By: Mary H. Dyer, Credentialed Garden Writer
After a few years or even months of regular use, flowerpots begin to look grungy. You may notice stains or mineral deposits and your pots may harbor mold, algae, or disease pathogens that can be unhealthy for plants.
Ceramic and plastic pots are relatively easy to clean with dish soap, hot water, and a scrubber or old toothbrush, but terracotta pots with layers of crusty residue can be a challenge. Unfortunately, it’s common for terracotta containers to develop a very noticeable layer of unsightly mineral and salt deposits.
Although you can probably remove the crud with strong cleaning products and elbow grease, using vinegar to clean pots is an effective, environmentally friendly alternative to toxic chemicals. Your pots will look better and cleaning with vinegar will remove bacteria hiding on surfaces.
If your terracotta pots are looking yucky, try cleaning with vinegar. Here’s how:
Use a scrub brush to remove loose dirt and debris. It’s easier to remove dirt with a brush if you let the dirt dry completely first.
Fill a sink or other container with a mixture of one part white vinegar to four or five parts hot water, then add a squeeze of liquid dish soap. If your pots are large, clean them outdoors in a bucket or plastic storage tote.
Let the pot(s) soak for at least an hour or overnight if the stains are severe. You can also use a stronger vinegar solution of half vinegar and half hot water, if necessary. If the residue is thickest on the rims of the flowerpot, fill a small container with pure vinegar, then turn the pot upside down and let the crusty rims soak. Finish the job by rinsing the pots thoroughly, then wipe them with a rag or scrub brush.
This is a good time to sanitize pots to remove stubborn disease pathogens. Rinse the pot to remove the vinegar, as the combination of vinegar and bleach can release chlorine gas. Immerse the pot in a solution of ten parts water to one part bleach and let it soak for around 30 minutes. (Rinse them well before planting, if reusing right away, as bleach may be harmful to plants.)
Place the clean pots in the sun to dry. Don’t stack terracotta pots when they’re damp, as they may crack. You can also sanitize cleaned pots by running them through the dishwasher. Store the pots in a dry, sheltered location until ready for planting next season.
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I have to admit that I’ve definitely neglected to clean flower pots I’ve used in the past and I’ve suffered the consequences when flowers in certain pots just wouldn’t thrive even when others nearby were growing bigger by the minute. It’s my goal for this year to clean out every single pot by the end of the fall when the growing season is done and I decided to start right away with some pots that had spring flowers in them that I recently emptied. Don’t worry if you run out of time and don’t get your pots all perfectly-cleaned in the fall. You can definitely clean them just as well in the spring before you plant too!
Just as in kitchen cleaning, a clean flower pot isn't a germ-free flower pot. After used flower pots have been cleaned, they need to be sterilized to kill any organisms that may spread disease to next year's plants. Pots should be soaked in a solution of 1 part household bleach and 9 parts water for an hour, and then rinsed and soaked in clear water to remove any bleach residue that remains. The pots should be left in the clear water until they are ready to be planted to add extra moisture to fresh potting soil, unless they will be used on another day.
Gardeners with many pots to clean and sterilize may do the job in batches, often having pots in many stages of the process at the same time. All sterilized pots should be stored separately from dirty pots to prevent disease organisms from redepositing on the surface of the cleaned pots. Dirty pots should be stored in a separate plastic bag, such as a garbage bag, to prevent the spread of dirt and germs until they can be treated.
Working in sunny Florida, Anne Baley has been writing professionally since 2009. Her home and lifestyle articles have been seen on Coldwell Banker and Gardening Know How. Baley has published a series of books teaching how to live a frugal life with style and panache.
Last Updated: March 5, 2021 References Approved
This article was co-authored by Ilya Ornatov. Ilya Ornatov is the Founder and Owner of NW Maids, a cleaning service in Seattle, Washington. Ilya founded NW Maids in 2014, with an emphasis on upfront pricing, easy online booking, and thorough cleaning services.
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Vinegar is a mild acid, which makes it a great multi-purpose cleaner for around the house. As a household cleaner, vinegar can be used to do anything from removing stains, to unclogging drains, to disinfecting, to deodorizing, and it can even be used to remove stickers. You can use it undiluted, combined with baking soda, or as an ingredient in a homemade household cleaner, and every room in your house can benefit from vinegar in some way.
As warmer weather approaches many of us are digging out previously used plant containers for use again this gardening season. Whether the pot is clay or plastic, mineral deposits and other debris can accumulate that may harbor disease organisms and cause problems for your plants. It is important to clean and disinfect old pots each time you use them. Mineral salts can be both unsightly and damaging to plants. The salts leach through clay pots forming a white film on the outside of the pot creating an unsightly container by some gardeners standards. Salts can also accumulate around the rims of both clay and plastic containers. Salt deposits on container rims can dehydrate plant stems resting there.
To disinfect pots, soak them in a solution containing one part household bleach to 9 parts water for a minimum of 10 minutes. Then put pots in a dish detergent and water solution. To clean clay pots use steel wool or a wire-bristle brush to remove mineral deposits and other debris. If mineral deposits remain, use a knife to scrape them off. Rinse pots thoroughly and soak them in a bucket of clean water until you are ready to use them. Dry clay pots can wick moisture away from the potting medium dehydrating newly potted plants. Plastic pots are easier to clean requiring only a scouring pad. Mineral salts remaining can be scraped away with a knife. Smooth any rough edges with steel wool. Rinse the pot and it is ready for reuse.
Proper cleaning and disinfecting of pots requires just a minimum amount of effort, yet can mean the difference between the success or failure of containerized plants. Take those extra few minutes to assure success.
This article originally appeared in the March 16, 1994 issue, pp. , 1994 issue, pp. 23-24.