Plastic Pots vs Clay Pots For Plants – Pros and Cons


If you have houseplants indoors or a container garden outdoors, you may be wondering whether to use plastic or clay pots.  I was wondering the same thing, so I decided to do some research and find out which type of pot is better.

So, what are the pros and cons of clay pots and plastic pots for plants?  Clay pots allow water and air to move in and out of soil, preventing plants from drowning in wet soil.  Clay pots also help to insulate soil and protect plants from rapid temperature changes.  Plastic pots allow soil to retain more moisture so that you can water less frequently.  Plastic pots are also lighter than clay pots, making it easier to move and repot plants.

To decide between plastic pots and clay pots for your plants, you will need to consider the purpose of the pots.  For instance: indoor or outdoor plants, food or ornamental plants, warm or cold climate, and the need to move the pots.

Let’s start off with a more in-depth look at the pros and cons of plastic pots and clay pots, and then we’ll get into some common questions about pots for plants.

Pros and Cons of Clay Pots

There is no such thing as the perfect pot for plants.  As such, clay pots have both some helpful features and some drawbacks.  Let’s get into those now.

Benefits Of Clay Pots

One big benefit of clay pots is that they are porous.  This means that both air and water can freely pass between the inside of the pot and the outside of the pot.

clay pots
Clay pots are porous, allowing water and air to pass through so that soil does not stay too wet.

Clay pots help to regulate moisture levels of the soil inside the pot.  If you over water your plant, some of the water from the soil will wick through the clay pot and into the air.

This helps to dry out wet soil, and makes it more difficult to kill your plants with wet soil. For more information about watering, check out my article on over watering your plants.

If you keep you clay pots outdoors to grow food or decorative plants, you will also get the benefit of insulating the soil from rapid temperature changes.  If the temperature drops at night or soars during the day, the clay pot will act as a buffer that will prevent the soil from heating or cooling too rapidly.

This means that your plants in clay pots get protection from both extreme cold and extreme heat.  As an added bonus, clay pots are heavy enough that they are difficult to knock over.  So, your plants get extra protection from being knocked over in wind or storms.

wind sock
Clay pots are heavy enough that they can resist falling over in wind or storms.

Drawbacks Of Clay Pots

So far, clay pots sound wonderful for your plants!  However, they do have some drawbacks.  First of all, you will need to water plants in clay pots more frequently, since excess moisture will wick away through the clay pot and into the air.

If you do need drainage holes for your clay pot, you are generally stuck with whatever holes are already in the bottom of the pot.  If you try to cut or drill holes in a clay pot, you will likely crack or shatter the whole thing, making it useless for growing plants.

clay pots
Clay pots are difficult to puncture if you want additional drainage holes.

The extra weight of a clay pot also makes it more difficult to move.  This is especially problematic if you like to rearrange your outdoor container garden or patio garden frequently.  The extra weight also makes it more difficult to move plants in clay pots between indoors and outdoors when the seasons change.

There is also a cosmetic issue to consider with clay pots.  When water wicks out of the soil through the clay, it can sometimes bring salts from the soil with it.  This can result in unsightly salt deposits on the outside of your pots.  If you are using potted plants for decorative purposes, this could be a deal-breaker for you.

Clay pots generally only come in one color: a rusty reddish-brown color.  This can be a turnoff if you want more color on your patio or in your house.

Finally, clay pots break and shatter easily, creating sharp pieces that you will most likely need to throw away.  If you move your pots frequently, you are bound to smash a pot once in a while.

Remember that if you leave water or moist soil in an outdoor clay pot, it may crack overnight if you get a hard frost or consistent freezing temperatures.

When To Use Clay Pots

Clay pots are best used for plants that prefer soil that is dry and well-drained, such as succulents and cacti.  They are also good for plants that you don’t have as much time to water and care for, if you travel frequently for work.

spray bottle cactus
Cacti are good candidates to grow in clay pots, since they can survive in dry soil for longer periods of time.

Clay pots are also good for outdoor plants that need protection from extreme daytime heat or nighttime cold.  They are also great for houseplants or outdoor plants that you do not intend to move very often.

Clay pots are also good for outdoor plants that are top-heavy with shallow root systems, since the extra weight prevents wind from knocking them over.

Pros and Cons of Plastic Pots

Clay pots are not perfect, but neither are plastic pots.  Plastic pots have both advantages and drawbacks of their own, so let’s take a look at them now.

Benefits Of Plastic Pots

Plastic pots are lightweight, flexible, and shatter-resistant.  This makes it easier to move plants that are already rooted in a plastic pot.

plastic pots
Plastic pots help soil to retain moisture, which is good for plants that want more water.

If you drop a plastic pot, it is likely to just bounce off the ground, instead of breaking into shards like a clay pot.  Plastic pots also come in many colors, so you are not limited to the reddish-brown rusty color of clay pots.

Since plastic is not as permeable as clay, water has more difficulty escaping from soil in a plastic pot.  This means that soil in plastic pots retains moisture and does not need to be watered as frequently.

If you tend to over water your plants, it is easy to cut, burn, or drill holes in the bottom or sides of a plastic pot without destroying the entire thing.  Plastic pots are also easier to clean out after you repot a plant, so that you can re-purpose them for other uses.

Drawbacks Of Plastic Pots

Plastic plants also have their downsides.  First of all, it is easier to drown plants in plastic pots, since the excess moisture cannot escape through the pot itself.  Plastic pots are also light, which means that outdoor plants in plastic pots are easier to blow over in a strong wind or storm.

plastic pots
Plastic pots are lightweight, which makes them more likely to blow over in strong winds if left outdoors.

Also, plastic pots provide less temperature insulation, which can lead to injury or death for plants if you get cold temperatures at night or hot temperatures during the day.  Even worse, black or dark-colored plastic pots can heat up rapidly in bright sunlight, which can overheat the soil and kill plants easily.

Finally, some types of plastic are toxic, which is dangerous if you are growing plants in plastic pots to produce food.  At the very least, ask the store where you bought the plastic pots or the manufacturer if they are food safe.  A food-safe designation may also be indicated on the packaging.

When To Use Plastic Pots

Plastic pots are best used for plants that prefer moist soil, or if you are trying to germinate seeds indoors to prepare for spring planting. However, you may want to use a humidity dome to germinate seeds prior to transplanting to a plastic pot.

For more information, check out my article on humidity domes.

pumpkin seeds
Plastic pots are useful for germinating seeds, since the soil will remain moist for longer without watering.

Plastic pots are also good for plants that you will need to move frequently between indoors and outdoors, due to the light weight of the containers.

For more information about plastic pots and clay pots, check out this article on pots from the University of Nebraska Extension at Lancaster County.

Common Questions About Pots For Plants

There are a few common questions about pots for plants that I came across, so I want to address some of those now.

What Is The Best Pot For Succulents or Cacti?

Succulents and cacti need less water and less frequent watering than other plants.  As such, they prefer soil that drains well.

Since clay pots are better than plastic pots at wicking moisture out of wet soil, you should opt for clay pots when growing cacti or succulents.

For more information on which pots to use for succulents, check out this article on pots from succulents and sunshine.

What Is The Best Pot For Germinating Seeds?

Seeds generally need consistent moisture in order to germinate successfully.  This means that you will need to keep the soil moist throughout the germination process.

Since plastic pots retain moisture better than clay pots, you should opt for plastic pots when germinating seeds indoors or in greenhouse.

What Other Types of Pots Are There Besides Plastic and Clay?

There are lots of other options besides plastic and clay pots.  The only true limit is your imagination.  Here are some examples of other types of pots you can use for plants?

  • Glazed ceramic – this is a clay pot with a baked-on glaze.  The glaze means that the soil retains more moisture, but also gets less air circulation.  Caution: beware of dark glazes in bright sun & hot climates, since these trap heat much more easily than light glazes!
  • Concrete – these pots are very heavy and hard to move, but they stand up to tough weather conditions and provide good insulation against extreme temperatures.  A concrete pot would be great for stationary outdoor plants that you do not plan to move.
  • Fiberglass – according to Wikipedia, “fiberglass is a type of fiber-reinforced plastic using glass fiber”.  Fiberglass is a versatile material that is used for storage tanks, housing, pipes, and of course, pots for plants.  For more information, check out this article on fiberglass from Wikipedia.
  • Metal – metal pots made of iron can rust, so you may need to get ones that are treated to prevent this.  They can be heavy, but they will trap lots of heat from the sun and air if you need to keep your plants warm.
  • Wood – wood will rot over time, but using a wood pot for plants is a great way to use up extra wood in an environmentally friendly way.
  • Glass – if you have glass jars from the grocery store, you can use them as pots instead of putting them in the recycling bin.

Conclusion

By now, you have a much better idea of the benefits and drawbacks of plastic pots and clay pots.  Hopefully, you also have a better idea of when to use each type of pot.

I hope you found this article helpful – if so, please share it with someone who can use the information.  If you have any questions or advice about plastic pots or clay pots, please leave a comment below.

jonathon.david.madore

Hi, I'm Jon. Let's solve your gardening problems, spend more time growing, and get the best harvest every year!

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