Hydroton is a form of LECA, which stands for Lightweight Expanded Clay Aggregate. LECA is a porous, lightweight, manmade clay material that resembles lava rock in its structure. But instead of lava rock's irregular size, it is formed into regularly sized round balls. Different ball diameters are available to correspond with different crop needs, but typical sizes are 3/8" and 5/8" diameters.
This material is a relative newcomer on the hydroponics and aquaponics scene, but it has received good reviews and is in regular use with both hobbyist and commercial growers.
1) You already know that you want to use LECA type clay balls for your hydroponic or aquaponic projects, and you are looking for sources,
2) You want to learn more about this material's unique advantages and disadvantages, to determine whether it will work for your crops, growing conditions and layout.
We have compiled information about hydroton and related LECA products so that you can answer either question. Please visit whichever section below is applicable to your needs.
LECA growing media products have recently gained more and more favor amongst hydroponic and aquaponic growers as a cost effective option with good performance. Yet they are still relatively unknown outside those circles. If you have a local hardware store or home improvement store that does a lot of business with commercial growers, landscapers or nurseries, you may start your search there. But don't be surprised if they've never heard of it. They may or may not be able to special order those products for you. Even commerical nursery and greenhouse equipment dealers may or may not carry it.
A second option is to visit with specialty hydroponics suppliers in your area. Anyone in the business of providing hydroponics supplies and hydroponics equipment should know about hydroton.
A third option is to check with online hydroponic retailers. These by far are the most likely to not only carry this type of growing media, but in a variety of sizes. These retailers are often very competitive with each other for pricing. Here is an example of one online retailer's hydroton product line.
LECA growing medium offers growers a number of advantages. It is chemically inert so it won't affect the pH. It is easy to handle given the round shape and light weight, yet provides sufficient mass to anchor the heaviest production trellises. It can be dusty at first but it is very easy to wash down, and it is not dusty after that point. It has some reusability, since the round size is amenable to cleaning and the surface pore spaces can be cleansed and/or sterilized with various treatments. I don't know how many cleaning cycles it can go through but it's better than rockwool in that regard.
It does have a few disadvantages. First, it is one of the more expensive growing media. That might work out OK since it can be reused at least a few times, so that cost amortizes out over several growing seasons. Yet startup acquisition will be a hit to the pocketbook. Secondly, it can be challenging to start small seeds in the clay balls, since the large spaces allow small seeds to fall down to the bottom of the planting bed. Third, it is not as easily available as other growing media, although online retailers are plentiful. More and more gardening and hydroponic retailers will bring it in as a special order but they may not yet stock it regularly.
UPDATE March 2016: Hydroton is once again available from multiple retailers, both in-store and online. Please check our ads below for a few examples.
Towards the end of 2012, reports started to circulate that hydroton would no longer be manufactured. A lot of confusing reports and statements were made about the particular product, the manufacturing method, and whether this growing media would continue to be available commercially. I offer the following clarification to that situation.
As of March 2014, the following statements are still accurate as far as we can determine:
If growers have concluded that they really like the characteristics of this growing media, these similar products have gotten good reviews as substitutes:
Canna Aqua Pebbles - this product is a pre-washed rounded or oblong expanded clay pellet. The pellet size varies a little but averages 3/8" to 1" in diameter. The varying size is touted as an advantage to ensure better growing media stability, but it could cause problems if the product is used in smaller containers such as individual planting cups.
Growstones - this group of products is similar to hydroton in terms of performance, but the parent material is different. Growstones are made from recycled glass pieces. The product shape is round to oblong, with sizes ranging from 1/2" to 1" in overall diameter. It is dust free and can be sterilized and re-used.
Gold Label Hydrocorn (also called Hydro Korrels) - this product from The Netherlands is another expanded clay pellet, similar to hydroton, but manufactured by a different company. The product shape is round or oblong. Pellet size ranges from 1/3" to 2/3".
Other manufacturers are releasing similar products over time. Whichever online retailer a grower happens to work with will have information on current alternative products.