8 Solutions to Common Cultivation Challenges

Columns - Growing Pains

November 18, 2015

This introductory column will explore several common pitfalls experienced by cannabis-cultivation operations and offer viable solutions. Regardless of the size of your grow or your level of experience, you’re sure to find something useful.

First, cannabis cultivation on any level is a process that must be approached holistically. Very few “silver bullets” exist in which one quick fix will solve a problem. Many variables must be weighed when diagnosing and overcoming an issue in your cultivation processes. In some cases, a seemingly unrelated action and result are, in fact, very closely linked, and taking a broader view can help a cultivator find a solution.

When working toward solutions to challenges (or opportunities) you encounter, carefully sourcing and evaluating the information you employ to drive your decision making is essential. A single decision can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars—or more. With that in mind, it can be helpful to consult peer-reviewed university studies, experienced agricultural professionals and time-tested practices from successful agriculture operations. Legal commercial cannabis production is a new market, but agriculture itself is one of mankind’s oldest industries. Innovative, novel solutions can be necessary, but trying to reinvent the wheel is often not the most efficient approach.

With that broad guidance in mind, here are some broader recommendations and solutions to common challenges cultivators encounter:

1 Developing sound, replicable standard operating procedures (SOPs) and keeping meticulous records of garden conditions and activities are absolute necessities for anyone who wants to be successful in this field. By having effective SOPs in place—and following them—cultivators will introduce consistency into their gardens, reduce variables and provide a basis from which sound evaluations can be made when problems arise. Developing strong, functional SOPs is a rigorous and time-consuming process, but having them will save time, money and countless headaches down the road.

2 Keeping scrupulously accurate records means that you and your staff have to apply incredible attention to detail in observing and inspecting your plants. Regular, thorough inspections will help you with everything from catching microscopic russet mites in their early stages (before they take down your entire garden) to determining appropriate flowering durations to maximize the yield and potency of the particular strains you grow.

3 Don’t just jump on every new bandwagon that comes along. Because the cannabis industry is exploding right now, countless new products—from lights to fertilizers to trimming machines—are being introduced daily and, while they all claim to be the best, only a handful are truly high-quality. Therefore, performing a controlled, scientific experiment before introducing a new product or piece of equipment into your grow on a large scale is a must. The new product should be the lone variable added to the equation so that its effect on your cultivation process may be isolated and evaluated. Follow up these experiments with detailed analyses of the yield data and results from reputable testing labs—in addition to qualitative analyses of the look, smell and effects of the flower in question—so that informed decisions can be made on whether a product is the real deal or not.

4 Control your variables. You will not be able to run controlled trials if you do not have as many potential variables as possible under control first. Variables in a cultivation facility are myriad, but they can be reined in with the right equipment, monitoring and record-keeping protocols.

For example, to ensure that your plants are all receiving consistent, optimal light for their stage of growth, use a PAR meter—which measures Photosynthetically Active Radiation, the wavelengths of light the plants are actually using—in conjunction with an infrared thermometer to determine the best light positioning and intensity without spiking the canopy temperature too high. A meter that measures the pH and the concentration of your fertilization solution also is essential to ensure that you are not over- or under-fertilizing, nor making certain nutrients unavailable to your plants if the pH of your solution is out of the proper range.

These meters also should be employed to make sure that your water-filtration system is working properly. (You should be using reverse osmosis filtration.) Check the temperature and humidity of your garden areas daily (and nightly for flowering plants) to determine ranges and averages.

If you are attempting to cultivate a vibrant microbial life in your soil, you had better be filtering your water. The chlorine in tap water will kill those happy microbes.

If you are introducing supplemental CO2, those levels have to be monitored, both in the interests of plant productivity, as well as worker safety and, in many areas, compliance with fire codes.

5 To save yourself some trouble in controlling as many variables as possible, the importance of equipping your facility with environmental controls sufficient to consistently maintain specific conditions must be emphasized. If you own or are in the process of building out a facility, do not skimp on the AC or dehumidification, not only in your garden areas, but also in your drying and curing spaces. If you don’t install sufficient environmental controls across the board, you and your staff will be doing a lot more work for lower yields of second-rate product, as well as inviting mildews and bugs, if conditions get too far outside of optimal ranges consistently. In regard to drying and curing, if product dries too quickly, it will almost always be harsh to smoke. If it is drying too slowly, you run the risk of mold developing.

The ability to maintain proper environmental conditions across the board will prevent a great number of issues that commonly plague growers, leaving you with a happier, more productive staff that is able to focus on the tasks at hand without devoting time to constantly putting out fires, so to speak.

6 If you do come across a pest problem, a fundamental cornerstone of an effective pest management strategy is to “know your enemy,” a maxim from Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.” A stringent diagnostic process will guide you in determining which specific pests are applying pressure to your crop—the first step in determining how best to alleviate that pressure.

Once you figure out what type of pest (insect, mildew or virus) is attacking your grow, you also must determine the following important information:

  • What is the pest’s reproductive time frame?
  • What do they eat?
  • What are they attracted to?
  • How do they move on and around your plants?
  • What environmental conditions do they thrive in?

Answering these questions will guide you in selecting the proper organic pest control products and materials, applying them with the right timing, in the right locations and using the right mode of application. In some cases, you will be able to isolate a certain practice or feature of your cultivation operation that is causing a problem and eliminate it, thereby squashing a pest issue (pun intended) without even using any pesticide material. In fact, we have seen cases in which all it took to mitigate pest problems were the implementation of strict cleanliness protocols.

7 After coming to a diagnosis of a pest problem, sometimes “panic mode” can set in, and some growers may be tempted to throw the kitchen sink at the problem by spraying every pesticide they can get their hands on. However, natural control options exist for every problem you may come across, so take time to research them and develop a safe, informed and effective plan of attack.

For example, we have seen many people attempt unsuccessfully to use beneficial insects, such as ladybugs or predatory mites, to combat detrimental pests; but they were unsuccessful not because beneficial insects are useless, but because they were not employed properly or in the correct situations. Consider that beneficial predatory insects need time to establish a colony, must be able to thrive in the particular environmental conditions of your grow rooms, and may be affected by other organic pest control treatments being performed. Based on those factors, the introduction of beneficial insects is likely not the best option if you are facing an immediate infestation of pests.

8 Along those same lines, make sure that your approaches to each facet of your cultivation process are in harmony and not working against each other. For example, most growers are generally aware that introducing beneficial microorganisms into your soil, such as trichoderma, mycorrhizal fungi and various bacteria, is supposed to give your plants a boost. However, if you use synthetic, chemical fertilizers, then you will be wasting time and money if you are simultaneously trying to cultivate beneficial soil microorganisms. The reason for this is that synthetic fertilizers are salts, which actually kill microbes by sucking the water from their cells via osmosis.

Additionally, if you are attempting to cultivate a vibrant microbial life in your soil, you had better be filtering your water, as the chlorine contained in tap water will kill those happy microbes as well. Monitoring soil pH is important for these purposes, as the beneficial fungi and bacteria thrive best when your medium is within a certain pH range.

Those are just some of the many factors to consider in diagnosing cultivation issues and formulating strategies to resolve them. As you have likely gathered by now, cannabis cultivation is no walk in the park. For those not currently engaged in growing, be aware that cleanliness, research and attention to minute detail are essential to success. It is not glamorous to dust and disinfect grow room surfaces, cracks and crevices; nor is it enjoyable to crawl on one’s hands and knees for hours examining the undersides of leaves for tiny bugs. But both of those things—and many other menial, labor-intensive tasks—must be done to help prevent problems before they begin.

Preparation and prevention should be your mantras as a cannabis cultivator, as it is infinitely easier to preemptively avert issues than it is to try to resolve full-fledged crises. Laying a strong foundation for your operation in the form of intelligent SOPs, facility design and sufficient environmental controls (if growing indoors or in a greenhouse), will help prepare you for what is a difficult, highly involved, but ultimately incredibly rewarding process.

About the Authors:  Nic Easleyis the founder and CEO of Comprehensive Cannabis Consulting (3C). A decorated veteran of the U.S. Air Force, Easley established a 35-acre organic farm in Colorado after completing his military service, and has degrees in biology and environmental studies. Over the past eight years, Easley has consulted with more than 60 clients in Colorado and formed 3C to bring organic, sustainable cultivation solutions to the world. Adam Koh is the Chief Cultivation Officer for 3C. Previously, he served as cultivation manager of a Denver-area medical cannabis facility that was awarded the High Times Cannabis Cup for Best Medical Hybrid in 2014. Koh has experience cultivating more than 100 different strains, including numerous high-CBD varieties, and in his previous position oversaw the care of roughly 3,000 plants at any one time.