Wondering how to get started with propagating cuttings in LECA? I’m talking about how to use LECA and sharing my very first attempts at rooting some of my plant cuttings in it.
My adventures propagating cuttings in LECA
If you’re at all involved in the plant hobbyist world, you know that LECA is pretty trendy right now. I hadn’t done much at all with LECA until a few months ago when I was at Ikea. I saw a big bag of LECA and decided that it was finally time for me to do some experimenting. Why not? I love learning new planty things.
But what is LECA and how is it used for propagating cuttings?
If you’re starting from scratch, let’s start with a definition of what LECA actually is. It’s actually an abbreviation that stands for Lightweight Expanded Clay Aggregate. So, kind of like clay pebbles. LECA can be used as a growing medium (instead of soil or water) to root plants. Plants can also live exclusively in LECA (more on that in a bit).
LECA is used in conjunction with water. The clay balls absorb water and help to improve oxygen flow to your plant’s roots. This is beneficial for your plant’s root growth because if you grow root a plant cutting in water alone, it will only grow water roots. Here’s a picture of some water roots—they are white. I have had this pothos plant growing exclusively in water for about a year.
Water vs. soil roots: What’s the difference?
But water roots don’t always transition well to soil. I’ve never had a plant die completely, but I have lost some leaves. And the some plants look a little droopy and sad for a while (especially my scindapsus propagations, which is why I started rooting them in sphagnum moss instead). That’s because water roots are designed to live exclusively in water.
On the flip side, soil roots will rot with too much water, which is why overwatering kills so many plants. If you’ve always wondered why overwatering kills plants while that very same plant can be propagated in water, that’s why! I felt like I had a little light bulb go off over my head when I learned that.
With LECA rooting, the water stays below the plant’s roots (usually). The clay pebbles them absorb water and deliver it to the plant. The roots begin growing in the LECA, providing a stabilizing structure. Since the LECA pebbles help with oxygen flow, the roots are able to get more oxygen while growing. This all helps the transition to soil—if you choose to transition to soil—easier. It’s essentially a semi-hydroponic approach.
How prep LECA for propagating cuttings
LECA is reusable, which is awesome. But it does require a bit of prep work the first time you use it. The first thing you need to do is rinse your LECA. My big bag of LECA from Ikea didn’t have too much residue. But I did notice some reddish-brown tint to the water I was rinsing it with.
You definitely want to do this outside to avoid getting clay in your household plumbing. I didn’t want to use a kitchen strainer, so I just put some in a gallon-sized bag filled it up with water, and then carefully dumped that water our over my deck. I did that a few times until the water was mostly clear.
Then I soaked my LECA in two mason jars. I just filled them up to the top and then filled the jars with water. They actually soaked for a while, but that was only because I got busy with other stuff and forgot about them in my little converted greenhouse cabinet for a few weeks. At least they helped with the humidity in my plant cabinet!
And here are the steps for propagating cuttings in LECA
Propagating cuttings in LECA is what I’m going to be trying my hand at here, so that’s mostly what I’ll cover. With propagating cuttings in LECA, you don’t have to worry too much about cleaning soil off of roots (because none have grown yet) or adding nutrients.
Step 1: Add LECA to your container
After rinsing and soaking your LECA, the first step is to add enough LECA to your container to fill the bottom half-ish. If you’re planting an existing plant with a full root system already, you’ll only do one-third of the container with LECA so you’ll have enough room for the root ball.
I generally like using clear glass or plastic containers for propagating and rooting cuttings. That way I can monitor what’s going on. This goes for water propagating, sphagnum moss propagating, and now LECA rooting. For soil it doesn’t matter as much.
Step 2: Add the plant cutting, more LECA, and water
Nestle whatever plant cutting you’ll be rooting in the container. Then fill up the space around it with the pre-soaked LECA. It won’t be super stable until the roots begin growing. Then you’ll be able to position it a bit better.
Add water to about the bottom half of the container. (Again, if you were planting a plant with an existing root ball, you’d only want to put water in the bottom third of so of the container. You generally don’t want to let the water touch the roots.) Since the whale fin snake plant cutting needed some more stability, I added water to only the bottom third of the jar and nested the leaf down a bit further.
Step 3: Refresh water and rinse LECA as necessary
I’ll just be using regular tap water treated with a beta fish water conditioner for my LECA. I’m not planning to use any sort of additives in the water since I’m going to be using this method just for cutting propagation.
Make sure to monitor your LECA to see if you need to refresh the water. When almost all of the water evaporates, you can rinse out the LECA by filling the container with fresh water and draining out all of the water. Just hold your hand over the top to make sure you don’t dump the pebbles out. Then add water to just below the roots.
A note on LECA pots and containers…
I mentioned that I like to use glass or clear plastic containers for water and moss propagation. And I think it’s probably what I’ll prefer for this propagation method, too.
Another common method seems to be to use the plastic nursery pots for the LECA balls and plant, but to put those pots into decorative pots without drainage holes. Then fill those decorative pots with the water the clay pebbles need. This would be a great option if you want to still use a lot of decorative pots, but I’m not diving into it yet.
A few notes on converting from LECA to soil…
If I like how my cuttings do in LECA, I might decide to convert some of my soil plants to LECA too. One of the most important things about this process is to get all of the soil off of the roots. This can be really hard to do without damaging the roots too much.
When I’ve had to clear roots of soil and trim them, I usually shake off as much as I can outside and then use my kitchen sink to gently rinse off the remaining dirt. You don’t want to do this with too much soil though, because that’s not great for your plumbing. A garden hose is always a good call.
If you want your plants to be in LECA long-term, you’ll also need to add nutrients. I’m not going to be doing this because I’m just working on some propagations. But since LECA doesn’t have any nutrients (like soil does), you need to add concentrated nutrients to your water when you fill the bottom of the container. Just something to keep in mind.
Why switch to propagating cuttings in LECA if soil works?
Switching to LECA instead of soil or sphagnum moss is just a personal preference. There are advantages, but there are also disadvantages. Like anything with houseplant hobbyists, there is a bit of an upfront cost, but the experimentation part of it is worth it for me. Here’s a look at what I think the pros and cons are.
Pro #1: LECA is reusable forever and ever
LECA is reusable forever. So it’s really sustainable. It isn’t even expensive to begin with, but the fact that you can reuse it forever really brings that cost down even more. So even if there are other things you might have to invest in up front, the cost of the actual LECA pebbles themselves aren’t a problem.
To reuse them for different plants, just make sure you boil your LECA pebbles in water in a pot. This will help sanitize them before you use them for another plant, potentially introducing bacteria or other things to the new plant.
It’s never advisable to reuse houseplant soil because the previous plant will have likely taken up all of the nutrients. If you add additional nutrients to the soil, you might be able to reuse it. But you never really know if there’s something in the soil you don’t want to introduce to a new plant. It’s always best to chuck old houseplant soil.
Pro #2: Propagating using LECA leads to fewer pests
The lack of soil means no habitat for many pests. Fungus gnats lay eggs in soil, for example, and thrips drop larva into the soil to morph into the winged bastards we all know and hate. (See my loooong post about getting rid of thrips in soil plants.) So while it might not be a 100% solution (pests are adaptable), it is harder for them to complete their full lifecycles without soil.
Spider mites can still be problematic on some plants. Elephant ears, calatheas, and some philodendrons are especially vulnerable to spider mites. Spider mites create their webs on leaves, not the soil, so the lack of soil isn’t a problem. But spider mites don’t like humidity; they thrive on hot, dry air. So the presence of water in the reservoir can help keep them at bay. You can read more about how to spot and prevent spider mites in my post.
Pro #3: Plant care is more predictable with LECA
You can chuck your moisture meter, because using LECA really makes watering as predictable as it can possibly be. If you never used a moisture meter to begin with (raises hand), you don’t need to dip your finger in the soil or keep track of the last time you watered your plants. You just need to monitor the water in the container and refresh as necessary.
LECA is really good at regulating the plant’s water intake, so you don’t really run the risk of over- or under-watering as long as you monitor the root growth and water reservoir. There is so much guessing with soil. And a lot can change based on the time of year, the amount of light your plant gets, the type of plant, and even the type of soil.
It’s possible that you’ll need to water less using LECA than you are used to doing with soil. That’s because LECA gives your plant only what it needs and nothing more. You’ll have to monitor how often you have to refresh your plant’s water and will eventually get into a routine.
And speaking of routines, I don’t know about you, but I always lose track of fertilizing plants. When LECA, if you get on a good schedule, you always know you need to add your nutrients to the watering session you do the first of the month (or whatever). You can add your nutrients once a month or once every few weeks.
Cons of switching to LECA
There are a few things I want to highlight about using LECA. Again, I want to emphasize, it isn’t necessarily better than soil if your plants are happy and healthy in soil. And while it is a pretty low-maintenance medium, it does have a few extra steps you might not take with soil.
Con #1: LECA can be more expensive up front
The LECA pebbles (ODLA growing media) at Ikea are only $5.99 for a 5.2 quart bag. And you can buy it in bulk to bring that price down a bit. The Ikea LECA is a great option if you just want to get started, though. If you don’t live near an Ikea, you can easily buy LECA on Amazon.
It’s what I’m using, and it’s more than I need. I already gave a plastic baggie away 🙂 But if you have a ton of plants, it can get expensive. You can sometimes find smaller bags at local nurseries for a few bucks. Even though you can reuse LECA, you have to reuse it a few times before the costs breaks even with soil.
Con #2: You need to be more mindful of adding nutrients and water pH when using LECA
So since LECA doesn’t have any nutrients in it like soil does, you need to add it. That means you need to add concentrated liquid fertilizer to your water when you add it to your containers. And this fertilizer needs to be specifically for hydroponics (aka water, not soil). Don’t use the fertilizer you used for your soil plants, even if it is a liquid concentrate fertilizer.
I am not using any nutrients for my propagating. But if you want to keep your plants in LECA long-term, you need to think about adding those nutrients. You also need to think about water pH. Water pH can affect the plant’s ability to take up nutrients, so you might need to get chemicals to raise/lower your water’s pH and to test it. The pH for LECA water should be between 5.8 and 6.3.
Con #3: You may need to switch pots
If you have a lot of plants that you’ve had in soil for a while, you probably have quite the collection of pots. Chances are that many, if not most, of these pretty pots have drainage holes in them. You might not be able to use these with LECA.
If you didn’t want to do the clear glass/plastic container with LECA, you can do the plastic nursery pot in a decorative pot route. If your decorative pot has drainage holes, I have a post about how you can seal them. And if you can’t find a plug that’s the right size to seal your drainage holes, you can use a molding putty or concrete.
If you do choose to use the clear glass/plastic containers, definitely reuse glass jars from kitchen items! Some can be quite pretty, and many are the perfect size for plants. You can also hit up your local Goodwill or thrift store to see what glass containers you can get for cheap. A variety of different shapes and sizes would be more interesting than a bunch of mason jars.
Con #4: Switching from soil to LECA can be difficult for existing plants
This one doesn’t apply to propagating cuttings without root balls, but if you’re switching a plant from soil to LECA, you need to clean all of the soil off of the roots. All of it. And that can be a huge pain to do.
So how about propagating cuttings in LECA? Is it a good idea?
Yeah! I’ve really enjoyed learning all about LECA as a growing medium, including the pros and cons of using LECA. I think it’s really great for rooting cuttings because you don’t need to bother with the nutrients you’d need for long-term LECA plants, and you don’t need to clean soil off of roots. I say go for it—try it out!