Fort Myers Florida Weekly

Pottery Express and Bamboo Farm — a vast expanse of Earthy delights



Over the Lee County line by just a hair — off the harried, worn path of U.S. 41 — is Zemel Road in Punta Gorda. About four miles down that road is the five-acre Pottery Express and Bamboo Farm. Inside its gates is a Zen-like world of color and natural beauty.

Pottery Express is a place loaded with fantastically colorful pots, urns, fountains and art from Vietnam and a variety of Mexican pueblos. The Bamboo Farm is loaded with container upon container of 20 species of bamboo, neatly lined in rows.


The place that is Pottery Express and Bamboo Farm envelops visitors into a world of tranquility, art and nature unlike any other Southwest Florida destination. Hundreds of artful pots in every color imaginable are on display in the courtyard of a compound of rustic buildings. Each building houses other aspects of the Pottery Express inventory, including brightly-hued Talavera pottery, earth-toned and black Mexican pottery and handpainted and wood-carved pieces called Alebrijes.



More awe-inspiring than the amalgamation of products from around the world — all available for purchase and priced reasonably — is the story of how this place came to be, and how the pieces of its evolution fit together like pieces of a puzzle.

Pottery Express and Bamboo Farm is the product of one family’s passion and vision, of a love of art and the yearning to share it with the rest of the world.

Bamboo roots, Mexican art

The enterprise is owned and operated by David and Nancy Palmer and their son, Roger. Mrs. Palmer is a master gardener who grew to love and respect the towering beauty and enduring nature of bamboo.

Above: Vietnamese pots and urns can easily be converted to fountains. Left: Alebrijes copal wood art is imported from two villages in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

Above: Vietnamese pots and urns can easily be converted to fountains. Left: Alebrijes copal wood art is imported from two villages in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

“Dave planted bamboo along the front of this property,” son Roger Palmer said — as a business partner, he refers to his father by his first name. “He got this property about 15 years ago when Zemel Road was a dirt road and swampland,” he said.

Rows of bamboo are propagated and cultivated at the Bamboo Farm.

Rows of bamboo are propagated and cultivated at the Bamboo Farm.

About seven years ago, as bamboo was being cultivated on the site, David Palmer, a retired philosophy professor, took a trip to Mexico. There, he studied Spanish.

“I was sailing in Mexico and Belize to visit Mayan ruins,” he said.

“I wanted to keep coming back and I was looking for something to do,” he said. He ended up with a truckload of pottery. Truckload after truckload followed, and Pottery Express was born.

“Mexican clay pottery was our first product,” he said.

During one of his buying trips to Mexico, he was told about an old pottery factory where discarded pottery remains could be found. What he reaped from his excavation of the site makes up Pottery Express’s micromuseum of clay sculpture some 40 or 50 years old. It’s a source of pride to Mr. Palmer and the only thing on display at Pottery Express that’s not for sale.



“This stuff was thrown out as damaged, worthless,” he said, gesturing to Mayan masks and figures locked in a glass display case. He gestured to a laminated photo inside the case.

“This is the pile I went through,” he explained, pointing to a mound of discarded pottery in the photograph.

That excavation was the inspirational moment for adding Mexican folk art to the mix of worldly treasures at Pottery Express, and the beginning of Mr. Palmer’s fascination with Mexican folk art, which makes up a small but important category in the Pottery Express inventory.



He referred to the encyclopedic book, “Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art” at the cash register. Chapters in the book are dedicated to some of the folk art carried at Pottery Express.

“Products we have here are nationally known in Mexico,” he said.

“My thing is to try to find the best of these nationally known artists. They’re the best folk art pieces from the country. This folk art is dying out, and these will be important pieces,” Mr. Palmer said.

The employees of Pottery Express are more than happy to share what they know of the history of the art, the artists and their techniques, equipping buyers with literature on the pieces at checkout. Indeed, buying at Pottery Express and the Bamboo Farm is an educational experience.



Mr. Palmer has great affection for the Mexican people from whom he buys direct.

“The Mexican artists are all Aztec descendants,” he said. “This is how these tribes make a living.”

In every case, he knows the artist, visiting “cow towns” and modest dwellings that also serve as art studios.

His study of the Spanish language helps. “I like to talk to them. And I enjoy doing something that’s unique.”

From his person-to-person buying trips comes the Mexican art inventory at Pottery Express.

Colorful Talavera pottery has the broadest appeal. Imported from the Mexican state of Puebla and Dolores Hidalgo, Pottery Express’s handcrafted Talavera pottery is created by master artisans whose techniques have been passed down since the 16th century. Garden centers from the Virgin Islands to the state of Washington and nationally recognized catalogs purchase Talavera from Pottery Express’ direct imports, making up roughly a half of Pottery Express sales.



From Mexico to Vietnam

Mexican clay pottery was its first product and the cornerstone of Pottery Express in its first two years. In 2007, planters from Vietnam were introduced. Visually appealing in a very different way, Vietnamese pottery is far less porous than Mexican clay products, and breakage during import is minimal.



David Palmer brought his son Roger on board to manage Pottery Express and to begin the direct import of the Asian product. Indeed, Roger Palmer’s degree in international affairs and his mastery of the Spanish language from a period of study in Guatemala would benefit the company overall.

A year ago, he took a trip to Vietnam in search of another factory “to get the colors mixed right,” he said. Pottery Express selects every brilliant shade in its inventory.

The Vietnamese pottery offered at Pottery Express is fired in a dragon kiln, Roger Palmer explained. The dragon kiln is about the size of a football field, he said, with raked gradients to let the kiln air flow.

Inside the massive kiln, pots are stacked inside each other for firing.

Jerry Presseller with a fountain at the Sun Art Gallery.

Jerry Presseller with a fountain at the Sun Art Gallery.

Shop owners Patti and Jerry Presseller bought a Vietnamese urn from Pottery Express for Sunart Gallery in

Punta Gorda and asked Roger Palmer to turn it into a fountain. The ribbed exterior of the 3-foot blue piece creates a play on light as water cascades down its sides.


“The whole sales experience with Pottery Express was very favorable,” Mr. Presseller said, adding that Sunart’s customers always remark on the fountain. The people make the company

Both David and Roger Palmer are quick to give credit for the company’s rapid growth and development to his multi-tasking staff of 20.



Janice Schmidt, who has a degree in horticulture from Michigan State University, has been the horticulturist and bamboo specialist since the company launched in 2005.

“It’s been rewarding watching the company grow,” she said.

“A few of the large theme parks wanted advice or purchased bamboo from us,” Ms. Schmidt said. And though she has been the point person for orders from Sea World and Busch Gardens for the Jungala attraction, she divides most of her time between propagating and cultivating the bamboo and educating homeowners and landscapers about the 20 species of bamboo available to them at the Bamboo Farm.

The most common misconception about bamboo is that it spreads, she said. Indeed, bamboo has earned a reputation for taking over homeowners’ yards, but the Bamboo Farm carries only the “clumping” variety, where roots are confined to a limited area.



Many homeowners choose bamboo for privacy hedging. The smallest species grows to 12 to 15 feet, though Ms. Schmidt has known these to be trimmed successfully to 8 feet in height.

And after a particularly cold Southwest Florida winter, Florida residents flooded the Bamboo Farm in search of resilient bamboo to replace frost-killed areca palms and other shrubs.

On the Pottery Express campus, bamboo is planted among Asian and Mexican pots in an “inspiration” area, to illustrate how a Zen-like garden can be arranged around bamboo, large pots and a flowing stream.

“You don’t really notice the bamboo is there,” Ms. Schmidt said of the display. “It’s a good example of how well bamboo works in landscaping.”

Much of Ms. Schmidt’s time is spent fertilizing, watering and inspecting the rows of bamboo she cultivates.

“What’s rewarding is watching the varieties grow. I like to try getting different varieties in and propagating them,” she said.

Valerie Guerin is in sales management

for the company, specializing in Mexican folk art, including black clay, Day of the Dead figures and the Alebrijes art carved from lightweight copal wood.

“She does everything,” Roger Palmer said. “She does all the pricing on all the folk art and knows it better than anyone else.”

Ms. Guerin works with retail and wholesale customers, handles special orders, shipping and repairs.

Employees are cross-trained so they can support each other on days off and in the height of season, when lines grow long at the cash register.

The fine pottery art sales manager knows her bamboo, too.

“We do a lot of educating,” Ms. Guerin said.

“We’re small enough so that everyone does a little bit of everything,” Roger Palmer said. “We wear lots of hats.”

A Southwest Florida destination

Artist Jo Lapinski runs the Inspiration Studio on the Pottery Express and the Bamboo Farm’s campus. There, she creates and sells art and conducts classes in creating art and jewelry from found and recycled pieces.

Garden clubs from Venice, Naples and communities in between ask for guided tours.

Red Hat groups frequent the grounds.

Some people bring picnics and make a day of it.

Plein air artists set up their easels to capture the beauty of the place.

Locals bring out-of-town guests.

Out-of-town guests without guides find their way there, too, having heard of the singular destination from traveler wise to the region.

They come for the education, the bamboo, the art, the fountains and the kaleidoscope of pots.

And they come because the Pottery Express and the Bamboo Farm grounds offer a quiet retreat and a feast for the senses.

They know what everyone who has experienced Pottery Express and the Bamboo Farm knows. There’s no South- west Florida destination like it. 

in the know

Mexican folk art at Pottery Express • Alebrijes copal wood art is imported from the villages of Arazola and San Martin Tilcajete in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Brightly painted in acrylics, pieces intricately carved from one piece of wood hold a higher value. The carvers are descendants of the Zapotec Indians, who have inhabited the area for more than 2,000 years. • Day of the Dead figures are made in several Mexican villages, most notably Capula, in the state of Michoacan, a village where cows are herded across dirt streets. Day of the Dead is a Mexican tradition honored since around 500, B.C., and is a time to celebrate the remembrance of ancestors. • Artists Bernadina Riviera Olla and Elena Felipe are from the tiny village of Huancito in the state of Michoacan. They are among the most famous folk artists in Mexico, having won top prizes in Mexico’s national art competitions. Their clay vessels are burnished smooth and delicately painted with squirrel or cat hair brushes with flower and animal motifs. • Black Clay pottery comes from the village of San Bartolo Coyotepec, south of Oaxaca, and was originally used to transport mescal from the hills to the vallages. Since the 1950s, the vessels have been created for decorative purposes only. The clay is naturally dark in color, and is a nationally judged art form. • Pinas of San Jose de Gracia are created by the Herlindo Gutierrez family, one of the few families in the world making award winning pineapple-inspired art. The 80-year-old ornate art form has earned elite art awards and is found in many personal art collections and folk art museums. This product of a tiny crossroads village with dirt, mud and rock streets is featured on the cover of the book, “Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art.”


Inspiration Studio Classes • Artist and owner Jo Lapinski sells an array of jewelry and art made from natural gemstones, sea glass, sterling silver, shells and other objects. She also repairs costume or sterling jewelry and re-creates jewelry from vintage pieces. Ms. Lapinski also offers classes in mosaics, wire-wrapping, jewelry making, beading, glass fusing, birdbath art and other disciplines.

Bamboo types at the Bamboo Farm • Bamboo sold at the Bamboo Farm is non-invasive. Clumping bamboo can be used as hedging and in landscape designs. Density of bamboo varies by species, and culms (stalks) can be found in yellow, blue and variegated hues. Bamboo grows to heights of 10 to 50 feet, depending on species.

Care and planting tips • Most tropical bamboos require at least four hours of direct sunlight on the leaves per day.

• After planting, diligent watering is a must, and may require additional watering than irrigation systems provide.

• Sandy soils that drain well are the best. Root systems planted in boggy conditions it will not survive • Bamboo should be fertilized with a palm fertilizer. For the complete guide to bamboo care, visit
If you go
• What: Pottery Express and Bamboo Farm
• Where: 25370 Zemel Road, Punta Gorda
• Info: (941) 505-8400,
• Web:;;
• Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday

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