A Semi-Hydro Love Affair: Why I Use LECA

Updated: Apr 23, 2021

If you're tuned into the Instagram planty world, you may have seen these cocoa-puff-resembling pebbles on your feed, surrounded by a combination of plants and roots. What are they? What is their purpose? Why would one switch to this media, when we have soil? My name is Courtney, and I'm a total semi-hydro convert. Stay with me to find out why :)

Let's start by discussing the essentials for most houseplants to survive. Houseplants arguably need four main components: light, water, nutrients, and oxygen. So whether we choose to grow plants hydroponically, in soil, or semi-hydroponically, we will work to deliver a combination of these main ingredients to our plants. We want to do this to allow them the most optimal environment to grow in.

When I began transplanting my plants into semi-hydroponics, I chose LECA as my medium (Lightweight Expandable Clay Aggregate). You can get this on Amazon, from Ikea, or (most highly recommend) from your local hydroponics shop! I use the Hydroton brand and buy them in 50 L bags at a time. LECA has a handful of benefits that make it my number one option when propagating and growing indoor houseplants. Here is a comprehensive list of the top 5 reasons I love it.

1. Eliminate Fungus Gnats

We've all been there. You're riding a botanical high of quickly filling your home with beautiful houseplants, when all the sudden the fungus gnats start showing up. You rush to Amazon or Home Depot to buy fly and gnat sticky traps, maybe even invest in a couple carnivorous plants and a bug zapper (I speak from experience), but no matter what you do, the fungus gnats seem to keep proliferating.

Fungus gnats will often continue to be a problem, once they enter a house, so long as the majority of plants are soil-bound. This is because most soils are organic and moist, providing the perfect environment for fungus gnats to thrive, multiply, and stay alive. LECA is inorganic (rock-based), thus fungus gnats cannot reproduce or thrive in this environment, and are virtually non-existent with hydroculture plants. A few months into transplanting the vast majority of my plants to semi-hydroponics, and our house is significantly less gnatty.

2. Nutrient and Oxygen Delivery

Let's tackle two of the main ingredients needed for successful plant cultivation/propagation/proliferation! First, nutrients. As I mentioned, LECA is an inorganic compound. Soil is often organic because it is infused with nutrients that will help your plant thrive. When using LECA, we actually create our own nutrient water (which I will go into in a future Youtube video/plant blog)! The reason I prefer this to simply buying an organic soil, is because I like to know exactly what is going into my plants! Creating nutrient water allows me to streamline exactly what nutrients my plants are receiving. I filter the water, add a mix of General Hydroponics' 3-series nutrient mix, some Superthrive to help with the transitioning process, and then I pH test it (Most houseplants thrive at a pH of 5.5-6.5). Though this does sound like more up-front investment, once you get into the routine, maintenance and preparation of the nutrient water take only a few minutes at a time, and leave less work for you to do in the long run!

Secondly, plants need a sufficient supply of oxygen. With regular hydroponics systems, it is often necessary to incorporate an air pump into the water system to aerate the roots and prevent rot! In soil, many people find it beneficial to either buy or prepare a mix abundant in perlite or other drainage-promoting contents to help the roots continue to get some aeration. However, over time, soil compacts down with subsequent watering and drying back out, which can make it quite difficult for the roots to "breathe," so to speak. Because LECA is infinitesimally porous, it delivers oxygen to the roots without any fancy electronics, and without risk of compaction! Essentially, we keep the bottom 1/3 of the container full of nutrient or regular filtered water, plant the roots on top of the bottom 1/3, and then fill in the rest with LECA (we will go over this more in the future as well)! This allows the plant roots to drink when they are thirsty, and receive plenty of oxygen through the porous crevices and crannies of the LECA balls! The increased ventilation LECA is able to provide helps with preventing root rot!

3. Avoid Over/Under Watering (Easier Management)

Speaking of the porous nature of LECA, this is what makes it so much easier to manage! As many can attest to, one of the most difficult parts of plant parenthood is getting the watering schedule right. Some plants (cough cough, calathea/syngonium arrowheads) are finicky and dramatic, threatening to die at the first moment of non-humidity exposure. Whereas other plants, like aloe and succulents, pretty much like to be left alone when it comes to watering. Other plants (pothos, philodendron, diffenbachia, tradescantia) fall somewhere in between, liking to be thoroughly watered, and thoroughly dried out in between, with a bit more tolerance for deviation from its hydro-norm.

Learning how to properly water plants can be a task, much less explaining this process to someone else if you go on vacation and have a friend coming to water and keep an eye on your plants! LECA is wonderful for low-maintenance plant parents because the porous nature of the media allows for water to be wicked up through capillary action when the plant is thirsty. Essentially, you will plant your roots right above the reservoir, and this is the equivalent of giving your plants a straw to drink at their own leisure. In fact, if they are thirsty enough, the roots will simply extend down into the bottom of the container. This takes much of the guesswork out of watering plants, and allows you an opportunity to focus more on lighting and other environmental controls. When you go out of town, or when you are in town, you need only worry about keeping the bottom 1/'3 of the container (or the "reservoir") full.

Note: If you put your LECA babies in clear receptacles, another bonus is that you are able to easily track and keep tabs on the root health of the plant! This is nearly impossible to do with compacted soil!

4. Sustainable/Inorganic

Often, when we go to repot, we use fresh soil each time (Or at least, I do). When you receive soil, it is often infused with nutrients or components that will provide sustenance to the plants. These nutrients get used up as the plant absorbs and metabolizes the soil's nutrients. When I was using soil, I ended up collecting buckets of "expired" soil that I would have to find outdoor spaces to dump it in. I was often unable to re-use soil due to its nutrients being used up, due to it being too dry/compacted after multiple watering and drying out cycles, or due to fungus gnat infestations that I did not want to spread to my other plant babies.

The beauty of LECA being inorganic is that it is 100% sustainable and reusable. Once you buy it, you have it for essentially life. All you have to do to sterilize LECA is boil it! When I first receive LECA, I soak it for about 48 hours, and when it is time to flush/sterilize LECA, I boil it for about 15 minutes to rid it of any chemical build-up/microparticles. Though LECA is an up-front investment, its sustainability and longevity pays for itself over time, in my opinion.

5. Less Mess

Perhaps my favorite reason for converting to LECA is LESS MESS. If you are a neat freak that enjoys having order and aesthetic in their personal space, this is a huge one. Every time I used to repot a plant, I would have to drag out a tarp/large piece of brown paper/cut up trash bag, two pots, bags of soil, my trowel, gloves, etc. and even then, there was always clean-up afterward that usually involved a broom, vacuum, or both. Soil was messy, and breaking apart soil to clean the roots when repotting, as well as the process of repotting itself, was simply getting soil all over the house. Even when repotting on the balcony, there was always a mess almost bigger than it was worth!

With LECA, clean-up is as easy as picking up some dropped marbles. No more sweeping/vacuuming up little soil particles, or spreading fungus gnats through all the microparticles that scatter on the floor when they fall! Simply pick up your LECA, boil to sterilize, and reuse! It's easy peasy! When it comes time to flush, there are even shortcuts to make that more mess-free! (Stay tuned on my Youtube/blog for future details on that!)

6. BONUS: Cat Toy

Last, but not least, we have quickly discovered in our household that there is no need to buy expensive cat toys when you can just grab any given LECA pebble and drop it in front of your cat! Watch as he/she goes crazy trying to whack at, and then subsequently chase after your LECA pebbles! :)

Thanks for reading. Until next time!

Mush love,


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