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How to propagate cuttings in LECA

Learn how to propagate cuttings in LECA. It’s a wonderful medium for building strong plant roots!

Learn how to propagate cuttings in LECA…

If you’re at all involved in the plant hobbyist world, you’ve probably seen the term “LECA” pop up. I hadn’t done much at all with LECA until a few years 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!

So if you’re new to the topic and are wondering how to propagate cuttings in LECA, consider this the article for you. It’s designed for beginners, so let’s start at the very beginning: what is LECA?

LECA clay balls

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Overview of LECA propagation

  • LECA (Lightweight Expanded Clay Aggregate) is a growing medium like soil.
  • Improves oxygen flow during root development; LECA helps to ease the transition of propagations to soil when compared to water rooting.
  • Propagating cuttings involves filling a clear container with LECA and adding a cutting and water.
  • Water should come up to just below the bottom of the cutting; monitor for evaporation and refresh as necessary.
  • LECA is sustainable because it is infinitely reusable.
  • Must add nutrients if you want to keep plants in LECA long-term.

What is LECA?

If you’re starting from scratch, let’s start with a definition of what LECA actually is. It’s 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 if you add nutrients.

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 on a spider plant—they are white.

spider plant cutting rooting in water

Water vs. soil roots

But water roots don’t always transition well to soil. And 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, and they need some time to adapt to soil.

On the flip side, soil roots will rot with too much water, which is why overwatering kills so many plants. Root rot is a condition that occurs when plant roots are exposed to excessive moisture for prolonged periods. Plant roots need oxygen to function properly, and excessive water in the soil can prevent the flow of oxygen to the roots.

When the soil is saturated with water, air pockets in the soil are filled, and the roots may be deprived of the oxygen they require for respiration. Without sufficient oxygen, root cells begin to die, and the roots become susceptible to rotting. If you’ve always wondered why overwatering kills plants while that very same plant can be propagated in water, that’s why!

With LECA rooting, the water stays below the plant’s roots. The clay pebbles then 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 to ease the transition to soil.

water roots on a scindapsus pictus
Water roots on a scindapsus pictus exotica
rubber plant cutting rooting in LECA
Roots grown in LECA

How prep LECA before 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.

LECA clay balls
LECA clay balls in a jar

Step-by-step instructions

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. I generally like using clear glass or plastic containers for propagating and rooting cuttings. That way I can monitor what’s going on.

Wet LECA clay balls

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. Add water to about the bottom half of the container. You generally don’t want to let the water touch the bottom of the cutting you’ll be rooting, so keep that in mine.

Since the whale fin snake plant cutting I was rooting needed some more stability, I added water to only the bottom third of the jar and nested the leaf down a bit further.

Wet LECA clay balls
propagating whale fin snake plant cutting in LECA
propagating whale fin snake plant cutting in LECA

Step 3: Refresh water 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 nutrients 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 add some more. If you need to refresh 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.

Roots grown in LECA

Keeping plants in LECA long-term

Some people choose to grow their plants in LECA long-term instead of soil. If you do this, when you convert your plants from soil to LECA, you’ll need to completely clean the soil from the roots first. You’ll also need to add nutrients.

I’m not going to be covering this in this article because I am only using LECA for rooting cuttings. By the time the cuttings root, I am ready to transition them to soil, and the soil has the nutrients the plant will need. Just a few things to keep in mind when diving into LECA.

wet LECA in a jar

Why propagate cuttings in LECA?

Switching to propagating cuttings in LECA instead of soil or sphagnum moss is just a personal preference. There are advantages, but there are also disadvantages. 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. To reuse LECA for different plants, just make sure you boil your LECA pebbles in water in a pot. This will sanitize them, potentially introducing bacteria or other things to the new plant.

LECA clay balls

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 creatures we all know and hate. (See my article about getting rid of thrips for more.)

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.

propagating whale fin snake plant cutting in LECA

Pro #3: LECA keeps things predictable

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.

LECA in a mason jar

Cons of switching to propagating in LECA

There are a few cons I want to highlight about using LECA. 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. But if you have a ton of plants you are rooting, it can get expensive. You can sometimes find smaller bags at local nurseries for a few bucks. Even though you can reuse LECA, you probably have to reuse it a few times before the costs breaks even with soil.

LECA clay balls

Con #2: 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 most of these pots have drainage holes. You might not be able to use these with LECA and might need to get other containers.

If so, 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 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.

whale fin snake plant in LECA

In conclusion…

Propagating cuttings in LECA offers a modern and efficient way to root plants. Its advantages, including improved oxygen flow to roots, ease of transition to soil, and reduction in common plant pests, make it a compelling alternative to try out. I love rooting cuttings in LECA!

I’d love to hear your experiences with LECA or any questions you might have. Share them in the comments below or reach out for more insights and tips on plant propagation. Happy planting!

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collage that says learn how to propagate plant cuttings in LECA with pictures of plants in LECA

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  1. Rachel says:

    How long do you presoak your leca before using it to do the actual propagation?

    • Brittany Goldwyn says:

      Hi! I don’t have a specific recommendation, sometimes I just wet it in a bowl quickly and use that if I’m in a hurry. I usually try to soak it for about 30 minutes or so, though.

  2. LINDA FRIEND says:

    Can you use the LECA to start plants. For example, can you soak a tissue put some seed on it and then place on or just below the top layer of LECA? I’m curious. Thanks for the article. I am interested in this for indoor plants.

    • Brittany Goldwyn says:

      That’s a good question, I’m not sure! I’ve only ever used it to start cuttings that need to grow roots. I’ll have to look in to this.

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