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Beginner Grow Basics

Nico Escondido

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Today, there are many states with medical marijuana laws, and in more than half of those states patients and caregivers can now grow their own cannabis.

In 2012, the US welcomed the advent of marijuana legalization for the recreational use in two states, and with it comes the real possibility for any adult to grow marijuana legally — as well as the happy prospect that one day on the not so near future there will be many more states following in Colorado’s and Washington’s brave footsteps, leading to legal avenues for the masses to cultivate marijuana in their very own homes as readily as their would a tomato plant or apple tree.

But this beautiful scenario comes with a lot of questions. Many casual smokers are now asking exactly how one might go about setting up a home garden in a quick and easy fashion. And because marijuana smokers tend to like a year-round supply, the questions on how to get growing at home often tend toward the indoor-garden variety. Luckily, growing cannabis is not any more difficult than growing tomatoes. In fact, growing cannabis can be quite easy, and the answer to nearly all concerns can be summed up in three little words: keep it simple.

Keeping It Simple

The first question on every would-be indoor grower’s mind is what type of system to use. System types incorporate many aspects of horticulture, from the choice of medium and container sizes to feeding and irrigation programs. Let’s start with the most basic aspect of cultivation: the grow medium.

In order to keep things simple, we need look no further than Mother Nature her- self. In nature, plants most often grow in soil, and growing plants indoors doesn’t mean we need to deviate from nature’s plan. In fact, the horticulture industry has excellent peat- and sphagnum-based soils tailored specifically for indoor gardens, and these “soilless” mediums act and feel just like earth soils found outdoors — with the added benefit that they are extremely easy to use.

These mediums, which come in popular brand names such as Pro-Mix or Sunshine Mix, often feature soil textures created by a peat or sphagnum base, but they also have added ingredients to aid in moisture retention and air permeation. Additional components in these mixes may include wood chips, perlite and vermiculate, as well as trace amounts of the basic nutrients needed to get young plants started off right.

The primary benefit of using these types of soilless mixes is that they are very forgiving mediums for new growers to work with, offering excellent buffering for root systems to help prevent nutrient shock from overfeeding. They also retain water well and are perfect for smaller gardens, where watering plants by hand is usually preferred. Additionally, soilless-mix mediums can easily be used in conjunction with quite a few different automated water systems.

Irrigation and Feeding

The simplest way to water small gardens is to do it manually. Hand-watering plants is a good way to get to know your garden and environment intimately, and it can also help new growers begin to identify and learn about mineral deficiencies and pest problems.

Still, some growers prefer to automate their irrigation. The main reason for this may be that the garden is too tight to get into or navigate easily, or too large to do it by hand, or because the grower is not around the garden often enough to provide regular hand-watering. In these cases, the hydroponics industry offers many possible solutions, but not all of them are easy to use.

Perhaps the most popular (and one of the easiest) automated watering systems is a simple top-feed irrigation system that utilizes basic stake emitters to water individual plant containers. These systems generally take water or a nutrient-enriched solution from the reservoir to the garden site via half-inch or 1-inch flexible hosing. Once the main line reaches the garden, the hose is siphoned using thin spaghetti lines to deliver water to each plant site. These spaghetti lines easily attach to either drip or spray emitters that sit on top of plastic stakes stuck into the grow medium.

Many growers prefer to use spray emitters over drip emitters because they offer a more even saturation of the medium and thus allow better absorption rates without creating puddles and sinkholes. It is also worth noting that these systems are excellent for low-impact feeding regimens, in which growers use the absolute minimum required nutrients to feed their gardens. This is because, if you’re using spaghetti lines and spray emitters, excess mineral deposits can build up and clog both the line and the emitters when too much fertilizer is dissolved in the reservoir.

Instead, as mentioned, many new growers — and even master growers — prefer to take a minimalist approach to feeding, watering their gardens only once a day for a few minutes at a time and also rotating the feeding regimen. With a simple three-day rotation, growers can feed the garden with a nutrient solution on day one, then empty the reservoir and refill it with fresh, distilled water for a clean watering on day two, and then give the plants a day off on day three. This basic watering and feeding system ensures that plants get their essential minerals on the first day, then a good, clean flush to prevent buildups on the second, and then a good drying-out period on the third to allow air and oxygen to permeate the medium and get to the roots, which rely heavily on oxygen to help transport nutrients up into the plant.

Lighting Basics

The last major factor to a quick-start grow is determining what type of lighting your garden needs. These days, there are so many choices that deciding among the alternatives can be a daunting task (as well as a big turn-off for would-be growers). Do not let this be the case for you! Lighting can be done on the cheap and quite easily.

While plants will grow under almost any horticultural light, there are still some choices that are better than the rest. Though inexpensive lights such as fluorescent bulbs offer an excellent spectrum, run cool and use little electric- ity, these lamps are best suited for young seedlings or clones, or for plants that are just hanging out in a vegetative state. For quality results and happy, healthy gardens, the best choice for new and expert growers alike is to use high- intensity discharge (HID) lamps. These come in a variety of types, but for indoor horticulture, there are two main kinds: metal halide (MH) bulbs, which are generally used during the vegetative growth stage, and high-pressure sodium (HPS) bulbs, which are generally used during the flowering stage.

If you’re a small grower raising only a few plants or a closet-style grow and prefer to use only one type of bulb, the best choice is HPS, as it emits a much heavier amount of light in the red/orange wavelengths of the spectrum. These color frequencies carry the highest amount of light energy (in the form of photons), thereby supplying your plants with more energy for photosynthesis.

Still, keep in mind that it isn’t hard to buy both an MH and HPS bulb and simply swap out one for the other when your garden flips from its vegetative stage to the flowering cycle. The only real consideration here is that it will obviously cost a little more money to buy two bulbs, and you will need to make sure the ballast for your lamp is equipped to handle both types. (Usually, dual-bulb ballasts have a switch that you flip when you change from an MH to an HPS bulb or vice versa).

Smaller closet grows will only need a 125-watt or 250-watt bulb to get the job done and keep heat and expenses down. A large garden in a small bedroom-size space may need two to four lamps to provide ample coverage, and their bulbs will likely range from 400 to 600 watts. Larger 1,000-watt bulbs are actually the least efficient in terms of power consumption and are generally reserved for large-scale commercial operations.

Keep in mind that whatever your situation, growing your own canna- bis should never be stressful. Stay cool, keep it simple and affordable, and most importantly, enjoy your time in the garden — as well as your time outside of it — with your own homegrown highness!

Ballasts for Beginners

To provide a quick rundown on the subject of ballasts for the uninitiated: There are two main types that fire up and power HID bulbs. The older generation, known as core-and-coil or magnetic ballasts, are bulkier and heavier by weight, give off more heat, and are generally less efficient in their consumption of electricity. The newer generation is known as either electronic or digital ballasts, and they boast all of the features that magnetic ballasts do not: They are energy-efficient, run quiet and cool, and give off less heat. However, there is one big problem with the newer electronic and digital ballasts.

Unfortunately, light bulbs and ballasts are most often not manufactured by the same company. Because of this, the bulbs have historically been made to match the specifications of the older magnetic ballasts. When the newer electronic and digital ballasts came to market, they were designed to run at much higher electrical frequencies (approximately 20,000 hertz) than magnetic ballasts (approximately 60 hertz). The real problem is that nearly all standard HID bulbs, such as those made by industry giants like Sun Master, Hortilux and Phillips, also run at this much lower frequency.

So what does this mean for you, the bud- ding marijuana grower? It means that if you buy any standard HID bulb and try to run it on an electronic or digital ballast, its lifespan will be cut nearly in half — and that’s an expense that can add up quickly. This occurs because the higher frequencies of electronic and digital ballasts create what is known as “acoustic resonance” within the inner arc tube of the bulbs, thereby rupturing it and causing the bulbs to burn out at nearly twice their usual rate. Even worse, the human eye will not be able to detect the ongoing loss of light intensity without a light meter — and by the time it is noticeable, growers may have lost quite a bit in yield over their past few cycles. Further- more, the acoustic resonance can also rupture these bulbs’ end caps, releasing sodium and mercury gases all over the buds you may be smoking in a few short weeks!

So what’s the answer? Simply put, you have three choices. You can continue using HID bulbs in electronic and digital ballasts — and likely continue having to buy new bulbs at a much faster rate. Or you can play it safe and use the standard magnetic ballasts with HID bulbs—which may be the best option for new growers with smaller gardens. Or you can hunt for digital HID bulbs that are compatible with today’s newer electronic and digital ballasts — but good luck with that, as these types of bulbs are very hard to find at your local hydro shop.

For more info on digital bulbs, check out the two popular lines from Sun Pulse and Gavita.

Notes on Nutrients

Plants respond to inadequate supplies of essential minerals by displaying characteristic symptoms of deficiency. These symptoms can be wide-ranging, from discoloration of the leaves to physical deformities to a complete wilting of the plant.

Conversely, plants will respond to an overabundance of nutrients in similar ways. However, these conditions may take longer to notice and can be misleading, as overfeed- ing plants may result in an unseen nutrient “lock-up” at the root level. When this happens, salts from the excess nutrients build up in the medium and block mineral uptake by the roots, thereby starving the plant. The result is a plant that looks malnourished — but the cause isn’t a lack of nutrients; it’s actually over-feeding.

So what are the lessons to be learned here? First, it should be obvious that feeding programs require careful attention, as it is a delicate balance between giving your plants too much and too little. Second, it is clearly better to underfeed than to overfeed your garden, since you can always increase nutrient doses when a deficiency of minerals occurs — but it is much harder to alleviate the problems caused by excess feeding.

With this in mind, many new nutrient lines (such as the Pure Essentials Black Label nutes used for the growrooms featured in this article) are adopting a more minimalist approach when it comes to nutrient programs. This not only caters to new growers, since it has less potential for causing serious, even disastrous problems via overfeeding, but it also creates a feeding regimen that is easy for anyone to understand and implement.

Growers who use nutrient programs containing more than two or three parts are generally veterans who are well versed in mix- ing multiple parts and taking careful readings from their reservoirs to ensure that the nutrient solution has the proper pH and EC (electrical conductivity) or ppm levels. Still, whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned pro, keeping the N-P-K (nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium) ratios low is always the best bet for superior quality. It’s the large-scale commercial grow- ers who generally like to pump up the nutrient values in order to increase yields — but this slight increase in weight often equals a bigger decrease in quality.

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