The brain behind BUDS reveals the secrets to growing great ganja with HyGroCage, his simple yet highly effective hydro system.
It was October 1805 when Meriwether Lewis and George Clark came ashore on the banks of the Columbia River, the site of present-day Pasco, Washington. Their trek had begun nearly a year and a half earlier: President Thomas Jefferson commissioned the pair to lead the Corps of Discovery Expedition on an exploration of the territory acquired with the Louisiana Purchase, a vast, uncharted swath of land west of the Mississippi River. Jefferson also hoped that Lewis and Clark might find a water route to the Pacific Ocean.
After landing on the banks, the expedition purchased a few dogs for dinner from the friendly local Indians and then marveled at the clear water of the Columbia, where salmon could be “seen at a depth of 15 or 20 feet,” Clark noted.
When Lewis and Clark’s journey got underway, most citizens of the United States lived within 50 miles of the Atlantic Ocean. The western half of the continent was a great unknown (at least to the European settlers), appearing on maps as “The Great Desert” and believed to be uninhabitable.
Two centuries ago, the Pasco region probably fit that assessment. The city of 60,000 is situated in the Columbia River Basin, a dry, windswept plain subject to hot summers and cold winters. Pasco receives less than seven inches of rain a year; the Cascade Range, to the west, blocks rain-producing weather systems. However, by the 1900s, irrigation projects enabled the area to expand its agricultural reach, spawning farms, orchards and vineyards. Today, the Columbia River Basin produces some of the world’s most highly prized wine grapes.
But not all of Pasco’s great farming happens outdoors.
In a cavernous, 12,000-square-foot industrial building, BUDS grows. BUDS stands for “Botany Unlimited Design & Supply.” And, yes, buds are growing here.
Mark Gomez is the co-owner of BUDS, a state-licensed cannabis producer and processor that supplies its produce to more than 40 recreational pot shops statewide. His is an all-hydro operation, and Mark is an avid hydro grower—well, obsessed is probably the more accurate term.
Mark Gomez contemplates his plants.
BUDS’s two signature strains are wildly popular. Blue Persuasion is an indica-dominant hybrid composed of Blueberry, Northern Lights and White Widow genetics, while Tembo Kush is a sativa-dominant hybrid combining Elephant, Durban Poison and OG Kush. The two strains have impressive THC levels—22.8 and 26.5 percent, respectively—and regularly sell out by the weekend, following BUDS’s regular Friday delivery to retail stores.
As exhilarating as that success is, Mark’s ebb-and-flow system is what truly excites him. He exudes the soaring enthusiasm of the born inventor, convinced that his innovation will profoundly change the world of cannabis cultivation for the better.
For example: “Dirt is not the problem—it’s just the root of most problems in cannabis cultivation. It’s one of the reasons for insects, high microbial results and slow growth rates. Overall, dirt is an inferior medium due to its poor aeration, poor water retention and poor air retention; what it does retain is insects, eggs, larvae and bugs. Simply put, it’s dirty. My experience as a grower tells me that when you’re dealing with dirt, you’re dealing with all the symptoms of dirt. By getting rid of the dirt, you get rid of the source of most problems.”
Mark says he’s invested 25 years designing the HyGroCage, which he believes is the most efficient indoor hydroponics ebb-and-flow system possible—unique enough that it’s patent-pending.
“We don’t use flood tables,” he explains. “We use individual, true ebb-and-flow flood containers. Most people think ebb and flow is a method to water your plants, but they’re wrong: Ebb-and-flow systems are designed to exchange the air in the medium. The entire root mass must be submerged underwater as the medium floods. This displaces all the used air in the roots, allowing fresh air to be sucked into them as the water drains out of the container. Most flood tables only allow about half of the root-ball to be underwater—and having an open flood system allows too much moisture into the grow environment through evaporation. We exchange the air in our plants up to eight times a day. At that rate, a room with tables would be a sauna.
True ebb-and-flow requires individual containers, not flood tables.
“Rockwool is our plant medium,” he adds. “We use only one bottle of nutrients with no other amendments, and we’re pesticide-free.”
According to the grow gospel of Mark, the “cage” is what makes it happen. Each “commercial” cage uses two lights, two grow units, two fans, two light rails and two pH/ppm meters. Ten plants are assigned to each light, for a maximum count of 20 plants per cage. These form units called “racks,” with each rack consisting of 10 lights in five cages. (Single-light cage units for the home grower are available, too.)
In the cage, the plant benches are arranged stadium-style, with a central trough for the bulb to travel through on its track. Mark says this puts the outside colas directly across from the light and at the same height as the bulb—not under the light, as in other systems.
“We use 1,000-watt HPS [high-pressure sodium] electronic ballasts that are custom-manufactured for us in China,” Mark continues. “The hoods are manufactured here in Pasco, and the design is based on simple science. Obviously, the closer the light source, the more energy you create. Our bulbs are in the plant canopies, not 5 feet overhead. But the hoods are cool to the touch. Simply by putting tempered glass over horizontal hoods, you decrease their output by 5 percent—but move that light 5 feet away, and you decrease the amount of light hitting the plants by 50 percent. Our system produces more product per watt, per square foot, per day than any other system.”
BUDS’s system uses 30 lights, and Mark harvests the plants assigned to one light every other day. “We have a 60-day flowering cycle for these genetics, and we don’t want them to outgrow their units. Keeping the plants short concentrates the light energy on the whole plant, not just the top. Our average yield of finished product is about 3 to 4 ounces per plant—with only a seven- to eight-day veg!
Two lights per cage illuminate 70 square feet of cultivation.
“Each cage uses 35 square feet per light,” he adds. “With two lights, that’s 70 square feet per cage. Mylar walls keep the light where it belongs: inside the plant canopy. We run 80 to 82 degrees inside the cages for maximum CO2 utilization. Fans blow directly over the bulb and hood in line with the light mover, keeping the hood from heating up. The air is heated; then, as the light travels down the rows of plants, the water vapor released by the leaves evaporates. The warm, moist air rises as it travels through the cage; at the same time, the cage draws cool, CO2-rich air in from the floor. Since we don’t use oscillating fans, we don’t mix the warm, oxygen-rich air with the cool, CO2-rich air—they separate naturally. It’s basically a wind tunnel: The air moves from one end to the other and is heated by the lights. It rises up and out of the cage.”
Mark describes his system as “plug and play,” eliminating the dangerous hard-wired set-ups of the past. “Everything is snap-and-replace,” he says. “It’s modular, so you can put it up anywhere at any time. Of course, there are cubic-feet requirements, but we’ve broken the system down to its lowest common denominator. Nothing is fastened to a roof, a ceiling or a wall. We control every aspect of the indoor environment.”
You can check out the ebb and flow of the system for yourself in August, when the HyGroCage is rolled out for both commercial and non-commercial use. (The newly formed Emerald Ventures will supply all of the components required.)
“The HyGroCage provides a healthy, vibrant mini-ecosystem for your plants,” Mark declares. “Doesn’t every grower want that?”