Story & Photos by Nico Escondido
It’s been a long time since anyone found gold in these parts – but that doesn’t mean it’s no longer here. Much like the fabled alchemists of yesteryear, who sought the secret of turning base metals into gold, the savvy farmers of NorCal have known for generations that gold grows in trees.
Sustainable, Responsible Gardening
Rather than start at the botanical beginning with the basic horticultural how-tos, let’s start at the ideological beginning with just exactly what a top-rated outdoor grow entails. The first word that comes to mind is responsibility. Just as with wheat farmers in Nebraska or cattle ranchers in Texas, cannabis farmers must adhere to the same set of guidelines and regulations put in place to protect our natural resources and the surrounding environs – as well as the people who use them and live there.
The word “sustainable” turns up a lot in these kinds of discussions and refers to a process of garden management in which nature’s own efforts are not wasted or hindered in any way. What we want to do is to work in concert with nature and even enhance her wherever we can, thereby minimizing the harmful impacts that human activity can have. Of course, examples of human interaction with nature that don’t have at least some minor impact are extremely hard to come by, and many people would argue that human beings and their activity are a part of nature in their own right. So what we are really trying to do is find a way of being symbiotic, or at least neutral, with our surroundings when farming. And if you do it right, you could even have a positive impact on the environment – and your buds.
The farm described in this article, for instance, functions completely off the public power grid. It utilizes solar and wind power to produce over 90 percent of its electricity. And it uses large-format composting processes to create soil mediums for all of its cultivation (which includes fruits and vegetables to feed the farm’s occupants).
Using solar, wind or even generators adds to the security of a grow op by keeping the facility from being monitored by power companies or law enforcement. It also saves money over time, with the expensive equipment eventually paying for itself once the grower no longer has to purchase overpriced power from corporate utilities. At the same time, outdoor growers who rely on generators have to be especially careful, since generators are both noisy and have the well-known potential to harm the environment. Indeed, most generators rely on diesel gasoline and can leak and pollute both the air and water. Since most outdoor growers prefer to grow organically as well, diesel generators as a rule just don’t fit into the mindset of responsibility that conscious farmers wish to maintain.
Water & Irrigation
When selecting farmland, marijuana growers have a lot to consider, and there’s no bigger concern than where the necessary water for their gardens will come from. Perhaps the best feature of this self-sustaining ganja farm is how the farmers get their water for use in everything from feeding plants to drinking, cooking and showering. In California, there have been many arguments about how to find water sources, and even more debate over which natural sources can (or should) be tapped for farming purposes. Diverting water from streams, rivers or ponds can have devastating effects on the land and people in surrounding areas, so marijuana farmers must make sure that their water source provides adequate water for all things natural – as well as everything that was there before they showed up – before tapping it to feed their plants.
By far the most successful way for outdoor farmers to supply their gardens is to find a natural spring that can provide enough water for this purpose without affecting the rest of the ecosystem. The alternative to a spring is often sinking an expensive well that will usually turn out only small amounts of hard, dirty water. In some cases, natural springs are located far beneath the earth, unknown to humans, and sophisticated equipment must be used to find them. But when such a spring is found, it’s like striking gold for the soon-to-be marijuana grower. Oftentimes, these underground sources are found with the aid of engineers or scientists who know what to look for in identifying potential watershed areas; such markers include certain types of vegetation or a nearby creek that seemingly bubble up out of a mountainside.
Once the water is found, the question then becomes whether it can produce a large enough supply to be used and, if so, how to collect, store and redistribute it. Hands down, the best way to move water on an outdoor farm is by setting up a passive system that relies on gravity alone. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done and requires careful planning and loads of man-hours. Savvy farmers use altimeters and miles of thick, durable hosing to collect the water and move it into large holding tanks. Such reservoirs range greatly in capacity, with the larger primary tanks storing upward of 50,000 gallons, which can then be siphoned off and directed toward the cannabis gardens with their own smaller tanks, which hold anywhere from 5,000 to 25,000 gallons. Carefully placing these smaller tanks at levels slightly lower than the main reservoir feeding them allows gravity to drain and pull the water from one tank to another.
Once the field reservoirs are full, watering the gardens is a simple matter of running spaghetti lines off the main hose directly into each plant’s container box. Short-cycle timers allow growers to set watering times for each individual plant’s needs, utilizing up to four spray emitters at the base of each plant. At the height of summer, a fully grown marijuana tree can consume up to 10 gallons of water a day. Over the course of an entire grow season, with gardens numbering in the hundreds of trees, it’s easy to see why water collection and irrigation is the most essential part of a good outdoor operation.
There are quite a few reasons to grow outdoors, and if you live in a medical state where privacy and security are less of an issue, then an outdoor garden can yield huge results – not to mention that most medical states severely limit the number of plants that patients or their caregivers can maintain, so putting them outside where they can grow to their fullest potential makes perfect sense.
The idea in outdoor growing is to go big, and to that end, outdoor growers have a few major advantages working in their favor. To start with, there are far fewer limitations on space. This gives outdoor growers the freedom to choose virtually any strain they want to grow, as space is not an issue – though it’ll still be important to choose varieties that finish early enough in the season that they can be harvested before the rainy or winter weather rolls in.
The next and perhaps most important advantage is our sun. Not only is the Sun a free source of light, thereby eliminating the need for electricity and expensive bulbs, it’s also the best possible source of light for plants in terms of spectrum and intensity. The key to fully utilizing the Sun is to find spaces for your plants that have good southern exposure, which will guarantee them the greatest possible amount of sunlight during the day. It’s also important to make sure there is no overgrowth from surrounding trees or vegetation that can shade your gardens and steal their sunlight.
Lastly, growing outdoors lends itself to organic or all-natural feeding programs. Many smart outdoor growers have learned that maintaining the kind of nutrient regimens used for indoor gardens is largely unnecessary; instead, growers use composted soil mediums that create excellent microbial environments at the root zone. These microorganisms feed on the composting minerals within the soil and create the nitrogen, phosphorous and other nutrients that plants use. This concept is known as true live organics, where growers “feed the earth” and let the earth feed their plants, just as it occurs in nature. And the results achieved with this method can be phenomenal.
Medium, Container Boxes and Terracing
This particular farm not only has all of its gardens facing south; the hillsides that they’re on have been terraced, creating multiple tiers of level ground on which large container boxes can be constructed. Terracing helps improve the drainage and allows the farmers here to create a large personal space for each plant. With nothing near it to inhibit growth, such as light-shading trees or other vegetation competing for food sources, a cannabis plant can go from a bush or shrub to an outright tree.
The composted material described earlier is created in the usual tried-and-true fashion, but it also has some natural additives thrown in along the way.
Larger outdoor farms generally employ their own medium mixtures using composted vegetation and earth soils mixed with peat or sphagnum bases. Sometimes organic feeds such as chicken or bat guano are mixed in as well to give the medium a nitrogen boost, or a natural calcium (oyster shells) or magnesium (kelp) booster is added to ensure a fuller line of minerals. Customizable mediums often have an airier texture as well, with coco fiber or wood chips thrown into the mix. Composted mediums like these need to be started early in the season when the ground is still thawing so that they’ve attained the right temperature when the actual planting begins.
Once spring arrives and the plants are ready to go into the ground, large 8’ × 8’ square frames are constructed with wooden planks and stacked double high to create container boxes to house them. Before the boxes are laid on each level, graded terrace, a layer of thick chicken wire is put down to keep burrowing animals from gnawing at the root-balls. Once the containers are filled with medium and the young plants have been transplanted into the boxes, a trellis system or latticework is set up around them.
During the early stages of plant growth, growers continually top the plants, or pinch off each top terminal shoot. This results in the lower two nodes producing vigorous top growth, doubling the number of large colas that can be trained to grow up and out through the trellis. Continually topping plants until flowering begins can exponentially increase the number of main top shoots, causing a bushing effect and increasing yields substantially.
The trellis work used on this particular farm is concrete meshing rolled into a tall, cylindrical tube that surrounds each plant. The plants grow up tall at the center, with shoots being pulled out at the sides through the 6” × 6” square meshing. As the flowering stage nears its end and shoots and colas become too long and heavy for the trellis to handle, simple but sturdy wire “S” hooks are attached to both the trellis and colas for added support.
The housing arrangements for these outdoor plants may seem like a secondary detail to some, but when growing giant trees, it’s actually an integral part of the setup. Without the proper terracing, framing of the root zones and trellising for branches, plants will not be able to maximize their yield and potency, since they’ll be expending much of their energy simply trying to support themselves.
Yield & Harvest
As mentioned earlier, the primary benefit of growing outdoors is the ability for each plant to achieve its full potential. This applies directly to yields, as outdoor marijuana trees that reach 12 to 14 feet in height can yield up to 10 pounds of bud. But when you have large gardens full of gigantic plants, harvest time can pose a daunting challenge.
As a result, outdoor growers must be keenly aware of each strain’s finishing time. The trick is to balance the amount of time a strain needs to finish with the time of year and the weather that comes with it. Leaving plants outdoors too long to pack on extra weight can have disastrous effects if the weather begins to turn rainy. Entire plants or crops can be lost to mildew, botrytis (bud rot) or mold. In Northern California, most growers begin harvesting their plants in early October.
Pruning plays an important role in both plant and bud development as well as harvesting. During the course of the summer months, each giant plant requires attention for at least an hour each day, including watering, pruning and trellis work. Pruning involves cutting back the lower branches so that energy is diverted to the top shoots, and it also includes some detail work in the interior of each tree – removing inner leaves and branches helps create good airflow and penetration and helps combat against things like powdery mildew and mold.
Cannabis trees are usually taken down one large branch at a time until the entire plant is stripped of its buds. If proper pruning has been done throughout the growing season, harvest time will be that much easier because of it. As the branches are cut, they are placed upright in buckets and kept out of sun. If each branch is overgrown with leaves, workers will need to trim them before they can be transported to the drying room. This can add many man-hours to an already tedious and delicate process.
Once a tree has been harvested and the buckets are filled with bud-covered limbs, the branches are taken to a drying facility, typically a garage or large indoor space. Here, all of the branches are first tagged with the strain name and then hung upside down on racks or hangers to dry for four or five days. All of the remaining fan leaves must be stripped so as to keep them from covering up the drying buds. Mold and other pests can still develop during the drying phase if the weather is humid or moist, so many drying facilities use dehumidifiers and portable heaters to keep the atmosphere at optimal levels. Giant tarp curtains are used to shield the drying buds from light, and sometimes large air filters are deployed to remove odors and keep out airborne diseases, pests and molds.
After the buds are dry, the trimming process begins. The buds are stripped off the branches and manicured to perfection by hand or, as some commercial operations prefer, by automated trimmers, which are a lot faster. But though automated trimming can be extremely efficient in terms of time, it’s not always as gentle on the buds as trimming by hand. Still, some growers prefer machines to manpower because hiring a great many people to trim hundreds of pounds of marijuana can be both costly and dangerous in terms of maintaining security. But there’s never much reward without some risk – and the reward in this case, assuming a perfect outdoor setup, can be an average six pounds a plant. At (let’s say, for the sake of argument) 100 plants...well, you do the math. That’s a pretty nice grow season!
The farm profiled in the preceding article, known to many as Camp Cool Farm, is not only one of the world's premier medical cannabis farms, but it was also one of the locations used in the filming of Nico Escondido’s Grow Like A Pro DVD, released in April 2011. For more information on Camp Cool and outdoor growing, or to view preview clips of the DVD visit either headshop.hightimes.com or hightimes.com/tags/nico_escondido. Thanks & grow well!
The Gold Standard
Story & Photos by Nico Escondido