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A Growing Dilemma

So you’ve finally decided to grow your own marijuana, but 10 steps into your local grow store, you’re already overwhelmed by what seem like hundreds of choices. The worst part is, you have no idea what’s in these bottles. Sure, the labels have numbers for nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, but there’s no way to tell what makes one brand of nutes better than another, aside from the brand name and price.

If this story seems familiar, it’s high time to save yourself a lot of money and frustration and start producing more fragrant, potent, better-tasting buds by collaborating with Mother Nature instead of the nutrient companies. It’s time to try recycled organic living soil!

What Is ROLS?

Recycled organic living soil (ROLS for short) is an indoor growing method that draws on a fact-based understanding of horticulture, botany and plant physiology coupled with the principles of soil science, organic farming, traditional agriculture and permaculture. In a ROLS garden, you’re nurturing a setup that creates a fertile living soil, full of microscopic organ- isms that “digest” food for your plants. You accomplish this by mixing a soil that has everything your microbial life needs to flourish: plant and mineral sources to break down into things your plants’ roots can take up; humic substances that act as a storage and delivery system for your nutrients; and aeration amendments to make sure your roots (and their micro- scopic friends) have plenty of fresh air. Once the soil is mixed, you fortify it with compost tea to kick off the microbial life and then give it some time for the soil to become fully populated. After a few weeks, you’re ready to grow some world-class organic plants!

Why ROLS?

A lot of marijuana growers get interested in organics because they want cleaner smoke, better flavors and more beautiful buds — but the advantages to growing organically don’t stop there. When you go ROLS, you’ll find that you spend less time and money on your garden, because once it gets started, your soil just keeps get- ting better with time. As an added bonus, some of the most time-consuming tasks involved in growing — like pH-balancing your nutrient solution and flushing your medium before harvest — become completely unnecessary when you work alongside Mother Nature.

Life Under a Microscope

A lot of different terms get thrown around to describe the microscopic organisms that inhabit your soil. You’ll hear or see words like microherd, microbeasties, soil life and plenty of others. For the purposes of this article, we’ll use the term microlife to describe the whole universe of creatures living, eating, reproducing and dying in your soil. You don’t have to understand or identify the exact types of microlife to be an amazing organic grower, but it can be an awe-inspiring research project to observe

a drop of compost tea or a soil sample under a 300x microscope. At that magnification, everything looks pretty much like a 1980s video game: You’ve got weird creatures swirling around in different patterns — some of them floating aimlessly, others using little jets or tentacles to scoot from one big gooey mass to another. With a little patience, you’ll see a bigger critter make a snack of a smaller one, or watch an organism divide itself into a pair of identical copies. It’s everything your high-school biology teacher promised it would be, though he probably never informed you that these tiny life forms are one of the secrets to growing dank herb.

Soil: It’s More Than Dirt

When we think of soil, we tend to imagine a pile of dirt — a brownish-black mass of broken-down rocks and plants. But soil is more than just dirt: It’s the combination of that organic matter plus billions upon billions of microscopic organisms. When the planet was still new, these bacteria, fungi and other forms of microlife evolved, living on the atoms and molecules in their physical environment.

The next life forms to show up were plants. Evolving into a world rich with microlife, plants flourished by working in harmony with their environment. When the microlife “eat” and “digest” chemical compounds to create energy for them- selves and “poop out” the waste from this process, they create the compounds that plants need to grow. The plants then use those compounds, along with water and light, to make food. It’s an elegant system in which the waste from one organism becomes food for the next, creating a cycle that can sustain itself without any outside help.

Feeding and caring for this cycle of life is what organic growers are focused on. We feed the soil, and the soil feeds our plants.

Battling the Bottles

Plants have grown the same way naturally for over 450 million years. Then, sometime in the past 100 or so years, chemists working in corporate laboratories discovered how to mix and match the constituents of various chemical compounds in order to make others. They realized it would be big business if they could just synthesize the finished product that soil feeds the plants, then concentrate it, bottle it and sell it at a profit.

Of course, they were right, as anyone who’s ever harvested a crop fed from plastic bottles can tell you. But think about it for a minute: Have you ever had a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice and compared it to OJ made from concentrate? They may taste somewhat similar, but they’re definitely not the same.

When your soil is alive, it acts as your plant’s digestive system: It breaks things down and makes them available for the roots to uptake. It’s just like taking a bite of food: When you chew it, your teeth are making it smaller, enzymes are breaking it down, and once the food hits your stomach, bacteria split it up chemically, and the nutrients and vitamins get directed through your bloodstream to where they need to go. In living soil, worms and other small creatures make chunks of things in the soil smaller, enzymes break them down, bacteria split up the nutrients, and the roots take what they need and put the good stuff through the plant’s circulatory system.

Bottled nutrients take a different approach by skipping the breakdown process altogether. Instead, these nutrients are already chelated (pronounced key-lated), meaning the digestion your soil would be doing is already done. Feeding your plant chelated nutes is like hooking yourself up to an IV bag with a solution of protein, carbs and fats: You skip the whole digestion process, and as a result, the soil’s microlife doesn’t get fed. While that IV might have enough nutrition to keep you alive, it’s nothing like the healthy, balanced diet that your body needs to thrive.

Beyond Veganic

With organic growing gaining popularity over the past few years, a lot of nutrient companies have come out with their own “organic” or even “veganic” lines.

In a sense, these bottled nutes are better than the old synthetic kind, since they were extracted from real plants. But remember that orange juice from concentrate was extracted from real plants once upon a time, too — but to make it practical to store, transport and sell, it’s been heated to remove the water and then mixed with preservatives to keep it from being a good environment for bacteria to develop. Bottled “organic” nutrients are a lot like OJ from concentrate: To make them practical to warehouse, ship and retail, they need to be concentrated and preserved through chelation. Since the object of organic living soil is to cultivate as many types of life as possible, bottled “organic” nutes are a more expensive and less productive alternative to our methods.

Also, while the idea of growing with good karma by keeping it vegan may be initially appealing, it’s worth taking some time to consider the bigger picture before you ditch the animal products. The major differences between an organic and a veganic approach are the inclusion of earthworms (or their castings), animal manures and amendments made from sea life (fish hydrolysate, crab meal, ground oyster shells, etc.). To state the obvious, worms and soil go together like fish and water — worms evolved to specialize in the soil environment, playing a major role in beginning the digestion process and adding structure, aeration and, of course, their very fertile castings.

Animal manures can be almost completely replaced with plant-based “green” manures — but since the heart of the organic method is a sustainable approach to growing plants, any time we can take what would be a pile of useless waste and turn it into high-grade fertilizer, it’s a win-win situation. Amendments created from sea life are also typically made from the waste products of other indus- trial processes and offer some very unique compounds (such as forms of calcium, silica and other minerals) that are rare and exotic treats for your soil.

Home Kitchen Bug Killers

For pest prevention, we use neem seed oil (usually found in the health and beauty aisle), as well as a spray made from fresh organic cilantro, mint, lemon rinds and hot peppers, combined in a food processor with a little water, organic rosemary and lavender essential oils, plus a drop or two of Dr. Bronner’s soap. The oil and soap work as a spreading agent to cover your plants evenly with the water-based mixture (which would otherwise bead up), and they also help the active ingredients in the herbs penetrate the exoskeletons of pests. A lot of the high-priced pesticides you find in grow stores use the exact same compounds found in these and other common herbs, seeds, barks and so on.

A “Protein Drink” for Your Plants

Raw, organic aloe vera juice is an amazing addition to your regular waterings or foliar feedings at 1⁄4 cup per gallon of water. Think of aloe vera doing for your plants what a protein shake does for an elite athlete: providing the body what it needs to grow bigger and stronger by giving it more raw material. Just like a human body will use amino acids to make proteins and proteins to make muscles, plants will use simple sugars to make starches, and starches to make their structures. Aloe vera juice is chock-full of simple sugars and starches, giving your plants the nutrition they need for serious performance.

For Plants That Grow Like Coconut Palms

Raw, organic coconut water can replace an armload of top-secret grow formulas. Added to feedings at 15 milliliters per liter of H2O, coconut water will cause your plants to grow faster, more vigorously, and with more buds sites and shorter internodal distances. Keep in mind that a coconut is the biggest seed on Earth — and like any other seed, it contains enough nutrition for the plant to grow until it develops sufficient leaves to make its own food. Coconut trees get taller by growing huge palm leaves that die off, leaving a trunk — which means that unlike cannabis, which grows stem space between each set of branches, coconut water has cytokinins (sigh-toe-kine-ens), hormones that signal the plant to divide cells in the roots and growing shoots, equaling explosive growth. Coconut water is also a great source of calcium, magnesium, and other minerals and elements your plants need.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Recycling your soil after harvest is one of the main principles of ROLS. As the soil lives, it breaks down the minerals mixed into it over long periods of time; certain elements will become available over a few weeks or months, but others won’t go through enough digestion for years. By recycling, we let nature work through some of these longer processes, resulting in complex compounds that nourish and protect your plants and microlife.

Recycling also makes the most efficient use of your microlife: Instead of tossing used soil into the trash or backyard garden and losing all the microlife we’ve cultivated over the growing cycle, we help it to replenish the soil by adding more food and giving the little guys time to re-establish themselves.

Many ROLS growers empty their containers into a pile, bin, tub or trashcan, mix it with soil amendments, add water or compost tea, and give it six weeks or longer for the microlife to find its rhythm. Some ROLS growers (including MicrobeMan, BlueJayWay and SilverSurfer_OG) are pioneering a no-till method, in which they transplant a new plant directly into the same container they just harvested from. This allows them to take full advantage of the thriving microlife without any delays or hiccups in a busy production schedule. In a no-till system, rather than mixing amendments into the soil, the amendments are sprinkled on top and watered in with teas, allowing the soil to digest them and replenish itself. The no-till method takes advantage of the relationship between the plant’s root system and the microlife that develops in the rhizosphere (rye-zoe-sphere) or root zone.

Humus Be Kidding

One of the key ingredients in ROLS is humus (hue-muss), a black, spongy, rich- smelling material that is produced by thriving microlife. Humus is made up of the parts of plants that are hard for the soil to digest (like waxes and woody lignins), along with the gums and starches that the microlife excretes as waste products. Humus is loaded with organic humic and fulvic acids, which do their part to feed the microlife that, in turn, feeds your plants.

But that’s just the beginning when it comes to humus: Humus holds moisture and provides room for the air that your roots and microlife need.

Humus holds and releases nutrients in ways that make them available to plants but also prevents them from washing away, acting like a nutrient “savings account” for the roots.

Humus creates food for your microlife, along with the vitamins, hormones, anti- biotics and other substances that protect and support your plants’ health.

Humus balances the pH in your soil so you don’t have to.

Compost Modern

If you do a little research, you’ll find that there are almost as many ways of making compost as there are of growing pot. From composting in heaps or sheets, to composting in bins or tumblers, to using worms or black soldier flies, each method has its advantages in certain situations — for example, a compost heap isn’t very practical if you live in an apartment, but an earthworm farm might be perfect.

No matter how you compost, the goal is always the same: to create an environment in which organic substances can be efficiently turned into humus. The key to creating this environment is providing the right balance of green organic material like stems and grass clippings (which are packed with nitrogen) and brown or yellow organic material like dead leaves (which only have carbon left), along with enough moisture and air for the micro- life in the compost to thrive.

Look online for simple plans to make your own compost tumbler or stackable vermi-compost (worm-compost) bin, and start by feeding it your kitchen scraps and shredded paper. Before you know it, you’ll have more compost than you really need — and as you feed it your fan leaves, stems, trunks, root-balls, cardboard boxes and electricity bills, you may find great satisfaction in turning potential security risks into top-notch fertilizer.

By Plants, for Plants

Another key element of ROLS is the use of dynamic accumulators (DAs). DAs are cer- tain plants—usually fast-growing weeds — that take up nutrients and micronutrients from the soil and store them in their leaves. Some commonly used DAs are:

Alfalfa
Kelp
Yarrow
Comfrey
Stinging nettle
Watercress
Dandelion
Shavegrass (a.k.a. horsetail)

Tips From a Master, Plus a Winning Recipe

Nestor Garrido is a ROLS grower who took home a first-place Best Sativa for his Snowdawg at the 2011 High Times Medical Cannabis Cup in Denver, and a second-place Best Sativa for his Durban Poison at the first US Cannabis Cup in 2013. Coming from a background in organic-food production, Nestor combined his family tradition of Earth-friendly sustainable gardening and his love of cannabis to grow some of the tastiest, most gorgeous buds on the planet.

For starters, it should be noted that with this mix (and all true organics), the objective is to “feed the soil,” getting away from the notion that we need to (force-)feed our plants a “fast-food diet,” as is the case with synthetic nutrients. This is done by adding organic amendments and allowing the microbial activity that ensues to balance out over time. The resulting byproduct creates a perfect environment for root growth, which translates into robust overall plant growth and stronger immunity (i.e., disease resistance).

Additional benefits from using this method include increased potency in the final product, coupled with the full spectrum of flavor expression and aromatic qualities in a particular strain. Buds grown in living soil have higher trichome density and terpene content, which will be noticeable to the smoker not only in the aromatic qualities and flavor, but also in the non-irritating smooth smoke that results when inhaled.

A few other advantages that one might take into account: less labor and cost; no pH meter; no guesswork trying to decide which fertilizers to use; no more changing and scrubbing nutrient reservoirs; and no contaminating wastewater going down our drains and into our rivers. Plus, as mentioned, the soil can be amended and reused over and over, leading to less waste disposal (and therefore less security risk).

Below are some recommended amend- ments that will benefit your soil mix — however, it’s always good to experiment with different mixes to discover what works best for you. An important thing to remember is that there is not some top-secret “proprietary formula” out there: Any mix focused on feeding the soil will result in a healthy biodynamic medium full of microbial activity that will ultimately grow the best nugs you’ve ever smoked.

Helpful Amendments

(Quantities listed are per 9 to 12 cubic feet of soil)
Fish bone meal, 5 lbs.
Blood meal, 5 lbs.
Alfalfa meal, 3 lbs.
Neem seed meal, 2 lbs.
Feather meal, 3 lbs.
Green sand, 2 to 3 lbs.
Fish meal (for veg), 1 to 2 lbs.
Soybean meal (for veg), 3 lbs.
Kelp meal, 3 lbs.
Rock phosphate, 3 lbs.
Bark mulch, 2 lbs.
Indonesian bat guano (for bloom), 5 lbs. Mexican bat guano (for veg), 5 lbs. Earthworm castings, 15 to 20 lbs. Epsom salt, 1/2 cup
Powdered mycorrhizae, 1/2 cup Granular humic acids, 1/8 cup
Dolomite lime, 1/2 cup
Azomite, 3/4 cup

It’s not necessary to use all of these amendments in a mix (though you can if you choose). If you’re just starting out, I recommend using a base mix and then experimenting with other amendments. A good base mix might include fish bone meal, blood meal, earthworm castings, powdered mycorrhizae, Epsom salt, dolomite lime, granular humic acid and azomite.

When it comes to mixing and using the soil, I like to spread it out about 6 to 12 inches in depth and then sprinkle the amendments evenly over the soil. Next, mix it all up thoroughly and then mix it again … and again. I store the mixture in large trash bins and moisten it with a gallon or so of non-chlorinated water and a tablespoon of unsulfured molasses to catalyze the microbial activity (the molasses is optional).

The final step is to let the mixture sit and “cook” for at least 30 days before using (preferably as many as 60-plus days). Once this time has passed, the soil is now balanced and ready to use. Simply fill the bottom half or third of your grow container with the mix and back-fill the rest with a less concentrated organic soil (either bagged or home-cooked). For the remainder of the grow cycle, all that’s left is to add water as needed.

Happy gardening!

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