(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.
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.
I didn’t know a syngonium was a syngonium. They were just these odd mottled plants my mum had. She’d cut them at the stalks and put them in a vase, and there they’d live forever more.
So when I looked for greenery to compliment my new home, I took cuttings from my mothers plant and stuck them in old wine bottles, hoping that I would, perhaps, get a good few months out of them before having to replace with new cuttings.
Not so. These plants seemed indestructible. Not only did they survive in their water homes, but they flourished, unfurling new leaves and growing in a curved vine which made my home look like an interior design masterpiece.
And then I got into plants. I got a fiddle leaf fig because I fancied a tree in my home. Waiting for this little guy to grow, I bought more and more plants to fill the void before becoming a bone fide plant nutter, turning to Instagram for inspiration. For someone who doesn’t enjoy the art of the selfie, plant photos are my jam.
Which is when I discovered that these nameless plants which I have neglected since welcoming them into my home are the fancy of all plantgrammers.
‘Syngonium, syngonium, syngonium. Look st my syngonium!’ Ah ha! Not only do these plants have a name, but they are famous! And I have several…
So I decided, in my wisdom, that I would plant one of my rooted beauties into soil where it would no doubt flourish so I could join the masses on Instagram by sharing the delights of this fabled plants.
Alas, the fucker died. Died! I mean, all I didwas give this plant what it naturally desires – earth – and the bastard had the audacity to go and die on me! What an ungrateful bastard.
And yet, despite my previous contentment of having these plants in water for a number of years, I now desire above everything else (apart from acquiring a Hoya Mathilde, that is) to have a syngonium survive a potted life.
Is this too much to ask?
I could, of course, just go and buy one which is already established in soil, but that feels a little defeatist if you ask me. And I’m not about all of that. I mean, I’m the chick who persevered with African Violets for TWENTY years before finding success – I’m just hoping I don’t have to wait another twenty for my syngonium.
So, if you’ve been following me on Instagram, you will have noticed a change to my content.
A dramatic change.
Yes, that’s right, I’ve gone plant crazy.
Not quite sure what has happened. Actually, I am. It’s the obsessive gene. The addictive gene. I’ve got it.
There’s no grey with me. There’s love, and there’s hate. And when I love something, I love it hard.
When we got our new house a couple of years ago, I was suddenly presented with a beautiful, light space where I knew plants would thrive. Finally, I had a home I was proud of, not embarrassed of, and spaces in which I could swing more than one cat. Which turned out to be fortunate, given, at the time, I had two of them.
(Sadly, Penelope didn’t last the year in her new home, but her older sister, Martini, is still going strong and is looking forward to her 20th birthday this July).
So I wanted things to be pretty. I’m not great at interior design — I’m not my sister — but I like things to feel homely and have a pleasant feel about them. I’m somewhat eclectic in my design, I guess, or, if I want to be truthful, I’m making do with hand-me-down and old furniture, including a couch which threatens to stab Mr Thomas with a wayward spring every time he sits down on it.
Our front room has a wall of windows looking west and is filled with the most incredible light for all of the day. I knew it would be the perfect place for a Ficus Lyrata and loved the look of these tree-like specimens ever since I saw one in Carol’s apartment on The Real Housewives of New York.
Alas, back then, the good old Fiddle Leaf Fig wasn’t as popular as it is today, so were still pretty pricey. Given a tree-sized Ficus cost around $800, it was a no-go for me at the time, and Mr Thomas sated my desires by buying me a little lad for me to nurture.
So I had this fiddle leaf, and that was kind of it, really. But then, because I have this wonderfully rustic dining table, I wanted to dress it up with fresh flowers. Well, fresh flowers are expensive, especially if you’re buying them every week. So, instead, I purchased an orchid. I figured these guys would last a lot longer than cut flowers, and I’ll have a month of colour before having to buy a new plant.
Somehow, though, I managed to not kill the orchid. I watched some Youtube videos, and gained a few insights on how to look after these guys. At the end of the season, I cut off the bare flower stems of the orchid, and left it in the front room. I didn’t think much of it, until, several months later, I noticed a new flower stem peeking through.
What? Had I really managed to get an orchid a flower with no trouble at all?
Suddenly, I was awash with plant confidence. I needed more.
See, when I was a kid, I loved plants. I’ve always loved plants. Growing up, I made myself a little garden on the side of the house, using plants I’d steal from Mum’s garden beds. I’d have to be clever about things so she wouldn’t notice so I learnt how to seperate roots and plants and propagate to bump up my garden and not ruin hers.
That’s always been my relationship with plants. Up until recently, I would hardly buy any plants. I would take cuttings from friends and family, give propagation a go and wait and see what the results would be.
And I’ve realised, this whole plant thing is all about my innate need to nurture. I take things, I feed them, I make them grow, and I love watching them flourish.
As someone who suffers terribly from anxiety, I can’t describe the calmness that plants bring me. Just looking at them makes me happy.
Which is probably why I have amassed such a collection of indoor plants. Not to a Summer Rayne Oaks level. I think Mr Thomas would divorce me if I introduced 500 plants to our house, together with a chicken. But, you know, plants are now a thing for me.
And I was thinking — well, I love writing, and I love plants. So why not write about plants?