If you’re familiar with houseplants or gardening, you must have heard of LECA. It’s one of the trendiest things to talk about among plant enthusiasts because of its unique qualities of being used as a growing medium for plants.
LECA clay balls are highly absorbent and allow you to grow plants in a wick water, soilless medium without affecting the health of the plants. The most significant benefit for plant owners is once you know the care steps for LECA, it’s a straightforward way to grow plants.
If you are a new plant parent and want to know more about using LECA for plants, this article is definitely for you!
Table of Contents
What are LECA Balls?
The term LECA stands for Lightweight Expanded Clay Aggregate. LECA has the shape of pebbles or small stones made by roasting clay at extremely high temperatures. It is mainly used for indoor plants.
These small balls of clay are made by heating clay in a rotary kiln, then the material is shaped into little balls. Simply put, LECA is balls made of inorganic clay, which provides many benefits to the plant. LECA balls have a porous surface, making them great for growing different plants.
Due to having no organic matter, they are pH-neutral. Although the initial cost can be higher than normal soil if looked after properly, these small balls of clay can be used time and time again.
How Does LECA Work?
LECA clay pebbles absorb your nutrient-rich water allowing any excess moisture to drain off to the bottom of the pot.
This pot will not have drainage holes, creating a water reservoir system allowing the plants to consume what they need by sucking it up by their roots direct from the LECA.
LECA absorbs more water from the reservoir as long as there is not too little water (you should keep the water level in the reservoir at about one-third full). Of course, you also don’t want to add too much water.
This prevents the plant roots from developing root rot due to overwatering, stops them from being under-watered, and gives the roots much-loved oxygen. Roots love air!
It’s not hard work. As long as you occasionally check the water level in the reservoir and top it up, you can leave the plants to enjoy their self-watering pots – they will take care of themselves.
Once your initial watering is completed, you can leave the plant care to itself, regularly checking and topping up the water.
Benefits of Growing Plants in LECA
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There are so many positives to growing in LECA. My favorite is the fact that you don’t need soil, and therefore you won’t get the mess that soil can make, especially true if your cat digs in your indoor plants!
Soil is also a big attraction for pests, but you will have fewer pests due to not needing soil with LECA.
Be aware, though, that not all pests dislike LECA; spider mites love a dry climate with high temperatures, so although this is an excellent medium for growing, it’s not a cure-all!
LECA is also pH neutral, which may make alarm bells start ringing for some of you, but it does mean that you can easily adjust the pH balance using fertilizers, therefore giving your plant proper care, which will, in turn, allow your plant to thrive.
Here are a few more benefits expanded and explained.
1. Reduced Risk of Overwatering
When you are growing plants in LECA, one thing that you should never worry about is overwatering the plants. LECA is highly absorbent and easily absorbs all the extra moisture.
2. Provides Structural Support
LECA provides the plants with structural support that traditional soil cannot give the plant. They keep the plant from falling over as it grows.
3. Equal Distribution of Nutrients
As LECA has a hydroponic system, the pores in the clay pellets absorb enough water, which reaches the roots through capillary action. The roots of your plants equally distribute the nutrients throughout the plant.
4. Reusable Medium
LECA balls are reusable. Soil does not stay full of nutrients forever, but you can use LECA balls indefinitely.
The biggest difference between using soil medium and LECA is that these clay balls don’t suffocate plants’ roots. LECA balls have pores and small spaces between them that allow the oxygen to reach the roots efficiently for proper root growth.
6. Low Risk of Root Rot
Less water equals less risk of root rot. LECA clay balls keep the roots well-aerated without suffocating them. Hence preventing root rot.
7. Low Risk of Pests
Using LECA means fewer pests. Pests are attracted to damp soil but don’t survive in LECA. The balls are made of inorganic material, and pests like spider mites and fungus gnats can’t lay their eggs on them.
Cons of Growing Plants In LECA
Using LECA is costly compared to other potting mixes, such as soil. Moreover, LECA cannot be put in any other type of pot, so you have to spend some extra amount to buy particular new pots specially designed for hydroponics or aquaponics.
Needs Special Fertilizer
LECA requires hydroponic fertilizers as other fertilizers are not appropriate to use with it.
LECA doesn’t retain much moisture, so that’s why they need to be watered frequently, which can produce algae.
A change in the pH of the mix can develop an inability in the plants to absorb water, causing a nutrient lockout in plants.
Different ways of using LECA for plants
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1. Potting Medium
LECA balls, as a potting medium, are the best substitute for soil if you want to have a mess-free gardening experience. Clay balls have excellent porosity and can regulate the flow of water and nutrients from roots to the top of the plants effectively.
However, being an inorganic substance, LECA doesn’t have any nutritional value. Therefore, to provide your house plants with the necessary nutrients, you must use a fertilizer with watering so that the plant can thrive.
2. Drainage Source
One thing you should know about LECA balls is that they provide better drainage. These balls drain out any extra water while preserving the moisture for the plant. So, you can fill the bottom of the pot with LECA balls, which can help absorb extra water.
To do so, fill ⅓ of the bottom of a new pot with LECA clay balls. Then add potting mix above the balls. Put the plant in a favorable environment and keep watering it.
This effective method prevents root rot by draining excess water from the soil to the LECA. Moreover, it provides space for roots to grow and improves the plant’s aeration rate.
3. Top-Soil Dressing
LECA is used for multiple purposes. Not only can you use it as a soil and bottom leverage, but it’s a good idea also to use it as a topsoil dressing.
Now, why would you do that? LECA balls at the top of the soil restrict the growth of pests and insects on the plant, especially the gnats that lay eggs on the plant.
But that’s not all because LECA at the top of the soil also retains the moisture in the soil.
How to Prepare LECA for Use
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To use LECA for plants, you must prepare the new LECA beforehand. The preparation isn’t the hardest; it’s just the formality to ensure that your plant grows perfectly.
To prepare for LECA, you have to follow these steps:
Step 1: The first step is to take LECA balls out of their container and rinse them well if this is the first time you are using them. Rinsing is important to remove all the debris and dust that has accumulated on the balls.
Step 2: Soak the clay balls in fresh water for 24 hours to completely clean them out.
Step 3: Give your LECA balls a second soak with distilled water and Epsom salt (a good nutrient for your plants).
Step 4: Allow them to dry in a mesh laundry bag which you can also store them in if you are not going to use them.
Step 5: Place your balls in an inner pot that has sufficient drainage, and then place that pot into an outer pot with no drainage holes.
How to Transfer Plants from Soil to LECA
LECA balls can be used as potting mediums because they provide good aeration to the root. It allows the water and nutrients to be absorbed by roots without suffocating them. Hence reducing the risk of root rot by naturally monitoring the amount of water surrounding the roots.
If you are thinking about transferring a plant from soil to LECA, the below-mentioned steps will help you.
Step 1: Prepare LECA
First of all, you have to prepare LECA for the plant. Follow the steps mentioned in the section above.
Step 2: Prepare Your Plant
You must take out the plant from its soil to prepare it for LECA. Clean off any dead roots or organic material stuck to the roots. Some plants are okay if some soil on their roots gets transferred to LECA, while some aren’t.
In the long run, it’s best that you clean the plant roots thoroughly. You can also use water to get rid of the soil on the roots by gently rinsing them under a tap or in a bucket.
Step 3: Repot in LECA
Now comes the important step of transferring a plant from traditional potting soil to a hydroponic system. The LECA balls should be slightly wet when you are planting. Take a pot specially designed for hydroponics; regular nursery pots will also work.
Fill one-third of the pot with the balls and then put the plant inside. Submerge the balls in water and then put in more balls if necessary.
Step 4: Watering
The most important thing is watering. This essential step is very significant for the plant and will go a long way to ensure healthy root development. For watering LECA, two methods are used – by a reservoir and by the shower method.
In the reservoir method, the plant will only absorb the water that is needed after its plantation from underneath. The liquid must be water with a nutrient solution to get the level of pH up to the correct amount for the kind of plant you are potting.
After watering the plant in LECA by reservoir method, you should check a few days later to see if the plant is okay with the liquid you are giving it.
Ensure that your LECA balls touch the nutrient solution when the reservoir is being used. Keep the reservoir filled with a nutrient solution to approximately a third of the way up.
The shower method is effective for plants that transitioned from soil to LECA. The live organisms in the plant’s roots easily get flushed out, and the good news is it prevents the roots from drowning as extra water easily drains out or gets absorbed by the LECA balls.
Step 5: Sunlight
Check the requirements of sunlight for your plant. The amount of sunlight a plant needs isn’t any different in soil or LECA. Just make sure to keep watering in check when the plant is getting sunlight, as you would normally do.
Step 6: Fertilize
Unlike soil, LECA doesn’t have any nutrients of its own, so you have to add them yourself. First of all, maintain the pH of the LECA balls.
The pH level should be between 5.5 and 6, but this can vary depending on which plants you are growing. You can use a good hydroponic fertilizer, as a regular type is just a supplement to soil nutrients.
Step 7: Maintenance
You must keep an eye on the plant to see how it’s taking on a semi-hydroponic setup. Keep a check on the water level. If you feel the plant is getting overwatered, start using the shower method. But if it is getting under-watered, switch to the reservoir method.
Why Plants Need Fertilizer In LECA
LECA Balls are made of clay, an inorganic material. This basically means they don’t have any nutritional value of their own whatsoever. Therefore, individual plants growing in LECA need fertilizers to get all of their required nutrients.
The fertilizers for LECA are specifically made for hydroponic systems with specific amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, along with other hydroponic nutrients.
Hydroponic fertilizers are specialized for plants growing in water-based nutrients solution.
Other fertilizers can also be used for LECA, but they need to be diluted before applying to the plant.
Some plants need high levels of magnesium to grow, such as bell peppers. If you were to grow peppers in soil, you wouldn’t necessarily be sure to know how much magnesium is already in the soil.
At least with LECA, you know there is none and can therefore add this accurately through your fertilizer. You are then able to monitor the pepper growth to figure out if you need to add more or less during future watering.
Nitrogen and phosphorous are present in the soil but are limiting to plant absorption as there is often not enough, and often in a form that can’t be taken in by the plant.
This can cause plants to be craving these two nutritional elements. However, when growing in LECA, as long as you are aware of how much nitrogen or phosphorus your plant needs, you can add the correct quantity by fertilization.
How Do You Choose The Best Fertilizer For LECA?
The most important thing with using LECA is the fertilizer should be mixed well in water.
A well-absorbed fertilizer is a must for LECA because if the fertilizer is not absorbed thoroughly in water, it cannot be evenly distributed to the roots of the plant.
This is the reason that a hydroponics liquid fertilizer is used for LECA. Liquid Fertilizer is soluble, unlike organic or granular fertilizer.
LECA has a neutral pH level, so before choosing a hydroponic fertilizer for use with LECA, you will need to check the pH level of the plants.
By doing this, you’ll learn which nutrients the plants are deficient in and then can buy fertilizer according to the pH of the mix.
The pH balance will probably change as you give plants the right amount of fertilizers, so you need to check the levels each time you fertilize LECA and adjust or change the type of fertilizer as necessary.
- Nitrogen: Nitrogen is a very important nutrient because it helps the plant’s foliage and plays an essential role in leaf growth. The deficiency of nitrogen in the plants causes stunted growth, wilting of leaves, and inhibition of shoot growth. As discussed above, there is very little nitrogen in soil and none whatsoever in LECA. This is why when using LECA, we know we are starting at nil and can add the amount we know our plant will need and will be in an efficient, absorbable medium, unlike nitrogen in soil.
- Phosphorus: Phosphorus is essential for the plant in LECA because it helps the roots with growth. It’s the phosphorus in a fertilizer that makes the roots of plants grow healthy as it converts the light from the sun into energy for the plant and plays an important role in cell division. Due to phosphorous deficiency, the leaves shed excessively after turning brown, and they don’t grow back.
- Potassium: Potassium aids the plant in its overall general growth. Without potassium, a plant won’t stay in an upright position. This nutrient also helps with the enzyme activation of the plant, which affects the ATP (energy molecule). It’s the potassium in the plant which helps in the movement of water and other nutrients in plant tissue which can be why there are droopy and lifeless leaves on plants – a lack of potassium. Again, there are no nutrients at all in LECA, and potassium is essential for healthy growth.
- Calcium: Calcium deficiency in plants can cause deformations of the leaves as this nutrient is important for the cell walls in the plant. Most of the calcium is available in the water used for the plant, so only a small quantity suffices. With soil, on occasion, there can be too much calcium which can affect the plants’ absorption of other nutrients causing your plant to become deficient in other essentials. Again, with LECA, there is no calcium to start with, so no chance of an overdose!
- Magnesium: Just like calcium, magnesium is also very important for plants because it helps them in the photosynthesis process. If the plant is lacking in magnesium, the leaves can turn brown or rusty looking, and eventually, they will fall off. Magnesium is an essential part of chlorophyll, and if the plant is deficient, it can result in stunted growth. That is why if your plant is not growing in LECA, it could be the lack of magnesium. A good way of adding magnesium to your fertilizer is Epsom salts.
- Iron: Even though iron is a micronutrient, it is essential in photosynthesis because it synthesizes chlorophyll and the enzymes in the process. The deficiency of iron causes interveinal chlorosis, which makes the veins of the leaves become pale yellow or white. Iron in fertilizers improves the quality of the plant, especially fruit and vegetables, so ensure that enough iron is added to your LECA fertilizer.
- Copper: Copper helps with the plant’s seed production and has a small role in producing chlorophylls along with other enzymatic activities in plants. Copper deficiency in the plant causes problems in the plant’s foliage, and leaves can turn yellow, or lettuce, for example, can even bleach.
- Zinc: Zinc helps in the overall growth and development of the plant. It also plays a part in the metabolic reactions of the plant, which help in the process of photosynthesis and enzymatic activities. Zinc deficiency in plants slows the growth of plants, and the leaves turn a patchy yellow or ‘burn.’ Carbohydrate, protein, and chlorophyll formation are significantly reduced in zinc-deficient plants.
Types of Fertilizer for LECA
The types of fertilizer LECA works best with are hydroponic fertilizers. What are hydroponic fertilizers, and how do they work? Let’s find out about it below.
The key to a good fertilizer is that it can easily dissolve in water because, unlike with soil, you can’t just sprinkle it on the LECA and let the plants absorb it as you continue to water. Liquid Fertilizers are highly water soluble and dissolve easily in water.
To use a liquid fertilizer for LECA, take a gallon of water in a jug or container, and add ¼-½ tablespoon of the fertilizer.
Now, mix the fertilizer well with water and then put the water in the bottom of the plant’s pots. The fertilizer will start to release towards the LECA balls along with the water, and the plant will get its nutrients.
The great thing about fertilizer is that you can change the amount according to the performance and requirements of the plant.
One fertilizer that is widely available and great for beginners is General Hydroponics Flora Grow, Bloom, Micro Combo fertilizer set. This combo, although not the cheapest option, is great for all stages of growth and goes a long way. (There are more brands of good fertilizers with affiliate links listed at the end of this article).
For those of you on a budget, you can make a hydroponics fertilizer at home. While it may not be as nutrient-rich as an over-the-counter brand, the good news is that it’s very environmentally friendly.
The best kind of compost is to use half green waste and half brown waste. For example, green waste can be old plant cuttings or vegetable peelings, and brown waste can be newspapers or sawdust. Glossy magazines aren’t any good.
- Take the good stuff – the compost that has been left for a long time to be broken down, as this will provide more nutrients.
- Add 2 shovels to a 5-gallon bucket
- Fill the bucket, preferably with rain water, and let it steep for 3 days. There is no advantage in using distilled water.
- Strain the water out, removing all sediment
- You can throw the compost back onto the garden
- Put the liquid into a large container with a lid
- Dilute when using; ½ gallon homemade fertilizer to 50 gallons of water
If you live near the sea, the next one could be a great option for you, and it’s super easy to make.
- Collect approximately 6oz of seaweed
- Wrap it in a cheesecloth and tie it with twine to prevent sediment leakage
- Add it to 5 gallons of water in a bucket and leave it in the sun for 5 days. Rainwater is best, but you can use fresh water from the tap
- Lastly, add 5 teaspoons of Epsom salt
- This can be used undiluted
As with a regular fertilizer, it’s still important to check for pH levels, and, more importantly, with homemade versions, the biggest difference is that you have a less clear picture of nutrient quantities.
Fertilizers to Avoid for LECA?
Organic Solid Fertilizers
Organic fertilizers should be avoided when using LECA pebbles as they have lower concentrations of macro and micronutrients. Natural/organic fertilizers take a long time to break down, even with soil plants, requiring long-term exposure to bacteria and fungi before the nutrients are available for the plants.
Slow Release Fertilizers are designed for traditional soil and also not good for LECA because LECA needs specific amounts of nutrients, which cannot be attained when the nutrients are released into the LECA balls slowly. Many slow-release fertilizers designed for soil are also insoluble in water, so they are not worth trying for LECA as they won’t fulfill the plant’s needs.
Most of the time, granular fertilizers are applied directly to the soil or roots of the plant. But in the case of LECA, it isn’t possible, and you shouldn’t try it too. The granular fertilizers are not water soluble and take time to get absorbed into the soil. LECA cannot dissolve granular fertilizers, so you should avoid this nutrient system.
Common Questions For LECA Fertilizer Use
How Do You Fertilize LECA Balls?
The first step when you use LECA clay balls is to get a new pot or use one that has been washed thoroughly to remove any old soil. With the first use of LECA, you must wash and soak it to remove any clay dust and hydrate it.
LECA Balls need to be fertilized every time you water the plants that are growing in them. Hydroponic fertilizer is the preferred food for LECA plants as, of course, the clay balls don’t have nutrients of their own.
We all need food to stay fit and strong. This also goes for your plants in this semi-hydroponic setup.
However, your plants will get really unhealthy and unfit if you overfeed them – just like us! This is why it’s important to monitor your plant’s health and add or reduce fertilizer accordingly.
When the plant is repotted for the first time in LECA, add ¼ tablespoon of a good hydroponic fertilizer per gallon of water or follow the instructions given on the container or for your specific plant. Watch the progress of the plant for the next two weeks or so.
If the plant appears to look happy, continue with the same dose. But if the plant is not thriving, increase or decrease the amount of fertilizer accordingly.
How Often Do You Need To Add Nutrients To LECA Balls?
Nutrient fertilizers don’t need to be given to Hydroponics daily, which is the same case with LECA Balls. Generally, not all plants are the same, and it will vary, but if you add the nutrients to LECA Balls every 4 to 7 days and monitor the plant, you will begin to learn how often each plant needs nutrients.
For example, snake plants need little fertilization, whereas orchids need a lot more, the root growth on orchids is a good detector of health – if they’re too white, they are likely underwatered. To understand which kind of plant needs how many nutrients, a lot of people will do some research and check the plant growth regularly.
Whenever you water plants, mix some liquid fertilizer into the water according to the amounts directed on the container or instructions researched for the plant or previously worked out by yourself in trial and error.
Also, monitor how the plant is taking the addition of macro as well as micronutrients, and then give it nutrients according to its growth. Like humans, teenagers who are growing quickly will need way more food than a more mature, less active adult!
How to Propagate Cuttings in LECA
You can easily propagate cuttings in LECA. It’s important to choose plants that have water roots rather than soil roots, as these will do better.
All you need is to follow the steps given below.
Step 1. Prepare LECA balls and soak them overnight before starting.
Step 2. After preparing LECA, take a container suitable for LECA, such as a glass jar, and put an inch or two of LECA into the jar.
Step 3. Add the plant cutting, ensuring it’s cleaned so no impurity or organic matter is on it.
Step 4. Add more LECA balls up to an inch of the brim.
Step 5. Add water with liquid nutrients to the container to come up to about an inch from the top of the LECA.
Step 6. Make sure to keep on watering the plant when needed, as the water will evaporate.
Which Indoor Plants Thrive in LECA?
LECA is the perfect medium for growing plants that like to dry out before watering, such as the orchid or aloe. Another suburb benefit is the added oxygen that circulates around your plant’s roots.
Before you begin, it’s a good idea to check the best plants for this semi-hydroponic system, as some plants need potting soil for good root development. LECA uses a water reservoir and is a really easy introduction to hydroponic gardening.
The best plants to grow in LECA are those with a fast-growing root system and those that can survive in any unfavorable environment. Epiphytes and aroids can be plants that thrive in LECA.
Here’s a list of some favorite plants for LECA.
Snake Plants are one of the easiest to grow house plants, and they can also thrive in LECA. Snake Plants or Mother-in-Law’s Tongues love dry environments and not too much water, which is why you will get the best results growing these plants in a LECA environment.
These clay balls are helpful in hydrating snake plants, and as a result, they don’t get exposed to root rot and moisture.
Spider Plants are hydroponic plants which means they grow perfectly in LECA. Spider Plants have fast-growing roots, so they make their way around the LECA balls and thrive in them.
Many tropical plants like monstera can grow well in LECA because they have soft foliage and do not require much water.
Aroids like ZZ Plants are a good choice to grow in LECA. They are a great drought survivor as they store water in their roots, making them a very suitable plant for LECA.
Any epiphytes like orchids are also great for growing in LECA. Epiphytes need air for their plant roots to thrive, and what’s a better option other than LECA?
The small spaces between LECA balls provide orchids with enough air to survive, and also, it’s a great way for the roots of your plant to spread out, thus leading to fantastic plant growth.
FAQ About Using LECA for Plants
How Often Should You Water Plants in LECA?
It all depends from plant to plant, but most plants that are 6 inches or less can be watered as little as every 2 weeks. To rehydrate the balls, add water directly to the reservoir container. Keep your LECA balls hydrated, and don’t let them dry up. The size of the pot, humidity, and temperature play an important role in the water requirements of LECA plants.
When to Flush LECA?
LECA can be flushed around every month. When you start seeing white substances on the balls, you should know that it’s time for flushing because those white spots are salts that appear due to using nutrients on the plant. To flush the LECA, use net pots and tap water to clean it. The extra water will start filling the pot’s lower level. Drain the impure water, and you are done.
How Long Can Plants Grow in LECA?
Typically, you can grow plants in LECA for one to three years. Sometimes, it also depends on the size of the plant you are growing because it can outgrow the container, and the LECA balls can be less effective. The growing conditions and environment of the plant also play a big role in it.
What Kinds of Pots to Use for LECA?
Pots especially designed for hydroponics are used when using LECA as a medium. However self-watering pots are also a great option, but if you don’t want to invest too much, you can use a plastic nursery pot with drainage holes and place it in a closed container that will serve as a reservoir.
Can I use Sphagnum Moss with LECA?
While using LECA as a medium, you can place LECA at the bottom, with plant and moss on the top. In this way, the LECA transfers the water to the roots and then the moss through wicking action. Hence providing equal distribution of the water.