Semi-Hydro Culture of Your Houseplants
…and why you really shouldn’t do it
by Plant Doctor Christopher Satch
So, you’ve seen the fancy Instagram posts with water glasses with pothos and monstera in them. Or maybe you saw the LECA (clay balls) grown plants, and the cult of growers who swear by that method. I’ll tell you why it works, why it doesn’t work, and why you should not water culture your plants.
What is Water Culture?
Water culturing plants is another way of saying that you’re growing plants not in soil (as God wants) but in water. That’s fine for aquatic plants, but not fine for plants that are terrestrial, such as your monstera or pothos. Some folks choose to grow their plants in fancy “test tubes” and place cuttings in them of easy to grow plants, which usually root and grow a little. However, those folks are not aware that this is a temporary defense and survival mechanism that is present in those plants (side note, not all plants can be grown as cuttings in water).
What are the problems with water culture / semi-hydro?
Often, these folks will claim that their plants grow “really well” and brag about “all those new roots” that their cutting is producing. Meanwhile, if they compared the water-grown plant with an identical cutting planted in soil, the soil-grown plant would be superior in color, leaf number, density, etc. Over time, plants left to grow in water become starved of nutrients, and tend to always have pale yellow leaves or pale chartreuse leaves. This is from the lack of nutrients.
Plants form beneficial relationships with microorganisms in the soil, and pull nutrients from the soil into themselves. That means that yes, you will have to get your hands dirty, if you wish to participate in being a plant parent. I know that the people who need to hear this don’t frequent my website, but here I go yelling into the void anyway: If you don’t like mushrooms in your home or getting your hands dirty, then keeping plants is not for you.
Additionally, not every plant CAN be propagated by water culture. In fact, the majority of plants cannot be propagated by water culture. The plants that we have come to know as houseplants, we have selected for weediness, and as a consequence, a higher than average percentage of houseplants can be propagated by water propagation.
Now, that being said, there are a few exceptions to the “soil/media only” gospel that I keep preaching. TEMPORARY (less than a month) water propagation is all good, so long as the propagations eventually make their way into soil. Additionally, LECA is a great way to grow lithophytes. But again, LECA was meant to be an additive, not the only thing you are growing in. Pure LECA and water is just as bad as growing in water, because LECA doesn’t provide much in terms of nutrients.