Many growers entering commercial cannabis from legacy markets or ornamental horticulture come armed with ideas that cannabis requires complicated, labor-intensive nutrient routines. But as commercial cultivation has evolved, so has knowledge about cannabis nutrition at scale.
Growers desiring to simplify their grow—and their nutrient routine—can find support in the science of plant nutrition and a sounder, simpler nutrient product lineup.
The Trend Toward Simplification
Agronomist Jean-Pierre Fortin and horticulturist Shaye Donald have unique perspectives on the complex nutrient programs many incoming growers bring to commercial cannabis grows. As members of the technical services team at Hawthorne Gardening Company, they help growers of all kinds understand plant nutrition, simplify nutrient product lineups, and enjoy the results.
Fortin believes that marketing tactics—rather than plant nutrition—tend to propel many complicated nutrient routines.
“When you look at some of these programs that use so many different products and add up everything they’re adding, we very often can say we can do the same thing with three or four different products,” he says. “It really comes down to the nutritional needs of the plant.”
Fortin stresses that growers from all backgrounds are looking for simpler, more efficient, more cost-effective nutrient programs. One grower, he recalls, used university-devised nutrient formulations requiring 14 different soluble salts: adding more variables into the plan than what otherwise might be necessary for cultivators.
When Donald started at Hawthorne three years ago, it was common for growers to use nearly a dozen individual products in their nutrient recipes and change rates throughout the life of the crop. One grower he worked with recently had 27 different recipes, changed every few days.
“People are starting to realize that they can simplify, and they do want to simplify, especially on the fertilizer side,” Donald says. With the nutrient precision demanded in the industry, growers see an opportunity to streamline complicated regimens and gain a competitive edge.
Factors Driving Simpler Nutrient Routines
Many trends in commercial cannabis cultivation drive the desire to simplify fertilizer programs. Less forgiving controlled environments, expanded automation, increased scale of commercial grows, and ultra-competitive cannabis markets have growers seeking sound, simple nutrient programs that complement techniques like nutrient-based crop steering and just-in-time nutrition.
Not surprisingly, growers everywhere are looking to cut production costs—and complicated, product-heavy nutrient programs are one place to look.
Donald recalls the production glut that hit Canada with legalization. “From what we hear, the U.S. is going through that a little bit now as well,” he says. “I think lowering the price per pound or price of product is always going to be the biggest driver at the end of the day.”
Growers can start by looking at their spectrum of inputs and assessing their value. What’s behind each nutrient product going into a grow?
Donald and Fortin stress that simpler nutrient routines should go hand-in-hand with solid, innovative research and science. Hawthorne, for example, tests its products in different locations, including their licensed high-THC cannabis research facility in Kelowna, BC, Canada. “It’s a continuous process, and we’re always trying to improve it and bring that to the growers,” Donald says.
ROI with Simpler Nutrient Programs
Simplifying nutrient routines can help lower production costs and boost ROI in many ways. For growers shifting from liquid fertilizers to soluble salts, Fortin points out that swift returns start with transportation and storage costs.
“When people are buying liquid fertilizers, they are buying a ton of water. So, they have to ship or transport that weight. Using soluble salts is a solution for that,” Fortin says. “It doesn’t take much space. It’s easy to use and very precise.”
The trend toward automated fertigation highlights potential gains, particularly with water-soluble products designed especially for use with labor-saving fertigation systems. Donald explains that many growers—from all sizes of cultivation facilities—still deal with jugs of liquid concentrates and the measuring, mixing, and labor that goes with them.
“They’re paying someone sometimes to stand there for half the day—just mix tanks, check the EC, check the pH, fiddle with things a little bit,” Donald says. Labor is costly, but so is the potential for mistakes and inconsistencies.
“People are realizing there’s a high degree of error potential, as well as the cost in having someone there,” he adds. “When you move towards something that is automated, there’s a learning curve, but you take all those things out.”
The uniformity, precision, and labor efficiencies that come with simplification are fueling an uptick of interest. Donald says that even highly sophisticated, advanced growers have switched to routines with simpler formulas from the days of mixing their own base salts in highly customized programs—just for the ease of use.
The Art and Science of Simplification
By simplifying your grow, including your nutrient routine, Fortin suggests you can free up time to focus on your craft—beyond just irrigating and feeding the crop. “Just do the right thing in a more simplified way, and then you can focus on your growing environment, your ventilation, on pest control,” he says.
Donald reflects on the synergy of art and science that first drew him to horticulture and eventually to Hawthorne. He describes the mystical and magical components that still enrich cannabis cultivation today.
“I think it’s really neat watching this industry evolve and move not away from the art side toward science, but you’re seeing the science side become more elevated,” he says. “When you show a grower something that they’ve known intuitively for 20 or 30 years, and then you explain the science behind it and they just go, ‘Wow.’ That’s a really good experience.”