Per the Terracotta Sanitation Department: "DON'T STORE DIRTY CLAY POTS"

There's nothing more exciting to see Spring right around the corner and to know in just a matter of days or weeks it will be time to pull out the planting containers and insert new soil and seeds or baby transplants of our favorite blooms.  It get itchy every year about mid April to go ahead and get a few things over into pots as a little head start. And sometimes I just cave.  I buy early bloomers way before I should and plant those babies right up! Then I make sure my big ugly printed cloth (aka:old bed sheet) is handy because I am going to need it to keep my newborns babies warm at night.
The only thing that can stifle the excitement of new plants in pots is if when you reach for the stored pots and find you were too lazy last fall to clean them before storing.  What? You didn't realize you should clean your clay planting containers before storing them? Yes, you should always sanitize terracotta planting container that you plan to reuse.  And yes, I do realize soil came out of the pot and fresh, nutrient rich soil is going to go back into the pot. 
Terracotta is simply baked clay. You can't really feel the pours but it is actually a very porous structure after being formed and fired in a very hot oven.  This is a good thing for your young and newly planted roots because the pours of the terracotta allow air to pass through the walls and into the soil giving your plants the oxygen it needs to establish a good foundation in it's new home.  That's the great thing about terracotta! 
Now, there is also a bit of a drawback to terracotta too.  That same porous condition of the clay walls of terracotta also allow for all the eensy weensy microbes that happen to be floating in the air to also land and pass through the structures micro-pores. Alot of the floating microbes that we can not see are actually beneficial to the growth of our happy potted plants, and some are not. Ie: mold and mildew spores, and bacteria.  It's the "are not" ones that make it necessary to sanitize terracotta at the end of the growing season to best protect the clay and next years growth of all the blooming beauties.  
It's actually very easy to sanitize terracotta.  There are several ways I have heard to do it, but I have learned to keep it as simple as possible to ensure I don't get lazy while storing for winter, and my terracotta is clean and ready to go for next spring when I don't have the patience and plant too early. 
This is how I sanitize my terracotta containers (Nothing to it.):
  • Wearing gloves, I mix 1 part bleach to 3 parts water and pour into a heavy duty spray bottle.
  • I empty all the plant life (that is compostable) and spent soil into my cooking compost or a raised vegetable bed or anywhere else I may need to bring the dirt level up.  (Keep in mind this dirt is usually always spent.  Meaning, the nutrient levels are probably too low for most plants to grow in.) I consider this old pot dirt mostly just filler until it can get mixed back in to nutrient rich compost. 
  • Using a stiff dry brush I sweep as much dirt off the sides of the pot as possible, restoring the terracotta to as much a smooth finish as I can get. 
  • I spray a soaking layer of bleach mixture on each pot inside and out. When I say I soak it, I really soak it! Like drip, drip, drip kind of soaking. 
  • Since the pots are empty the sun will dry them quickly. 

  • Once the pots are dry from the sun, I thoroughly spray them off with clean water. Sometimes the bleach will actually suds up a little, but I am not sure why. Then I let the sun re-dry them. 
  • After all of my terracotta has been sanitized, rinsed, and dried in the sun the final time, I store them upside down on a shelf in my garden shed where they shiver until next spring.  ...the end. 
It's much more fun to pull out beautifully sanitized clay containers to pot new plants in each spring instead of old dried up crusty ones that not only look unhealthy, they are unhealthy.  Knowing you planted in a sanitized terracotta reduces the risk of bacteria to young and vulnerable plant life giving them a much needed head start on the growing season.  

So, please take my advice, be a responsible clay pot owner, and sanitize your containers before storing for winter. 

Love Mother Earth and her creator, Y'all!, 
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