How to clean terracotta pots

Literally meaning “baked earth,” terracotta is a reddish-brown, unglazed clay that is often used to make pots and flowerpots. After a terracotta pot has been used for a while, green algae stains and white mineral salts, usually deposits from hard water and plant foods, accumulate on its surface.

Some gardeners prefer the rustic signs of aging, while others want their pots to retain their rusty shades. Even if you like the live appearance of stained pots, keep in mind that the bark of mineral deposits can burn or dry out the plant stems on top of them. If you want to keep your dishes stain-free, follow the steps below to clean the terracotta dishes.

Tools and materials


Although you can also use bleach or vinegar to clean and disinfect dishes, never mix the two. Doing so may produce toxic chlorine gas, which will make you gasp.

STEP 1: Remove loose dirt with a scrub brush or hose.

At the end of the gardening season, throw away the old potting soil and plant debris from the pots before cleaning them. Be sure to wear a dust mask to prevent inhalation of contaminants. As it may be contaminated with bacteria, fungi or insect eggs, do not save old soil. When the pots are empty, put on plastic gloves and remove any loose dirt that is still stuck on their sides with a stiff scrubbing brush or a strong jet of water from the garden hose.

Related: The best planters and pots for flowers, vegetation, succulents and more

STEP 2: Wash dishes in dishwashing liquid.

After removing the loose dirt, immerse the terracotta pots in a large bucket or sink filled with water to which a portion of detergent has been poured. Then rub the dishes over with a scouring pad, steel wool or wire brush. When done, rinse the dishes in clean water. If you wash your terracotta pots in the spring in preparation for planting, leave them in that water until they are ready to use. Wet clay pots do not suck moisture out of the soil like dry ones.

how to clean terracotta pots

STEP 3: Remove traces of salt or algae stains by soaking the dishes in a vinegar solution.

If salt marks or algae stains remain after cleaning, try cleaning the terracotta pots with vinegar. Start by placing the cleaned dishes in a container filled with a mixture of one part vinegar and one part water. Let them soak overnight before trying to peel off the white or green film.

If diluted vinegar does not work, use a cloth dampened with full-strength vinegar to clean the protein or greens in the terracotta pots. You can also use this method to clean terracotta pots containing plants, taking care not to allow the vinegar to touch the plants while cleaning the outside of the terracotta pots.

how to clean terracotta pots

STEP 4: Disinfect the dishes with bleach if you have not used vinegar.

The vinegar into which the dishes are soaked should also be used for disinfection, getting rid of the fungi and bacteria mentioned earlier. If you have not used vinegar to clean the terracotta pots, you can disinfect them with a bleach solution of one part bleach and nine parts water. Allow the dishes to sit in this solution for at least 10 minutes, but preferably not more than an hour, before rinsing them thoroughly in clean water.

STEP 5: Dry the pots and store them upside down and indoors for the winter.

Turn the pans over and allow them to dry before storing them in a garage or shed. (Clay pots left outdoors in the winter months tend to crack.) For best results, store them upside down, in a row, rather than in piles. If you have to stack the dishes, place a newspaper between them so that they do not stick together. Should any of the pots break during the cleaning process, save your pieces for other purposes or reuse the extra pans to make an ingenious space heater.

Related: The best pots for aloe plants that thrive indoors

Final thoughts

The above steps are usually sufficient to clean terracotta garden pots, which are the best containers for cacti and succulents that require excellent drainage. However, the same methods can generally be used to scrub cheaper plastic containers that mimic the appearance of terracotta and other more expensive materials.

Note that cleaning large terracotta pots can be more challenging than smaller ones because large pots do not fit easily in sinks or buckets. You may want to wash them in a large, clean trash can.

how to clean terracotta pots

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