Words by Amy Patterson
Image by Evan Thompson
Following on from our last article on keeping lean with your greens, this month we’re giving some guidance on the ultimate commitment to keeping canna thrifty - growing your own weed.
On 18 September 2018, the South African Constitutional Court decriminalised the use and cultivation of cannabis in a private space - meaning you are free to be in possession of seeds and use them to grow plants for your own use.
Now for the purpose of this article we’ll be focusing on growing cannabis outdoors, as this is the most cost effective option. No equipment, special grow lights or electricity required, just good old fashioned sunlight. And with much more space to grow like a weed, the yield is much bigger than it would be for indoor crops with limited space.
September and October are prime time for starting the process of outdoor growing in Mzansi, and it’s a lot easier than you may think. In fact, if you’re already a houseplant freak it’s not that much more complicated. But naturally the more love you put in, the more love you’ll get out.
Here are the factors to consider and steps to follow if you want to become a self-sustaining stoner.
Another great thing about growing outdoors is that you don’t need a lot of space or even a garden to do it. Access to a sunny spot on a balcony, terrace or rooftop will do the job just fine.
Of course, growing outside means that environmental factors are obviously far less within your control than they would be if you were growing indoors. But there are also pretty simple solutions to mitigate these factors by way of vigilance and common sense.
If it’s dry, then you will need to water your plants a bit more. If it’s rainy, you will need to provide your plants with shelter to ensure they don’t get overwatered. Just like humans, cannabis plants can die if they are exposed to temperatures that are either freezing or too hot. So if it’s too hot or cold outside for you, chances are it’s probably too hot or cold for your plants and you need to take action.
If it’s particularly cold, hot or windy for long stretches of time where you live, it may be worth setting up a small makeshift greenhouse or constructing a canopy of sorts to protect your plants from the elements.
LIGHT & AIR
Cannabis is a photoperiod plant, which means that the amount of light it receives daily will determine when it flowers - i.e. when it starts to produce buds. When growing outdoors, this will happen when the amount of light it receives each day starts to reduce as the seasons change from summer to autumn, which is usually around March/April in SA.
Cannabis needs a lot more light to grow than other plants, and the success of your grow is hugely reliant on the process of photosynthesis. So when the sun is your plants’ only source, you’ll need to ensure they’re in a spot where they’re getting at least 6 hours of direct sunlight every day between 9am-5pm, as well as 5-6 hours of indirect sunlight, to get the best results.
The need for direct sunlight is why growing on a window sill is not recommended - though a very sunny window is a possible starting place for seeds to start growing, after which time they can be moved to their permanent spot outside.
And if you’re positioning your cannabis in an area that isn’t out in a garden, make sure that it is not too crowded, shaded or humid. Fresh air is another vital ingredient in the growth of your weed.
SEEDS & CLONES
When buying weed seeds as a first time pot planter, we would absolutely suggest finding ones that are feminised.
Feminised seeds are pretty much guaranteed to develop into female plants, and female plants are the ones that produce the bud. If male cannabis plants are in the mix, they will grow pollen sacs and pollinate the female plant, causing seed production and a diminished yield. Female plants that are grown ‘sinsemilla’ (seedless) will produce the maximum amount of buds, and so as a beginner, it is just a lot safer and less stressful to stick to the wide variety of feminised seeds available.
For your debut crop we would suggest going with a variant that has the greatest possible chance of success, such as feminised Durban Poison seeds. This sativa strain is one of the most popular in the country and is our best known contribution to the international cannabis community. Not only is it potent and delicious, but it also favours the South African climate and so is likely to grow easily no matter your method.
If you are lucky enough to know a fellow grower who is willing to give you one of their plant’s seedlings to start your grow, then you’ve got a nice head start and can expect to shave roughly 3-4 weeks off the growth timeline.
But while clones typically do well outdoors, you should be aware that they develop a fibrous root system (as opposed to the deep taproots that seeds develop) which can reduce the plant's ability to deal with environmental stress and predatory insects.
So whether using seeds or clones, you may want to start growing your plants indoors to ensure they are not exposed to damaging weather conditions while they develop their initial root system. The plants can then be transitioned outdoors when the weather and light conditions are ideal.
SOIL & NUTRIENTS
Soil is a crucial element in your plant’s success. If you are growing outdoors, your existing soil may be fertile enough for cultivation without any additional soil additives at the start - especially if it is composted.
Key things to look out for are good drainage (i.e it does not get muddy, clumpy and waterlogged), good texture (loose, not too compact or hard), good water retention and a soil pH of around 6-6.5. You can easily test your existing soil’s pH before you start growing with the manual or digital home kits available at your garden centre, and calibration can be achieved with the help of pH up or pH down products.
But, if you’re growing in outdoor pots, you should probably look at getting your hands on a good soil medium.
Typical garden store mixes often contain too much nitrogen for young plants, so try to use something specialised. Freedom Farms comes highly recommended by many South African cannabis growers who tout it as the best high quality soil mix to use, while Red Tractor Compost potting soils are also a great, budget-friendly option.
Cannabis plants need a large amount of nutrients for the duration of their life cycle, mostly in the form of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Commercially available soil blends like those from Freedom Farms already contain the proper mix of these types of ingredients to sustain the plant from right up until its flowering stage, but other soils will likely require a little help.
Providing your plants with nutrients when they are too young can result in a kind of nutrient overdose, so as long as your initial potting soil is of a high quality, you shouldn’t need to worry about adding any more for a few weeks at the very least. After that you can top them up at the various stages with nutrients from a garden shop.
A micro caters to all stages of life, while a vegetative option provides the nitrogen needed for the plant’s primary growth phase, a flowering nutrient is high in phosphorous and potassium to bolster bud development, and then bud boosters can be used for a final push in the late flowering stage.
But before buying, it is always a good idea to chat to someone at the store about your plant’s progress and specific needs. They should be able to advise you on what nutrients to use as well as how to use them correctly. Avoid starting at full strength or it can burn your plants, and only increase the dosage if you notice that your lower leaves are turning yellow and falling off (except in the 2-4 weeks before harvesting, when this is normal).
If you’re looking to go organic, fertilisers like blood or fish meal can be used for additional nitrogen, bone meal for phosphorus, wood ash or kelp meal for potassium, dolomite lime for calcium and magnesium, and epsom salts for magnesium and sulphur.
POTS & PESTS
When growing in a pot as opposed to directly into the ground, you should consider the size you’d like the plant to get from your grow. For smaller plants a 15-20L pot is ideal, while a large plant to grow through summer can require a 50L pot or larger.
Clay pots are not recommended as they can be expensive and heavy, and they retain heat that could dry out the plant's soil and roots. Fabric pots allow for ample drainage and plenty of oxygen to get to the roots, while plastic containers are light and also inexpensive but will retain more heat than fabric pots.
Pests are an inevitable challenge when cultivating cannabis outdoors, but are fairly easy to overcome. If you’re growing in the ground, clear a buffer area around your plants to avoid reducing your plant’s quality by having it compete with its neighbours for nutrients.
A thin layer of mulch on top of the soil can prevent weeds from popping up in the middle of your plants' cycle, and you can consider fencing off the area or placing wire beneath the soil bed to keep pets and moles away from the roots.
Aphids and mealybugs present great risk to your plants, so get rid of them as soon as you spot them. Jumping spiders, ladybugs, and other native, beneficial predatory insects can clear your crop of these kinds of pests, so be sure to treat them as friends if they bless your plant with their presence.
Otherwise avoid spraying your cannabis with synthetic insecticides, as it is not known how harmful this can be when smoking these plants later down the line. Organic pesticide and insecticide solutions can be effective, but ideally do not spray anything on your plants while they are flowering.
The amount of water any plant needs will mostly depend on their size, the size of its container, the soil type, and general environmental conditions like the weather and intensity of the sun.
The amount of water needed also changes throughout the plant's life cycle. During the vegetative stage, you should water your cannabis thoroughly, and then not again until the top 2.5cm of soil has dried out. This can be anywhere from every day or every four days depending on conditions, but the time between watering will become shorter as the plant grows its roots.
Wilting plants and dry soil are direct signs that your plants need more water, while droopy leaves together with wet soil are a sign of overwatering. Both are common mistakes that can be avoided with practice.
Plants in pots tend to dry out faster than in soil beds, so they'll need to be watered more frequently.
STAGES OF GROWTH
Now that you’re aware of all the factors to consider around the growth of your plant, let’s look at some of the specifics behind each step of the process.
There are four main stages of growing weed:
- Germination: lasting 3-10 days
- Seedling: lasting 2-3 weeks
- Vegetative: lasting 3-16 weeks
- Flowering stage: lasting 8-12 weeks
It is widely recommended that you germinate your seeds indoors, so that you can have better control over the conditions like weather, pests and mould that the seeds have potential to be exposed to.
To germinate your seeds, you can choose to set them in some loose, airy soil. Alternatively - remember that school project where you sprouted a bean between 2 paper towels? Well, the same principle applies for cannabis seeds.
Simply place the seeds on a moistened paper towel on a plate, fold it over and cover it with another plate on top. Keep in a warm, dark space with a good level of humidity, and check regularly to see if the seeds have sprouted their radical, i.e. their single root. This can happen anywhere from 1-4 days to a week, or even more if they are older seeds.
Once the seeds have sprouted, make a small hole about 2.5cm deep into your growing soil (ensuring that it is in position for the plant to receive maximum sunlight afterwards) and gently place the sprouted seed into it with the root facing down. Cover it loosely and pat down lightly.
You’ll know your seedling has hit the vegetative stage once its first two adult leaves form on the top of the seed as they seek more sunlight to fuel the plant’s growth.
Now you are solely focused on getting your plant to be big and strong as they are especially fragile at this stage. Ensure your plant is getting the right amount of water (not too much, not too little) and plenty of light to absorb as much energy as possible for its photosynthesis.
Keep an eye on humidity levels and keep surroundings clean to avoid mould or disease on the plant.
You will know that your plant has reached the vegetative stage once it starts developing leaves with full sets of blades (around 3-7 per leaf).
This is when the real growth starts, so your first priority should be transplanting your plant into some nutrient-rich soil in a larger pot, or into your garden. Then ensure your plant gets enough nitrogen, and watch as it starts to grow upward and its leaves quickly multiply to absorb more and more energy for the development of its flowers.
This is also the best time to start sexing your cannabis and looking for any male plants to remove. While not guaranteed, there is only a very, very slim chance that a feminised seed will produce a male plant, so this is probably not something you’ll need to worry about if you’ve followed our recommendation. With regular seeds, unfortunately only half your plants will end up female and the other half will be male.
As your cannabis plant enters the pre-flowering stage, pay close attention to the area between the nodes of the plant, where the leaves and branches extend from the stalk. Pre-flowers will begin to form in the nodes of the plant, and the characteristics of these will vary based on gender.
Female cannabis pre-flowers grow as tiny fronds which will eventually produce wispy white hairs, while male plants produce small, round balls as the nodes. If you spot a male plant, be sure to swiftly remove it from your grow - the whole thing, and not just the branch.
A pollinated female cannabis plant will still develop decently sized buds, but these are usually lower quality, containing less THC and other desirable cannabinoids while being packed full of seeds. When they stay unpollinated, a female cannabis plant’s flowers (buds) will continue to swell and develop more trichomes to become increasingly resinous as it tries to get as sticky and large as possible to catch pollen in the wind.
Your cannabis plants will have become bigger and bigger with the longer days, and will then start making buds when they start to experience the longer nights and reduced light that accompanies the changing of the seasons at the end of summer.
The first signs of the flowering stage are the small pistles (greenish-white hairs) that develop where buds will form. In the mid-flowering phase, these buds will start to plump up and in the late-flowering stage the number of trichomes will increase, and the plant will start to get sticky.
Provided that you’ve removed any male plants, your female plants will be growing more and more white hairs and then actual buds will start to form. Be sure to provide your plants with any additional nutrients they require at this stage, while they focus all their energy on flowering.
At this point, your buds should be fragrant, fat and ‘filled out’.
The beginning of the harvest window starts once your buds stop growing new white hairs and roughly 40% of these pistles have started to turn brown and curl inwards.
However, these buds are not at full potency and you should harvest when 50-70% of the hairs have darkened to achieve the highest THC levels possible. When 80-90% of the hairs have darkened, your bid will produce more of a couchlock, anti-anxiety effect as some of the THC has turned into the more relaxing CBN.
In terms of how to harvest, simply get a solid pair of scissors and cut the plant down in the most convenient way possible.
DRYING & CURING
The next step is to hang your buds upside down and leave them in a cool, dark place with plenty of ventilation so that they can dry out.
Be sure to dry them slowly for best results, and check intermittently for any mould or overdrying. Once the thin stems snap but the thicker stems are still slightly bendy, you’ll know it’s time to start curing them so that they taste and smell good, and give you optimal effects.
To cure, put your buds in tightly closed jars in a cool dark place. Fill each jar loosely about 3/4 of the way full, and for the first 2 weeks open the jars once a day for a few seconds to get some fresh air into your jars and get rid of any moisture. If your buds feel moist, you can avoid mould by leaving the tops of the jars off until the outside of the buds feel dry to the touch.
After the cannabis has been in the jars for at least 2 weeks and hasn't felt moist at all for at least 1 week, then you can start to open the lid once a week instead of once a day.
Some people only cure for 1-2 weeks total while others cure for a month or more for more potent cannabis. However, it is important to note that curing for longer than 6 months won’t affect anything, and cannabis can become less potent over time as THC turns to CBN.
So keep your harvest in a cool, airtight space for long-term storage, and think about giving some away if you don’t think you’ll get to it before it has passed its prime.
And there you have it! A guide to growing your own.
While there may be many factors and stages to consider, hopefully you’re not feeling daunted by the task at hand as it really is a lot easier than it may seem.
Practice makes perfect though, so it’s a good idea to try to keep a grow journal to record any mistakes and wins you’ve made along the way for successful future harvests. Ultimately there’s nothing more satisfying than smoking your own stash, and once you’ve got the hang of it you can pretty much go ahead and delete your dealer’s number from your phone.
Added benefits include money saved and some relaxing, tactile time not spent on your phone as you nurture and tend to your plants, not to mention the kick you’ll get from sharing the fruits of your labour with friends.
With a lot of sunlight and a little bit of determination, you really can get high off your own supply.