Grow Basics for the First Timer: Everything You Need to Know

Beginning in 1996 with California’s Proposition 215, the opportunity for patients to grow their own marijuana became a reality in America. Today, there are 27 states with medical marijuana laws (including Washington, D.C.), 16 states with CBD-only cannabis laws, and four states with recreational laws making it legal for adults (21+ years of age) to purchase and use cannabis legally without medical need.

In several of these states, patients and caregivers alike are allowed to cultivate their own cannabis plants. And in the past decades, it was clandestine home growers that slowly twisted the arms of local politicians by literally overgrowing the government.

Still, it is more important now than ever before that we keep this essential right with the masses, keeping the movement firmly in the hands of the people before Big Pharm, Big Tobacco or Wall Street capitalists get their greedy hands on our new burgeoning industry.

That’s why HIGH TIMES continues to proliferate and disseminate the necessary information so that people like you are able to grow your own cannabis at home, whether it is for medical or recreational use. The plant belongs to all of us—and we remain The Movement.

But for all these beautiful notions, there still come a lot of questions. Many casual smokers are now asking how exactly 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 which is not readily available at the grocery store, the questions on how to get growing at home often tend towards the indoor garden variety.

From tents to grow boxes, home growers have a variety of options today.
From tents to grow boxes, home growers have a variety of options today.

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 about home growing 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 utilize. System type incorporates many aspects of horticulture, from medium type, to container sizes, to feeding and irrigation programs. Let’s start with the most basic of aspect of cultivation: Grow medium.

To keep things simple, we need to look no further than Mother Nature herself. In nature, plants most often grow naturally out of soil. Growing plants indoors does not mean we must deviate from nature’s plan. In fact, the horticultural industry has excellent peat- and sphagnum-based soils tailored specifically for indoor gardens and these “soil-less” mediums act and feel just like earth soils found outdoors—and are extremely easy to use.

Coco-based mediums work well indoors, especially with hand-watered gardens.
Coco-based mediums work well indoors, especially with hand-watered gardens.

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

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

Irrigation & Feeding

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

Still, some growers prefer to automate their irrigation. Primary reasons may be that the garden is too tight to get into or navigate around, or the garden is too large to do by hand, or because they are not near the garden regularly enough to provide consistent water by hand. In these instances, the hydroponic industry offers many solutions, but not all of them are easy to use.

Simple irrigation lines run from a reservoir to this flood table in a basement garden.
Simple irrigation lines run from a reservoir to this flood table in a basement garden.

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 nutrient-enriched solution) from the reservoir to the garden site via ½” or 1” flexible hosing. Once the main line reaches the garden, the hose is siphoned off 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 the spray emitters over the drip emitters because they offer more even saturation of the grow medium and thus provide for better absorption rates without creating puddles and sink holes in the medium. It is also worth noting that these systems are excellent for low-impact feeding regiments, where growers use the minimum required nutrients when feeding gardens. This is because when using spaghetti lines and spray emitters, excess mineral deposits can build up and clog line and emitters when too much fertilizer is dissolved in the reservoir.

Instead, most new growers—and even master growers—prefer to take a minimalistic approach to feeding, only watering gardens once a day for a few minutes only and rotating the feeding regiment. With a simple three-day rotation, growers can feed gardens with a nutrient solution on Day 1, then empty the reservoir and refill with fresh, distilled water for a clean watering on Day 2, and then give the plants a day off on Day 3. This basic watering and feeding system ensures plants get their essential minerals on Day 1, then a good clean flush to prevent build ups on Day 2 and then a good drying out period on Day 3 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.

Notes on Nutrients

Plants respond to inadequate supplies of essential minerals by displaying characteristic deficiency symptoms. These symptoms can be far ranging, from discoloration of leaves to physical deformities to an altogether wilting of the plant.

Conversely, plants will also respond to an overabundance of nutrients in similar ways. However, these conditions may take longer to notice and be misleading, as overfeeding plants can result in an unseen nutrient “lock-up” at the root level. When this occurs, salts from excess nutrients build up and block the mineral uptake of the roots, thereby starving the plant. The result is a plant that looks malnourished—which is true—but the cause is not a lack of nutrients. It is actually caused by over feeding.

So what is the lesson to be learned? Well first, it is obvious that feeding programs require careful attention, as it is a delicate balance between too much and too little. Second, it is clearly better to underfeed than to overfeed gardens, remembering that you can always increase nutrient dosages 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 nutrient line used in the growrooms featured in this article, are turning toward a more minimalistic approach when it comes to nutrient programs. This not only caters to those new to growing, as it has less potential for disastrous problems in overfeeding, but it also creates a simple feeding regiment that is easy to understand and implement.

Growers that use nutrient programs containing more than two or three parts are generally experienced growers who are well versed in mixing multiple parts and taking careful readings from their reservoirs to ensure their nutrient solutions have the proper pH and EC (electrical conductivity) levels. Still, whether you are a beginner or a more seasoned veteran, keeping low N-P-K (nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium) ratios is always the best bet for superior quality; it’s the commercial, large-format growers that generally like to pump up nutrient values in order to increase yields. But this slight increase in weight usually equals a bigger decrease in quality.

Lighting Basics

The last major component to a quick start grow is determining what type of horticultural lighting is needed for your garden. These days, there are so many choices that it can be discouraging and 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.

Two air-cooled HPS lamps in a flower tent in a college dorm room.
Two air-cooled HPS lamps in a flower tent in a college dorm room.

While plants will grow under almost any light, there are still some choices that are better than others. While inexpensive lights like fluorescent bulbs offer excellent spectrum, run cool and use little electricity, these lamps are best used 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 both new and expert growers alike is to use HID (high intensity discharge) lamps. HID bulbs come in a variety of types, but for indoor horticultural there are two predominant types: MH (metal-halide) bulbs, which are generally used during the vegetative grow stage, and HPS (high-pressure sodium) bulbs, generally used during the flowering stage.

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

Still, keep in mind it is not hard to buy both an MH and HPS bulb and simply swap one bulb out for the other when your garden flips from its vegetative stage to the flowering cycle. The only real considerations here is that it will obviously cost a little more for two bulbs, and you will need to make sure the ballast for the lamp is equipped to handle both types of bulbs (usually dual-bulb ballasts just have a switch you flip when you change from MH to HPS 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-sized space may need two to four lamps to get ample garden coverage, and these 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-format commercial operations.

Remember, whatever you situation, growing your own cannabis should never be stressful. Stay cool, keep it simple and affordable, and most importantly—enjoy your time in the garden—and your time outside of it with your own homegrown highness!

Beginner Ballast News

To elaborate on ballasts for the uninitiated, there are two types of lamp ballasts that fire-up and power our HID bulbs. The older generation of ballasts, known as core-and-coil or magnetic ballasts, are bulky/heavier by weight, give off more heat and are said to be less-efficient at using electricity.

The newer generation of ballasts are known as either electronic or digital ballasts, and they boast all the features that magnetic ballast do not: They are energy efficient, run quite and cool, and give off less heat. However, there are some big problems with the newer electronic and digital ballasts.

Two electronic Quantum ballasts hang near a garage tent garden. Use these with digitally compatible bulbs and always keep them outside the garden and off the floor.
Two electronic Quantum ballasts hang near a garage tent garden. Use these with digitally compatible bulbs and always keep them outside the garden and off the floor.

Unfortunately, light bulb manufacturers and ballast manufacturers are most often not the same company. Because of this, the specs on 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 manufactured to run at much higher electric frequencies (approximately 20,000 hertz), as opposed to the much lower frequencies that magnetic ballasts run at (approximately 60 hertz). The real problem is that nearly all standard HID bulbs, like those made by light bulb giants such as Sun Master, Hortilux and Phillips, also run at this much lower frequency.

So what does this mean for you? 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 expensive loss 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 the arc tube and allowing bulbs to burn out at nearly twice their usual rate. What’s more is that 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. Furthermore, the acoustic resonance may also rupture these bulbs’ end caps, thus releasing sodium and mercury gases all over the buds you may be smoking in a few short weeks!

So what is the answer? Well, we have three choices. You can continue using HID bulbs in electronic and digital ballasts—and likely continue buying new bulbs at a much faster rate as your old ones burn out quicker. 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 ballast—but good luck with that as these types of bulbs are rare and very hard to find in the market or at your local hydro shops. For more info on digital bulbs check out two popular lines from Sun Pulse and Gavita.

  1. CFLs suck by the way They send light out in all directions when it needs to be directed. HIDs in a closet are stupid and the skinny florescent tubes are the best for beginning home grow. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you not to use Miracle Grow because it.. blah blah blah. Your are just starting out, KISS and improve as you go. Keep logs, I mean as absolutely detailed as you can get. Measure growth everyday at 9:00am, not 9:01am (Yes that anal at first). Measure moisture as often as possible and log it. Log temp and every other thing you can think of. Your logs should be so good that you can predict what will happen with the next crop down to the day. Consistency is your friend.

    You are not going for Dro, you are going for smokable. Potency is something that you may find is really not as important as flavor and feel of the smoke. I personally do enjoy Dro sometimes, but I never would grow it. Good is subjective and in my opinion it is the last thing I consider in a quality cannabis.

    As you start each new generation make sure you have some ideas of improvements that you want to test and see how it improves not just yield but over all growth. As an example, you might realize that you can grow a plant fast and full, but the rootball is so big that it holds too much moisture and now you are dealing with root rot. Maybe you decide to get rid of the plastic pot and make a hardware cloth pot that allows much more air flow and drains excess moisture out quickly so you end up watering more often there by providing the most important thing of all, fresh water and often.

    The best way to learn about growing Cannabis is to just relax and know that you will succeed. If you kill it then investigate and write down everything that you see and google it all. Make the necessary changes and start over. Stay away from chemicals until you really know what you are doing. but above all else… have fun dude/tte.

    1. Or instead of making mistakes of your own you learn from others mistakes. In this day and age there is no reason to start from square one with little to no knowledge, and just stumble through grows.

      1. If we as humans could learn without making mistakes then we would rename the planet from Earth to Utopia. Mistakes an failure are the best teacher.

  2. “Keep it simple”

    Indeed. And the simplest way, by far, is to do it outdoors under that big grow-light in the sky. The dried product will keep nicely over the winter.

    1. Most people are not able to grow outdoors because of law or other restrictions, and practicality and security reasons.

      1. Still, I wish there were more articles on outdoor growing. All the info about lights and hydroponics isn’t helpful to me.

  3. I just wish this article would discuss a reliable place to buy marijuana seeds online. I have been looking at marinjuana seed websites and don’t trust what I see. I don’t want to go to jail for simply wanting to relieve pain from my labor job, or a desire just to relax without feeling like crap from being drunk the night before. I actually do vote conservative, but despite this, the pain in my back is having me wanitng to vote for reform on marinjuana laws unfortunately with hilary. Weed needs to be medically and recreationally legalized. These laws against it are just retarded.

  4. I’m in Colorado where it’s legal to grow up to 6 plants and only have 1 sense big bud that I just forced into flowering after 4 weeks of veg under a 2 foot 4 tube T5 by Hydropharm. She’s about 27″ tall and completely filled up a Black Magic 10 gallon pot. I’m about to get a tent and looking at LED lights for flowering but you didn’t mention LEDs and just wondering why. Also, plan on cutting a few clones and will try a soil less system next. I’m hooked.

    1. The editor is probably old school. I want to grow some small auto plants this winter and I’m going to use LED. Check out MARS LEDs, they’re the cheapest in cost I believe and so are their tents.

  5. A warning to any readers here; never buy from any ad in the comments. You will get nothing for you money, except perhaps a visit from the police.

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