By Chris Bayley
When Initiative 502 was approved by Washington voters in 2012, the first thought that went through many growers’ minds was the possibilities for breeding. Yes, the idea of growing a ton of resin-coated ganja that stinks to high heaven — without the fear of repercussion — is cool. But it was the possibility of germinating a thousand seeds that many experts found exhilarating.
Let us examine the journey cannabis has taken as it has been cultivated and bred by loving gardeners throughout the millennia. The following pages will touch base on two of the major milestones that have and will allow us to make major breakthroughs in breeding the next great strain. Finally, since most producers are beginning their programs with only female clones and have no seeds of that variety, we’ll explain how you can preserve that special female and end up with seeds that come close to replicating her.
Through the years, many growers, breeders and industry experts have often speculated on what it would be like to select plants without ever having to grow them out. Generally speaking, to stabilize any given trait within a strain, you’re looking at about two-plus years. To make a strain true-breeding for a number of traits, add more time. If you want to do this with a number of strains, you better set aside an adequate amount of space and bump your timeline even further. The prospect of knowing what mojo a particular seed or seedling has without spending six months bringing it to fruition is tantalizing. Collectively speaking, we may be on the verge of forging a completely new paradigm in breeding cannabis.
Breeding 101: Laying the Ground Work
This next segment will walk you through the beginning stages of a breeding project. This example will show you one route you can go when deciding to undertake such a venture. Before getting started, the importance of documentation should be noted. You will want several notebooks or preferably a laptop to keep track of your projects. This needs to be the same for everything else to do with the operation — watering, fertilizing, crop schedules, maintenance, harvesting, etc. There is simply way too much information to keep track of, especially if you’re sampling your work along the way.
For the purpose of this mock breeding program, let’s assume you procured 100 strains and 100 seeds of the genotype “Big Bud.” A quick reminder when purchasing seeds — you always want to buy regular (male/female) seeds. The reason for doing this is twofold. One reason is simply to assure you end up with a staminate (male cannabis plant) to breed with, and the second reason is that breeding with a male decreases the likelihood of hermaphroditism (plants containing both female/male sexual organs) in your future generations.
Now that you have these clones and Big Bud seeds, it is time to make a game plan. Your overall goal will be to make seed lines of all the genotypes that make the cut, plus the continual improvement of the Big Bud line.
The first step is going to be the process of elimination. Out of the 100 strains, we’ll assume that 10 of them are proven producers and can move right into production. The rest of your new clone varieties will need to be flowered in small containers so you can determine which ones to keep or toss out.
With the seeds, you’ll need to begin by germinating and growing them out to see which phenotypes (the expression of an organism’s observable traits) will move onto the next phase. For new breeders or the inexperienced, the selection process can seem daunting at times. In the beginning, it’s always difficult to destroy plants that you haven’t brought to fruition because you’re always wondering what you might be missing. A good habit to get into when you’re learning to cull young seedlings is based off the earliest morphological (structural) traits. These traits include leaf structure and stalk shape/type, internodal spacing, branching pattern, vigorousness, etc.
At this point, you have flowered out the remaining 90 strains and have settled on 20 of them. Altogether, you now have 30 solid strains that are worthy of the collection. Some of these 30, let’s say 10 of them, aren’t production ready but have traits that make them worthwhile to keep for future breeding projects. These 10 plants will be put in the grow room where they will be continually cloned until you have a use for them.
Meanwhile, you have carefully selected twenty of the best seedlings based off your early culling stage criteria. The seedlings will then need to be cloned, tagged and put into florescence (horticultural term for flowering). Once the plants have shown their sex, the male plants will need to be placed into a separate flowering chamber. Once there, the male’s plants will be fully flowered in order to determine which one will be the patriarch of your future seed lines. After the male has been chosen, the clone you originally took off him will be kept in a continual loop of growing and cloning until you’re ready to breed.
Finally we are down to the females. One of the most enjoyable parts of growing cannabis is getting to see a new variety flower for the first time. As with the males, you will have to make a determination on which female you will keep. To complete this process, the finished flowers will need to be inspected, tested, and sampled. Five major factors used in determining the female plant are vigorousness, cannabinoids, terpenoids, maturation time and yield. With the availability of today’s testing facilities, it is advisable that you have all your strains tested for terpenes and cannabinoids. The data collected from testing provides a baseline with which you can compare your notes against. The knowledge you’re building through documentation, third party testing, coupled with the completion of the cannabis genome project, will someday allow you to go through the plant selection process without ever having to flower a plant. Are we having fun yet?
At this point, we have whittled down the original 100 clone varieties to 30, and have selected the best female and male out of the Big Bud seeds. The next step is a fairly easy one. You will take all the females and sole male, put them into a flowering room and let nature take its course. On a side note, the conditions you’re breeding your plants in should be the same conditions in which you’re stabilizing them. So depending on your operation, whether it’s indoor, outdoor or in a greenhouse, keep in mind that you’re programming or “acclimatizing” your strains to those conditions.
At this time the decision needs to be made on what to do with the breeding program from this point forward. The seeds coming off of all the clones you originally bought will be considered F1 hybrids (first generation) which will make the seeds 50 percent like the mom. The seeds coming off the Big Bud will be considered F2s (second generation). If the Big Bud strain were true breeding and stable, then the seeds you made may be all the farther you need to go with that strain.
The simplest way to preserve these clones you began with is to begin a backcrossing program referred to as cubing. The goal of this is to end up with seeds that closely resemble the original female parent. We have already begun the program by seeding our female only clones with the Big Bud male. From this point forward, the project becomes more time consuming, because whereas the original cross took place all at once, the process of cubing every genotype will require individual breeding chambers. This ensures controlled pollinations, and without it, you could end up with stray pollen contaminating your other strains, losing you time and money.
Once your rooms are ready, it’s time to germinate your seeds. Hopefully when the F1 cross took place you ended up with a couple thousand seeds so you can begin each project with about 200 seeds and still have plenty in reserves. Special care should be taken to preserve your leftover seeds to retain high viability rates. Remember to bring this point up when working with your consultant.
As explained earlier, after your seedlings are about a foot tall, begin your selection process by choosing the plants that best fit your morphological goals. The plants you’ve selected will then get cloned and put under a 12 hours on/12 hours off light schedule to induce their sex. After determining their sex, the female plants can be flowered for observational purposes. This should happen after every generation in order to track how your project is going. The males should also be flowered for selection purposes. Perhaps the biggest contributing factor to keep in mind here, according to DJ Short, is that the males are responsible for the amount of flavor and odor being passed on to the next generation.
Once you have selected your male, it’s time to take the corresponding clone you made, grow him up a bit, and place him in the chamber with your chosen female plants and induce the flowering cycle.
You have just completed the second step (squaring) in the cubing program by back-crossing the F1 male back to his mom, which now makes your seeds at around 75 percent representative of the original female. Following through this step one more time completes the cubing process, making the progeny at around 90 percent representative of the original female. After completing these steps for your original 30 females, you now have a baseline from which you can continue improving your strains through different breeding methodologies.
In closing, even though backcrossing accomplishes preserving your original female clone, it does not take into account the goal of making your females true-breeding, nor does it accomplish a recessive trait you’re trying to stabilize. The breeding projects to accomplish those goals would take too much time to explain in this article. For producers who wish to delve into such an undertaking, it would be well-advised to work with a consultant who can lay out a road map to ensure the highest possible success. Remember, stay focused and let it grow!
Chris Bayley operates a consulting company called Hortistructure, Inc., geared toward licensed producers and processors. He is also the co-owner of an I-502 focused gardening store opening mid-July in Okanogan County.