Tarnished pots

Tarnished pots

As a collector of plants, I am also an avid collector of pots. Mine stretch far beyond ordinary red clay to encompass a wide range of materials, glazes, shapes and sizes. Some of my best include bonsai pots, hand-thrown stoneware, creatively fired Asian works and rustic Mexican pieces resembling archaeological relics.

Pots provide splashes of color for the apartment-dweller, the renter, urban resident and anyone who lives where there is no soil. Pots are versatile. Best of all, they can be moved from one home to the next or to protected locations for the cold seasons.

The challenge is finding the perfect plant for an old pot to create a one-of-a-kind, living sculpture. Few are as outstanding as a sculptured, bonsai specimen placed in a stylish, ceramic pot. Or set some semiwoody, herbal topiaries in clay pots for a French or Italian look. All of these bring style to a porch, patio or sunroom.

As these delightful creations accumulate, you can arrange and rearrange them for an ever-changing presentation. They can be accented with affordable, thrift-store and garage-sale accents that stand up equally well to the elements. For example, small teapots, Chinese-warrior figurines, carved-stone ashtrays, slag glass and chunky minerals all add visual interest to a forgotten nook or outdoor cranny.

Some of my best pots were once tarnished with stains and mineral buildup that obscured their original beauty. This thick, hard residue is known as lime scale. It occurs around the rim of a pot where water sits while gradually soaking into the soil. It also results from water passing through a porous pot wall, leaving behind the whitish substance on the outside wall.

This accumulation of calcium and lime is so difficult to remove that folks would rather throw out the pot than try to clean it off. Truth is, scrubbing and scraping frequently scratches or permanently damages the glaze or surface texture.

The best way to rehabilitate lime-coated pots is by using a descaling product such as Calcium Lime Rust. Select gel form because liquid CLR tends to run off before it has a chance to penetrate. When you apply gel to the pot, coat it uniformly and then set aside for a few hours. This way, the gel has a chance to work its way into the calcifications.

Use a scouring cloth suited to nonstick cookware to wipe away the gel without scratching the surface of the ceramic pot. If some chunks remain, repeat the process on these stubborn spots. Once clean, you may find the pot's surface has lost its luster. To fix this, wipe it down with olive oil or Armor All. In fact, it's a good idea to oil all your glazed pots to maintain their original color and beauty.

Many used pots once contained plants that died from pests or disease. Some of these pathogens can remain with the pot, lying dormant in the porous clay. There is a chance that, in replanting, the problem may return as soil and water are reintroduced.

This is why it's a standard horticultural practice to sterilize pots before they are reused. Do this by thoroughly washing the pot and then drop it in a bucket filled with one part bleach to nine parts water. You can also run smaller pots through the dishwasher, using the heat and steam to sterilize them.

Whether you collect plants or pots, knowing how to rehabilitate an old, stained or calcified pot can make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. And over time, the collection of one-of-a-kind finds coalesces into a one-of-a-kind garden, porch, patio or fire escape.

Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist whose blog, the MoZone (www.moplants.com/blog), offers ideas for cash-strapped families.

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