By Alexa Peters
Cannabis and hemp plants have been cultivated since 500 BC in Asia and the 1600s in the United States, according to History.
Yet, prohibitive hemp and cannabis policy in the 20th century sent many cultivators and their strategies for successful grows underground.
Fast forward to 2020 as the movement for cannabis legalization spreads, cannabis cultivation is more widely discussed and there are hundreds, if not thousands of resources online to consult.
Still, if you want to grow cannabis—either in a home grow or commercial setting—it can be hard to get good, reliable information.
“If you need to know something, find a trusted source,” said owner ofAlpinstash cannabis, Danny Murr-Sloat. “Don’t google answer questions, the same way that you wouldn’t google questions about your health. There’s so much misinformation out there.”
That said, through discussions with several experts and a dive into the scientific literature, this beginner’s guide to cannabis growing—which introduces the science of the cannabis plant, types of growing methods to consider, the difference between clones and seeds, essential equipment, as well as initial costs—should be one of the most reliable places to start in your journey towards becoming a cannabis cultivator.
Before you start to grow, it’s good to understand the cannabis plant and its growth cycle.
Cannabis plants come in female and male varieties, and can hermaphrodite if cared for improperly.
While the male plants are necessary for pollination and breeding cannabis, unfertilized female plants are the best for smoking, making products, or selling.
In general, when starting a cannabis plant from seed, it takes anywhere from 14-32 weeks, or about 4-8 months, to grow a cannabis plant. In that time, you’ll watch the cannabis plant move through four distinct stages: germination, seedling, vegetative, and finally, the final flowering stage with buds which, after being dried and cured, become the products found on dispensary shelves.
Besides controlling environmental variables, the first two growth cycle stages for cannabis are relatively hands-off for growers. It’s when the plant hits the vegetative state that more tending is necessary. At this point, the plant may need a bigger pot, and once you’re more advanced—it will also be the time to top or train your plant for better-quality yields. Then, to induce females to flower, the light cycle of the environment must be modified.
“Flowering occurs naturally when the plant receives less than 12 hours of light a day as the summer days shorten, or as the indoor light cycle is shortened,” reports Leafly.
Once you’ve got a grasp on how cannabis growth cycles look, it’s good to consider your personal growing goals.
Are you growing a little bud for your own medical needs, or do you want to turn are you dead-set on turning this into a high-yielding business?
Either way, experts agree that the smartest way to start is with just a few plants and on your home turf, if you live in a legal state where that is a possibility. In fact, some of the most successful commercial growers began their journey in the industry by cultivating a single plant on a windowsill—not by starting large, complicated, and expensive commercial projects right out the gate.
Danny Murr-Sloat is a perfect example.
About fifteen years ago, he was struggling with a series of medical issues that required him to take 19 pharmaceutical drugs, when his father suggested he trymedical cannabis as the medical movement was gaining steam.
“Pretty quickly after taking that I felt better and I got myself all my medication over the course of a few months. I also had always enjoyed gardening therapeutically, so I thought I’d give growing a try. The tending to the cannabis plants was as big of a deal and as therapeutic as the actual plants,” he said.
As he got more proficient at growing high-quality cannabis, he applied for jobs at commercial grow facilities and eventually decided to go to school for horticulture and start his own company, AlpinStash, based in Lafayette, CO.
“Starting commercial grow versus a home grow are definitely two different things,” Murr-Sloat said. “I suggest starting home growing because we want everyone to try it so they know what goes into growing a craft product.”
If you’d rather begin straightaway with a commercial grow—you’ll need to adjust for scale. In other words, you’ll need more plants, more space, and more capital. You’ll also have less room for error, which is an inevitable part of learning cannabis cultivation.
“Unless you have the really right scenario, in which you’re extremely well-funded [starting with a commercial grow is difficult.] I mean, you need to get your return on investment, make money as soon as possible, and you may not have the luxury of that time frame,” said Murr-Sloat.
Other considerations as you set up your grow operation are where and how to grow your plants.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s focus on two main options—keeping it simple by planting outdoors, or cultivating indoors in soil, which requires the grower to carefully manufacture and regulate the environment.
Cannabis has been grown outdoors successfully for centuries.
Outdoor cannabis is considered the most natural and least costly way to grow cannabis, as it only uses tents, sunlight, and soil.
That said, this method also means your plants are at the mercy of the natural environment including climate changes, pests, and weather events—which can be a real problem, even impossibility, depending where you live. California, though, is one state where outdoor grows can be successful—in spite of local pests.
“If you’re in California you can grow it outside, there’s a lot of places you can grow cannabis outside in the summertime, pretty much anywhere in fact,” said Dr. Robert Flannery, the owner of California-based cannabis farm, Dr. Robb Farms, with a PhD in plant biology.
“It doesn’t cost any money —you’re not plugging in a light, you’re just letting the sun do the work. What I will say is hornworms, which is a pest that usually affects tomatoes and things like that,love cannabis.”
As well, outdoor weed can be some of the best quality. As Anders Taylor, CEO of Walden Cannabis, told Leafly, “As a point of fact, outdoor-produced flowers will always enjoy a broader, more intense, more deeply penetrating spectrum of light. This advantage allows outdoor grown plants to more fully express their genetic potential.”
As for indoor grows, those unexpected events that plague outdoor crops are not as much an issue. With indoor operations, variables like light, temperature, humidity, are usually manufactured by fluorescent lighting, heaters, air conditioners, dehumidifiers, fans and grow tents. The benefit is that this is all controlled by the grower, but that responsibility can be intimidating when you’re a beginner.
Luckily, Dr. Robby has some general rules of thumb.
“For temperature, let’s talk about the plants we have in flower that are actively growing—you want to have the temperature for those plants to be around 78 degrees,” he said.
“When it comes to humidity, this is a crop that is unfortunately rather susceptible to fungal infection—Botrytis and Powdery Mildew are two different types of fungi that cannabis is susceptible to getting—so you want to keep the humidity relatively low, around 50%.”
Additionally, when it comes to light—one of the most important factors in the quality of your flower—there are good and bad options.
Murr-Sloat, for instance, “hates” big, high-wattage fluorescent lamps for home-grows because the amount of heat they put off creates another variable you then have to control. For beginners starting at home, he recommends starting with a few small 23-watt curly-cue compact fluorescent in a tent.
“You don’t have to go crazy,” he said. “I would say that home growing [equipment] can be really, really basic. I know many people who’ve been really successful growing just the minimal amount for their first run or two.”
Obviously, if you’re going the commercial, high-yield route, bigger lamps may make sense for you. In that case, there are a few things you can do to protect your plants against heat stress. Make sure these lamps are high enough up from the canopy—about 2 to 3 feet above, Murr-Sloat says—and monitor the temperature of your environment with a thermometer.
Lastly, when it comes time for your cannabis plant to flower, you will need a grow tent big enough for all of your flowering plants to experience undisturbed darkness. These tents mostly apply to indoor grows, but can also be used to modify conditions outdoors.
Once you’ve chosen your environment and methods, it’s time to get down in the dirt. Here, again, you are met with options to weigh—to start with seeds or clones.
Cannabis seeds come in three types: regular, feminized and autoflower.
Basically, regular seeds are a mix of female and male that need to be sexed, feminized are all female and can be put in the ground to flower, and autoflower are a type of seed that will automatically flower over time without light manipulation, and quite quickly at that.
Hence, for their ease, the autoflower seeds are frequently recommended to beginners.
Whichever type is chosen, seeds are a great way to grow a “clean” plant—untainted by history of poor growing techniques, chemicals, or pests—making them ideal for home growing beginners because there’s a better chance of success.
There are also way more strain options in seed form. That said, seeds take months to cultivate into a flowering plant, which can be an issue for commercial growers looking for a quick return on investment.
Clones, or cuttings from another matured cannabis plant, can be introduced into the flowering stage after they’ve established a root system—only about two weeks after they’ve been transplanted. Hence, most commercial operations go this route, but sometimes that can end in catastrophe if they obtain a clone with pests or other issues.
“[Obtaining bad clones] comes down to growers not knowing what they’re doing or in a commercial setting, it could be an owner not knowing what they’re doing and mandating that their growers do certain things. And or, there is a lack of knowledge on IPM, or integrated pest management,” said Murr-Sloat. “For commercial grows, it’s nice to get clones of good genetics from a place you know is clean.”
On that note, how do you find clean sources of clones and seeds?
The answer to this question relies heavily on your state’s policy on cannabis. This resource from Leafly shows the distinct policies on growing in every state where cultivation is legal.
If you live in a legal state for cultivation, seeds are sold at dispensaries and can be purchased on certain seed company’s websites. There are also seed banks that exist outside the U.S that can send certain amounts of seeds for “souvenir purposes,” but US customs will seize any cannabis seeds brought over the border. As for price, seeds run from a few dollars to hundreds of dollars for rare genetics.
Clones run about the same price range and can also be purchased from licensed facilities like dispensaries.
“U.S. states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use, like California, Colorado, Washington, and Oregon, have select dispensaries that sell various marijuana clones. Make sure to call in advance to find out their availability and strain selection,” according to LeafBuyer.
In general, the cost of your grow depends on its size and your methods. Outdoor is the most cost-efficient, while indoor can get more expensive the bigger and more complicated you make it.
“For a hobby [indoor] grow, all in with plants and pots and soil and nutrients and lights it could be $200-300,” said Murr-Sloat. “It can easily be done for cheaper—I have a buddy who spent $25 total. He had a hanging clip socket for a shop that he put a 23 or 25-watt fluorescent in, put it in a windowsill, and put some potting soil in a pot and got a seed free to him. I had extra liquid nutrients and I just gave him a bottle.”
As for commercial grows, the costs are much, much higher. This isn’t necessarily due to the costs of the cannabis plant itself, but the facility, equipment, and personnel needed to do large-scale commercial growing.
“With cultivation, you need a lot of capital, a lot of capital,” said Andrew Reich, Vice President/GM Operations MD at iAnthus Capital Management. “It doesn’t even matter if you find an existing greenhouse—the infrastructure that’s required and the state regulations for product quality control, it’s inevitably expensive.”
In the end, cannabis cultivation can become complicated quickly and takes time to master. Because of this, experts say it’s best to keep it simple and start small, and to do your research into plant biology and your state’s cannabis cultivation policies. Plus, being prepared to make mistakes essential to success.
As Dr. Robby said:
“Understand that mistakes are going to be made and problems are going to arise, and trying to fix those problems is what makes the difference between a great cultivator, a good cultivator and a mediocre cultivator. It’s really knowing what the plant is going through at the stage that it’s in and then if any problems arise knowing how to react when it happens. But problems are going to arise, and I want all cultivators who are just starting out to realize that.”
Once you’ve made your mistakes and had a few successful grows with your plants, you can continue to grow your collection at home. There are two ways to do this: Letting your existing plants be sexed and pop seeds, and then planting those seeds, or learning how to clone. From there, you should have a sustainable crop of your favorite strains, grown and tended to entirely by you.
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