what is leca

What is LECA? Complete Guide on Using Clay Balls for Plants

LECA, or Lightweight Expanded Clay Aggregate, also known as clay balls and hydroton, is a versatile growing medium that has become quite popular among plant enthusiasts. Baked clay balls are porous, absorbing a lot of water and providing a suitable environment for plant roots. It looks very aesthetic on indoor plants, especially with clear glass pots.

LECA, first created in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1917, is utilized in hydroponic gardening and delivers numerous advantages to your plants. By absorbing water and gradually releasing it to the roots, the clay balls ensure that your plants receive the proper amount of water and oxygen. This results in healthy growth and thriving plants without the danger of overwatering or suffocation.

LECA is useful in a variety of ways. Some people use it with potting soil to ensure good root aeration. Others use it in semi-hydroponics using nursery pots and frequent water flushing. Personally, I like using it in clear glass pots filled with nutrient water for indoor plants.

Understanding what is LECA, how it is made, and its possible uses will help you decide how to best use it for your gardening journey.

What Is Leca

LECA balls from IKEA

Lightweight Expanded Clay Aggregate

LECA, or Lightweight Expanded Clay Aggregate, is a plant-growing medium composed of small clay balls. These clay balls provide a lightweight alternative to traditional soil and are popular in hydroponic gardening. Also known as hydroton, these expanded clay balls help improve plant growth by promoting better drainage and aeration for plant roots.

Since clay balls are porous, they can retain water and nutrients. Slowly, water and nutrients are released into the plant’s roots. They are also inorganic, so they don’t break down or rot. This factor makes them reusable and highly durable. LECA doesn’t need to be changed every few years like soil.

Production

LECA is made by heating clay to high temperatures until it expands, similar to how popcorn pops. This process produces lightweight and porous brown clay balls that offer excellent aeration and drainage properties for plant roots.

LECA balls

Clay balls have the following characteristics:

  • They are inorganic, so they won’t rot or break down
  • Reusable and durable
  • Excellent drainage and aeration capabilities
  • Able to retain water and nutrients for slow delivery to plant roots

Applications

LECA is widely used in various gardening and landscaping applications due to its numerous benefits. Some of the primary uses of LECA are the following:

  1. Hydroponic Gardening: LECA balls are often used as a growing medium in hydroponic systems, allowing plants to grow and thrive without soil.
  2. Potting Mixes: Adding clay balls to potting mixes can improve drainage and aeration for healthy plant roots. 
  3. Ornamental Landscaping: LECA balls are popular as decorative mulch or filler for landscape designs due to their unique appearance.
  4. Erosion Control: Due to their lightweight nature and round shape feature, LECA is also used with soil in outdoor gardens to stabilize slopes and prevent soil erosion.

Benefits of Using Leca

Environmentally Friendly and Reusable

Soil needs to be changed every year to ensure healthy plant roots. This is why I don’t particularly appreciate using soil for indoor plants. But because of LECA’s inorganic nature, you don’t need to change it yearly. It is also reusable, so you can use clay balls for different purposes, minimizing waste and saving money in the long run.

Improved Drainage and Aeration

LECA is the best plant medium for discussing good drainage and plant aeration. The porous characteristic of clay balls allows for better airflow around the roots, promoting healthy oxygen exchange. Additionally, it helps prevent overwatering as excess water can quickly drain away when used with drainage pots, reducing the chances of root rot.

Reduced Pest Issues

Over time, soil harbours pests that can affect plants like fungus gnats, surface algae, spider mites, thrips and mites. Growing your plants in clay balls can help deter these common pests. The improved drainage and aeration properties make it less hospitable to pest growth. You won’t need harsh chemical pesticides for your plants, contributing to a safer environment.

Versatility in Plant Care

Leca’s unique properties make caring for your plants simpler and more efficient. Its ability to retain moisture while allowing excess water to drain means you won’t have to water your plants as frequently. This flexibility is perfect for busy individuals, ensuring plants stay hydrated without requiring constant attention.

In summary, Leca is an environmentally friendly, reusable option that provides improved plant care drainage, aeration, pest resistance, and versatility. Its distinctive properties make it an excellent choice for growing healthier, more robust plants while promoting sustainable gardening practices.

Growing Plants with Leca

Selecting the Right Container and Size

When choosing a container for growing plants in Leca, select one appropriate for your plant’s size and root system. The container should have a drainage hole or a built-in reservoir to ensure proper moisture control. Transparent containers are recommended as they allow you to easily monitor water levels and root growth.

Preparing and Rinsing Leca

Before using clay balls, rinse them thoroughly to remove dust and impurities. To do this:

  1. Place the Leca in a colander or mesh bag.
  2. Run tap water through the balls until the water runs clear.
  3. Optionally, you can soak it in water for at least an hour or overnight. This step ensures that the clay balls are fully saturated and will provide adequate moisture for your plant.

Planting and Root Systems

In general, replanting a plant from soil to LECA involves the following steps:

  1. Gently remove the plant from its current soil. Be careful and make sure that you won’t damage its root system.
  2. Rinse plant roots under low-pressure running water to remove any remaining soil.
  3. Fill the container with a layer of rinsed LECA balls.
  4. Position your plant in the container and gradually add more Leca to cover the root system entirely.
  5. Fill a quarter up to half of the container with nutrient water. 

Watering and Monitoring Moisture

Clay balls does not retain moisture like traditional soil, so monitoring the water levels in your container is crucial. You can use a water reservoir at the bottom of the container or regularly check the moisture level visually if you are using a clear pot. Be mindful not to overwater your plants to avoid root rot. Also, remember that you might need to adjust your watering frequency depending on the size and type of your plant and environmental conditions like temperature and humidity.

Fertilization and Nutrient Delivery

Since Leca is inorganic, it is nutrient-free, so you must provide your plants with essential nutrients through a liquid fertilizer or hydroponic fertilizer solution. Make sure to choose a fertilizer that matches the specific requirements of your plant. Mix the fertilizer with water according to the product instructions and use it ideally once a week. Regularly monitor the pH level of your plant’s water to ensure it remains close to a neutral pH of 7.

By following these steps, you can successfully grow your plants using Leca as a sterile, low-maintenance, and pest-resistant alternative to traditional soil.

Specific Plants and Leca

Common Indoor Plants

Using clay balls for indoor plants can help to prevent overwatering and pest growth. Some common indoor plants that grow well in Leca include:

  • Spider plants
  • Alocasias
  • ZZ plants
  • Snake plants
  • Peperomias
  • Monsteras

These plants enjoy the oxygen-rich environment that Leca provides. Make sure to give the right amount of humidity for your specific plant to thrive.

Orchids

Phalaenopsis orchids, also known as moth orchids, are another type of plant that benefits from growing in Leca. The space between the clay balls provides ample air circulation around the root system, which is essential for orchids. Additionally, Leca’s excellent drainage properties make it challenging to overwater your orchid, ensuring it receives the perfect balance of moisture and air.

Philodendrons

Philodendrons are well-suited to growing in clay balls, as they can handle occasional drying out between waterings. The Zebrina variety, in particular, fares well in this growing medium. Clay balls’ ability to maintain proper moisture levels will help keep your philodendron healthy and happy.

Snake Plants

Snake plants, or Sansevieria, are perfect candidates for Leca due to their sensitivity to overwatering. Growing snake plants in a semi-hydroponic Leca setup ensures the roots receive adequate airflow while preventing excess water from causing root rot.

Alocasias

Alocasias, also known as elephant ear plants, thrive in clay balls because of their demanding watering needs. Leca provides consistent moisture to the roots, as well as significant aeration. This combination ensures the plant receives the necessary hydration and oxygen to grow well without overwatering or root rot issues.

Challenges and Tips for Leca Use

Potential Cost

While using LECA for your indoor plants is an effective and versatile growing medium, it can be more expensive than traditional soil initially. A bag of clay balls is more expensive than a bag of soil. However, since it is reusable and doesn’t need to be changed yearly, it may be a worthwhile investment in the long run. Remember to factor in the additional costs of fertilizers since LECA does not hold nutrients like potting mix.

Managing pH Levels

Clay balls has a pH level of 7, which is neutral. However, various plants require different pH levels for optimal growth. You should monitor and adjust the pH of your water and nutrient solution to maintain the desired pH level for your specific plants. Investing in a pH meter and pH-adjusting solutions will be crucial in this process.

Maintenance and Sterilization

Rinsing LECA balls

Before using LECA for the first time or reusing it, ensure it is thoroughly washed and debris-free. To sterilize, you can soak LECA in a diluted hydrogen peroxide or bleach solution, then boil it afterwards. It’s essential to rinse the LECA thoroughly after sterilization to remove any residues before using it again for your plants.

Storage and Reuse

Part of using LECA effectively is making sure you store and handle it correctly. When not in use, store it in a dry, cool place to prevent fungal growth or contamination issues. To reuse the LECA, first, sterilize it as mentioned above. This practice will help extend the LECA’s life and maintain your plants’ health.

Frequently Asked Questions

How to use LECA for plants?

To use LECA for your plants, first, select the right amount of LECA and wash it thoroughly in water. Next, let it dry before placing it in your plant container. Finally, position the plant on the LECA and add water, ensuring the water level stays slightly below the plant’s root system.

Where to buy LECA?

LECA is readily available online or at local gardening stores. Check your nearby gardening centers, hydroponic stores, or popular online shopping sites. I bought mine from Amazon and IKEA.

Is hydroponic fertilizer needed?

Yes, hydroponic fertilizer is necessary when using clay balls for plants. Add a balanced hydroponic fertilizer to the water according to the specified dosage. Regularly monitor your plants’ nutrient levels and make adjustments as needed.

How to Make LECA balls?

LECA balls are made by mining clay, forming it into pellets, and heating them at high temperatures in a kiln. This process causes the clay to expand, creating tiny bubbles within the shells, making them lightweight and porous.

LECA downsides?

While LECA has benefits, it may not be suitable for all plants. Some plants prefer soil, so research before transferring them to clay balls. Additionally, it can sometimes be more expensive than a regular potting mix and may require extra maintenance to monitor and adjust nutrient levels.

Are Indoor plants and LECA compatible?

LECA can indeed be used with indoor plants. Its porous nature allows for air circulation around the plant’s roots and helps prevent overwatering. However, as with all plants, consider the specific needs of your indoor plants before transitioning them.

This post may contain affiliate links. I may be compensated if you make a purchase through one of the links at no additional cost to you. Please see full disclosure for more information.

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