in winter but might be endangered of taking Frost damage should not be planted in plastic pots. (You can, however, use a plastic bag and other cover material to help your plant to survive, more here)
  • Chipping over time, leaving non-decomposable plastic parts: The biggest disadvantage of plastic containers is their material itself. After around 5 years of use, they will disintegrate into small noncompostable parts. Changing pots before that happens, will be some work, but will keep your garden clean of small plastic parts.
  • Some older ones might leach chemicals into the soil: While this in most cases no longer true, some older plastic pots leaked chemicals into the soil endangering both the soil and drinking water.

Ecopots is also a good alternative to regular plastic. These Pots are essentially plastic pots but degrade into composable parts. The Lifespan of such a pot is around 5 years but will cost you a bit more than regular plastic.

Terra-cotta/Clay Pots

Clay pots are also widely used and considered one of the best options for container planting. Let’s see what gives clay planters an advantage over other planter materials:

  • Transpires water: Clay can absorb water and transport it through its pores to the outside of the pot. This will help to prevent both overwatering and root diseases
  • Better air exchange between soil and air: Airflow is another big advantage of clay pots, compared to other materials like plastic air can travel through the clay container and reach the soil as well as the contained roots.
  • Better insolation barrier: Clay provides some natural protection against cold weather making it more suitable for sensitive outdoor plants.
  • Naturally recyclable: Clay will also chip over time, but all clay is compostable, so you don’t have to worry about any lasting pollution.

On the Flip side Clay also has a couple problems, here is a short overview of most of them:

  • Breaks easily: Clay pots are more sensitive to physical damage, dropping a clay pot will always destroy it, they have to be handled with more care then for example plastic.
  • Can be damaged by frost: The water absorbing aspects of clay combined with frost can damage or destroy a clay pot.
  • Needs more watering: Plants grown in clay pots will need more frequent watering, as a lot of water is lost through the pot
  • Heavy: Clay pots are heavier than plastic and cause some problems if they need to be transported frequently. On the other hand, this might prove to be advantageous for top-heavy plants
  • Brittle, will start to degrade after 1-3years: Clay is not a very durable material when kept outdoor, making it last not much longer than 2years.

Some of the problems of clay can be counteracted, for example buying partially glazed clay, will reduce any watering related issue, while still keeping both airflow and water absorption. However, using fully glazed clay will negate most advantages and is very similar to a plastic pot.

Another way to help with water issues is to use an olla (a small-medium sized clay container, used to slowly release water). This clay container can be buried in the middle of your planting box, releasing a constant slow flow of water to keep the soil moist.

Wooden Pots

Wood is also used to make an array of different Pots, but they are far less common compared to clay and plastic. Advantages of wooden planting pots include:

  • Good insolation: Wood will also provide a good insolation barrier, protecting your plant from both frost and extreme heat.
  • Can be built at home: While pots made from plastic and clay are hard to make without prior experience and the right machinery, making wooden pots is quite a bit easier and can be done with old pallets.
  • Esthetics: Maybe it’s just personal preference, but I really like the looks of wooden planters.
  • Durable: Under the right conditions a wooden container can last up to 2 decades, but it will require some maintenance work.

On the other hand wooden planters also have a host of disadvantages:

  • Heavy: Wood is heavy, I would never use a wooden container if it has to be moved.
  • Need to be maintained: Wood needs to be maintained from time to time to prevent rotting, or weathering.
  • Sensible to weathering: If not properly maintained wood will start to fall apart very quickly, making it less suited for outdoor planting.
  • Some pests will eat wood containers: Ants and Termites love wood, a special coating will be needed to prevent pests from eating away the pot around your plants.

Metal Pots

Mostly used indoor metal pots are mostly used for decorative reasons, but there are also some practical advantages to this material:

  • Durable: Metal will never just break apart or crack, but might get some deformations if handled roughly.
  • Wide range of different metals: Depending on the Metal used some other Advantages and Disadvantages might be prevalent. For example, Aluminium is very lightweight, and won’t rust.
  • Esthetics: Similar to wooden pots, metal pots also have their own flair, making them a good indoor option.

On the opposite side Metal pots have quite a few disadvantages compared to some of the other options:

  • Can trap Heat: The surface of a metal pot can reach some pretty impressive temperature when left in the sun, this can cause damage to the roots of the plant.
  • Water circulation: Similar to Plastic Metal also doesn’t allow any water exchange through the sides of the pot, making overwatering and root rot more prevalent.
  • Low Airflow: Metal will also cut off most of the airflow to the soil, similar to plastic pots.
  • Heavy: Bigger metal pots are nigh impossible to transport, therefore should only be chosen if they don’t have to be moved frequently.
  • Stay away from cheaper ones: Cheaper metal pots might rust or leach toxic material into the soil, so better to stay clear of the cheaper options.

Pressed Paper and Coir Pots

While being useless as a normal growing pot, paper, and coir pots are far more practical and only used temporarily:

  • Good airflow: Similar to clay pots Air can travel through the walls of the paper/coir pot and supply the soil with oxygen.
  • Biodegradable: These pots are made to degrade in the span of a year, making them perfect for vegetable seedlings, reducing the work during transplanting.
  • Cheap: Paper is cheap these pots will save you a few dimes, compared to most of the other options.
  • Lightweight: Can be easily transported (and stacked)

On the other hand paper pots also have some disadvantages over other materials:

  • Not really usable long-term: Paper pots will degrade within a year, coir pots might last a bit longer (2 years), but both are only short term options.
  • Sensible to cold temperatures

Fabric Pots:

The last type of pot I want to look at are fiber pots, so let’s first look at their advantages again:

  • Good ventilation: Airflow is another big advantage of these pots, oxygen will have no problem penetrating the thin fabric walls to reach the soil.
  • Lightweight: Fabric Pots are very lightweight and can easily be moved around if needed.
  • Easily storable: Folded these pots don’t use a lot of space and can easily be stored.
  • Durable: This material is pretty resistant, dropping them won’t leave a scratch, so they are perfect for even the sloppiest of a gardener.

Looking at the disadvantages of fiber pots:

  • Need large saucer: A pretty large saucer is needed to cover the whole fabric pot, otherwise lack of water might cause your plant to wilt.
  • Bad insolation: Both direct sun and cold temperatures might damage the roots of the plant if left without care.
  • “Wiggly”: These pots don’t have any specific shape and might deform over time, this might be disadvantageous for root development, but is mostly just aesthetics.

Related Questions:

Which color is best for Pots? The color of your pots is the main contributing factor reflection and absorption of sunlight. Normally you want a color which can do both, like gray to reduce heat absorption in summer and increase it in winter. I generally would avoid black and white colors but most other ones will do perfectly fine.

How to improve drainage in Pots? Putting Gravel under the soil of your planting container will improve its drainage and also keep the roots out of excess water, reducing the chance for root rot. When using a saucer, removing excess water might be advantageous, alternatively, you can also use gravel to keep the pot out of standing water.