The confident charm of terracotta pots; shopping

There has never been a finer range of imported pots to hold a beloved plant. By John Windsor
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Banish those ugly plastic plant pots. Massive, reasonably priced traditional Far Eastern and African ceramic urns and storage jars are arriving in Britain by the container-load. They look both charming and confident. Some are in lushly glazed stoneware, some in earthy unglazed terracotta. Most are frost-proof - equally at home in the garden, or filled with tall plants indoors. Or as a planter for the Christmas tree.

The yard of Joss Graham's Oriental shop in west London is piled high with Vietnamese stoneware. Some of the Chinese-influenced designs date from the 14th century. So do the colours: turquoise blue, sage green, mustard yellow.

Huge, 2ft-wide red terracotta bowls with moulded lions' heads cost pounds 75; a blue-glazed, tulip-shaped "fish tank", nearly as big, pounds 120; Smaller blue-glazed pots, 7in tall, 11in wide, pounds 35. A few pots, 40-60 years old, have a glaze with mature, richer hues, a hint of what modern ones will look like when they outlive us. A 60-year-old glazed vase with blue dragons costs pounds 245.

Mr Graham will plant a bamboo in your chosen pot, and prices start at pounds 20. You could turn your living room into a ceiling-high jungle with bamboo - or the palms and figs recommended by Trevor Sims, senior adviser of the Royal Horticultural Society. Fig trees, imported from Florida, are especially fast-growing, he says. Palms tend to grow more wide than tall. For best results, mimic a subtropical climate: avoid roasting them in direct sunlight, allowing them to press against freezing glazing, and over-watering.

Even frost-proof garden pots will crack if allowed to fill with water that freezes then thaws. Some Vietnamese pots are made with drain holes, some are not. Put a drip saucer under all unglazed indoor pots, with or without holes - or water will seep through, ruining your carpet or polished floor.

Mr Graham's supplier, Vietnamese Bich Tyler, has ordered half-holes in next year's consignments, which can be left intact or knocked through. Those half-holes seem to epitomise the delicacy of her import business Trade and Care, which has funded schools in the Vietnamese potteries district north of Ho Chi Minh City.

Ms Tyler returned from wartime exile to Vietnam as recently as 1990. In the early Nineties there were fears that the Vietnamese pottery industry might go the same way as the Malaysian, with families of potters in acrimonious price-cutting rivalry sparked by buyers from Western department stores seeking mass-produced wares as untraditional as a ceramic Miss Piggy. Ms Tyler says: "It took me three years to build up respect and trust"

Next year, Stephen Morgan, who teaches pottery at Bath College of Higher Education, will visit Ben Hoa with Ms Tyler to discuss new designs. "The easiest way to kill something is to let it stand still" he said. "But I'm very wary about being interventionist".

I chanced upon big African and Catalan pots at Juniper in Walthamstow. Matungi cooking pots from Kisumu, East Kenya, fired in underground kilns, have a unique, shiny black finish. These were from Besmo of Wembley, which handles 5,000 pots a year.

Juniper's 24in-tall hand-thrown Catalan amphoras are on offer at pounds 55. They are frost-proof, but look good indoors filled with dried twigs. The importer is Catalan Classics of Abridge, Essex, which started only 18 months ago.

The importers Red Mud of Kentish Town, north London, are wholesalers with a local retail trade that also offer a free nationwide list of 200 retail stockists of their 200-plus oriental designs.

Ethnic pots are also appearing at garden centres and trade fairs, and occasionally crop up at auction. I paid pounds 150 for a whopper at Criterion Auctions in Islington - a 3ft 3in-tall Vietnamese Ali Baba-type urn with mustard-coloured glaze and Chinese-style cantering horses moulded on the shoulder.

But the biggest imported pots are the monumental, 4ft-tall Moroccan pale terracottas imported by Barbary Pots of Chelsea. The Menara, a full- bodied, wide-shouldered olive pot shape, and the Soudania, an Ali Baba shape, are hand-thrown in 8in-9in sections and cost pounds 581 each.

Joss Graham, 10 Eccleston Street, SW1 (0171-730 4370). Trade and Care, 73 Buttesland Street, N1 (0171-490 2493). Juniper, Central Parade, 3 Hoe Street, Walthamstow, E17 (0181-521 0562). Besmo, Unit 24, Woods Building, Fourth Way, Wembley, Middlesex (0181-903 0571). Catalan Classics, Patch Park Farm, Ongar Road, Abridge, Romford, Essex RM4 1AA (01708-688088). Red Mud, Linton House, 39-51 Highgate Road, NW5 (0171-267 1689). Barbary Pots, 45 Fernshaw Road, SW10 (0171-352 1053).