Cannabis is no longer exclusively grown in basements and hidden greenhouses. As cultivation moves into the public sector, we can also begin to move away from some of the myths and misinformation that has vexed the industry for decades. I will give you proven principles from the horticulture world that will improve your overall plant’s health, increase yield, and reduce nutrient costs.
Now before I get started, I want you to take a moment and remember the first time you saw a cannabis plant.
Remember how powerful and mystical the plant seemed? The sense of taboo because it was illegal? For me it was walking into a dirty basement. The light was intense and I had to squint, the smell was overpowering and the air was humid. All my senses were overwhelmed. This experience though had a profound effect on me.
You see I grew up with my parents owning a nursery and landscape business. I've been around plants since the day I was born. But I had never grown cannabis and never been to a hydro shop. My first visit to one was a bit overwhelming.
What were all these bottles on the shelves with fancy labels? The smell reminded of chemistry class. These were products I had never seen in my life, with cool names and cartoonish pictures of beautiful women. It got me excited to think of trying them all out and getting massive growth like in the photos and claims. There was one slight problem though…..I had just finished my master’s degree and like many people I was getting out of college in debt. I had more time than I did money, so I started researching cannabis cultivation and learning how others were growing in online forums. I also started looking more closely at ingredients and comparing it to what I was more familiar with in the horticulture world.
Now, I had a couple of advantages on my side, a background in plants and horticulture from my father and also a background in science and research. I wasn’t even conscious of it at the time, but I began gravitating towards people who were doing science-based horticulture and applying it to cannabis. Through this journey, I was able to meet and befriend people like Jeff Lowenfels, author of Teaming with Microbes. Tim Wilson, founder of Microbe Organics and one of the foremost experts on compost teas in North America. A man who goes by the online name “Clackamas Coot” who is a bit of a legend in many forums. Steve Solomon, Dr. Elaine Ingham of Soil Food Web, Erica Reinheimer, and many more.
Then, in 2011 we opened Keep It Simple Farm. It’s a beautiful, 7 acre property with a farm and feed store, organic hydro shop, outdoor preschool, greenhouse production, edible nursery, and educational trail on native habitats. We have chickens, ducks, pigs, goats, turkeys, and more.
Since that time, I’ve also had the opportunity to consult with and tour many medical and 502 farms.
Today I would like to share with you some of what I've learned on this journey. And I believe by applying the principles in this talk you can cut your media and nutrient costs by 70% or more over traditional bottled nutrient programs.
Step #1 : Go Organic
Now before your eyes glaze over, let me offer you compelling environmental and economic arguments for why this is plausible as well as addressing concerns like cost, yield, quality, and bugs.
As you probably know, the cannabis industry has already been in the spotlight for using illegal pesticides and plant growth hormones, products not approved for edible crops. This type of negative media really hurts the industry and public perception of cannabis cultivation.
From an environmental perspective, we could talk about the excess nitrates and phosphates that are leached out of used media or flushed into our groundwater or sewer and how it creates algal blooms and dead zones in the ocean and lakes, killing off marine life. We could talk about the massive fossil fuel cost associated with manufacturing chemical nutrients as well as transporting them across the ocean. Most come from China.
However, I thought it might be better to tell you a story from a visit I had to a 502 facility awhile back. This company was feeding conventional bottled nutrients which they mixed in 250 gallon IBC totes. Now an employee apparently had mixed up too much when we walked through the room and was in the process of dumping over 100 gallons down the drain. I asked where that drain led to and was told they were on a septic system. All their wastewater was literally going to a drainfield behind their property. How much longer do you think we have before the state and the EPA step in and set regulations and start fining companies for the environmental damage this creates? We are literally polluting our own groundwater as an industry!
Now before you want to write me off as some sort of tree hugging liberal, which may not be too far from the case, let’s look at why it makes sense from a financial perspective.
In a Consumer Report published in 2015, the cost of Organic Produce ranged from 24-60% higher than conventionally grown produce. And while there isn’t a unifying certifier for cannabis at the moment, certain companies like Certified Kind and Clean Green are attempting to bring a standard to the industry that will translate into consumer awareness and higher perceived value for organic cannabis. Just like in the grocery store, savvy consumers will happily pay a little bit more to know that what they are purchasing is both safe and organic. What would 10-20% more for your crop mean in regards to your bottom line?
In addition, science has yet to determine all the long term effects of combusting or metabolizing many of these chemical products. What sort of liability and responsibility do growers have to provide a safe product to consumers?
And frankly companies haven't been honest with us regarding their labeling of products marketed towards the cannabis industry. How many people remember Flower Dragon or Bushmaster or Gravity, with paclobutrazol to harden buds? Or Guardian Mite Spray which claimed to be organic but contained abamectin.
Another huge benefit of going organic is that it gives you the ability to re-use soil if managed properly. This means that you don’t have the added labor costs of transporting soil in and out of your facility, disposal fees, and having to buy soil each cycle. Farmers have been doing it for years, right?
Bugs and diseases are typically the first argument I hear back when I suggest reusing soil. Over the past 7 years, we have had indoor growers battling broad mites, powdery mildew, root aphids, russet mites, spider mites, fungus gnats…..you name it. With proper preventative and organic IPM strategies though, these problems can be dealt with effectively.
We have growers who have gone more than 5 years with the same soil in their rooms.
What does reused soil look like?
This photo is from soil more than 2 years old. Here’s photos from Phyre Farm in Oregon and Goldleaf Gardens as well as a couple different medical growers.
Every time you harvest a plant, you are removing organic matter and nutrients from that soil. Both can be replaced though at a cost of $20-50 per yard depending on scale. Keep in mind this is the total cost per yard for both your nutrients and media.
Cost of an establishing organic program the first cycle will be higher than future cycles obviously because you’ll need to bring in the soil, but for the next year or two you can re-use that soil. A recent article on a cultivation company called “Outco” in San Diego found that by mixing their own nutrients to get away from brand names, they dropped their fertilizer cost 22x, from $1.37 per plant to only 6 cents per 1 gallon plant. Keep in mind this does not include the cost of the media. An organic system like I’m suggesting by comparison, cyfor nutrients and media cost only 5 cents a gram the first year and 1 cent per gram for every successive year for the next couple of years based on normal yields and conditions. This doesn’t even factor in the labor savings of not having to move soil in and out of your facility and disposal fees.
Now you say “yeah, okay it may be better for the environment and cheaper and less labor, but my quality and yield will suffer.”
Goldleaf Gardens, who has built their reputation on quality, with CO2 and Double Ended fixtures, are averaging 2-3 lbs. per light or 60 grams per square foot across all their strains. Now don’t get me wrong, these guys are phenomenal growers who have been at it for a long time. Growers with singled ended fixtures and no CO2 supplementation were averaging 1.2-1.8 lbs. per light or 35 grams per square foot. There's not sacrifice in yield by going organic.
What I’ve experienced is that properly grown organic flowers typically surpass conventionally grown or hydroponic flowers, and from a science perspective it makes sense. I’ll explain a bit more about that in the next part of my talk.
Organics doesn’t mean we chuck science out the window. Organics doesn’t mean we just live in harmony with pests and diseases. What I’m proposing is that we attempt to mimic natural ecology to the best of our ability and create living soils.
If we can accept the premise that there is value in growing organically, the next step is to look at what we need to do to make sure everything a plant needs.
Get good biology and microbial diversity in your soil.
This photo is of Cyanobacteria around grains of sand, creating soil structure.
Now it’s important to make the distinction that when we add organic fertilizer or amendments to the soil we aren’t directly feeding the plant. Most plants convert up to 40% of the energy from photosynthesis into root exudates to feed microbial populations in the rhizosphere. Let me rephrase that because I think this is an important concept. Almost half of the energy a plant receives from sunlight or artificial light it is putting back into the soil to feed microbes. It just emphasizes how important this process is in Nature.
This is a microscope video I shot where I took a small amount of our potting soil and mixed it with distilled water and molasses. These soil microorganisms are critical for cycling nutrients into an ionic form the plant can take up. In soil, the plant really controls this process by releasing exudates (sugars, carbons, carbohydrates) into the rhizosphere (area around the soil) which are then consumed by bacteria and those bacteria are eaten by protozoa like flagellates and ciliates and what they excrete is now in an ionic form that the plant can metabolize. In a natural system, the plant controls this process but we can help it out by increasing the biomass and diversity of these beneficial microorganisms.
So if we can get the nutrients into the soil prior to the plant needing them and keep them from leaching out, then the plant can control its own growth, allowing for optimal plant health.
We can increase these microorganisms by using high quality compost and vermicompost or making aerated compost teas.
Quality is the key word here. I'm not talking about municipal compost for $20/yard at your local garden store. I’m talking making your own high quality compost or vermicompost or sourcing from companies that have done research and testing to determine both the nutrient and microbial levels in their products.
Now there are very few “microbe-specific” products that I think are essential to growing cannabis, but mycorrhizal fungi is one of them.
Mycorrhizal Fungi: At this point most people in the room are probably familiar with mycorrhiza. For those that aren’t, it’s a particular type of fungus that forms a symbiotic relationship with the roots of most plants and has been around for over 450 million years. In simple terms, it colonizes the root system, exchanging water and nutrients for carbon which the plant obtains through photosynthesis. In the case of cannabis, we want “endo” mycorrhizal fungi and the most widely studied and known to infect cannabis is glomus intraradices and glomus mossae. Recently the name has changed to further complicate things to rhizophagus intraradices or rhizophagus irregularis. You may find any of those names on a package these days.
Did you know just how amazing this organism really is? Because they are so small they can reach into tiny pore spaces the plant’s roots can’t penetrate. They have been shown to help with environmental stress like drought and root pathogens as well as increase plant biomass and in the case of cannabis, increase bud production. It’s one of the primary ways the plant receives phosphorus. Mycorrhizal fungi can increase the absorption of phosphorus, nitrogen, sulfur, boron, copper, zinc, and other elements by up to 60X. They also assist with hormone production. Cytokinins, which promote cell division and growth in roots, jasmonic and salicylic acids that make up the plant's defense system, and auxins, which are involved in many aspects of cellular development.
Who here has forgotten to water their plants before? Studies have shown that up to 100 times more water is available to plants during drought conditions when mycorrhiza is present.
Mycorrhizal fungi can make roots harder to penetrate for root nematodes, as well as outcompeting disease causing pathogens for limited nutrients in soil such as fusarium, rhizoctonia, pythium, and phytophthora.
So knowing all these benefits, how do we utilize mycorrhizal fungi in our gardening practices? Couple of important things to note. Because it’s a “root” symbiont, we want to make sure it comes in direct contact with roots. That means we need to apply it early in the plant’s life, directly into the root zone. I like to do it when first transplanting rooted clones. I sprinkle it into the hole or rub the roots in it. Second thing is we want to avoid high phosphorus applications and adding microbial products containing trichoderma until the plant has had a chance to establish a mycorrhizal relationship.
This is another powerful reason to reuse your soil. Having tiny roots hairs in your old soil means increasing the chance of existing spores and propagules in the soil.
Don't get me wrong, microbial activity and biological diversity are essential parts of the growing process but they don't tell you the whole story.
Steve Solomon Story
I’d like to start by telling you about a man named Steve Solomon. Steve is fairly well known in this region, as he wrote a famous book entitled “Gardening West of the Cascades” and more recently, “The Intelligent Gardener.” His life story is quite fascinating and I’d like to share a part of it here. Steve began homesteading in Oregon around 1978 and founded Territorial Seeds in 1979. At the time, he was eating a primarily vegetable-based diet where about half his calories were coming directly from his garden and seed trials. Now he was well versed in the organic theories and practices of that time, bring in large amounts of organic matter in the form of manure or compost, and add dolomite lime to “sweeten” the soil. After a few years of living in this manner, he found that his energy was decreasing and his teeth started to fall out. His wife’s fingernails were getting soft and their overall health was declining. Here he was, striving to be organic and healthy, and yet it was having the opposite effect! In June of 1984, one small decision (where to vacation, in this instance it was Fiji) turned into an event that would have an incredible impact on the course of his life. The business was starting to take off and his family was able to take 6 months to go recharge after working hard the past 5 years. During their time in Fiji, they continued to eat the same diet from the local farmer’s market, but after a month or so their energy and health improved dramatically. Steve’s gums started to firm up, his wife’s fingernails were no longer soft and pliable. Was it the low stress lifestyle, the beautiful weather, or some other unknown variable? Steve began investigating how and where the vegetables were being grown. He found that the majority of the crops were grown in a nearby valley, using all manner of chemical pesticides but no fertilizer. He discovered that cyclones would come through the region on a semi-regular basis, flooding the entire valley and depositing sand and silt from a nearby extinct volcano. Weeds would grow up to chest height and then be tilled in, adding organic matter, before planting the next crop. So here was a soil, with no added manures or compost and no fertilizer, growing poison-sprayed vegetables, that was dramatically improving his family's health!
Well the business started calling again and they were forced to go back to work in Oregon. Once again, the same health problems starting popping up. So he began researching the work of William Albrecht, Cary Reams, Michael Astera, and others dating back to the 1920s and the idea of mineral balancing.
Plants need somewhere between 14-16 essential elements to grow. So synthetic nutrient companies put in those nutrients in the ratios they believe are optimal for plant health and growth. However, science is finding more evidence that trace amounts of other minerals can be utilized by plants for various plant functions. We are talking parts per million or parts per billion here. The concept is simple by having all the nutrients and minerals in the soil we are putting the plant in charge, selecting what it needs for optimal health and growth.
From a plant perspective I would equate conventional nutrient programs to eating a Big Mac every day. Sure, it has calories, protein and fats. You will continue to grow, but you’ll be more susceptible to illness and obesity and other health problems. By comparison, a varied diet of vegetables and lean meats allows you to get all your vitamins and minerals in adequate amounts will leave you feeling better and more resistant to diseases and health complications. You may find yourself craving a particular food, as your body finds itself lacking in a particular nutrient like calcium or potassium. In the same manner, a plant can control what nutrients it receives based on the exudates it puts out in the rhizosphere.
If it needs more potassium for example, it will put out exudates to select for the microorganisms that will cycle the nutrient and make it plant available.
So how do we utilize this knowledge in our garden?
Well, it starts with a soil test. Steve recommends Logan Labs standard soil test. It will give you a general idea of what minerals and nutrients are in your soil. From there, you can then add various soil amendments to get the soil to where you want.
If I add alfalfa meal for example, I’m picking up a small amount of nitrogen and potassium as well as a key plant growth hormone, triacontanol, which helps enhances photosynthesis and plant metabolism, leading to better growth and larger bud formation. Or seaweed in the form of kelp meal offers plant growth hormones like auxins, cytokinins, gibberellins as well as more than 70 trace elements and N and K.
Here’s some examples of N P K sources that are readily available at your local garden center or feed store.
By having a high quality soil with good biological activity AND good nutrient and mineral content puts the plant in charge and allows for optimal plant health and growth.
Look at labels and ingredients:
Use scientific methodology, have a test garden.
You have the tools at your disposal to test this out with very little risk or commitment. I suggest that all growers dedicate a portion of their garden to testing out new ideas or products.This is where using scientific method is important. Have a test area in your garden where you try one new thing every cycle. Your control would be the rest of your garden as you traditionally run it. This will allow you to eliminate variables and determine if a given product had a beneficial or detrimental effect on the plant. Treat all the plants exactly the same with the exception of that one product, nutrient, or gardening technique and see how the plants respond. A test area will more than pay for itself in no time at all. You may find you can remove certain products or find cheaper substitutes without any reduction in quality or yield.
Do the concepts like I’ve listed in this talk really work?
Companies like Goldleaf Gardens, Leira Cannagars, and Honeycreek Farm in WA and Phyre Farms and HiFi in Oregon have built their branding and reputation on concept of quality, typically commanding the highest prices in the market while also pushing the envelope in regards to environmental standards and sustainability.
Implementing any or all of these changes can have a dramatic impact on both the quality of your plants and your financial success in this competitive industry. We are at an exciting point in history where much of the stigma and taboo around cannabis cultivation is finally being lifted. I believe it’s time to take advantage of the vast knowledge that already exists in the horticulture and agricultural world and apply it towards furthering cannabis science. Thank you.
Resources cited and photo credits:
Salton Sea Photo
By Gentle - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
Algal Bloom Photo
By Felix Andrews (Floybix) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
Nutrient Pollution and Runoff Photo
By Lynn Betts, photographer - U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service. Filename:NRCSIA99129.tif, Public Domain
Tanker Vessel Photo
By Keith Skipper, CC BY-SA 2.0
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2004697
By Photo by Eric Erbe; digital colorization by Chris Pooley (USDA, ARS, EMU). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Pollinator at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1293306
By CSIRO, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35432982
Root Aphid Photos copyright © 2012 Ben Gray
By Arches National Park - Cyanobacteria wrapped around sand grains (90x magnification)Uploaded by AlbertHerring, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29670509
By Hallrob3 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53806648
By Holger Casselmann - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16530349
By Msturmel - MS Turmel, University of Manitoba, Plant Science Department, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7553044
Plant Roots Photo (user modified)
By Ian Bailey - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=505717
By Messina, John, 1940-, Photographer (NARA record: 8464458) - U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16932916
By Dr. William A. Albrecht - http://designerecosystems.com/2014/10/16/food-is-fabricated-soil-fertility-by-william-a-albrecht/, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37536185
By Evan-Amos - Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17179743
By Jonathan Wilkins - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40222931
By AMB Enterprise Karachi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons