Every year, HIGH TIMES sponsors five Cannabis Cup competitions. This year, we decided to take a look at over 20 different Cup winners drawn from three of the contests in a trio of cities to see if we could determine how the best herb is grown. Here’s what we found.

Seed vs. Clone
It’s the timeless debate: Which starting technique results in better bud, seeds or clones?

Of course, we know that there are pitfalls associated with each method. With seeds, you have the issue of longer propagation times as well as the problem of sexing your plants. The latter won’t be an issue if you choose to go with feminized seeds, but that can lead to a whole other set of problems, since many feminized seeds are developed using unnatural chemical processes and, if they haven’t been properly backcrossed a few times, can produce heavily hermaphroditic plants.

When it comes to clones, some growers complain that plants’ vigor is lost when compared to starting with seeds. This can be especially true if you’re talking about the new F1 generation seeds that are a product of hybridization, since hybrid vigor is a scientifically proven benefit of breeding with seeds. Clones may also have difficulty producing initial roots and may not develop large enough root structures overall to sustain heavier yields.

Still, there are some positive aspects to using either seeds and clones. As with a human embryo, seeds possess natural hormones that allow a plant to root strongly and develop properly throughout its vegetative stage. Good seeds are generally thought to result in better-growing and better-yielding plants as compared to clones.

With clones, however, growers have the advantage of uniformity and consistency. There’s no need to fumble over sexing out the males, and if you choose a good mother plant, there is less worry about disease and pest problems.

So which way should you go when starting your garden? As it turns out, from the 23 Cup champions that we examined for this article, three were grown from seed while 20 came from clones.

Indoor, Outdoor or Greenhouse?
People also ask which is better: indoor or outdoor cannabis? This question has many different facets and can be answered on a variety of levels. But in terms of growing the highest-quality cannabis—which means giving preference to a strain’s natural phenotypes rather than forcing heavier growth to achieve higher yields (a consideration that certainly plays a predominant role in Cannabis Cup competitions, where the entries are scored on factors such as flavor and potency rather than on the weight harvested) -- we can now answer this question a bit more definitively.

Let’s start by examining a few important pros and cons associated with each type of garden. Outdoors, of course, growers can take advantage of both the full spectrum and unmatched power of the sun. However, outdoor growers must also contend with Mother Nature’s downside, including storms, diseases and pests. This can make garden maintenance a labor-intensive effort throughout the hot summer months. At a minimum, the best outdoor growers plan on spending an hour per plant, per day, doing the necessary pruning and trellis work that it takes to grow 12- to 14-foot trees.

Indoor growers, on the other hand, can take back control of nearly every aspect of their garden. Many people tend to think that this adds up to a lot more work (especially during the initial construction of the growroom), but in fact both indoor and outdoor gardens -- and greenhouses too, for that matter -- require serious labor in their initial setup. However, it is true that indoor growrooms, on average, likely will require more time out of the day for growers, as they not only have to maintain the plants but also the grow system, which can have many moving parts that need daily check-ups and (often) maintenance.

Greenhouses, from an agricultural and plant-science perspective, offer the best of both worlds when it comes to cultivation in theory. In practice, however, the best results are not always achieved.

This is because, while growers do get the added benefit of the sun within an enclosed environ, the unpredictable nature of the weather -- including the temperatures that the sun can create -- is much more difficult to control than in
a standard indoor growroom. A lot of specialized equipment as well as diligent attention to atmospheric conditions will be required to achieve successful harvests within a greenhouse. And since it’s not a given that the sun will shine heartily every day -- to say nothing of dealing with rainy weeks -- greenhouse growers may still need to utilize artificial lighting to keep their gardens flourishing.

The general consensus among plant scientists and horticulturalists (as much as it pains many of us to admit it) is that the highest-quality fruits and flowers are achieved in a controlled, indoor grow environment. In support of this claim, 23 out of the 23 Cup winners we examined for this article were raised in an indoor grow.

System Type & Medium Selection
Another frequently asked cultivation question relates to choosing the proper medium for your plants. The answer to this question, however, directly correlates to the type of grow system employed, and it also depends on whether you’re growing indoors, outdoors or in a greenhouse garden. But since we’ve established that indoor grows accounted for every Cup winner out of the 23 championship strains we examined, for our purposes we will stick to that setup.
So, we first need to consider the amount of space available for the indoor garden. Smaller spaces don’t lend them- selves to most grow systems currently on the market; a lot of hydroponic and aeroponic setups require quite a bit of space.

Soilless Mixtures
For smaller spaces, it’s recommended that growers stick to simple potted containers with openings at the bottom for ample drainage. Containers with side vents or made from breathable materials (such as fabrics) are especially recommended, since they will aid in aerating the medium.

Under this scenario -- or even with a larger grow that still uses container pots (as many do) -- the medium selection is fairly straightforward, since most growers go with a nice soft, soilless mix. These mixtures have the look and feel of topsoil but are peat and sphagnum based. Soilless mixes are also easily amended, and many growers choose to supplement them with perlite or even simple wood chips to give the medium a more airy quality.

Earth soils and soilless mixes are also a top choice among organic growers. In fact, organic compost falls into the category of a soilless mix -- technically speaking, using any synthetic for a medium would negate the true organic label for the resulting plants.

Out of the 23 Cup champions examined for this article, eight were grown in soils (seven in soilless mixes and one in compost).

Rockwool & HEC
Rockwool is perhaps the most popular artificial medium on the market, which can be a bit misleading since it is not for beginners. Rockwool, or mineral wool, is simply a wool fiber spun from stone and man-made minerals. To better adapt the mineral wool for horticultural (especially hydroponic) purposes, it goes through a specialized process to lower its naturally high pH.

Rockwool is the most popular kind of mineral wool, and it comes in varying sizes and forms, from long slabs to smaller blocks and crouton-sized squares. This allows the substrate to be used in a variety of hydroponic systems, including top-feed drip irrigation and ebb-and-flow (or flood-and-drain) systems. Rockwool’s ability to retain water also allows ample airflow to the plant’s root zone, making it an ideal medium for hydroponic growers.

Similar to rockwool, HEC balls are manufactured from clay and work well in hydroponic systems, especially ebb-and-flow setups where rockwool has a tendency to become compacted over time. HEC balls are also very useful in hydro systems that require the use of baskets or net pots, such as nutrient film technique (NFT) or deep-water culture (DWC), as they can firmly hold the rockwool cubes or starter plugs. The same applies for HEC balls in aeroponic systems that use baskets to contain the root zones in mist- ing chambers.

The primary drawback of both mineral wool and HEC substrates is that they offer little to no buffering around the roots from nutrient applications. Even experienced growers will often have problems fine-tuning their feeding regimen so as not to “burn” the roots or create nutrient lockup from excess salts.

Out of the 23 Cup champions examined for this article, eight were grown hydroponically (five in rockwool, two in HEC and one in lava rock).

Coco Coir
Coco coir, or stripped coconut fiber, is another excellent medium that is on the rise within the cannabis cultivation indus- try. Heat-treated and sterilized, coco coir is a fairly inert and neutral medium that provides good moisture retention and excellent airflow within the root zone.

Coco coir can be used as a stand-alone substrate or in conjunction with other mediums. Many growers mix coco coir into soilless mixes to help aerate the medium and prevent it from compacting, which cuts down on the oxygen reaching the roots (and, once wet, coco coir also softens up and protects roots fairly well). Coco coir comes in a few different sizes and forms, from string fibers to small square pellets.

Out of the 23 Cup winners we examined, seven were grown using straight coco coir. (Editor’s note: Some of the clones may have been started in peat or rockwool plugs during rooting and then trans- planted into coco coir for the vegetative and flowering phases.)

Nutrient Programs
The first decision any grower has to make when determining how to feed their plants is whether to use synthetic nutrients or go organic. The latter has a few different levels to consider, including whether to feed the plants directly or feed the garden’s soil with microbes and then let the soil feed the plants naturally instead.

Experienced growers and savvy competitors know that, while organic nutrients may not produce the best weight, they do bring out the true genetic potential of most strains, including the best flavor and aroma possible. As a result, it’s no surprise that in our sampling of 2012 Cup winners, 12 were grown organically while eight were grown using synthetic nutrients. (Editor’s note: The growers of the three remaining prize-winning strains -- organic farmers all -- declined to divulge their nutrient regimens to HT. Must be a trade-industry secret!)

Growing With Organics
Among the 12 organic farmers who did share their nutrient regimens with us, the two most popular lines were Organicare (from Botanicare) and General Organics (from General Hydroponics); Organic FoxFarm was also rated highly.  Nearly all of the organic nutrient programs were used in conjunction with soilless mixes or compost.

It’s important to remember that mixing organic and synthetic fertilizers is counter-productive to the goal of organic feeding, since most synthetic fertilizers will kill the microbial organisms that help decompose minerals and nutrients in organic mediums.

Of the remaining three organic winners, one went “veganic” while two others used compost teas. Interestingly enough, the judges’ score-cards also indicated that the highest scores in the “Taste/Flavor” category came from these three entries. Talk about food for thought!

Growing With Synthetics
Synthetic nutrients, while in the minority in our survey of winners, are still the most popular choice for the mass of cannabis growers worldwide. There are a few good reasons for this, primarily that synthetics have the potential to result in heavier yields (though often at the expense of other qualities), and also because they’re generally easier to use in application (though this is less of a factor as new organic products come onto the market).

Both General Hydroponics and Botanicare started out as synthetic-only nutrient companies and still sit atop the leader board as the makers of the best artificial nutes out there. Surprisingly, Canna -- another excellent brand based in Europe -- contributed to only one of the 23 winning grow programs, but it’s still recommended by many.

How to Win
At the end of the day, the winning formula for a championship-caliber grow is not as traditional as one may have thought. (I know this writer was pleasantly surprised.) While many growers advocate starting from seed, it turns out that, among the Cup champions examined for this article, nearly 87 percent came from cloning.

While not quite as surprising, it was also interesting to learn that at least half of the winners surveyed went with organic feeding regimens over the traditionally favored synthetics. But perhaps the biggest revelation was the increase in soils and soilless mixes used in championship gardens. All told, it appears that the trend line is headed in the proper direction, with more and more growers seeking out more natural (and healthier) alternatives ... as they should!