Clay balls or Clay pebbles (sometimes referred to as LECA—light expanded clay aggregate) are a hydroponic substrate with units about the size of marbles or peanuts. Because they’re so lightweight, easy for transplanting and harvesting, and easy on the hands, they’re a favorite of small producers using media bed or Dutch bucket techniques. Clay pebbles can be used in both hydroponic and aquaponic systems.
Pros of Clay balls
1) High pore space means fewer blockages
Larger aggregates like hydroton, pea gravel, and crushed granite have much larger space between each rock or pebble than perlite, sand, and other small particles. While the biological surface area isn’t usually as high, the pore space is much higher.
What does that mean? Larger pore spaces mean better percolation (flow of solution through the media)
2) Some air-holding capacity to keep root zones oxygenated
While it can’t rival perlite’s air-holding capacity (AHC), this grow media does have some capacity to hold air bubbles. Combined with great percolation, clay balls AHC makes it difficult for problematic anaerobic zones to occur.
3) Renewable & environment-friendly
Not much clay is used to make a cubic foot of clayh balls, and clay is abundant, so most people consider it an environmentally-friendly medium to use. Compared to many media used in greater amounts that are more demanding of the earth’s supply, clay balls is very friendly to the environment.
Although clay balls is a mineral and not considered a pollutant, we still don’t want it to end up in a landfill. Luckily, they are reusable almost indefinitely. You usually want to rinse any built up silt or organic matter from it before reusing it, but unless you have an extreme salt build up in it, you can reuse it many times.
5) Easy to plant and harvest
Clay balls is a loose media, so it’s easy to transplant and pull plants out of after harvest. Don’t underestimate how much time this can save you in wrestling with plant roots and separating root balls from the media surrounding them.
Cons of Clay balls
1) Water holding capacity leaves something to be desired
Clay balls don’t have good water holding capacity, or WHC. Since WHC is what allows a substrate to stay moist even after being drained, low WHC means that crops can get dry and wilted if not watered often enough.
2) Fairly costly
Clay balls is extremely easy to work with, which makes it a first choice for many small growers, but it’s a bit too expensive for most large growers to use it.
3) Can cause problems with pumps and plumbing
Because Clay balls floats for the first few months until it’s been saturated, the pebbles can get sucked into filters or drain lines and cause blockages.
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