Plant enthusiasts are always looking for new ways to give their beloved plants some TLC, and so perhaps it’s unsurprising that growing plants in LECA is one of the hotter trends in plant care!
LECA is also a great solution for overwhelmed plant parents who perhaps bought a few too many plants (*cough* not me, not ever *cough*) to keep an eye on and are feeling overwhelmed with watering schedules.
There is definitely a bit of a steep learning curve with LECA. As in, I went into a YouTube University rabbit hole for days when I first started my journey into LECA.
But once you get used to how LECA works and do the work of converting your plants to LECA, you can reap a ton of benefits: less mess on repotting days, fewer watering days, less plants lost to root rot, easier rooting of propagations, etc.
Ready to learn all about lovely LECA? This guide below will help!
What is LECA?
As you may have guessed by the all-uppercase letters, LECA is an acronym. It stands for lightweight expanded clay aggregate.
Does that just confuse you more? Same with me, when I first started researching about using LECA.
Put simply, LECA are clay balls that are fired in a kiln. They are very airy and porous, which allows them to absorb and hold water.
One important thing to note is that LECA is a substrate (also known as a growing medium) but it is not itself a source of nutrition for plants, unlike potting soil, which is both.
This is because LECA is made of inorganic material, which is great in that your LECA pebbles will last forever!
However, it does mean that you need to add hydroponic nutrients as well as hydroponic fertilizer, because the LECA balls itself will not support healthy plant growth.
You can reuse them time and again. Just sterilize them by boiling in between uses if you are switching between two different plants (and be sure to let the LECA clay balls cool off before using so you don’t cook the plants!)
Where to Buy LECA Clay Pebbles
You can buy LECA balls in a variety of places, but the easiest is Amazon, since they deliver and these packages can be heavy!
Personally, I feel like all LECA is created equally, but if you are going to display the LECA more visibly (in glassware, for example), you may want a more uniform look toy our LECA.
Big box stores and garden centers like Home Depot and Lowe’s also sell LECA clay pellets in big bags. You will need quite a bit of LECA to start up if you have a big collection, so don’t worry — you’ll likely use it all up!
IKEA also sells LECA for a cheap price if you are curious to test out LECA!
My Experience With LECA
I began using LECA when I purchased a Monstera Albo cutting that was already fully rooted in LECA from a local plant group.
The pressure was on not to kill it! Luckily, I seemed to do fine, as my cutting has already produced its first new growth.
At first, the learning curve was quite steep. I watched several YouTube videos on how to set up a semi-hydroponic system with LECA, but it started to feel like I was back in high school chemistry.
One video I watched involved no less than SIX different additives to the tap water used on LECA plants! I was totally overwhelmed by how much work (I thought) LECA plants need.
Using such a multi-step seems a little unrealistic to me as a lazy plant parent, so I researched it.
Personally, I use just two different additives to my water to ensure my plants get the nutrients they need, and my plants are doing just fine!
Perhaps they could be experiencing more explosive growth with a more advanced additive system, but I wanted to ensure I would stick with the process, so I chose a streamlined approach.
I’ve now converted over a large number of my plants over to LECA, including my Syngonium Pink Allusion, my Philodendron Birkin, my Philodendron Prince of Orange, my Begonia Maculata, and my Monstera Siltepecana, amongst others.
I haven’t yet converted over any of my alocasias or succulents because I’m a bit nervous on how they’ll handle the transition, especially since alocasias are notoriously finicky, but I’ll update it once I have!
I also haven’t converted any pothos or hoyas to LECA yet, but that’s just out a lack of time rather than nervousness, as I think both plants will handle the transition well.
Pros of LECA for Indoor Plants
– Your plant’s roots are less likely to get root rot due to increased aeration
– You can also check the root systems easily and address any issues earlier, so the risk of root rot destroying a plant is much lower
– You can reuse LECA balls indefinitely, so it ends up cheaper in the long run than potting mix
– Repotting is a lot cleaner, which is perfect for indoor houseplants!
– You can go longer between waterings, which is great for frequent travelers who want to water less!
– It reduces pests, as it is impossible for fungus gnats to lay eggs in LECA
– LECA can be used when propagating cuttings, and it transitions well after the roots have formed
Cons of LECA for Indoor Plants
– It can be overwhelming to learn the basics of semi-hydro and LECA plant care for beginners
– LECA is only a growing media and doesn’t have any natural nutrients, so you need to buy nutrient solutions
– For first time LECA users, it is time consuming and costly to set up. You need to buy nutrient solutions, pH level test kits, new pots, etc.
– Some plants don’t take transplanting to LECA well and may die off
– You need to “flush” the LECA once a month to remove calcium and other build-up from the LECA balls
– It is annoying to use trellises and moss poles for climbing/vining plants since LECA is not very compact
How to Set Up LECA in Pots
This was one of the things that confused me most when I first started researching LECA: how exactly to set up your pots.
There are three main ways: using net pots within a clear cache pot (no drainage holes), using self-watering planters, or using glassware with no interior pots.
I’ll go a little into the pros and cons of each.
Using Net Pots and Cache Pots
This is one of the more popular ways to grow your plants in LECA, but I don’t like it for one main reason: I think it’s one of the least attractive ways to grow plants in LECA (personally!)
Using net pots within a glass cache pot allows you to control the amount of water touching the LECA balls, minimizing the risk of overwatering and root rot.
Personally, I think that visually this isn’t the most attractive method, since I like a more minimalist look.
However, if you like the DIY, mix-and-matchy look, this can be perfect!
The biggest benefit of using this system is that it is easy to flush the LECA balls when you need to, about once a month or whenever you see white specks building up on the LECA balls.
Flushing is when you rinse the LECA balls thoroughly to rinse away any build-up from the nutrients, minerals, and additives in the water.
Using Self-Watering Planters
This is generally my preferred way to grow my plants in LECA and as I am converting my collection of houseplants over to LECA, this is my preferred pot system.
What are self-watering planters? Basically, they consist of a net pot inside of a cache pot that uses a large, absorbent piece of string to wick water up to the plant’s roots via whatever growing medium you are using.
Self-watering planters work both with LECA and with typical potting soil (or aroid potting mixes) but I’m enjoying using my self-watering plants with LECA.
The water wicks up from the reservoir below the net pot, allowing for the plant to take a drink whenever it is thirsty without overwhelming the roots.
Personally, this is my favorite method because it allows for a clean visual look while also making it easy to flush out the LECA balls once a month, since the net pot is removable.
I bought these self-watering planters off of Amazon and they are my favorite because there is a small window to monitor the water level.
You can simply swivel the planter around to the back side to check the water level, but when it’s facing forward, you don’t see the window. Genius!
Another very common way to use LECA is simply to put it in glassware with no nesting pots (net pots).
This can be very aesthetically pleasing if you like the look of LECA, and you can use some beautiful glassware to create a varied look for your houseplants!
The benefit of using glassware is that you always have a visual on the water level and the root system, so you can make sure you aren’t drowning the roots in water (or that the water level isn’t too low!).
The con of using glassware is that because you are not using a pot-within-a-pot, flushing out the build-up is more of an annoying process.
For this reason, I only have a few of my LECA plants in glassware, when I really love the aesthetic of the plant (or am too lazy to switch it out).
Personally, I think using LECA with glassware is best with tall, climbing plants require a support.
It can be hard to use supports like poles and trellises in other systems, but it’s relatively easy to put a thin support stick in a tall vase to allow the plant to climb up it.
How to Use LECA
1. Rinse off your LECA.
If you bought a big bag of LECA, you’ll probably notice that it is quite dusty with clay residue.
You’ll want to rinse off any new LECA thoroughly before using.
2. Soak your LECA for at least a few hours, or better yet, 24 hours.
Place in a large pot to soak, and then when you are ready to use the LECA balls, strain them with a colander or strainer.
This makes sure that the LECA has enough water inside the LECA balls so that they won’t immediately shock the plants roots.
3. Unpot the plant you are transplanting and wash the roots thoroughly.
This step is so important! Clean the plants roots as thoroughly as you can, so that there is very little organic matter left on the roots.
Leaving too much organic matter on the roots of your plant can lead to root rot when transplanted into LECA.
4. Place the soaked LECA balls about 1/4 to 1/3 of the way up your chosen vessel.
You want to leave room for future root growth, but you also don’t want your roots too close to the bottom of the pot, where they are susceptible to overwatering and root rot.
You also don’t want the roots up too high, where they will struggle to wick water up to the roots using the LECA.
Planting the roots too high will also make the plant less stable in the LECA, which is not as compact as soil.
This can lead to your plant tipping out of the LECA, which can be annoying!
5. Gently place the roots of the plant on top of the LECA layer, then surround it with LECA to stabilize.
This part can be a little tricky, because LECA is not very compact, so be patient during this stage!
You may need to remove some of the LECA balls from the bottom layer if you are not able to get the plant to stabilize.
Alternately, if your plant feels too low compared to the height of the planter or vessel you are using, you may need to add more LECA balls to the bottom layer and then try again.
This part is art, not science, so play around with it!
Can any plant grow in LECA?
Yes! LECA is a growing medium, and any plant can grow in LECA. However, not all plants are as well-suited to LECA as others.
Water propagations of cuttings do very well in LECA, because they have water roots already. Soil roots can sometimes be tricky to transition over to LECA, as they need to be thoroughly cleaned first.
Generally, plants with heartier root systems (monstera, begonias, philodendrons, etc.) do better than plants with shallow root systems like succulents.
How often do you water plants in LECA?
As often as with other plants… when they need it!
Sorry to give a flip answer, but it’s true. There is no one schedule I can give you to know when it is time to water your LECA plants.
When you water plants in LECA will depend a lot on several factors — evaporation speed (which depends on room humidity), how thirsty your plant is, and how much water you are able to place in the container without drowning the roots.
Generally speaking, I refill my LECA planters with nutrient water about once every other week.
However, I also visually check to see if any of my plants seem thirsty (leaves that are curling inwards or droopy) every couple of days, but I have a small apartment and this is pretty easy for me to do!
What do you need to grow plants in LECA?
You will need: vessels of your choice (glassware, self-watering pots, or net pots for nesting within cache pots); liquid hydroponic fertilizer; liquid hydroponic nutrients; distilled water OR tap water that has been pH tested (and treated with pH down or pH up if necessary).
Oh, and of course — LECA balls and plants!
How long can plants grow in LECA?
Plants can grow in LECA indefinitely. It’s a long-term growing solution for many plants!
Like with other plants grown in soil, you will still need to repot occasionally when your plant outgrows its vessel or becomes rootbound.
However, as long as your plant is enjoying its LECA set-up, there’s no reason to convert it back to soil, as a semi-hydro LECA set up is a sustainable way to care for your plants!
Allison is a recovering brown thumb turned helicopter plant mom. She lives in California and is currently working on turning her one-bedroom Oakland apartment into an indoor jungle.