LECA 101: Soil-Free Growing In ‘Clay Ball’ Growing Material

LECA is one of the best forms of soil-free growing. It functions on the principles of semi hydroponics, and more or less, puts soil-based home gardening techniques to shame.

With LECA, houseplants are easier to care for, require less water, and have much lower risks of being infected by pests or harmful soil-borne bacteria and disease.

How do you use LECA for houseplants?

Using LECA for houseplants is simple; remove your existing plants from their containers, wash the dirt away, soak them, transplant them into containers with LECA, add nutrients, and practice proper upkeep techniques. It is really that simple. There is no catch.

Don’t just take our word for it though, read on below and learn all about soil-free growing in clay ball material, aka LECA! 

LECA Explained

The term LECA, an acronym for “lightweight expanded clay aggregate,” is also a nickname for the popular semi hydroponic technique for growing house plants.

To start with LECA, simply follow the instructions for converting your normal houseplant to a semi hydroponic setup (more on that process here).

What is LECA?

Bowl of LECA Clay Balls

LECA involves replacing your houseplant’s normal soil or potting mix growing medium with clay balls. The clay balls are lightweight and absorbent by nature. That means they help retain water better than your average inert growing medium.

You will need a pot with drainage holes, a solid pot without drainage holes (slightly larger than the first pot), and enough LECA to fill the smaller pot. In addition, liquid nutrients and pH adjusters are also required. 

Oh yeah, and don’t forget to get yourself some pH test strips or a meter as well. Otherwise, you won’t be able to monitor your LECA plants’ water properly.

Pros of LECA

Cons of LECA

  • No more soil to deal with
  • Houseplants require less watering
  • Easier to upkeep
  • Propagation is much easier
  • Anyone can learn
  • Aesthetically pleasing
  • Initial start-up costs
  • Slight learning curve
  • Supplies aren’t always available locally

LECA Better Than Soil?

For many houseplant parents, LECA seems like a genuine godsend. With LECA, there is no more soil to mess your house up. There are also no more soil-borne bacteria or diseases, and far fewer chances of an infestation of pests.

Fertilizing Plants in LECA

Fertilizer for soil-based plants doesn’t quite work correctly for LECA. In some cases, the fertilizer may be diluted to ⅓ or ¼ of its normal strength and used in LECA. 

However, more often than not, semi hydroponic liquid nutrients are required for your LECA plants to fully thrive in their inert growing medium.

Hydroponic-specific nutrients are perfect for LECA. Just dilute them to half strength, mixed with water, and use them as your LECA plant food!

How To Grow Houseplants in LECA

After a brief intro, please provide a numbered list (H3) of steps:

1. Clean Soil from Your Plant

Remove your potted plant from the soil. Gently remove as much soil by hand as possible, and rinse the roots under a faucet. 

Don’t be afraid to spread the roots out a bit, there may be dirt hiding in every little crack and crevice.

2. Soak Your Plant

Once the roots of the plant are completely cleaned from the soil, stick it in a container full of clean and cool water. 

Leave it to soak for around 15 to 20 minutes while you move on to the next steps.

3. Prepare Your LECA

Prepare your LECA by thoroughly rinsing (preferably outside) it in clean water. This step helps to remove any bacteria or particles that may be present.

4. Prepare Your LECA Pots

Make sure both of your pots are cleaned and sterilized. Next, take your freshly rinsed LECA and put a few handfuls into the inner pot. 

5. Transfer Your Plant into the LECA

Remove your plant from its water-filled container and place it into the new pot partially filled with LECA. Then carefully add a small handful of LECA onto the plant’s roots, one at a time. 

Make sure that you spread the roots out in all directions, inside of the pot, before covering them up with LECA.

6. Mix Nutrients and Test the pH

Take your liquid nutrients for hydroponics or semi hydroponics and dilute them with up to 50-percent water. Depending on the exact nutrients you choose to use, this step may vary a bit.

Once diluted, use a pH meter or test strip to check the pH level. The correct pH level is determined by the sort of plant you are growing (so, do your homework!). That said, most houseplants do well with a 5.5 to 6.0 pH.

7. Water and Maintain Your Plant

Now all the hard work is done, all that’s left is actually watering your plant, monitoring it daily, and adjusting the pH level as needed. For proper upkeep, you will need pH adjusters and a meter.

After your plant adjusts to its new home, you can expect to water it once every two to three weeks. But, again, do your research because some plants may not need water for up to 6 to 8 weeks with LECA.

Watering Plants in LECA

LECA can be a bit tricky the first time around. Not because it’s hard, but because it’s so different from growing plants in soil.

Below, we discuss a few of the most important points about watering plants in LECA.

Prior to Planting

Before you plant your plant directly into LECA, you need to soak it for at least 15-minutes. This offers the plant a chance to prepare itself for the change. 

Pre-soaked plants are much more liable to make the conversion with fewer issues than ones you simply rinse off and plant directly.

Directly After Planting

After you anchor your plants into their new LECA home, watering them is a breeze. Add water (with nutrients pre-mixed in) straight to the reservoir. That way, the LECA will begin absorbing the water and transferring it up to the roots.

If you prepared your LECA properly, it should already be well-hydrated. If it isn’t, you may need to add more water the first time.

Regular Watering

Regularly watering LECA plants is super easy. Most plants that are 6-inches or less require watering just once every 2 to 3 weeks. Simply add the water directly to the reservoir/bottom container.

That said, keep an eye on your LECA and re-hydrate them with water if they become dried out. It is crucial for the LECA to stay well-hydrated. Otherwise, your plant will get really thirsty and possibly die if not caught in time.

What Plants Do Well With LECA?

Plants that do well with LECA share some commonalities; roots systems that grow quickly, ability to be moved around without going into shock, enjoy oxygenated soil and prefer being dried out between watering.

Here is a list of the best plants (and plant families) for LECA:

  • Alocasia
  • Anthurium
  • Begonia
  • Calathea
  • Chinese Evergreen
  • Croton
  • Desert Rose
  • Euphorbia
  • Ficus
  • Flowers
  • Ivy
  • Herbs
  • Hoya
  • Money Tree
  • Monstera
  • Philodendron
  • Sansevieria
  • Succulents
  • Spider plants
  • ZZ Plant

Note: This list is far from complete (as LECA is a somewhat new method, species that respond well to the technique are still being discovered by home gardeners). Rather, it includes the plants that are the most well known for thriving in LECA.

5 Tips for Using LECA

Once you start with LECA, you’ll never turn back to soil-based growing methods. 

Here are a few of the most helpful tips for using LECA that will help the transition for soil-based home gardening to LECA as smooth as possible:

1. Water at Least Once Per Month

The most important tip for using the LECA method successfully is that you establish a watering schedule. Most LECA setups won’t require water more than once per month, so let that be your target.

However, if your reservoir runs out, or your plants begin to show signs of underwatering, water them immediately.

2. Change Nutrients Regularly

Just as important as proper watering, changing or topping off nutrients in the reservoir regularly is also extremely important. Without enough food, all the water in the world wouldn’t keep your plants alive.

For beginners, if you’re watering your LECA every 30-days, you should also start developing the habit of changing out nutrients at the same time.

3. Provide Some Real Sunlight

Even though many of the best houseplants will do just fine under artificial light, real sunlight is always better. 

With that in mind, moving your plants to a windowsill where they can catch a few rays is never a bad idea (unless you’re growing a plant that really doesn’t do well when moved even a little bit).

4. Refurbish Your LECA

LECA is reusable and is easily refurbished with just a few minutes of your time. If you use a lot of LECA, consider emptying and refurbishing a few of your containers each time you change your nutrients.

5. Have Patience

Last but not least on our tips for successful LECA growing is simply to have patience! All good things take time. Just as your plants take time to physically adjust to their new growing method/home, you also need to be patient and adjust mentally alongside them.

Don’t give up at the first sign of trouble. Just be patient and troubleshoot the issue. The last thing you want to do is throw your plant in shock by rushing it back into the soil.

Reusing LECA

LECA is an excellent medium to reuse.

To do so, simply follow these steps:

  1. Remove the used LECA from your pots
  2. Fill a sink or container with hot water and completely submerge the LECA
  3. Stir the LECA around several times to make sure the water touches every little nook and cranny
  4. Strain the LECA
  5. Drain the water and refill the sink or container with more hot water, then repeat the entire process
  6. Fill a pot with clean water and put it on the stovetop to begin boiling
  7. After you’re sure all the LECA has been fully rinsed, place them into the pot with boiling water
  8. After a few minutes, remove and strain the LECA
  9. Rinse and strain the LECA in clean hot water a couple of more times
  10. Set the LECA somewhere to fully dry for around a day or so

After you’ve rinsed your LECA in hot water, sterilized them with boiling water, and rinsed and dried them, you’re ready to reuse it!

Can You Mix LECA With Soil?

LECA is actually a great medium to mix with soil and other potting mixes. By adding LECA to the soil, you are creating air pockets and raising water retention rates.

Interestingly enough, mixing LECA with soil also helps increase the drainability of the mix.

A general rule of thumb is to add around 10-percent LECA to 90-percent regular potting soil or whatever mixture you use.

Can You Put Clay Pebbles on Top of Soil?

Adding clay pebbles, or LECA, to the top of soil is an underhanded tactic, but one that does work. By adding clay pebbles to the top of the soil you are in essence lowering the evaporation rate of the soil.

Another benefit of adding LECA to the top of your soil is a reduction of soil-based pests and bacterias affecting your plants.

Should LECA Sink or Float?

LECA, if completely dry, will more than likely float when placed directly into the water. However, once they start to soak up the water, their weight increases and they will soon after sink to the bottom of the sink or container.

How To Grow Cuttings in LECA

There are really 2 ways to grow cuttings in LECA. Deciding which is the best for your cuttings depends on the root status of your cuttings.

If your cuttings DON’T have roots, you can propagate them in a single container (small cup or glass) without holes.

If your cutting HAVE roots already, it’s best to use a net pot (or nursery container) with holes, filled will LECA, and places into a larger container with nutrient water (makes for easier flushing).

Whenever possible, using clear containers is preferred so you can easily see the root developing without disturbing the cutting.

Also, make sure to dilute whatever nutrients you’re using to 1/2 or 1/4 strength so you don’t shock/kill the cuttings.

Where To Buy LECA 

The best places to buy LECA are your garden centers and local co-ops. Most large department stores like Walmart or HomeDepot, also have garden sections where you can find LECA most of the time.

Likewise, online retailers such as Amazon, eBay, and niche gardening sites also carry LECA and similar products.

Is LECA Right for You and Your Plants

Only you can be the judge of whether or not LECA is right for you and your houseplants. That said, once you start learning about LECA you will soon realize there are far more pros than cons. 

Further, LECA is much easier to use for cultivating houseplants than soil. It takes less time, prevents soil-borne pests and bacterias, and requires watering much less frequently.