The Olive Jars


Apparently I am still writing about Italian terra cotta-bear with me if you can.  The container that arrived just a few days ago has brought back a flood of memories from the past fifteen years shopping for great terra cotta-I have some 35mm images that describe those memories.  Once the shop had a home, and an address, Rob went shopping not one bit more seriously, but in greater volume, and with more confidence.  In the early 1990′s, he met and did business with Klaus and Ilona-they brokered Italian terra cotta from a number of different potteries.  Rob would meet them in Florence, and shop.  Though Klaus was German, his mother lived in Tuscany-in those days.  Rob became part of their Italian/German family.  Many bottles of great chianti and home bottled olive oil from Klaus’s Mom arrived in the container with our terra cotta in those days.  They helped bring order to Rob’s orders. Few of the potteries we bought from did much business exporting to the US.  The order we placed very early on with Carlo Chiti-the money disappeared, and our request for pots went unanswered.  Carlo Chiti-if you are out there, we are still waiting for our pots.  Klaus and Ilona no longer rep Italian terra cotta, but their generous help and support more than a decade ago taught Rob much about how to shop in Italy.     

The terra cotta pots, and sculptures manufactured by Mital are legendary.  Giant and ornately sculpted vases from Mital grace gorgeous gardens all over the planet.  In my opinion, the most beautiful classical Italian terra cotta pots ever made come from Mital.  My own terra cotta collection revolves around pots from them.   

A series of terra cotta pots of this exact design were made by Franco’s grandfather early in the 20th century for the Biltmore Estate.  These replacements for two broken pots, made from the original mold, were about to be shipped when Rob visited Mital in 1998.  Based on this photograph, I ordered three of them for the shop.  One client spoke for all three-he is as crazy about classical Italian terra cotta as I am.

Rob’s first trip to Mital in 1998-not so much about the history.  It was much more about meeting people.  Franco’s father’s vintage Lancia was as much a part of the landscape as the terra cotta.  There was much discussion of that car.  The personal relationships that Rob nurtured so many years ago over a love for fine terra cotta was instrumental in our ability to offer fine terra cotta to our gardening clients.  

I cannot speak or write with any authority about the use of terra cotta pots for storage of olive oil.  But I do know the terra cotta of the 12th and 13th century primarily consisted of jugs to hold water (mezzine), tiles and bricks for buildings, and jars for storing certain liquids and grains (orci).  By the 16th century, as the production of olive oil became an increasingly more important agricultural product in Tuscany, the production of orci-those jars used for the storage of the oil- increased accordingly-dramatically. 

In the yard at Mital, an incredible collection of antique terra cotta olive jars, side by side the olive jars still in production there.  What was once traditionally made in Italy to store oil is still being made, though their use has expanded.

   The ancient olive jars at Mital-a collection amassed over a lifetime by his father.  Franco was clear-none of the ancient jars were for sale.  Though they were simply diplayed at the pottery, they were a treasured reminder of all the the history of his craft.  Glazed on the inside, olive jars both new and antique have a distinctive shape.  The large oval bodies tapering at the bottom permitted the jars to be stored upright in metal or clay rings, or in wood braces aboard ships.  The relatively narrow necks still permitted easy access to the oil; the handles were useful should the jar need to be moved.

Olive oil should be stored in a dark cool place for maximum longevity.  The jars-perfect for this.  But ancient terra cotta olive jars are incredibly beautiful in their own right. My personal collection of terra cotta from Italy includes one 18th century olive jar, purchased from an Italian antiques dealer in northern Italy.  The year it arrived from Italy, Rob filled it with water.  Unbelievably, the scent of olive oil filled the air.     

Though I plant my jar with flowers every year, it is every bit beautiful enough to stand on its own, unplanted.  The day it is moved to the deck for the summer is a very good day indeed. I spend plenty of time thinking through what I will plant-this part is my pleasure.  

This Italian olive jar, empty, but faithfully supporting a climbing rose-this might be my most favorite garden photograph ever.  I have no idea where Rob took this picture, but it describes what I love so much about Italian gardens-they have a long standing romance with their gardens that is unmistakeable.   


This ancient terra cotta pot with obvious damage is an important visual part of this vineyard landscape.  I am sure it was not placed here for that purpose.  There simply was no thought to discard it.  If I had the chance, would I buy a pot such as this?  No doubt-yes I would.

Sunday Opinion: What Came First?

I have been sorting through box after box of old 35mm photographs of gardens and landscapes-old projects both for clients, and for myself.  I have always been a fairly decent record keeper.  This extends to keeping old letters, cards and notes-any and all materials that might be relevant to what I might have been doing in a garden at the time.  This includes garden journals, newspaper and magazine articles, tear sheets, plant tags, sketches, and the like.  I especially treasure the notes and letters from clients.  Even those letters that explain how I might have done a better job of helping them-of course I kept those.  No one takes the trouble to explain how things might be done better unless they 1) think you are capable of better, and 2) believe that their effort to explain will be heard.  These are good things, worth remembering.  Unbelievably, I have file folders dating back to 1986-my very first year in business.  I have every appointment book dating back to 1986 as well.  Why I am I looking through all of this? 

2011 is a year with multiple milestones for me, one of which is coming up quick.  Detroit Garden Works will celebrate its 15th year in business on March 29.  My design/build firm, Deborah Silver and Co, will celebrate its 25th year in business on July 1, 2011. Though I could write a novelette (OK- maybe a full length novel) about the failures, the things that didn’t work and the mistakes that were made, this is an accomplishment of which I am proud. 

Beyond this, I am interested in how those earlier years get lumped together.   Projects between 1986 and 1999 were all recorded with a 35 mm camera-pre my ability to use digitally based tools.  Thus my ungainly and tough to share storage boxes of pictures-most of which have inexplicably become all mixed up and out of order over the years  For all the world, the boxes look like the “Borrowers” have been in them, messing about.  You know, from the book “The Borrowers”-those mythical little people that live in the floorboards, and wreak havoc in the lives of those human sized people they borrow from.   Stacks of images that need resorting-this I have put off.  The photo boxes take up a lot of space, so they have been piled high on the shelves nearest the ceiling – out of the way, out of mind, and off the top 10 list.  What interests me about these pictures?  Though the form in which the work was recorded may be outdated, some of the work I rather like.  Some of the work-I rather like what it says about me.  Though the digital pictures I take now are more detailed, clearer, sharper and can be viewed in a much larger and simpler format, I can tell the work belongs to me. 

The most fun of all-pictures of my own first garden.  I see not so much evidence of design-but I do see a person who loved plants. In spite of the fact that I had little money to put to it, I had a big garden.  I was very big on the doing it myself part.  Those pictures of me in my garden-I look happy. Standing next to a tree peony in full bloom at the corner of my house-easily 5 feet tall, and 5 feet wide-I look delighted.  It’s clear what came first.  I was a gardener first.

At A Glance: The First Trip


Rob’s first buying trip to Italy was in the fall if 1993-two years before I would buy the property and building that would become Detroit Garden Works.  It was an exploratory trip in the truest sense of the word.  The goal of the trip-see what was out there in terra cotta pots, and other garden ornament.  I bought no end of European design magazines-that was just about the only way we could think of to search.  We had no idea where he was going, and once he got there, what he would find.  These pictures have a slightly blurry and romantic look for several reasons.  These are my digital pictures of what Rob photographed with a 35mm camera 18 years ago.  The other?  The excitement he must have felt to see these pots in person is recorded in these pictures; I cannot really explain this any better.  Eight months later 3 pallets of pots arrived.  I was conducting my landscape business from my home then.  Ralph and Kirk from GP Enterprises were kind enough to accept delivery at their commercial yard.  I had never seen clay pots like them before. I felt like I had just met my intended.  The 522 Italian terra cotta pots, 120 bowls, and 160 pot feet that were delivered 3 days ago?  It feels just the same now as it did then-only better.

Italian Terra Cotta

These three words-Italian terra cotta-are more than enough to get my attention, and make my heart pound.  Terra cotte-translated literally from the Italian-fired earth.  Pots fashioned from fired earth-what could be better?  What better container in which to grow a plant?  Containers from clay-what could possibly be more basic and natural?  The clay pot is a gardening icon.  I have stacks of them in my garage-I would wager that you do too.  On occasion, a client will fill their trunk with unneeded clay pots, and bring them to me.  Who could bear to throw one away?  Crusty with age and use-all the better.  I have yet to have a client insist on a brand new clay pot, if all I have in a size they need is a used pot.  Used and vintage plain terra cotta pots provide just as good a home for a plant as a new one.    

Italian terra cotta has been a part of my gardening life as long as I can remember.  The machine made clay pots of my twenties were no nonsense sturdy and functional.  Though the clay is fired, it is porous.  The clay will wick moisture away from the roots of a plant.  This can be helpful if you are a heavy waterer.  If you don’t always get to watering whern you should, a glazed or other moisture conserving pot might be a better choice.  That porousity also means that the container breathes; air is essential to proper root development.   Machine made terra cotta will break if dropped, or left out over a Michigan winter.  There are two critical factors that influence the durability of a clay pot.  The quality of the clay is crucial.  The best terra cotta pots on the planet come from Impruneta in Italy; the local clay is superior in quality.  The other factor-the temperature and duration of the cooking. Fine handmade Italian terra cotta is fired upwards of 1700 degrees.  The purpose of a long firing is a maturation process by which the pots are “soaked” with heat.      

Machine made terra cotta has its place.  They are available in an astonishing range of sizes and shapes.  It is important to properly size a pot.  Underpotting a plant leaves no root for root development.  Overpotting a plant can result in the soil staying too wet for too long.  Azalea pots and bulb pans are low and wide; this shape is specifically designed for shallow rooted plants that do well in less soil rather than more.  Long toms (a reference to tomatoes) and rose pots are tall; they accomodate the long root runs of these types of plants.  In any event, a classic clay pot is basic to anyone who grows plants.  A handmade Italian terra cotta pot-an object of great beauty and durability.     


Delivered yeserday, an entire container of handmade Italian pots.  The container is 40 feet long, by 10′ wide and 10′ tall.  There were a whomping lot of pots on that truck.  Why so many?  Having a container delivered empty to the pottery means the packing costs are less; they pack and protect their pots quickly and expertly.  Of the entire lot of hundreds of pots, one was broken.  But the big issue is the volume.  When we buy lots of pots direct from the manufacturer, we get a better price per pot.  This helps make a handmade Italian terra cotta pot more affordable. 

Any wood that comes from overseas has to be heat treated, so no pathogens come along with the pots.  Even the pallet wood is cooked.  Likewise the excelsior-the pots are protected with wood shavings when they are stacked, and anywhere the steel strapping material touches a clay surface.     

Each pallet is then shrink wrapped.  I imagine the trip across the ocean on a boat can get dicey in bad weather.  The durability of these pots helps make shipping them easier.  Should you thump a terra pot, it should ring with almost a metallic sound.  This tells you it is a high fire pot.  Pots that thud when thumped-low fire.   

This is an embarrassment of riches in terra cotta pots, but it means someone who needs four matching, or 8 matching might find something they like.  The soft orange color will beautifully compliment a planting.  Their rugged good looks you will have for a very long time, given proper care.  My own pots, but for 3 large English made concrete pots in the classical Italian style, are impruneta terra cotta.  A beautiful clay pot is tough to beat.  The first pallet of pots I bought 15 years ago was Italian terra cotta-I still remember what a thrill it was to unpack those 14 pots.  They were very expensive, as is anything you bring over from Europe, a little at a time.  But every one of them found a home, and many of them I am still planting for those clients. 


You may be wondering what about this pot enthralls me so much.  It is not just the simple beauty of the form, the soft color and subtle surface.  

A beautifully planted Italian terra cotta pot can mean this for a garden.