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How to Use LECA Balls | Grow Plants in Clay Pebbles

Wondering how to use LECA balls? The answer depends on whether they will be used in home gardening, semi-hydroponic, or aquaponic systems. It is easy to use as a growing medium at home and is good either on its own or in conjunction with soil.

Hydroponics method of growing plants
Hydroponics method of growing plants in greenhouse

Why shouldn’t you use dry LECA Balls when potting your plant? This affordable growing media is versatile and helpful, just make sure you follow the important yet simple instructions.

Perhaps one of your Alocasia varieties that loves well-draining soil is needing to be repotted? This is a great opportunity to try the LECA balls you were recently gifted or have bought.

I cover three ways you can use clay pellets for plants. Follow the listed instructions to improve the health of your favorite pot plants and ensure their roots receive enough oxygen.

Lightweight Expanded Clay Aggregate

What is LECA? LECA stands for lightweight expanded clay aggregate. Pre-treated clay is baked in a rotary kiln at over 2000°F into small size balls from 4mm to 25mm in diameter.

Once baked, the expanded nature of the clay makes it extremely light with balls measuring around 250 kg/㎥. More often used in construction and water purification, large LECA boulders range from 100 to 500mm in diameter and weigh around 510 kg/㎥.

LECA made from clay has great plant-growing characteristics of thermal insulation, a pH of 7, and not decomposing in moist conditions.

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How Do You Use LECA Balls for Plants?

LECA balls are inorganic and do not break down making them one of the most versatile growing mediums. They can be used in hydroponics (plants without soil) and in aquaponics (aquatic life in the system) or in conjunction with soil in pot plants by home gardeners.

When used on their own, LECA Balls can be configured in a variety of setups with pros and cons to each. Choose from wicking, ebb and flow, aeroponics, and drip systems.

Hydroponics systems without LECA use deep water culture and the nutrient film technique.

There are two methods I recommend you use for pot plants at home. The first is nutrient stagnant wicking and the second is a non-wicking configuration, known as passive hydroponics.

You’ll find these techniques simple to do as they don’t require any active circulation of water using pumps.

A nutrient stagnant wicking setup uses a cotton string or microfibre cloth to wick up the nutrient-rich water to the LECA balls lying above.

The LECA clay pebbles do not provide your plant with the nutrients they need to grow properly.

You’ll need to add nutrients to the water. Rooting solution and a general hydroponics fertilizer will help your plant’s roots to grow faster and stronger.

Plants in LECA

How Do LECA Balls Work?

When used alongside potting mix, they help with drainage and prevent root rot by aerating the soil. When placed in the bottom of the pot plant, LECA clay balls start to absorb a percentage of the water in the pot while keeping the roots away from the water.

The clay pebbles contain no live organisms, unlike soil, which means they are less likely to cause infections when wet for long periods of time.

The root of your plant grows in between the LECA balls, continuing to receive small amounts of moisture.

Typically, potting soil compresses over time, becoming compact and reducing the amount of oxygen available to the plant’s roots.

By adding LECA to your soil, you help to increase the oxygen your plants receive by creating pockets of air inside of your soil.

Repotting Your Plant With LECA balls and Soil

Has your plant outgrown its container? Consider repotting it using a mixture of soil and 15 – 25 mm LECA balls. As an example, your mother-in-law’s tongue should be repotted every 6 months or when the roots stick out below the drainage pebbles.

Follow the instructions below for easy and effective repotting with LECA balls.

  1. Rinse the LECA to remove debris and dust (avoid letting clay dust go down your drain)
  2. Soak the balls for 24 hours to remove unwanted chemicals
  3. Replace the water and soak for a second time
  4. Remove your plant from its container and gently remove the soil from the roots
  5. Wash the roots with water before inspecting and removing any rotten sections
  6. Fill the bottom third of the container with soaked LECA balls to create a false bottom
  7. Place your plant in the container before filling it with a mixture of soil and LECA balls
  8. Water your new potted plant with fertilizer and monitor it over the following weeks

 How Do You Use LECA Balls in Hydroponics?

In a hydroponics system, it is ideal to use clay balls for planting without soil. Make sure to design your hydroponic system to meet the needs of the plant you intend to grow.

Active methods are slightly more expensive as they typically require a water pump. The passive method of using a microfiber cloth to wick water from a reservoir full of a nutrient solution is the most suitable for beginners.

Before you buy your hydroponic equipment, you can take the time to prepare your LECA balls in the manner mentioned above as steps 1 to 3.

Next, you can assemble your hydroponic system. You’ll need a grow tray, reservoir, wick, and if you can afford it, and aeration system. An airstone and pump will ensure your plants remain healthy by distributing oxygen through the water.

Fill the reservoir and mix nutrients into the water. Place the soaked LECA balls in the base of the grow tray, add your plants into the containers, and then fill the area around the plants.

The roots of your plant should always be in contact with water. Use two microfibre cloths to help wick water from the reservoir up to the grow tray to keep the roots moist.

Can You Do Aquaponics With Clay Balls?

Yes, you can grow most plants in a system using aquaponics and clay balls. If you are growing plants or doing food production in a water-scarce area, aquaponics may be for you.

A compact home system will typically have plants growing in containers filled with LECA balls suitably sized to the plant.

Fish are kept in a tank and provide the organic nutrients to help with plant growth. The water is then circulated to the plants via wicking or using a pump. Provided there is light and enough space, you can grow plants using aquaponics anywhere.

Note: Aquaponics uses less water and requires less of your time than alternative food production techniques; however, it is expensive to start.

Can Roots Rot in LECA Balls?

Yes, they can. However, your plants are less prone to root rot in LECA than they are in the soil. Signs of root rot first appear with yellowing foliage, droopy appearance, and the roots will look brown and slimy.

Hydroponic systems using LECA balls alongside air pumps are unlikely to experience root rot. The pump oxygenates the water, preventing the plant from developing root rot.

What is LECA

FAQ – Common Questions on Clay Balls

The following questions are common amongst gardeners new to using LECA balls. I answered them to give you the information you may need when repotting your plants.

How Much Water Should I Put In a Pot With LECA Balls?

When using a hydroponic system, the water in the container needs to be maintained at a level slightly below the roots. Monitor the level daily to ensure your plants remain happy and fed.

Plants grown using a soil and LECA mixture will follow the watering requirements of the individual plant’s needs. For example, an alocasia cucullata thrives with high levels of humidity and well-draining soil.

When in a pot with LECA balls, the plant can handle receiving more water as the moisture is absorbed and held in the clay. Depending on your conditions, you may only be required to water once a week when the top 2 – 3 inches of soil become dry.

How Do You Fertilize Your Plants in LECA?

You can feed your plants an all-purpose houseplant fertilizer every six months. Use a hydroponic fertilizer if your plant is in a semi-hydroponic system.

The LECA balls, as mentioned above, provide no additional nutrients, leaving it up to you to meet your plant’s nutritional needs.

If your plant grows in a mixture of soil and LECA balls, the soil continues to release nutrients as it breaks down. While it is possible to feed them a regular fertilizer, the hydroponic fertilizer will ensure healthy root development.

Why Are My Plants Dying In LECA Balls?

There are many reasons your plants may die in a plant system using LECA balls. The most common would be a lack of water. While the soil drains faster, the water content trapped in the LECA ball means the plants can typically last for longer periods.

If your plants are not fed nutrients they may begin to die. The LECA balls do not decompose and provide no additional food for your plants.

Your plant’s stem and roots should not be allowed to sit in water. If soaked in water, the stem and roots can experience a lack of oxygen. This may develop into root rot which, when left unchecked can lead to the plant’s death.

Why Shouldn’t You Use Dry LECA Balls?

LECA products wick water very effectively. If your roots come into contact with dry LECA balls, it will wick the water away from the roots and may cause them to die.

Are LECA Balls Better for Hydroponics vs Aquaponics?

Hydroponics are better for growing plants that require high levels of nutrients, while aquaponics works best to support plants with low nutrient requirements.

Do I Need to Boil My LECA Balls Before use?

No, your new LECA pebbles have been baked in a rotary kiln and should not contain unwanted mold, fungi, or bacteria. While boiling your LECA balls is not necessary, it can be done during your second soak and will sterilize them.

If you are reusing your LECA balls, you can boil them to prevent cross-contamination from your previous plant to your new one.

Do I Need to Clean My LECA Balls

If you notice your LECA balls beginning to turn white it is time to clean them. The color is a build-up of calcium from the water. Separate the clay pellets from the plant before rinsing them under a tap until the salt is removed.

Have you forgotten about your LECA balls in water? Algae appear as a green covering and can suffocate plants and develop major problems in a hydroponics system.

You can clean the LECA balls with vinegar or bleach to kill the algae. Make sure you clean the vase too!

Is It Suitable to Use LECA for Orchids?

Yes, you can use clay pebbles for orchids in a semi-hydroponic system. The benefits include watering and repotting your plant less frequently, it requires less frequent repotting, your plant is less likely to experience root rot, and it gives you an attractive view of the roots if you choose a transparent vase.

Are you moving your orchid from a traditional potting medium? Larger plants grown in soil are typically harder to transfer to a semi-hydroponic system. Start by l

Lift your orchid from its growing medium before cleaning the soil from the roots using water. You can then follow the potting instructions on using LECA balls in hydroponics listed below.

Note: While orchids are considered non-toxic, the use of fertilizers to feed the plants can make them poisonous if ingested by your cat.

Do Plants Grow Slower in LECA Balls?

No, quite the opposite. Your plants may grow slower when transplanted if the LECA balls were added to the pot dry.

Tips on How to Use LECA Balls

The following tips are intended to help you get the most out of your LECA balls.

  • Choose to grow younger plants or species with less dense root systems
  • Use tools to help you monitor your water like a PH testing kit
  • Invest in a high-quality hydroponics fertilizer
  • Use a transparent container to easily monitor your plant’s roots
  • Dry the LECA balls in a mesh bag and store them if you’re not going to use them right away
  • For your high-value plants, you can soak the LECA balls for a third time before use
  • While affordable, high-quality LECA is priced slightly higher and is worth the investment

The Easiest Way to Use LECA Balls

Now that you know what LECA is, the easiest ways to use LECA balls, and the benefits of using this versatile growing medium you can confidently take your next step in home gardening.

Whether you decide to do a hydroponic, semi-hydroponic, aquaponic, or a mixture of soil and LECA balls, you will benefit from the properties of this well-draining growing medium.