May 04, 2020 10 min read

By Cecelia May Thorn

If you’re interested in growing medicinal cannabis, you need to read this article. We spoke to five of Colorado’s best marijuana growers — and their advice might surprise you.

We interviewed owners of the state’s leading cannabis brands (14er Holistics and Veritas Fine Cannabis), as well as producers of boutique healing cannabis products (Mountain Orchid and FreeWorld Genetics).

Their advice might help you view your own garden differently. Or, if you’re in Colorado, it might restore your faith in the marijuana industry — and convince you to skip growing entirely (and just buy your medicine at a dispensary).

Growing Medical Cannabis Is Challenging

Because growing medicinal cannabis isn’t easy. Doing it well requires a nearly all-consuming focus — and a lot of time.

“People make the reference that cannabis ‘grows like a weed,’” says Lesley Davis, owner ofThe Mountain Orchid, a marijuana grow facility in Montezuma, Colorado, “but that couldn’t be more misleading. Cannabis is an extremely sensitive plant.”

A wide variety of factors — like temperature, humidity, moisture, air flow and pests — can cause near-instantaneous damage, she explains. Plus, if the plants have been stressed during their life cycle, the finished product won’t retain its full medicinal potential.

“If you’re going to be any good at it, you have to think about it all the time,” says Mike Leibowitz, the owner ofVeritas Fine Cannabis, a luxury cannabis brand available at dispensaries across Colorado. “And the only way to learn about it is to do it every day.”

Basically, growing high-quality cannabis will take up all your time. 

And if you want to do it commercially, it will also require a lot of money.

“You have to either have an investor, or be rich,” Leibowitz says.

If you do want to grow commercially, you’ll also need to get a marijuana business license. (You can learn more about this wildly complicated process in our guide tohow to start a marijuana business.)

So hopefully, you just want to grow some medicinal cannabis for your own personal use. (Because, unless you know some very wealthy people, you probably won’t be starting a licensed cannabis grow facility anytime soon.)

But it won’t be easy. People will tell you not to do it.

“Don’t grow weed in your house” says Evan Anderson, the owner of14er Holistics, a leading cannabis brand whose signature pre-packed tins of herb are sold in dispensaries across Colorado. “It’s hot, it’s dangerous.”

Of course, if you live somewhere without dispensaries, you can’t exactly leave it to the professionals. So you may want to set up a home grow.

And if you live somewhere with a less-than-ideal growing climate, or in a state where cannabis is illegal, you may want to set up anindoor home grow.

(Obviously, we don’t recommend you grow cannabis illegally.)

So, while commercial and outdoor growers may find this article helpful, it’s mostly designed to help indoor growers, who face several challenges.

"Indoors, you have more control over the environment, but you lose all of nature’s help and wisdom,” says Sam Epstein, co-owner ofFreeWorld Genetics, a cannabis seed company and grow facility in Boulder, Colorado.

The 6 Key Components to Growing Medical Cannabis

So in order to mimic a natural environment, you have several factors to consider. These include:

  1. your growing medium (like soil, hydro, coco fiber, or rock wool);
  2. the size and buildout of your grow room (with special considerations for temperature, air flow, and your grower-to-plant ratio);
  3. plant genetics (either seeds or clones);
  4. grow lights (like LED, ceramic metal halide, or high pressure sodium);
  5. nutrients; and
  6. watering method.

But that’s not all. Keep reading to the end of the article for other, more subtle factors critical to growing medicinal cannabis — ones you probably won’t find in a traditional marijuana grow book.

1. Growing Medium: Where to Grow Medical Cannabis

When considering which growing medium to use in your indoor grow room, your best options are soil, hydroponic, or coco fiber. 

A hydroponic garden is generally considered the cheaper option. But most organic growers prefer soil.

At The Mountain Orchid, Lesley Davis grows all her plants in soil.

“Plants are more stable and stronger when they’re cultivated in soil,” she explains. (Roots can grow more established, encouraging buds to grow denser.) “The soil provides essential nutrients and minerals that cannot be replaced with irrigation or hydroponic set-ups.”

Other growers are partial to growing their plants in water or other materials.

“We grow in amended coco fiber,” says Leibowitz. (Coco fiber is derived from coconut husks.)

“Coco fiber is very similar to a hydro setup, but you still get the aspect of having an enhanced medium for the plants to live in. It’s porous, it drains well, and it allows the plant to uptake food in the cleanest way possible.”

But it has its downsides: Plants in coco fiber must be watered daily, Leibowitz says.

“It requires more daily attention, like hydro,” he explains. “It’s not like soil, where you can water once or twice a week and be okay.”

Of course, many soil growers, like Lesley Davis, still give their plants daily attention.

“Obviously, growing in water eliminates soil waste, soil costs, time and energy,” she says, “but I think those shortcuts become apparent in the final product.”

The soil vs. hydro debate has been raging ever since people started growing marijuana indoors. But one fact is hard to dispute.

“Cannabis plants have evolved over thousands of years to grow in soil,” says Davis. “So why would we try to change evolution?”

2. The Size, Location, and Buildout of Your Grow Operation

If you’re building out your grow room, you’re probably excited. But don’t go too big too fast. That’s a classic mistake.

“I believe a small grow facility has a better chance of producing superior flowers, compared to a larger scale operation,” says Davis.

The smaller your grow room, the more attention you can devote to each individual plant. And the more attention you can devote to each plant, the better your results will be.

“We love to grow small-batch organic,” says Austin Larner, co-owner of FreeWorld Genetics, “because we think fewer bottled nutrients give you the best flavor of herb.”

In your buildout, you’ll also want to consider airflow and temperature. Too much moisture can cause serious problems, like mold. 

And because grow lights produce heat, your grow room will need air conditioning and exhaust vents. (You’ll probably need a good HVAC professional.)

Using higher-efficiency lights can reduce the need for air conditioning, but still, you’re going to need it — unless you’re located in an unusually cold climate.

The Mountain Orchid doesn’t have any AC. But they’re also located over 10,400 feet above sea level. (It’s the highest cannabis facility in the country, located in the highest incorporated town in the country.)

This is uncommon. You’re going to need to think about controlling the temperature in your grow room.

3. Medical Cannabis Genetics

High-end cannabis growers pour endless research, time, pride, and money into sourcing their plants’ genetics. Why? Because a plant’s genetics help determine its characteristics.

“I think it’s similar to trying to cook a delicious and healthy meal,” says Epstein. “It’s imperative to start with quality inputs, or you can only achieve a certain level in your final product.”

You can acquire your garden’s genetics either by purchasing either cannabis seeds or clones. Each choice has its own risks and benefits.

Clones are tiny plants which have been snipped off an existing female cannabis plant. They retain the exact genetic profile of the mother plant, so you know exactly what you’re getting.

But, by the time they’re rooted and ready for transport, they may have picked up some pests or diseases from their initial grow environment. That may not be a risk you’re willing to take — especially if you’ve just invested in building out your pristine new grow room.

If you choose to purchase seeds instead, you won’t have to worry about contaminating your new grow.

But with seeds, the genetic profile may be less precise than clones. (Seeds are produced by crossing a male and female cannabis plant, so their genetic material is not an exact replica of either parent.)

And if the seeds aren’t properly “feminized,” you run the risk of ending up with a male plant. (A male cannabis plant will not only fail to produce buds, but it may also pollinate the rest of your garden, causing them to become hermaphroditic — resulting in seedy buds.)

What else should you look for? If you’re growing medicinal cannabis, you may want to look for more indica strains, or a certain CBD:THC ratio. (A cannabis strain with around 4% CBD or more is generally considered a high-CBD strain.)

But it’s not all about THC and CBD content. Several leading growers believe that this reductionist view of cannabis genetics needs to die.

“Higher potency and terpene percentages dictate the majority of sales,” says Larner, “although often the most terpene laden plants are not always highest in potency.” (Terpenes are the scent and flavor molecules found in many plants, including cannabis, which causes each strains signature aroma.)

“Finding the inspired combination of terpenes and potency is our goal [as breeders].”

Epstein, his business partner, sees this shift as a boon for new growers today, who “will be able to jump in right at the forefront of where we’ve seen the genetics evolve.”

Forty miles away, over in Denver, Leibowitz’s cannabis companies are also trying to expand consumers’ awareness of the complexity behind cannabis strains. (His companies include Veritas Fine Cannabis, the Higher Grade dispensaries, and Olio concentrates.)

“We’re trying to shift the conversation in the industry,” Leibowitz says, “away from the obsession with potency to terpene testing, and towards the value of terpene testing.”

That would be a big change, in an industry obsessed with THC content. (Today, in Colorado, if your cannabis tests below 20% THC, it can be difficult to sell.)

“You can get a lot more information about how cannabis can heal you, its healing properties, from the terpene profile,” Leibowitz says. “You can dissect that analysis much more in-depth than you can with THC and CBD ratios.”

4. Grow Lights

Grow lights are critical. You need the right spectrum of light that will help with both vegetative growth and flowering.

Many home growers prefer LED lights, which run cooler than traditional high pressure sodium (HPS) grow lights. This helps you save on energy costs.

“You want the light that will make your plants the happiest with the lowest heat loading,” explains Evan Anderson. “The biggest concern in a home grow is heat.”

But here, too, the experts are divided. Anderson does not use LED lights himself. He prefers Ceramic Metal Halide (CMH) bulbs. These are actually more affordable than LED bulbs, he says. (But they’re more expensive than traditional HPS grow lights.)

And in a study of productivity per square foot in commercial grows, his facility (14er Holistics) ranked among the top five percent in the country.

“Ceramic metal halide lights are best for everyone, including home growers,” Anderson says.

“The energy savings on LEDs are not as much as people think. Because it’s easy to do vegetative growth with LEDs — but not finish the plant. The LEDs that will finish the plant will not be as efficient past week five, due to the intensity required of the spectrum necessary to finish the plant.”

But if you do opt for LED lights, Anderson recommends double-ended (DE) lights, which have two points of illumination, helping the light further penetrate your leafy canopy.

One thing he does not recommend is high pressure sodium (HPS) lights.

“Old-school HPS lights are basically a thing of the past,” he said. “They’re hot, they’re dangerous.”

But that doesn’t mean that some growers don’t still use them. Some growers say they’re necessary to successfully finish the plants (ie. to complete the flowering cycle).

“We use both ceramic metal halide and HPS,” says Leibowitz. “CMH for veg, HPS lights for flowering.”

Leibowitz loves that ceramic lights produce a little less heat, but believes you still need HPS to finish the plant.

“The technology keeps getting better with LEDS,” he says, “but I haven’t seen anything yet that’s affordable.”

5. Medical Cannabis Nutrients

All plants need a mixture of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. Growers can endlessly debate how to achieve the perfect N-P-K ratio.

Will you mix your own nutrients, or buy bottled nutrients? Will you choose organic? These are all things to think about as you set up your indoor grow room.

One of the most important things to consider is the pH of your nutrient solution. 

“Different nutrients have different pH values,” Davis explains, “so when you mix multiple nutrients together, it affects the overall pH of the solution.”

If the pH of the final nutrient solution is too far from 6.0, the plants will refuse to absorb the nutrients, she explains. This can stress the plant. So you want to adjust the final pH of your nutrient solution, to get it as close to 6.0 as possible.

6. Watering Method

To save time, you could automate your watering schedule.

But in a small or medium-sized home grow operation, you may be able to hand-water all your plants. And your plants would appreciate it.

“I think hand watering is extremely important,” says Lesley Davis, “mostly because it keeps the grower around the plants.”

When she walks around The Mountain Orchid’s facility to hand-water the plants, she also provides each plant with individualized attention.

“I visually inspect it for deficiencies, pests, overgrowth, and to ensure that it has access to all of the necessary elements needed to succeed,” she says. “This allows me to share the necessary love and attention that each plant requires and appreciates.”

A drip system, she explains, would be unable to notice plant variations.

“Hand watering gives the master gardener the ability to cater to each plant’s needs,” she says. “Each plant is unique.”

Bonus: Time, Patience, Love, and Good Vibes:

Even if you buy all the right equipment, and get the best genetics available, you’ll still struggle to grow medicinal cannabis — if you don’t invest the proper time and care.

Although everyone interviewed for this article runs a marijuana business (which must turn a profit), they all agreed on one thing.

“Time, love, and care go a long way in the garden,” says Davis.

You can’t rush your plants. 

“The best advice I can give is to really slow down and be patient,” says Leibowitz. “Good weed isn’t grown overnight. Show up everyday. Don’t just automate everything.”

And it’s not just about showing up. It’s abouthow you show up. Most growers believe their plants respond to human energy.

“You’re growing something that can have a powerful impact on someone’s psyche,” says Epstein, “and it’s influenced by the energy of the people cultivating it.”

Could your own energy be a deciding factor in growing medicinal cannabis?

Lesley Davis believes subtle factors play a pivotal role.

“I give our plants endless love and attention so they can feel my presence,” she explains.

She coordinates her growing processes with the lunar cycle, and places various energetic crystals in strategic places throughout her grow facility, where Sanskrit chants are played on loudspeakers for the plants.

“We meditate and practice yoga around the plants to create a positive, intentional, relaxed atmosphere for them,” she says. “This extra attention to detail causes our plants to live happy, stress-free lives, which allows the plant’s healing properties to be maximized.”

Growers agree — whether you meditate with your plants or not — that energy matters. Even if your marijuana grow is a profit-driven business.

“There must always be someone involved in the cultivation management that has a deep love and understanding for the cannabis plant,” says Epstein.

“Think about who will be using your product,” advises his business partner Larner, “and how that affects society as a whole.”

In short, there’s a lot more to growing medicinal cannabis than just planting a weed.

“It’s not easy money,” says Leibowitz. “It never was.”


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