Better the LECA you know


(lek-ah) LECA is short for Lightweight Expanded Clay Aggregate and is growing medium which allows you to grow plants without any soil whatsoever.

I gave birth in October. Okay. Didn’t. My doctor cut me opened and pulled my (unwilling) baby from my uterus in what turned out to be a rather complicated incident. I’ll spare you the details. Any hoo, the reason I mention it is because, while pregnant, I had the fears. Fellow mothers will know what I’m talking about. Those long months before baby is born when all you do is think about all the ways you could potentially harm your child. Every single item in your house is viewed as a potential death trap. And if not a death trap, a hazard. 

For me it was my plants. 

In particular, fungus gnats. 

I imagined the minuscule flying nuisances circling my home, looking for a moist (uh, that word) location in which to lay their eggs and deciding upon my poor baby’s nasal passage. Was mortified by the thought. Fungus gnats annoying enough as it is, but when adding the safety of my baby’s nose, they became down right dangerous. 

Tried all the tricks to rid home of these annoying little bastards. Spraying. Letting plants dry out. Sticky paper. Ant dust. Trouble is, once you have a certain number of plants in your home, you can never really get on top of the gnat cycle. All I really seemed to be doing is moving the problem from one pot to another. An actual life-cycle in my very own home. 

And then I realised. If I get rid of soil, I get rid of the problem!

Which is when I turned to LECA.

Hoya Mathilde growing in LECA

All the cool kids were using it. Youtube and Instagram are full of these small little balls. Seemingly overnight they appeared in everyone’s pots, yet no one was talking about what the fuck they were. 

YouTube plant queen Kaylee Ellen had already converted. During her eighty-sixth ‘Repot with Me’ video, LECA balls could be seen in all of her pots.

I wondered. Pleaded. What. The. Fuck. Are. These?

Desperation mode. Had soil suddenly become passé? Had the plant community, determined to continually upping the anti ($400 for a Deliciosa Albo, anyone?), finally come up with a method of housing plants which doesn’t involve (dirt) cheap soil?

I mean, we should have seen it coming. Perlite. Sphagnum moss. Charcoal. Coconut husks… Plant mediums have been evolving for a while now. An ever-evolving cocktail which, as time goes by, includes less and less, well… soil.

And now — now! — we have a substrate which doesn’t contain any soil at all. Unless, of course, you consider clay to be soil. Which it kind of is. You know, dry soil.

I thought everyone was mad. Looking into it, I discovered that LECA is basically a semi hydro system.

I understand hydro. I grew up in Murray Bridge. Loads of drug crops in Murray Bridge back when I was a kid. Nearly every second house had a secret hydro room. Crammed full of marijuana crops and a complicated piping system to feed them. 

But semi hydro? What does semi-hydro mean?

Well, basically, LECA is used with a water reservoir instead of complicated pumps and pipes required to keep the water moving. LECA sits in water, yes, but the water is allowed to be drawn up by the plant and LECA balls.

Bit of an art to it. Leaving plants in water all the time? Not good. Resulted in root rot. Almost lost a Stomranthe Trio Star because of that. Is only just recovering. Hence the term reservoir, I guess. 

And it’s not just water and balls. You need to add all the nutrients that soil normally gives your plants. Which seems a weird, around-about-way of doing things. Why just not stick them in soil?

Because of the PESTS! Soil either brings those pesky pests or gives them a suitable home. My house was being overrun with fungus gnats. I’d just get the problem under control, and then they’d come back a few weeks later. Why? They love soil. Lay their eggs in there. And they’re tiny. Takes you a while to notice they’ve taken hold. The more soil you have in your home, the more chance you have of an infestation. 

I’ve been using LECA for a while now. I dunno, a few months at least, and despite losing a number of plants through trial and error (different plants adjust differently to LECA, it’s a balancing act which has taken me a while to get right), I’m pretty sure I’m better off. 

Firstly, I feel the house is cleaner. I mean, think of it. Dirt lying around in pots dotted around your house? Is not the best thought, really. So psychologically, I feel better about the vast number of plants I have in my house.

Secondly — no pests. No pests! Fungus gnats and any other soil-dwelling bastards are gone. Brilliant! No chance of anything trying to fly up my son’s (moist) nose.

Thirdly — it looks nicer. It just does. Soil just doesn’t look good, does it? No.

So, I guess, in summary, I can recommend LECA. Cleaner, less pests. Water is far easier. You can also leave your plants for longer in-between ‘watering.’

You just can’t think of it too much. Because when you realise you’re growing your house plants in non-dirt, it kind of screws with your mind. Sounds a bit like Emperor’s New Clothes, you know?

And if all of this is too much for you, know this — LECA has already been surpassed by a different substrate. Lechuza Pon. I’ve currently have an order from Lechuza coming my way, so I’ll let you know how I go.

Who knows, we might reach a point in the not-too-distant future when we don’t even need any substrate for our plants. Or water. Oh, wait. We already have those. Fake plants, they’re called.

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