Expert Tips for First Time Growers

When it comes to growing great medical marijuana, time is the only way to gain experience. But sometimes you get it right the first time — though it helps to have an expert mentor and a friendly buyer.

So many in our community have watched the scourge of cancer ravage loved ones. For many, it’s when their under- standing of cannabis first took root, motivating them to activism, cultivation or both.

Robert’s grandfather suffered from terminal esophageal cancer. He was diagnosed in October, and the doctors said he might not make it to Christmas. However, by using cannabis, Robert says, his grandfather “was able to maintain his appetite and survived over two years before finally losing his battle. But watching him go through pain was unexplainably hard.”

The experience planted a seed. By learning to grow medicinal-quality marijuana, Robert thought, he’d be able to help patients like his grandfather. But the state of Illinois, where he grew up, has only now started to roll out its medical marijuana program. The law was passed last year and signed into effect by Governor Pat Quinn on August 12013, and lawmakers say that patients may be able to purchase cannabis from state-licensed facilities by the spring of 2015. But for now, cultivation remains a criminal offense.

Luckily, Robert had a strong family connection: His cousin is married to Aaron Justis, the president of the Buds & Roses dispensary in Los Angeles — one of the nation’s premier medical marijuana outlets, which has garnered 19 Cannabis Cup awards ranging from flowers to edibles. And Buds & Roses’ resident grow guru is none other than Kyle Kushman, the personable, highly approachable cultivation expert (and former HT staffer) who is the creator of Vegamatrix, a line of vegan and organic nutrients.

With no legally safe growing possibilities available in the “Land of Lincoln,” Robert left Illinois and headed west, where opportunity was knocking — hard. Kyle, whom he’d met at the 2013 Cannabis Cup in San Bernardino, had offered to take him on as a student in what academia calls a “practical curriculum.” Robert was going to get his hands dirty and, in time, become certified as an expert marijuana grower. Even better, Aaron promised to buy his crop if it was up to Buds & Roses’ standards.

So Robert, accompanied by his partner Janelle, moved into a spacious bungalow in a nondescript suburb of LA and began his tutelage under Kyle’s watchful eye.

Robert, the Rookie

“I was born and raised in Rockford, Ill,” Robert recalls. “I discovered my passion for cannabis because of my grandfather’s use. I truly believe it’s one of the most beneficial medicines in our society today — and for years it’s been overlooked.

“I started with 72 plants in my first room. I used 10-gallon pots with lots of extra air holes drilled in the bottom. Kyle got me started using a custom blend of Mana Mix, which is produced by Vital Earth but will soon be released under the Vegamatrix label. For nutrients, I relied on Vegamatrix and the consistent reinoculation of beneficial microbes or organisms. We now use Bountea microbial tea.

“My lights are the newest model from SolisTek. I run 12 lights in a 17′ x 20′ room. Each is 1,000 watts and features a built-in, programmable timer that is dimmable to six wattages: 400, 430, 600, 630, 1,000 or 1,100.

“For me, the hardest thing about grow- ing was keeping up with the plants — trying to judge when to water them and what plants actually needed water. There’s a lot of work that goes into the whole process. There’s a lot more than just watering; there’s de-noding, de-leafing, raising the fans, raising the lights, emptying the dehumidifiers … the list goes on.

“The plants grow fast. If everything is right and the plants are maintained correctly, you can actually watch them grow overnight! Also, our crop grew taller than we expected, which led to problems with our fans. You always want to keep circulation above the top of the garden, so the fans have to be higher than the plants.

“The most incredible thing I learned was supercropping, watching Kyle break and bend the stems. I was in shock when I heard the cracking of stems the first couple times he showed me. It was hard to believe the plants would even survive, let alone get stronger because of it.”

Supercropping, for those not familiar with the term, is a technique in which a three- to four-week-old plant is deliberately subjected to stress. Every few inches, from the bottom of the plant to the top, the grower carefully twists each branch in opposite directions until he (or she) hears the inner hurds snap. If the branch is released correctly, there will be no visible damage to the plant; the branch itself may (or may not) droop. This affords growers the chance to reduce the height of the taller branches and even the canopy. Branches will return to their vertical position within hours, and the plant will now behave as though it doesn’t have a top, thereby increasing growth on the lower branches.

“My first harvest yielded around 15 pounds between the three strains I grew — Blue Dream, Platinum Cookies and Omrita,” Robert continues. “Blue Dream is a classic strain that the patients love and hasn’t been grown veganically for a few years. Omrita is very rich in CBD, and Platinum Cookies, which won the 2014 Cannabis Cup in Denver for Best US Flowers, is another patient favorite … mine, too.

“In my second grow, I’ve got Veganic Silverback, Grape Ape and Veganic LA Confidential. When I moved out to California, I told Aaron and Kyle that one of my main goals was to grow a High Times Cannabis Cup–winning strain. So that’s what I’m working on now. Knowing that I’m helping patients is very rewarding; it helps me feel like I’m doing my part.”

Kyle, the Coach

“After 25 years of being in the public eye,” Kyle says, “I’ve probably taught thousands of growers. Everyone is different and learns in a slightly different way. A good teacher is a good listener: You need to be able to identify their needs and make adjustments to enhance the learning experience. Robert and Janelle were both excellent students. They asked a lot of questions and were diligent in the application of the methods and techniques they were taught. The finished product lived up to our toughest standards and was very well received by the patients at Buds & Roses.

“The hardest thing for new growers to learn is patience. You can’t rush an organism that’s evolved over eons. This relates to every aspect of cultivation, from watering to harvesting to drying and curing. Personal cultivation is extremely rewarding on so many levels. Taking the time to learn the language of the plant through observation is the only way to become a master cultivator.

“It’s extremely important to pay attention to watering frequency. It’s a grower’s best tool for maximizing yield and potency while minimizing stress factors—particularly if you’re growing in soil or soilless mediums. Having confidence as to the plants’ watering needs takes a little experience. It’s a big reason why many choose hydroponic formats. But, again, patience and good observational skills are all that’s required to hone in on the perfect wet-to-dry cycle for individual environments.”

For best results, Kyle advises shepherding the plants through a carefully calibrated wet-dry cycle. “Allowing the pots to dry out forces the roots to search for water; it also lessens the chance of molds and funguses. When you water, fully saturate the pots, then wait until the plants are near wilting to water again. When the flowers are becoming heavy on the plant, you don’t want to stress them by letting them get too dry — but near the end, when the plants are beginning to ripen, go back to letting them get nearly dry.

“Over the years, I’ve seen so many first-time growers in small areas succeed above their wildest imagination. Why? Maybe because growing isn’t that hard … but creating the perfect indoor environment is. Focus most of your attention on growing the healthiest plants possible — most certainly, they’ll be the healthiest for you to smoke. If you’re going to call it medicine, as I do, you’d better make sure it’s good for you. That’s why, after growing with every methodology, I’ve returned to organics. And with Veganics, I’ve taken the concept of ‘healthful’ to a whole new level, eliminating any chance of contamination from pathogens, which are transferred by using animal products.

“My friendship and partnership with Tyler Wadleigh and Aaron Justis, the men responsible for the success of Buds & Roses [see “Run for the Roses,” Jan. ’14], is stronger than ever. I’m hugely proud about launching my nutrient company, Vegamatrix. My goal is to provide a simple, cost-effective way to grow veganic cannabis. Certainly, for indoor horticulture, it’s the next logical step beyond organics. I like to call it the ‘Evolution of Agri-Culture.’”

Aaron, the Owner

“Robert’s Veganic Blue Dream was very popular,” Aaron notes. “The majority of our patients love a good sativa — and they prefer the flowers we produce. Of course, it didn’t hurt that we also produced Veg- anic Omrita, a high-CBD strain, which is very popular these days. But the Veganic Platinum Cookies flew off the shelf! Since winning the High Times US Cannabis Cup, anytime it’s in stock, our patients will pour in for it. It’s a good problem, I admit.

“Robert is now one of our ‘patient cultivators.’ But more specifically, he’s in the process of becoming a master cultivator, fully qualified to be a staff grower for Kushman Veganics,” Aaron adds. “Kushman Veganics is a new line of finished products that we’re launching; it features the products we create using all of our in-house best practices. Kushman Genetics is also starting to release products, including Joey’s Strain, which has been a success as a medicinal strain for children with special needs. It’s mostly effective with autistic patients.

“We’re also developing a network of the best dispensaries in the country to carry these products. We’re beginning to reach out to potential patient groups such as the elderly, and we’re working more and more through medical professionals. Also, activism — the fight for legalization and ending the failed War on Drugs — is always high on our priority list, so you’ll continue to witness us doing that.”

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