Go to any supermarket, in any city around the world, and you’ll notice that there’s a war going on in the produce departments. A distinct divide between two opposing factions is apparent among the fruits and vegetables; ever at-odds and constantly battling for your attention and money, these arch-nemeses stand on two very different sides of the farmer’s fence (no pun intended). Who the heck are we talking about?! If it isn’t already obvious to you, we’re shedding light on the secret war for supremacy in your fridges, your lunch boxes and most of all your stomachs: the battle of organics versus non-organics.
Why are we bringing up this political and nutritional divide that’s sweeping across grocery stores everywhere? Well, the same ideological conundrum exists in the world of cannabis as well, for both producers and consumers alike. The question of “how organic is your bud?” has been on the tips of tongues across the country, as more weed connoisseurs and medical consumers desire a natural purity from their marijuana. After all, cannabis in any of its forms – whether its flowers, edibles, oils or even concentrates – come from an organic plant, it’s only how we choose to grow it or process it that we change the very nature of the products we consume.
This subject has been the battleground for much heated debate, as proponents of either side have very strong opinions about their respective ideologies. An organic cannabis cultivator will tell you passionate stories of providing the most flavorful, potent and pure cannabis you’ve ever tried. On the flip side, many consumers of cannabis concentrates will argue that what you put into your plants doesn’t matter; the only measure of marijuana is what you get out of the final product (i.e. cannabinoid potency, highest psychoactive effects or medical benefits).
Which side do you subscribe to? Have you ever considered what makes your cannabis organic or not? What are the ramifications for growing or consuming marijuana that is organic or non-organic? Does it really matter? These are some of the questions we’ll look to provide answers to in our guide to growing organic weed, and what to consider when you’re making your cultivation decisions.
TO BE (ORGANIC), OR NOT TO BE (ORGANIC): That Is THE Question?
Considering what section of the produce aisle you spend your money on is an important first step in determining if organics are important to you or not. Many people are much more aware of the kinds of chemicals and processes used to produce the food they eat nowadays, while others continue to make their nutrition decisions purely based on cost. This sentiment of organically produced food being expensive is really the only downside to growing & consuming organics. Non-organic, “GMO” or “conventionally produced” foods and beverages aren’t necessarily detrimental to your health, but there are a lot of synthetic chemicals present in what we eat and drink today – such as dyes, preservatives, texturizers and unnatural flavors. Reading a food label today almost requires a diploma in bio-chemistry; ingredients that nobody knows how to pronounce or even what they could possibly be are all-too-common.
That being said, there’s still the nagging factor of health vs. affordability weighing over peoples’ heads. There are limitations on pesticides use, a long list of tests and procedures for ensuring “safe levels of chemical residues” in our food & drink. Nevertheless, no matter how much you manage them, the sheer amount of chemicals used to produce what we eat and drink today has created a renaissance for organics. Why settle for only partially “tainted” foods/drinks when you could just grow them the old fashioned way? Sure, many organically produced fruits and vegetables aren’t as large or pleasing to the eye as a genetically modified monster apple or 20-banana bunch… but when you get down to the nutritional value between organics and non-organics, it’s a no-contest for many people.
It is this last point that brings us to the major divide in the cannabis industry: what produces the best possible buds? Organics (growing in natural mediums and using natural inputs)? Or Conventional (including synthetic fertilizers and processing chemicals?
GOING GREEN: How to Grow Organic Marijuana
Since legalization on October 17, 2018, many Canadians have gleefully planted their first crops of homegrown cannabis. The “4 Plant Rule” as it’s commonly known, is the piece of legislation contained in The Cannabis Act that allows Canadians to cultivate up to four cannabis plants per household (i.e. 4 plants per family, per residence, per “domicile”). This crucial but controversial rule was included to appease Canadians who claimed (and rightfully so!) that it is their right to access cannabis for recreational or medical purposes, and that they shouldn’t have to turn to black market sources or expensive legal dispensaries in order to do so. Despite its inclusion in The Act, the “4 Plant Rule” has been the center of some very heated debate because it is considered to be a slap in the face of cannabis cultivators. Many claim that “four plants is not enough”, while others argue that it will create dangers for property owners if everyone has a small crop of weed in their homes and garden beds.
On top of these disputes, there’s the large faction of medical marijuana growers who have been cultivating large crops of cannabis – with and without appropriate licenses – and who have seemed to shrug at any of the changes that legalization tried to bring about. “Black market” cannabis is still as prevalent as ever, and as we’ll get into a bit later in this article, quality and consistency issues with legal cannabis products seems to be driving more and more Canadians towards growing their own or returning to their old, familiar illicit sources for good weed.
Putting political temperatures aside, the real question that needs to be asked when you’re considering growing your own cannabis is: How am I going to cultivate my buds? There’s no simple answer, but let’s look at some of the considerations you need to account for when determining if you’re going to grow organically.
First and foremost, you need to start by laying some groundwork (pun definitely intended this time), and choose a growing medium.
Did you know that you can cultivate cannabis in a variety of different growing mediums? Traditional soil – manure, peat moss or coconut fiber based – is obviously a popular option, but there’s no two growing mediums made exactly alike. Organic growing mediums are extremely customizable, versatile, and can be as expensive or cost-friendly as you like. Instead of focusing on particular products, and because growing mediums are very dependent on personal preference, we’ll review the main methodologies behind the types of growing mediums on the market today.
First, there’s the grower’s using what we’ll call “traditional organic” growing mediums. Traditional Organic is a more simple, natural approach to cultivating organic cannabis that has taken root in the many marijuana hotbeds throughout Canada (Vancouver Island, BC-interior, Ontario heartland, and the Maritime provinces). Soils and growing mediums that utilize this idea will often be based on a particular, naturally occurring soil that has shown to be very effective for natural plant growth. These growing mediums can be soils or soilless – i.e. “soil” is broken down, mixed and occurs naturally, whereas “soilless” is a combination of inputs that is formulated and mixed together by humans. Whether you take shovels-full from the dense forest floor, or you purchase a finely crafted growing medium from some organic greenthumbs, traditional organic cultivation media often depends on where you live.
For instance, on the Westcoast of British Columbia (particularly on Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast), many growers use a distinct style of growing mediums known as “Sea Soil”. This mineral-rich soil is found throughout the islands of the Westcoast, and is the culmination of years of decaying plant material being enriched with the naturally occurring phyto-nutrients and minerals from the ocean air/water. It seems to good to be true, but many proponents of “Sea Soil” claim that you simply plant your seeds, water your plants and watch your cannabis flourish from all the nutrients packed into this unique growing medium. Anyone who has tried BC-bud can probably attest to this methodology of organic growing – they grow some wicked, potent weed on those islands!
Far from the traditional organic side of growing techniques, there are a vast number of people who prefer to grow hydroponically. Because there’s no growing medium to speak of in this type of cultivation, we’ll cover it in the “Fertilizers” section coming up next. Moving on from traditional organic growing mediums, there is another approach that ramps up the take on “soilless” mediums, called “Super Soil”. Despite the fact that it’s called “soil”, this kind of growing medium is certainly anything but naturally occurring; super soil is hand-crafted and formulated by people for specific crops. Typically used for high-value crops, like cannabis, this form of soilless medium can be made up of dozens of ingredients, but they’re usually comprised of some common base inputs like peat moss, coconut fiber, perlite and wormcastings of manure. The reason many growers like using super soil is because it can be tailored to suit their particular needs, but this obviously can lead to some pretty pricey figures. Still, super soil is a favorite among organic growers, and there’s always exciting and new inputs being included in these products (such as mycorrhizae, beneficial microorganisms, etc).
Lastly, but definitely not least, is the idea behind growing organically to mimic natural ecosystems comes from a simple adoption of nature, known as “biomimicry”. Biomimicry is defined as the imitation of natural elements, systems and processes found in the natural world (plants, animals, ecosystems) for the purpose of solving complex human problems. Basically, this practice has become widespread in many industries because it learns from the billions of years worth of research that plants, animals and environments have already conducted and applies the ingenuity of the natural world into optimizing what we do and how we do it.
Case in point, peat moss has become a very popular and effective input for cultivating many crops, including cannabis. Scientists and crop farmers looked at the biodiversity found in peat bogs across Canada and began including this “grower’s gold” in their cultivation regimes. Peat moss is basically broken down plant and organic materials that coalesces into a nutrient-rich, potent microorganism soup that living plants and animals can benefit from. Instead of continuing to use acidic, nutrient-deficient and sodium-high cow manure as the base, many growing medium producers have now turned to peat moss and the natural innovation of peat bogs for this very important growing input. Proponents of this style of growing are some of the most staunch supporters of organics, and their knowledge of natural ecosystems is often second-to-none. If you live in an area with abundant plant life or a particular profile of nutrients (mineral-rich clay, peat bogs, composted forest humus, etc) then try copying what you can perceive nature doing, and invest in the natural systems for your next successful crop of organic cannabis.
The main thing that you need to realize about fertilizers is that there are many schools of thought on how to feed your plants, but essentially it’s up to your plants to tell you what you need, not a growing guru. Learning how to read your plants’ behavior, how they react to changes in their environment or nutrient uptake, in a fast and efficient manner can make all the difference when growing organic weed. Many fertilizer products claim that they’re formulated to make growing easier for you, but no matter what kind of fertilizers you use it can all be for naught if you aren’t paying attention to your plants. If you aren’t sure how to understand what your plants are showing you (i.e. nutrient deficiencies, temperature stress, genetic mutations), before you subscribe to a particular method or brand of fertilizers, study up on grower’s tips and be certain you can manage/comprehend the ever-changing conditions in our crops.
Many fertilizer routines are “all-in-one” products, or the easy to learn “N-P-K” program, so you definitely don’t need to have a horticultural degree in order to grow cannabis (although, it definitely would help). Organic growers tend to stick to a handful of common fertilizer inputs: bat/seabird guano for phosphorus (P) or nitrogen (N), cal/mag (Calcium & Magnesium) supplements, compost teas, mineral fertilizers for micronutrients, and a variety of plant, animal or mineral based add-ins. Granular fertilizers are often certified-organic by the various certifying bodies, whereas liquid fertilizers are typically synthetic in origin. This does not mean that if a fertilizer is in liquid form that it is NOT organic, nonetheless it needs to be said that many fertilizer products for cannabis claim to be natural and organic when in fact they’re not. Being a savvy shopper and a successful organic grower means understanding the seals of approval, knowing legitimate sources for inputs, and avoiding any cheap/knock-off fertilizer products.
A common misconception about growing organic marijuana is that it is extremely expensive. Many Canadians prefer to grow hydroponically – meaning there is no growing medium, cannabis is cultivated in water with water-soluble fertilizers. Hydroponics definitely has its merits, and a growing number of people are choosing this cultivation method because it is very consistent, cost-effective and once you’ve dialed-in your system you can produce some beautiful, potent buds. At any rate, hydroponic cannabis cultivation is a great choice, but unfortunately for organic cannabis proponents there are little-to-no certified-organic hydroponic suppliers of nutrients. As we mentioned, many liquid products are chemical in nature, and the appetite for viable, organic liquid fertilizers seems to be overwhelmed by the sense that “if you want organics, just grow in dirt”.
So, if you want to grow organic marijuana you’ve got to be prepared to do a bit more shopping, some additional training on inputs and where they come from, and you might need to learn a few more processes like pre-mixing or making your own. Choosing to grow organically doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to produce better buds – in fact it can be an arduous process to truly “dial in” your techniques. However, if you’re committed and you pay close attention to your plants, you will find that your buds are not only incredibly gorgeous, colorful, flavorful and aromatic, but the cannabis terpenes and cannabinoids of your organic weed will convince you that when it comes to potent pot, there’s nothing quite like organically grown cannabis.
Here’s where things get especially tricky for growing organic cannabis. Pests like nymphs, aphids, spider mites and diseases like powdery mildew (PM), bud rot (botrytis), or root rot (fusarium) can ravage any sized cannabis crop. Almost every pesticide approved for use in Canada has very strict limitations on its use due to the harsh, possibly toxic residues that can remain in your plant and in your buds. Furthermore, many Canadians choose to smoke cannabis flowers, and whenever certain chemicals undergo extreme heat an adverse chemical reaction can occur and create noxious/poisonous substances. These risks were highlighted during 2010’s when a popular pesticide known as “Nova” (Myclobutanil) was banned after it was shown to potentially produce hydrogen cyanide (yes, THAT kind of cyanide) when cannabis flowers sprayed with this substance were combusted.
Health Canada and the CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) are at the forefront of reviewing and approving pesticides and other chemical substances used in cultivating crops in Canada. If you’re unsure of the status of a product you’re considering, or if you want to be up-to-date on the latest revolving-door of approved/unapproved chemicals in Canada, be sure to check out the Health Canada website for more information.
In terms of controlling pests organically, there are a surprising number of options out there. Chemical-free pest management, sometimes referred to as “Integrated Pest Management” (IPM), involves some innovative thinking, a lot of hard work, but ultimately achieves the same goals as spraying chemicals. What does IPM entail? Using predatory mites or other beneficial insects like ladybugs has been a popular choice for indoor cannabis cultivators for decades. The reason we say “indoor” should be obvious – you’re not going to spend a bunch of money on some hungry, mite-munching predators insects like ladybugs only to have them fly off on you. Predatory mites (such as persimilis), are very efficient beneficial insects because they cannot fly (bound to the stem/leaves), they’re known for their voracious appetites, and they can be quite cost effective. Other beneficial insects like nematodes can assist your plants at the root-level from those pesky and difficult-to-see pests like fungus or gnats. Certain species of nematodes can actually attack your cannabis plants, but there are some symbiotic nematodes that work to cleanse their environment of pests and diseases, protecting your plant and themselves in the kind of harmonious relationship one can only find in nature.
Other methods like using safe, plant-based oil products or homemade natural sprays including essential oils or coconut oil have also been known to help rid pests from the surfaces of your marijuana. The core concept of pest management isn’t how you do it, it’s all about being preventative and NOT reactive. If you’re noticing the onset of powdery mildew, some bite-marks in your cannabis plants, or botrytis in your flowers then you’ve probably already lost the crop. Prevention doesn’t just mean keeping an eye out for pests; good IPM can mean controlling all the environmental conditions, monitoring your plants’ nutrient uptake closely, managing your growing medium and maintaining a balanced watering schedule. For these reasons alone, pest management is commonly one of the most overlooked factors in growing organic weed, but it can also be the most difficult to learn. You have to start somewhere, whether you’re spending a lot of dollars on expensive chemical sprays or taking the time to learn how to do Integrative Pest Management, so study up and try out as many pest control methods as befits your cannabis situation.
TO GROW THE BEST BUDS, YOU’VE GOT TO KNOW ORGANICS
If you’re one of the people at the supermarket picking through the more expensive organic fruit or vegetables, but you’re still smoking conventionally grown cannabis, you need to ask yourself: shouldn’t my medicine be as pure, potent and environmentally-friendly as the food I eat? In the wake of the “green wave” surging throughout our modern society, it makes sense that our commitment to living sustainably should be complemented by an organic lifestyle. The costs might seem too inflated, or the benefits not convincing enough for some, but the facts remain: organic cannabis is one of the most natural forms of plant-medicine on this planet.
If we trust in the ingenuity of nature instead of assuming human innovation always trumps it, there is a lot we can learn about better ways of doing things. Growing organic marijuana is one way to ensure you’re receiving safe, pure and potent medicine for your many ailments. If you’re not capable of growing your own marijuana, try shopping online for some organic cannabis from organic dispensaries in Canada. There are many collectives of like-minded organic cultivators that you can learn from, and if we keep pushing the envelope for better growing practices the market for organic weed will continue to flourish. It’s time to start consuming the best cannabis you’ve ever had, and it starts with growing your own organic cannabis – the way nature intended.