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18.11.19

The Cannabis Cultivation Process Explained

by Philip Ghezelbash
2306 Words
Everything you need to know about the cannabis cultivation process, how long it takes, and what you'll need to decide before getting started.

With cannabis legalization quickly becoming a reality for more states and countries, a range of cannabis products have now become widely available in the cannabis market.

Over time as cannabis has become more acceptable recreationally and medically, personal cannabis plants are gaining popularity with hobbyist gardeners and of course within larger-scale operations, too. Cultivating cannabis plants can be a rewarding and hands-on way to produce your very own product to consume. 

Cannabis has spent many years in the dark, and so it is a lot harder to find gardening guides for cannabis than it is for roses or apple trees. 

Here are some facts about cannabis cultivation and what it entails.

The Different Types Of Cannabis Plants 

While the new legal status of cannabis may be intimidating, the process of cannabis cultivation is more or less the same as many other household plants. Before planting a rose, you need to decide on a strain. Cannabis is no different.

In broad terms, cannabis strains are colloquially broken down into three different varieties; Indica, Sativa, and hybrids. The prohibitive history of cannabis means that these cultivars and their breeding histories were not accurately recorded, and as such, some cannabis naming systems may not be exactly accurate.

However, Sativa and Indica can be handy descriptive terms for specific cannabis traits, and these are likely the descriptors that you will come across as a cannabis cultivator. 

Indica

Indica strains commonly refer to cannabis plants that are shorter and have wider leaves. Indica cannabis is often described as promoting feelings of drowsiness, lethargy, and relaxation, though there is no scientific evidence to back up these claims. 

Sativa 

Sativa cannabis plants are characterized by thinner leaves and grow to taller heights. Sativa cannabis is known for its reduced trichome production. When consumed, Sativa cannabis is said to produce a high that is described as energetic. Again, those generalizations about Sativa are based on anecdotal and subjective experience of cannabis users.

Hybrids

Hybrid cannabis plants contain varying combinations of Indica and Sativa characteristics and in fact, most cannabis plants these days are likely a hybrid of some form.  

Thankfully,l the growth of legalization has led to the availability of genomic testing methods that are more reliable than the word of mouth of black market cannabis sellers. Data analytic tools can establish chemical profiles and identify specific genetic differences to classify different cannabis strains. 

According to research, factors such as the concentration of terpenes and THC:CBD ratios are primarily what cause variations in the psychoactive and therapeutic effects of cannabis, rather than the plant’s Sativa or Indica origins. 

Outdoor Vs. Indoor Cannabis Cultivation

As with many other household plants, cannabis can be grown outdoors or indoors, and this can have significant implications for the end product, as well as the cultivation process itself. 

Outdoor-Grown Cannabis 

Growing cannabis outdoors could be a desirable option for many as it is a familiar form of gardening that doesn’t require time spent constructing indoor infrastructure. Having an established soil system also means that your plants require less added nutrients.

The issues that are common to outdoor-grown cannabis are overwatering and weather damage. Wind and rain can degrade the active ingredients in cannabis and break branches while overwatering can lead to mold and rot. To avoid this, plants can be protected from the wind with windbreaks, covered during heavy rain and watered in moderation on an as-need basis.

Indoor-Grown Cannabis 

Indoor-grown cannabis is largely considered to create a superior product due to the higher cannabis bud yield that typically comes with indoor growing. Another reason indoor cannabis is preferred is due to the controlled nature of an indoor growth operation which allows for specific cannabis qualities to be heightened or reduced through changes to the indoor environment. 

However, this control also means that indoor cannabis requires a large amount of care, equipment, and time. Control systems for airflow, light levels, and humidity are all available at a cost, to perfectly control the environment for your cannabis plants. The options available for indoor cannabis plants don’t stop there; growers also need to decide on a method of cultivation, as the options are much more varied when plants are taken undercover. 

Hydroponic Systems

Hydroponic growing systems are commonly linked to cannabis cultivation, and there’s a good reason for it. Hydroponics involves growing seedlings in a liquid solution which has nutrients added to it daily. The benefit of this over soil is that plant roots have direct access to their required nutrients through the solution and so instead of expending energy to grow a root system, the plant is able to grow larger and produce a higher yield. It’s no surprise that cannabis gardeners turn to hydroponics, as a larger bud yield is a high priority.

However, this cultivation method is considered rather advanced, with water temperature, pH levels, and nutrient concentrations needing to be checked and altered multiple times a day. 

Coco Coir

Another indoor growing method that you might be less familiar with is coco coir, a soilless medium which uses coconut shells to hold the roots. The coconut shell system allows for excellent oxygen delivery to roots and like hydroponics, requires additional nutrients and water daily. Coco coir is considered an excellent intermediary growing technique, between soil and hydroponics, as growth and yield will be higher than soil but without the more challenging techniques of hydroponics. 

Cannabis growing in a greenhouse.

Greenhouse 

Greenhouses are structures with transparent walls and artificially controlled heating systems for the purposes of giving plants, in this case, cannabis, ideal growth conditions. While greenhouses can be used to introduce complicated growing systems such as coco coir or hydroponics, they can also simply be used to provide a more protected environment for soil-grown cannabis plants.

While a soil system may need to be built up in planter boxes, glasshouse soil-growing provides protection from the wind and rain, which can seriously damage plants and reduce one’s total yield. 

Planting The Seed

So you’ve decided what, where, and how you will plant your cannabis seeds, but what’s next? 

The Cannabis Cultivation Timeline

Indoor cultivated cannabis plants can have their heat, light, water, and airflow altered to ideal growing conditions, meaning that the time of year to plant is not an issue. 

However, for outside growers, the time which cannabis is germinated and harvested will depend on a few factors such as geographical location and its effects on local climate systems. Pat Goggins, editor at Leafly, summarized the timeline of outdoor cannabis growth, describing the spring equinox as a good reminder of when the outdoor growing process starts in the northern hemisphere.

The summer solstice is best for sun exposure, the fall equinox is ideal for harvesting, and drying and curing should be done well before the winter solstice. Obviously this is a rough outline, but it gives a good general overview for the timeline of outdoor cannabis cultivation.

There is a multitude of environmental factors that influence ideal germination times and growing seasons for cannabis. Cannabis plants are hungry for sunshine, and so cultivation largely revolves around a specific geographical area’s seasonal average sunshine. Seeds can be planted in March or as late as May (Spring-Summer), with buds being harvested in September through to November (Fall). Seasons in the Southern hemisphere are reversed.

The transition period from a cannabis plant’s vegetative state to the flowering stage occurs when the plant receives signals that days are shrinking sand nights become longer. So latitudinal differences may change the time a plant starts flowering based due to changes in daylight and nighttime length (e.g Washington state vs. Morocco).

Germination 

Germination will be familiar to most hobbyist gardeners as it is the first sign of growth from seeds. Germination can be achieved through different methods, such as the paper towel method, direct planting into the soil, seedling plugs, overnight soaking or through using a readymade “germination station.” 

Germination usually takes one to seven days to occur. There are claims that sativa seeds can take longer to germinate, but these claims don’t appear to be backed by any significant evidence. Interestingly, some research showed that the cannabinoid profile of seeds can affect germination success rates — THCA-type seeds showed a 100% germination rate compared to only 39% of the CBDA-type seeds germinating after six days. 

To start the germination process for cannabis seeds, either place seeds in a wet paper towel in a warm damp place until sprouting occurs or place in potting mix, water and then wait until the sprouts break ground.

Seedling 

With growth sprouting, your germinated cannabis seeds are now seedlings and once the plants look strong enough (at around 10 days of growth) and have healthy root systems, they can then be transplanted into soil or another medium. 

Bud Flowering 

After a growing period of around six to 12 weeks, your cannabis seed will now be at the flowering stage. Flowering is a grower’s first look at their cannabis end-product, as this early ‘flower’ will grow into the cannabis bud that will eventually be harvested and consumed. 

These small buds will look similar to early-stage flower buds but will start to develop small hair-like structures called trichomes, coming from the Greek word for hair. These hairs are very important as they tell you the plant is female. This is important because only female plants can produce cannabis bud.

If your early flower produces a grape-like structure, then that plant is a male and should be removed from your garden as it is useless if the aim is to produce a consumable cannabis flower. Cannabis plants can also be both male and female (hermaphrodites) and will show male grape-like structures with the typical female “hair.” Keep in mind yields from hermaphrodite plants are typically much lower than females. 

Cannabis Harvest

Cannabis buds will continue to grow for 7-11 weeks and when fully matured, will be ready for harvesting. Timing is key for bud harvesting, and trichomes are a handy indicator. Trichomes are resin-like structures that form on the outside of buds and look similar to sugar crystals.

Once most of the trichomes have changed from translucent to cloudy, the buds are ready for harvesting. Trichomes on cannabis flowers typically change from white to brown when the buds are mature and ready for harvesting. 

To harvest the buds you either cut the main stem of the cannabis plant or remove separate stems to isolate more mature buds. The removed stems will need to have their leaves trimmed, which can be done either immediately, or after drying (described below).

When done immediately, trimming will result in resin transferring to your hands and secateurs, but tends to result in a more visually appealing product. Trimming after drying also requires more drying space for the bulkier stems, but will reduce resin loss and build-up on tools. 

Cannabis Curing 

Once removed from the plant, the cannabis buds first need to dry and then cure. Drying and curing buds is an important process that ensures there is no excess moisture, this also helps to minimize the chances of molding and extends the overall storage life of the product. 

Terpenes are what give varying cannabis strains their distinct flavor and aroma. Curing is commonly reported to help preserve these flavours. These compounds are volatile and so ensuring excess heat isn’t applied to cannabis in the curing process is important to preserve an ideal flower. 

This drying process can be done in a number of ways, either over drying racks or any large area with appropriate ventilation, warm temperatures (around 20°C or 68°F), and 50% humidity to create a long drying process. 

Once dry, the buds can then be cured. This occurs by placing them in airtight containers, with one-third of the jar left for airspace. Jars must be opened at least once a day for the first two weeks of curing to check for mold and to ensure a fresh air supply. At around two weeks of curing, the buds should be dry enough that only bi-weekly checks and air-replacements are needed. Around four weeks of curing should be enough time to sufficiently dry and mature cannabis buds. 

Examining a cannabis flower.

Successful Cannabis Cultivation 

With successfully dried and matured cannabis buds, you have reached the end of your cannabis cultivation. Changes to seeds, growing methods, and harvesting techniques can all affect the quality, yield, and characteristic of the final cannabis product. 

Cannabis cultivation is similar to growing any other plant, although it comes with its own unique set of challenges. Given regulations in your area permit you to, planting, growing and harvesting cannabis is within the reach of any hobbyist gardener.

To conclude… 

  • There are different types of cannabis plants, namely Indica, Sativa, and hybrid variations. Keep in mind that the terms Indica and Sativa aren’t terribly accurate for predicting the effects of a final cannabis product.
  • Cannabis can be either grown outdoors or indoors. 
  • Indoor growth and outdoor growth in tropical countries give the most freedom with regards to germination and harvesting of cannabis, while outdoor locations in higher latitudes requires planning around seasons to maximize sun exposure and the likelihood of a successful yield. 
  • Indoor growth methods include hydroponic systems, coco coir and growing cannabis in a glasshouse. Indoor cultivation can be done at any time of year, while outdoor cultivation is common in spring for germination. 
  • After 6-12 weeks, the transitionary period from the vegetative state to flowering bud flowering begins, with harvesting following after another 7-11 weeks of growth.
  • Lastly, cannabis is dried and cured to prevent mold, increase shelf life and preserve the flavor and aroma of the final product
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