Growing cannabis outside comes with a few obvious advantages. The first and main benefit you’ll think of is free light. And it’s not just free; qualitatively-speaking, sunlight is perfectly adjusted to the needs of all plants, marijuana included.
On the flip side, outdoor plants are subject to changes in their environment that are completely out of your control. The climate is set and the weather isn’t adjustable with the touch of a button.
Growing outdoors instead of in a grow room is kind of like swimming in a pool versus swimming in the ocean. The ‘wild’ comes with huge perks and a lack of control; surfing the wave of an outdoor growing season is almost a sport. Do it well and you’ll for sure get a kick out of the accomplishment!
In this post, we’ll look at the basics for a successful outdoor grow op (of the backyard kind, not acreage), which challenges you might face, and what to do about them.
The focus here is on a climate with a growing season. Making the most of the summer and how to maximize a short summer in particular. Growing outside in the tropics, such as Hawai’i for example, is obviously somewhat different.
Weed loves to grow
It’s called weed for reason and will probably grow no matter what. But even weed has certain needs in order to thrive.
You don’t want your plants to look like the scraggly sprigs that spring up from cracks in urban concrete. (Kudos to those little fighters!) If weed(s) can grow anywhere, imagine what they can look like when you love on them all summer!
Outdoor Gardening Basics
There are a few best practices from vegetable gardening that can be equally useful for growing cannabis. Especially when the summers are short, impeccable timing is your best friend.
Sprouting Seeds Early
To be ahead of the curve, sprout seeds inside and have the young plants all ready to go into the ground as soon as the temperatures allow. You can use a seedling heat mat to keep the pods from getting too cold. There’s a bunch of different brands; I got this one and so far it seems to work well.
Permaculture is the art of pairing plants that can ‘help’ each other, whether it is to provide certain nutrients or ward off bugs and other pests. This system also works for marijuana!
When growing outdoors, you should definitely sprout some basil seeds, beans, peppers, and marigold together with the cannabis seeds. Here’s why.
The strain White Widow, for example, grows reasonably easy and forgiving plants. However, to ensure a decent yield, you’ll still want to keep an eye out for nitrogen deficiency.
One way to target this before it becomes a problem is by planting beans. Beans absorb nitrogen from the air and deposit it as nitrites into the soil. Marijuana plants thrive on these nitrites and are actively protected from a slow death due to nitrogen deficiency. Nature is pretty cool like that!
Where to Grow
When planning where to grow, you have three options.
- Straight in the ground
- In very large, immobile pots or containers
- In large, mobile pots
Space for Roots and Foliage
The ground has the advantage of unlimited room for the plants’ roots to stretch, though the amount of room also depends on how close together they are planted. For this, you are obviously giving up any chance to move them.
With very large pots, grow bags, or containers you have full control over the soil and limited mobility, while still giving plants plenty of room to grow large.
Pots or grow bags of the size that can be moved around with more ease can be handy in certain situations. Is it worth the sacrifice of somewhat limited space for the roots to expand? You’ll decide.
This is the moment to plan for growth! You never know 100% sure with nature but each cannabis strain comes with specific expectations height-wise. How tall are the strains you chose supposed to be getting?
Good seed banks include indications of this in their descriptions. This Pure Indica strain will only grow to approximately 32 inches in height (2.7 feet), unlike Sativas, which can reach 7 or 8 feet. For example, these Super Lemon Haze seeds produce tall cannabis plants that can exceed six feet.
Let’s be optimistic and foresee room for a healthy, bushy plant because you don’t want it to be aching for more space later in the game when the options are limited.
And one more decision to add into the mix: will you be doing any high or low-stress training?
What do cannabis plants need from their soil? Basically the same most other plants do.
- Allow oxygen to reach the roots.
- Retain nutrients and beneficial microorganisms.
- Retain moisture long enough for roots to drink but not so long as to drown them.
Soil may not have all three properties naturally to the extent plants need them. It is up to us to doctor with the necessary additions to make this happen. The purchase of perfectly balanced potting mixture is one way; actively blending the missing ingredients into the ground is another.
It is more expensive (and a small workout to haul the bags) but personally I prefer growing plants in containers or pots, using purchased soil.
When growing straight in the ground, you need to know which soil type you’re dealing with. If you’re already an avid gardener, this won’t be a big mystery. You can ask a neighbor with a green thumb for input – that should give you some idea of what you’re dealing with.
To know for sure, you can have your soil tested. A basic soil test should go for between fifteen and twenty-five bucks.
The work to figure out the soil type and amend it with whatever it needs to become ‘optimal’ for growing weed is about as labor-intensive as container gardening. Potentially more. With even less control, for that matter.
These are the various types of soil – keeping in mind that many areas don’t simply have one or the other but a proportional mixture of them.
Loamy soil is the perfect soil texture for plant growth. It consists of roughly equal parts of the three soil types below, though the proportions can vary. For example, a mixture of 40% silt and sand and 20% clay is considered excellent loam.
Silt is the next best kind of soil. It is in between sand and clay, size-wise. As a result, silty soil provides more aeration than clay and absorbs moisture better than sand.
If you have this kind of soil, you’ve lucked out. (Or made a strategic and well-informed choice as far as your location goes!) Silty soil tends to be fertile and needs the least amount of amending. The irregular shape and small size of its particles make good aeration possible, which is crucial for the roots.
Silty soil is very compactable, so the main risk here is for it to become waterlogged. In a nutshell, here’s what you can do to keep silty soil in optimal condition:
- Add compost or other organic matter such as decayed sawdust once a year.
- Cover with a few inches of mulch to prevent the plants from drying out. This also helps with erosion and weeds – the other kind. 😉
- Turn over the top layer to keep soil crumbly and easily manipulated.
- Avoid compacting the soil by walking.
When I was little, our yard had clay soil. I remember all too well my parents’ failed attempts at vegetable gardening. Just when wondering if maybe they didn’t try hard enough, a quick search brings back this article by the University of Oregon: There’s no break for people who garden in clay.
It is very informative without being overly technical or boring so if applicable, do head over to read exactly what the issue is with clay soil and what to do about it. Aside from gardening in pots, that is.
Sandy soil has a difficult time retaining both water and nutrients. The size of the particles is too large and they lack pockets for nutrients and water to adhere to. Another issue, if you’re close to the sea, can be that it contains too much salt.
The best things to add to sandy soil are manure and compost such as grass clippings, leaf mold, and humus. Vermiculite or peat increases the sand’s ability to absorb water but doesn’t add nutrients. For sandy soil that is already high in salt, plant-based compost or sphagnum peat are the better options.
Choosing the Right Strains
Fine-tune your choice of strains to the climate they’ll be growing in. Certain strains are better suited to dry or Mediterranean type of weather. Others are well-equipped to handle humidity or chilly temperatures.
Have Weed, Will Travel
As far as we know, cannabis is one of the oldest crops prehistoric humans cultivated. Cannabis use goes back 12,000 years!
The plant is originally native to the Caucasus region, which stretches from Eastern Europe, over Iran, all the way to India. The very first plants are believed to originate on the steppes of Mongolia and southern Siberia.
Cannabis seeds and marijuana have been found at burial sites and tombs. Add to that humans throughout history constantly being on the move, and it is no surprise that she slowly but surely spread to other areas on the map.
We’re an interesting bunch, always up to something! Our ancestors clearly appreciated, if not revered, the plant and were not held back by restrictive dogmatic thinking. (At least not when it comes to cannabis; they almost certainly had their own blind spots.)
Nowadays, cannabis grows in the most divergent places on earth. From the Hindu Kush mountains to the Thai jungle, and from the Rif mountain slopes in Morocco to South America.
Certain strains have grown in these specific environments long enough to adapt to their surroundings. These strains have evolved in isolation. Their genetics are not diluted or crossbred by breeders, like the many ‘manmade’ strains we have on the market today. As such, landrace strains have very stable and specific traits.
Knowing more about landrace strains is not only interesting in general, but it can also help you decide which strains are best suited to the climate and weather of your location. Seed banks usually share some growing information about each strain and what growing conditions the seeds need to thrive.
Famous landrace strains include:
- Hindu Kush
- Panama Red
- Durban Poison
Which Strain(s) to Choose?
Landrace strains are sought-after by breeders for all the reasons mentioned earlier. As a consumer, we have the pleasure of enjoying the outcome of breeders’ efforts: an abundance of choice. Strains with all sorts of mixed genes and different characteristics.
Maybe you already have a good idea of which seeds to start this year. If you’re unsure which strains to grow outdoors in your particular situation, well… As far as I’m concerned, browsing seed bank catalogs is part of the fun!
The one strain that comes to mind is White Widow. Many experienced cannabis users love this strain because buds are very resinous, high in THC, and just plain a great smoke. To grow, White Widow is a sturdy, forgiving plant. She’s fairly resistant to pests and mold, and able to handle harsh surroundings.
Super Skunk is also one of the easier, hardier plants. If you don’t mind the stronger smell, she does stay relatively small and flowers quickly. A nice overview of some of the best marijuana strains to grow is this one by ILGM.
Auto-flowering, Courtesy of the Ruderalis Gene
Autoflowering cannabis plants, as the name implies, start flowering on their own. They do not rely on input from shortening (day)light cycles but have an internal timer instead. Regardless of light changes, these plants switch from the vegetative to the flowering stage after a few weeks.
They are typically a bit less potent and don’t produce yields as large as their simply feminized counterparts. (‘Simply’ feminized, because autoflowering plants are always feminized as well.)
While auto-flowering plants are smaller, they are easier to grow and finish much faster than photosensitive strains.
This makes auto-flowering cannabis an interesting choice for new or beginning growers. Managing the light is a whole thing in and of itself; why not save that part for somewhere down the road, and get comfortable with the other aspects of growing first?
As for the fast-finishing part, this means they’re perfect for places with a short summer. And if the growing season is short, but not that short, you might even succeed at doing multiple harvests with these gals!
Do the advantages of auto-flowering marijuana sound tempting but the thought of doing concessions when it comes to production makes you cringe? Check out Highest Yielding Autoflower Strains.
In a grow room, you tailor the light, temperature, water supply, and humidity to what the plants in question need. Outdoor growing means doing the opposite: you may need to somewhat adjust your choice of plants to what you’ve got going on, weather-wise.
Set your plants and yourself up for success by growing strains that are reasonably well suited to the climate.
Narrowing it down to strains that are a good fit and match your personal preferences takes a little browsing and reading up on the strain specifics.
Not sure where to turn? The best seed banks have not only great products but also helpful descriptions on their website and excellent customer service. (That last part is important since seed orders sometimes get – ahem – ‘lost’ in the mail.)
- ILGM ships from the Netherlands; you’ll see them recommended all over the web because they really are that good.
- Crop King Seeds is Canadian and rated very highly as well.
Being out in the open leaves you more vulnerable to prying eyes.
How many seedlings & mature plants are allowed?
We’re going to assume, for argument’s sake, that you are legally allowed to grow some weed. Be sure to know the specifics, even if it is for personal use. (If you are officially a ‘caretaker’ growing for others, you likely already know these numbers.)
The number of seedlings, plants in the vegetative stage, and plants in the flowering stage are often capped. In the state of Maine, for example, each home is allowed to harbor up to six mature and twelve immature plants. In New Hampshire, on the other hand, up to three mature plants and twelve seedlings are allowed, but only for medical patients and caregivers.
Most state laws require plants to not be visible from the street. Even if it weren’t illegal to put marijuana in plain view, there’s always the aspect of nosy neighbors and random passers-by. Those who don’t like it at all will judge you (luckily, that doesn’t hurt) and those who like it too much might steal them.
For whichever reason you do it, finding a nice secluded spot for your weed plants is practically a must.
When growing marijuana outdoors, pesky pests can be a threat but more so to seedlings and younger plants. Those pungent trichomes form a certain kind of protection, warding off bugs from precisely those parts of the plants we’re most interested in.
In areas with more rain and humidity, the risk for mold increases as weed starts to flower. Buds getting drenched and lacking the chance to dry out is a recipe for disaster. The air can’t circulate optimally inside dense buds, so with a little water added they’re basically a breeding ground for mold.
How to make sure you’re not putting out an open invitation for this most unwelcome guest?
Some growers in extremely moist climates are known to construct structures supporting clear plastic roofing to allow for ample sunlight and prevent chronically drenched nugs.
|Read also: How To Prevent Mold When Growing Cannabis|
Whether weed is grown outdoors or inside, the basics of harvesting are the same: at the very end, it’s all about keeping an eye on those trichomes. Or rather, their specific coloring. The milky white hue changing to amber should tip you off when it’s time to cut and dry the buds.
By “time” most growers mean when THC is at its highest. For a maximum buzz, be sure to read up on how to ensure the highest THC production in a given strain! (Unless, of course, you’re more into CBD – then, it’s a different story.)
Benefits of Growing Outside
- Free sunlight
- Not as constrained by space
- Bigger yields possible
- Lower electric bills
Outdoor Growing Challenges
- Managing rain & humidity
- Plants readily accessible to pests
- Less control over all aspects of the environment
- Lack of privacy
Growing outdoors is a luxury. There’s a good number of people who just can not grow outside where they live.
A decent grow op inside requires an investment in equipment such as not just lights but also carbon scrubbers, and fans. Outdoors, you’re looking at some expenses of a less technical nature. Soil, grow bags or pots, compost, and other soil amendments.
Odor control is a factor both inside and out, in different ways. Even when growing in the open air the potential for wafts of your buds to hit the street is not to be glossed over, especially the last couple of weeks. You don’t want your FedEx driver to know when harvest time is around the corner!
That sweet smell is both hard to contain and easy to recognize. Unless you have a huge backyard or are going full guerilla-style, the solution is to pick strains that aren’t known for their potent aroma.
Let me put it this way; ‘a friend’ seriously considered ordering some Super Skunk seeds to grow outside but ultimately decided against it for olfactory reasons. Fortunately, there’s so much variety in strains – finding one that’s less of a
red green flag shouldn’t be hard!
Photo credit: Manish Panghal.