Where to start with Leca vs soil? Leca is a type of growing medium in the shape of balls made out of clay, and they’re reusable! On the other hand, soil is a mixture of organic matter, liquids, gases, minerals, and organisms that together support life. It’s also known as good’ol fashion dirt. Leca has been used for quite some time, believe it or not – since 1917 as a matter of fact. But it’s only recently that it’s begun to be a popular growing medium, especially with the rise of aquaponics.
As a houseplant and outdoor garden expert I’ve discovered that Leca balls have some comparable advantages over soil in the leca vs soil debate. The biggest one is that helps to reduce the amount of fungus gnats! Soil isn’t too great at this. But to truly understand the debate of “Leca vs soil” we’re going to dive into the nitty gritty for you and clear the murky mystery behind this unique growing medium – hold onto your balls and buckle in!”
Table of Contents
- How Does Watering Work With Leca?
- What Plants Like Leca?
- Do Pests Reduce With Leca Vs Soil?
- Do I Need to Fertilize With Leca?
- What Are Perfect pH levels?
- What Do You Need to Start Growing in Leca?
- How to Grow Houseplants in Leca?
- Are There Any Sustainability and Economic Factors?
- L.E.C.A. – Lightweight Expanded Clay Aggregate
How Does Watering Work With Leca?
Plants grown in Leca will develop water roots that are different from roots that have developed in the soil. Soil roots are thicker and sturdier, and water roots are finer and more fragile. Neither of them is better; it is just how the plant has adapted to its growing conditions.
Monitoring your plants’ root systems in Leca is better than soil. As plants’ roots grow through the soil, we have to assume (because we can’t see) that they are healthy and have what they need.
As you water the soil or potting mix, there is less oxygen for the roots to grow. In contrast, when growing in Leca, the clay balls will only release the amount of water the plants need, creating more oxygen available. When there is sufficient oxygen in the plant roots, it will prevent root rot.
When the healthy roots grow in clay pebbles, they wrap themselves around the balls and directly absorb moisture.
*Ten points to Leca so far on preventing root rot and overwatering!*
What Plants Like Leca?
Monstera, Sansevieria, ZZ Plant, Alocasia, Spider plant and Begonias, Aloe, Pothos, Coleus, Hoyas, and Orchids are a few of the best plants that will do well in Leca. Even better than soil. Another point to Leca in Leca vs soil!
Most plants that grow well in Leca have a few common characteristics:
- Like to dry out between watering
- Fast growing root system
- happy to be handled and transplanted
- Love oxygen-rich soil
- Not reliant on soil nutrients.
Some plants are more challenging than others to transplant. But all plants, including succulents, can convert their root system from soil to water root.
Not all plants grow well in Leca balls. So we shouldn’t expect one rule for all as these are living and breathing things we’re talking about.
I remember watching my cousin plant store-bought vegetable seedlings in Leca in her aquaponics system and she washed all the soil from the roots first before planting. It was bizarre to see for the first time as we usually believe roots should have little or no exposure to light. But she knew what she was doing, and they grew really well!
Do Pests Reduce With Leca Vs Soil?
Being a plant owner means keeping lots of warm and damp soil in your home. This can result in unwanted guests like pests. And I don’t blame them – it’s a nice place to live!
Fungus Gnats and Soil Borne Pests
Some pests thrive off the soil, like fungus gnats, and their larvae will live in the soil. By switching to Leca, you will stop their life cycle and see the numbers drop.
Thrips also live a portion of their life in soil but can adapt to the change of medium. So although you won’t eliminate them completely, you will likely see fewer pests.
Many pests that live and feed on foliage, such as aphids, mites, and mealybugs, are not bothered by Leca. They’ll continue to exist and feed on your plants regardless of what they are growing in.
One thing I am concerned about growing houseplants in Leca is a standing water reservoir that the plants need. My home can be a breeding zone for mosquitos in summer, and the thought of giving them more places to procreate is a worry.
Leca won’t eliminate pests completely, and we need to be honest with our expectations of that. Pest control measures you would take with natural soil-grown plants (foliar sprays- e.g., neem oil or pyrethrin) work in the same way with Leca.
One way Leca is better than soil is that you can remove the root ball from the pot and wash the clay balls if there is an infestation of pests.
Do I Need to Fertilize With Leca and Soil?
Leca is made of clay balls which have no nutrients, unlike soil. You will need a regular fertilizing routine, and your plants will depend on it or risk plant death.
The fertilizer used to add nutrients when growing in Leca balls differs from the fertilizer used in soil. You will need to use a hydroponics fertilizer specific to the plants you are growing, which contains extra nutrients usually found in soil.
Each time you water your plants, you must create a nutrient solution by mixing the hydroponics fertilizer with the water. It’s an extra step you wouldn’t need to do when growing in soil, but it is relatively easy, and you can follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
What Are Perfect pH levels?
Because Leca is clay and not soil, it results in a different pH level to the soil. The average pH is 5.5 to 5.7, which is somewhat acidic compared to the potting mix. Plenty of plants love acidic soil, but neutral soil is preferred for most.
The plants absorb nutrients at a specific pH level, and you will need to buy a pH monitor or test strips to keep an eye on the levels.
There are hydroponic products that will adjust the pH levels according to what your plant needs and are usually called pH up or pH down.
These products are rare in most gardening stores, so you might have to purchase them online or find a hydroponic shop.
What Do You Need to Start Growing in Leca?
To start growing plants in Leca clay balls, you will need a few products:
- A pH balancer, to adjust the levels according to the plants you are growing.
- A water tester to ensure your water is clean and free from Leca residues.
- A hydroponic fertilizer suited for the specific plants you are growing.
Ensure you are using clean Leca balls- when they come from the factory or store, they can be covered in dust or residue and must be washed thoroughly before use.
Transplant roots that are entirely free from soil, any soil remaining will cause root rot and affect the growth of the plant later down the track.
You will need a net pot or nursery pot to plant into; this will act as an inner pot and make your life easier when cleaning and emptying the Leca balls.
Use a non-porous outer pot (ceramic, plastic, or glass will do) without drainage holes to keep the net pot inside.
There are a few things that you need to buy when growing in Leca, and depending on how many plants you have and the budget, you may need to invest a bit into creating a new setup.
How to Grow Houseplants in Leca?
After you have stocked up on all the necessary products to get started with your Leca setup, you will need to prepare the clay balls before planting into them.
To prepare your Leca balls, wash them thoroughly outside, they will likely contain some clay dust or other residue, and your plants and drainpipes won’t like it!
Leave the Leca balls to soak in water overnight and rinse them until the water runs clear.
After you have washed your Leca balls, take your net pot or nursery pot and fill it halfway to the top with Leca balls.
Place your plant’s roots inside the pot and backfill it with extra clay balls. If you are transplanting from soil to Leca at this point, ensure you wash the roots thoroughly.
Take your decorative or outer pot and fill it with water up to the height of the bottom layer of clay pebbles.
Insert your net pot with the potted plant into the reservoir, and voila!
Remember when watering to make the fertilizer mixture according to the manufacturer’s instructions, and keep an eye on your new Leca-grown babies for any changes. Most plants will go through a settling-in period when re-potted in any medium, so give it time to adjust and don’t panic!
Are There Any Sustainability and Economic Factors for Leca Vs Soil?
Leca is an entirely natural product, much like peat moss or coco coir, and is a reusable growing medium, making it a sustainable product.
Along with the fact that the clay balls manage the water retention in the pot, this method of growing can be more economical with water consumption, especially for thirsty plants.
Plant owners converting their setup from soil to Leca should be aware that the initial cost is more than soil – about 3-4 times more expensive, so it can be a bit of a shock to start with.
Nowadays with our busy lives, time becomes more valuable and should be factored in when weighing up the costs of growing houseplants; Leca takes more time to prepare for planting along with the time it takes to fertilize and control the pH.
L.E.C.A. – Lightweight Expanded Clay Aggregate
I’m slightly baffled by how to pronounce this acronym, but I’m pretty sure it sounds like Le-Cuh! It stands for lightweight expanded clay aggregate and is regarded as a semi/ passive hydroponic.
The product is not limited to horticultural use but has also been used in the construction and water purification industries.
Leca supports hydroponic gardening and is used widely among indoor growers around the globe.
The equally sized clay balls (that resemble my favorite crispy-coated peanuts!) have been heated and are lightweight and porous in nature, absorbing water or any thin liquid you throw at them.
As they stand in their natural form, they are simply just clay, so they don’t supply any nutrients to the plant until you add them yourself.
FAQ About LECA Vs Soil
Can you mix LECA with Soil?
Yes, you can! You can add Leca as a drainage material at the bottom of the pot or in layers between soil to help with aeration.
Do plants grow better in LECA?
Plants grow better in Leca if they are suitable and have the characteristics to suit their new environment. Growing in Leca means handling the plant’s root systems, drying out between watering, and not relying on soil nutrients.
Do plants rot in LECA?
There is less risk of rot when plants are grown in Leca. This is due to the plant only taking the required water and the roots not sitting in waterlogged soil that provides little or low oxygen.
Do plants grow faster in LECA?
No, the rate at which your plant grows depends on its environmental factors and species. Growing in Leca will only help drainage, water retention, and aeration.
While poor drainage can affect the plant’s growth, other factors are involved in the speed of your plant’s growth.
Is LECA or soil better for Monstera?
Yes, Leca is better for Monstera if you are notorious for over-watering your plant. Leca allows the plant to dry out slightly before watering again.Is LECA more sustainable than soil?
Leca is reusable and durable; it doesn’t break down over time like potting mix making it more sustainable than soil.
Ready to Make the Switch to Leca?
When looking at Leca vs. soil, I am still on the fence. I’m not going to lie; I love getting my hands dirty. Although soil does attract pests, it will still be my preferred growing medium for most of my plants.
Using Leca would benefit me if I went away for a few weeks on vacation and couldn’t trust someone to properly water my indoor plants – that would be worth the investment.
To convert all my plants to a Leca setup would be super pricey, and for now, I’ll use Leca as a learning curve for my houseplants.
Ready to convert to a soilless indoor garden?
We’ve created some handy guides on the gear you need to get started for indoor growing. And if you are stuck for ideas on what plants to grow, jump to our care guides– there are a heap of options to give you the best success!
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