One of the biggest trends taking over the houseplant culture these days is going soilfree. Wait—did I just say growing houseplants in no soil? Yup, sure did. Plant tubers and influencers everywhere are encouraging plant owners to ditch the dirt, falsely suggesting that soil is the root of all their problems. Currently there are two main mediums on the market that people are choosing over soil: LECA (lightweight expanded clay aggregate) and Lechuza Pon. This rant covers LECA.
LECA-lovers are very quick to tout all the reasons one should switch to LECA: a reduced risk of pests, plant care is easier, and there’s less maintenance. None of those things are true.
First off, LECA is an expensive endeavor. A 50-liter bag of LECA costs $42.90 on Amazon. The same amount of soil would be anywhere between $5 and $20 depending on how fancy you want to get. Additionally, you generally need two pots for a LECA planting: one without drainage and one with. A nursery pot could suffice for the inner pot, but some like to purchase net pots, which are a little extra.
Once LECA is acquired, both the LECA and the plants need to be prepared to transition from soil to LECA. Imagine a plant growing its entire life in soil only to go through the traumatic experience of being unpotted, having all its soil washed away, and maybe even having its roots scrubbed so all organic matter can be removed before putting the plant into LECA. If one can’t remove all the organic matter, it is suggested to just cut off all the roots and treat the plant as a cutting. This is crazytalk.
In addition to LECA itself being expensive, one requires special fertilizers to keep plants growing, because LECA itself has zero nutrients. One must continually purchase different fertilizers and use them in almost every watering to make sure the plant is getting what it needs to grow. There is no “one size fits all” nutrient and LECA-lovers’ cabinets are generally stuffed with dozens of different types.
All those nutrients build up over time, as do water minerals, so that requires flushing the LECA. Which leads us to our next myth-bust: LECA is most definitely NOT less maintenance (or easier) than plants planted in soil. It is advised by LECA experts to flush LECA frequently to avoid the white specs of mineral buildup on the LECA balls. If one has many plants (and houseplant collectors can have hundreds), this is a messy and time-consuming process. Often those little coco-puffs end up all over the place and boy do they hurt when you step on them.
One of the LECA methods suggests keeping plants with a reservoir. This allows the LECA balls to stay moist and encourages roots to grasp onto the balls as they grow. The problem with this, though, is that eventually the roots will seek out the water. Often, people don’t switch out the water in the reservoir frequently enough and this leads to root rot and plant death.
The last myth I am going to bust with LECA is the claim that there are little to no pests when using LECA. Again, this is not true. Even though there is no soil, one can still get all the houseplant pests, even fungus gnats—which seems to be a driving factor to people switching away from soil. One can still also get mealybugs, scale, aphids, and, well, all the pests (see above).
I think one of the reasons why LECA is popular is that many feel it has a cleaner, “nicer,” appearance than soil. And in a houseplant culture where appearance is more important than actual plant care, trends are everything. Hopefully, some of these folks will realize that plants have been growing in soil just fine for centuries. Here’s a plea to stick with what works.