By Chris Bayley
So you just harvested the last crop of the season, and you may be wondering if the work is done for the year. Well … not quite yet. For those of you who are uninitiated in the world of commercial cannabis farming, it may be tempting to let your shoulders down, but don’t go into vacation mode just yet. There are a few more steps to go through before closing out the season.
Let’s take a look at a post-harvest checklist. There are multiple things to accomplish before the snow flies. The end of the season checklist will include: projects to improve next year’s crop; maintenance; any needed improvements to the facility; and techniques for saving a plant that has gone to full florescence. Once fall segues into winter, you’ll want to begin focusing on analyzing last year’s data, determine next season’s strain selection, and hopefully enjoy the fruits of your labor.
“Yikes, I just realized we lost the clone to our best plant! Is it too late to preserve these genetics?”
An alarming circumstance any cannabis producer may find themselves in is realizing they may be losing a strain, or have already lost one. It is a bad feeling when you harvest a plant, only to realize it was missed in cloning and you lost that strain forever. However, the good news is that you can still save a plant that is already flowering or even almost ready to harvest. Since cannabis can be thought of as an annual with tendencies of a perennial, she can be coaxed back and forth with the right light-cycle manipulation. All varieties of strains will respond differently here, and some plants are much easier to re-green than others.
There are three methods that can be used to save an earthbound plant out in the field, or containerized in the grow room. These methods are known as: micropropagation; propagation; and re-greening.
– The first method is micropropagation or PTC (plant tissue culture). This method of propagation will more than likely become the future for commercial drug-type cannabis horticulture. The beauty of PTC is that the process completely cleans/rids your plants of pathogens such as viruses, funguses, etc. This type of propagation requires a sterile environment. Although your PTC kit will come with a sterile propagation chamber, your whole propagation facility, without a doubt should have clean-room features built in.
The propagation/mother room is the equivalent to the vault in a bank — there is no such thing as over-doing precautionary measures. The ultimate environment couples a hermetically sealed room (airtight) with clean-room technology. These rooms are optimal at resisting pathogenic attacks and insect infestation. Construction of these rooms takes a broad knowledge over many different disciplines. For those of you who are thinking of implementing these standards into your facility, contact a professional who knows how to implement C.A.G.E. (Controlled Atmosphere Growing Environments), and is qualified to do so. Jeremy Elkins, of Elkins Inc., addressed some of the basics of a sealed grow room in the October issue of Marijuana Venture.
– The second, and most common form of cannabis propagation is cloning. The process begins by cutting an appropriately-sized branch off a plant, and sticking it into a medium such as soil, stonewool, foam or an aeroponic cloning system. When attempting this with a fully-flowered plant, be sure to trim off as many of the floral clusters as possible while leaving enough leaf matter to initiate rooting. Other than that, it’s business as usual with the cloning procedures.
– The third methodology involves re-greening or regeneration of the plant, albeit the most involved process. If you’re going this route, it would be best to be redundant and clone on top of re-greening. This combined method increases your odds of preserving the strain you want to reclaim. Note: Taking a plant inside from an outdoor environment should not be attempted without a quarantine room or plant nursery.
Here is the basic concept for re-greening: Harvest the plant in question, leaving as much underdeveloped or least budded material on the plant as possible. This is a balancing act. Too little plant material and it will not survive; too much left on the plant is unnecessary and will interfere with the speed at which regeneration will take place.
Next, take a sharp, sterile shovel, and — as gently as possible — begin forming a root-ball into the shape of a container. Here is another balancing act. If you make it too small, without enough root material, it may not survive. On the flip side, you need it to be manageable. Pick a container that will be about twice the size of the root-ball you’re shaping.
As gently as possible, unearth the plant with attached root ball and place it into your container, fill in around the root-ball using a balanced all-natural potting soil.
Finally, move the plant into the quarantine room and set your lights to operate 24 hours a day. As the plant begins to revert back to the vegetative stage, you can reduce the lighting schedule to 18 hours on, six hours off. You can maintain that light cycle until you are ready to clone.
Yearly Maintenance and Facility Improvements
Once harvest is complete, it’s time to turn your attention toward your facility.
Before getting started on any post-harvest jobs though, take the time to review your notes from last season pertaining to maintenance or improvements you saw needed to be made. This will allow you to efficiently set about repairs and decide on how to move forward with improvements. This is the time of year to make any changes in facility design so you will be ready to go for next season.
After a quick recap with your notes, grab your clipboard and head outside. Begin by walking the perimeter of the security fence, inside and out, along with all the buildings on the premises. Keep an eye out for anything that’s come loose, or damaged areas that will need repair. Be sure to keep accurate notes as you go. Simultaneously, think about how you may want to make improvements, so when you make repairs you can do any remodeling at the same time.
The same procedures apply to irrigation and the security system. If you employ a fertigation system, be sure to flush and sterilize the whole system. All irrigation lines that are not buried below your area’s frost line will need to be blown out. This would also be a great time to rework and bury any new irrigation lines. As far as security systems go, look for any lines that may have gotten twisted up or become frayed. Also, check to see if any cameras need to be added or relocated.
If your cannabis plantation is planted in rows, similar to a vineyard, consider planting grass in between them. This will help with dust and soil erosion, plus the grass clippings will give you plenty of green material for the compost pile. If you have any room on the outside of your perimeter fence, you could grow a wind-break of shrubs and trees. Not only will this help stave off the direct wind exposure, but also help prevent dust particulate from getting on your plants. As far as trees and shrubs are concerned, use varieties that are resistant to the same pathogens and maladies that cannabis is also susceptible to.
Prep Your Site for Maximum Production
The number one goal for any cannabis grower is to continually improve their crop for both sensory experience and crop yields. The pursuit of these objectives is really the pursuit of the healthiest soil possible.
What does that mean? To borrow a phrase: “Be a steward of the land” — or more specifically, be a steward of the soil. Start by testing the soil in your rows, holes or containers. Do this twice a year. Test the soil a month before planting in the spring, and again after harvesting the last crop of the season. By following this example, you’ll have time to make the proper inputs of amendments. This gives the nutrients time to break down, thus becoming more bio-available prior to the roots hitting the dirt.
Sufficient levels of mineral nutrition with powerful soil biology are the two main components in the root zone that are responsible for unlocking a plant’s genetic potential. For producers, this means starting with a high-quality, consistently-available medium that is developed for the sole purpose of growing cannabis. One company that has stepped up to the plate to fill this market niche is Miller Soils, from Colorado. For either outdoor or indoor use, Red’s Premium Blend, coupled with craftily timed compost teas is all that’s needed to get your plants through the season.
For those of you who wish to build your soil from scratch, there is no better writer on the subject than The Rev, author of the book, True Living Organics. His philosophies on all-natural growing practices epitomize the ability of Mother Nature to unlock a plant’s full genetic potential.
Whether you begin with a commercially-mixed media or build your growing sites from the ground up, the best results come from letting Mother Nature do her job.
Remember, any synthetic input, especially in the form of salt-based fertilizers are completely counter-productive to a living soil mix, and therefore counter-productive to maximizing cannabis’ full genetic potential.
Data Collection: A Cannabis Producer’s Best Friend
Ask any cannabis grower to think back on how many cups of worm castings they put into their tea brewer from last spring — more than likely they won’t remember. Keeping thorough records is a must for all producers. The state has a mandated tracking system in place, but it is designed to keep track of plants for the purpose of revenue generation. Having a laptop computer that’s used solely for the grow operation would be a good place to start, especially for those of you who have multiple locations. That way all your information moves with you.
You’ll want different files for the plants, maintenance, schedules, future projects, breeding, etc. All this information is critical and will help you keep track of this multifaceted operation. All the records, except for the plants, will be standard business practices, as they are for any company.
For outdoor producers, keeping track of the weather is a must. Each growing location has its own micro-climate, so relying on past historical weather data from the Internet won’t do it. Over the long run, installing a mini weather station would be a good investment. This info will feed directly into your computer, enabling you to bring up any statistic you may need, from anywhere you may need it. The longer this system operates, the better picture you’ll have of your particular micro-climate, which will let you make better decisions concerning strain selection and breeding, or to pinpoint better planting and harvesting dates, etc. For those of you living in early frost regions, these systems can warn you of any imminent danger concerning the temperature.
As far as the plants go, keep precise, detailed notes on everything. What planting mix did you use? What type of containers did you plant into? Did you experiment with dry fertilizer amendments or did you use synthetics? What was the pH of the water, did it change after adding fertilizers, and what’s the pH from the runoff coming out of the medium? Along with those stats, you’ll want to keep the corresponding information about the plants, and how they responded to everything you did to them, along with the water, its pH, the fertilizer and soil. The air, water, and soil temperature, night and day, humidity levels, etc. All these stats are instruments of success in your grower’s tool box. Each one of them is a piece of the mirror, and each one of them not being utilized leaves you with only a partial reflection of what’s happening.
Contemplating Next Season’s Strains
Perhaps the biggest off-season choice you will make for next year’s success is selecting the strains you’ll grow. This year, for the most part, was a first for everyone growing state-licensed cannabis, especially for outdoor growers. Very few people knew what strains to grow exactly for their particular micro-climate. If you’re picking next season’s strains based on what you saw from last year’s crop, you at least know what varieties expressed favorably, and can hone in on the proven winners.
What is the criteria for selecting the proper strains for your environment? Due diligence is top priority. Take the time to research cannabis strains. There are literally tens of thousands available. If it’s overwhelming for you, enlist a professional to help you sort through the plethora of choices. Most of the strains that are currently trending were bred for indoor use. But remember, your best chances for success will be strains that are bred for your particular client.
Precipitation, especially during the fall months, needs to be looked into. If your outdoor facility is in an area that’s prone to medium/heavy autumn rains, than a strain that’s resistant to Botrytis cinerea (also known as grey mould), should be sought after. Likewise, powdery mildew is a fungus that thrives in temperate climates when humidity levels begin to climb and stay high. This fungal disease is pervasive and can easily decimate a crop once it takes hold. Both of these fungi are easy to spot and need to be remedied immediately.
Maturation times are perhaps the most critical issue. In Washington State, especially in the higher elevations, killer frosts can come a-calling beginning around mid-September. There is no greater heart-break for a grower than to bust your tail all season long only to watch it disappear overnight to poor weather conditions. There are plenty of genotypes and hybrids that can get the job done that are on the market. Also, many experts are huge proponents of producer breeding programs — not just for proprietary reasons, but also because there is no faster way to acclimatize your strains than through an in-house breeding program.
Last, but not least, is the subject of quality control.
Regardless of whether you, as the producer, use cannabis, it will be important to have some type of in-house quality control program. It’s slightly humorous to suggest that a grower needs to try his own product, but someone has to. Are you aware of any farmer, from apples to zucchini, that doesn’t inspect his or her own crop? Not only is this important for your knowledge of what’s hitting the market, but if you’re breeding, different inhalation techniques are critical for observing terpene profiles in all their subtleties. It’s only a matter of time before the cannabis industry has cannasommeliers following in wine’s footprints. If you’re lucky enough to know such a sensory-sensitive individual who’s into cannabis, consider bringing them in for testing/tasting purposes. This could come in handy when you’re trying to differentiate smells between a large group of phenotypes.
Operating a production-scale cannabis farm is a lot of work, and the key to success is consistency. If you’re trying to figure out the best results of something and keep changing the parameters, you’ll be hard-pressed to ascertain any worthwhile information. Patience is the virtue that all successful farmers grow into. No matter what your skill set, there’s always more to learn. Remember, stay focused and let it grow!
Chris Bayley is a cannabis enthusiast who consults producers and processors through his company, Hortistructure, Inc. He co-owns the garden store, Elemental Gardener in Tonasket, Washington.