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Growing Cannabis Outdoors with Nikki and Swami

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Growing Cannabis Outdoors with Nikki and Swami
Author avatar By Swami and Nikki
November 23, 2020
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Planting Cannabis Seeds Outdoors

First and foremost is the joy of being out in nature watching your girls grow. You literally get recharged by putting your hands in the earth, savoring and smelling the soil, feeling the sun on your face, the wind blowing your hair, and listening to the birds singing in the trees. There is nothing better than growing your own weed outdoors!

The Different Outdoor Cannabis Growing Stages

Growing weed from seed outdoors in full sun is a seven-month-long adventure. Nonetheless, the planning and preparation start long before the first seedling goes in the ground. In late winter after numerous discussions, we choose the outdoor cannabis seeds we will plant for the coming season. Then we chant the sacred mantras for the blessed herb and put the chosen ones at the feet of the Goddess of Cannabis, Ganja Ma, for a moon cycle, to absorb Her Divine energy.

The different outdoor cannabis growing stages require different approaches and levels of care, here we will walk you through how we do it, here is our cannabis grow guide for organic outdoor cannabis cultivation.

First Transplant

Now the bursting seeds need to be put into small pots, that are filled with the proper sprouting soil composition. For the first transplant, poke a half-inch deep hole in the pre-moistened soil, sprinkle a tiny amount of mycorrhizae (a fungal root stimulant) into the hole, gently place the seed into the hole with the white rootlet pointing down if you can manage it. Tuck it in by covering it with a bit of soil, then water gently using a mister, so as not to disturb the soil around the seed. 

After transplanting, some people keep the seedling starts indoors under lights; we prefer to take them right outside to the garden so they get the sun. Many people make this first transplant into one pint or one quart sprouting pots or multi mini-pot flats.

When the plants are bigger, it is best to transplant again into five-gallon pots, and then when the girls finally show their sex, transplant again into the ground in the garden or into 50-100 gallon pots on the deck or balcony.

Swami holds sprouted seed ready for planting

Once the tiny starts are in their first little pots, continue preparing the beds or large planters where the girls will grow into flower, adding whatever amendments the soil test suggested and begin watering the beds to reactivate the soil.

As far as larger pots go, there are also many choices. If you have the room, the bigger the planter or pot the bigger the harvest. However, if planting on a deck or balcony, do not buy a planter pot that is so big and heavy it will collapse the structure when you add soil and water. Water and dirt are heavy! 

Smart Pots are OK, but get the tan ones, because the black ones get so hot in the summer sun that they scorch the tender rootlets at the outer edges of the root ball. You can also construct raised beds in the garden with lumber, but best not to use pressure-treated lumber. Alternatively, you can buy pre-made planter boxes. Again, we like to put the girls in the ground, where they are connected to the surrounding earth.

The Miracle of Birth

In mid-April, after a few days outdoors in the soil and sun, it is a thrill to see the first set of little embryonic green leaves (called a cotyledon leaf) pop out on a little greenish-white stalk. These first two leaves are uniquely rounded, showing bright green against the brown soil. Water as needed, but not too much.

A few days later the first set of pointed serrated cannabis leaves show up at 90 degrees from the original set. You feel the joys of parenthood with a newborn. You are part of bringing new green life into the world. Soon another set of now three leaves comes out again at 90º to the previous set, each additional set increasing the height and forming a tier and a node which will soon grow into a full branch. About ten days to two weeks after this first transplant, you can sprinkle a heaping teaspoon of chicken manure around in each pot and water it in, then watch them jump a day later.

A cannabis plant beginning to grow in a garden pot

Meanwhile, Spring is in full bloom. Growing outdoors you not only witness the bursting forth of plant energy, you are part of it. On a sunny day, the new oak leaves are a radiant red and green as they fill the trees’ silhouettes. The birds are singing and up here in the mountains, the deer and the wild turkeys wander through the meadow, which has transformed from golden tan to vibrant green as the grasses come alive again.

Then the color of the meadow changes as the wildflowers bloom. First, there are tiny dots of pink, then yellow, then blue, then white, as the different wildflowers follow each other in bloom like a parade through Springtime. The grasses get longer and longer, which means when I finally mow the meadow there will be plenty of hay for mulching the garden.

On a smaller scale, witness the blooming of springtime in your neighborhood. Notice which flowers are blooming, which trees are budding, and notice everybody’s front lawn turning green. It’s a good moment to start the compost pile you have thought about making. You can use the weeds and trimmings from the yard and garden along with lawn cuttings, to which you can also add your vegetable scraps from the kitchen. (Avoid adding meat, dairy, or citrus) If there are fallen or dead branches from your trees, rent a wood chipper and put the chips on the beds as mulch. This will add “local flavor” to your plants.

Frost and Rain Protection

Then in late April or even in May, if the weather report warns there will be a heavy frost come morning, you will have to protect your babies—at this point in life, they don’t like to be frostbit. We stick 10 ft. PVC pipe hoops over short pieces of rebar pounded into the ground and cover these ribs with greenhouse plastic to make a “long low tunnel” about four and a half feet high, as long as is needed.

Heavy frost
Ensure you protect your cannabis plants from heavy frost in April

This keeps the delicate little starts warm and cozy. This modern-day “cold Frame” can be made for any size garden and any number of plants, literally from one to 1000 or more. An alternative, if you have only a few plants, is to drape frost cloth, obtained from your nursery, over a tomato cage around each plant.  

One of the joys of growing cannabis outside is that in the Springtime you can stand out in the rain and watch the drops dance off of the bright green leaves.  That is up to a point because you don’t want them to get too much rain if they are still in pots. It could waterlog the roots, or a torrential downpour could even damage some of the more delicate starts. That’s when we pull up the greenhouse plastic to shelter the plants in the long tunnel until the day the sun comes out again.

But it doesn’t pay to coddle them too much. They need to be out in the elements to build up their strength. If it happens to rain later in the season, which is quite rare in NorCal, don’t bother to cover them as long as there is good drainage, but stop watering for a day or so before and after the storm to prevent waterlogging. Don’t worry about the trichomes washing off, they are not water-soluble.

Swami removes cover off cold frame
Swami removes the cover off the cold frame

By mid-May, the starts should be about sixteen inches high and have 4 or 5 tiers, that is branches coming off at the nodes. It’s a new thrill to watch the plants and see them jump after they get another slightly larger dose of chicken manure. Every day they grow noticeably.

Watering and Feeding

Now comes the real heart and soul of gardening: watering and feeding. It is good to have a regular watering routine and do a compost tea soil drench every seven to ten days. Best not to miss a watering or feeding. If you are erratic or space it out, the plant takes note and may not grow as much because it can’t be sure that it will always get water or food. Outdoor cannabis cultivars are very sentient and aware.

Cannabis plants growing outdoors in their early stages being watered

Watering techniques vary, but be gentle and don’t overwater. Many gardeners like to let their plants slightly dry out before watering again, this encourages the roots to reach out in the soil looking for water, which expands the root ball, which expands the corona or canopy. There is debate about the time of watering, with many saying either early morning or at dusk, but not at midday in the full sun. If you already have a drip system in the garden, just extend it to the pot plant.

Feeding the plants is something people write books and doctoral dissertations on. Over the years, as I have learned more about growing cannabis outdoors, I have tried just about every which way there is of growing. I have arrived at a place where I want to grow as naturally, organically, and regeneratively as I know how. And as I learn more, I am always open to improvements to my harmonic relationship with the natural surroundings to better understand how to take care of a weed plant outdoors.

One of the best ways to do this is to make aerobic compost teas for drenching the soil around each plant. This is not that difficult to do on a small scale. With a five-gallon bucket, and aquarium air bubbler, and a package of ready-made compost tea from the nursery, you can easily brew up enough, with dilution, to soil drench 10 plants. If you have a compost pile and/or a worm bin add these ingredients to the brew. There are many formulas for tea brews, some for sprouting, others for vegetative growth and others can become the best nutrients for flowering cannabis outdoors. Check it out online or ask at the nursery.

Sexing the Girls

When you’re growing cannabis plants outside from regular seeds, there comes a day when you will have to determine their gender, or as we say, sex the cannabis plants. Once the plants have at least seven nodes and are about two feet high, usually in late May or early June, you will need to inspect them every day for signs that they have decided on their gender. This entails a minute closeup inspection of the top few nodes of each plant where they branch off from the main stem to see if two tiny pale greenish kinds of furry antennae-like hairs are standing up in the crotch. This means the plant is female.

Female hairs starting to show on the cannabis plant
Check for small hairs to identify a female cannabis plant

If you don’t want to wait for the plants to determine their gender, there are genetic testing labs that will tell you, for a price, the sex of a particular plant from just a leaf-cutting after there are 3 or 4 tiers or nodes of branches.

The males are often a little taller and lankier, but not always, and they usually mature before the females. They will develop pale yellow-green tiny little sacs, which when mature and dangling down like grapes or balls, will burst open in late July and early August and spill out pollen that will go everywhere carried by the wind. If you don’t remove the males from the garden before the pollen sacs break, before you know it, they will fertilize all the females, which is not a good thing.

Pollen sacs beginning to develop on a male cannabis plant
Male cannabis plants will begin to develop pollen sacs

Win Some, Lose Some

Sadly there are always some starts that don’t make it. Some seeds don’t crack or they don’t sprout in the potting soil, or some bug eats the tender leaves and some may come out deformed. One is reluctant to pull them out, so give them every chance to rally and grow, but there is always a 5% attrition rate at each phase, from cracking to sprouting to transplanting. Even up until harvest, you can lose a plant for one reason or another, a gopher, an insect, or some disease. So don’t despair, it is not unusual to lose a plant or two.

When you grow from regular seeds, on average about 50% present as male plants. This is the saddest part of all since you have nurtured and loved these little babies since infancy, but now you have to put them down. Fortunately, the males pop their pollen sacs before the females are really fertile. This gives you a chance to select the best males of the cultivars you like and set them aside in a quarantine area before they pop. Then you gather their pollen in August to use to fertilize your favorite females, and produce your own seeds.  But of course, you should still buy seeds from HomeGrown, because breeding is a very intense science requiring special skills.

Final Transplant    

As soon as a female has shown its sex, usually by the end of June or early July, it is time to transplant her into the final growing area. I prefer to put the plants in the ground in circular mounds that have been prepared with various amendments. If you have a place in your regular garden, transplant your starts to a bed with a clear space around it. A healthy plant can reach a six foot diameter. You can plant clover, potatoes or other companion plants around the base.

When you transplant the small starts to their final spot, be careful taking the roots out of their pot so as not to break the root ball. It is often good to water the pots a little bit before removing the plant because damp soil holds together better. However, it is best to gently scuff up the roots if they are all bunched up and root bound, so as to liberate them and allow them to spread out horizontally in the ground or big pot.

Although one hopes to have all the girls of your plant quota transplanted into the main garden by the Summer Solstice so they get the greatest benefit from the long sunny days, it is often the case that some girls holdout until early July to declare their sex. Curiously, the late bloomers often catch up to the early ones, as long as they get in the ground or planter before July 1.

Vegetative Growth

Swami inspecting all of the cannabis sprouts

July and August are the main vegetative growth times when the long days and the hot sun stimulate vegetative growth. The main task is to give the plants sufficient water when it is very hot and to provide the nutrients needed for growth. Carry on with the soil drench compost teas (or alternatively the powdered nutrients) about once a week. Before you sprinkle on powdered amendments, be sure to water the plants first, then apply the powders, and then water them in. But I highly recommend using compost teas, which activate the nutrients naturally in the soil or in the manure and other natural amendments you add through cover cropping and mulching.

If you use the standard powdered N-P-K commercial nutrients, over time the fertility decreases because a salt deposit builds up in the soil. This happens because most commercial fertilizers and other mineral amendments are delivered in the form of a salt. This makes them more soluble and easier for the plant to uptake the chemistry. But over the years the salt residue builds up and blocks the plant from absorbing more nutrients.

Trellising

Starting when the plants are about three feet high, usually in late June and early July, trellises need to be built to support the longer lower branches, otherwise, they have a tendency to break off. Trellising continues into September in order to support all the branches which get heavier and heavier as the season goes along and the buds get bigger. This is especially important late in the season when there is a possibility of a rainstorm, which would make the flower tops very heavy.

Horizontal trellised cannabis plants

There are many methods of trellising. Many people use nylon monofilament netting and metal fencing “T” posts or plastic-coated steel rods. But that netting is frowned upon by conscientious gardeners because animals can get caught in it. It also makes a mess at harvest time, since you have to cut it apart to free the branches for harvesting and then the pieces get all over the garden and can eventually end up in the ocean with all the other plastic.

We use ten-foot bamboo poles or the green metal ones, which if kept dry can be re-used for many seasons. Take four of them and push them vertically into the garden bed or planter in four places around the perimeter of each plant, making a square of verticals. Then 4 six-foot bamboo poles are attached horizontally with zip ties (50 lbs. test) to the verticals at 2 or 3 feet above the ground. Add another set of 4 horizontals 2 feet above the first. 

The number of tiers of horizontals you attach depends on the height of the plant. Start with one set to catch the lowest branches, then add as needed until harvest. If you are using a smaller planter and the plants are smaller, then use four-foot bamboo poles for the horizontal pieces and eight footers for the verticals. Another alternative for smaller plants is a large tomato cage, which is easier to put over the plant the earlier you do it.

Horizontal trellising on cannabis plants almost ready to harvest

Monitoring for Pests and Pathogens

July and August also is the time to carefully monitor the plants for pests and pathogens. This becomes especially important as the buds get bigger and stickier. Depending on your location, different pests and diseases can be a problem. Keep an eye out for gophers, ground squirrels, field mice, deer, and other critters that chew on the plant stalks for water, thereby killing or stunting them. It sometimes helps to put water pots outside the garden for the critters. Of course, if the plants are on your balcony this won’t be a problem but bugs, mildew, and mold can be. Even in suburban gardens, the plants can be attacked by various critters. Do not let your cat or dog use the garden for a litter box or a poop yard as it can be toxic to plants.

There are other pests and pathogens to be on the lookout for aphids, russet mites, thrips, and so forth. It is a good idea to buy some Lady Bugs and release them in the garden in the early evening as they eat many bugs that attack the plants. If you do see a problem or infestation on your plants, check the internet, where you will find sites with photos to identify the problem and possible solutions. Be sure not to use any pesticides. Also, you can check with your local nursery for assistance because they often know what problems are prevalent in your area, and of course, they want to sell you something.

In late September and early October, as it gets closer to harvest, some regions have mildew and mold problems because of fall rains and foggy mornings. Keep a sharp eye out for these pathogens. Again be careful of pesticides. For powdery mildew, some people spray the plants with diluted hydrogen peroxide, especially on the underside of the leaves. Some people spray diluted skim or buttermilk or even diluted pomegranate juice — all these change the pH on the leaves.

Starting to Flower

Flowering Cannabis Plants at Swami Select

In most cases, the plants will start to form buds in the first week of August, when the hours of darkness are more than nine and a half hours. That is unless you are using auto-flowering types of seeds, in which case they will flower a set number of days after planting. Or, if or you live in a different latitude, they may form buds earlier or later in August.

At this point, you want to be sure that all the males are removed from the garden and in a safe quarantine area. Vigilance is due here as well because cannabis plants have been known to change sex. Cannabis, like all life forms, has a fundamental urge to preserve and continue the species, so it can happen that collectively the female plants in the garden will notice that there are no males in the garden and as a result, one or two females will produce a male branch or just a few male buds. If you don’t catch them and remove them immediately, these male buds can seed all the plants in the garden.

Swami checking out a big girl
Swami checking out a big girl

Prepare the Drying Room

As it gets into September it is time to prepare your drying/curing area. This is very important because you can ruin a good crop if it is not dried and cured properly. As a rule of thumb, it takes just as much room to dry the plants as it does to grow them. This can be addressed by choosing cultivars that are harvested at different times, early, middle, and late-maturing plants, thereby cutting the necessary drying area to a third of the area for growing. But if you only have a few plants this shouldn’t be a problem.

Choose the dry room carefully. It needs to be dedicated to drying for up to two weeks for each harvest cutting, with limited human access and absolutely no dogs, cats or other pets. The area needs to be cleaned and dry with no mold or mildew issues and you should cover all the windows with black plastic. 

For hanging, the simplest thing is to stretch some strong string or better, galvanized wire a little above head height from one side of the room to the other. The number of wires depends on how many plants you have and how big they are. The branches can hang fairly close together, but allow space for airflow. Another technique is to use nylon trellis netting, attached to horizontal 2×4’s, so it hangs down vertically, but this won’t be necessary if you have just a few plants.

Airflow is important, so you will need some fans and be able to open and shut the windows. A dehumidifier may be necessary, but this depends on the weather outside. If it is very dry the De-hu might not be needed, but if it is very rainy then you will need it, especially if you have a lot of plants.

The Secrets of Harvesting Outdoor Cannabis Plants

Now comes the most exciting moment of the whole exercise, that is other than smoking your very own homegrown flowers. The exact moment of harvest is crucial and each grower has their own special way of deciding the exact day.

Nikki leafing a cannabis plant outdoors
Nikki inspecting the flowers

If the hairs on the top of the lower level buds still look juicy it is still too soon to cut. When those hairs, or pistils as they are called, are kind of brown, crinkled, shriveled and almost burnt looking, then you are close to harvest. You can get a 60x or 120x magnifying glass and inspect the trichomes, looking for clear, cloudy, and amber. Most people think that when about 1/4 to 1/3 of the trichomes are amber it is time to cut right away. It seems there is a three or four-day window of optimum potency. Pick too early and the THC is not at its peak. Pick too late and the THC supposedly starts to deteriorate or turn into CBN. 

I have a special technique for choosing which plants to harvest when, but I am not sure everyone can use it. What I do is ask the plant. This method is based on the science of kinesiology, also known as muscle testing. 

The technique is to touch the thumb of your right hand to the little finger of your right hand (if you are right-handed, otherwise reverse these directions), and hold it there as you ask the plant to tell you if it is ready to be cut. Press the right thumb to right pinky as hard as you can and try to pull them apart by putting the thumb and pinky of your other hand in between the connected thumb and pinky of your right hand and spread the fingers of the left hand to force open the right-hand fingers. If you can’t pull the right-hand fingers apart, the answer is “Strong” and means “yes”. If you can’t keep the two fingers together no matter how hard you try, the answer is “Weak” and means “no”.

The process is to first assess that the plants are close to harvest by looking at the pistils and trichomes. Then the day before you plan on harvesting outdoor cannabis plants, go out in the garden in the afternoon and go to the most likely plant. Now empty your rational brain from any pre-judgment. Next, gently touch a flowering branch and ask the plant the question: “Are you ready to come in tomorrow?” and try to open your fingers. Still touching the plant and still being empty in your mind, ask again: “Do you want to come in tomorrow?” Again try to open your fingers. Then ask still a third time: “Should I leave you for a later day?” If for the first two questions you can’t open the fingers these are strong responses, meaning “Yes! I want to come in.” and the third question corroborates that by asking the opposite question and your fingers open up, the answer is”No!” meaning do not leave the plant, it does want to come in.

If the first two queries are answered “No!” and the third, “Should I leave you…?” is a yes, don’t take that plant, and go on the next one. Repeat this action for each plant up to the total number you want to take in the next morning before first light.

Just like in the wine industry, the optimum time to cut is in the darkness just before first light. Not sunrise—before first light. So put on your headlamp and a warm coat and get out there at 5:30 am. Why? Because the terpenes and cannabinoids are at their peak at this time of day but they off-gas all day long, reaching their low-point at sunset. Even vegetable gardeners claim that veggies taste better and lettuce is sweeter if picked very early.

Some people like to perform a “trophy cut” for harvest whereby you take just the top ten inches or so of each branch. Look for a spot on the branch where there is a break or a gap between the nugs and cut there. Gently put the “top” in a basket or tub and bring it in to hang. At this point, many people pull off the big fan leaves and compost them. Others do a “wet trim”, with scissors and cut away almost everything except the bud. That is not recommended. It is best to leave some leaves on, which protects the whole top during drying, curing, and bucking until it is trimmed, even though it means the drying might take a little longer.

Nikki & Swami carrying in branches to dry

Our practice is to cut the whole branch close to the stalk and take all the branches from one plant at the same time. Sometimes there will be a very small plant, for whatever reason, if so then cut and hang the whole plant, as they often do for indoor grows. When you have big plants, a good method is to put down a small tarp next to the plant in the garden and put all the cut branches from that plant on the tarp. Close the tarp and carry it to the drying room and hang the branches upside down. This way you don’t lose track of which plant is which, an easy thing to do. Before you hang, you can remove any yellow or brown leaves and the biggest fan leaves.

Drying and Curing

Drying takes from ten days to two weeks, depending on the outside humidity and temperature. Inside the drying room, the ideal temperature is 60º  Fahrenheit and 60% humidity, with good airflow. The branches are ready to come down and be bucked to a shorter length for storage in bins when the smaller twigs snap rather than bend.

Swami and Nikki Drying Buds

When they are dry enough, we put the bucked branches into either clean cardboard boxes or plastic tubs lined with brown kraft paper. The brown paper or cardboard helps to equalize the moisture content of the various branches in the box or tub. This is where having a few leaves left on the buds protects them and their delicate trichomes until the flower is trimmed.  Tubs can be reused year after year, but be sure to clean them out well before the new crop goes in. For just a few plants brown paper grocery bags work very well, just make sure they are clean and free of mold.

Now even though the flowers are dried, they still need a bit of curing before they are really smokeable. Once the buds are bucked and in their containers, put them in a cool dark place but where they are still accessible because they will need to be “burped” every other day or so. Do this by opening the top of the bag, box, or tub to let out any moisture that has built up from the cure.

Enjoy the Fruits of Your Labor

So finally, after seven months of loving care feeding, and watering your girls, and at least a month of curing after harvest, the beautiful dried flowers are ready to trim and then smoke. Trimming is a whole other story, which we won’t cover here, just be sure to save the trim shake to make canna-butter, canna-oil, or tinctures at home.

You may know the joy of eating your own homegrown tomato or lettuce and how much better it tastes than store-bought veggies. Well, the same goes for your homegrown buds from your outdoor cannabis cultivars. For my personal taste, I really don’t like to smoke the new harvest until late January or early February, when it has really cured. 

Swami smoking
There’s nothing better than enjoying your own Homegrown cannabis

If cured properly then stored in airtight glass containers and kept in a cool dark place, the flowers should be at their peak for a year or more, especially if you don’t open the jar. I actually prefer what I call aged weed, which is not only dried and cured but has aged a bit and is at its peak in July or August, at least eight or nine months after harvest.

Now light up and enjoy, you’ve earned it. And better yet, you can share your flowers with your friends. 

Check out Nikki and Swami’s Cultivars with Character, load up on Lemon OG, Maracuya, or Taängie, and follow the steps in this comprehensive guide to growing weed outdoors to get the best results!

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