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Growing cannabis, believe it or not, is incredibly easy. If you give the plant some good soil, water and light, it will do most of the work itself. Growing GOOD cannabis, however, can be a bit of a challenge and requires a combination of knowledge, TLC and perhaps even a bit of luck. The luck part unfortunately is out of most growers’ control, though you can increase your chances of a good harvest with the right amount of knowledge and attention. Nature has equipped the plant with everything it needs to do its thing. With some nurturing though, you can maximize the potential of your plants and make sure that the final product is of the highest quality possible.
Depending on what your goal as a grower is, there are several things you can do between germination and harvest (and even after harvest) to get the biggest yield possible, the greatest potency possible and the greatest amount of terpenes possible. Cannabis plants can certainly grow into monstrous beasts on their own under perfect conditions, however over the millennia, growers have learned that by manipulating them in a certain way during both the vegetative and flowering periods, they can become even bigger and more potent than if left to their own devices. This is definitely good news for those looking for bigger yields or higher THC content, particularly for commercial purposes, but it’s also good news for those who enjoy the nuances of the plant and are chasing those elusive terpenes, the driving force behind those wonderful scents and flavors we all love.
It goes without saying that any decent garden should start with good genetics whether we’re talking clones or seeds, though unless you are one of the lucky few that can access good quality cuttings/clones, it’s safe to assume you will be starting your garden with some old-fashioned seeds. Regardless of what your starting material is, you are going to want to learn and practice how to train your cannabis plants so that you get the maximum possible size, potency and flavor that they otherwise wouldn’t reach. It should be said that proper soil and nutrients are the driving forces behind terpene production, but you can take things up a notch with additional training techniques. Once you have obtained the desired yield, there are two other factors to take into account that will affect the final product, namely harvesting and curing. While your yield will remain the same once your harvested plants have been dried, when you give them the chop most certainly will have an effect on their potency, whereas the curing process will ensure that all of your hard work will not be wasted. There are a lot of details along the way to keep in mind before you take that rewarding puff of your final product but we’ll try to cover the basics so that you can enjoy that sweet smoke, no matter how experienced of a grower you are.
The Various Methods of Training Your Plants
Training sounds like some arduous task you have to do on a regular basis, but in reality it’s not as complicated as it sounds. The techniques below include several types of training but also pruning and in some cases the two will be combined.
LST (Low Stress Training) – Also known by the low-tech name of bending, this is a technique that aims to keep your plants at a low height, which results in a broader, fuller canopy. It involves nothing more than bending the main top branch (growing tip) horizontally so as to inhibit the production of auxin. Auxin is a hormone that directs new growth and determines the shape of the plant by discouraging growth of the lower branches. As the main branch
Topping – This is a very simple method of pruning that doesn’t involve a lot of work, but the results can be quite impressive. Here you are removing the entire tip of the apical growing tip (terminal bud), which inhibits the production of auxin, much like LST. In this case however, the plant develops more shoots from the side of stem, resulting in multiple colas as opposed to just a single main one. Additionally, the new colas grow faster and bigger and the plant becomes bushier as a result.
Fimming – This technique was discovered by accident after a careless gardener attempting to top his plant left a small portion of the top (actual quote: “Fuck, I missed!”) and decided to let it grow anyway. Going by its more scientific-sounding name of floribunding, this technique involves removing approximately 80% of the terminal bud in order to inhibit auxin growth and encourage the growth of multiple tops. Like topping, which is also a high-stress technique, plants develop shoots from the side, however topped branches develop two to four additional tops for each cut, meaning one single branch can produce up to eight tops. This can result in monstrous plants, particularly if done outdoors.
Manifolding / mainlining –This technique is a combination of a few other methods already mentioned here. It starts with topping, then moves to low-stress training and finally uses some type of netting/ScrOG/support setup, though this last part is not always necessary. In the early stages of the vegetative period, growers will top the plant above the 3rd node after it has developed 5 nodes or more. Once the plant has been topped at the 3rd node and any growth (vegetation) has been removed, the two new shoots get tied down in order to create a manifold (y-shape). When those two shoots grow out a few nodes themselves, they also get topped and the process is repeated until you have the desired amount of colas or main lines, which could be as few as four or as many as a few dozen, depending on how much space you have. Once you have the desired amount of mainlines, your canopy will develop a uniform height and you can sit back and watch the show until harvest time.
Supercropping – This is another low-tech method of increasing your yields without much additional labor beyond the initial procedure itself. Supercropping is a high-stress training method (HST) like topping, in which you slightly damage the plant to initiate a defense mechanism in response, which usually means higher THC production. This technique involves gently pinching a branch (crushing plant tissue) during the vegetative phase and then positioning it into place so that the primary bud receives more light, thereby growing much larger than usual. Once the branch has been injured, it gets positioned into the desired angle (usually 90°) and then tied into place or propped up with a support. The injury quickly heals and the bud grows into an impressively large cola.
Lollipopping – This is another technique that can be combined with others, such as training and defoliation, in order to increase bud size and overall yield. As the name indicates, the idea is to get your cannabis plant to resemble the shape of a lollipop (round at the top and a bare bottom). This is achieved through defoliation and pruning, ideally before the flowering stage. Bottom growth that doesn’t get much light (and as a result will result in small, unappealing “popcorn” buds) gets removed and the plant focuses its energy on bud production towards the top of the plant.
Defoliation – This is a relatively simple way of stressing plants in order to get them to focus on bud production. The idea is to remove large leaves (fan leaves) that are blocking light from getting to bud sites. While defoliation in the vegetative stage is possible without doing too much damage to the plant (think of it as a haircut if your plant gets way too shaggy), proper defoliation should take place in the flowering stage once bud production has already started. Just like with lollipopping, you want the plant to direct its energy towards buds that are getting a good amount of light, which will result in bigger buds and greater overall yields. If your plant is too bushy for the amount of light its getting, you may need to defoliate at an earlier stage, which will also help prevent things like mold and encourage better airflow.
Of all the procedures involved in producing quality cannabis, you would think giving plants the chop would be the easiest part. After all, it only takes a few snips with some shears and you’re done, right? The difficult part in harvesting isn’t the physical act itself, but rather knowing WHEN to harvest. Depending on your growing conditions and the plant’s development (maturity), you may even have to harvest the same plant at different times. To get the most out of your grow in terms of yield and active compounds, growers should keep an eye out for a few things:
- Fan leaves turn yellow – In addition to turning yellow towards the end of flowering, fan leaves may also fall off much like tree leaves in the fall as the plant tries to direct all of its energy towards bud production.
- Trichomes turn amber
Perhaps the best indicator that the plant has reached the end of its life cycle and that is ready for harvest, however you will need a magnifying glass or similar device to make the call. Initially trichome heads are translucent and resemble glass, after which they become opaque and or milky before finally turning amber. Depending on what type of effect you would like to get from your smoke, a good rule of thumb for harvesting is when about 1/3 of the trichomes are amber. The effects of the plant will be more cerebral and energetic. If a larger percentage turn amber, the effects will resemble that of a typical indica-dominant strain: couch-locky and sleep-inducing. If all trichomes are amber, your plant is overripe and has likely begun to rot.
- Calyxes start to fill out – The calyx is the initial protective structure of the cannabis flower where resin glands are secreted. It also happens to be the most resinous part of the plant. They are also where potential seeds will be stored after pollination. Once they become plump with resin-containing trichomes, it is a good indicator that the plant is mature.
- Pistils turn dark
Also known as stigmas, pistils are the female sex organ of the cannabis plant that emerges from the calyxes. Initially white, pistils darken as they mature, becoming an orangish-brown color. When two-thirds to three-quarters of pistils are dark, this is a good indicator your plant is at its peak resin production.
Another factor that can affect when your harvest takes place is the cannabis strain itself. Narrow-leaf (sativa) varieties generally take longer to mature as they tend to originate in areas near the equator, which means they tend to ripen in October/November outdoors. Broad-leaf (indica) varieties generally speaking finish much faster than their equatorial counterparts, usually towards the end of September. In addition, depending on the variety of your plants, you may have to conduct a progressive or stagnated harvest. Some plant varieties have buds that ripen all at once, others do so in top-down fashion, with buds near the plant canopy maturing the fastest. Light intensity and the daily amount of light received will also affect how fast plants will mature, so a watchful eye towards the end of the flowering cycle is crucial if you want to harvest at peak maturity. Just like with any fruit, cannabis should not be harvested before maturity. You will notice it immediately and you will not be happy about it.
Trim Trim Your Tree
Trimming is a fundamental task in the harvesting process as it will ultimately affect the final product’s appearance (bag appeal), improve its fragrance, reduce harshness and improve cannabinoid concentration, including (and especially) THC. The trimming process falls into two categories: wet and dry. The only reason not to trim your freshly harvested plants is if you are making some sort of concentrate such as live resin and you are using the whole plant, fan leaves and all.
Growers have their own reasons and preferences when it comes to trimming, some prefer to trim when the plant still contains moisture before drying (wet trimming), others prefer to dry their plants a bit first (dry trimming) before commencing with manicuring. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages, but perhaps the biggest factor when deciding on a method is humidity. Mold is the arch-enemy of any grower and can ruin a perfectly good crop if you are not careful. Immediately after harvest the moisture content will naturally be high, however if you opt for wet trimming, removing moist sugar leaves ASAP will inhibit mold formation as any moisture will be quickly released. The disadvantage of wet trimming, especially if you have a very resinous bounty, is that your trimming equipment will quickly gunk up with resin, on the plus side, however you can also salvage that gunk and turn it into a concentrate or make edibles.
If humidity in your drying space (above 60%) is a concern or you have a lot to dry but not much space to do so, wet trimming is a safer option. If the humidity in your drying space is not a concern (below 45%) and you are patient and have the time to let your buds dry slowly (which will preserve those precious terpenes better), then dry trimming is the way to go. If appearances are more important, wet trimming is recommended as buds are less likely to lose their lush color as opposed to becoming brown. Dry trimming on the other hand will give you more compact-looking buds, so ultimately this comes down to preference.
Machine trimming is also an option, however this is best reserved for large scale commercial growers who either don’t have the time or patience for trimming by hand or cannot afford manual labor. Trimming machines have improved in recent years, however machines still cannot match the precision of the human eye nor the demands of picky consumers.
Hang Them Out To Dry
Much like harvesting, there is more to drying than just leaving your plants alone for a few days and there are several methods of drying your harvest. Depending on your resources (time, space, humidity, etc.), you have a few options to choose from.
The easiest and most effective way of drying, provided you have the space and ambient conditions to dry (70°F (21°C)/ <50% RH). This method is seen as the standard way of drying cannabis as it is the easiest and most practical way of doing so. Rafters, beams, twine, clotheslines, coat hangers have all been used in the past and are perfectly effective ways of drying cannabis.
- Drying racks
These have become a very popular method as they allow you to save space but also speed up the drying process by letting you separate buds from the main stem. To speed up the process even further, racks can be lined with plain brown wrapping paper which will absorb moisture from the plants, shortening your drying time.
- Paper bags/cardboard boxes – Similar to drying buds on a newspaper, the paper or cardboard helps absorb moisture from the plants, however this can lead to wet spots on the paper and leave an indentation on your buds, affecting the aesthetics.
Depending on your drying conditions, your harvest should be dry usually within 7-10 days. To be sure they are dry and ready for curing, make sure that your buds pass the so-called “stick test”. Take a bud and try to snap the stem. If it bends, it is still moist and requires further drying. If it has a dry, quick snap, your buds are good to go. There are several other ways of speeding up the drying process of your cannabis, such as microwaving, food dehydrators or a standard oven, however these methods should only be used for testing purposes. If you are aiming for a high-quality smoke that isn’t too harsh on your throat, the slow method remains supreme.
This is the final step in processing harvested cannabis plants before consumption. It is very similar to aging quality wine. The idea behind curing is to enhance the flavor of cannabis and provide for a buttery-smooth smoking experience. It also preserves your bud, making long term storage possible while maintaining flavor and potency. The curing process can be as short as two weeks and as long as several months to a year, though usually a month of curing will do the trick.
Just like the drying process, there are several ways of curing cannabis, such as the use of wooden, metal, ceramic or plastic containers. Plastic containers, while commonly used for storing large quantities of buds, have an electrical charge that attracts glands so it is not an ideal method for storing cannabis. One of the most common and reliable methods of curing cannabis is the good ol’ mason jar. Fill your jar(s) about ¾ of the way in order to allow for air to circulate inside. For the duration of the cure, open the jars once a day for 10-20 minutes and ‘burp’ them. This process releases moisture and CO2 from the jars helping to prevent mold formation. Ideally, curing should take place at a temperature of 60-70°F (15-21°C) and relative humidity of 45-50%. How long you want to cure your buds is up to you, though connoisseurs claim the longer the cure, the more pleasant the smoke and the more potent and exquisite the effect.
- As always, keep your grow space as well as your trimming/drying/curing areas neat, tidy and clean. Mold is one of your biggest concerns here and the cleaner your space, the less likely pathogens will rear their ugly heads.
- In addition to keeping things clean, monitor humidity at all times. If your ambient conditions get too moist, you are asking for some mold infestation sooner or later. If things get out of hand, your buds can take on the smell and taste of ammonia and your entire crop can be ruined.
- The trimming process is going to get very stinky, much more so than the flowering period as well so make sure to include odor control measures if you don’t want your neighbors finding out about your gardening hobby.
Pro-tip No. 1 – You can supercrop to adjust canopy height, especially if you have one main cola. If you have ever found yourself in the unfortunate position of running out of vertical space and you cannot raise your light any higher, you can partially snap the main cola at the right height
Pro-tip No. 2 – If your dried buds lack that wonderful aroma they exhibited during flowering and have that grassy, hay-like smell, you can artificially give them a bit of pizzazz by throwing a lemon or orange peel into your curing jar for a week. They will take on a pleasant citrusy fragrance and make the smoke that much more palatable.
Your starting material (seeds) will give you the opportunity to produce a fine crop, however you can get even more THC out of your plants by practicing good T.H.C (training, curing and harvesting) of your own. If you love your cannabis plants the way you ought to, they will love you back with interest. Ready for that kind of investment? If so, happy growing!