By Chris Bayley
For all the time and hard work that goes in to growing cannabis, some crops always seem like they’ve failed to reach their potential. One of the most common reasons for this usually comes down to rushing the drying process. There are a few simple steps that can be taken to ensure your end product reaches its full potential.
How cannabis is grown and how it’s dried are the main contributing factors concerning its eventual smokeability. The debate that continues regarding the differences between growing naturally or synthetically, and whether there really is a difference, needs to be fully understood. The old adage “what goes in must come out” most certainly applies to a smoked product. Cannabis easily stores excess fertilizer, heavy metals and toxins. In fact, it is so good at that, that when the Chernobyl nuclear reactor melted down in 1986, cannabis hemp was brought in with other plants to help aid in the phytoremediation process. Cannabis is an incredibly efficient storing mechanism.
Another example demonstrating the differences between synthetic and natural growing practices is how nutrients are up-taken by a plant. When using all-natural growing methods, nutrients in the soil are made available via the symbiotic relationship that exists between a plant and the microbial life. Like the saying implies, “Feed the soil, not the plant.”
The exact opposite happens when using synthetic fertilizers. Instead of building healthy populations of micro-life to support the food web, synthetics, depending on the application, will eventually decimate the soil’s microbial life.
One method of fertilizing pushes your plants toward elemental storage and the other will deliver nutrients to the plants as they need it. This of course, is exactly what you want. View your finished cannabis product, the dried flowers themselves, as an empty vessel just meant for transporting the main components we are after, the terpenes and cannabinoids.
Feeding plants for optimal results is the same as it is for humans. The human body responds magnificently while following an eating regimen that focuses on secondary and micro nutrients while balancing macro nutrients. As with humans, in order for plants to perform at their best, growers need to focus on the plants’ secondary and micro nutrient needs and then simply balance the macro nutrients according to the plants’ growth cycle.
Staging the Brix
One sign of a healthy plant is its brix, or sugar level. As growers, the goal is to maintain as high as possible brix level within our plants. It is a sign that your plants are articulating their full genetic expression and that you’ll get the most out of their aromatically produced compounds.
Something to expect when your plants are bursting with sugars can be called the “honeysuckle effect.”
If the brix levels are high enough and proper drying techniques used, you can expect nectar droplets to dry into a tacky pitch-like consistency anywhere the epidermal-layer was compromised. This observable fact should not be confused with nectaries, which are glands that produce a sugary liquid in some plants, because cannabis doesn’t have them.
Growers can use a specialized tool called a refractometer that is used to read the brix scale, or sugar content. The importance concerning a high sugar content relates to any plant whose end purpose is related to enhanced taste and aroma. Think herbs, spices, cocoa and grapes to name a few.
Another aspect to harvesting cannabis that’s worth noting is the correct time to cut your plants down. This can be broken down into two categories. The first has to do with your fertilizer regimen. Aside from environmental factors, macro nutrient ratios coupled with the plants growth cycle will greatly determine consistent maturation times. The second aspect has to do with fully mature trichomes. A lot of growers say things like, “I prefer harvesting my plants early to produce a more up-like high,” or “I harvest my plants past maturity to get more of a stoned effect.”
Even though you can harvest a plant at any stage of cannabinoid development to suit your high, most growers will want to harvest their plants at peak floral development. Here’s why: Harvesting an immature plant means that you’re missing out on peak terpenoid production. You’re literally forgoing potential taste and smell in lieu of a cannabinoid profile, which itself is incomplete.
More often than not, it is better to keep searching for a particular strain that, when fully mature, suits your needs, rather than sacrificing a plant’s potential by cutting it early. Besides, cutting a plant prior to peak development means sacrificed weight, and most producers will not want that.
It takes a little time to learn the idiosyncrasies of each strain, including when to harvest it. In order to get a strain or crop to mature at the same time regularly, you will need to keep all parameters consistent throughout the growing process. Any deviation can throw any number of things off. To learn your strain’s peak harvest window you will need a way to monitor the trichome development. This is best done with a hand-held 10x to 50x magnifier or the equivalent on a camera, which will let you view the trichomes through your computer.
Generally speaking, the cannabinoids are at their peak when resin inside the trichomes has gone from clear to opaque, with a few glands beginning to turn amber.
The whole harvesting process is one of the most misunderstood stages of cannabis production. Drying and curing can make or break the smoking experience, and more importantly, can make a decent strain better and a great strain fantastic.
The point of properly drying and curing cannabis is to highlight the terpenoid and cannabinoid profiles while negating the plant matter itself. The drying stage is the most important step in the process in determining the quality of your finished product. Curing is a process used after drying to enhance the quality even further; it can be viewed as the icing on the cake.
Harvesting, drying and curing rooms need just as much thought into their functionality as the rest of your facility. Efficiency with your design will allow the harvest process to function more smoothly.
One step should easily follow the next, and all the rooms should be controlled atmosphere growing environments, or C.A.G.E. for short. The system needs to allow for temperature, humidity and sterility control. It is during this initial stage of drying that your plants are most susceptible to pathogenic attack.
Your harvesting facilities should begin with a staging room. Depending on your setup, this is where you could roll in a hydroponics table or a cart full of plants in containers. You would harvest the plants and move the containers or trays into the cleaning room. This allows for a smooth, conveyer like motion.
To expand on this notion, your whole growing facility should be designed like this: Entrance /storage/maintenance → cloning/mothers → grow rooms → flower rooms → harvesting/drying/curing/ → processing → back to entrance. All of the phases should easily roll into one another, and if possible, should all be accessed independently.
Special considerations for outdoor/indoor growers
For outdoor growers, if you can harvest your plants while the weather is cooperating, then consider culling the sun leaves (without considerable resin) right in the field. Sun leaves run the greatest risk at being infested with pests so discarding them in the field becomes a preventative measure. Also, there is no easier time to strip the sun leaves than when the plant is still upright. When you’re done, you can place them right onto the compost pile.
Depending on the size of your outdoor plants, the harvesting protocols will be more or less the same. The exception is with monster plants, which will mean cutting them down into controllable sections. This saves time and makes the whole process more manageable.
Something to be cautious of is drying both your indoor-grown and outdoor-grown cannabis in the same room, especially if it is attached to your indoor growing facility. Without taking serious precautions, it’ll be just a matter of time until bugs have been introduced to your indoor operation. With all the responsibility that already exists with a grow operation of this magnitude, a potential battle with pests should be avoided at all cost.
Next month, we will get down to harvesting, so until then, “Stay focused and let it grow.”
Chris Bayley operates a consulting company called Hortistructure, Inc. geared toward legal producers and processors. He’s also co-owner of the gardening store, Elemental Gardener in Tonasket, Wash.