Updated: Mar 26, 2021
So you've decided to do LECA. You've read about it, seen the catchy photos of the little cocoa-puff balls surrounding various plants, and you're ready to make the leap. But how do you start? Where do you start? Over the course of this blog/Youtube Channel, we will go into much more detail, but for now: A Crash Course. Let's get right into it.
So if you are NOT sure what LECA is, please take a slight detour and check out my YouTube video here on the benefits of Semi-Hydroponics, we will wait for you right here! :)
Welcome back! Let's pot up some plants in semi-hydro! I'll walk you through it, step by step.
Materials you will need:
1. LECA. You can get this from a local hydroponics shop, IKEA, many pet shops, or Amazon. I buy Hydroton brand from my local hydroponics shop. As long as it's Lightweight Expandable Clay Aggregate, it will work. (Usually about $10-25, depending on size of bag). I opt for a large, 50 L bag that I buy locally, although Amazon was what I started out using out of convenience! When I shopped local, I actually saved a bit of money though :)
2. Nutrient Water Solution. Given that LECA is an inorganic substance (yay no fungus gnats!!), there are no nutrients inherently in the medium. It is a medium that can wick water through capillary action, supply oxygen through its porous nature, and provide a substance for roots to grow on, but it cannot supply nutrients. You will need to prepare a large dilution of nutrient water for use when watering your plants. I highly recommend the General Hydroponics 3-Series Set. It is also available at your local hydroponics shop, and Amazon. (The set is $39 but it will last you FOREVER. I have been using my set for months, and I haven't even gone below the top of the label yet. A little goes a LONG way- about 1/4 teaspoon of each per dilution).
3. Superthrive (Optional but highly recommended). Superthrive is a plant vitamin solution that is fantastic for helping plants with transitioning- whether this is to a new environment or just a new medium (such as switching from water propagation or soil propagation to LECA growing). I add this into my nutrient dilution, which we will get into below. Again, check out your local hydroponics shop or Amazon! ($10-15 or so usually)! I opt for the pint option because it always ends up getting used, and's a bit more cost-effective!
4. 1 gallon jar/container/bucket. This is for mixing and storing your nutrient water. I make batches of 1 gallon at a time, and have 2 buckets I rotate. You can use an empty water jug, a bucket you have lying around your house (but preferably with a lid), or go to the Dollar Tree! They have 1 gallon containers there that are perfect for the task!
5. Glass Jars (Somewhat optional). You don't HAVE to use glass. However, I highly prefer it to keep accurate track of water levels and root health. One of the beautiful benefits of LECA is not having to deal with digging up a plant each time you want to check on the root health. With LECA, the roots will grow around the porous balls, and you can monitor water level and overall plant happiness. I encourage you to get creative with this, and upcycle where you can! The majority of my glass receptacles are from Dollar Tree (they have TONS of glass jars/vases there for $1), Goodwill, emptied and cleaned out salsa jars, etc., and mason jars that I obtained in bulk from a local woman through the Cleveland Heights Buy Nothing page! Upcycle where you can! :) If you don't have glass, don't fret- I will go into how to make any receptacle you have work on my Youtube channel!
6. pH Testing Kit (Optional but highly recommended). I like to set my plants up for the best chance of success. Given that we are already giving them nutrient water, I like to pH test as well. Most houseplants thrive at a pH of 5.5-6.5. This may sound like a complex step, but it's easy peasy and super quick! General Hydroponics has a kit including pH Up, pH Down, and a pH indicator set-up. I highly recommend it, and you can find it at your local hydro shop or Amazon!
And that's it! Of course, it is an option to drill holes into your glass receptacles to make the flushing process easier- but we will go into all that later. For the purpose of this post and the video that will parallel it, I wanted to make the beginning as simple as possible! Now, I will break down the steps into 5 simple parts.
1. Soak your LECA for 24 hours minimum prior to using it! Now, there's a bit of controversy around this. Some folks claim they merely run water through the LECA in a strainer until it runs clear. I always soak my LECA for 24, and sometimes 48 hours prior to use. Yes, it takes some time, but patience is a virtue. When it originally comes to you, LECA is full of clay powder and minerals that clog the pores of the media. When you first put plants inside and haven't soaked all this gunk out first, the plants wind up sitting in these minerals and have difficulty absorbing new nutrients after a while. You're already going to the trouble of prepping quality nutrient water, so simple soak your LECA and save yourself the trouble! This will also help with preventing the calcium/chemical buildup that will often form at the top of the LECA when it has not been soaked thoroughly yet. Don't choke your plants! Soak the LECA! :) (See image below for what your LECA will end up looking like if you do not soak it beforehand)
2. Strain your LECA and fill a glass jar a third of the way. After your LECA has been soaking for at least 24 hours, transport it to a strainer (preferably outside or somewhere that won't clog your sink drain) and run water through it until the water runs clear. I usually mix it with my hands while doing this to really jostle and break up any other loose minerals floating around. Then, simply pour it into your glass jar until it is about 1/3 of the way full of LECA.
3. Set plant roots on top of the LECA, and then continue to add LECA around it, shaking and tapping the jar to get the roots to settle around the new medium. This is pretty self-explanatory! You want the roots to be totally surrounded by LECA, but high enough that they are sitting just above the bottom 1/3 of the container (or what we will call the "reservoir").
4. Mix your nutrient solutions and pH test! This is the most tedious part, but it is not time-consuming at all and once you've got it down, it will go by so quickly! First, fill your jug with filtered water. Depending on the region you live in and your source of water, it is possible that your sink water contains trace chemicals that can harm your plant, or that its pH is too high or low for your plants to thrive. Filtering this (I use a simple fridge Brita) can really help eliminate a lot of these risks! Take your 1 gallon jug (I usually prep 2 gallons at a time), and starting with your first of the 3-step series from General Hydroponics, add 1/4 tsp of the first step (FloraBloom, pink). Make sure you close the container and give it a good shake before adding the second step (If you add them all at once, you will risk nutrient lock.) Then, reopen the container and add 1/4 tsp or the second step (FloraMicro, deep purple). Shake once more thoroughly before adding the third step (FloraGro, green).
After all of this is added, reopen the container and also add 1/4 tsp Superthrive. I do this as a good will measure so that my plants get an extra vitamin boost to help them adapt to their new environment of LECA. Remember, all plants go through a tiny bit of shock when you transplant them to a new media. You need to be gentle with them, and Superthrive definitely helps with the transition :) Take your pH testing kit from General Hydroponics and fill the small capsule with some of your water solution after giving it one final shaking/mix. Then, add a few drops of the indicator dye and compare to the strip to see what the pH of your nutrient water is. Remember, you want a pH of 5.5-6.5 for your plant to thrive. If it is slightly too high, add some pH Down, and if it is slightly too low, add some pH Up. PROCEED WITH CAUTION when adding pH Up or Down! A little goes a LONG way!! I would start with just a few drops, retest, and work from there. I have learned the hard way that a little truly does go a very long way!
(If you need any extra help with this, check out my video on Mixing Nutrient Water for Semi-Hydroponics :)
5. Add nutrient water until the reservoir is 1/3 filled! And voila! Your plant is stationed in its new home; now just add some nutrient water until you have reached that 1/3 mark right below the roots. This will give the roots the opportunity to drink when they are thirsty! Don't worry if the roots aren't touching the water (in fact, they shouldn't be, because roots don't like to sit IN water). If the plant is thirsty enough, the roots will actually grow down farther into the receptacle. The beauty of this set-up is that the plants can drink when they are thirsty, and you are merely responsible for setting up the system and maintaining the water reservoir!
Of course, this was merely a crash course! There is so much more to learn about the world of hydroponics. Videos and blogs that will come in the future will include drilling holes in your glass to make flushing easier, the process of flushing when your LECA is in need of some refreshing, the specifics of nutrient water, how to get creative with non-glass receptacles (making due with what you have), etc.
For now, sit back and allow your plant to drink up its nutrients! My rule of thumb with watering is that I give the plants new nutrient water roughly every 2 weeks, or every third fill. You don't want to give your plants nutrient water every time you top off the reservoir. As with anything, too much of a good thing, can be a bad thing! Usually in the interim of the 2-week period, I will top the water off once or twice, just with normal filtered water. Then, once you approach that 2-week cusp, time to make a new batch of nutrient water!
So, have you tried LECA? I would love to hear from you in the comments below!
P.S. A great way to practice using LECA is to propagate a piece from a plant you already have, or from a plant a friend has and may be willing to root divide with you! Check out my videos below on how to root-divide plants for semi-hydro transplanting!
*NOTE: I am using affiliate links to send you to the Amazon pages that will show you the products I used for this video (or very similar ones). If you choose to use these links, I will receive a small kickback from it, at no extra charge to you. So, if you feel so inspired to support, please check out the links! :)