The number of brands and products on the fertilizer market for the marijuana industry is staggering. From labeling gimmicks to secret stimulants in tiny bottles, they all claim to make your buds the best they have ever been. Flipping through any publication provides dozens of fertilizer options, but why? Why is there such a diversity of products? Why do we pay a premium for these “specialty” fertilizers?
The answer lies in the decades of growing cannabis where the “grower” really had very little background in plant agriculture and more of a background in consumption. This led to a marketplace where the buyer knew almost nothing about the fertilizer products they were buying and simply took the marketing information at face value. Combine this with the financial ability to pay inflated prices, and the result is the fertilizer market you see today.
So what makes premium cannabis fertilizer any better than run-of-the-mill Miracle-Gro that can be purchased inexpensively at Home Depot? This article will break down the essential points of a fertility program and address what you should consider when building a nutrition program.
A little perspective to start: Most large-scale agriculture growers buy their fertilizers from an agricultural chemical supplier. These products come in as either raw materials that are mixed on the property or in a specified blend developed by the supplier. There isn’t enough time or space here to talk in depth about what these raw materials are, but there are many textbooks written on this subject. Basically, the raw materials are soluble salts (such as calcium thiosulphate, potassium chloride, zinc sulfate, ammonium nitrate, etc.) that contain the nutritional elements needed by plants.
With dozens of options available, it’s important to choose the right salt to deliver the nutrient needed. Fertilizers can be applied in a granular form or dissolved in water and injected through irrigation systems. The application method depends on the crop being produced and the infrastructure in place to grow it. Most fertility programs are designed specifically for the plant and soil, based on a soil test and the known crop requirements. Programs are then adjusted in terms of fertilizer make-up, timing and amount applied depending on the results with the crop in the previous growing cycles.
Organic vs. Conventional
It is important to briefly address the issue of organic versus conventional fertility programs. This question really comes down to personal beliefs and the market in which you wish to sell. Organic products generally have lower concentrations of available nutrition, but over time can break down to provide the nutrients needed. Conventional products are cheaper per unit of nutrition, but if used in excess can limit soil microbial activity and structure. Both options, when done right, can produce a quality product.
On a side note, production ag is learning that the principles of soil stewardship — which form the basis of the organic movement — really can benefit the crop. This has led to the use of conventional fertilizers along with organic methods, such as composting and no-till, to produce great results. From a pure yield and quality standpoint, conventional versus organic does not matter. The chief factor is that the fertility program meets the needs of the plants throughout the growing cycle.
Designing and implementing a quality fertilizer program comes down to several key considerations:
– Growing media: From a nutrient standpoint, growing in soil or a soilless media are very different. Soils are comprised of minerals that can inherently provide some of the nutrients needed. Soil also acts as a buffer that holds onto nutrients and mediates pH. Soil testing should be conducted to know what elements are available in the soil and what needs to be added. Soil testing will also let growers know if their soils have other issues such as high salinity or poor organic matter content.
Growing in soilless medias or hydroponics requires continuous availability of all nutrients and closer monitoring to ensure that nutrients are at the proper levels. This is important at not just an electrical conductivity (EC) or total parts-per-million (PPM) level, but also at the individual nutrient level if long-term water recirculation is being used. At certain growth stages, plants can use up all of one nutrient in the solution. This may not be reflected in a major jump in EC or total PPM if the nutrient is a minor component, such as zinc or boron, but can lead to severe deficiency symptoms. Furthermore, due to the inert nature of soilless culture, swings in pH and nutrient depletion can be fast; thus, close monitoring is essential.
– Crop requirements: Plants use different nutrients at different rates. This is where fertilizer formulation comes into play. A good formulation will have a balance between all the nutrients contained in the product, so that total PPM or EC is indicative of the actual total nutrient availability. This, however, is very difficult to achieve in practice because the plant’s nutrient requirements change throughout the growth cycle. Formulations for rooting, vegetation and bloom exist in the marketplace to help meet the specific nutrient needs of the plants at these critical steps in the growing process.
– Timing: Timing of application is essential to provide the plant with the nutrition it needs when it needs it. There are critical points in the plant’s development when the yield of the crop will not be acceptable if nutrition is lacking. For example, during early bud development, if complete nutrition is not provided, the bud will not differentiate as many reproductive structures, thus limiting the crop’s yield. This is true from cherries to broccoli to marijuana.
– Product support: It is inevitable that you will encounter an issue while using a product when it is essential to have a knowledgeable person available via phone or email to solve your issue quickly.
If you are considering a new product, call the manufacturer. Ask them questions about your growing conditions, rates and other products. Make sure you feel like you have good support from that company and are using a quality product. There are companies that will design custom blends for your growing conditions.
– Price: The price of a product does not indicate its quality or value. These come from the formulation and inputs used to make the product. When selecting a fertilizer, make sure the price of the program is within your budget, but do not assume that a high price necessarily indicates a good product. Conversely, low price also does not mean poor quality. The value of the product is in the formulation expertise, and the cost is in the container and shipping. The raw material cost of most products is well below $10 per gallon of concentrate.
– Recordkeeping: It is essential to keep records of rates, timings and products used to be able to replicate the practice in the future or adjust it to make improvements. This is true for other production factors as well. Good growers have an idea of what went wrong or right. Great growers know exactly what was different and can fix or replicate it the next time around.
So back to the question of how Scotts Miracle-Gro stacks up against “premium marijuana fertilizers.” Miracle-Gro is a line of nutrient formulations that is designed to push green bedding plants with lots of flowers and/or vegetables grown in the soil.
The package offers simple instructions for mixing and application rates. There are several different formulations of Miracle-Gro tailored for vegetables, tomatoes, orchids and more. Will they grow a cannabis plant? The answer is yes. Plants don’t read labels, and the majority of needs for a rose bush or a tomato are the same as what a marijuana plant requires. For growers with a couple plants looking for an easy, cheap product, Miracle-Gro will work. However, for those trying to grow a quality product in large numbers, Miracle-Gro is not the best choice.
First, Miracle-Gro does not come in large enough quantities to support a commercial growing operation. And just as Miracle-Gro knows bedding plants and roses require different formulations for peak performance, the same is true for cannabis. It also does not perform well in water culture, because it is designed for use in soil. It is not a complete source of all nutrients and it will not maintain stable water pH.
Miracle-Gro is great at what it is designed to do, but is not the best choice for producing a quality marijuana crop.
Following these guidelines will help to make your fertility program shine. Specific products or rates were not suggested in this article because each growing condition is very different. An outdoor, in-ground growing operation in Humboldt County, California will have very different requirements than a hydroponic greenhouse in Denver, Colorado. These guidelines will help develop a nutrient program that can be perfected for specific growing conditions. Learning from each crop cycle and adjusting accordingly will produce a better crop and help growers learn what each component affects.
Fertility, however, is only a small part of the growing practice. Deficits in pest control practices, watering, cultivar choice, climate monitoring and control, soil salinity and water quality all need to be managed to produce a marketable crop. It is very common for nutrient deficiency symptoms to occur due to some other problem not related to the fertility program. For example, high salts in the soil can cause burnt tips and an over-saturated soil can cause yellowing of the leaves. A balanced, well-maintained production system is required for a quality crop.
The use of a fertilizer tailored for the needs of the crop is important for top production. Also, a product that meets the different requirements at each growth stages (rooting, vegetative, bloom, etc.) will provide even better results.
This is not a buyer’s guide with comparative tests, so it’s not meant to offer specific product recommendations; as stated earlier, growing conditions are unique and the products that work for one grower may not be the same as the next person. Keeping records and making improvements when needed will allow growers to maximize their yield and consistently produce a quality product.
Daniel Klittich is a graduate from University of California, Davis, holding a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in entomology. His research focuses on the utility of silicon fertilizers to control pests, as well as the impacts fertility programs have on crop quality and yield. He is now a research agronomist with Redox Chemicals LLC on the California Coast.[contextly_auto_sidebar]