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Want to Grow Pilea in LECA? Here’s what you should know

So you’ve heard of this new trend of growing houseplants in LECA, and you’re wondering what on Earth that is and whether you should jump on board or not.

We don’t want our readers to feel left out of any plant trend, so here’s the lowdown on using this medium for your Pilea and a few things you should know before you uproot your babies and throw them LECA.

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What is LECA and why do people use it?

LECA stands for Lightweight Expanded Clay Aggregate, and it’s produced by heating clay in a kiln at about 2190 °F (1200 °C). During the production process, the structure of the clay pebble changes to resemble a honeycomb pattern filled with air pockets. Some plant growers prefer it as a growing medium instead of potting soil because of its water regulation properties (more on this later).

How to grow Pilea in LECA.

Ok, so you have a Pilea and you want to transfer it to LECA. Here’s how to do it:

Step 1: Prepare the LECA. Remove the LECA from its bag and give it a good rinse (you can use a sieve colander or a mesh bag). Then soak the LECA for 24 hours and drain the remaining water. If you’re diligent about what’s in your plant mix, you can soak it for another session of 24 hours. Your LECA has to be saturated with water when you start using it, so there’s no need to let it dry.

Step 2: Gently remove the Pilea from the potting soil. At this point, you have to wash off all the dirt that’s stuck to the roots.

Step 3: (Optional) If you want a gentler transition for your Pilea, you should ideally re-root it in water before you transfer it to LECA. This would allow the plant to replace its soil roots with water roots and make it less likely for it to go into shock. Wait for the new water roots to reach about 2-3 inches before transplanting your Pilea to LECA. You can experiment with this step, as it is possible to put the plant straight into a LECA container.

Step 4: Add about half of the pre-soaked LECA to a container (a glass, vase, jar or pot without a drainage hole). Place your plant on top, then add the remaining LECA. Add water about one third of the way through (this portion of the container is often called a reservoir).

Step 5: Keep an eye on the reservoir and top it up when the water level gets too low.

The pros to growing Pilea in LECA

That does sound like a lot of work, doesn’t it? Why would anyone choose to grow in LECA when it’s so much easier to keep your houseplants in potting soil? Here are a few advantages of growing your Pilea in LECA.

1. LECA takes the guesswork out of watering

Hands down, the most common problems that plant lovers have with houseplants - whether it’s root rot, pests, yellow leaves, drooping leaves - are a result of overwatering. You name it, too much water will have caused it.

If you’re having a hard time estimating the amount of water that your Pilea needs, then LECA might be a better growing medium for you. All you have to do is replenish the reservoir when it’s empty and leave the self-regulating to the plant.

2. LECA reduces the risk of soil-borne diseases

Soil-borne diseases don’t stand a chance when there’s no soil, right? Yes, that’s pretty close. If you grow your Pilea in LECA, you’ll be less likely to have to fight pests such as fungus gnats, aphids and mealybugs, all of which like to hide in the soil and wreak havoc in your houseplants. However, be careful to rinse the roots very well when you transition the plant to water.

3. LECA is reusable

Unlike potting soil, which is impossible to reuse once it has become contaminated, compacted or drained of nutrients, LECA is reusable, as long as it’s properly cleaned and disinfected.

To disinfect LECA, you can wash it in a sieve under hot water. You can also leave it submerged overnight in a bucket in which you’ve added water and Epsom salt. Some people even boil it, but that may be a bit overkill.

The cons to growing Pilea in LECA

Growing in LECA might sound like a no-brainer by now. Why isn’t everyone switching to LECA? Here are some of the disadvantages of using this growing medium.

1.There is an adaptation period for your plants.

When you transfer your Pilea to LECA, your plant might go through a period of adaptation. And as the saying goes, it gets worse before it gets better.

First, your plant will need to transition from soil-grown roots to water-adapted roots. For this to happen, some of the old roots will need to die back. They’ll get mushy and need to be removed to make room for new growth.

As the plant puts all its energy into growing new roots, it won’t have enough left to sustain new leaves, and even old leaves might suffer. So you might also see signs of leaf deterioration and loss of mature leaves. The key is having enough patience to wait out the transition. Don’t panic and definitely don’t make more changes to the plant’s environment in a short period of time.

2. LECA has high set-up costs.

LECA is not as popular or as easily available as regular potting soil, and its price reflects that. Depending on the region, you may end up paying up to five times more for a bag of LECA than for a bag of soil.

Another thing to keep in mind is that you can’t use pots with drainage holes in them, so you’ll likely have to find new containers or improvise grow containers with what you have around the house (mugs, vases, bowls, etc.) Once you have your LECA set-up, you can reuse this growing medium multiple times, but there’s still one maintenance cost to account for.

3. LECA needs ongoing maintenance costs.

Unlike potting soil, which is full of living breathing organisms, LECA pebbles are devoid of any such sign of life. That means you periodically must add nutrients to the water. And if you think you can use the same fertilizer that you do for your potted plants, think again.

Plants kept in LECA need a water-soluble nutrient, so you’ll have to splurge on hydroponic fertilizer. As usual when it comes to fertilizer, always read the instructions on the bottle and err on the side of “less is more.”

4. LECA needs some maintenance as well

We mentioned that part of the attraction of using LECA is being able to reuse the same clay pebbles for different setups (which is about the only way to keep it affordable). But you shouldn’t just transfer pebbles from one pot to another. Although LECA itself is inert, there could be diseases, pests and bacteria that attach to it if you’re not diligent about maintenance. So when you transfer your LECA to a new home, these unwanted guests can easily hitch a ride. That’s why you have to thoroughly wash old LECA before you reuse it in a new project.

Now that you know the advantages and disadvantages of growing your Pilea in LECA, it’s up to you to decide whether it’s worth changing. Our final recommendation would be to start slow until you get the hang of it. Start with a smaller Pilea and experiment with changing one plant at a time. And just to be on the safe side of the learning curve, leave your favorite plant for last, or at least until you have mastered some of the basics of growing in LECA.

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